CHICAGO – This time, there were no tears.

But there certainly could have been. Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown’s play in Sunday’s 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field was nothing to smile about. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble as the Bucs, who jumped out to a 10-0 halftime lead, fell apart in the third quarter.

A tough loss to Atlanta two weeks ago left McCown in tears. But things started to look up for McCown and the Bucs when they won in Washington last week and the quarterback played his best game of the season.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJosh McCown had three turnovers as the Bucs blew a 10-0 halftime lead and fell at Chicago.
Early on, McCown made it look like he was ready for another strong performance. He hit Mike Evans with a 19-yard touchdown pass with 13:24 left in the second quarter. He also directed a drive that led to a field goal at the end of the first half.

But rain began coming down heavier in the second half and that’s when things unraveled.

“Obviously, when you get into this weather, it’s not optimal throwing conditions,’’ said McCown, who completed 25 of 48 passes for 341 yards. “But you’ve got to kind of manage it the best you can.’’

The weather isn’t a legitimate excuse. McCown is a 13-year pro and he spent the last three seasons playing in Chicago. The irony is that McCown’s performance in relief of an injured Jay Cutler last year was so efficient that it earned him a two-year, $10 million contract with the Bucs. But McCown was far from efficient against his former team.

McCown had said that he was pressing too much early in the season. Was he pressing again?

“You could probably say most of us were pressing at times and then when the momentum shifted there, we did press a little bit,’’ coach Lovie Smith said.

“I didn’t feel like I was pressing at all,’’ McCown said. “I felt like we had a good game plan. We were doing things we wanted to do. When you are throwing it and it’s wet, some of the things you wanted to do in the passing game makes it a little difficult.’’

McCown said coming back to Chicago didn’t put any added pressure on him.

“There was a moment right before kickoff that it kind of finally hit me,’’ McCown said. “But once the ball was kicked and we started playing, it was just a football game. It was a football game that we needed to win and that’s all that mattered.’’

The Bucs didn’t get the win. You can put some blame on a running game that gained only 66 yards. And you can put some blame on a defense that wasn’t nearly as good in the second half as it was in the first.

But most of the blame for this one goes on McCown. He was responsible for three of the Bucs’ four turnovers.
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ATLANTA -- Roddy White thought victory was in hand. He truly did.

With 4 minutes, 59 seconds left in regulation on Sunday and his Atlanta Falcons trailing the Cleveland Browns 23-21, White figured the momentum had just turned in the Falcons' favor. He watched teammate Desmond Trufant vault into the air and snare a throw by Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer in the end zone.

"When Tru picked it off, I though the game was over," White said. "I thought we'd just go out there and kind of push the [tempo] up. And I felt like we didn't do that. We just kind of sat back and looked at the clock and said, 'All right, let's try to play this out.' I don't think that's what we should have did.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson Would a quick tempo have helped Atlanta's offense late on Sunday? Roddy White said he thinks so.
"We should have kind of attacked those guys because we had them on their heels every time we went up-tempo. But we kind of slowed everything down. And they responded on defense. They did a good job. They made us punt the ball. And then the defense went back and got another interception, gave us great field position. And we managed to only gain 15 yards."

Credit White for his honesty, even if Falcons coach Mike Smith scolds him later for voicing his opinion. Truth is the 4-7 Falcons might not have come up short in a 26-24 loss to the Browns had the offense closed the way it is capable of doing.

Remember, the offense was supposed to carry the Falcons this season.

Yes, there were other contributing factors in defeat. The defense could have put up more resistance on the game's final drive instead of allowing Hoyer and the Browns to drive 61 yards, setting up Billy Cundiff's game-winning, 37-yard field goal. And the game might not have been close had the Falcons not been gashed by Browns rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West for 150 rushing yards, including Crowell's two scores.

But the offense still had a chance to put its stamp on the game late.

Immediately after Trufant's interception, the Falcons' offense stalled, gaining 17 yards on five passing plays. Then the defense had the nerve to come up with another big play as rookie Dezmen Southward intercepted a bad pass by Hoyer, giving the Falcons first-and-10 from their own 45-yard line with 2:42 left.

