FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Center Joe Hawley, with his tendency to mix it up with opponents, set an aggressive tone for the Atlanta Falcons from the very start of the season. The team will sorely miss that aspect of Hawley's character, maybe just as much as his consistent play.

With Hawley shelved for the remainder of 2014 following an ACL tear, the onus is on former second-round pick Peter Konz to step in and maintain at least a solid level of play at the center position. Some might consider it too much to ask from a guy who was benched twice last season and physically pushed around. But Konz, who reshape his frame this offseason, seems to have a little more of an edge to him this year.

Konz
"I want to play with a chip," said Konz, who has 25 career starts going into Sunday's game versus the New York Giants. "I want to play like I've got something to prove because it means a lot to me. And this game means a lot to me; this team means a lot to me. So whatever happens, I want to go in there and play better than I've ever played just to prove myself, just to prove I can do it. It's just as much about that as it is about having fun."

As things stand now, the Falcons will proceed with a line combination of rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle, Justin Blalock at left guard, Konz at center, Jon Asamoah at right guard, and Gabe Carimi at right tackle. If Blalock continues to have issues with a back injury, Carimi would most likely end up at left guard with Ryan Schraeder stepping in at right tackle. Newcomer Cameron Bradfield and Harland Gunn, who was promoted from the practice squad, provide depth at tackle and guard, respectively.

The Falcons now have lost Hawley, Holmes, left tackle Sam Baker (knee) and versatile linemen Mike Johnson (Lisfranc) to season-ending injuries.

Hawley was the unquestioned leader of the line, something Konz might not be able to duplicate in terms of being vocal. But he'll win over a lot of teammates and coaches by being much more physical than he was last season.

"Pete did a lot of work on his body in the offseason," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "He wanted to change his body, which he did. He wanted to become a more physical player, which that has shown up on film.

"In regard to the chip, that's a personal thing. ... The bottom line is, if you're a pro football player and your number's called, then you're expected to perform. We have very high expectations for Pete, and for anyone else that's going to step up that they will do that."

Carimi, who played with Konz at Wisconsin, expressed faith in his old college buddy.

"Peter is everything you want in a center," Carimi said. "He's smart and strong. He comes to work every day wanting to be better. He'll play winning football every week for us."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
5:30
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What’s wrong with the New Orleans Saints defense? Depends on which game you watch.

This time their run defense was the most glaring issue in a revolving set of problems that have plagued them throughout this season. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Saints got gashed by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ run game in last Sunday night’s 38-17 loss. They got paralyzed by the mere threat of Murray.

The Saints’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly got caught in no man’s land. Their pass rush wasn’t overly aggressive because they kept guys hanging back to guard against the run -- which ultimately didn’t work anyway. At the same time, the Saints’ coverage suffered in the middle of the field because they were burned by play-action passes.

The good news is that the Saints won’t face many running backs with Murray’s combination of power and speed this season. The bad news is that they keep finding different ways to lose games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray rushed 24 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Here are more observations after watching the tape:

Murray overwhelming: Murray definitely gets his share of credit for churning out 149 yards and two touchdowns. Once he got a head of steam, he powered through some guys (even stout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton on one occasion). Other times, Murray’s speed burned guys who took bad angles.

The low point might have been Murray’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, where he came up the middle, powered through Lofton while Lofton was coming off of a partial block, then kept running as linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Rafael Bush also failed to bring him down.

Murray’s speed burned the Saints on both of his touchdowns. On his 28-yarder in the third quarter, Murray started running left but made a sharp cut inside while Humber went wide. Then he sped past Lofton, who was trying to spin away from a block. And he made safety Jairus Byrd miss in the open field toward the end of the run. … Byrd also took too shallow of an angle on Murray’s 15-yard TD run in the first half.

The Cowboys’ run blocking was outstanding, with Murray getting out wide into open space a lot rather than plowing up the middle. Backup running back Joseph Randle also broke off a 14-yard gain late in the third quarter, aided by a missed tackle by safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Missed tackles: This was a repeat violation for the Saints, who were also plagued by missed tackles in Week 1. They had at least six blatant misses (one each by Vaccaro, Byrd, Lofton, Humber, Junior Galette and Corey White). And they had several others that would have been more challenging stops but still would be counted as misses.

