NFC South: Randall Gay

NFC South afternoon update

July, 19, 2012
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Time for a Thursday afternoon stroll through the headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Greg Schiano might have sounded like he was spouting the usual clichés when he talked about how Tampa Bay’s rookies have a chance to have an immediate impact. But, in this case, I think what Schiano was saying was entirely true. He’s bringing a new offense and defense to Tampa Bay. The draft picks were chosen because they fit those systems. In some cases, that will give rookies an advantage over veterans.
  • One of the things I’ve always admired about former co-worker Tom Sorensen is his willingness to depart from the mainstream. Tom’s at his best as he weighs in on the controversy about Carolina quarterback Cam Newton charging for autographs. He writes that autographs should be for children only. He might have a point.
  • Bradley Handwerger ponders if Darren Sproles can have the same impact he did for the Saints as he did last season when he set an NFL record for all-purpose yardage. Handwerger sees no reason why Sproles can’t do as much or more in 2012. I agree. I think the Saints’ coaching staff spent about half of last season fully grasping all the different things Sproles can do. Although the coaches have been dealing with some distractions, I’m guessing they still used part of the offseason to figure out ways to get even more out of Sproles.
  • Add former New Orleans defensive back Randall Gay to the growing list of former players suing the NFL and claiming the league didn’t protect them from concussions.

Around the NFC South

May, 29, 2012
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I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend. Let's take a look at the top headlines from around the division.
  • Defensive end Ray Edwards has been a frequent target of criticism after signing as a free agent with the Falcons last year and didn’t have a big season. But defensive line coach Ray Hamilton defended Edwards, saying the defensive end had a knee injury last year and bigger things are expected this season.
  • Even if Edwards doesn’t step up, one writer believes fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi can provide immediate help for Atlanta’s pass rush.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter has his list of things to watch as the Falcons begin the on-field portion of their organized team activities. Whether Lofa Tatupu or Akeem Dent is working at first-team middle linebacker is one big question, and if Dunta Robinson will be covering the slot receiver when the Falcons go to their nickel package is another.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is trying to use the Florida heat to give his team a conditioning advantage. Does that work? Rick Stroud runs through how different coaches in franchise history have approached the heat. Some have tried to work around it and some have practiced through the worst parts of the day. The results have been mixed.
  • Unknown Rennie Curran has been working with the first team at weak-side linebacker so far for Tampa Bay. That’s not going to last. As soon as rookie Lavonte David gets settled in, he’ll be the starter.
  • Haruki Nakamura spent the last four seasons backing up Ed Reed in Baltimore. There are no future Hall of Famers at safety for the Panthers, so Nakamura has a chance to compete for a starting job.
  • San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis became the latest to chime in on quarterback Alex Smith’s claim that wins are more important than statistics. Smith claimed that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s stats were inflated because the Panthers often were trailing last season. That prompted Carolina linebacker Jon Beason to jump to Newton’s defense. Willis now has defended Smith, saying wins are more important than passing numbers.
The New Orleans Saints made several moves Thursday night.

They agreed to terms to keep linebacker Scott Shanle. Adam Schefter reported the two-year deal is worth $4 million. James Varney reports the Saints also agreed to terms with linebacker Danny Clark and released cornerback Randall Gay.

Keeping Shanle, a starter at one outside spot last season, and Clark, a backup and special-teams player, helps solidify the linebacker corps. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also agreed to return earlier Thursday.

Releasing Gay is hardly a surprise. The Saints have Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter as their starters, and second-year pro Patrick Robinson figures to be the nickel back. Gay was scheduled to count $5 million against the salary cap. The Saints freed up $4 million by releasing him.

NFC South cap casualties?

July, 18, 2011
7/18/11
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There have been numerous reports that the NFL's salary cap will be somewhere around $120 million.

All four NFC South teams are well below that figure in what they currently have committed to the 2011 cap. But Atlanta's got some decisions to make on re-signing some of its own free agents and is likely to pursue a big-name defensive end. That could put the Falcons close to the cap. New Orleans is in a similar situation because the Saints want to re-sign a bunch of their free agents and could need to create some room.

That could lead to some cap casualties once the league year opens. Tampa Bay and Carolina both have plenty of cap room, but there are some moves those teams could make that would free up even more space. Let's take a look at some possible cap casualties around the NFC South.

Atlanta. With the addition of Julio Jones, Michael Jenkins' job as a starting wide receiver is in jeopardy. Maybe the Falcons look to keep him as a very expensive backup or maybe they look to trade him because he should have some value on the market. But maybe the Falcons simply release Jenkins, who is scheduled to count $4.1 million against the cap. The Falcons would only be on the hook for $1.2 million. In terms of true value compared to salary, defensive linemen Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis are guys who don't measure up to their salary-cap space. Anderson is scheduled to count $5.8 million against the cap, but the Falcons would take a $3.1 million hit if they release him. Davis is scheduled to count $3.75 in cap space and the Falcons could free up $2.25 million by letting him go.

