NFC South: Sean McDermott

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For months, almost every time a member of the Carolina Panthers' defense has been complimented, the response has been how they won't be satisfied until the unit is ranked No. 1.

They might have to come up with a new answer.

Hello No. 1.

The Panthers (9-3) moved into the top position in average yards allowed -- the measuring stick the NFL uses to rank the No. 1 defense -- after Sunday's 27-6 victory against Tampa Bay.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThomas Davis and the Carolina defense moved into the No. 1 spot in the NFL's team rankings.
It is the first time they have held that distinction since Weeks 4 and 5 in 2002, when that unit finished the season No. 2 overall according to Elias.

OK, so they held that spot for 24 hours three weeks ago after previous No. 1 Kansas City gave up 427 yards in a Sunday night 27-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. But the Panthers gave it up after surrendering 390 yards in a 24-20 Monday night victory against New England.

This time it should stick. The Panthers have given up 3,478 yards, an average of 289.8 per game. Their position won't change unless the Seattle Seahawks, ranked second at 293.3 yards per game, hold a New Orleans team averaging 415 yards to less than 252 on Monday night.

Carolina players were given Monday off after running their league-best winning streak to a franchise-record eight straight, so they weren't around to talk about the ranking.

But you can imagine their answer would be much like that of head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

Basically, it's nice, but let's see where we are after the season.

You can't blame them, particularly with two of the next four games against the Saints (9-2).

"I feel good about it," McDermott said of the ranking. "I'm not going to lie about it. At the same time, you've got Drew Brees and the Saints offense staring you right in the face.

"Another big challenge for us."

The Panthers, 9-3 heading into a battle for the NFC South lead, have handled big challenges well so far this season. They held the San Francisco 49ers to 151 total yards and nine points on the road. They held a New England team averaging 27 points a game to 20 in a prime time game. They have shut out four of their past five opponents in the second half.

But in terms of complete offenses, New Orleans will be the toughest challenge. The Saints entered Monday night's game averaging 27.7 points and -- as noted above -- 415 yards a game.

Still, getting to No. 1 is a nice acknowledgment for how well the Panthers have played defensively. That they rank first in points allowed (13.08) might be more significant. You don't lose many games when teams score fewer than two touchdowns.

"It does mean they're playing very well," Rivera said. "They're doing a lot of good things, and they deserve some credit."

He then reverted to his standard "figures lie and liars figure, cause it's a stat" routine.

"The only one that really does matter is wins and losses," Rivera added. "But I'm happy for the guys, because the players play hard. That's one of their goals, to be the No. 1 defense and be a playoff caliber defense."

The Panthers have been a playoff-caliber defense since a Week 1 12-7 loss to Seattle. Every time someone asks how good this team is, my first response is the defense is built well enough to win a Super Bowl.

But again, the biggest challenges are ahead. That's why Rivera and McDermott temper their enthusiasm about the ranking.

"They have done a great job, deservedly so, to get some credit, to be acknowledged for what they've accomplished so far," Rivera said. "But again, we still have four more left to play."

And the ultimate goal is to play three or four more after that.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 14, 2013
5/14/13
4:43
PM ET
Time for an afternoon run through some news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Daniel Cox puts Jessie Tuggle at No. 1 on his list of the hardest hitters in franchise history. You can’t even argue that one. But I especially like the fact that running back William Andrews made the list. You don’t often see offensive players on lists of hard hitters. But Andrews was a particularly punishing runner.

Pete Prisco’s list of the top 100 players in the NFL contains five Falcons. It also includes five members of the Buccaneers. There are only three Saints and two Panthers on the list.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff will participate in National Bike To Work Day on Friday.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said he wants to improve the interior pass rush to help defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. The addition of rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should help in that area. Lotulelei isn’t a natural pass rusher, but he’s going to command some blocking. Short might have the quickness to generate a bit of a pass rush on his own.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Running back Chuck Muncie has passed away at 60. My memories of Muncie come more from his time with the San Diego Chargers, but he was an important part of Saints’ history. Muncie was the first player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards.

