NFC South: Ray Rice

Prior to the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter last year, we used to spend a lot of time busting on the Atlanta Falcons for almost never using screen passes.

There might have been a reason why predecessor Mike Mularkey was so hesitant to throw to his running backs. Michael Turner simply wasn’t a receiving threat. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner caught 59 passes.

Jackson
Koetter got the running backs more involved in the passing game last season, mainly by throwing to Jacquizz Rodgers a fair amount. But I suspect we could see that trend escalate tremendously in 2013.

A lot of people are viewing the arrival of Steven Jackson as Turner’s replacement as evidence that Atlanta’s running game will improve. I have no doubt that will happen.

But I think a lot of people are only looking at half of what Jackson brings to the table. Jackson is one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history.

In fact, I just dialed up the database at ESPN Stats & Information and came up with something interesting. Since his arrival in the league in 2004, Jackson’s 407 receptions are the most by any running back in that period.

For the sake of comparison, the only other running backs with more than 300 catches during that same span are Brian Westbrook (396), LaDainian Tomlinson (386), Reggie Bush (372), Frank Gore (315), Ray Rice (311) and Darren Sproles (307).

I’m pretty sure we can expect to see some new wrinkles from Koetter because Jackson can do more than catch screen passes. He can run a lot of different routes. Rodgers can do the same.

That’s going to create all sorts of headaches for defenses that already have their hands full with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

Even coach Mike Smith, who usually goes out of his way to not give away anything close to strategy is raving about Jackson's ability as a receiver.

“He’s a big strong running back that catches the ball extremely well,'' Smith told the media Wednesday. "He creates issues for defenses. He’s just another weapon that we have in our offensive arsenal. He’s a guy who had close to 100 catches in a season, so he’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back, he’s a receiving back as well.”
It’s that time of year when everyone is making lists about various topics, so let’s turn to another one.

Matthew Berry ranks the 200 best fantasy football picks for 2013. The best fantasy player in the NFC South?

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin, Thomas Davis
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesTampa Bay running back Doug Martin could be ready to deliver a monster fantasy season.
According to Berry, it’s Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin. Berry ranks Martin as the No. 5 player, behind only Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Marshawn Lynch. They’re all great running backs, but I think Martin has a chance to climb a spot or two on the list once the season gets rolling.

People tend to forget that Martin played his entire rookie season without guard Davin Joseph and about half of it without guard Carl Nicks. Put those two back in the middle of the line and it’s not hard to imagine Martin putting up numbers even better than he did in his first season.

Fantasy football tends to put a lot of value on running backs and Atlanta’s Steven Jackson also comes in with a high ranking. Berry put Jackson at No. 12.

Now, let’s leave it up to Berry to bring back up the spirits of those Saints fans that took a hit earlier when Pro Football Focus ranked Drew Brees No. 79 on its list of the NFL’s top 100 players. Berry has Brees at No. 15 overall and second among quarterbacks (behind only Aaron Rodgers).

Brees is always a good fantasy pick, but I think he could be better than usual this year. Coach Sean Payton had a full season off to come up with new wrinkles for his offense, and that can only help Brees’ numbers.

Berry also scored some points with New Orleans fans by rating Jimmy Graham as the league’s top tight end (No. 20 overall).

Some other NFC South players on Berry’s list:

Vote for 'Madden NFL 25' cover

March, 12, 2013
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The “Madden NFL 25’’ cover voting has arrived with a twist.

Instead of including only current players, one “legend’’ from each team is included. One current player from each team also is on the ballot.

Let’s start with the NFC South legends. Former Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme is matched up against Joe Montana. Delhomme is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever covered, but he’s got no chance of getting by a guy that might be the best quarterback ever.

Speaking of unfortunate draws, former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks, who might be the best player out of the NFC South, is matched against Baltimore’s Ray Lewis. The timing here is horrible for Brooks because Lewis’ final act before retirement was to lead his team to a Super Bowl championship and that makes him a sentimental favorite.

Retired New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister also ended up with a tough draw. He goes against former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. Saints’ fans are passionate, so let’s see if they can pull off an upset against one of the brightest stars from America’s team.

