NFC South: Miami Dolphins

Star LotuleleiGetty ImagesStar Lotulelei and the Panthers' front four will bring pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Two teams battling for playoff positioning will face off Sunday when the Carolina Panthers travel to play the Miami Dolphins.

Carolina (7-3) is one of the hottest teams in the NFL behind a stout defense and improved play from quarterback and MVP candidate Cam Newton. The Dolphins (5-5) have fought through off-the-field distractions to win two of their past three games and are just a tiebreaker behind the New York Jets for the final wild-card spot in the AFC.

Who will prevail? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.

James Walker: This looks like a game of matchups. One that looks concerning from Miami's perspective is Carolina's aggressive, physical defense against the Dolphins' inconsistent offense. The Dolphins are still searching for an offensive identity 10 games into their season. There is nothing they do particularly well on that side of the football: Miami is ranked 20th in passing and 24th in rushing. In fact, the Dolphins haven't scored more than 27 points in a game all season.

Is Carolina's defense as good as advertised? What kind of challenge can Miami's offense expect?

David Newton: It's hard to argue the numbers Carolina's defense has put up, particularly against the run, allowing just 84.5 yards per game. The front seven is as good as there is at making a game one-dimensional and forcing teams to pass; the defensive line can apply pressure on the quarterback, which allows seven, and sometimes eight, to drop back into coverage. It's really an unselfish group that is working as well together as any unit I've seen this season. The return of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards from a hamstring injury three weeks ago has added a more consistent third-down inside pass rush and made this unit even stronger. The defense that helped the 2003 Panthers get to the Super Bowl was good, but I believe this one is better.

The Dolphins bounced back from the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a solid effort at San Diego. Has this team put the off-the-field issues behind it completely?

Walker: I wouldn't say completely, because the investigation is ongoing. I don't see an end to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga for at least several more weeks, if not longer. The NFL spent a lot of time at the Dolphins' training facility this week to try to get to the bottom of things, and the NFLPA will reportedly do its own investigation soon.

I thought Miami handled this situation better against San Diego, and it showed in the Dolphins' preparation. Miami put together a focused effort to pick up a big win. I think the team was a bit shell-shocked by the circumstances and the amount of media scrutiny leading up to the Tampa Bay game when everything first came out. It's really going to be a week-to-week scenario with the Dolphins as this investigation unfolds.

Carolina is coming off a short week of preparation after winning a thriller against the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Is this a concern, especially going on the road, where the Panthers are 3-2?

Newton: The short week shouldn't be a problem. They had a Thursday night game a few weeks ago at Tampa and played well for having only a few days of preparation. The coaching staff has really gotten into a groove with knowing when to go hard and when to back off in practice. From a defensive standpoint, because they don't rely on a lot of fancy formations with the front four so solid, it really just comes down to tweaking things for individual matchups.

The biggest issue might be from wear and tear. They played three games in a span of 12 days a few weeks ago, and they're coming off consecutive games against San Francisco and New England, elite teams that really get after you.

Speaking of physical teams, what problems will Miami's defense cause Newton and the Carolina offense?

Walker: Miami's defense has been an enigma. There is talent and depth, especially in the front seven, but the defense hasn't lived up to its potential. The Dolphins' best chance to rattle Newton is to stop Carolina's running game and make the Panthers one-dimensional. That's a tall order. I thought Miami's defense had the talent on paper to be top 10 against the run, but that's far from the case. The Dolphins are 25th against the run.

But in games when the Dolphins have earned a second-half lead, their pass rush has been able to cause problems. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake is healthy again and back to his old self; he has four sacks in his past three games and 6.5 overall. Fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon (5.5 sacks) has been a pleasant surprise. The Dolphins have four players with three sacks or more this season. They have the ability to pin their ears back and get to the quarterback. But the Dolphins haven't had enough leads late in games.

David, one area in which Carolina has struggled is its 28th-ranked passing offense. How can the Panthers improve?