Jeff Duncan takes a look back at Muncie’s star-crossed time in New Orleans.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Charlie Campbell writes that the Washington Redskins had interest in defensive back Ronde Barber, who retired from the Buccaneers last week. The Redskins could have offered Barber a starting position and given him the chance to be reunited with former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, who now is Washington’s defensive backs coach. But the Redskins have virtually no salary-cap room and could not even attempt an offer that would have been lucrative enough to lure Barber.

Roy Cummings writes that, although fifth-round pick Steve Means played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense in college, the Bucs plan to use Means as a defensive end. Means might have to bulk up some from the 250 pounds he’s listed at, but he could fill a role as a situational pass rusher.

Defensive end William Gholston, a fourth-round pick, has been signed to a contract. That leaves the Bucs with only three unsigned rookies.
 Star LotuleleiRuss Isabella/USA TODAY SportsCarolina drafted a defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, in the first round for the first time in team history.

In the first draft of his tenure, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did something predecessor Marty Hurney never did.

Heck, Gettleman did something Bill Polian never did. He did something Dom Capers and George Seifert did in the brief windows when coaches held general-manager powers in Carolina.

Gettleman drafted a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time in franchise history. He drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick.

It’s not a fancy move, but I think this is a great start for Gettleman, who wasn’t bluffing when he said at his pre-draft news conference that he believes the game starts up front and that he likes big defensive and offensive linemen.

In Lotulelei, Gettleman and the Panthers are getting a huge defensive tackle that once was being talked about as the potential No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Lotulelei had a bit of a health scare around the scouting combine, but reportedly later received a clean bill of health.

I don’t know Gettleman well yet, but I know enough about him and his scouting staff that I’m sure the Panthers wouldn’t have taken Lotulelei if they had any doubts about his health.

If they’re right, the Panthers got a steal. If they’re right, Carolina suddenly has a heck of a defense.

Think about it? Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, suddenly has someone to jam up the middle. That’s going to allow Kuechly to roam freely. Same for outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

And picture Lotulelei taking a little blocking attention away from defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each had double-digit sacks last season? Carolina’s secondary still isn’t loaded with talent, but the front seven might be able to compensate more for that now that Lotulelei is on the roster.

Carolina’s defense suddenly is looking like a major strength. It might even be the best in the NFC South.

That’s a pretty major statement for a defense that was horrible two years ago. Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure got off to a rough start because of the defense in 2011 and coordinator Sean McDermott took a beating from fans.

Things started to improve last season, but there still was a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. The sad part is Hurney, who was promoted to general manager in 2002, might still have the job if he had used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle sometime after 2007.

It was after that season that Kris Jenkins, who had a brief stint as the best defensive tackle in the NFL, left the team. Jenkins (a second-round pick in 2001) had to go because there were chemistry issues between him and the coaching staff at the time.

But Hurney never devoted the resources to fully replace Jenkins. He did overspend for veteran Ron Edwards coming out of the 2011 lockout. Edwards promptly got hurt in that training camp and never really got healthy. Edwards never really contributed in Carolina and the Panthers released him in one of Gettleman’s first personnel moves.

Hurney also tried to address the defensive tackle position by taking Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the 2011 draft. But you don’t get stud defensive tackles in the third round. You’re rolling the dice and Hurney didn’t get lucky with McClain and Fua. McClain no longer is with the team and Fua is best suited to be a backup.

There’s only one way to get a dominant defensive tackle (and we’re only going to briefly mention how Capers once gave up the farm to get Sean Gilbert in a trade that went wildly bad back in 1998). If you want success in the middle of the defensive line, you need to draft a defensive tackle in the first round.

The Panthers never had done that before. That means it’s time to review the overall history of this franchise. Since coming into the league in 1995, the Panthers have had only four winning seasons.

Maybe that’s largely because the people who ran the show in the past never saw the importance of plugging the middle of the defense with a big-time talent.

Maybe Gettleman just made a move that can help put this franchise on a path to consistent success.

