NFL Nation: NFC South

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints announced their respective lists of inactives for Monday’s contest at Soldier Field.

The Bears go into the matchup without kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) and free safety Chris Conte (back), along with cornerback Terrance Mitchell, offensive lineman Michael Ola, defensive end Trevor Scott, defensive tackle Brandon Dunn and quarterback David Fales.

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and left tackle Terron Armstead are both active after being listed as questionable, and both are big assets for New Orleans. Galette, who suffered a knee injury last week, is the Saints’ best pass-rusher.

The biggest surprise among the Saints’ inactives is cornerback Corey White, who has been a starter for most of the season. The Saints are expected to shuffle up their secondary, with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro likely shifting back into the nickel role where he thrived last year. Cornerback Terrence Frederick and safety Jamarca Sanford could see elevated roles.

Chicago defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff returns to the starting lineup for the first time since the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s been active the last two games due to a knee injury.

Conte, meanwhile, will miss his first outing since Chicago’s loss on Oct. 19 to the Miami Dolphins.

Conte suffered his back injury during the third quarter Dec. 4 in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Prior to that, Conte left the club’s loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving because of an eye injury. Conte has been diagnosed with two concussions this season, in addition to missing time with sprains of both shoulders.

Rookie Brock Vereen will start at free safety in Conte’s place.

The Saints activated veteran Robert Meachem as their fourth receiver after releasing Joe Morgan earlier this week. Recently-promoted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones is inactive.

Also inactive for the Saints: cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Ronald Powell and Moise Fokou, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil and offensive tackle Nick Becton.

Saints vs. Bears preview

December, 12, 2014
When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday. Where: Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: ESPN.

Call it the Disappointment Cup, Underachievers Bowl, The Battle of We’re-Not-What-We-Thought-We-Were teams. But any way you bill it, Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints (5-8) and Chicago Bears (5-8) at Soldier Field makes for an intriguing matchup, even if Bears receiver Brandon Marshall believes ESPN should take the teams off "Monday Night Football."

Despite New Orleans’ dismal record, there’s still plenty of incentive to win, considering the Saints remain alive in the playoff hunt. The same can’t be said of Chicago, but how this club finishes should go a long way toward determining the extent of upcoming changes this offseason, whether in personnel, the front office or the coaching staff.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:

Wright: Team leaders have called the Saints' effort in the loss to the Carolina Panthers unprofessional, which frankly is odd considering the Saints are still playing for a postseason berth. How is the team handling the situation moving forward because it has the easiest remaining schedule in the league based on average DVOA of opponent?

Triplett: First of all, the Saints’ remaining schedule is pretty meaningless considering the opponent hasn’t mattered much this year. When the Saints have shown up, they’ve beaten the Green Bay Packers by 21 points at home and played great in a win at Pittsburgh, among others. When they haven’t, they’ve been blown out at home by Carolina and Cincinnati, among others. And that’s the point the leaders were getting at when they talked about professionalism. As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief put it, you can’t just show up and expect to win. They have to treat every game with the same season-on-the-line intensity that they showed in those good games.

Clearly they still have a high ceiling, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The loss to Carolina this past week was extremely disturbing, and it led to a major roster shake-up. There’s clearly no excuse for a lack of urgency at this point.

I obviously haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve seen from the Bears in their recent national TV appearances. And I know how much they’ll miss Marshall. But I still see a lot of talented playmakers on that offense and think they could cause big problems for a Saints defense that is struggling in all areas. Am I wrong?

Wright: No, you’re correct. But it all comes down to execution, and we haven’t seen any evidence the Bears can do that on a consistent basis, which has been the group’s main problem all year. Even without Marshall in the lineup, there are still plenty of weapons in running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. My expectation is the Bears will lean on Forte early and try to use him to set up play-action so the Bears can go deep to Jeffery or hit Bennett down the seam or on intermediate crossing routes. Forte is the key here, and one of the main issues we’ve seen with this offense is the Bears never truly commit to establish the rushing attack, which eventually forces them to be one-dimensional, thus much easier to defend.

New Orleans and Chicago play similar offenses, which should make for an intriguing matchup. What has gone wrong with the Saints, offensively?