Tampa Bay. This first scenario might be a long shot because the Bucs don't really need to free up cap space, and Jeff Faine is viewed as a reliable veteran center. But Faine is 30 and has missed parts of the past two seasons with injuries. He's scheduled to count $4.575 against the salary cap and the Bucs wouldn't have to absorb a dime if they cut him because Faine's contract was structured in a way that his $12 million in bonus money was absorbed in the first two years of his deal. It remains to be seen if the Bucs or the NFL will take disciplinary action against cornerback Aqib Talib for an off-field incident. But if the Bucs decide they've had enough of the troubled cornerback, it would be easy and cost effective to cut him. Talib's scheduled to count $1.95 million against the cap, and the Bucs could free up $1.35 million by releasing him. Another guy to keep an eye on is fullback Earnest Graham. He's 31 and missed some time with injuries last year. More importantly, Graham is scheduled to count $3.105 million against the cap. If he were still playing tailback, that wouldn't be a bad figure. But a fullback counting more than $3 million against the cap is a luxury and the Bucs wouldn't have to absorb any cap hit if they release Graham. Long-snapper Andrew Economos tore his Achilles tendon during the offseason and may not be able to play this year. The Bucs could reach an injury settlement with Economos. But they also could cut him and free up $680,000 in cap space.

New Orleans. We all know the Reggie Bush situation. He's scheduled to count $16 million against the cap. If the Saints release him, they'd only be responsible for $3.5 million in pro-rated bonus money. But it sounds like Bush and the Saints will try to work out a new contract to keep him. It's unknown if cornerback Randall Gay has been medically cleared after suffering a concussion early last season. If he has, the Saints easily could release him. They'd free up more than $4 million in cap space and they have plenty of other cornerbacks. Wide receiver Devery Henderson also has a relatively high cap figure ($3.225 million) and the Saints could clear up $1.5 million by releasing him. Defensive end Alex Brown is probably safe because the Saints don't know yet what they have in rookie Cameron Jordan. But Brown is scheduled to count for $3 million and it wouldn't cost the Saints anything to cut him.

Carolina. The one bright spot of the youth movement the Panthers went to in recent years is that there aren't many veterans who are obvious candidates to become cap casualties. In fact, I'm looking at the roster and contract information and seeing only one possibility: defensive end Tyler Brayton. He's scheduled to take up $3.8 million in cap space and the Panthers would only take a $666,000 hit if they cut him.

Saints regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow denoting whether team is trending up or down.

Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Frank Victores/US PresswireSaints rookie running back Chris Ivory stepped into a prominent role during the regular season.
Biggest surprise: Chris Ivory. The undrafted rookie running back saved the Saints from a potentially catastrophic situation. With a preseason injury to Lynell Hamilton and early-season injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, the Saints were desperate for help at running back. They brought in veterans Julius Jones and Ladell Betts, but neither did much. Instead, it was Ivory who stepped up and gave the Saints enough of a threat in the running game to keep opposing defenses from loading up on the passing game. Ivory probably has secured a spot in the running back rotation for the foreseeable future, though he will miss the playoffs with a foot injury.

Biggest disappointment: Thomas. He emerged as New Orleans’ most steady running back in last year’s Super Bowl season and turned down a contract offer to play for the restricted free-agent tender this year. Thomas injured his ankle early in the season, and it initially was thought he’d miss only a few weeks. But the injury lingered and Ivory continued to emerge. Thomas came back and contributed a bit late in the season, but the coaching staff and front office might have come to the conclusion that he’s expendable because of the presence of Ivory and the expected return of Hamilton. Those two can work with Bush in tandem in the backfield.

Biggest need: A pass-rusher to play opposite Will Smith. The Saints brought in veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson after letting Charles Grant go. Neither has had much impact as a pass-rusher, and other teams have loaded up their blocking to tie up Smith. The Saints still have generated plenty of pressure because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn’t shy about bringing the blitz. But the Saints could be even more dangerous defensively if they had a pass-rusher to complement Smith.

Team MVP: Drew Brees. This season was not nearly close to the perfect season Brees had while leading the Saints to last season's Super Bowl victory. Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions, double the amount he threw last year. But Brees still put up big numbers, with 33 touchdowns and 4,620 passing yards, and he carried this team through periods when other parts of the team were struggling. Brees’ leadership also was a big part of the reason why the Saints never really had problems with the “Super Bowl hangover’’ that has prevented so many Super Bowl teams from returning to the playoffs the following season.

