NFC South: Calvin Johnson



The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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TAMPA, Fla. -- Early indications are that former Bears coach Lovie Smith is at the top of Tampa Bay's wish list as the Buccaneers search for a new coach.

Smith
But it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual. There’s a report that Smith is expected to interview with the Detroit Lions. There also is a report that the Washington Redskins have an interest in Smith.

The Bucs have several things going for them. Smith formerly was an assistant in Tampa Bay and knows ownership. Tampa Bay has first-class facilities and a good salary-cap situation. Smith, a defensive guru, also could be enticed by Tampa Bay’s defensive talent, which includes defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Darrelle Revis.

But the one major criticism of Smith when he was the head coach in Chicago was that he didn’t have a prolific offense. That’s where Detroit and Washington could have an edge.

Washington already has an explosive young quarterback in Robert Griffin III. Detroit has an established quarterback in Matthew Stafford and one of the NFL’s best receivers in Calvin Johnson.

W2W4: Buccaneers at Panthers

November, 30, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Three things to watch in Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers.

Containing Cam. The last time these two teams met, the Tampa Bay defense continually lost contain on quarterback Cam Newton. That resulted in a big rushing day for the Panthers quarterback, who ran for 50 yards and a touchdown. Tampa Bay’s defensive ends and linebackers have to do a much better job against Newton to have a chance this time around.

The Revis Watch. Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis (groin) will be a game-time decision. If Revis can’t play, the Bucs likely will ask rookie Johnthan Banks to cover Carolina receiver Steve Smith. Banks did a nice job on Detroit’s Calvin Johnson last week. But it’s a lot to ask a rookie corner to shut down elite receivers in back-to-back weeks.

Tampa Bay’s running game. It will be crucial for the Bucs to make an impact with their running game against one of the league’s top front sevens. Running back Bobby Rainey was bottled up against Detroit. The Bucs need to open up the way for Rainey by letting quarterback Mike Glennon take some shots down the field.

Darrelle Revis questionable for Sunday

November, 29, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Cornerback Darrelle Revis said Friday it’s likely his status for Sunday’s contest at Carolina won’t be decided until shortly before the game.

Revis
Revis is listed as questionable with a groin injury that was suffered in last week’s victory against Detroit.

“It’ll probably be a game-time decision,’’ Revis said. “I’ll probably have to get out there a little earlier and try to run and see how I feel when I’m cutting and how I move.’’

Revis practiced for the first time this week Friday, but did so on a limited basis.

“Darrelle was limited as far as tempo and those kind of things,’’ coach Greg Schiano said. “Since he’s been out the previous two days, that’s a step in the right direction. We’ll see come Sunday.’’

Revis said the injury has responded well to treatment and he’s hoping to see continued progress.

“It is what it is, I can’t control my injury,’’ Revis said. “When I feel ready to go that’s when it’s time for me to get out there and play.’’

If Revis is healthy enough to play, he’s likely to be matched up against Carolina’s top receiver, Steve Smith.

“They have a great passing attack,’’ Revis said. “We feel that he’s the key guy. He gets them going. He has a lot of emotion after catches sometimes. We want to take that away from him.’’

If Revis can’t play, the Bucs are likely to put rookie Johnthan Banks on Smith. Banks did a solid job against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson after Revis went out.

Coach's report sold Bucs on Banks

November, 28, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- When rookie Johnthan Banks did an admirable job covering Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson on Sunday, coach Greg Schiano wasn’t surprised.

Banks
In fact, Banks’ performance backed up a scouting report by his college coach.

“That’s the guy we drafted,’’ Schiano said. “When we spoke to [Mississippi State coach] Dan Mullen before the draft, he said, 'This is my guy. He is a football player. He may not be the fastest guy on the clock. This guy will step up. He’s a two-time captain and he’s just a leader.' Sure enough, he is. That’s what we drafted and he’s living up to that. As he gets more experience, I think he’s going to get better and better.’’