Triplett: The Saints’ offense has been good at times, especially since they now have a consistent run game to balance their prolific passing offense. The two problems that have crept up most are turnovers and the disappearance of the downfield passing game.

Drew Brees has been sharp at times. He’s on pace for another 4,900 passing yards and he’s leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.3. But he has turned the ball over way too many times in big spots (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles). A big part of the problem is that he’s pressing too much to do it all by himself with the Saints’ defense struggling so badly. Their other star, tight end Jimmy Graham, has also been too up-and-down.

And defenses have done a great job of taking away deep passes and forcing the Saints to patiently work their way down the field. The Saints are decent at that; they lead the NFL in third-down efficiency. But that also increases the opportunity for mistakes.

When I look back on past Saints-Bears matchups, I think of the Cover 2 defense that forced the Saints to patiently work their way down the field (something they finally did successfully last year). Is that still the case -- on their good days, at least?

Wright: Mike, I don’t think so. They’ve moved away from playing Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 style of defense and become more of a traditional under 4-3 that plays a variety of coverages on the back end based on that week’s game plan. Against a quarterback such as Brees, the Bears would probably play more Cover 2 early on to force him to slowly move the ball down the field. But if the Bears can’t generate consistent pressure with the front four, they’ll try to manufacture pressure via the blitz. Chicago fares well against average quarterbacks protected by average to below average offensive lines. But when this team comes up against the top quarterbacks and good offensive lines, they struggle tremendously, and the main reason for that is the inability to consistently generate pressure with just the front four. When Chicago can’t do that, it dials up the blitz. But if the rushers can’t get home -- which is often the case -- it puts this team’s horrid secondary in coverage situations it can’t handle.

How “real” is this rift between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, and how do you think the situation will affect how the Saints perform the rest of the way?

Triplett: Both guys went to great lengths to downplay it and insist they have a ton of respect for each other. And I haven’t heard otherwise from sources I’ve talked to. So I think that story was overblown at least a little bit. And the sideline shouting matches are typical of Payton, as he has explained, so I also don’t read much into that.

But there’s no question that Ryan must be sitting on an extremely hot seat with a defense that is by far the worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s efficiency rating. This defense was supposed to be a great strength after they finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’ve totally imploded with everything from a lack of a pass rush, a lack of turnovers, a woeful run defense, missed tackles and assignment breakdowns in the secondary. That doesn’t all fall on Ryan, but the results are unacceptable.

That offensive line has become New Orleans North. Was sorry to see Brian de la Puente wind up on injured reserve. How are Jermon Bushrod and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer faring?

Wright: I guess the answer to that question depends on perspective with regard to Bushrod. New Orleans didn’t mind letting Bushrod walk for a reason, in my opinion. The Bears overpaid Bushrod to anchor that offensive line, but the truth is he has struggled, especially during the second half of the season. Going into the team’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Bushrod produced four consecutive games with negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, and that registers among the worst in the league. As for Kromer, it’s difficult to determine how he’s faring because nobody really knows how much input he has in what’s going on offensively. Even though Kromer holds the title of offensive coordinator, head coach Marc Trestman actually calls all the plays. The truth is it would be nice if Trestman relinquished those duties over the team’s final three games to see what Kromer can do. Just based on interviews with Kromer, it seems his philosophies differ a little from Trestman’s. I definitely sense Kromer is more committed to establishing the run than Trestman is.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Atlanta Falcons broke from tradition in naming permanent captains for the remainder of the season, with wide receiver Roddy White being one of the six given the honor.

For White, it was the first time he's been named a team captain in 10 seasons with the Falcons.

 ``I means a lot,'' White said. ``But I feel like I've been a captain; just wasn't voted one until this year. But I like the `C' on my jersey. It's a level of respect that your teammates have for you.''

Coach Mike Smith typically named captains at season's end, but he switched it up this time around. Matt Ryan joined White in representing the offense, Paul Worrilow and Jonathan Babineaux were named the defensive captains, while Eric Weems and Antone Smith were tabbed for special teams.

Smith explained the reason behind the new format.

``Well, it was a decision that we discussed over the bye week as a coaching staff, and we wanted to give some guys the opportunity to lead us in the second half of the season,'' Smith said. ``Usually we vote at the end of the year, but we felt that it was appropriate, with the type of season that we were going through through the first half, that we wanted to make some changes. And we did.