Changing of the safeties: If there was a true breakout player in the NFC South this season, it was safety Malcolm Jenkins. With Darren Sharper out for almost the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery, the Saints moved Jenkins to free safety after he spent his rookie year at cornerback. Jenkins stepped right up, and there was no drop-off at safety. When cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay were injured, Jenkins briefly shifted back to cornerback. Later in the season, the Saints shifted him to nickelback in passing situations and inserted Sharper at free safety. It didn’t matter where Jenkins lined up. He made big plays all season.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

December, 22, 2010
12/22/10
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Gregg Williams, Saints defensive coordinator. I still think Williams is one of the best at what he does. The whole premise of his defense is producing turnovers, which is nice in theory. But it kind of becomes pointless when a guy like Baltimore’s Ray Rice is running for 153 yards and catching short passes for another 80 yards. When an opponent is able to do anything like that, it limits the amount of risky passes that might turn into interceptions.

2. Patrick Robinson, Saints cornerback. When the first-round draft pick didn’t play a lot early in the year, it was understandable. The Saints were bringing him along slowly because they had Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay. When each of those players suffered various injuries, Robinson got some playing time and showed some promise. But Greer and Porter are back now and the Saints have activated Leigh Torrence and kept Robinson inactive the past two games. If anything, first-round draft picks should be at least showing signs of progress at this time of year. If anything, your first-round pick shouldn't be inactive behind a special-teams player at this time of year.

3. Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers linebacker. He had eight tackles in a loss to Detroit, but tackles come with the territory at his position and in Tampa Bay’s scheme. But it’s looking more and more like the Bucs will let Ruud test free agency and probably walk after the season. Ruud wants a big-money contract. Before even getting serious about that, the Bucs wanted to see some big plays out of their middle linebacker. They haven’t. The last time he forced a fumble was in the opener. His only interception came in late October and the only sack Ruud recorded was Nov. 14. It’s nice that Ruud can make some tackles, but there are a lot of other guys who can come into this position in this scheme and make tackles.

[+] EnlargeBrandon LaFell
AP Photo/Paul AbellRookie Brandon LaFell has stepped up his production over the past three games.
RISING

1. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, Panthers wide receivers. Although the people who will remain in power (not coach John Fox) in Carolina really don’t know anything for sure about rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, they’ve pretty much decided these two rookie receivers have a future. LaFell has caught 12 passes over the past three games. Up until that stretch, Gettis had been outplaying him. It would be nice if the new coach gets to keep those two players to go with No. 1 receiver Steve Smith and it would be even better if he actually puts the three of them on the field at the same time. Gee, three receivers capable of making plays on the field at the same time? You know what Fox’s playbook said about that? It was against it.

2. John Abraham, Falcons defensive end. Abraham has been getting a lot of time off from practice all year. But his teammates sure don’t mind and his coaches are the ones telling Abraham to sit. As long as he’s healthy and rested on Sundays, that’s all that matters. After a down season last year, Abraham has bounced back and is doing his part. Since sitting out a Nov. 21 game with an injury, Abraham has produced four sacks over the past four games and has 12 for the season.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons defensive tackle. He scored a touchdown Sunday against Seattle and that’s rare for a defensive lineman. Babineaux simply fell on a ball in the end zone that had been knocked loose by teammate Jamaal Anderson. But you do things like that when you’ve got a knack for putting yourself in the right position and Babineaux does that. He is -- by far -- the best defensive tackle in the NFC South and probably the division’s most underrated player. When the Pro Bowl rosters come out next week, I’m curious to see if Babineaux is on the NFC squad. He wasn’t getting a lot of fan votes, but coaches and players from other teams sometimes spot the guys that fans miss, and there are a lot of people within the league that will tell you Babineaux is one of the best in the league. The fact the Falcons have been piling up the wins finally might get Babineaux some of the recognition he deserves.
Malcolm JenkinsDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireSaints safety Malcolm Jenkins returns an interception for a touchdown against the Rams on Sunday.
Ever since he intercepted a pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown Sunday against St. Louis, New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins has been drawing even more comparisons to Darren Sharper.

That's pretty logical, because the play looked almost like a copy of the one Sharper made against the New York Jets early last season. Both plays came near the same end zone, went down the same sideline and resulted in touchdowns.

But let's not act like this is a case of Jenkins coming out of nowhere and making Sharper pretty much a non-factor. What you are seeing is Jenkins emerging as one of the best, or at least hottest, safeties in the league.