Newton: Carolina's ranking is a bit misleading. The key number is Newton's efficiency. He's completing a much higher percentage of passes -- 63.2 -- than in his previous two seasons. He's also throwing more short passes as the offense goes with more ball control. He's more or less taking what defenses are giving him better than he has before. Because the Panthers are so balanced in rushing and passing, Newton's passing yards are down. But they have deep threats when they need them in Steve Smith and Ted Ginn. They just haven't needed them because, for most of the past two months, they've been getting big leads and running more.

James, my last question to you is, do you believe the Dolphins are a playoff team?

Walker: The Dolphins feel confident because they are still in the hunt. They are just a tiebreaker behind the Jets, and the teams still have two games against one another. But I haven't seen any consistency from Miami since its 3-0 start. Since then, the Dolphins have gone 2-5, so there isn't much reason to believe they can go 5-1 or 4-2 down the stretch to get into the playoffs. Miami has a huge three-week stretch ahead, with Carolina and games at the Jets and at Pittsburgh. All of these games are going to be tough.

Mike Glennon and Ryan TannehillGetty ImagesMike Glennon, left, and Ryan Tannehill have a lot to prove in the season's second half.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Although their records are uninspiring, the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been all over the news this season -- for all the wrong reasons.

The recent incident involving Miami offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has dominated the headlines. Earlier in the season, the Bucs were in the news as the rift between coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman erupted, and Tampa Bay continues to draw attention after three players were diagnosed with MRSA infections.

But, on Monday night, the Dolphins and Bucs finally will be in the football spotlight as they play in a nationally televised game. Dolphins reporter James Walker and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Pat Yasinskas: James, the Martin-Incognito situation has been one of the biggest stories of the season. How much of a distraction has it been for the other Miami players?

James Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a decent spin on things this week. However, you can tell it’s weighing on them. Players are genuinely upset that it came down to this. They felt Martin could have handled this differently, and in a way that was better for the team, himself and Incognito. I would think most people outside of Miami’s locker room would find issues with that line of thinking. But it’s really within the NFL culture to think week-to-week and how to win games immediately. This has been an interesting case study on NFL locker rooms and how it relates real societal issues.

Pat, the Buccaneers have had their own share of drama this season. How is Tampa Bay handling its various issues at 0-8?

Yasinskas: James, things finally seem to have settled down a little bit the past week or two. But, for the longest time, it seemed as if the Bucs had a fresh controversy every day. The Freeman saga was nothing short of a soap opera, and the MRSA is a very serious issue. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has admitted the Bucs have been affected by the distractions. Throw in the fact that the Bucs are 0-8 and have lost several games they should have won, and it appears as if there’s a situation that could blow up at any time. But the one thing the Bucs have going for them is that they still are playing hard.

All right, let’s move to some on-the-field stuff. How are the Dolphins going to adjust their offensive line?

Walker: Here is the interesting thing about Miami's offensive line: It wasn't good with Martin and Incognito. Ryan Tannehill is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL at the midpoint of the season, and, until two weeks ago, the running game was hit-or-miss. So, yes, on the surface, the Dolphins lost two starters on the offensive line. However, the bar set by the old group wasn't very high. Tyson Clabo will start for Martin at right tackle and Nate Garner at left guard. They're capable of holding up the same standard, but it remains to be seen whether they can do better.

Speaking of better, how much has the quarterback play improved with Mike Glennon? Can he become the long-term solution?

Yasinskas: Glennon has shown gradual improvement in each game. He’s been poised and has shown more mobility than most people thought he had. He has gone three straight games without an interception, which is a major accomplishment for a guy who has only five career starts. Schiano is very high on Glennon, and that admiration goes back to when Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit the quarterback to Rutgers. If Schiano sticks around, I think he views Glennon as his long-term answer at quarterback. But, with the way the Bucs are losing games, there is no guarantee Schiano will be back next season. A new coach might not be as high on Glennon as Schiano.

Speaking of long-term answers, has Tannehill shown enough to convince the Dolphins he can develop into a top-line starter?