The only NFC South legend that appears to be a favorite is former Atlanta cornerback Deion Sanders, who goes against former Seattle defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy.

Oh, and there’s one more total mismatch that’s tied to the NFC South in the legends division. Carolina coach Ron Rivera is representing Chicago against Detroit’s Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. No offense to Rivera, who was a nice player, but wouldn’t Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers or Walter Payton at least stand a chance to win against Sanders?

Switching over to the active players, two of the NFC South’s bright young stars are matched up. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham are paired against each other.

Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is matched against Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly is up against Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

Go do your civic duty and vote.

Around the NFC South

January, 29, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- Before I run off to Super Bowl media day, let’s take a look at the top headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Although uncertainty remains about the funding, five finalists have been selected as potential designers of a new stadium for the Falcons.

Jay Adams writes that most of the early mock drafts have the Falcons going for a tight end or defensive lineman in the first round of the draft. That makes plenty of sense because tight end Tony Gonzalez has given indications he’s leaning heavily toward retirement and the Falcons need an eventual successor to defensive end John Abraham. But, if the Falcons don’t re-sign Brent Grimes and/or Sam Baker, I could see them turning their attention toward cornerback or left tackle.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Owner Jerry Richardson met with state officials to ask for a reported $62 million in funding for renovations for Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers already have been lobbying Charlotte officials for $125 million in funding. If both the state and city come through with that kind of money, the total will come to $187 million. Presumably, Richardson and the Panthers would come up with the other $63 million. I recognize it’s common for state and city tax money to finance new stadiums or renovations. But it’s still a little weird that Richardson is asking for help because the owner was very proud of the fact he was able to build the stadium without any taxpayer money in the first place.

The Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh storyline is probably the biggest of this Super Bowl. In the spirit of telling what family rivalries can be like, Joseph Person got Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula to recall what it was like coaching against his father, Don, and brother, David.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The name of Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan appeared in transcripts of testimony about the bounty scandal in December. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt testified that the team believed former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was texting the names of who the Saints were going to draft to Duncan before the picks were announced publicly. This supposedly happened during the 2011 draft. I wouldn’t put anything past Williams. But Duncan says, if there were such texts being sent, they weren’t coming to him. I’ve known Duncan for more than a decade and if he says he wasn’t getting texts, then I can assure you he wasn’t getting texts.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Baltimore running back Ray Rice had some high praise for Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. Rice played for Schiano at Rutgers. Although Schiano has drawn some criticism for perhaps being heavy handed, Rice said the Ravens use the same team-first approach that Schiano believes in. The Ravens obviously are in the Super Bowl, so maybe Schiano’s style isn’t a bad thing. We’ll find out for sure in time.

Statistical superlatives on the Panthers

November, 27, 2012
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I only do statistical superlatives when a team wins, so the Carolina Panthers haven’t had many of these posts this season. But let’s give them their due right now.

With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a by-the-numbers look at Carolina’s 30-22 victory against Philadelphia on Monday night.
  • The Panthers scored 10 points in the fourth quarter while holding the Eagles scoreless. Prior to that Carolina had not held an opponent scoreless in the fourth quarter in any of its last 23 games. That tied an NFL record. In the 93-year history the only other team to never shut out an opponent in the fourth quarter over a 23-game span was the Cincinnati Bengals in 1997 and ’98.
  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had two passing touchdowns in the first half and two rushing touchdowns in the second half. He became the first player since Jeff Garcia in 2000 to have two passing touchdowns in the first half and two rushing touchdowns in the second half, or vice versa.
  • Newton had his third career game with four total touchdowns and no turnovers while also becoming the first quarterback to reach 20 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons.
  • Newton’s 89.3 Total QBR was his best score of the season and the second best of his career (his high was 92.5 in a win against Tampa Bay last December).
  • Newton was outstanding on deep throws, an area in which he had struggled prior to this game. On throws of 15 yards or more, Newton completed all five of his passes and averaged 35.2 yards per attempt with two touchdowns.
  • Both of Newton’s rushing touchdowns came in goal-to-go situations. Newton has six goal-to-go rushing touchdowns this season. Over the last two seasons, Newton has 15 touchdowns in those situations. That ties him with Arian Foster for second in the NFL in that span. Only Ray Rice (17) has more goal-to-go rushing touchdowns.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 36, Vikings 17