Pass-rush problems: I can’t remember seeing many games where Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan were so ineffective. They barely even got any hurries on quarterback Tony Romo. To be fair, Romo didn’t stand in the pocket all day picking the Saints apart deep. But he was rarely harassed, and one of the few times he did get flushed, he ran 21 yards to convert a third down.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith had a lot to do with that. He beat both Galette and Jordan 1-on-1 a few times. One time, Galette even bounced off Smith and fell to the ground while trying a spin move. Nothing seemed to work for the Saints. One time, they flooded the Cowboys’ right side with a zone blitz that included two rushing linebackers, but Murray picked up Humber. Another time they tried stunts on both sides of the line, but everyone got stood up.

The Saints didn’t blitz much early in the game. And they started to have some success when they finally did start sending some heavy pressures (including a third-down sack by Vaccaro during a big moment late in the game when the Saints were rallying). But then again, all three of Romo’s touchdown passes came against blitzes.

A 23-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams in the second quarter and an 18-yarder to Dez Bryant in the fourth were almost identical plays against all-out blitzes. Romo made quick, back-shoulder throws to the receivers, who turned and caught them short of the goal line before powering in (Williams against Brian Dixon and Bryant against Keenan Lewis). Dixon was playing physical coverage, while Lewis gave a small cushion, but neither worked.

No man’s land: There were several examples of the Saints either getting burned by a play-action pass or leaving the middle of the field open with eight men in the box spying Murray. Romo’s first 6-yard TD pass to Williams was an example of the latter. Others included passes of 16, 16, 15 and 11).

Some good stuff: Lewis did a solid job against Bryant. He had one nice pass-break up and had good deep coverage twice when Romo fired that way under pressure. Sometimes the Saints doubled Bryant, but not too often, as he finished with three catches for 44 yards. … The Saints tightened up against the run in a few key moments late in the game. Bush, Byrd and linebacker Parys Haralson each got good penetration on run stuffs. … Not sure if this counts as good or bad, but the Saints recognized at the last moment that receiver Devin Street was uncovered on a third-and-9 play in the second quarter, and Byrd got there just in time to break up the pass. … Byrd struggled in run support but put some big licks on receivers in the open field.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. The Carolina Panthers’ first quarter report card after a 2-2 start:

Offensive line

Left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler have struggled big-time in run blocking and pass protection. In Sunday’s 38-10 loss to Baltimore, they gave up a combined three sacks, five hurries and graded a negative in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The interior line hasn’t performed well either as Carolina ranks 29th in rush offense.

Grade: D

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesRookie Kelvin Benjamin has been one of the few bright spots on offense.
Wide receivers

Remember when this was a big concern in March after the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go? It’s the least of their problems. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin has 21 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have been solid with a combined 23 catches. No worries here.

Grade: B

Tight ends

Greg Olsen has been arguably the team’s most consistent offensive player in terms of run blocking and receiving (21 catches, 254 yards, 2 TDs). But Ed Dickson, signed as a free agent from Baltimore, hasn’t caught a pass after looking like he would be a huge weapon in training camp. Thus, the minus.

Grade: B-

Running backs

This is a hard position to grade because of injuries and poor line play. DeAngelo Williams has looked decent when healthy, rushing for 106 yards on 25 carries. The problem is he’s missed two games completely and played less than two quarters on Sunday before going down with a foot injury that has him doubtful for this week against Chicago. Mike Tolbert (fractured knee) is on short-term injured reserve, and Jonathan Stewart (knee) missed last week’s game. But even before their injuries they did little. Again, the run offense ranks 29th.

Grade: D

Quarterback

Cam Newton has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Panthers will take that all season, although they’d like a few more touchdowns. What keeps this grade from being better is Newton has been non-existent in the run game and has failed to lead the team to a first down in the red zone.