Walker: I like what Tannehill brings to the table. However, this season has been challenging to evaluate because of all the troubles on the offensive line. Tannehill has a few holes in his game, such as poor pocket presence, suspect ball security and an average deep ball. Maybe some of those can be corrected with experience. This is a big eight-game stretch for Tannehill and his long-term future in Miami. That important period starts Monday night.

Ryan Tannehill and Julio JonesUSA TODAY SportsRyan Tannehill and the undefeated Dolphins will try to upset Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Miami Dolphins are basking in the light of a 2-0 start while the Atlanta Falcons are just trying to find some healthy bodies.

The two teams play each other Sunday in a game that has big implications in the AFC East and NFC South races.

ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine this matchup:

Yasinskas: James, like many, I thought the Dolphins would be an improved team. But it's looking like they might be even better than I thought. They've gone out and started their season with two big wins on the road. What's going right for the Dolphins and, more importantly, how good are they?

Walker: It's early, Pat, but Miami is already exceeding my expectations. I pegged the Dolphins to be an 8-8 team this year. That still could happen if the team loses focus, but Miami is on pace to do better. I credit two things: improved playmaking ability and the growth of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami committed more than $200 million in free-agent contracts to players like receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. All of those players came up big in last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. When you add in the fact Tannehill has improved in his second year, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are also taking the next step. Atlanta is a team many believe is a Super Bowl contender, but the group is banged up. Pat, how much will injuries impact the Falcons in this game?

Yasinskas: Atlanta has some major injury problems. The Falcons had to put defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve this week and there are reports that running back Steven Jackson will miss a few weeks. The loss of Biermann means the Falcons will have to play rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker and second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi at defensive end. If Jackson is out, the Falcons will have to go with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their running backs, and that's a sharp drop-off. That probably means the Falcons will pass even more than usual and rely on Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is Miami's secondary ready for that tandem?

Walker: I had a good conversation with Miami's top cornerback, Grimes, on Tuesday. He was complimentary of both White and Jones -- and Grimes would know. The former Falcon watched both receivers grow in Atlanta and practiced against them. It will be fun to see who has the advantage between Grimes and White/Jones, depending on the play. Grimes told me they all know each other so well that it's probably a push. The bigger concern for Miami's secondary is the other cornerback spot. Veteran starter Dimitri Patterson didn't play in Week 2 due to a groin injury. He's working his way back and could play Sunday. Rookie corners Will Davis and Jamar Taylor also returned to practice this week, which could provide depth. Similar to the game against Indianapolis, Miami must do a lot of things schematically to cover up its issues opposite Grimes. That includes using the safeties over the top and getting a good pass rush. Speaking of pass rush, the Dolphins have nine sacks in the first two games. Can they exploit the Falcons in this area?

Yasinskas: Miami's pass rush has to be a major concern for the Falcons. Atlanta revamped its offensive line in the offseason and it's taking some time to come together. The right side of the line is of particular concern with guard Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes as the starters. Reynolds is average at best and Holmes, a second-year pro, was thrown into the starting lineup when Mike Johnson went down with an injury in the preseason. Holmes is very much a work in progress, so the Falcons will have to try to give him some help by getting their tight ends and running backs involved as pass-blockers. Still, Atlanta should be able to move the ball through the air because it has Matt Ryan, Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Has Tannehill developed enough to win a shootout?

Walker: That's an interesting question, Pat. I'm not sure anyone -- even Miami's coaching staff -- has the answer. I did notice the Dolphins' game plan in Week 1 against Cleveland was fairly conservative compared to Week 2 against Indianapolis. Those are two different teams, and perhaps the Dolphins realized they needed to be more aggressive throwing and take more vertical shots deep to match Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This is a similar type of challenge, because Atlanta's offense is built around scoring points in the passing game. Tannehill is getting better at taking over parts of a game in Year 2. His play in the second half the past two weeks has been terrific. The Dolphins are outscoring opponents 24-6 in the third and fourth quarters, in part because Tannehill is moving the chains, putting points on the board and keeping Miami's defense fresh. I don't expect this game to be all on Tannehill's shoulders. The defense remains the strength of the Dolphins. Keeping Atlanta's scoring around 23 points or fewer, as opposed to having Tannehill throw for 400 yards, is probably Miami's best shot to win.

