NFL Nation: Micheal Spurlock

Cowboys' Dwayne Harris ready to return?

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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IRVING, Texas – Lost amid the talk of Jon Kitna’s return to the Dallas Cowboys is apparently a much more important return for Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles: Dwayne Harris.

To make room for Kitna, the Cowboys released wide receiver/return specialist Micheal Spurlock, which must mean Harris will be able to return after missing the past two games with a hamstring strain.

Harris is averaging 30.5 yards per kick return and 14 yards per punt return on the season. He had an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown on Oct, 13 against the Washington Redskins and also had a 90-yard kick return. He returned from a one-game absence with a hamstring injury on Dec. 9 against the Chicago Bears, but aggravated the injury on a 43-yard return.

While Spurlock had a 62-yard punt return last week against the Redskins that set up the Cowboys’ first touchdown, the return game has struggled without Harris. Spurlock averaged just 17 yards per kickoff return versus the Redskins. Terrance Williams averaged 23.7 yards per kick return but had a fumble against the Oakland Raiders that was returned for a touchdown. Cole Beasley averaged just 6.8 yards per punt return.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Don Carey lined up on special teams in training camp his rookie season. This, he knew, was how he was going to make an NFL roster. The Cleveland coaches were giving him a chance during training camp as a gunner.

He lined up. Got ready. The ball was snapped. It didn’t go well.

“A couple of the vets took me to the Gatorades,” Carey said. “Took me to the Gatorades.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWhen Jeremy Ross isn't catching TD passes, he's usually fighting his way downfield to cover a punt.
As in pushed him so far out of bounds he was thrown into the tubs of Gatorade on the sidelines. After that, Carey went to Josh Cribbs to learn the intricacies of playing one of the most important spots on special teams.

Every gunner has this type of story, the welcome to the world of special teams moment that makes them realize both what it takes to be a gunner in the NFL, and also whether or not they can handle it.

And for many players, it is a way onto a roster.

It’s a position often overlooked, and many times fans have no idea who the gunners are. But to NFL teams, they are extremely important. They are the ones who keep big returns from happening. They are the ones who make punters look good.

And it is something that takes time, strategy and a certain type of mentality to perfect.

“You have to have a combination of mental toughness and physical toughness,” said assistant special teams coach Evan Rothstein, who coaches the gunners. “The speed to get downfield in about four-and-a-half seconds to go and make a play. You have to be mentally and physically tough ... it’s a want-to type of position.

“You have to want to go make a big play.”

They also have to understand there will be points, especially early on, where being a gunner will likely end in failure in a big way. Every gunner has that type of story, especially early on in their career.

Micheal Spurlock, the former Lions returner and gunner, remembers being tossed aside into the bench by Shawn Springs when he was with Tampa Bay facing Washington. Jeremy Ross, who replaced Spurlock at both spots, was with New England his rookie year when he was thrown out there in the preseason.

And promptly tossed to the ground.

“Both guys were on top of me,” Ross said. “And I couldn’t do nothing.”

Eventually, they learned, and now, with some years of experience in the NFL, have become a good gunner tandem for Detroit. For most of the season, Carey and Spurlock were handling the duties. Once Spurlock was cut, Ross took his place.

Both Ross and Carey have similar size and speed to be effective against single press (one defender) and double press (two defenders) coverages that are trying to keep them from the punt returner.

So what, actually, is a successful play for a gunner?

“A gunner has done his job if he makes a tackle or forces a fair catch,” Rothstein said. “So if you’re making a tackle or forcing a fair catch, that’s a job well done for a gunner.”

The Lions have the third-best opponent punt return average in the league, holding returners to 5.04 yards a return. The Lions have also forced 11 fair catches this season.

Most of the actual strategy for gunners, especially for a dome team like Detroit, comes during the week studying how punt return teams block for their returner and how they try to jam the gunners at the line. That’s the biggest key. In order for any gunner to have any success, he must learn to beat the initial jam coverage.

The planning that happens during the week, besides studying the jammers, is understanding where punter Sam Martin will likely try to place his punts during the game based off tendencies and potentially anticipated weather and wind.

There are times during games, though, that strategy becomes useless and becomes all about beating your man -- somewhat akin to how a receiver tries to beat a cornerback. Spurlock compares it to a fight. Every time.

“Your job is to get down to the returner as fast as you can,” Ross said. “And cause havoc, you know.”