This was all part of a master plan by the Saints. Although fans didn't want to believe it for most of the offseason, the decision for Jenkins to take Sharper's place was made almost an entire calendar year ago. Sharper is a charismatic veteran beloved by fans and a player who made very big plays during last season's Super Bowl run.

But it also was becoming very obvious during that run that Sharper's time as an elite player was running out quickly. By the time the Saints won the Super Bowl, there was a pretty strong hunch within the coaching staff and management that Sharper no longer was the best safety on the roster.

In their eyes, the best safety on the roster was Jenkins, who played cornerback a year ago. That's why as soon as he showed up to start working out after the Super Bowl celebrations, the Saints sat Jenkins down and told him he was moving to free safety. It turns out that foresight was spot on.

“I don’t know if Malcolm is the second coming of Darren Sharper, but he’s going to be the first coming of Malcolm Jenkins,’’ Sharper told the New Orleans media this week.

Jenkins has become a play-making safety and a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate. When the Saints play the Ravens on Sunday, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed will be the biggest-name defensive players on the field. But they might not be, at this moment, the best defensive players on the field.

That title might belong to Jenkins, who over the past month or so has played as well as any defensive player in the league. Jenkins' two interceptions against the Rams earned him a second NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award. He also won the award in Week 12, after stripping Dallas' Roy E. Williams of the ball, recovering the fumble and helping the Saints to a victory on Thanksgiving. It's rare for anyone to get an honor twice in a few weeks. The fact that Jenkins did is a sign that this guy can't be stopped right now.

"The ball seems to find him,'' New Orleans coach Sean Payton said Sunday.

There is something to be said for instincts or having a nose for the ball. Those are the traits of great safeties, but Payton was quick to add that there are a lot of other reasons why Jenkins has become a magnet for the football.

“He's tough,'' Payton said. "He’s intelligent. He’s a guy who has good instincts. That mental makeup, along with his skill set, serves him well.''

The physical skills were always there. Everybody knew that when Jenkins was a first-round pick out of Ohio State last year. But what you're seeing now is intelligence catching up to, maybe even surpassing, physical ability.

From the moment he was told he was moving to safety, Jenkins became a regular in the film room. He got tips from Sharper, who eventually re-signed with the Saints after testing free agency. But teammates and coaches will tell you Jenkins is the guy who is making it all happen because he has worked so hard to prepare.

"I don't think it's anything special," Jenkins said. "I think (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams puts us in position to make plays -- and, at the end of the day, talk about the mentality of making plays.''

Jenkins has turned Sharper, a possible Hall of Famer, into a role player. Although the Saints worked Jenkins exclusively at safety in the offseason, they were forced to return him to cornerback briefly when starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter and nickel back Randall Gay suffered injuries. When Sharper came off the physically unable to perform list at midseason, Jenkins remained the starter at free safety. He occasionally has played nickel corner when Sharper gets on the field.

Some players might have gotten confused by all the shuffling. Not Jenkins. He has thrived and is talked about as a perennial Pro Bowler by Sharper.

“There’s something about a guy who can play both positions, corner and safety in the game, and make plays at both positions,’’ Sharper said. “I can say he’s going to be a multi-Pro Bowler because that’s what a Pro Bowler does: He makes plays. You want to see the safety make those plays. That’s what a safety is supposed to do, and he’s taking off and running with it.''

Panthers running away in I.R. race

December, 14, 2010
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There were a few house-keeping transactions made around the NFC South today as Carolina put defensive end Everette Brown, linebacker Jason Williams and guard Travelle Wharton on injured reserve and Tampa Bay did the same thing with Quincy Black and Gerald McCoy.

For those keeping sore at home, that means the Panthers lead the NFC South with 14 guys on injured reserve. But before we start sounding like all of Carolina's problems are because of injuries, let's also note that the Buccaneers now have 12 guys on injured reserve. The Bucs are 8-5 and the Panthers are 1-12.

The New Orleans Saints are 10-3 and they have nine guys on injured reserve and the Atlanta Falcons are 11-2 and only have three guys on injured reserve. So, yes, there definitely is some correlation between injuries and success (or lack of it) on the field.

But let's analyze how much of an impact having guys on injured reserve have had on each team. You can find the complete injured reserve list at the bottom of the roster on each team's website and I'm not going to list every guy here. For this discussion, I'm not including guys like Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon, who have missed significant playing time. I'm only talking significant players who have been placed on the injured reserve.