``Thought that there's a lot of guys [who] were deserving of being a captain, but the six guys [who] were chosen, they've been outstanding leaders for us.''

Ryan talked about receiving the designation.

``It’s a big honor and a big responsibility,'' Ryan said. ``I feel like I owe it to the guys to always give my best, day in and day out. I’m going to try and lead the best way I can, the same way I have up until this point.''

Worrilow, at age 24, is the youngest of the captains; Babineaux, at 33, the oldest by a month ahead of White.

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

November, 11, 2014
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

Receiver Roddy White made his point clear after the Falcons beat the Buccaneers when he said, "We've got to execute better and get down in the red zone and score [touchdowns], not field goals." It's a theme the Falcons need to carry with them into Sunday's game at Carolina.

That sounds like nitpicking for a team that ranks third in the NFL in red zone percentage (71.4). But the margin for error is so slim this season for the 3-6 Falcons as they attempt to make a second-half push and compete for the NFC South title.

Looking back against the Buccaneers, the Falcons should have been at least 3-of-4 in the red zone, if not 4-of-4. Remember, an uncovered Devin Hester dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone. At the same time, the Falcons shouldn't have put themselves in a third-and-19 situation after having a first down on the Bucs' 10-yard line. A false start on Ryan Schraeder and a sack of Matt Ryan pushed the Falcons back 12 yards during that red zone opportunity.

The other failed red zone trip was a little more understandable, considering rookie running back Devonta Freeman picked up 9 yards on third-and-10 that left the Falcons with a fourth-and-1 at the Buccaneers' 15. Coach Mike Smith wisely went with the fourth-quarter field goal to give his team the 10-point cushion that made for the final margin.

Now as the Falcons look ahead to Sunday, they'll be up against the Panthers defense ranked second to last in the league in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert almost 70 percent of those opportunities. Philadelphia was 4-of-4 in the red zone against Carolina on Monday night.
Some might consider James Stone a bit of a freak because of one unusual habit, but the Atlanta Falcons center views it as second nature now.

The undrafted rookie free agent from Tennessee, who became the starter following season-ending ACL tears for Joe Hawley and Peter Konz, uses his left hand to shotgun snap and his right hand to snap when the quarterback is under center.

[+] EnlargeJames Stone
Greg McWilliams/Icon SportswireFalcons rookie center James Stone, shown during his playing days at Tennessee, snaps with his natural left hand in the shotgun ...
"All quarterbacks like to get their under-center right-handed, and it's just more comfortable for me to do the gun with my left hand because I'm left-handed," Stone said. "I've been doing it that way since college."

Falcons offensive line Mike Tice, in his 18th year as a coach, said he has never witnessed a center change hands in such a manner.

"When I was playing in Seattle, we had a center, John Yarno, who was a left-handed center, but it really didn't matter because Jim Zorn was a left-handed quarterback," Tice said. "I've seen some left-handed centers over the years, and none of them really panned out.

"We had a rookie center in here for a local workout who was a left-handed center. And I said, `Hey, if you want to be able to make it, you've got to snap right-handed.' And he said, 'Well, I can't do that.' And I said, 'That's funny. I just came from Tennessee, and there's a kid at Tennessee named James Stone who deep-snaps left-handed, and he changes the ball to his right hand when he snaps under center.' And he said, 'No way.' And I said, 'Yeah way.'"

Even other centers around the league were surprised by Stone's unique ability.

"That's the strangest thing I've ever heard," Packers center Corey Linsley said. "That is really weird. ... He must be ambidextrous. That's pretty impressive."

[+] EnlargeJames Stone
Hobe Brunson/University of Tennessee/Getty Images... but he snaps with his right hand when the quarterback is under center.
There is an interesting backstory to why Stone started switching hands in the first place. It was a suggestion made by his former Tennessee offensive line coach Sam Pittman, a respected college assistant who has had eight linemen drafted in the past two years. Pittman spent one season tutoring Stone in 2012.