Banks slid to the second round of the draft, in part because some teams doubted his speed. But the Bucs were willing to give him one of the toughest matchups a cornerback can have after Darrelle Revis had to leave the game with a groin injury.

Banks’ sudden success is a reminder that a guy’s time in the 40-yard dash might not tell the whole story. The scouting process should involve talking to those who know a player best. In the case of Banks, the Bucs did their homework and it’s paying off.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The health status of Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis is very much up in the air for Sunday’s game with Carolina.

Revis
Revis suffered a groin injury against Detroit. Revis, who did not practice Wednesday, declined to discuss the injury with the media. Coach Greg Schiano wouldn’t divulge details about an MRI that was performed on Revis on Monday.

“He’ll be day to day, so that should tell you it’s not real bad,’’ Schiano said. “Will he play Sunday? I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out.’’

After Revis was injured against Detroit, rookie Johnthan Banks spent most of the rest of the game covering Calvin Johnson and did an adequate job. Schiano said the Bucs considered several options before deciding to put Banks on Johnson.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,’’ Schiano said. “As a matter of fact, we took the field thinking that we might just play right and left and whoever got him got him. Then, we got on the field and it was just a gut feeling, let’s get Johnthan on him. Johnthan, you’ve got to remember was coming off an injury [shoulder]. Johnthan had gotten banged, so it wasn’t like he had a full week of practice, either. Sometimes you get a feeling.’’

But Schiano’s not ready to say if Banks will defend Steve Smith if Revis isn’t ready to play against Carolina. Schiano said Revis’ situation complicates how the Bucs will game plan for the Panthers.

“There are certain matchups we’ll do with him,’’ Schiano said. “Will we do them without him? I don’t know. That’s a decision we’ll have to make.’’

In other injury news, linebacker Mason Foster, who missed the Detroit game with a concussion, returned to practice Wednesday. Linebacker Adam Hayward (leg) did not practice.

Bucs awaiting word on Darrelle Revis

November, 25, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers still don’t know how serious Darrelle Revis' groin injury is.

Revis
Coach Greg Schiano said Monday that Revis was having an MRI and the team was waiting to hear the results. Revis suffered the injury near the end of the first half of Sunday’s 24-21 victory against the Detroit Lions and missed the entire second half.

Rookie Johnthan Banks stepped into Revis’ role covering Calvin Johnson and kept the Detroit receiver in check.

In other injury news, Schiano said that tight end Tom Crabtree suffered a torn biceps and will be placed on injured reserve. That means the Bucs will have to add a tight end because Tim Wright currently is the only healthy tight end on the roster.

Schiano also said he’s hopeful that middle linebacker Mason Foster, who missed Sunday’s game with a concussion, will be cleared to return to practice this week.
DETROIT -- A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 24-21 victory against the Detroit Lions on Sunday:

The Schiano Watch: He might not be totally off the hot seat yet, but there is no question that three straight wins are improving coach Greg Schiano’s chances of sticking around. The Bucs played perhaps their best game of the season as they picked up their first road win. During their 0-8 start, Schiano kept saying that once the Bucs started winning, they wouldn’t stop. So far, he’s been right, and it looks like his players continue to buy into his system.

Glennon
Glennon’s stock rising: When he was coming out in the draft, some gurus said Mike Glennon didn’t have the tools to be an NFL quarterback. He’s proving them wrong. Glennon, who seems to get more efficient each week, had a 138.4 passer rating.

Revis’ injury: Cornerback Darrelle Revis left the game late in the first half with a groin injury. There will be more evaluation on the injury back in Tampa on Monday. The Bucs were able to get by without Revis because rookie Johnthan Banks stepped up and did a nice job against Calvin Johnson. But the Bucs are a much better team with Revis in the lineup.

Rainey mania slows down: Running back Bobby Rainey carried 18 times for just 35 yards. That’s a big drop from last week, when he ran for 163 yards. The Lions devoted much of their defensive attention to Rainey, and that opened up things for Glennon and the passing game.