October, 25, 2012
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Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-17 victory against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on Thursday night:

What it means: This was a big step for the Bucs as they continue to build around a lot of young players with a first-year coaching staff. It showed the Bucs can go on the road and beat a team with a winning record. It showed that the Bucs are capable of protecting a lead, something they've had trouble with this year. The Bucs are 3-4 and -- for the moment -- are in sole possession of second place in the NFC South. They’re not going to catch the Atlanta Falcons, but I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see continued improvement from the Bucs in the second half of the season.

Martin’s big night: Early on, a lot of critics were pointing to the fact that rookie running back Doug Martin wasn’t making any big plays. That no longer can be said. Martin had a breakout game. He carried 29 times for 135 yards (including a 41-yard run) and a touchdown. Martin also caught three passes for 79 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. Remember back on draft night, when coach Greg Schiano repeatedly called Martin an all-purpose back and compared him to Ray Rice? Martin certainly served all purposes against the Vikings. We’ll hold off a bit on getting too carried away with the Rice comparisons, but it’s starting to look like Schiano knew what he was talking about.

Stat of the night: Josh Freeman threw three touchdown passes against the Vikings. He now has thrown three touchdowns in three consecutive games. No other quarterback in franchise history has ever done that. Come to think of it, the Bucs never have had a guy that’s gotten firmly established as a franchise quarterback. A few more games like this and I think it will be safe to assume the Bucs will give Freeman a big contract extension in the offseason and lock him up for the long term.

Age really is just a number: Safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he still is making huge plays. He forced two fumbles against the Vikings by stripping the ball and also put some pressure on Christian Ponder with some blitzes. Barber made it sound like this would be his last season when he re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal in the offseason. But I’m starting to think the Bucs would be very interested in bringing Barber back for one more year -- at least.

Bowers makes debut: The Bucs activated defensive end Da'Quan Bowers off the physically unable to perform list a few hours before the game. Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, was used as a situational pass-rusher. But he did record a sack on a play in which Ponder had to fall on a bad snap out of the shotgun formation.

The streak is over: The Bucs had lost nine consecutive road games dating back to last year. That streak is officially over. Coincidentally, the last road game the Bucs won was in Minnesota early last season.

What I liked: The Bucs have continued to get fullback Erik Lorig involved in the passing game. That’s a good thing because it brings diversity to the offense. Lorig got his first career touchdown catch in the first quarter. Lorig now has eight catches for 51 yards so far this season, after having only seven catches for 63 yards in the previous two seasons combined.

What I didn’t like: Left tackle Donald Penn got into an encounter that involved pushing, shoving and jawing with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen late in the third quarter. Not sure that it’s a great idea to fire up Allen.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at Oakland on Nov. 4.

Previewing and predicting the Bucs

August, 30, 2012
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As promised, we’re rolling out our predictions for the 2012 NFL season today.

We’ll go in reverse order in the NFC South. Here’s the link to the preview page for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, complete with predictions from our expert panel and me.

Here’s what I wrote about the Bucs:

Five things you need to know about the Buccaneers:

1. The real Josh? Quarterback Josh Freeman has to get back to playing like he did in 2010 for this team to have a chance. Freeman can't have another season in which he is anywhere near the league lead in interceptions. He took a lot of blame for last season, when everything was breaking down around him. But there are no excuses this time around. The Bucs acquired Vincent Jackson to be a true No. 1 receiver and guard Carl Nicks to help protect Freeman, and they drafted an all-purpose back in Doug Martin. There's a decent supporting cast in place, and the Bucs believe that will get Freeman back on track.

2. The rookie will get the ball: Although LeGarrette Blount has done everything right through the offseason, I still think Martin gets the bulk of the playing time. When he was at Rutgers, the best running back Greg Schiano ever coached was Ray Rice. Schiano has compared Martin to Rice several times and raves about his ability as an all-around back. There will be a role for Blount, likely as a power runner, but I'm guessing Martin will be on the field the bulk of the time.