"The year before I got in there, James had lost his starting position because he couldn't shotgun with his right hand," Pittman explained. "So we looked up the rule, and basically the rule is if you're going to switch hands, you've got to put both hands on the ball. And so we allowed him to snap with his dominant hand. We changed up some ways he was gripping the ball and the way he was turning the ball. And he went from not be able to start at center to one heck of a football player.

"It really didn't have anything to do with me, except that I knew he was a really good player. We had moved him to guard, and I just thought he was so valuable at center."

Stone has not tinkered his style one bit since joining the Falcons.

"Nah, because I've been doing it so long," he said. "You've got to know if the quarterback is under center or not, and the quarterback does a good job of tapping me and letting me know. I can switch hands on the ball as long as I have one hand always touching the ball."

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was asked if there have been any challenges getting accustomed to Stone switching hands.

"I don't even notice it," Ryan said. "Under center, he snaps it with his right hand, the same way that I've always gotten it my entire career. And in the gun, it doesn't make much of a difference."

Tice rarely notices it himself.

"If you didn't know and you're watching the game, you'd never know," Tice said. "It's very subtle. He does a nice job with it. That's a tribute to him. He's a very intelligent player. So being as smart as he is -- he's very smart -- he's able to do that with poise and not turn into hyperventilating and saying, 'Oh [shoot], I've got to change hands.' He does a great job."

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky contributed to this story.
Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who has been bothered by a nagging left ankle injury since Week 4, said he's fully healthy going into Sunday's game at Tampa Bay.

 "After the bye week, took a little time to you know, get healed up,'' Jones said. ``I'm a 100 percent now and just coming back and focusing on what we need to focus on.

``Me, personally, it's just me just focusing on catching the ball, looking the ball in; just going out there and being the best teammate I can possibly be.''

According to Pro Football Focus, Jones has six drops on 59 catchable balls this season. One of those was his key drop of a screen pass in the late stages of a 22-21 loss to Detroit in London.

``The player I am, if I drop a ball, keep throwing it,'' Jones said. ``I promise you I'm going to make more plays than I drop. ... That's the first half of this season; this is the second half of the season. I've got to focus on what I can do in this game. That's past and gone.''

Jones had a season-high 161 receiving yards (nine catches), including an acrobatic, over-the-shoulder 40-yard touchdown, when the Falcons last played the Buccaneers back in Week 3. Since Tampa Bay doesn't change up its defense much, it's possible he could enjoy the same type of success this time around.

``As far as the offensive side of the ball, with us, it's rhythm,'' Jones said. ``We've got to go out there with rhythm and keep hitting those plays. Yes, we were in a great rhythm when we first played them. I made several plays, but a lot of other guys stepped up and made plays as well in that game.''

Jones leads the Falcons with 53 receptions for 734 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Matt Ryan said he hopes to get the deep ball going with Jones the second half of the season. Jones has one play of 30-plus yards this season -- the aforementioned touchdown against the Buccaneers.
The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m., and several names such as Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, Oakland's Justin Tuck, and even Atlanta's Osi Umenyiora have been mentioned in trade rumors.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank always is looking for ways to improve his team. But he doesn't appear to be a big proponent of in-season trades.

"I think in general, the personnel department and the coaching department, they have an extended period of time, starting during the season, where they are constantly evaluating themselves and constantly evaluating their talent, player-wise and coaching-wise, and reflecting on what changes they can make as they go into the following year," Blank explained to "And obviously, it's a long offseason, both through free agency and the draft, to prepare for the following season.

"Once the season starts, it's not easy to make those changes because the chemistry is kind of set in the locker room. You can move it and change it and the coaches can motivate it differently. But players, they are used to working in certain schemes both offensively and defensively. It's not as easy to drop players in and out as it might be in other sports. If you're playing golf, you might be able to drop someone else into the foursome to go out and play because chemistry doesn't make a lot of difference. In this sport, it makes a huge difference."

Coach Mike Smith still believes the Falcons can make a big turnaround in the second half of the season so trading away players at this point might be viewed as a sign of waving the white towel.

According to ESPN Statistics and Information, the Falcons currently have $3,678,774 in cap room. That would indicate the Falcons would be sellers rather than buyers if they're involved in any trade by 4 p.m.