Grade: C-

Defensive line

Had I graded this group after the first two games they would have gotten an A. But after collecting only one sack in the last two games and getting very little pressure at all on the quarterback, after being gashed for almost 400 yards rushing the past two weeks, what was a strength has become a concern. Do they miss DE Greg Hardy, on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved? Apparently.

Grade: D+

Kuechly
Linebackers

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still collects tackles better than almost anybody else in the NFL. But even the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has made mistakes the past two weeks to bring this grade down. Again, injuries make it tough to grade. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis wasn’t himself in Week 3 with a hip injury and he didn’t play against Baltimore with a hamstring injury.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Opponents have caught eight touchdowns in four games against this group. Right cornerback Melvin White has been benched in favor of Josh Norman after losing containment on former Panthers receiver Steve Smith twice for touchdowns against Baltimore. Like the defensive front, this group might have gotten an A after the first two games. Not now.

Grade: C-

Special teams

Graham Gano is 8 for 9 on field goal attempts and has made all five PATs. Punter Brad Nortman has been arguably the team’s biggest weapon, averaging 47.8 yards. The reason this isn’t an A is because coverage hasn’t been great. Nortman’s net average ranks 10th in the NFC. The return game has been average, as well. Philly Brown’s muffed punt against Pittsburgh ended any chance Carolina had of rallying.

Grade: B-

Coaching

Coach Ron Rivera has been forced to make some tough decisions, from holding out Newton in the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to recover to putting Hardy on the inactive list in Game 2 under an avalanche of pressure regarding his domestic violence case, to working to put Hardy on the commissioner’s exempt list. The problem is the Hardy moves appear reactionary to what Minnesota did with Adrian Peterson. The loss of discipline on defense and two 12-men-on-the-field penalties against Baltimore also stand out.

Grade: C-

Overall
The Panthers may be tied for the NFC South lead with a 2-2 record, but this team has major issues moving forward that have to be corrected immediately.

Grade: C-minus

The Film Don’t Lie: Saints

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

Nobody needs the backing of the Dome crowd more than the New Orleans Saints' pass-rushers when they return home in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints' pass rush went from disappointing to disappearing in Sunday's 38-17 loss at Dallas. Ends Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan were held at bay all night, with New Orleans' only sack coming from safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The glaring problem against the Cowboys was that the Saints were so heavily focused on stopping the NFL's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray. They often had linebackers and Vaccaro hovering back behind the line for containment.

But the strategy backfired when Murray destroyed them for 149 rushing yards anyway. The Saints forced only one third-and-long situation during the first three quarters.

"There's no four-man pass rush if you can't stop the run," Galette lamented. "They're going to run play-actions on you, and you have to respect the play-actions. ... There's not one time [Tony Romo] just sat back there and was just comfortable. The times he did sit back there, he took off [running]. They game planned and had a lot of respect for our defensive line, and we didn't stop the run."

It seems defenses have been game planning in a similar fashion for most of this year, with quarterbacks releasing the ball quickly. As a result, the Saints are tied for 23rd in the NFL with just five sacks. And they're one of only two teams with zero interceptions.

The key to New Orleans' success last year was Jordan, Galette, Akiem Hicks and others getting consistent pressure with a four-man rush. And they need to be the leaders of this season's defensive revival to take some pressure off the secondary and possibly even start forcing some of those elusive takeaways.

The Film Don't Lie: Panthers

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

The Panthers have the NFL's worst red zone offense, scoring only three touchdowns in 10 trips inside their opponent's 20-yard line. They were 0-for-3 in Sunday's 38-10 loss at Baltimore. Next up is Chicago with the sixth-best defense in red zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns only 45 percent of the time.

The film shows Carolina's ineptness comes from mistakes and the inability to consistently create third-and-short. On Sunday's opening drive, the Panthers had a first down at the Ravens' 19. The first play was a run for no yards and the second a 2-yard gain. On third-and-8, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin pushed off the defender to negate a catch near the first-down marker. On third-and-18, quarterback Cam Newton took an 12-yard sack that was unavoidable because there was so much pressure coming from the left and right side.