3. Clark ready to bounce back: The Bucs unloaded tight end Kellen Winslow, who already was clashing with Schiano. They replaced him by signing veteran Dallas Clark, who has had injury problems in recent seasons. But Clark appears to be healthy and in great shape. The Bucs are hoping he can give them about 70 catches. They also think he'll bring a positive influence to the locker room. Clark played for a lot of good teams in Indianapolis and might be able to show the younger players how to win.

4. McCoy's health: Aside from Freeman, the player with the most pressure on him is third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He's suffered significant injuries in each of his first two seasons. When he has been healthy, it's obvious McCoy can be an impact player. But this front four, and really the entire defense, needs a 16-game season out of McCoy if it's going to be any good.

5. Problem spot? I'll wait until the regular season to decide for sure, but I'm not sold on Tampa Bay's linebackers. I think second-round pick Lavonte David is going to be very good. But I can't say the same about middle linebacker Mason Foster and outside linebacker Quincy Black. Foster struggled in the middle last season, and maybe he'll get better with experience. But Black has been around longer and never has been anything but ordinary.

Ranking the NFC South RB situations

May, 9, 2012
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1. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have the best one-two punch at running back in the entire league in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Although they traded Mike Goodson to the Raiders this offseason, they also signed Mike Tolbert, who could play some fullback as well as running back. The Panthers’ backfield is stacked.

I am extremely high on Stewart and would love to see what he would be able to do if he didn’t have to split time, as evidenced by his whopping 5.4-yard average in 2011. Stewart has power, elusiveness, is very fluid, but also explosive. He can be one of the very best running backs in the NFL. He has come into his own as a receiving option. Stewart’s 47 receptions last season were more than he accumulated over his first three years in the league combined. One knock on Stewart is that he could stand to improve as a pass blocker, but he also just recently turned 25, so his best might be yet to come.

There is also a ton to love about what Williams brings to the table. In 2008, Williams had a monster season, rushing for more than 1,500 yards. He has yet to approach such production again, but like Stewart, Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011. Williams has great vision, runs with excellent pad level and I very much believe he has a lot more in the tank even though he recently turned 29. Williams is a solid receiver but seems to have been passed over by Stewart for the bulk of those duties.

Despite his stature, Tolbert also can contribute quite a bit in the passing game. I don’t see him as a fullback, but rather a punishing ball-carrier with an incredibly low center of gravity and excellent power. Tolbert has gotten into the end zone 21 times over the past two seasons and clearly excels near the goal line.

Having quarterback Cam Newton a part of this rushing attack helps a great deal, but the Panthers also will be getting mauling right tackle Jeff Otah back and drafted a similar bruising masher in the run game to play guard in Amini Silatolu. The Panthers should have one of the league’s very best rushing attacks -- and a very dangerous offense overall -- in 2012.

2. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have more backs than they know what to do with, but they distribute the touches from this position extremely effectively. The Saints did not have a first-round pick in this past draft because they traded it to acquire Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft. He appeared in only 10 games during his rookie season due to injury issues. He flashed some of that first-round ability during those games, but overall, it was a rough season for Ingram. However, this former Heisman Trophy winner has true “bell cow” running back traits. Ingram has an excellent combination of leverage, power and vision with a fine burst through the hole. He can make yardage on his own and has the temperament to carry the load. Ingram’s knee now has to be a bit of a concern, though.

The Saints’ most dynamic player at the position -- maybe in the entire league -- is Darren Sproles. He is pure electricity as a runner or receiver. And the Saints use Sproles’ talents to perfection. Drew Brees and the Saints’ coaching staff do a fantastic job of using personnel, formation and motion to get Sproles in advantageous situations -- either as a receiver against an inferior coverage player or as a runner against minimal defenders in the box. And Sproles excels when used in such a manner. As you would expect with his diminutive stature, Sproles can struggle in protection. But despite his size, Sproles hasn’t missed a game in the past four years and has missed only two games in his six-year career.