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

October, 28, 2014
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

A team with as many shortcomings as the Falcons cannot afford mental mistakes. That's why during the bye week, they have to reflect on what went wrong in the final minutes of Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Lions and make sure those types of mistakes don't happen again, especially if they play in any close games moving forward.

The Falcons had two penalties in the late stages that stopped the clock with the Lions out of timeouts. Rookie center James Stone had a holding penalty with 1 minutes, 55 seconds left in regulation that kept the clock from running after a Steven Jackson run up the middle. Chalk that up to an inexperienced player getting caught up in the anxiety of the moment. But the Falcons, as a team, have been whistled for offensive holding a league-high 18 times.

A more egregious error was veteran defensive tackle Paul Soliai's defensive holding penalty with 24 seconds remaining. It again stopped the clock and gave the Lions a chance to regroup. And a review of the film showed just how blatant Soliai was with his hold.

"It was a good call," Soliai said Monday. "Can't complain about the call. And you can't bring the game back. But I guess I have to do something different and play the scoop block different. I've been doing this for eight years, but a holding is a holding ... I just have to go get ready for Tampa."

Those two late-game blunders, along with a dropped pass by Julio Jones with 1:50 left, played into the poor clock management the Falcons can ill-afford in close games -- but that's not to say any of the remaining games will come down to the wire.

And by the way, coach Mike Smith had no issue with the timeout he called with 25 seconds left in regulation and the Lions driving.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton statistically is off to the best start of his NFL career.

 Despite a new set of wide receivers and a revamped offensive line, despite dealing with offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs in training camp, the fourth-year quarterback has a quarterback rating of 65.2 through his first five games.

That’s significantly better than his rating of 47.0 as a rookie in 2011 and 44.9 the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Newton is coming off a season-high 82.9 quarterback rating in a 37-37 tie against Cincinnati.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton is playing better than ever.

“In a roundabout way, as some people like to say around here, it’s like a forward fumble that he went through the whole surgery with the ankle when he did,’’ Rivera said of the left ankle that was repaired in March. “If you look at his technique, the base fundamentals he uses, how he goes through things now, he’s very proficient.

“This may have been that next big step that we’re all looking for him to take.’’

Newton has thrown seven touchdowns to only two interceptions for a career-best 3.5 ratio since missing the opener with fractured ribs. He began with a ratio of 1.8 in 2013, 1.2 in 2011 and 0.8 in 2012.

That the Panthers (3-2-1) unleashed Newton as a runner against Cincinnati should make him better. He rushed 17 times for 107 yards against the Bengals, but also completed 29 of 46 pass attempts for a season-high 284 yards and two touchdowns.

Newton has done all of this without all-time leading receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March.

The emergence of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who may miss Sunday’s game at Green Bay with a concussion, has been one factor. Benjamin has 31 catches for 416 yards and four touchdowns.

Tight end Greg Olsen also has emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate. His 33 catches for 388 yards and five touchdowns has him on pace for career highs.

But Newton has been the key. He has a 92.3 passer rating, completing 61.7 percent of his passes. Since Week 6 of 2013, Newton has a 92.5 passer rating.

Newton is spreading the ball around better than ever. He threw to 10 different receivers against Cincinnati and to nine different receivers the week before against Chicago.

Last season, Newton never threw to more than seven different receivers in a game and averaged 6.1 a game.

As tight end, Olsen has said repeatedly the last few weeks, Newton is “throwing the ball as good, if not better, than he’s ever thrown the ball.’’

“And that’s saying a lot,’’ he added.

Wide receiver Jason Avant hasn’t been here the past three seasons to compare, but he’s been impressed.

“The crazy thing about this game, when you have an injury, it can cause you to do two things,’’ he said. “One, which Cam has done, to use it as a point to strengthen other areas, such as the passing game.

“Or you can just tank it. And he’s not a tank it-type person.’’

Newton could be called on to run more against a Green Bay defense ranked last in the NFL against the run.

“The things we do see on film, we have to take full advantage of it,’’ Newton said. “This is a very athletic bunch. We know that. Anything that possesses an edge on our end, we’re going to try to target that as best as possible.’’

That Newton didn’t feel unusually sore after the 17 carries was a good sign.