NFC South afternoon update

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
4:17
PM ET
Time to catch up on some news and notes from all corners of the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

General manager Mark Dominik said the first step in deciding if Ronde Barber will return for another year will be for the veteran defensive back to decide if he wants to continue playing. Dominik said there’s no big rush. I suspect this will be similar to last year when Barber made his decision in March. I’m sure the Bucs would like to have Barber back. But, if he chooses to retire, the best-case scenario for the team is to get word before the start of free agency, so other options can be explored.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offensive tackle Zach Strief was voted as the winner of the Jim Finks Good Guy Award by the writers that cover the team on a daily basis. Good call. I’ve been in the New Orleans locker room and can attest that, even after a loss, Strief is cooperative and insightful.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Joseph Person reports that running backs coach John Settle was fired. I think this might be just the first of several staff moves by coach Ron Rivera, although I think coordinators Rob Chudzinski and Sean McDermott are safe.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Some Atlanta fans might have trouble recalling a playoff victory by the Falcons. But Michael Cunningham catches up with Steve Bartkowski, who very clearly remembers the first postseason victory in franchise history. It came on Dec. 24, 1978 and Bartkowski was the quarterback in a win against Philadelphia at Fulton County Stadium.

Around the NFC South

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:10
AM ET
Time for a Wednesday morning run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Mark Bradley makes a good historical point after the Falcons released defensive end Ray Edwards following their first loss of the season. Bradley reminds us that former coach Dan Reeves sent a message to his team when he cut Juran Bolden after the first loss in the 1998 season. The Falcons went on to reach the Super Bowl for the only time in franchise history that season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

After allowing seven sacks Sunday, the Panthers are shaking up their offensive line. They’re bringing back Jeremy Bridges, who was with the team from 2006 through ’08. It’s likely the Panthers will make Bridges an immediate starter at right guard, ahead of Jeff Byers.

Coordinator Sean McDermott said the defense did its job in Sunday’s 36-14 loss to Denver. It’s true, the Panthers gave up touchdowns on a punt return, an interception and allowed a safety, so the defense allowed only 20 points. But pointing that out makes McDermott sound like a guy who is interested only in saving his job.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The verbal sparring between the Saints and Falcons still is going on. New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma said the Falcons need to “act like they’ve been there before." This all comes after the Saints claimed the Falcons interrupted and taunted them during warm-ups before Sunday’s game, which was won by the Saints. By the way, the rematch comes Nov. 29 in the Georgia Dome.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Former Tampa Bay tight end Jerramy Stevens reportedly was arrested after getting into an altercation with his fiancÚ just before their wedding.

Although there still is plenty of debate over what nickname rookie running back Doug Martin should have, it looks like rookie linebacker Lavonte David is stuck with “Flash." That’s fitting because David’s speed has allowed him to consistently flash into plays.

NFC South evening update

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
6:11
PM ET
I just got settled back into NFC South Blog headquarters, so let’s take a run through the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Veteran center Todd McClure said the woes in the running game aren’t all due to the five offensive linemen. He’s got a point and I don’t think McClure is pointing fingers at the tight ends. Tailback Michael Turner clearly doesn’t have the quickness he had a year or two ago. Although I really like what new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has done for the passing game, I don’t think he has come anywhere close to figuring out what he wants out of the running game. I don’t know what the answer there is, but Koetter better make a decision on that before the season gets too far along.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

In response to some recent reports that the Panthers could be a candidate to move to Los Angeles, owner Jerry Richardson issued a statement saying that’s not going to happen and points to his deep roots in the Carolinas. Like I’ve said many times before I have a tough time letting this team leave a region he loves. But, more and more, I can’t help but wonder if Richardson, who is 76, has had health issues and fired his two sons from executive roles a few years back, wants to stay in this and own a team for the long haul.

The Panthers fired special-teams coordinator Brian Murphy on Monday. There’s no doubt the Panthers have had issues on special teams since Murphy arrived last year. But this move seems like another in a series of insulation removal. The Panthers previously fired general manager Marty Hurney. With Murphy taking the fall, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are the only layers remaining for head coach Ron Rivera. Then again, the layers don’t mean much in this case. Unless the Panthers turn things around dramatically in a hurry, Rivera and his entire staff won’t be around after this season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The war of words between the Falcons and Saints only continues to get better. New Orleans veteran linebacker Scott Shanle said the Falcons are “like our little brothers’’. He has a point. New Orleans has won 11 of the last 13 meetings between the two teams. But Shanle’s words might have carried a little more weight if he had been active for Sunday’s game.