Being thrown to the Gatorade tubs or to the ground, that’s something every good gunner eventually learns how to do. Create chaos in five seconds or less.
PHILADELPHIA -- Four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 34-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Fourth-quarter follies: This is Detroit’s third straight loss in which it had a lead in the fourth quarter, and while Sunday could be viewed as more of an aberration due to the weather conditions, the way the Lions have lost these games is certainly a cause for concern. Two of those losses -- at Pittsburgh and at Philadelphia -- ended up being by double digits. Against Pittsburgh, three of the Steelers’ last four drives ended in points -- a field goal in the third quarter and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

On Sunday in Philadelphia, the Eagles scored touchdowns on five of their final six drives and could have scored on the game’s final drive except they chose to run the clock out instead. Considering how close most playoff games are and how little room for mistakes Detroit has to even make the playoffs, this is a big concern.

[+] EnlargeMychal Kendricks and Matthew Stafford
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Lions lost three fumbles and the turnover battle to the Eagles, 3-1.
Turnovers: Again, this game is probably an anomaly for judging statistics, but with three turnovers Sunday -- all of them fumbles -- the Lions now have three or more turnovers in four straight games and five of their past six. It isn’t a coincidence Detroit has struggled in these games, now losing three of their last four. The Lions haven’t won the turnover margin -- a statistic that most consider a good barometer of team success -- since Week 6 against Cleveland.

Jeremy Ross: The Lions made some good free-agent signings during the offseason, including starting running back Reggie Bush and starting cornerback Rashean Mathis. Returner Jeremy Ross is making Detroit look very good again as an in-season signing. The Lions picked him up after division rival Green Bay discarded him, and he has been an impact special teams player. He had two returns for touchdowns Sunday (one kick, one punt) but has consistently been giving the Lions good field position since he won the job from Micheal Spurlock. The job is his for the immediate future, too, since Detroit released Spurlock on Saturday to make room for cornerback Chris Greenwood.

Run defense issues: There is a bit of a skewed look here because of the weather, but LeSean McCoy shredded Detroit in the second half and that he was able to do it in a game in which few players were able to get any true footing is a concern. The best the Lions can do, especially defensively, is wash away this game because they can’t let this loss linger from a run-defense perspective. Detroit has been good against the run all season, particularly with how the defensive line has played to open up lanes for linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, but they need to remember how they played for the past two months instead of just on Sunday.
Since Jeremy Ross has arrived in Detroit, a castoff from Green Bay who was first signed to the practice squad and then promoted to the regular roster, he has insisted there were no ill feelings toward the Green Bay Packers.

He had friends on the team, in the wide receiver room he once inhabited. He understood why he was let go, a combination of production and injuries and pure numbers that left him the odd player out.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Jeremy Ross reacts after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against Green Bay.
So Thanksgiving, where he would see old friends and former teammates, would not provide any extra emotion or motivation for him. At least that's what he said.

The way he played said something completely different.

"It sucked to be cut," Ross said. "But I was just more upset that I was leaving relationships there. It was unfortunate.

"First thing I looked at was myself, see which ways I could prevent it, but, you know, try to bounce back."

Against his former team, he had no issues doing that. He put together his most productive day as a Lion on Thursday, contributing on offense, on special teams and solidifying a future role with the team for at least the rest of the season.

Ross played three offensive snaps. He got the ball on two of them, running a 24-yard reverse in the second quarter that was essentially all him. He made a Green Bay player miss in the backfield and then cut upfield for a big gain.

Then he caught a 5-yard touchdown on a slant route later in the second quarter to tie the game at 10-10 for his first career touchdown reception.

"It's like, man, given the circumstances, it did feel good," Ross said. "Like man, this is cool, you know. I got some boys I know over there. It just felt good to play against some people you know and score against them.

"It was good, man. Just scoring a touchdown, period, was big. It could have been against the Jaguars, Tampa, whoever, it doesn't matter. It just felt good to score a touchdown."

His role on the offense, though, didn't change much from a week ago other than he saw the ball on his limited snaps.

Where he was going to make his impact with Detroit, especially with the return of Nate Burleson to the lineup, was on special teams as a returner. He has replaced Micheal Spurlock there the past two games and has done what he could to make sure he doesn't lose the job.

He had 70 yards on kick returns and 46 yards on punt returns. The punt-return yardage could have been even more, but a 60-yard punt return in the fourth quarter was nullified by a penalty on Jonte Green.