Carolina. Running back DeAngelo Williams is the biggest name on the list, but he at least played a portion of the season. I think not having right tackle Jeff Otah or linebacker Thomas Davis all season have been the biggest injury influences in Carolina. Of course, it would have been nice if the Panthers had middle linebacker Dan Connor for a longer stretch. Would the Panthers have been better if they didn't have so many injuries? Absolutely, but they wouldn't have been all that much better. Was a healthy Matt Moore any better than Jimmy Clausen? In fact, I'll argue that the Bucs have been hit harder, especially in recent weeks.

Tampa Bay. I'm looking at names like Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph and Aqib Talib and seeing high-level starters. McCoy was the team's first-round draft pick and had turned the corner after a slow start. Fellow defensive tackle Brian Price, a second-round pick, missed almost the entire season. I'm also looking at names like Cody Grimm, Kareem Huggins and Kyle Moore and seeing guys who would be nice contributors if they were healthy.

New Orleans. Things are a bit misleading here. Nine guys on injured reserve might sound like a lot. But cornerback Randall Gay and running back Lynell Hamilton might be the only two the Saints really have missed.

Atlanta. There is no way around it. The Falcons have been lucky when it comes to injuries. Yes, Weatherspoon, cornerback Dunta Robinson, receiver Michael Jenkins and backup running back Jason Snelling have missed time with injuries. But there are only three guys on injured reserve and running back Jerious Norwood is the only name of any significance. But Norwood's been out for so long and had so many injury problems in the past that the Falcons wrote this guy off long ago.

Saints getting ready to hit peak

November, 19, 2010
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Sean PaytonAP Photo/Margaret BowlesWith some key players returning and a favorable schedule ahead, coach Sean Payton may have the Saints poised to make another deep playoff run.
They are the defending Super Bowl champions. But, somehow, the New Orleans Saints seem like a forgotten team.

The national attention appears to be focused on NFC South rival Atlanta, the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in the NFC. Have we missed something?

The Saints are 6-3. In the NFC, only the Falcons and Bears have more wins. They each have seven. In the AFC, the Jets and Patriots are the only teams with seven wins.

It’s not as though the Saints have gone the same route as so many other recent Super Bowl champions, completely falling apart and out of the playoff picture the season after winning the title. In fact, you can make a case that the Saints are poised to join the Patriots as the only team since the turn of the century to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Coming off a bye and a first nine games where they weren’t as dominant as last year, the Saints might be set up perfectly for another deep playoff run. Starting with Sunday’s home game with Seattle, the Saints have four straight games that look very winnable. They host Seattle (5-4) on Sunday and then play Dallas, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

They don’t play a team that looks all that strong until they travel to Baltimore on Dec. 19, and they do have to play Atlanta and Tampa Bay after that. But, by all rights, the Saints should have 10 wins before they get to the tough part of the schedule.

So why does it seem like no one outside New Orleans is talking about the Saints, who are on a two-game winning streak, including a victory over a Pittsburgh team that was supposed to be the class of the AFC?

Well, you can point to losses to Cleveland and Arizona. Both were ugly, and even some of the games the Saints have won were not pretty in the way that so many of last year’s victories were.

Drew Brees and the offense haven’t been nearly as dominant as they were when the Saints were winning their first 13 games last season, and the defense hasn’t been nearly as opportunistic. You could even point to the quick turnaround after the Seattle game and see the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas as a possible stumbling block.

Even though the Cowboys have struggled, they’re still talented, and they were the team that broke New Orleans’ winning streak last year. A short week can be enough to throw any team off track.

But I’m not buying into that because the Saints have been here before. Part of the reason the Saints won a championship was that coach Sean Payton and circumstances have prepared the Saints for anything.

They’re masters of dealing with what life hands them, both positive and negative. They dealt with a London trip in 2008 and have had to pack up and practice elsewhere several times through the years as they’ve evacuated ahead of approaching hurricanes.

A quick turnaround isn’t going to make a lot of difference for the Saints, and maybe it’s better that they’ve sort of been forgotten. That could clear the way for the Saints to go on a nice run.

Besides the schedule, things already are starting to fall into place. Although it’s not producing turnovers at the rate of a year ago, the defense is playing better overall than it has at any point during Payton’s tenure.

“I think we’re playing our best defense in that time frame and I think the turnovers will come with the effort and the hustle and the energy that we’re playing with,’’ Payton said. “We’re doing a good job. The first number you look at is scoring defense, and that’s the No. 1 objective and then you go from there, whether it’s passing defense, third down, red zone; those are all statistics that all are definitely improved. Like I said, as we just passed the midpoint of the season with seven games left, I think we’re getting healthier there as well.”

There’s no doubt about that. The Saints had to play much of the first half of the season without their top three cornerbacks – Jabari Greer, Randall Gay and Tracy Porter. Gay will miss the rest of the season, but Greer and Porter are healthy again and rookie Patrick Robinson has come on fast.