Interim head coach Joe Vitt was very vague about the injury cornerback Corey White sustained in Sunday’s game. The team said Sunday White suffered an injury to his left leg, but Vitt wouldn’t elaborate on if the damage is to White’s thigh or knee Monday. We probably won’t get a real read on how serious the injury is until the Saints resume practicing Wednesday. But losing White would be a blow to a New Orleans defense that has struggled all season. A fifth-round pick, White has been one of the few pleasant surprises on the defense.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said early indications are that linebacker Quincy Black did not suffer serious damage to his spine after a helmet-to-helmet hit in Sunday’s victory against San Diego. But Schiano did say Black could miss substantial time due to the injury. Adam Hayward filled in for Black after the injury. But Schiano said rookie Najee Goode and Jacob Cutrera also could be possibilities at strong-side linebacker.

Cornerback Eric Wright tweaked an injury to his Achilles tendon that had caused him some problems in the past. It’s unclear at this point if the injury will cost Wright any playing time. There also have been previous reports that Wright soon could face a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Either way, the Bucs already are thin on depth at cornerback, although LeQuan Lewis and Leonard Johnson did come up with interceptions Sunday.

Around the NFC South

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
9:56
AM ET
Time for a look at the top Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder writes that if the Bucs do trade running back LeGarrette Blount by Thursday afternoon’s deadline, don’t expect them to get much in compensation. He’s right. Blount’s a guy that originally was passed over by all 32 teams in the draft and he comes with some baggage. If the Bucs do move Blount, I wouldn’t expect them to get more than a late-round draft pick in return.

Coach Greg Schiano praised cornerback Leonard Johnson, who got increased playing time in Minnesota. Johnson could continue to get lots of playing time because there is a FOX Sports report that cornerback Eric Wright soon could face a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Wright also is dealing with an injury to his Achilles tendon.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

A brief filed by linebacker Jonathan Vilma in an attempt to get former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to recuse himself from appeals hearings contains an e-mail in which former New Orleans assistant Mike Cerullo said he was in meetings where the Saints came up with plans to cover up the alleged bounty program. Cerullo said assistant head coach Joe Vitt was in those meetings.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coordinator Sean McDermott praised his defense for limiting the Bears to 210 yards of total offense and said that should have been good enough to win the game. He’s got a point and Carolina’s offense certainly could have done more. But I think it still is fair to question Carolina’s decision to go with soft coverage at the end as the Bears drove the field to set up the game-winning field goal.

The Panthers cut ties with Brandon Hogan, waiving the second-year cornerback off injured reserve Monday. The Panthers took a gamble on Hogan when they took him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, even though he tore up his knee in the final game of his college career. The gamble didn’t pay off. Hogan appeared in only three games for Carolina.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Atlanta run defense had problems early in the season, but held the Eagles to 92 rushing yards on Sunday. D. Orlando Ledbetter points out that part of the reason the Falcons were successful was because they used a lineup with three defensive tackles in obvious run situations. I’d look for the Falcons to continue doing that as the season goes on.
What happened with the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning is a reminder that the NFL is a cold, hard business and the win-loss record is all that really matters.

The Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. It was inevitable. Carolina came into the season with very high expectations but is off to a 1-5 start. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

Fans are getting restless, and so is team owner Jerry Richardson, a man who spent a ton of money coming out of this past summer’s lockout.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney had been the Panthers' GM since 2002.
Someone had to take the fall, and Hurney was the choice. You can question whether Hurney was the right guy to sacrifice, and some already are doing that.

“Marty wasn't the reason we are losing!" Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said on his Twitter account. “That's bs! Unbelievable! Marty might be the realist GM that I know #InMyMind BS BS BS BS!"

You can wonder if maybe head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have been ousted. At least to me, it looks as though the Panthers have a talented roster that is not being coached very well.

And you can certainly question the timing of Hurney’s firing. Does it really make sense to fire the guy who runs the personnel department after Week 7?

No, it doesn’t. The Panthers will bring in someone from outside or elevate director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, but either way, they’re not going to right the ship in the middle of the season. Any personnel moves that can help this team will have to come in the offseason.

But this wasn’t just a football move. It went much deeper than that.