But the way Ross handled the return duties -- by making smart decisions, showing good instincts to find holes and having speed to break away from defenders -- gave the Lions something they have been missing there the majority of the season.

"I felt good out there," Ross said. "I was motivated [Thursday] just to get out there and make big plays for my team. I thought it was about that time, to step out there and just get in there.

"My team did a great job blocking for me."

And he did enough on his own returning to probably hold on to that job from now on.
DETROIT -- Of all of the Detroit Lions' inactives, the one that was unexpected was return specialist Micheal Spurlock not playing.

Spurlock
Spurlock has had his issues this season, but was healthy all week, so unless he suffered a late injury, this is a healthy scratch. Look for a combination of receiver Jeremy Ross and running back Theo Riddick to work kick returns and Ryan Broyles to possibly work in punt returns in place of Spurlock.

Detroit's other inactives are wide receiver Nate Burleson, quarterback Kellen Moore; running back Mikel Leshoure; cornerback Jonte Green and offensive linemen Leroy Harris and Corey Hilliard.

Also, and this isn't a surprise, LaAdrian Waddle is starting in place of Jason Fox at right tackle.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are headed to London next season to face the Atlanta Falcons, but their interest in talking about a game a year away is nil.

The message throughout the Lions' locker room Thursday about heading to Europe next season was decidedly that they did not want to talk about it. They instead wanted to stay focused on Dallas. That started from the head coach, Jim Schwartz, on down.

“You know it’s hard to get me to comment on next week, much less next year,” Schwartz said. “We have the Cowboys this week. That [London] really has nothing to do with the Cowboys.”

[+] EnlargeJoseph Fauria
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsTight end Joseph Fauria says life in the NFL is too volatile to worry about next season's schedule.
It doesn’t, but the Lions will be one of six teams headed overseas for a week next season. Detroit will be the away team, which means the Lions will likely leave after practice Thursday, fly over and practice in England on Friday. They’ll play Sunday and then return to the United States.

Some of the current group of Lions have played in London before. Defensive end Israel Idonije and wide receiver Micheal Spurlock played for Chicago and Tampa Bay, respectively, when the teams faced each other in 2011. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill played with Amsterdam in NFL Europe in 2003, but the London franchise no longer existed then.

Others have visited there. Safety Louis Delmas took a vacation there three years ago, but didn’t want to talk about his experiences there, instead focusing on this season.

Others, though, haven’t been over there at all.

“Never left the country,” defensive end Willie Young said. “Never.”

“No, never been out of the country,” rookie punter Sam Martin said. “So yeah, it’ll be cool. But I don’t know anything about it. I still think it’s awesome to play in the United States.”

“Never been to London,” receiver Calvin Johnson said. “Like I said, it’ll be interesting.”

Then there is the harsh reality of the NFL. Even if a player is planning on being with the Lions next season and planning on making the trip, you just never know what could happen in the league.

“Undrafted guys, even the fact that I am whatever, No. 2 or the starter, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t mean my future here is in stone,” said rookie tight end Joseph Fauria, who has a three-year contract. “Especially a young guy with not a lot invested in me when it comes to money, anything could happen.

“That’s cool, but I’m mostly worried about the Cowboys.”

The one person in the organization who would talk about it -- team president Tom Lewand. For the Lions, it was important to not give up a potential home game, which was why they agreed to play in the game against the Falcons. It is Atlanta’s home game.

Part of the allure of going overseas to play, though, is the increased marketing opportunities for the franchise, along with giving Detroit’s fan base a different place to travel.

“There’s clearly some potential with existing partners and some potential future partners to do some activation internationally that is just different than the opportunities we have here,” Lewand said. “But the real focus is on the challenge that it presents for our team.

“It’s a different setting, a different experience, and that can only build skills and build experience as you have an opportunity to meet those challenges.”

The last time Detroit played in England was during the 1993 preseason, when the Lions tied Dallas, 13-13.

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 5

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions22-9 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Tom Lynn /Getty ImagesLions coach Jim Schwartz said the team planned for a game either with or without Calvin Johnson.
No Calvin Johnson: It doesn’t sound like Detroit’s superstar receiver will be out for long, but the Lions learned exactly how important he is to the scheme of their offense. Even more concerning, perhaps, is that coach Jim Schwartz insisted they planned for a game either with him or without him. Unlike against Arizona, when Detroit lost Reggie Bush in-game, the Lions should have been better prepared for life without Johnson, as dreary as the outcome may be.