When Steven Jackson picked up 3 yards on third-and-1 after the two-minute warning, you just knew the Falcons were going to melt the clock and set up a Matt Bryant chip shot for the win. Instead came a mysterious timeout with 55 seconds left that preceded a failed third-down pass play from Matt Ryan to Devin Hester.

Smith explained the timeout.

"We wanted to get our best play for third-and-2 to try and earn the first down," Smith said. "That was our thought. We were right on the edge in terms of where we wanted to be in terms of field goal range. We wanted to get a first down."

The timeout would have been a moot point had the Falcons picked up the first down from the Cleveland 35-yard line. Instead, Ryan tried to go deep to Hester in one-on-one coverage with struggling Browns rookie Justin Gilbert, and the attempt failed.

"The look that they gave us said to throw the ball, and we did," Smith said. "And we didn't convert it."

It led to Bryant's go-ahead, 53-yard field goal that Smith admitted was out of the range the Falcons were looking for. More importantly, the failed third down stopped the clock and gave the Browns enough time -- 44 seconds with three timeouts -- to march down for Cundiff's winning field goal.

Browns cornerback Joe Haden didn't understand why the Falcons went deep to Hester on third down.

"I was thinking they were going to run something to the sticks because on third downs, they run stick plays," Haden said. "Julio [Jones], he ran another fade again, so I was on top of that. But I thought they were going to the sticks. I was playing on top of [Jones], waiting for him to sit down."

Ryan, who completed 27 of 43 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, offered his thoughts on the third-down throw to Hester.

"A good situation: one-on-one on Dev," Ryan said. "Felt like we had an opportunity to get it down the field. Probably should have given him a better chance at it, but I didn't throw the ball the way that I needed to.

"In situations like that, when you have opportunities to close things out or to make plays, you've got to make them. And I didn't do a good enough job of that."

All that being said, the Falcons remain 4-0 in the NFC South and could be right back in first place if New Orleans (4-6) loses to Baltimore on Monday night.

"Today, we just didn't play well on offense," White said. "We didn't play well enough to win, I'll tell you that. We've got to play better. Defense did a good job today. ... Gave us three turnovers. Gave us short fields. I felt like they did pretty good. We just didn't hold our end of the bargain."

Buccaneers collapse in epic fashion

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
7:06
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CHICAGO -- A few weeks ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith playfully said that his team would make an "epic climb" at some point.

You want epic?

The Bucs delivered an epic collapse Sunday. For a team that has lost in just about every way in a 2-9 start, Sunday's 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears was different.

This time, you couldn't see it coming. This time, the Bucs started fast and appeared to be cruising to a second straight win.

What happened? The third quarter happened. After dominating the first half and leading 10-0, the Bucs suddenly crumbled in spectacular fashion. They gave up 21 points in the third quarter, and it was the literal definition of "gave" them up.

It started harmlessly enough. The Bucs received the second-half kickoff and ran three plays before punting. That's when a Chicago offense that had been held to 68 yards in the first half suddenly came to life. The Bears put together a quick touchdown drive to cut the lead to 10-7.

"The plan wasn't to start off the second half that way," Smith said. "And once we got ourselves in the hole a little bit, we needed to regroup right there, and we didn't."

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLovie Smith was in no mood to reminisce about his Bears days after the Bucs' disastrous third quarter led to another loss.
Once the hole opened, it just kept getting wider very quickly.

Quarterback Josh McCown, who had played so well in last Sunday's victory at Washington, suddenly turned into a turnover machine. He held the ball way too long on a scramble that resulted in a sack/fumble by Chicago's David Bass. That gave the Bears the ball at Tampa Bay's 13-yard line. On the next play, Matt Forte ran for a touchdown that put the Bears ahead to stay.

Chicago's onslaught didn't stop there. On Tampa Bay's first play of the next series, McCown threw a pass intended for rookie running back Charles Sims that wound up in the hands of safety Ryan Mundy.

"It was unfortunate," McCown said. "The ball goes off of Chuck's hands and ends up in their [hands]. Those two right there back-to-back hurt us. It's tough, but we've got to do a better job managing it."

Three plays later, Forte scored again. The lightning-quick chain of events in the third quarter decided the game and put the Bucs back to where they were before their victory in Washington.