With help from Revis, Banks steps up

November, 24, 2013
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DETROIT -- Early in the second half of Sunday's 24-21 victory against the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis stood on the sideline with an injured groin.

Banks
You can take Revis out of the game, but you can't stop him from helping his teammates. Revis injured the groin just before the end of the first half and that meant that rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks suddenly had to cover All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson.

According to Revis, Banks came to the sideline after the first series of the second half talking about how Johnson was even bigger and faster than he realized.

"I said, 'Look man, never mind all of that. You all put on the same shoes. It's normal. Just cover him, man,'" Revis said. "He got a little more comfortable and he made a lot of big plays."

You can't argue that point. Johnson finished with seven catches for 115 yards, but he didn't have a touchdown reception and his longest catch went for only 21 yards.

The Bucs also were without free safety Dashon Goldson, who was serving a one-game suspension. Coach Greg Schiano said the Bucs gave the matter a lot of thought before putting Banks on Johnson.

"There was a lot of discussion because that probably was the most individualized game plan that we've put together so far with Revis on Johnson," Schiano said. "When you do that, it affects the rest of the team because they're playing complimentary to that. It's hard to go back. We talked a lot about it and we just felt Johnthan Banks was the guy to do it and I'm proud of him."

Banks, who also had an interception, got the job done on his own. But it probably didn't hurt to get some advice from the sideline.

"I was telling JB everything technique wise, a bunch of things," Revis said. "I'm on a team. Anything I can do to help my teammates be successful."

W2W4: Buccaneers-Lions

November, 23, 2013
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Three things to watch in Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions:

Can Bobby Rainey do it again? The running back ran for 163 yards last week against an Atlanta defense that ranks No. 30 against the run. But Detroit should provide a much stiffer challenge for Rainey. Led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Detroit is ranked No. 5 against the run.

Matchup of the year: I don’t think it can get any better than Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson and Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis. They’re the best in the business at their respective positions. In their only previous matchup (in 2010), Johnson was held to one catch for 13 yards. A television camera should be on Revis and Johnson the whole game.

Air Glennon: Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon finally started connecting on a few deep balls last week. The Bucs want more of that. They might be able to get it against a Detroit defense that ranks No. 30 in the league.
DeAndre Levy and Vincent JacksonUSA Today SportsDeAndre Levy and the Lions will need to keep Vincent Jackson in check on Sunday.
Tampa Bay started its season terribly before finding some answers the past two weeks. Detroit started its season strong but is suddenly vulnerable and has some questions.

Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.

The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.

Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?

Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.

Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?

Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.

Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.

That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.

I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.

Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?

Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?

That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).

One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?

Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.

You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?

Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.

Revis, Johnson ready for matchup

November, 20, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s the kind of matchup that comes along once every few years, but Darrelle Revis and Calvin Johnson aren’t going to start things off early.

Revis, the Tampa Bay cornerback, and Johnson, a wide receiver from Detroit, are saving it up for Sunday when they play each other. On Wednesday, both players did their best to stay clear of anything that might stir up controversy.

Revis
Johnson
“He’s really humble,’’ Revis said of Johnson. “He doesn’t talk trash. Just go out there and compete and let his game speak for itself. I respect that in him.’’

Revis called Johnson the best wide receiver in the league and Johnson returned the praise when he spoke on a conference call with the Tampa Bay media. The two have gone head to head only once. In that 2010 game, Johnson had one catch for 13 yards.

“One thing I do know from that game is he does a good job of playing the ball,’’ Johnson said. “He’s one of those corners that gets his head around and locates the ball real well. That’s something that a lot of corners don’t have. That’s what makes him so good.’’

At times in the past, Revis has admitted he’s been bored because opponents don’t throw the ball in his direction very often. But Revis isn’t planning on being bored Sunday.