Observation deck: Falcons-Dolphins

August, 24, 2012
I think we got a pretty good glimpse Friday night of what the Atlanta Falcons’ offense is going to look like with Dirk Koetter as the coordinator in a 23-6 preseason victory against the Miami Dolphins.

The starters got their most extensive playing time of the summer. I think it’s fair to say, the Falcons showed signs of everything they’ve talked about for months.

They aren’t completely putting running back Michael Turner on the shelf, but the Falcons sure look like a team that’s intent on relying more on the passing game than it has in recent seasons. In the time the first-team offense was in the game (the starters didn’t return after a touchdown drive with 6:48 left in the third quarter), the Falcons had 249 yards of total offense -- 204 of those coming through the air and 45 on the ground.

Turner carried 10 times for 35 yards and Jacquizz Rodgers had four carries for 4 yards. As they’ve promised, the Falcons took more shots downfield in the passing game.

Matt Ryan completed 18 of 26 passes for 220 yards and the highlight of his night was a third-quarter touchdown pass to Roddy White. The 20-yard pass was perfectly thrown into the corner of the end zone and White made the catch despite strong coverage. Ryan also hit Julio Jones on a 49-yard pass in the first half.

Turner and Rodgers didn’t get a lot of opportunities on the ground, but both were involved in the passing game. Turner, who isn’t known as a big receiving threat, had three catches for 36 yards and Rodgers had one catch for 18 yards.

Some other observations on the Falcons:
  • Atlanta’s first-team offense also had a pretty strong outing. After allowing Reggie Bush to gain 18 yards on his first carry, the Falcons did a nice job against the run. Cornerback Dunta Robinson and Kroy Biermann each tackled Bush for losses early in the game and cornerback Asante Samuel stopped him for no gain on a third down to force the Dolphins to punt. The pass defense did a pretty nice job against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who completed 11 of 27 passes for 112 yards.
  • The defensive highlight of the night was an interception by safety Thomas DeCoud in the first quarter. It came on a Tannehill pass that was tipped by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and the interception led to an Atlanta field goal.
  • Rookie left tackle Lamar Holmes got his first playing time of the preseason in the second half and promptly was called for a false start. Once again, I don’t think Holmes is an immediate threat to beat out Sam Baker for the starting job.
  • Rookie quarterback Dominique Davis continued his bid to make the team with a gorgeous 39-yard touchdown pass to Tim Toone in the fourth quarter.
  • Oh, by the way, preseason results don’t matter. But this one had some significance. The win snapped Atlanta’s seven-game preseason losing streak, which had been the longest active losing streak in the NFL.

Live from Raymond James Stadium

August, 24, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. -- It looks as if we’ll see something real close to “real football’’ in Friday night’s preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots.

I can’t speak for the Patriots, but the Bucs are expected to play most of their starters into the third quarter. That will be much more than we’ve seen of them in the first two preseason games. Injured players Arrelious Benn, E.J. Biggers and Amobi Okoye are expected to be held out.

I’m here at Raymond James Stadium, and I’ll also be watching the game between the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins. I’ll be back with observations on both the Falcons and the Bucs soon after the games end. I’ll also break in if there are any major developments during the games.

Meantime, feel free to use the comments section below to discuss the Bucs and Falcons.

Observation deck: Bucs-Dolphins

August, 10, 2012

For the first time since October, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won a football game, defeating the Miami Dolphins on Friday night, 20-7.

So what if it doesn’t count in the standings because it’s just a preseason game? We might look back on it in the future and remember it fondly as the start of a successful Greg Schiano era. Heck, even if Schiano’s overall tenure doesn’t go well, what happened in Miami sure was a lot better than what happened in the final 10 games that Raheem Morris coached this team.

Although the starters played only briefly, it’s obvious Schiano has brought some order to a team that desperately needed it. The first-team offense opened with a long scoring drive, the second team followed with an even longer one and the defense got the Dolphins off the field.