To understand what I mean by that, you have to know a bit about Hurney and Richardson. They were -- and even now probably will remain -- exceptionally close. After saying he’d never have a general manager again after Bill Polian’s ugly departure, Richardson hired Hurney to manage the salary cap in 1998.

The two hit it off, and Hurney quickly gained Richardson’s trust. When former coach George Seifert ran the franchise into the ground in 2001, Richardson reversed course and promoted Hurney to general manager. He also essentially let Hurney hire John Fox as coach.

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl in Hurney and Fox's second season together, 2003. Two seasons later, they were back in the NFC Championship Game.

But soon after that, Richardson started to see cracks. He wanted to see back-to-back winning seasons, and he was starting to worry about growing egos.

Richardson’s worries eventually turned into realities. Fox never produced consecutive winning seasons, and the level of trust between the coach and Richardson seemed to erode to a point where things became downright hostile in Fox’s final season, 2010.

But the Richardson-Hurney relationship survived all that, and Richardson let Hurney hire Rivera to replace Fox. Part of the reason is Hurney is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet in football or anywhere else. He’s the kind of guy who picked up the phone to offer condolences to a reporter whose father had died the moment he heard about it.

Hurney is the kind of guy who would call a reporter on draft night just to exchange thoughts on what happened around the league. He’s the kind of guy who would never lie to you and always try to steer a reporter in the right direction, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his best interest.

On the job, Hurney made some brilliant moves through the years -- signing Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis as free agents, drafting the likes of Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. His drafting of quarterback Cam Newton looked brilliant last year, but not so much this season.

He also made some very questionable moves -- signing Delhomme to a big contract extension after the quarterback had flamed out, drafting Armanti Edwards, Jimmy Clausen, Dwayne Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Eric Norwood, Everette Brown, Jeff Otah and some other busts. He also committed $80 million of Richardson’s money to running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

But for some reason, the coaching staff isn’t making much use out of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Is that Hurney’s fault?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Richardson totally believes that, either.

Still, it really doesn’t matter. Richardson needed a scapegoat, and it had to be hard for him to decide on Hurney. But keep in mind, Richardson once fired his two sons (Mark as team president and Jon as stadium president). His logic on that move was that their dysfunctional relationship was taking a toll on the other 300 people who worked in the building and on fans.

The logic on Hurney was similar. Things weren’t going well, and fans were giving up on the Panthers.

When I spoke to Hurney last week, he seemed resigned to the idea that his time was running out, but it seemed he thought the move would come more toward the end of the season.

That might have been more logical. But Richardson had to send a message now to his fans that he still cares about winning and that the current product is unsatisfactory. It would be difficult to fire the entire coaching staff or fire Rivera and elevate one of his assistants in the middle of the season.

Someone had to go now, and that was Hurney. But I think it should be clear to Rivera, every assistant coach in the building and every player that if Richardson is willing to get rid of Hurney, no one is sacred.

There’s going to be a lot more housecleaning in Carolina after the season. This was just the first step.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 36, Panthers 7

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
11:26
PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 36-7 loss to the New York Giants on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The Panthers aren’t the team on the rise that many, including myself, thought they were. They’re 1-2. There’s still hope and plenty of time to get things on track. But, right now, the Panthers aren’t looking like anything close to a playoff team.

The new and improved defense? Carolina’s defense was terrible last season, but it was easy to write that off to injuries. This year was supposed to be different with linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards returning from injuries, and the addition of linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman in the draft. None of that seemed to matter against the Giants. The Panthers couldn’t stop the run or the pass. The Giants scored on their first four possessions, and the Panthers never were in the game.

What I liked: I can’t really think of anything, other than Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who had a pretty good night.

What I didn’t like: Most of this loss can be pinned on Carolina’s defense. I doubt Carolina could have won this game even if its offense was perfect. But the Carolina offense was far from perfect in the first half. The Panthers had a few nice plays but couldn’t sustain any sort of drive. Wide receiver Steve Smith was barely a factor. The Carolina defense was better in the second half, but it was too late to really matter.

Who's on the hot seat? Perhaps Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The injuries were a built-in excuse for the Carolina defense last year. But there's no excuse now. It's not good when your defense is so bad that it keeps Cam Newton and a talented offense from ever getting into a rhythm.