Carolina punted and came away with no points.

On their first drive of the second half, the Panthers had first down at the Baltimore 18. After runs of 3 and 4 yards, Newton missed the snap out of the shotgun, recovered it and scrambled out of bounds for an 8-yard loss.

Three points.

It's a common theme. In four trips inside the red zone during a Week 2 win against Detroit the Panthers had four plays for negative yards, one on a sack and three on runs. They began the season 0-for-4 on third down attempts inside the red zone and didn't make one against the Ravens.

The good news for Carolina is Chicago has allowed opponents 20 trips inside the red zone. That's the second most in the NFL behind Oakland with 21.

The bad news is Carolina is unwilling to turn Newton loose in the run game while he still recovers from offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs suffered in August. Newton has been a big factor in the red zone with his legs the past three seasons, third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in rushing touchdowns with 28.

He's not now. That's a factor. But the biggest factor, coach Ron Rivera said, is "it's self-inflicted."

The Film Don't Lie: Buccaneers

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Buccaneers must fix:

Even after the first win of the season, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

No area stands out more than covering the tight end. That’s hugely significant because on Sunday, the Bucs have to face New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, who might be the best receiving tight end in the NFL.

If recent history is any indication, the Bucs will have their hands full with Graham. In Sunday’s victory at Pittsburgh, the Bucs allowed Steelers tight end Heath Miller to catch a career-high 10 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown.

The Bucs played a soft zone on Miller, and he did a nice job of finding the weak spots. They were lucky Miller is not much of a threat after the catch, or his numbers would have been even bigger.

Graham has the athleticism to make things happen after the catch, however. The Bucs can’t use soft coverage on him or else they’ll pay a steep price. Against Pittsburgh, it seemed like every Miller reception was capped by a first down with safety Dashon Goldson making the tackle.

Goldson left the game with an ankle injury, and replacement Major Wright didn’t fare much better. Whether it’s Goldson or Wright playing against the Saints, the Bucs need to let their safeties be more aggressive.

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

As the Falcons get prepared for Sunday's road trip to face the New York Giants, they'll need to pack a stout run defense with them -- if that's at all possible.

Right now, the Falcons rank 28th in the league against the run, yielding 153.5 yards per game. The fact that they can't stop the run has contributed to them being unable to put opponents in third-and-long situations. As a result, they've been unable to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and rank second to last in the league in sacks per pass play.

One play in particular during Sunday's 41-28 loss at Minnesota was symbolic of the Falcons' run-stopping woes. In the second quarter, the Vikings faced first-and-10 from their own 8-yard line. Strong safety Kemal Ishmael was down in the box initially to load up, but he dropped into coverage at the snap. As Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater handed off to fellow rookie Jerick McKinnon, linebacker Joplo Bartu shot through the gap toward McKinnon but got blocked to the ground by Vikings center John Sullivan. The momentum of run-stuffers Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson was going to the left, which then left the middle open for McKinnon. Paul Worrilow was the last line of defense before McKinnon got into the open, but Worrilow got blasted to the ground by Vikings fullback Jerome Felton.

Missed tackles by Ishmael, Robert Alford, Dwight Lowery and Kroy Biermann followed as McKinnon cut all the way across the field for a 55-yard run. Fortunately for the Falcons, the end result was a missed 49-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.

Regardless, the defensive blunders and lack of physical play are what the Falcons need to avoid if they want to be respectable on defense. And there needs to be a quick fix because the Falcons face the NFL's third-leading rusher Sunday in Rashad Jennings, then they'll contend with their first elite running back this year when Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears visit the Georgia Dome on Oct. 12.

Rivera to defense: 'Stick to your job'

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
8:00
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera counted 14 plays during Sunday's 38-10 loss at Baltimore on which at least two defensive players were out of position.

Those are mistakes that have led to Carolina's defense dropping from fifth in the NFL after two games to 23rd after four. Those are mistakes that have led a unit that gave up only 21 points in the first two games to give up 75 in the past two.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers' defense, which needs to see improvement according to coach Ron Rivera, allowed Baltimore's Steve Smith two TD passes.
Those are mistakes that have taken Carolina from one of the NFL's best run defenses to one of the worst, 27th with 140.8 yards allowed per game.