The defense is healthy and the offense is about to get there as well. Running back Reggie Bush is expected to make his return from a broken leg against Seattle. Running back Pierre Thomas is progressing in his recovery from an ankle injury and could be returning soon.

The Saints have been using a combination of Chris Ivory, Ladell Betts and Julius Jones in the backfield, and the results have been mixed. Having Bush and Thomas healthy could change the complexion of the entire offense.

When the Saints had their winning streak snapped and lost their final three regular-season games last year, there was talk that they had hit their peak too early. They had to regroup in their bye week in the postseason.

That might not be necessary this season. We might be getting ready to watch the Saints hit their peak down the stretch.

NFC South Saturday mailbag

November, 6, 2010
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Time for the weekend edition of the NFC South mailbag.

Larry in Gastonia, N.C., writes: What is John Fox smoking? Why in the world is such a hapless offensive team not playing the best FCS football player in history? Fox says that the team has it's schemes and is working on execution and getting better when asked about Armanti Edwards. I'm all for the Panther's execution! The groundswell of support to just DO SOMETHING different is unbelievable and yet Fox does the same thing every week and expects different results.

Pat Yasinskas: Your fellow Carolina fans have been filling up the mailbag with similar questions. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Edwards should be a quarterback or a receiver. But I’ll tell you this much, he’s not going to get to play quarterback while Fox is still coaching the Panthers. Although that probably will be only for a couple more months, Fox is going to go down with the ship doing things his way. Fox never has shown much willingness to change. That’s part of the reason why he had a nice long run in Carolina, but it’s also part of the reason that run is ending.

Dylan in Athens, Ga., writes: What do you think of Gartrell Johnson and do you see him developing into a bigger role player with the Falcons offense?

Pat Yasinskas: Saw Johnson have one very nice run the last time I covered an Atlanta game. That should help his stock a bit. He’s behind Michael Turner and Jason Snelling on the depth chart. But it’s a long season and guys can get banged up. Thomas Dimitroff and the scouting department do an excellent job and Johnson wouldn’t be on the roster if the Falcons didn’t think he could contribute.

Kenneth in Boston writes: Can we talk about a couple young guys on the Saints' thriving defense right now? Patrick Robinson and Sedrick Ellis are/have been playing phenomenal, wouldn't you agree? It doesn't seem like they're getting enough attention right now, though.

Pat Yasinskas: Sure, let’s talk about them. Let’s start with Ellis. I’ve liked him since the Saints drafted him and thought he was pretty good when on the field his first two years. Problem was, he had some injuries and couldn’t stay on the field. He’s been healthy so far this year and is showing why he was a first-round pick. I also agree on Robinson. I don’t think the Saints wanted to play him so much right away. But Randall Gay, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter got hurt and that got Robinson some heavy playing time. He responded well. Looks like Greer and Porter are healthy or close to it, but Robinson has shown he’s ready to be a very good nickel back right now and a possible starter in the future.

Adam in Milledgeville, Ga., writes: Early in the year (after the first game) I was fairly upset with your harsh words towards the Falcons. Now after seeing the praise you have given them, I can actually set my fandom aside and realize that you truly just write what you see. I know Panthers fans may feel like you are ragging on them, but what else can you really say? They can look at the Falcons after the Steelers game, or the Saints after the Browns game to see the exact same thing. You are one of the most honest analysts in the NFL who shows loyalty to the division, but not a particular team in the division. This is why I love your blog and will continue reading for a long time.

Pat Yasinskas: Thank you for understanding the nature of my job. Some people always look for conspiracy theories. Truth is, if there’s one team in the division that I’d probably be inclined to favor just on human nature, it’s the Carolina Panthers. I spent nine seasons covering them on a daily basis in my newspaper days. There are many people (coaches, players, front-office workers) that work in that building that I have the utmost respect for. I talk to them frequently and there is a part of me that is pained to see them struggling. But my job is to write about what’s going on. When a team is 1-6, that’s not going to include many positives.
Darren SharperMatthew Sharpe/Getty ImagesDarren Sharper and the Saints got a much-needed win over the Steelers Sunday night.
NEW ORLEANS -- Two Dat? Well, it’s still possible.

If you saw the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night, you saw a very good football team. Maybe they weren’t the high-scoring juggernaut they were when they won their first 13 games last year on the way to a Super Bowl title. But for the first time this season, the Saints looked like a team capable of doing real damage in January and February.

Just a week after an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland, the Saints defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 in a Halloween party at the Superdome. In a matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions, it was the Steelers who looked like they were masquerading as a contender.