Smith has been talking about how his team is improving and how he believes the Bucs are ready to turn the corner. And for 30 minutes, it looked like the Bucs were playing exactly the style he likes. They were putting a good rush on quarterback Jay Cutler and moving the ball in the passing game.

"We did it for the first half," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We have to do it the whole game. We didn't do it enough. We have to be more consistent and do it the entire game."

The Bucs ended the game with four turnovers. They came up with only one takeaway.

"It's tough to win football games when you lose the turnover ratio," Smith said.

The irony is that the Bears won by playing the way they often did when Smith was the coach in Chicago for nine years. But this wasn't a day for reflection.

"I really wasn't into family reunions or anything like that today," Smith said. "I have lifetime friends here. I don't really need a game to see them. We won a lot of games here at Soldier Field. A lot of great memories. But this is a bad memory right now."

Smith's right. His time in Chicago is in the past and no longer matters. His job now is to turn the Bucs around. You can't do that when you're having disastrous quarters.

Jorvorskie Lane's injury 'serious'

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
5:34
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CHICAGO -- Observed and heard in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room after their 21-13 loss to the Bears.

Lane
Lane
The injury news wasn't good for the Bucs. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane suffered what coach Lovie Smith called a "serious leg injury." It sounds as if Lane, the only true fullback on Tampa Bay’s roster, could miss the rest of the season. Backup tight end Luke Stocker filled in at fullback after Lane's injury and has played the position in the past. But the Bucs might have to sign a fullback to finish out the season.

Smith pointed to Tampa Bay's first offensive drive of the second half as the turning point. The Bucs held a 10-0 lead at halftime and they got the ball to start the second half. They went three-and-out and had to punt. The Bears followed that with a touchdown drive and the momentum switched over to Chicago the rest of the way.

Quarterback Josh McCown threw two interceptions, but said his most disappointing moment was a sack/fumble in the third quarter. That led to a Chicago touchdown that put the Bears ahead to stay. McCown said he should have sensed the pressure and gotten rid of the ball.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
4:22
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ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Falcons dropped to 4-7 and lost their hold on the top spot in the NFC South, although they could get it right back with a loss by the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. The Falcons had won two in a row and looked poised to make it three following a 53-yard field goal by Matt Bryant. But the Falcons' defense gave up too much cushion in the end, and Billy Cundiff nailed the 37-yard game winner for Cleveland.

Stock watch: The Falcons' run defense took a tumble Sunday. Had the Falcons been a little stouter against the run, the Browns wouldn't have had a chance. Instead, there were plenty of missed tackles as the rookie tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West rushed for 150 yards. The Falcons gave up 475 total yards.

Matty iced: Matt Ryan was cold for much of the day. He almost threw an interception early that would have easily been returned for a touchdown, and eventually did get picked off once. He also walked into a sack and just didn't appear to have the right chemistry with Julio Jones. Ryan finished 27-of-43 for 273 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Game ball: Desmond Trufant made an incredible interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter that gave the Falcons a chance. He leaped in front of star receiver Josh Gordon, who didn't make much of an effort. Yes, it was a terrible throw by Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, but that doesn't take away how magnificent a play it was by Trufant, who was shadowing Gordon most of the day. Gordon still finished with eight catches for 120 yards.

What's next: The Falcons have another home game upcoming with one of the league's best as the Arizona Cardinals come to the Georgia Dome next Sunday. The Cardinals won nine of their first 10 games but lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a season-ending ACL tear.
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CHICAGO -- Some quick thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday:

What it means: The Bucs had a chance to put together back-to-back wins for the first time this season. They failed. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead they had a disastrous third quarter, giving up 21 points and committing three turnovers. That spoiled a chance for Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith to have a happy homecoming in Chicago, where he coached for nine years. At 2-9, the Bucs have clinched their fourth straight losing season.

Stock watch: Defensive end Jacquies Smith continues to make an impact. He got the start in place of William Gholston and delivered a first-quarter sack and tipped a pass in the second quarter. Look for Smith to stay in the starting lineup. Gholston, who could be playing his way off the roster, was called for roughing the kicker and appeared to get an earful from the coaching staff.

Lane injured: Fullback Jorvorskie Lane suffered what appeared to be a serious ankle injury in the second quarter. Lane was carted off the field. After that, backup tight end Luke Stocker filled in for Lane. Stocker might have to fill that role the rest of the season if Lane misses significant time.