That kind of undisciplined behavior is Rivera's biggest concern as the Panthers (2-2) prepare for Sunday's home game against the Chicago Bears.

It's a legitimate concern. Teams that can't stop the run typically aren't good teams because that opens the floodgates against the pass and impacts almost every other facet of the game.

So what happened between Games 2 and 3? Rivera doesn't blame it on the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was placed on the inactive list for Game 2 and then the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

Rivera said it's simply a matter of pressing.

"Guys trying to make plays, guys are pressing to make plays, for whatever reason," he said on Monday. "When a team gets up on you a little bit, now all of a sudden it's, 'Hey, we just need to make one play. Somebody needs to make a play.'

"Now all of a sudden there is a sense of urgency, maybe too much urgency. You're trying to force the issue. ... Those things you can't consistently do and expect to win."

Rivera said that -- along with the running game that ranks 29th in the league offensively -- has to be fixed quickly or "it could be a long season for us."

Carolina coaches spent tireless hours Monday reviewing why the team has become so undisciplined before thinking about preparing for Chicago.

Rivera announced he was replacing starting right cornerback Melvin White with Josh Norman, something he typically wouldn't do until Wednesday, to send a message.

White allowed former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith to catch touchdown passes of 61 and 21 yards.

The return of weakside linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring) could help. But Rivera wouldn't use Davis' absence against Baltimore as an excuse.

"No. It's more about doing your assignment, doing your job, and doing it the right way," he said. "It’s more about being more disciplined, about trying to stop trying to make the plays you don’t need to make. This is a downhill gap control defense. In our defense, you’re assigned a gap to control. Certain things change your gap you control, whether you’re running a stunt, or running a blitz, or they pull.

"Those things change it; you don’t change it."

Rivera said nobody is without fault, including middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"Luke's made a couple of [bad] plays, also," Rivera said. "Everyone is culpable in this situation. That's what's disappointing. It's little things in terms of trying to do more than you're supposed to do, trying to do too much.

"Again, stick to your assignments, stick to your job. Take care of your responsibility first. Those are things we've got to correct and those are things we've got to demand from players."

Or it indeed will be a long season.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Buccaneers class of free agents had been pretty quiet early in the season. But that changed Sunday.

Johnson
Defensive end Michael Johnson came through with two sacks and a forced fumble that set up a touchdown. Johnson did exactly what the Bucs envisioned when they brought him in as a free agent from Cincinnati.

“What we brought him here to do: rush the passer," coach Lovie Smith said Monday. “But not just rush the passer; play the run. You look at just about every one of his plays -- to me, as I look at a player, every time you get an opportunity to strip the football, we want you going for the ball. Michael is doing that for the most part. I just liked his overall play. He tweaked his ankle a little bit early. Got rolled up again. Wasn’t lucky with that, but shook it off, came back in. We’ll need play like that from Michael throughout.”

Even before getting his ankle rolled up on, Johnson had been playing with a sprained ankle. Perhaps the most impressive thing he’s done so far is play through injury.

“Michael Johnson has played injured throughout the season,’’ Smith said. “ I wouldn’t say that he was 100 percent yesterday, but he really showed up, he played well, got one of our highest grades we give from a performance and I’m really pleased with him.’’

Makes you wonder what Johnson can do when he gets back to full strength.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."

Time to unleash Cam Newton once again

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
5:40
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's becoming a regular segment of Ron Rivera's Monday afternoon news conferences.

When will you turn quarterback Cam Newton loose?

Each week the Carolina Panthers coach indicates Newton, who underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August, is getting healthier and closer to that moment. But each Sunday the play-calling does nothing to show Newton has reached that point.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton has rushed for only 33 yards in his three games this season.
Over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore he has rushed a combined four times for 14 yards. In three starts, a player who accounted for 31.1 percent of Carolina's rushing the past three years, has 33 yards on eight carries. That's about one percent of the rush offense.