As third running backs go, Pierre Thomas has no equal in the NFL. Thomas is a potent blend of what both Ingram and Sproles bring to the table. Thomas is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Thomas would start for several teams in the league right now. He finished the 2011 season with just under 1,000 combined yards.

Further showing off their embarrassment of riches as this position, the Saints also have Chris Ivory. Ivory isn’t flashy or dynamic, but he runs with great conviction and power. Getting Ivory the touches he deserves could prove difficult, unless Ingram’s knee remains a major problem.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers traded into the late first round to select Doug Martin. Considering Greg Schiano’s history at Rutgers favoring versatile two-way running backs like Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, I expect Martin to quickly grab ahold of the starting job in Tampa Bay over LeGarrette Blount.

Blount is a very powerful runner and is good overall with the ball in his hands, but he has fumbling issues and offers little as a receiver or in protection, which is just too much of an advantage to the opposing defense when he is on the field. But if given carries or if the Bucs are playing with a lead, which was rare last year, Blount can pound the opponent into submission. His career average of 4.6 yards per carry should not be easily dismissed, especially considering the circumstances he was under last year.

But Martin is the better all-around talent compared to Blount. A compact bowling ball with very good vision and a natural skill set for churning out yardage, Martin is also highly adept as a receiver out of the backfield. The Bucs also used a seventh-round pick on Michael Smith, which further shows their lack of trust in Blount.

Mossis Madu is also in the mix for Tampa Bay. As shown by their investments at guard, the Buccaneers are a run-first team. That is what Schiano wants and his offseason moves strongly indicate that is the approach Tampa Bay will be taking going forward, along with taking some shots deep downfield to Vincent Jackson. Martin should get the bulk of the running back touches, but there might be enough to keep both lead backs fed.

4. Atlanta Falcons: In a division loaded with high-quality running backs, Atlanta’s backfield is last on my list. Michael Turner is the lead back here. I see Turner as a declining player who needs a high volume of touches to be effective. Although Turner is a decent pass blocker, he offers very little as a receiver, which is a huge detriment in today’s NFL.

After Week 11 last season, Turner had only one game in which he rushed for more than 76 yards. Turner finished the season with 1,340 yards on the ground and six 100-yard days, but his performance was much too up and down on a week-to-week basis for a back of his nature. I am not implying Turner is over-the-hill. He isn’t. Turner still has value and can be very effective if used properly. But he just isn’t what he once was in terms of his elusiveness and burst. Amazingly though, Turner can still break off long runs. He also has missed only five games over the past five seasons, but I think the Falcons would be wise to get some insurance for their 30-year-old back.

Jacquizz Rodgers is ahead of the game with his blitz pickup for a young back, but now the Falcons need to enhance his role catching the football. That seems like the next logical step in this dynamic player’s development. As a runner, Rodgers certainly isn’t built to be a lead guy, but he shows some power for his size and is competitive in all phases of the position. He could break out in 2012.

Antone Smith and Dimitri Nance are also on Atlanta’s roster, but it seems logical that the Falcons will add another veteran running back with size to back up Turner.

At fullback, the Falcons have one of the best lead blockers in recent years in Ovie Mughelli, but the usage of a fifth-round pick on Bradie Ewing, another downhill hammer blocker, could be the beginning of the end for Mughelli in Atlanta. The Falcons also have Mike Cox, a pure battering-ram fullback, in the equation. But it is unlikely they keep three blocking fullbacks on the roster.
TAMPA, Fla. -- General manager Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano just spoke about Boise State running back Doug Martin, who they drafted with the 31st overall pick Thursday night.

Funny, but they described him pretty much the way they did when talking about Alabama safety Mark Barron, who they took at No. 7 overall. They described him as a leader, team captain and a guy who played for a very successful college program. In other words, he fits the profile of the new "Buccaneer Man."

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIRENew Bucs coach Greg Schiano is excited about "the totality of what" Doug Martin can do.
That’s great. The Bucs needed to add things like character and leadership. They also needed to add something to a backfield that had LeGarrette Blount and not much else.