With a healthy Johnson and Bush -- or at least both of them on the field simultaneously -- Detroit’s offense is among the most explosive in the NFL. When one is missing, it is severely hampered. The other issue with Johnson’s absence, and this is compounded by Nate Burleson’s injury, is Detroit’s other receivers are not going to be game-changers, at least not with consistency. Detroit desperately needs Johnson to return against Cleveland.

Chris Houston’s health: The Lions were fairly decent on defense Sunday, something that was somewhat missed in the final score. But Aaron Rodgers picked on Houston at points, and after the loss Houston himself admitted he wasn’t fully back yet. He should get credit for trying to go, and he made some nice plays, but deeper routes were an issue for him. Luckily for Houston and Detroit, Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden is no Rodgers. Yet hamstrings can be fickle when it comes to healing, so Houston needs to make sure he’s as rested as possible. Rashean Mathis and Bill Bentley played well opposite Houston on Sunday.

The NFC North will be close: The Lions are halfway through divisional play now and are, frankly, where they probably belong at 2-1. This is going to be something to watch every week now as the Lions, Packers and Bears are all within a half-game of each other and could end up fighting for two playoff berths (the division title and one wild-card spot). There is still a ton of season left for every team and a lot can happen, but this division race might be one of the tightest in the NFL. The good news for Detroit: it is clearly in it. The bad news: it still has to go to Chicago and could have a tough stretch approaching with a game at surprising Cleveland followed by home games with Cincinnati and Dallas.

Returns still lacking: Detroit is still searching for some impact in its kick- and punt-return game. Micheal Spurlock has broken only one return this season (on a punt) and has taken kick returns out of the end zone more and more the past two weeks. Be it the blocking or Spurlock’s reads, the returns are just not an effective part of Detroit’s game right now. Detroit didn’t start at better than its 20-yard line on any drive Sunday.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz finished up his big weekly news conference Monday. Here are the highlights.


  • Once again, Schwartz praised the blocking of tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but said he has to "get back to making some of those" difficult catches in traffic that tight ends usually make. As far as the lack of snaps for Tony Scheffler and Joseph Fauria, he pointed to the lack of chances in the red zone for Detroit on Sunday.
  • Kicker David Akers is not injured -- but was "shaken up" on the first field goal. Schwartz seemed more displeased with the lack of protection on the field-goal attempts than Akers missing a field goal and having another blocked.
  • Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was inactive Sunday, is "day-to-day" with a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Patrick Edwards has a sprained ankle. The ankle kept him from playing part of the second half.
  • In a weekly Ryan Broyles update, Schwartz continued to say the wide receiver is "getting closer." At this point, it sounds like he is still trying to get back into football shape, but Schwartz didn't want to put a timetable on his return. He has been inactive the first two weeks of the season.
  • Schwartz isn't happy with the term "benching" in terms of rookie Darius Slay. The cornerback from Mississippi State has been pulled in favor of veteran Rashean Mathis against both Minnesota and Arizona. Schwartz said, though, he isn't concerned about Slay's confidence.
  • Schwartz was only disappointed with one of Micheal Spurlock's returns -- the punt return where he ran the width of the field instead of going forward.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 25-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

What it means: This is a rough loss for Detroit. The Lions didn’t play particularly well in any facet -- more on that below -- and still led the game late in the fourth quarter. But penalties -- eight of them for 101 yards -- proved critical. Bill Bentley was called for pass interference to set up Arizona’s game-winning touchdown, and if he had turned around, it would have been fourth down instead of Arizona’s ball on the 1-yard line. Two penalties in the third quarter extended a drive that led to a Cardinals field goal. Just tough mistakes.

Stock watch: Stock up: Detroit’s front seven. DeAndre Levy had an interception return for a touchdown and the Lions were able to play well on third downs and in the red zone. They could challenge to be among the top groups in the NFL by the end of the season. Also up: Calvin Johnson. The best receiver in the NFL had two touchdowns in the first half and set two franchise records. Stock down: Rookie cornerback Darius Slay, who won the starting job out of training camp, was replaced for the second straight week by Rashean Mathis. Keep an eye on this during this week.