Game ball: This category is becoming unfair. For the fourth straight week, the game ball goes to rookie wide receiver Mike Evans. He had three catches for 47 yards and scored Tampa Bay’s only touchdown of the game. Evans was one of few Bucs bright spots.

What's next: The Bucs are home against the Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1) next Sunday.

Lavonte David out for Buccaneers

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
11:10
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CHICAGO -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David against the Bears on Sunday.

David has a hamstring injury and didn’t practice Thursday or Friday.

It’s likely that Brandon Magee or Orie Lemon will start in David’s place. Running back Doug Martin and cornerback Alterraun Verner were listed as questionable but are expected to play.
METAIRIE, La. -- Say this for New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson: He’s resilient.

Robinson
The former first-round draft pick’s entire career has been a non-stop roller-coaster ride because of his highs and lows on the field and injury issues off the field.

But Robinson has continued to battle back each time -- something he has again been doing quietly over the past month after losing his starting job early in the year.

And this week, Robinson was honored by teammates as the 2014 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for the way he came back from the major knee injury he suffered last year.

“I'd say in the nine years that I've been here, [Robinson won by] the largest margin of votes. It wasn’t even close,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “With the injury he suffered and the rehab, he was here every day in the offseason. It was just like he was a fixture in the building. I think it was an easy decision for his teammates and certainly well deserving.”

More recently, Robinson has shown his resilience on the field, playing noticeably more decisive and aggressive in his nickelback role. He was officially credited with a total of three passes defensed in Weeks 9-10, and he easily could have been credited with two more this past Sunday against Cincinnati.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer made a point to stress the improvement he’s been seeing from Robinson when he broke down the Saints earlier this week. And Greer suggested that Robinson’s speed could make him a good matchup against the Baltimore Ravens’ speedy deep threat, Torrey Smith, on Monday night.

Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan both praised Robinson on Saturday for his improved play -- and his improved confidence, which Robinson himself admits has always been one of his biggest issues. Ryan said he’s seen the game start to “slow down” for Robinson.

“It was pretty tough. But I think it was all on me,” Robinson said of being demoted while he was struggling early in the year. “[I was] not being as fundamentally sound on my technique. And I think I was playing a little … like I don’t want to get beat instead of just playing football, pretty much.

“Right now, I’m just trying to do my job and that’s it. If I get beat, oh well. On to the next play.”
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is well aware that third-and-long has become his unit’s biggest nemesis.

“We gotta fix it. Hell, it’s everybody [trying to find the solution],” said Ryan, who said that includes meeting with coach Sean Payton to discuss the philosophy in those situations. “We have to fix this. So it can’t be just, ‘Oh, we played good, then we blow this or did this.’ It’s costing us games, and we have to fix it.”

The Saints allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to convert six first downs on third-and-8 or longer last week. And they’ve allowed more first downs than any team in the NFL this year on plays of third-and-8 or fourth-and-8 or longer (23, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

Some of the breakdowns have been more notorious than others (Golden Tate’s 73-yard touchdown on third-and-14 at Detroit and Michael Crabtree’s 51-yard catch on fourth-and-10 versus San Francisco immediately spring to mind).

Unfortunately, the specific solution is hard to identify since the Saints' defense has been burned in a variety of ways in those situations -- whether they blitz or not, whether they keep the quarterback in the pocket or not.

“There’s been a lot of different games where this situation has come up, and they’ve been a little bit different every time,” Ryan said. “We lose contain, we misplay a ball in the air, we have the wrong leverage on a play. There’s a lot of different things. But at the end of the game we have to be more aware of the situation, we gotta be better technique-wise, and we've gotta do a better job of coaching. That’s just the way it is.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' final injury report of the week was loaded with good news Saturday. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and running backs Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet are all listed as probable for Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Lewis
That means all are likely to play, barring any setbacks. Lewis, who has been fighting through a nagging knee injury for two weeks, said he plans to ready.

"'Monday Night Football.' I’ll be there," Lewis said. "I definitely feel like it’s getting better every day. I’ve got two more days. And 'Monday Night Football,' here we come."