Who else is on the hot seat? Probably rookie return man Joe Adams. He failed to handle a punt in the fourth quarter, and that gave the Giants the ball. He didn't look good all night. Adams has plenty of upside, but it might be time to sit him and let someone else (Armanti Edwards or Kealoha Pilares?) handle returns. It doesn't have to be a permanent thing. But Adams looks like a kid who needs a little more time to get comfortable.

What’s next: The Panthers play the Falcons on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.

Rapid Reaction: Panthers 35, Saints 27

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
4:11
PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 35-27 victory against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The Panthers are 1-1 and showed signs that their poor performance against Tampa Bay in the opener was a fluke. This time, the Panthers got back to the creative and explosive style of offense they played last season. Their defense was far better than it was last season, when injuries devastated the unit. The Saints are 0-2 and in deep trouble. Their season is far from over, but they’ve dug themselves a deep hole and there isn’t a lot of reason for optimism because the offense and the defense have had very few bright spots.

Rebound of the week: This goes to Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. He drew harsh criticism for the debacle in Tampa Bay. Every bit of the criticism was deserved because Chudzinski showed no imagination and failed to get much out of a talented unit. But that all changed against the Saints. Chudzinski got back to making the running game a big part of the offense. That led to openings for the downfield passing game. The reverse to Brandon LaFell in the first half was one of the best play calls I’ve seen so far in this young season.

Rebound of the week, Part II: Carolina receiver Steve Smith got carted off the field with about eight minutes left in the third quarter with an apparent leg injury. Smith came out of the locker room and back onto the field a few minutes later and made a long catch that helped set up a Carolina touchdown.

Fall of the week: Take your pick of either New Orleans interim head coach Aaron Kromer or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. They both are going to take plenty of heat from Saints fans. I tend to put more blame on Spagnuolo’s defense than anything else. It’s just not working very well so far this season. Makes you wonder if the Saints should have made more offseason personnel moves on their defensive line to better fit Spagnuolo’s scheme. I’ve heard plenty of offenses described as bland through the years. But I think you could call what we’ve seen of Spagnuolo’s defense so far very bland. I also think it would be fair to describe the New Orleans defense as not being very good, and that might be an understatement.

Whatever happened to Marques Colston? He’s been New Orleans’ top receiver since his arrival in 2006. But Colston was barely a factor for much of the day. Give Carolina’s secondary, which includes rookie cornerback Josh Norman, a lot of credit for keeping Colston quiet.

Up to the challenge: Speaking of keeping Colston quiet, you have to give kudos to Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. His unit didn't completely silence Drew Brees, but no defense does that. What Carolina's defense did was put solid pressure on Brees. The Panthers forced some mistakes and made Brees look relatively ordinary. McDermott took lots of heat last year when Carolina's defense was banged up and playing badly. Give the man credit this time for containing one of the league's best offenses -- or at least what used to be one of the league's best offenses.

What’s next: The Panthers have to deal with a very short turnaround, hosting the New York Giants on Thursday night. The Saints return home to play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Final Word: NFC South

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | SouthAFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

My favorite matchup: Carolina receiver Steve Smith and Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib have each talked about how they’ve matured this offseason. There might be some truth to that. But these are two of the most competitive people on the planet. Both like to talk on the field. They could end up lining up against each other often, and that’s where things could get entertaining. We might find out how much volatility Talib and Smith have left.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireFor the majority of his career, Steve Smith has been Carolina's lone receiving threat.
The streak will end: I’m not big on predictions, but I’ll make one here. New Orleans safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper went through all of last season without an interception. They’ve got rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III coming into what should be a hostile Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be looking to force some rookie mistakes. Either Jenkins or Harper (maybe both) will come up with a pick.

Milestone time: Barring a tie against Kansas City, the Falcons will make history Sunday. Atlanta enters the game with the Chiefs with an all-time 299-399-6 record. If the Falcons win, they’ll be the 24th team to reach 300 wins. If they lose, they’ll be the 15th team with 400 losses.