Schiano used the phrases “all-around back’’ and “the totality of what he can do’’ in describing Martin. That’s significant. Blount has some good qualities (power running), but struggled as a pass blocker and receiver the past two seasons. Schiano also used the term “three-down back’’ about Martin. In other words, Blount will still have a role, but Martin is going to spend more time on the field.

Schiano smiled as he was asked if Martin reminded him of Baltimore’s Ray Rice, who he coached at Rutgers.

“I do see some of it,’’ Schiano said. “To tell you the truth I do. I see a guy who runs hard and plays hard.’’

There was one other ulterior motive in giving up their second-round choice and a fourth-round pick in return for the right to take Martin at the end of the first round, while sliding down to later in the fourth round.

Dominik pointed to the new collective bargaining agreement. In that, first-round picks can sign five-year contracts. Players taken after the first round can’t sign deals longer than four years.

Sounds like the Bucs are planning on having Martin around for a long time.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is the only NFC South player remaining in the "Madden 13" cover vote.

The list has been trimmed to eight players and Newton is matched against Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the latest round. You can cast your vote here.

Newton was a big winner against San Diego tight end Antonio Gates in the previous round. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was knocked out, losing narrowly to Baltimore running back Ray Rice.
The Madden 13 Cover Vote is down to 16 players, including just two from the NFC South.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton defeated Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount in the last round and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees defeated Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.

You can go here to cast your vote. In this round, Newton faces San Diego tight end Antonio Gates and Brees takes on Baltimore running back Ray Rice.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Tampa Bay’s new head coach Greg Schiano spent the last hour speaking with the media. He was insightful, entertaining and even humorous at times. He didn’t reveal any earth-shattering news, but there was one message that came through loud and clear and running back LeGarrette Blount better be listening.

At two different times, Schiano was asked about Blount. Both times, Schiano gave a similar answer. He first complimented Blount and, then, sent a strong message.

“I think LeGarrette has tons of ability,’’ Schiano said. “No one who touches the football will get touches if they don’t protect the football. That is one of our core covenants -- the ball. It’s so important they named the game after it. We make a big deal about it.’’

Schiano’s had time to review film of last year’s Bucs and it’s obvious one thing stood out to him about Tampa Bay’s top running back last season. Blount fumbled five times and lost three of them. Those fumbles came at critical times and it’s important to note that not a single one came during Tampa Bay’s 4-2 start. They all came during a 10-game losing streak to finish the season that cost Raheem Morris his job.

In fact, you can trace Tampa Bay’s collapse straight to Blount’s fumbles. The Bucs were on a five-game losing streak, but still playing most opponents closely. Then, they went to Tennessee on Nov. 27 and played well enough to win. They didn’t. They lost 23-17, mainly because Blount lost two fumbles.

After that, the Bucs weren’t even competitive.

Schiano likes to say everyone is getting a fresh start with him. That may be true, but the new coach obviously already has formed an opinion of Blount and he didn’t even talk about how Tampa Bay’s previous staff felt the need to use other running backs in passing situations.

I’m not saying Schiano’s going to go out and draft Alabama’s Trent Richardson with the No. 5 overall pick. But that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Schiano talked about how Ray Rice turned around his program at Rutgers. He also talked about how he likes to have a “bell-cow’’ back.

When asked if Richardson is a “bell-cow’’ back, Schiano said: “He could be. He’s done it in what is arguably the toughest league in college football.’’

The Bucs very well could draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne in the first round and that move would make lots of sense. Blount’s going to be on the roster, but there’s no doubt the Bucs will add a running back or two at some point in the draft or later in free agency.

Blount may get an opportunity to still be the main runner. But it’s apparent he’ll only stay in that role -- or get on the field -- if he shows he’s solved his fumbling problems.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

December, 22, 2010
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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.

Saints could face tough road to repeat

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
7:30
PM ET
Drew BreesAP Photo/Rob CarrDrew Brees and the Saints will likely have chilly road stadiums in their postseason future next month.
BALTIMORE -- In a postgame locker room where there easily could have been talk of frustration, doom or even meetings to plan the return of the Lombardi Trophy, there simply wasn’t.