“When I looked up after the game I didn’t realize I had 17 rushes,’’ he said. “But if that’s what it takes to win, I’m willing to do it all over again.’’

At the level he’s playing, there’s no reason to doubt him.

The Film Don’t Lie: Panthers

October, 7, 2014
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

An area that needs fixing before the Panthers face Cincinnati on Sunday is one that ironically resulted in a big play in this past week’s 31-24 victory over Chicago: the punt return.

On its first punt, Chicago’s gunners easily got around Carolina’s outside protection. The Panthers were fortunate in two ways on this play. First, Teddy Williams hit punt returner Philly Brown before the ball arrived at the 25. As players from both sides scrambled for the loose ball, Brown was asking the nearest official for a flag that already had been thrown. That’s when the Panthers were greeted by good fortune a second time. The ball rolled out of a pile to Brown, who had the awareness to pick it up and return it 79 yards for a touchdown. Yes, the ball was live, and the touchdown ended an NFL-long streak of 164 games without a punt return for a touchdown.

As happy as Carolina coach Ron Rivera was, he reminded everyone that the protection has to improve. "The guys who are holding up [the gunners] have got to give him a chance."

Brown has enough trouble holding onto punts without a defender in his face. He dropped one early in the third quarter that the Panthers were fortunate to recover. He muffed a punt in a Week 3 loss to Pittsburgh and made it worse by fumbling after picking it up. That resulted in a Steelers touchdown. He’s dropped a punt in almost every game this season.

Cincinnati ranks second in the NFL in punt coverage, allowing only 3.1 yards a return. Only San Diego at 1.7 yards per return is better. The Bengals' gunners get to the returner fast. Before Sunday, the Panthers were averaging 5.7 yards a return. Only 11 teams ranked worse. If Carolina wants to take advantage of Brown’s “dynamic’’ speed, the protection has to improve.
METAIRIE, La. –- The New Orleans Saints remain confident after their 0-2 start. But they aren’t ignoring the very real problems that need to be corrected.

Coach Sean Payton highlighted on Wednesday the Saints' last 15 games (including playoffs), in which they are 7-8 (and 2-8 on the road). And the biggest problem has been their inability to finish.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardDrew Brees and the Saints look for their first win of the season on Sunday against Minnesota.
 During that stretch, the Saints have surrendered late leads to the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers in 2012, as well as the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns in the first two weeks this year. They also had late rallies fall short last season at the New York Jets and at the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs.

“Sean put up a statistic today, going back to last year, we started 5-0. And looking at the rest of the games since then, we haven’t been finishing in the fourth quarter, whether it’s on offense or defense,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He kind of came at us in the team meeting like, ‘Look at this guys, this is our last 15 games.’”

Payton also mentioned Wednesday that turnovers were a “major topic” in Wednesday’s morning meeting.

After making that a huge emphasis this offseason, the Saints’ defense has only forced one takeaway during the first two games, giving them a turnover ratio of minus-3 on the season.

The Saints have now forced only five turnovers over their past 13 games.

Although Payton preached that the Saints need to keep an even keel and not fall into the “crisis” that will be created from the outside, he also stressed that they can’t overlook the specific reasons for their losses.

“I think you have to pay attention. There’s a way we lost those two games,” Payton said. “It’s in the details and the preparation. It’s on us as coaches, everyone collectively, the players. I thought our practice [Wednesday] was outstanding.

“I think you can’t bury them under the rug and pretend it never happened. You have to look at it. I think we’re trying to make sure we uncover every stone and look closely at how we can find ways to make the corrections, and hopefully we can get that done this weekend.”

As Payton and players pointed out after last Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Browns, the areas that most need to be corrected are “situational” errors -- like the missed assignments that plagued them on both sides of the ball late in the game and some costly penalties.

In some ways, the defensive performance was encouraging in Week 2 because the Saints’ defense proved they were able to clean up the issues that cost them in Week 1 (namely missed tackles and a few big plays over the top).

But as Vaccaro said, “That’s encouraging. But when you fix one problem, you can’t let other problems [replace them]. You can’t let communication become the next problem.”

“I don’t know, man, we’ve just gotta put a game together,” Vaccaro said – though when asked what his message would be to Saints fans, he said, “We’re working, and just ride with us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees was among several others who expressed that combination of frustration and confidence.