Play it again: I’ve got a hunch this might be the last time we use this stat, or at least one of the final times. That’s because I think this is the year Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan finally shows he can throw the deep ball. However, until he shows that, it’s worth a reminder that long passes haven’t been Ryan’s strength in the past. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan has the second-worst completion percentage on throws of more than 20 air yards (minimum 75 attempts) since the start of the 2009 season. Ryan has completed just 27.4 percent of those throws. Only Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick (26.2) has been worse. On the positive side, Ryan might have time to throw the deep ball because Kansas City’s best pass-rusher, Tamba Hali, is suspended for the game.

Chasing Freeman: Carolina coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott like to get after the quarterback in any game. But they might have a stronger desire than usual to do that against Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. We all know how Freeman dropped off from a strong season in 2010 to a poor one last year. The drop-off was particularly noticeable in how Freeman performed against the blitz. In 2010, he completed 61 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 53.9 Total QBR when facing at least five pass-rushers. In similar situations last year, Freeman’s completion percentage dropped to 54.8 with four touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 34.9 Total QBR.

Around the NFC South

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
10:15
AM ET
Time for a quick look at the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

There’s some significant news out of Atlanta. Tim Tucker reports that the Georgia World Congress Center is optimistic a deal can be worked out on a new stadium for the Falcons by the end of the year. The plan is for a retractable-roof stadium to open in 2017 downtown. An exact location and some other significant details still need to be worked out.

Predictions are popping up all over. Here’s another one that has the Falcons winning the NFC South and going to the NFC Championship Game.

There’s an interesting subplot to Friday night’s game between the Falcons and Dolphins. Atlanta defensive tackle Peria Jerry will be facing his brother, John, an offensive guard for the Dolphins. They last time they faced each other was in the 2010 preseason. Coincidentally, that’s the last time the Falcons won a preseason game. They have lost seven straight exhibitions, the longest active streak in the NFL.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With all the injuries the Panthers had last season, I don’t think we truly got to see what coordinator Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme is all about. The Panthers have their injured players back and have added some new pieces. McDermott provides a big clue about what he wants to do when he says, “We’ll throw fastballs at the quarterback’’. That’s another way of saying he expects a lot from the pass rush.

Here’s a look at players that might be on the roster bubble in Carolina. At first, I was a little surprised to see Thomas Davis’ name on the list. But, when I really thought about it, it is possible that the linebacker might not even be on the roster on opening day. He’s trying to come back from his third torn ACL, and comeback stories don’t always end well.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Aaron Kromer said he’ll lean heavily on the assistants as he fills in as head coach for the first six games of the season. That’s a wise plan. Even with coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt serving suspensions, the Saints have a strong staff. It’s highlighted by offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who joined the Saints when Payton took over, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who previously was the head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Recently acquired linebacker Barrett Ruud has had very little practice time. But the Saints might give him some playing time in the second half of Saturday’s preseason game with Houston. The important thing here is just to get Ruud on the field and see what he has left physically. The Saints need to find out if Ruud can help them. If not, they’ll need to pick up some more linebackers to help them get through a bunch of injuries at the position.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs have been happy with what they’ve seen out of rookie linebacker Lavonte David so far. But, as Stephen Holder points out, Davis faces his biggest test yet in Friday night’s game with the Patriots. David could find himself trying to cover New England’s dynamic tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Roy Cummings has a list of five things to watch as the Bucs play the Patriots. He starts with Tampa Bay’s offensive line, which is only fitting because that group didn’t play very well in last week’s loss to Tennessee.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.
Ron Edwards, Jon Beason, Luke KuechlyIcon SMI, US Presswire, AP PhotoWith Ron Edwards, Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly could Carolina have the best defense in the division?
There are trees and there are limbs. As I write this, I’m standing on the smallest twig I can find.

You are about to read something you probably aren’t going to read anywhere else this offseason: The Carolina Panthers will have the best defense in the NFC South in 2012.

That’s right, I’m saying that a defense that ranked No. 28 in the league in yards per game (377.6) and allowed 406 points last season will be the best in the division.

My logic is two-pronged. I’m not completely sold on any other defense in the division. The Atlanta Falcons have a shot to be very good with Mike Nolan taking over as coordinator, but the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still have personnel work to do on defense.

More importantly, I’m going with Carolina because I believe the Panthers have the personnel and coaching to make things work. Sean McDermott may have taken his lumps in Philadelphia, and he’s not the most popular guy in Charlotte these days. But McDermott suddenly is the dean of NFC South defensive coordinators (Nolan, New Orleans’ Steve Spagnoulo and Tampa Bay’s Bill Sheridan each are in their first season with new teams).