“If we are a wild-card, then obviously our trip to the Super Bowl is on the road,’’ New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after a 30-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. “If that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll have to do.’’

Nobody summed up the situation the Saints (10-4) face any better than Brees. Nobody even took a different tack than Brees. From head coach Sean Payton on down, the Saints were taking the loss for precisely what it was.

“It’s a disappointing loss, a tough loss,’’ Payton said. “You credit Baltimore. It was a hard-fought game. I thought both teams played hard and, in the end, they made more plays than we did.’’

Ordinarily, the above quote would not have been transcribed off my tape recorder and it certainly wouldn't have been used. It’s the kind of meaningless stuff coaches spew every week. But, in this case, it is entirely accurate.

On a chilly day at M&T Stadium, two good teams played a good game and the Ravens (10-4) came out with a narrow win. There’s no real shame in any of that, but let’s keep the part about chilly days in distant stadiums and playing against very good teams in mind.

Last season’s dream of playoff games in the comfy Superdome are fading fast.

“I think we’re a very good road team,’’ Brees said. “We just ran into a very good opponent.’’

Well, if the Saints really are going to repeat as champions, losing close games on the road isn’t going to be good enough. There is the Dec. 27 road game at Atlanta, the team that has the lead in the NFC South. After that, there’s a regular-season-ending home game with Tampa Bay, but that might be the last time the Saints see the Superdome until next season.

Heck, unless they’re lucky enough to draw the NFC West champion in a playoff game, they probably have faced their last easy opponent until next season. Sunday’s temperature at kickoff was 34 degrees. There was no snow and the sun even came out a few times, but the Saints potentially could face road trips in the playoffs where the setting could be far worse than Baltimore.

They could end up in places like Philadelphia, New York or Chicago in January.

“The fact is, we still had a chance to win at the end,’’ Brees said. “That’s all you can ask for.’’

That’s all true. The Saints were in it all the way until Brees had a pass intercepted with one minute, 47 seconds left.

If nothing else, though, Sunday showed that things aren’t going to get any easier for the Saints. In fact, in a lot of ways, it showed some pretty major flaws that can be exploited.

Let’s start with the run defense, because the Ravens started and finished with their run offense. Baltimore’s Ray Rice carried 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Factor in a few carries by Willis McGahee, highlighted by a 28-yard run, and quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens gained 208 yards on the ground.

“Our game plan was to stop [Rice],’’ New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

Chalk up that game plan -- or at least the execution of that game plan -- as pretty much a total failure.

“We didn’t stop the run at all,’’ veteran safety Darren Sharper said. “It just comes down to tackling the guy with the football. We know we can play with this team or any team. It was just more about the fundamentals, more about not tackling.’’

Well, guess what? The Saints probably are going to face a few more good running backs before all is said and done. There’s Atlanta’s Michael Turner next week (and maybe later in the playoffs) and Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount in two weeks. And if you look at the other running backs the Saints potentially could face in the playoffs, you’ll see some pretty good ones. If the Saints keep going the way they are, you could even end up seeing some running backs play a lot better than they really are.

“Our defense is about creating turnovers,’’ Jenkins said. “When they put the ball on the ground for 150 yards, that makes it tough to get turnovers.’’

If you really want to knock this point home, you might want to factor in what Rice did as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown on a day when Flacco was completing only 10 of his 20 passes for 172 yards.

Were the Saints too focused on stripping the ball from Rice and forgot about tackling him?

“We were doing the same thing we’ve been doing,’’ Payton said. “Obviously, they rushed the ball pretty well, so we’ll look to clean some of that up.’’

It might be a good idea to clean up all of that. It clearly isn’t panic time for the defending champions. But it’s approaching. The Saints must figure out how to stop the run and win games played in distant, cold-weather stadiums.

“Everything is ahead of us,’’ Sharper said. “If we win our next two games, we are in a good position. We need to come back from today. This was a tough loss to a tough team.’’

Maybe that’s all this was -- or maybe it was a sign of what’s starting to look like a tough road for the Saints.

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