Newton has become such a fixture in the pocket that it looks like he's almost scared to run.

Rivera said it's tempting to turn Newton loose. It has to be more so after consecutive losses in which the Panthers have been outscored 75-29.

"But we have to do things the right way,'' Rivera said on Monday, 24 hours after Newton rushed two times for 7 yards in a 38-10 loss at Baltimore. "You don’t want to unleash him unless he’s ready to be unleashed.

"We’ve got to listen to what the trainers and doctors are saying, and we’ve got to listen to what he’s telling us.''

Newton's lack of mobility isn't the only reason the Panthers rank 29th in rushing and 32nd in red zone efficiency. The offensive line has been way too inconsistent and injuries have sidelined the top three running backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- for much of the year.

But the shackles on Newton have at least contributed to the struggles in both areas. His 28 rushing touchdowns over the past three years rank third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.

"I wish I could say, 'Hey! We're going to cut him loose this week!' '' offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "I don't want to lie to you.' That's something we're going to talk about this week. It's something we have to monitor every week for sure. But he's getting healthier and ... we'll see.''

It's understandable the Panthers are being cautious. It's well documented that Newton has been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback over the past three seasons.

It's also well documented that the Panthers want to cut back on those hits.

But there comes a point where Carolina has to let Newton be who he is, and that's a quarterback who makes plays with his legs and his arm. If they don't then forget about signing him to a long-term deal.

“It’s very hard,'' Rivera said of holding Newton back. "You can see it. You just know he wants to cut loose and do certain things. You can feel it, and a lot of times you see him start to do it, but it’s coming. We’ve got to do this the right way.”

That has been the theme since Newton sat out the first game to give his ribs one extra week to heal.

The upside to this is Newton is completing 63.8 percent of his passes, up from his 60.0 career percentage. He hasn't thrown an interception. He has made throws, such as the 26-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery in which he threaded the ball past the cornerback on Sunday, he wouldn't have made four years ago.

But he's still getting hit a lot. He has been sacked nine times in three games, putting him on pace to be sacked 45 times in 15 games. He was sacked 43 in 16 a year ago.

If Newton is going to get sacked, he might as well do it while attempting to gain yardage.

Maybe this will be the week.

"As he gets healthier and healthier, the offense is going to start to expand,'' Rivera said. "That’s the best part, too. That for us is a huge plus. But if we don’t take care of what we need to get corrected running the ball and stopping the run, it’s going to be a long season for us.

"These are things that we know, these are objectives we have, and we’re going to work on those things.”
TAMPA, Fla. – If the Buccaneers have a quarterback controversy, coach Lovie Smith is doing his best not to fuel it.

A day after backup Mike Glennon sparked the Bucs to their first win of the season (a 27-24 defeat of Pittsburgh), Smith wasn’t in the mood to say if Glennon did enough to take the job away from Josh McCown, who sat out with a thumb injury.

“Are you asking me to name our starting quarterback right now?’’ Smith asked rhetorically.

Glennon
McCown
Like many coaches, Smith is very tight-lipped when it comes to injury and strategy, and Monday was no exception.

“What I do is look at who’s available at the time and who gives us our best chance to win at all positions,’’ Smith said. “We’ll do the same thing when Josh gets back. He’s not back yet.’’

It remains to be seen when McCown will be back. But, after Glennon’s big game, Smith is getting second-guessed in the media and by fans for not opening the season with the second-year quarterback.

“I don’t have any regrets,’’ Smith said. “We let things play out. I tell guys that you start off with a group and eventually where you belong that’s where you’ll end up. So I have no regrets at all.’’

Smith previously has called Glennon the quarterback of the future. But the coach said he wasn’t surprised Glennon did so well in his first start of the season.

“I saw the same guy I’ve seen with everything else I’ve asked him to do,’’ Smith said. “Poised, confident player that can play football. When you’re labeled quarterback of the future, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you come out. The future was in front of us a little bit earlier than the initial plan, but you need to be ready at all times. How he handled it right there at the end, having to make that final throw, I can’t say enough.’’
METAIRIE, La. – There were no updates available Monday on New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead’s status for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he left this past Sunday night’s game early with a concussion.