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireRon Rivera's defense is much healthier than it was last season.
That means Carolina is the only NFC South team that’s not implementing a new defense. The Panthers simply are plugging new (and old) players into a system that has been in place for a year. At this time a year ago, the common assumption was that Carolina’s defense would be decent because new coach Ron Rivera came from a defensive background and he had some talent on the team. But, suddenly, that talent started disappearing.

Defensive tackle Ron Edwards went down with an injury early in training camp. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis went down with injuries early in the regular season and the defense fell into chaos.

But, as the Panthers get ready for training camp, Edwards and Beason are healthy. So is Davis, although the Panthers are keeping their fingers crossed because he’s coming back from his third torn ACL. The Panthers protected themselves against another injury to Davis by investing a first-round pick in Boston College’s Luke Kuechly.

Factor Beason, Edwards and Kuechly into the equation and it’s not hard to see why Rivera feels a lot better about his defense than he has at any point since last September.

“I love Dan Connor (who filled in for Beason at middle linebacker last season and left for Dallas as a free agent), but Dan Connor’s not a communicator,’’ Rivera recently told The Charlotte Observer. “He’s a hard-nosed, grindstone-type guy. And that was tough on our safeties. But now you’ve got Jon Beason, who communicates like you can’t believe. You’ve got Luke Kuechly, who shows he knows how to communicate. So right through the middle of our defense we’ve gotten better.’’

Rivera believes you build a defense the same way you build a baseball team -- straight up the middle. The Panthers haven’t officially said if Beason or Kuechly will play the middle. Whichever one doesn’t will play the outside opposite either Davis or James Anderson, who was one of Carolina’s few defensive bright spots last season. That’s a good thing because Rivera also believes that once you’re set in the middle, the rest of the defense will take care of itself.

That’s why I see bright things for Carolina’s defense. There’s some talent on the outer fringes that can really blossom with a solid middle. There is defensive end Charles Johnson, who had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons while getting very little help. There’s hope that this will be the season defensive end Greg Hardy finally plays to his potential. As Rivera said, safeties Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey should be better just because they’ll have Beason and Kuechly telling them where to go. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble remains solid, and that really leaves only one hole.

Starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is undersized and was picked on at times last season. In an ideal world, the Panthers would like rookie Josh Norman or second-year pro Brandon Hogan to claim the starting job and let Munnerlyn work exclusively as the nickel back. In a less-than-perfect world, Munnerlyn could still start but move inside to match up with slot receivers on passing downs and let one of the bigger corners play the outside.

“I want to see somebody take the bull by the horns and become the No. 2,’’ Rivera said. “If it’s Captain, awesome. If it’s somebody else, awesome. If it’s one of the younger guys, awesome. Somebody needs to step up and become that guy.’’

Somebody also needs to step up to be “that’’ defense in the NFC South.

I think Carolina has the wherewithal to be that defense. It doesn’t hurt that the Panthers have Cam Newton and an offense that can score points and stay on the field for extended periods. If the defense turns out to be the best in the NFC South, the Panthers suddenly could be a playoff contender.

Pressure point: Panthers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
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NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Panthers and why.

There probably isn’t a defensive coordinator in the league who has faced more criticism than Sean McDermott the past two seasons. He was fired by Philadelphia after the 2010 season, and his defense was dismal in his first season in Carolina.

McDermott got a bit of a pass because Carolina had a bunch of injuries on defense, it was the first year for a new coaching staff and rookie quarterback Cam Newton and a suddenly explosive offense gave fans a nice distraction. But, no matter how many points Newton and the offense scored, the Carolina defense had enormous trouble protecting leads in a 6-10 season. The excuses won’t fly this time around.

Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are returning from injuries and the Panthers added linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of this year’s draft. McDermott has the personnel necessary to put together a respectable defense. The injured players and Kuechly join a nucleus that includes defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble, and the pressure is squarely on McDermott to put a good defense on the field.

If he can do that, Carolina could be a legitimate playoff contender. If not, McDermott could be on the hot seat.

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