It remains unclear if Lewis will be limited, as he was last week when he only played 10 snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals. But chances are his workload will increase well past that total. He was able to practice on a limited basis both Friday and Saturday this week after practicing only once last week. The extra day of rest before a Monday game didn’t hurt.

It also remains unclear if Thomas will be limited, since he missed the past four games with shoulder and rib injuries. But the "probable" designation is a promising sign. And Thomas has been able to practice on a limited basis all week. He was in very high spirits when he met with the media Thursday -- though he refused to reveal whether he’s officially playing or not.

I addressed Saturday morning how Thomas’ return might affect running back Mark Ingram's touches. I think Ingram will still get a heavy dose of the carries and goal-line looks, with Thomas spelling him at times and playing a bigger role in the passing game. Cadet’s touches could diminish, even if he is healthy enough to play. And running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) has officially been ruled out for Monday, as expected.

Lofton was expected to play all along, so his "probable" designation comes as no surprise.

Receiver Robert Meachem remains questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis with his ankle injury. The Saints don’t need to rush him back, even after losing Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury this week, since they have experienced backups Joe Morgan and Nick Toon on the roster.

Linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) has also been ruled out. Ingram (shoulder) and offensive tackle Zach Strief (chest) are listed as probable, but they should be fine after both practiced fully all week.
METAIRIE, La. -- Cornerback Keenan Lewis returned to practice on a limited basis Friday, which is a very promising development for the New Orleans Saints.

Lewis is arguably as important as any player on the roster outside of quarterback Drew Brees. And the Saints were noticeably impaired when Lewis was limited to just 10 snaps last week because of a lingering knee injury.

Lewis
Lewis said Thursday that he was hopeful the extra day of rest would help this week since the Saints aren’t playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Last week, Lewis practiced only once. This week it’s possible he will practice twice -- assuming he also practices on Saturday.

For the second straight season, the underrated Lewis was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering the injury two weeks ago. He routinely matches up against the opponent's top receiver. And FOX analyst John Lynch said on a recent broadcast that no cornerback is playing better in the entire NFL this season.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said this week in a scouting breakdown of the Saints that Lewis would be a good matchup against dynamic Ravens receiver Steve Smith. But even if Lewis’ role is limited, it’s clear that having him close to 100 percent would be huge against a Baltimore team that also features speedy threat Torrey Smith.

The rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have struggled with inconsistency this season, and now they will be making a switch at free safety, too, in the wake of veteran Rafael Bush's season-ending broken leg.

In other Saints’ injury news:
  • Running back Pierre Thomas (shoulder, rib) and receiver Robert Meachem (ankle) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. It appears both could be on track to return from lingering injuries this week. But it’s hard to say definitively if and how much they will play (which means fantasy owners should proceed with caution heading into a Monday night game).
  • Fellow running back Travaris Cadet returned to practice on a limited basis Friday after being held out Thursday with a hamstring injury.
  • Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) also returned to practice on a limited basis. He has been playing through the injury and playing at a high level, so there doesn’t appear to be much concern about his status.
  • Running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) and linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) remained out.
Wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Steven Jackson are among the eight Atlanta Falcons probable for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

Jones
Jones missed two days of practice with what was called an illness. He declared himself fully healthy after practicing Friday. Jackson missed Thursday's practice ill, but was back Friday. The same was the story for fullback Patrick DiMarco.

Receivers Harry Douglas (foot), Devin Hester (wrist), and Drew Davis (foot) are probable, along with guard Jon Asamoah (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Davis was activated from the physically unable to perform list following offseason foot surgery, so Sunday would mark his first action of this season.

Cornerback Robert Alford (broken wrist) and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott (hamstring) were the only Falcons ruled out. Alford is expected to miss the next three games.

For the Browns, tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) and wide receiver Marlon Moore (hamstring) were ruled out. Linebacker Karlos Dansby (knee) is doubtful, and linebacker Jabaal Sheard (foot) and defensive back Johnson Bademosi (concussion) are questionable. Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (wrist), linebacker Barkevious Mingo (shoulder), and defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin (knee) are probable.
The Atlanta Falcons made an expected roster move Friday by activating wide receiver Drew Davis from the physically unable to perform list following offseason foot surgery.

To make room for Davis, the Falcons waived wide receiver Freddie Martino.