“For us right now, despite the fact that we have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys who have been here for a long time and won a lot of games, this is a new team. So it’s kind of reestablishing and recreating your identity and it’s like ‘Ok, who are we, who are we trying to be?’” Brees said. “We’re certainly a lot better than what we’ve shown. But you are what your record says you are. So we have to go out and get a win so we can start feeling better about ourselves so that we can start gaining some momentum.”
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan typically is brutally honest. Such was the case Wednesday when he was asked to single out a defense player who has performed at a high level through two games.

"We don't have anybody on defense, to this point, that's playing at a high level," Nolan said. "I think they all would say that they want to play better than they've played. Some have played better than others, don't get me wrong. But I think, to a man, I think they would think, 'Hey, I want to play a little bit better than that, at least.'"

The Falcons enter Thursday night's NFC South game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked last in the league in four defensive categories: yards per game (472), yards per play (6.79), passing yards per play (9.62), and sacks per pass attempt (0.0). They ranked 29th out of 32 teams in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 51.85 percent of the time. And the Falcons rank 26th against the run, allowing 154.5 rushing yards per game.

 Although Nolan didn't mention him specifically, cornerback Desmond Trufant certainly appears to be performing at a high level. One opposing coach said this about Trufant: "He knows how to play, and he knows how to irritate receivers. He really stands out to me. The other guy [Robert Alford] is a pretty good player, too. But No. 21 is the guy I look at because he has pretty good technique."

Two players who haven't played up to standard have been outside linebackers Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi hasn't taken that next step as a pass-rusher just yet, and neither Massaquoi nor Biermann has been effective against the run. Most of the big runs surrendered have come from opposing running backs bouncing outside rather than up the middle against big nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

"Well, their job -- some of the time but not all of the time -- is to set the edges," Nolan said of Massaquoi and Biermann. "We gave up the edge in the game the other day far too many times. It's not just their jobs. Sometimes, it's the safety's and the corner's job, as well. But, that would be one of their jobs as far as the run goes.

"Outside of that, sometimes they have an interior responsibility; maybe not all the way inside, but the next gap inside to the exterior. That's where the outside 'backer would be. For example, if there's a safety outside of them or a corner, they would be inside of them there."

The defense, as a whole, has to put together a strong run-stopping effort Thursday night against Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Falcons last season. Rainey had 144 rushing yards against St. Louis last week.

As far as the pass rush goes, no sacks and one quarterback hit through two games tells the story for the Falcons. Nolan expected his outside linebackers to contribute more with the rush by now. Osi Umenyiora hasn't fared well as the designated pass-rusher, either.

"Obviously the pass rush is an area where those players, whether it's [Massaquoi] or [Stansly] Maponga or anyone that plays the end pass-rusher, we need to get more production out of that," Nolan said.

"As was obvious our first two games, we've had low production. We've got to get our production up. We've got to come up with plays. We can't have people on the screen jumping over the top of us, or a guy catching the ball right over the middle and us not making the tackle."

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The numbers don't always tell the complete story, and there's no better example on the Carolina Panthers than rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his first two NFL games.

From a fantasy football standpoint, Benjamin had a solid opener with six catches for 92 yards and an amazing 26-yard touchdown in a 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

He graded out a 70.

From a team standpoint, Benjamin was better in Week 2 despite having only two catches on eight targets for 46 yards, two dropped passes and a holding penalty in a 24-7 victory over Detroit.

He graded out a 93.

As Benjamin noted, "At the end of the day, it's all about the team.''

Despite the praise Benjamin got for his production in Week 1, his overall play was lacking when it came to the so-called little things. He didn't block well, and he wasn't always engaged in the play when it wasn't a pass to him.

"That was my main focus coming into this game,'' Benjamin said on Monday. "I knew they were going to have a lot of double coverage on me, so my main focus was just playing fast with plays to open it up for [other] guys and just blocking downfield for my running backs. I just tried to play real physical on the running.''

Carolina's other wide receivers responded. Jason Avant had five catches for 54 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown, after having one catch for no yards in the opener. Jerricho Cotchery had four catches for 46 yards, including a 2-point conversion catch.