Let’s take a look at some observations on the Bucs:
  • Running back LeGarrette Blount, who is trying to hold onto his starting job, got off to a good start. Blount got the start and played well. Blount carried seven times for 30 yards and even caught a pass. Blount also scored the game’s first touchdown, hurdling over a pile at the goal line, but you could make the case Blount should have gotten in on third down if he had followed Carl Nicks with more authority.
  • Doug Martin, the rookie Blount is trying to hold off, also fared well. Martin scored the game’s second touchdown on a short run and did it behind a second-team offensive line that’s not nearly as good as the first unit. Martin’s highlight play came on a run in which it looked like he was tackled. He then spun free and never hit the ground. Martin also did a nice job blocking Cameron Wake on a key pass play to Luke Stocker on the offense’s first drive.
  • Speaking of rookie running backs, Michael Smith, a seventh-round draft pick, had a 74-yard kickoff return in the third quarter.
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman completed 4 of 5 passes for 41 yards while playing only one series. Freeman didn’t do anything spectacular, but he looked calmer than last year. Maybe that was because he had some help from the running game as the Bucs drove 59 yards on 13 plays in seven minutes and 17 seconds.
  • Top draft pick Mark Barron was held out due to a slight injury. Cody Grimm, who had been working with the third team early in camp, ran with the first team.
  • Wide receiver Preston Parker has had a nice camp. But he probably had a few points deducted by Schiano after drawing a 15-yard penalty for slapping Miami’s Richard Marshall after a play ended. Things got worse for Parker in the second quarter when he fumbled a punt return. Yeah, it was raining and the ball was wet, but those same conditions can be present in the regular season.
  • Second-year linebacker Mason Foster and second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn both put big hits on a Miami back on a running play near the end of the first quarter.
  • Rookie linebacker Lavonte David was drafted in the second round because the Bucs believe he can make big plays. He did. David intercepted a tipped pass in the second quarter.
  • Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky completed all eight of his passes for 91 yards, but it wasn’t as spectacular as it sounds. Receiver Tiquan Underwood bailed Orlovsky out with a catch on a 44-yard pass that a Miami safety had the angle on but failed to reach out for the ball.
Now that it’s been officially announced that the Miami Dolphins will appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer, the NFC South can let out a collective sigh of relief.

The reality show that chronicles training camp can be entertaining and a wonderful marketing tool. But signing up to appear on the show is something NFC South teams haven’t been willing to do in recent years and you can’t argue with their logic.

The Atlanta Falcons were courted heavily to be this year’s featured team. There was some legitimate interest from some corners of the team’s facility. Meetings, with all departments present, were held. But it was the voice of the football people that eventually won out. They wanted the focus to be on football and didn’t want any distractions. They politely declined a request to be reality-television stars.

That made plenty of sense because the Falcons will be under enough pressure next season. They’ve had four straight winning years, but haven’t won a playoff game in that stretch. I don’t think adding more pressure would have been a constructive way to get the Falcons over the postseason hump.

Back in 2011, HBO and NFL Films were talking to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about appearing on the show. At the time, the Bucs were coming off a 10-6 season, yet struggling to sell tickets for home games. Letting the world get to know them on TV was a tempting marketing tool. There even were some prominent people on the football side of things that were very interested in appearing on the show. But the Bucs ultimately decided they hadn’t arrived and didn’t want to open themselves up to distractions when they had such a young team.

In hindsight, that was a brilliant conclusion. The Bucs went 4-12 last season and coach Raheem Morris was fired. From what I’ve seen of coach Greg Schiano, I don’t see the Bucs going on “Hard Knocks’’ anytime soon.

This wasn’t the year for the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers, either. The Saints have enough turmoil already. The Panthers are kind of like the Bucs last year. They look like a team on the rise, but nobody knows for sure.

In a year or two, the time might be right for “Hard Knocks’’ in the NFC South. The Bucs and Panthers could arrive, the Falcons could get over their playoff hurdle and things can only get closer to normal for the Saints. But the timing wasn’t right for any of those four teams this year.

Tuesday’s news that Baltimore Ravens running back Ricky Williams is retiring comes with a bit of an NFC South angle.