Coach Sean Payton said Armstead will go through the NFL’s mandatory concussion-evaluation protocol during the week, and “we’ll wait and see where Terron’s at.”

Armstead
Payton did confirm that third-year pro Bryce Harris would remain Armstead’s replacement if needed, after he said Harris was one of the few bright spots during the Saints’ 38-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys.

“I thought Bryce did a pretty good job of stepping in there. Looking at the tape, he played pretty well,” Payton said of the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, who made his NFL starting debut at left tackle after starting one game at right tackle in both 2012 and 2013.

It was especially impressive that Harris held up in a situation where the Saints were forced to throw the ball on almost every snap as the game wore on.

If Armstead can’t play, however, the Saints will have to identify an even less-proven backup option for Harris. They have two backup guard/centers on the roster in Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, but neither was cross-trained at tackle this summer. Rookie Tavon Rooks could be activated from the practice squad. Or the Saints could look elsewhere for help.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera made a point of going to the Baltimore Ravens locker room following Sunday's 38-10 loss to shake the hand of wide receiver Steve Smith.

It was the decision of Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman to release Carolina's all-time leading receiver in March.

Smith, 35, played a big part in Baltimore's victory, catching seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

“First of all, I’m not a sore loser,'' Rivera said in explaining why he sought out Smith. "Secondly, I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for who Steve is and what Steve’s done for this team, and what he’s done for me personally.

"I just wanted to make sure I appreciated him. I didn’t get a chance to speak to him before the game, or during the game, or after the game immediately. But I wanted to make sure he knew that, that I had enough respect for him that I would come over and congratulate him and wish him the best of luck.''

Rivera said it was a quick conversation, but "nice."

"It was good to see him, and I think he knew that I have respect for who he is,'' Rivera said.

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Thomas MorsteadTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys stopped Thomas Morstead for a 2-yard loss on the Saints' ill-fated fake punt.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To be fair, there is no such thing as a high-percentage play when you are down 31-17 and facing a fourth-and-9 with 7:45 remaining in a game.

But a fake punt clearly wasn't the answer. And New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game that "hindsight probably was 20-20" after punter Thomas Morstead was sacked for a 2-yard loss. The Dallas Cowboys scored soon afterward to ice their 38-17 victory.

Payton said he is not sure he would have gone for it in that situation, though. He likely would have opted to punt instead with two timeouts still remaining.

"It’s something we’d had up for a while. Even versus their 'safe' look, it was something we thought would have a chance," Payton said of the play, which began with a fake handoff to running back Travaris Cadet -- but the Cowboys didn’t bite.

"There was some misdirection involved. They played it pretty well," Payton said. "Hindsight probably was 20-20. I had kind of gone back and forth with it. It was on the hash mark we wanted, and they covered it pretty well."

Morstead said the Saints had been practicing the play for a while, but the Cowboys simply didn’t bite.

"No one was open, so I didn't throw it," Morstead told reporters. "I think they had three guys covering the two that were options for me to throw to, and I just didn't feel like it was there. I decided instead of going 0-for-1 with an interception, I'd try to extend the play, and it just didn't work."

It was hardly the only special teams gaffe of the night for the Saints.

Kicker Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal wide right in the second quarter to help set the tone in an "everything that could go wrong ..." game.

It was Graham’s first field-goal miss of the season, but he also missed an extra point last week in a 20-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Graham later made a 30-yard field goal Sunday and is 4-of-5 on the season.

UPDATED: Payton reiterated Monday that the blame for the failed play was "on me for being impatient" when asked if he would have liked to see Morstead at least throw the ball up for grabs.

"No. Listen, that's on me. That's not Thomas or that's not Cadet," Payton said. "It's a play designed for misdirection. Credit Dallas, they were in a punt-safe. I kind of felt like they would be, and really that's on me for being impatient. I thought we were at a point in the game once we got to two scores, if I had to do it over again, I'd have punted. Thomas did what he was supposed to."

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