Special teams a mess: Just a horrific day on special teams for Detroit. David Akers, who is usually reliable, missed a field goal, had another one blocked and another field goal attempt, which he missed, was nullified by a running into the kicker penalty. Returner Micheal Spurlock struggled returning kicks -- almost causing a safety on a kick return -- and punts, losing yardage on one return after essentially running the width of the field. This is the second straight week there have been some special teams issues for Detroit. Last week, punter Sam Martin muffed a field goal hold and struggled with his kicks.

Offense not the same without Reggie Bush: Detroit’s offense stalled without Bush for the majority of the second half. It gained 90 second-half yards, most of them without Bush.

What’s next: Detroit has its second road game in a row next week, heading to Washington to face Robert Griffin III and the 0-2 Redskins.
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The news that linebacker D.J. Williams has been suspended an additional three games is not a shock to the Denver Broncos.

It has been expected in NFL circles that Williams would get a three-game NFL suspension after his second conviction on an alcohol-and-driving charge. Williams is already serving a six-game NFL ban for using a banned substance, meaning that will be eligible to play in Denver’s 10th game, Nov. 18 against visiting San Diego.

Frankly, Williams has become an afterthought in Denver. He was barely a presence in training camp as the Broncos prepared for his suspension. Wesley Woodyard and Keith Brooking have been playing at the weakside linebacker spot.

There is no guarantee Williams will regain his starting job when he returns. Williams is a talented player, but his off-field issues have worn thin in Denver and the Broncos are currently focused who is on the roster, not who isn’t.

In other AFC West news:

As expected, Kansas City running Peyton Hillis (ankle) and defensive end Glenn Dorsey (calf) will not play Sunday against Baltimore after sitting out last Sunday's game.

Meanwhile, Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson (groin) is questionable. Cornerback Brandon Flowers practiced fully Friday and is probable with a heel injury.

It looks like Chris Kuper will play Sunday at New England. The Broncos listed the standout guard as probable on the injury report Friday to play in the game. He broke his forearm in August.

Jacksonville signed receiver Micheal Spurlock. The return man was cut by the Chargers this week.

Former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson has been arrested in Las Vegas on a domestic battery charge. He had several arrests in his NFL career.
We’ve talked about potential unrestricted free agents at length and you can see the official list of all of them by clicking here.

But we haven’t done much on restricted free agents. So let’s run through the list of NFC South restricted free agents now. Restricted free agents are players with fewer than four years of service who received qualifying offers before the lockout. Teams have the right of first refusal if a restricted free agent receives an offer from another team. Depending on the tender, they also can receive compensation if a player leaves as a restricted free agent.

Atlanta has two -- cornerback Brent Grimes and receiver Eric Weems. If Grimes leaves, the Falcons get a first-round draft pick. If Weems leaves, they get a second-round choice.

Carolina’s restricted free agents are receiver David Clowney, long-snapper J.J. Jansen and linebacker Jordan Senn. If Clowney leaves, the Panthers would get a fifth-round draft pick. There would be no compensation for Jansen or Senn.

New Orleans has only one restricted free agent. That’s guard Carl Nicks and he would bring a first-round pick as compensation.

Tampa Bay has six restricted free agents. Kicker Connor Barth and tackle James Lee would bring second-round draft picks if they leave. Defensive tackle Frank Okam would bring a fifth-round pick and safety Corey Lynch would bring a sixth-round pick. Cornerback Elbert Mack and receiver Micheal Spurlock come only with the right of first refusal.
NEW ORLEANS -- Time for some halftime observations and notes on the Saints and Buccaneers with Tampa Bay leading 10-7.
  • The Saints, who already had several injured players sitting out, are getting more banged up. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee), running back Chris Ivory (foot) and tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) all left the game in the first half. The team just said all three players are questionable to return to the game.
  • I know New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he wouldn’t be watching the scoreboard, but maybe he should. As I type this, Atlanta has a 21-0 lead against Carolina. Assuming the Falcons don’t fall apart, they’re headed for the NFC South championship and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. That would leave the Saints as the No. 5 seed and they can’t improve their seed as long as Atlanta wins. With the injuries piling up, Payton might be wise to rest his starters and not risk more injuries.
  • New Orleans’ Drew Brees now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 27 consecutive games.
  • Tampa Bay may be the youngest team in the league, but you should be able to get your players on and off the field in a timely fashion by the final week of the regular season. The Bucs couldn’t pull that off consistently. Mainly due to problems getting the proper personnel on the field, the Bucs used their third timeout of the half with 13:52 left in the second quarter.
  • Looks like the Bucs got the better of the Antonio Bryant "trade." Rookie Dezmon Briscoe had a spectacular touchdown catch midway through the second quarter. You might remember Briscoe as the guy the Bucs signed to their practice squad after he was cut by Cincinnati. The Bengals wanted to bring Briscoe back to their practice squad, but the Bucs beat them out by offering Briscoe a contract worth about three times what practice-squad players make. They kept Briscoe on the practice squad most of the season, but activated him after Arrelious Benn suffered an injury. Bryant, Tampa Bay’s top receiver a year ago, was allowed to walk in free agency because the Bucs didn’t want him back. He signed with Cincinnati, but was released in the preseason.
  • When Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris looks back on this season, I hope he scraps the Wildcat package entirely. The Bucs used it once in the first half, putting Josh Johnson in at quarterback. He pitched the ball to Micheal Spurlock, who continued rolling to the right. Spurlock pulled up and tried to throw across the field to Johnson, but the Saints had the play covered all the way. Gimmicks are nice, but they’re not needed when you have a real quarterback. The Bucs have a very real quarterback in Josh Freeman and they shouldn’t waste their time by taking the ball out of his hands.