Williams once was the biggest thing to ever hit the New Orleans Saints. Remember the 1999 draft, when the Saints traded away all their picks from that year, plus a couple more for the following year, for the right to draft Williams?

Yeah, it made headlines all over the place because it was one of the most daring trades ever -- we’re talking way more daring and dangerous than what the Falcons gave up to get Julio Jones or what the Saints gave up to get Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft.

It was the biggest deal coach Mike Ditka made and (along with a 3-13 record that season) it led to the end of his coaching career.

When coach Jim Haslett arrived the next season, Williams had some success. He had two 1,000-yard seasons, but there were issues. Williams was a unique personality. He didn’t interact a lot with teammates and often conducted interviews behind the shield of his helmet.

"Ricky's just a different guy," former New Orleans receiver Joe Horn once said. "People he wanted to deal with, he did. And people he wanted to have nothing to do with, he didn't. No one could understand that. I don't think guys in the locker room could grasp that he wanted to be to himself -- you know, quiet. If you didn't understand him and didn't know what he was about, it always kept people in suspense."

Haslett was in suspense or, at the very least, never quite could figure out Williams. That’s part of the reason Deuce McAllister was drafted. By the end of the 2001 season, in which Williams rushed for 1,245 yards and caught 60 passes, Haslett was pretty clear that Williams didn’t fit his long-term plans.

In the spring of 2002, the Saints traded Williams to the Miami Dolphins. They were able to get back some of what they initially gave up for Williams by getting four draft picks, including two first-round choices, in return.

Williams’ career would go on to have all sorts of twists and turns. He had success at times in Miami. He also retired from football in 2004, only to return in 2005. Williams was suspended by the NFL in 2006 and wound up playing for Toronto in the Canadian Football League.

Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2007. He finished his career with Baltimore and ended up with 10,009 rushing yards and 74 total touchdowns (66 of them on the ground).

Not a bad career, especially when you consider all the interruptions.

Would it have somehow worked out better if things had been handled differently and Williams spent his entire career in New Orleans? It’s impossible to say for sure.

Williams’ track record suggests he might have encountered some of the same, or different, problems if he had been with the Saints the entire time. Things worked out all right for him. They also worked out for the Saints, aside from the initial price tag to get Williams. McAllister ended up having a very nice career.

Reggie Bush came in and did some nice things at certain times. Along the way, the Saints also added Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, who have done some pretty nice things at running back.
NEWARK, N.J. -- I’m not quite in New York, but I can see it across the river.

Anyway, lots to deal with before we get ready for Sunday’s playoff game between the Falcons and Giants. Most importantly, we’ll have Saturday night’s game between the Saints and Lions.

I’ll be taking part in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game. I’ll be joining colleagues Kevin Seifert and Jeff Chadiha, who will be at the game, along with Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and ESPN Stats & Information. I’ll also provide a wrap-up soon after the game ends.

Also, a couple of other NFC South notes to catch up on. The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its list of 15 finalists from the modern era for the Class of 2012 and we have four guys with NFC South ties. The main one is former New Orleans offensive tackle Willie Roaf. The others are Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Tim Brown, who each had brief stops in the NFC South. The final voting will be held the day before the Super Bowl in February.

Also, the Falcons have granted permission for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to interview with the Miami Dolphins for their opening for a head coach. The Falcons previously gave Jacksonville permission to interview Mularkey. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also have a vacancy and it wouldn’t be a shock if Mularkey becomes a candidate for that job.

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 27, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- The panic that was so widespread among Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fans last week can rest for a bit.

The Bucs did some good things in just about every area in Saturday night’s 17-13 preseason victory against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs also did some bad things, but none of them were the kind of mistakes that are unusual for preseason games.

That wasn’t the case in the past week’s loss to the New England Patriots, in which the Bucs did almost nothing positive. Yeah, the Patriots are an annual Super Bowl contender and coach Bill Belichick is known to demand intensity in exhibition games. The Dolphins probably aren’t going to be confused with the Patriots anytime soon, but they’re still a decent team.