Davis was a key contributor last season when Julio Jones went down with a season-ending foot fracture and Roddy White missed some action because of injury. Davis had 12 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in 2013.

Because the Falcons lost a key special-teamer in Antone Smith to a season-ending broken leg, Davis is expected to step into Smith's spot as a primary gunner. Davis has excelled on special teams in the past.

Davis has had plenty of practice time leading up to Sunday's game against Cleveland and should be ready to contribute.

This is the second roster move for the Falcons in as many days. On Thursday, the team added veteran linebacker James Anderson to fill the roster spot left when Smith was placed on injured reserve. Anderson is not expected to be active Sunday.

The Falcons also await the official return of strong safety William Moore off short-term injured reserve. Moore returned to practice this week and is eligible to play against Arizona next week.
METAIRIE, La. – I’ve written a lot this week about how the New Orleans Saints will look to replace rookie receiver Brandin Cooks’ production on offense. It remains an even bigger mystery how they’ll replace Cooks as a punt returner.

The only player on the Saints’ current roster who has ever returned a punt for them in the regular season is running back/kickoff returner Travaris Cadet. He has two career punt returns for a total of two yards, plus four fair catches. But Cadet also missed practice Thursday with a hamstring injury (the severity of which is unknown).

Saunders
The Saints signed rookie receiver Jalen Saunders this week. A fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, he began this season as the New York Jets’ punt returner. But he muffed two returns, which led to his surprisingly quick release. He later spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ and Seattle Seahawks’ practice squads.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Saunders’ punt return ability was the main thing that attracted the Saints to him in the wake of Cooks’ season-ending thumb injury.

“He’s a player that we evaluated coming out of Oklahoma and had good grades on, paid attention to. So we’ll see how he does this week in competition with a couple of other guys that are already working on it,” Payton said.

Among those other candidates are receivers Joe Morgan and Kenny Stills. Although neither has returned a regular-season punt for the Saints, Morgan thrived in that role in the preseason as an undrafted rookie in 2011, highlighted by a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. Morgan hasn’t returned a punt since the preseason of 2012, though.

Stills never even returned punts in the preseason for the Saints, but he did do it part-time in college at Oklahoma.

“We’ll probably take those guys to the Superdome one time this week to make sure they are good with catching it inside,” Payton said.

Regardless of whom they go with, the Saints need to amp up their punt-return game in general. Even with Cooks, they are averaging just 6.7 yards per punt return this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

Saunders’ winding road: Saunders admitted this has been a tough rookie season – one that also included a traffic accident when he experienced a seizure. “It hasn’t been my best year, to say the least,” Saunders said, via The Times-Picayune, though he added: "It's humbled me and it's made me a better player."

Four is a crowd in Bucs' backfield

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first time this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should have a full stable of healthy running backs when they play the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

Doug Martin, who has missed the past three games with an ankle injury, appears to be on schedule to make his return.

"Doug is back this week and that’s a good thing," coach Lovie Smith said Friday. “He looked pretty good in practice."

Martin
But Martin’s return means the Bucs face a tough decision on which running backs to activate Sunday.

"Four guys available," Smith said. "It’s pretty hard to dress four running backs. But we like having those decisions. It’s tough in a way, but in a way it’s really not. That’s why practice is so important, and we knew that we should have everybody back this week, so we’ve been paying close attention. We have a plan we feel comfortable with."

In addition to Martin, the Bucs have Bobby Rainey, Mike James and Charles Sims. Rainey has been starting in Martin’s place and he’s a regular on special teams, so he seems likely to be active. Sims has led the team in carries in each of the past two games, and James has carved out a niche as the short-yardage rusher.

Martin also missed two games earlier in the season. With Martin in and out of the lineup and Sims missing the first eight games with an ankle injury, nobody has stepped up and given the Bucs anything close to a feature back. But Smith said that situation will sort itself out.

"To me right now, if you continue to play guys, they’ll tell you all that," Smith said. "Bobby has had his moment. Mike James has kind of moved into his role. Yeah, we would like to see one of our running backs rush for about 200 yards and become the bell cow."

In injury news, linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring) missed his second straight day of practice. Smith said David’s status for Sunday will be a game-time decision.

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