Graham, Stroughter out for Bucs

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
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NEW ORLEANS -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without injured fullback Earnest Graham and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter for Sunday’s game with the Saints.

Graham (neck) and Stroughter (hamstring) have been declared inactive. Erik Lorig is expected to start in Graham’s place. With Stroughter out and Arrelious Benn already on injured reserve, Tampa Bay will have to look to Preston Parker, Dezmon Briscoe, Micheal Spurlock and Maurice Stovall for depth at wide receiver.

Other inactives for the Bucs are: cornerback DJ Johnson, tackle Will Barker, defensive end George Johnson, defensive tackle Doug Worthington and tight end Nathan Overbay.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 3, 2010
12/03/10
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13.

[+] EnlargeMichael Spurlock
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons have reconfigured their special teams coverage after Micheal Spurlock returned the ball for 209 yards in their previous match.
Point of no returns. The last time Tampa Bay and Atlanta got together (earlier this season in the Georgia Dome) Micheal Spurlock almost single-handedly knocked off the Falcons with a few huge kickoff and punt returns. I wouldn’t look for that to happen again. Mike Smith and his coaching staff sat down after that one and made some major changes to their coverage units. They switched where some guys line up and they also brought a couple of starters, most notably defensive end Kroy Biermann, onto the coverage units. Since then, the Falcons haven’t been giving up much in the way of returns.

Storm brewing. I just looked at the weather forecast for Cincinnati on Sunday and it’s not very pretty. The Saints are a much better team than the Bengals. But with the temperature near freezing and the possibility of snow, this could be a very tough game for New Orleans. They’re a team built for a dome, or at least good weather. Sean Payton may have to change his game plan and run Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush more than usual, and it would be nice if Bush did a better job of holding onto the ball than he did in Dallas on Thanksgiving.

Turnover-free zone. We’ve already talked several times about how the Falcons have gone four straight games without a turnover. But we’re going to do it again now because this is significant. If Atlanta can go without a turnover against the Bucs, the Falcons will become the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to go five consecutive games without turning the ball over. If they do that, I think chances are pretty good they’ll also extend their winning streak to six games and get their 10th victory of the season.

Safety dance. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris has been a little coy about his plans at safety after Cody Grimm's season ended when broke his left ankle. We may see some of Corey Lynch back there. He’s mainly been a special-teams guy but has been working in this defensive system in practice all year. I also think you might see cornerback Ronde Barber get some time at safety -- or maybe even some sort of hybrid position. What I’m saying is, if I’m Morris, I’m putting Aqib Talib on Roddy White all day. That’s strength against strength. Then, I’m looking at Atlanta’s other receiving weapons -- tight end Tony Gonzalez and receiver Michael Jenkins. I’d take my chances and let E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis or Elbert Mack handle Jenkins, who is a role player. No matter if you line him up at safety or cornerback, I’d put Barber on Gonzalez and let the two veterans go at it.

An instant classic. Ah, there’s so much to say about this epic matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. But we’re limited on space here, so we’ll keep it short. If John Fox really wants to get back at the people who are letting his contract run out, he should go out and win this game and maybe one or two more and cost Carolina the first pick in next year’s draft. That’s about the only thing the Panthers have to shoot for right now.