Everything’s relative, but the measuring stick on the Bucs looks a lot better than it did a week ago. The defense generated some pressure and LeGarrette Blount flashed some big-play ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

Those are all things the Bucs knew they had to improve on and have been working on throughout the preseason.

Some other observations on the Bucs:
  • The NFL’s decision not to suspend cornerback Aqib Talib during the 2011 season is looking like a blessing. E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis, who would have taken on larger roles if Talib was suspended, both struggled. Biggers got beat by Brandon Marshall on a long touchdown pass and also got flagged for pass interference. Lewis also drew a pass-interference call.
  • There was a brief scary moment when second-year defensive tackle Brian Price went down in the second quarter. Price was playing for the first time since having surgery on his pelvis last year. He stayed down for a minute, walked off the field with the trainers, but returned to the game a few plays later. It didn’t appear the problem had anything to do with the pelvis. It looked like Price just had the wind knocked out of him.
  • Rookie tight end Luke Stocker, who missed most of camp and the first two preseason games with a hip injury, made his debut. He made one nice catch and probably has put himself in line to get some playing time behind Kellen Winslow and in two tight-end sets.
  • The Bucs have said all offseason they want Blount to be a more complete running back in his second season. He ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie, but only caught five passes. Looks like the Bucs have every intention of getting Blount involved in the passing game. He was targeted five times Saturday night and caught three passes for 62 yards, 52 of those came when Blount caught a short pass and made several nice cuts in the open field.

Three things: Buccaneers-Dolphins

August, 27, 2011
Three things to watch for in Tampa Bay’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET:

1. The return of Brian Price. After missing almost all of last season with an injury to his pelvis and undergoing rare surgery to have it fixed, Price will make his preseason debut against the Dolphins. That’s somewhat amazing because some thought the injury might end Price’s career and, less than two months ago, he wasn’t optimistic he’d be ready for the start of the season. The Bucs are anxious to see what they’ve got in the second-year pro. He as a second-round pick last year when the Bucs used their top choice on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The Bucs would love for them to become a strong pair in the middle and fix an area that’s been a weakness for a long time. We’ll get our first indication of if Price is fully healthy when he appears in this game.

2. The rest of the defense. Quite simply, the whole unit was terrible in last week’s preseason loss to the Patriots. This is an area of concern that could carry over into the regular season if things don’t start to change dramatically in the final two preseason games. The front seven is incredibly young and there will be mistakes that come with that. The Bucs have to start minimizing those mistakes.

3. Josh Freeman. It hasn’t been a stellar preseason for the quarterback and face of the franchise. Most of it’s not really his fault. In the New England game, he was pressured heavily and his receivers did not do a good job of getting open. Freeman’s going to be fine, but it would be nice to see him and his receivers showing some positive chemistry before the regular season starts.
Since the big story was the competition for the starting quarterback job between Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen, and we’ve already covered that, we’re going to do just a few other observations on the Carolina Panthers.

The Miami Dolphins won Friday's game 20-10, and there weren’t many bright spots for the Panthers. Here are the observations:
  • I thought Carolina’s defense was going to be a lot better. Now, I’m not so sure. Reggie Bush, who never was able to run between the tackles when he was with New Orleans, ran right through Carolina’s defensive line. With some of that cap space the Panthers freed up by signing franchise player Ryan Kalil to a long-term contract Friday night, I think the Panthers need to go out and sign the best defensive tackle they can find. I thought they solved that problem when they signed Ron Edwards at the start of free agency. But Edwards got hurt. The Panthers need to go out and find somebody to replace him. Oh, and the rest of the defense helped Chad Henne look like Dan Marino.
  • Nice to see linebacker Thomas Davis playing for the first time in 21 months. He had two major knee injuries and missed some camp time with a foot injury. I didn’t notice him a lot, but I did see him doing a nice job in coverage on two different plays.
  • I was watching the broadcast from a Miami station. One of the announcers was former Miami quarterback Bob Griese. He obviously has strong ties to the Shula family because he played for legendary coach Don Shula. Shula's son Mike is now Carolina’s quarterbacks coach. Griese said he met with Mike Shula before the game and said he’s been impressed by Newton’s progress. Griese also pointed out that Newton never had to call a play or go into a huddle at Auburn. In college, the plays were signaled in from the sidelines, and Newton just lined up in the shotgun and the center snapped the ball on a silent count. Shula told Griese that Newton has done a good job adjusting to all his new duties.