Benjamin responded with better blocks. One of his best came in the second quarter when he held up the defender for quarterback Cam Newton to run 13 yards to the Detroit 12 on the read option.

"I was pleased with it,'' Benjamin said as he began preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh. "I didn't get a holding call, so that's always great.''

Benjamin was referring to his holding call in the second quarter that negated an 11-yard run on the end-around by wide receiver Philly Brown.

Newton and Benjamin almost connected for a touchdown a few plays after the above block, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver was pushed out of bounds while making the catch in the left corner of the end zone.

As for the drops, Benjamin didn't have a good explanation other than he didn't bring the ball into his body. One in particular could have gone for big yardage as Newton hit him in the hands over the middle.

But Newton came right to Benjamin, who made a spectacular one-handed, 24-yard grab with a defender tight on him down the left side line.

"It just shows the relationship between us, the trust issue,'' Benjamin said. "I hold myself to a higher standard. I've just got to move on from [the two drops]. I can't let that hold me back.''

Roddy White (knee) ready to go

September, 11, 2014
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who was on the practice field Thursday, reiterated he'll be ready to go against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday despite dealing with a knee injury.

 White was limited during Wednesday's practice after banging his left knee in his team's 37-34 overtime win against the New Orleans Saints. He fell on the knee near the end of the first half but was back in the lineup after halftime and finished the game.

White told he had the same knee drained this offseason, which led to him being excused from minicamp. Falling on the knee again caused him a little panic.

``I'm feeling really good,'' White said Thursday. ``It did kind of scare me. But after that, my adrenaline started pumping, got back in there and caught some passes. Got back on Monday and felt a little sore but now, I'm ready to go.''

Although White is not going to be overly cautious just because he returned too quickly from a high ankle sprain last season, he did indicate a scaled back practice plan might be in play, at times.

``Me and [Coach Mike Smith], we're on a good program,'' White said. ``He wants me to do certain things on Wednesdays and go out there and run around and get a little bit done and then Thursday, practice as hard as I can. And Friday, be as fast as I can because we have to do timing things. We have things in the game plan that we have to get done. And me and Matt [Ryan] have to be on the same page.''

Also Thursday, rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews was not on the field for the start of practice after missing Wednesday's practice with a left ankle injury. Matthews is not expected to play Sunday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is an imposing figure in any room. He exudes power.

But Wednesday night, as he stood in the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square to receive the Echo Award Against Indifference, he broke down and cried.

Richardson, 78, had to stop several times to gather himself as he addressed critics who have accused him of being too lenient on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been playing for the Panthers while appealing a guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.

For months, Richardson and the Panthers seemed to keep Hardy's legal situation from becoming a distraction to the team.

That has changed.

On Monday, video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer -- then his fiancée, now his wife -- during an altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The Ravens responded to the video by releasing Rice. The NFL, which had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, made the suspension indefinite.

This put the spotlight on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was scheduled to attend Wednesday's Echo Award ceremony in Charlotte before a change of plans.

It put the spotlight back on Hardy, who missed Wednesday's practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

It put the spotlight on Richardson, who has been criticized for letting the legal process play out instead of punishing Hardy.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was terse with his answers to questions regarding Hardy's whereabouts. It came to a head when Rivera was asked what his focal points would be in preparation for the Detroit Lions' upcoming visit.

"Beating them," Rivera said. "And that's it. This is football. This is what we're doing here. We're trying to prepare for a football game against a very good football team.

"There's a lot of things going on. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time, we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice and his wife]. I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?"

Panthers players did a good job of avoiding the topic by basically choosing not to talk about it. But it won't go away. When Hardy returns Thursday, the focus will be his meeting with his attorney.

In the meantime, Greg Hardy will keep practicing. He’ll keep playing. The Panthers will continue to face criticism. And some critics want Hardy punished just like Rice was, even though Rice admitted guilt by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Hardy hasn't admitted to anything and his appeal is pending.

Jerry Richardson likes to be in control. He doesn't mind making hard decisions. He fired his owns sons to make the Panthers organization stronger.

But on this, he apparently feels powerless. It has left him in tears.

And the tears are a sign that neither he nor the organization can keep Hardy from being a distraction any longer.