Falcons not content to be 'the best'

November, 7, 2010
11/07/10
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Michael TurnerKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMichael Turner's Falcons staked a claim to being the best team in the NFC South.
ATLANTA -- For the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of talk about “the best team in the National Football Conference." Largely on orders from coach Mike Smith, the Atlanta Falcons have stayed out of the argument.

Now, they can talk -- just a little.

“We’re the best team in the NFC South right now,’’ Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White said. “That’s all we want to be right now.’’

White limited the field to the NFC South and, at last, there is tangible evidence he’s right. After Sunday’s 27-21 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons are 6-2 and in sole possession of first place in the division.

Atlanta has defeated New Orleans and Tampa Bay, which each have three losses. But the Falcons weren’t celebrating or talking big after the game. That’s simply because they don’t have time to settle for leading the division at the halfway point of the season.

They’ve got a quick turnaround as the Baltimore Ravens come to town Thursday night. If that’s not reason enough to curb the party, there’s one more game with New Orleans and one more with Tampa Bay.

Several reporters asked who is the best team in the NFC after the game, but the Falcons weren’t really biting. The claim first was made by Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris two weeks ago, and it drew plenty of attention around the Falcons’ practice facility.

That left the door wide open for the Falcons to fire back at Morris. But even the most vocal players on the team weren’t slamming the Bucs.

“I don’t know,’’ linebacker Mike Peterson said when asked to name the best team in the NFC. “We had a chance to play the best team in the NFC and we came out on top. I’ll let you figure it out.’’

Part of the reason the Falcons weren’t slamming the Bucs was because it would have been ridiculous. In a game they lost, the Buccaneers gained respect.

“That’s a good young football team,’’ Peterson said. “We had our hands full.’’

You can say Atlanta was six points better than Tampa Bay. But it would be more accurate to say the Falcons only defeated the Bucs by a single yard.

That’s really what the game came down to. Atlanta, a team not exactly known for having a stout defense in recent years, made a goal-line stand that could end up winning the Falcons an NFC South title.

With just under four minutes left in the game, the Bucs moved dangerously close to the end zone. On a third-and-3 at the Atlanta 4-yard line, LeGarrette Blount ran for two yards. That set up a fourth-and-1 at the 2.

“We knew they’d try running the big back to the right,’’ middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We knew we had to get some penetration because, let’s face it, if he just moves it enough to get a first down, they’ve got four more plays and they probably score.’’

The Bucs ran Blount to the right and a couple of things happened. Defensive tackle Jamaal Anderson, maligned for much of his career, and linebacker Stephen Nicholas each got penetration and that allowed safety Thomas DeCoud to come up and tackle Blount for no gain.

“I just saw a swarm of buzzards going at [Blount] and they went over and ate him up,’’ Lofton said.

It was a huge play that could have huge implications on the season. But the goal-line stand masked a lot of other flaws. Atlanta’s secondary gave up touchdown passes from second-year quarterback Josh Freeman to rookie receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, and the special teams were dismal for much of the day.

Micheal Spurlock returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter and also had a 68-yard return in the second quarter to set up a touchdown and put the Bucs back in the game after they had fallen behind 14-0.

The offense had a good day with Michael Turner running for 107 yards and two touchdowns and Matt Ryan throwing for 235 yards and a touchdown.

But that has been the story of the half-season for the Falcons, and that’s another reason there wasn’t a lot of celebrating in the locker room.

“I’m proud of where we are, but I’ll tell you what; we're 6-2 and there are some guys in that room that are [mad] about it,’’ Smith said. “They know we haven't put together the type of football game for 60 minutes in all three phases that we could play.’’

That’s very true. The Falcons have been very good at times on offense, defense and special teams. But they haven’t truly had a game where all three units clicked.

“We still haven’t played a good Falcon football game,’’ Peterson said.

Are the Falcons the best team in the NFC?

Does it really matter at this point? They’re 6-2 and no one in the NFC has a better record. More important, the Falcons know they haven’t played their best football yet.

They’ve got half a season left and they haven’t played worse than anyone in the NFC. It’s November.

If the Falcons can put it all together in the second half of the season, they will be the NFC’s best team -- when it matters.

"We want to be considered, when it is all said and done, the best in the NFL,'' Turner said. "That happens in February.''

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