Memo to the rest of the NFL: The Saints still are contenders. Yes, they’ve got some flaws, some injuries and nothing’s going to be easy. But they’ve got a shot, if they can continue playing like this.

Had they lost, the season would have been well on its way to being over. Instead, the Saints are 5-3 at the season’s midpoint and they’ve got a game at Carolina next week and a bye after that before beginning a stretch where they don’t play a team that currently has a winning record until they go to Baltimore on Dec. 19.

But the biggest reason for encouragement might be that the Saints beat a good team for perhaps the first time this season. The Saints also defeated Tampa Bay on Oct. 17, but there’s still room to debate if the Bucs are a good team. There’s no doubt the Steelers are a good team.

“It was good for us to get a win,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll keep working. We’ll recognize that it is what it is and we’ve got a lot of things to work on.’’

Yes, there’s plenty to work on. But this win came against a good team and in prime time with part of the world watching to see if the Saints were done. Other than the Bucs and Steelers, the Saints have defeated Minnesota, San Francisco and Carolina -- three teams that are a combined 5-17 -- and most of those wins weren’t pretty.

“We needed this,’’ said wide receiver Lance Moore, who had a fourth-quarter touchdown catch. “After playing so poorly last week, it was important for us to come out and play well.’’

That’s exactly what the Saints did. It wasn’t the same game plan they used last year when they were steamrolling opponents. This time, they did it mostly with defense.

Despite playing without injured starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, having nickelback Randall Gay on injured reserve and rookie Patrick Robinson suffering an ankle injury early in the game, the Saints held Ben Roethlisberger to 195 passing yards.

The Saints moved Malcolm Jenkins from safety to cornerback for the second straight week and he started opposite Robinson. Once Robinson went down, the Saints turned to seldom-used Leigh Torrence, who held up well in coverage and intercepted Roethlisberger to end Pittsburgh’s final drive.

“When you get nicked up like that, you’re down one corner and we came up big all night,’’ Payton said.

The Steelers reached the end zone only once, when Rashard Mendenhall broke off a 38-yard run early in the fourth quarter. The defense also had a huge goal-line stand early in the second quarter to hold Pittsburgh to a field goal.

“The defense is carrying us,’’ said Moore, who finished with a game-high seven catches. “There hasn’t been one game where the offense has showed up and done what we’re capable of.’’

But the offense suddenly became capable in the fourth quarter after being held to a pair of field goals through the first three periods. Quarterback Drew Brees brushed off a four-interception debacle against Cleveland and completed 34 of 44 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter: a 16-yarder to Marques Colston to give the Saints a 13-3 lead and an 8-yard strike to Moore with 2:37 remaining to provide the final margin.

“Talk about must wins,’’ said safety Darren Sharper, who came up with a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “You can put that in the category of a must win.’’

There’s no doubt the Saints had to win that game to keep hopes of a repeat alive.

“I’d say it was the best overall performance by our team,’’ middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “It was a statement game for us as well.’’

A statement that the Saints are still the Super Bowl champions and could end up keeping that title.

Yes, maybe they’ll slip back to their struggles from earlier in the season. But there’s hope now because the Saints showed how good they can be -- and there could be help on the way. Porter and Greer could be back soon. Injured running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas also could be returning before long.

“There were definitely things we can reference and build on as we move forward,’’ Brees said.

At a midseason point where they could have been in big trouble, the Saints appear to be moving forward.

“We’ve got high expectations,’’ Brees said. “We’re disappointed with the 4-3 start, especially because of the way we lost some of those games. It was really about sticking together. Everybody outside the building was like, 'What’s wrong with the Saints?’ But we knew in our locker room that we had to stick together. We played as complete a football game -- offense, defense and special teams -- as we have all year.’’

State of despair: Saints

October, 29, 2010
10/29/10
12:00
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A quick look at a team that has not met expectations and is struggling.

What’s gone wrong: The old cliché about a “Super Bowl hangover’’ probably explains some of what’s happened to the Saints (4-3). It’s not that they spent too much time celebrating their win. It’s just that following up a dream season like last year – and doing it in the same spectacular fashion – is almost impossible.

The Saints were playing a month longer than most teams last season and that disrupted the rhythm of the offseason. They’ve also had a series of injuries at key positions, namely cornerback (Randall Gay, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer each have missed time) and running back (Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas have missed significant time).

The Saints are a walking target for every opponent who wants to make their season by knocking off the champions. They returned pretty much the whole Super Bowl roster, but the Saints haven’t looked much like last year’s team.

How to fix them: Getting healthy would be a great way to start. Bush appears to be close to returning, and the bye week is coming up Nov. 14. If the Saints can stay above water in the short term, the second half of their schedule doesn’t look all that difficult.