“When you’re matching up the best against the best, there’s probably a little bit more of a chip on your shoulder because, at the end of the game, you want to get the best of that person,’’ Revis said. “I’m sure Calvin feels the same way. They’re throwing him the ball. It will be a fun matchup for me and him just to compete against each other and have fun with it. I’ve played him before and it was a great matchup then. He’s tough to cover.’’
The latest installment of #NFLRank is out, and it includes Nos. 41-50 for offense and defense. This segment is filled with NFC South players. Let’s take a look.

Offense

43. Tampa Bay guard Carl Nicks

Stats & Info: Nicks missed nine games last season, his first with the Buccaneers after signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal as a free agent last offseason. Nicks earned more than $24 million last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL behind only Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams, according to the Roster Management System.

Yasinskas comment: There is obvious concern about his health, because he has a staph infection and is coming off a major foot injury. But, when he’s healthy, Nicks might be the best guard in the league.

44. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans

Stats & Info: Evans has played 5,242 offensive snaps since 2008, ranking second in the NFL behind only Justin Blalock. A first-team All-Pro each of the past four seasons, Evans has started every game for the Saints in the Drew Brees era (since 2006).

Yasinskas comment: Evans is the anchor of an offensive line that has been good for a long time. Other players have come and gone, but Evans has been the constant.

45. Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson

Stats & Info: Jackson was Tampa Bay's safety valve on third down last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down targets behind only Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. On third down, Jackson had 20 catches resulting in a first down, ranking behind only Roddy White.

Yasinskas comment: He joined Tampa Bay last season and instantly became quarterback Josh Freeman’s favorite target. He and Freeman should be even more comfortable after a year together.

Defense

41. Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson

Stats & Info: Goldson defended the most passes (10) when lined up as a safety in 2012. Eight of them were thrown less than 20 yards downfield, which also led all safeties.

Yasinskas comment: The Bucs knew they were getting a talented player when they signed Goldson away from San Francisco. They also have discovered Goldson brings even more to the table. He already has emerged as a defensive leader.

NFC South to date:

Offense

43. Nicks

44. Evans

45. Jackson

51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

41. Goldson

51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

Around the NFC South

August, 3, 2013
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Let's take a Saturday morning run through the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Special-teams coach Keith Armstrong said rookie cornerback Robert Alford is a candidate to return punts and kickoffs. Alford has some history doing that and the Falcons could use a boost in their return game.

Daniel Cox writes that tight end Chase Coffman was impressive in Friday night’s scrimmage. Coffman has had a strong training camp and could end up as the top backup behind Tony Gonzalez. The team likes rookie Levine Toilolo, but he might be a bit of a project.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers signed guard Chris Scott and claimed safety Ricado Silva off waivers.

Jonathan Jones writes about how running back DeAngelo Williams has gotten virtually all of the first-team work with Jonathan Stewart recovering from injury. The Panthers are going to run the ball more this year and my sense is Williams will play a very large role. In other words, you might want to draft him for your fantasy team.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Although many already consider him the best guard in the NFL, Jahri Evans isn’t satisfied. He’s dropped some weight in an attempt to make himself quicker.

The Saints will hold a scrimmage Saturday morning.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Scott Reynolds makes a case that Vincent Jackson should be considered one of the league’s elite receivers. I agree. Calvin Johnson may be in a class by himself, but I’d put Jackson somewhere in the next wave of receivers.

NFC South Top 25: No. 3

July, 17, 2013
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We continue my NFC South Top 25 with No. 3:

Julio Jones, wide receiver, Falcons

What he did in 2012: Jones had 79 catches for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

Why he’s No. 3 in 2013: Jones has been very good in his first two seasons, but I’m taking the word of a lot of scouts and coaches that he’s ready to take his game to the next level. There are some personnel gurus that believe Jones has a chance to challenge Detroit’s Calvin Johnson as the NFL’s best wide receiver. That would be a big leap, but I can see it happening. With the addition of Steven Jackson, the Falcons now have a running game. That means defenses will have their hands full with Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Jones has a rare combination of size and speed and defenses won’t be able to double team him all the time.

For previous entries in the NFC South Top 25, click here.

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