Does Cam Newton have the edge?

August, 19, 2011
There was no single moment that makes the decision obvious. There wasn’t a spectacular play or a horrible play.

As Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen held what was supposed to be the final audition in their battle for the right to be the starting quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, there were just a lot of ordinary plays.

The Miami Dolphins dominated Friday's game and won 20-10. With Carolina’s defense helping Reggie Bush and Chad Henne look like stars, Newton and Clausen didn’t get any breaks when it came to field position.

Newton started and completed seven of 14 passes for 66 yards. He also ran four times for 16 yards. Perhaps the best thing you can say about Newton is that he went on the road for the first time in the NFL and didn’t make any drastic mistakes.

Neither did Clausen, who took over at the start of the second half. But Clausen was as ordinary as Newton. He completed nine of 15 passes for 69 yards.

So what does coach Ron Rivera do now? He already has said he plans to make a decision sometime in the next few days on which quarterback will start the regular-season opener at Arizona in September. He wants that quarterback to go into next week’s game preparing like it’s a regular-season game.

Nothing happened Friday night to make the decision crystal clear, and we’ll have to wait to see what Rivera decides.

But you want an answer now because that’s human nature. I’ll do my best, but this is somewhat of a guess. Based on everything I’ve been told by the Panthers since the day they drafted Newton, the hope has been that they’d be able to start him on opening day. The qualifier was that Newton needed to have a decent training camp and not make a ton of mistakes in the preseason games.

He’s qualified on both accounts, and Clausen hasn’t wowed anybody. We haven’t seen a real downside to Newton and we know there’s the possibility of a huge upside. I say the Panthers will decide to go with Newton.

Call It: Newton or Clausen?

August, 19, 2011
It might take Ron Rivera a few days to make an official announcement, but by the end of Friday night’s preseason game between the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins, we should have a pretty good idea who Rivera will decide on as his opening-day starter.

The new coach has had all of training camp to watch Cam Newton, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, and Jimmy Clausen, a second-year pro. Rivera also already has had one preseason game to judge Newton and Clausen and each did some good things in that outing.

Rivera has said he wants to make a decision before the third preseason game so the Panthers can go through that week preparing like it’s the regular season. That means Friday should be the final chapter in this battle.

I think Newton will win as long as he doesn’t have a disastrous game in Miami. But it’s possible he could struggle and it’s also possible Clausen could shine and win the job.

Let’s hear your thoughts. Cast your vote in our Call It poll to the right for who you think will win the job as Carolina’s starting quarterback.

Three things: Panthers-Dolphins

August, 19, 2011

Three things to watch for in Carolina’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Friday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET:

1. Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen. The Panthers will use this game as the final stage of the competition between Newton, the rookie, and Clausen, the second-year pro. Clausen got the start in the preseason opener and the Panthers want to give Newton his chance to show what he can with the starters. Bottom line here is, if Newton doesn’t make any major mistakes, the Panthers probably will go ahead and name him the starter for the regular season.

2. The return of Thomas Davis. The outside linebacker hasn’t played in 21 months. He’s gone through two major knee injuries and missed some of camp with a foot injury. He appears healthy, but this will be his first real test. If Davis can get back to be anything close to the player he was before the injuries, he can join with Jon Beason, James Anderson and Dan Connor to give Carolina what potentially could be one of the league’s top linebacker corps.

3. Steve Smith’s preseason debut. He sat out last week with a finger injury and it should be interesting to see what kind of chemistry surfaces between him and Newton. Smith and Clausen had some problems last year, although Smith has said that’s been patched over. Smith’s a competitor who wants the ball and he’s been aching for a quarterback who can consistently deliver it to him for a long time.