1. Ron Rivera, coach, Panthers. I like just about everything this guy has done since he arrived in Carolina and he’s got the Panthers on a good track. But I think Rivera flashed a little of the stubbornness John Fox was so famous for on Sunday in Chicago. Rivera had his team kick and punt to Devin Hester and it cost the Panthers dearly. Rivera used to be an assistant coach in Chicago. As much as anyone, he should be aware that it’s not a good idea to feed the ball to the most dangerous return man in NFL history.
2. Brian VanGorder, defensive coordinator, Falcons. It’s still early and things can straighten out, but Atlanta’s off to a very rocky start. Sunday’s near disaster in Seattle is being viewed by fans as being almost as bad as a loss. This is a team that entered the season with huge hopes and so did the fans. Most important, owner Arthur Blank also felt that way and he’s not the world’s most patient man. If things don’t straighten out, there will be a scapegoat for this season and, so far, VanGorder is looking like the leading candidate. Atlanta’s defense has talent, but the results have not been there.
3. Ray Edwards, defensive tackle, Falcons. Speaking of Atlanta defensive talent that’s not producing, you’ve got to start with this guy. It’s not like Edwards has been a complete bust. He plays the run quite well and has shown he can pick up a fumble and make a nice return. But the Falcons paid him a lot of money and a lot of people thought he was the missing link. He was supposed to help generate a stronger pass rush. Through four games, Edwards has not produced a sack.
Steve Smith recorded 181 yards receiving in Carolina's loss at Chicago.
1. Steve Smith, wide receiver, Panthers. You don’t have to like everything about him and he does have some of the diva traits that so many great receivers have. But a lot of those guys are still happy if their team loses, as long as they put up big individual numbers. Smith put up big numbers against the Bears (and has been doing that all season), but he was extremely frustrated in the locker room after the game because his team didn’t win. You have to respect his competitive desire.
2. New Orleans’ offensive line. Right tackle Zach Strief and center Olin Kreutz were out with injuries and Charles Brown and Brian De La Puente had to take their places. Yes, the Saints did allow Drew Brees to be sacked three times, but he still had enough time to throw for 351 yards. More important, the running game really worked well with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. The Saints finished with 177 net rushing yards. The offensive line has to be doing something right for that to happen.
3. Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers: Lots of people are talking about Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan as the potential defensive rookie of the year -- deservedly so. But I think Clayborn at least belongs in the conversation at this point. This guy is showing up every week and getting better. So is second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It might not be too long before Tampa Bay has one of the league’s better defensive lines.