Quarterback Drew Brees has struggled and the defense hasn’t been as opportunistic as it was a year ago. But those might not be permanent conditions. Brees and the defense each have the talent to start clicking at any moment, and that could make the Saints dangerous again.

Panic meter: About three degrees shy of the boiling point. Sunday night’s game with the Steelers should tell us everything about the Saints. If they win, they’re right in the thick of things. If they lose, they’ll be trying to play catch up in the second half of the season.

Coach on the hot seat? Sean Payton might not be looking quite like the “genius’’ he was a year ago. But this guy still has silver polish from the Lombardi Trophy on his fingers. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Lots of news from Falcons, Saints

October, 20, 2010
10/20/10
5:06
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We’ve gotten a sudden batch of news out of the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, who hold their practices and media sessions later in the day than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. In no particular order, let’s run through the latest.
The final injury reports of the week are out, so let’s take a quick run through the injuries that matter most across the NFC South.

Saints. Coach Sean Payton went ahead and already declared running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush out. Same for cornerbacks Randall Gay and Tracy Porter. What’s it all mean? Get ready to see a lot of Ladell Betts and Julius Jones at running back and rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson. On a positive note, linebacker Scott Shanle, who was added to the injury report during the week, is listed as probable.

Falcons. They only have two injuries of real note. Defensive end John Abraham is listed as questionable with a back injury and was limited in Friday’s practice. Abraham is a veteran guy and things like this are going to happen, but I think he’ll be on the field Sunday, if at all possible. On the flip side, rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon also is listed as questionable with a knee injury and did not participate in practice. The Falcons aren’t going to rush their first-round pick back onto the field and risk making the injury worse. That decision is made a little easier by the fact they have a very competent alternative in former starter Stephan Nicholas.

Eagles. We’re going to step outside the division on this one for obvious reasons. Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said quarterback Michael Vick (ribs) will not start against the Falcons, his former team. Kevin Kolb will get the nod. But it appears to be at least a possibility Vick still could play. Vick is listed as questionable and took part in Friday’s practice on a limited basis.

Buccaneers. As we’ve known for several days, center Jeff Faine is out and will be for at least a month. Rookie receiver Mike Williams (foot) returned to practice on a limited basis, but is listed as questionable. Cornerback Elbert Mack is questionable, which could mean some action for rookie Myron Lewis.

Panthers. They’ve got their bye this week. But the good news is we only have to wait another week for new receiver Devin Thomas to come in and carry this franchise to victories in its next 11 regular-season games and straight to the Super Bowl. In fact, I’m hearing rumblings that, now that the Panthers have Thomas on board, Jerry Richardson and John Fox are going to dinner tonight to hammer out a life-time contract for the coach. General manager Marty Hurney originally was supposed to attend, but he’s going to be on the phone with general managers in Chicago and New York. Apparently, upon hearing of the Thomas acquisition, Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins have demanded to be traded back to the Panthers. Also, linebacker Kevin Greene is pondering coming out of retirement to join the dynasty.

Checking on injuries that matter most

October, 14, 2010
10/14/10
5:17
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Time to check in on the injuries that matter most across the NFC South.

Buccaneers. Fullback Earnest Graham was added to the injury list with a hamstring problem and did not practice Thursday. This one’s a concern because Graham is one of the unsung players on this team and does a lot of different things. On the positive front, safety Sean Jones (back) returned to practice and went through the full session after missing Wednesday and most of Sunday’s game. Finally, tight end Kellen Winslow practiced fully, which I’ve said before, is kind of like icing on the cake any time that happens.

Saints. New Orleans has 19 guys on the injury report, so we’ll cut through the guys that have been participating fully and the third-string guys and the guys we already know are out (Reggie Bush and Tracy Porter) and focus on the significant ones. Running back Pierre Thomas (ankle) had another day where he didn’t participate in practice. Cornerback Randall Gay (concussion) continues to sit out. Linebacker Scott Shanle was added to the injury report with a hamstring and was limited in practice.

Falcons. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee) remained out of practice and it’s looking like Stephen Nicholas might get the start Sunday. The Falcons also limited defensive end John Abraham (back), but I think that’s just a case of going easy on a veteran.

Eagles. Yeah, we’re stepping outside the division on this one, but I think you’ll understand why. Quarterback Michael Vick (ribs) was held out of practice again Thursday. Vick said he has done some throwing, but coach Andy Reid has said it’s unlikely Vick will play Sunday against his former team, unless he’s able to practice this week. Friday is Philadelphia’s final full practice before they face the Falcons.

Panthers. They have their bye week and don’t have to provide an injury report.

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