METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reiterated Friday that the New Orleans Saints' early struggles are "on us" as a defense -- and "on me" in particular.

"Hey, those are the facts," Ryan said during his weekly visit with the media. "You don’t like to admit ‘em standing up here, but it’s the damn truth. ...

"We want to be great on defense, we want to be a little tiny part of our success. And we’ve been a big part of our failure right now. It’s not how we’re going to roll."

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSaints coordinator Rob Ryan on his defense after the Saints' 0-2 start: "We've been a big part of our failure right now. It's not how we're going to roll."
Ryan said that improvement will come through hard work and long hours of "looking for any kind of edge you can get."

It’s unlikely that drastic changes will be called for, since the Saints thrived on defense last season with the same coordinator and most of the same players. But there will almost certainly be tweaks.

The most likely switch is at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where the Saints replaced starter Patrick Robinson with Corey White during last week’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Saints have not announced whether that will be a permanent change, but it’s obviously a possibility. Safety Rafael Bush could also see more snaps as the fifth defensive back in nickel packages -- the role he played for most of last season.

Some scheme tweaks could also be in store.

Even though the secondary is loaded with experienced veterans, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they have struggled with communication and assignment errors after releasing three longtime starters in the offseason (safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, and cornerback Jabari Greer).

When asked if that takes time to develop with new guys working together (like new safety Jairus Byrd and Robinson returning from a year-long injury), Ryan said, "Obviously it does."

"Those guys played with each other for a long time," Ryan said of Jenkins, Harper and Greer. "They know the system inside and out. So the communication was obviously excellent. But obviously these guys will take a little bit of getting used to each other and getting on the right page and the same page.

"That can also be helped with our plan. Doing things one way instead of three ways, and things like that. But we have to improve, we know that, we’re working on it and we have to get there."

When I asked Greer to scout the Saints’ secondary heading into this season, he agreed with the outside consensus that the Saints might be "as talented as they’ve been in a very long time." But he quickly brought up the importance of things like communication and chemistry with new players.

"Talent doesn't necessarily equal success," Greer said at the time. "Communication and leadership and understanding each other's roles, working together with each other's strengths and safeties covering up the corners' weaknesses, that equals success. And that is yet to be determined. ...

"Because given the departure of the veteran leaders in the secondary, that was the big question coming into the season. So I'm interested in seeing who's taking that leadership position, how they're going to rally the troops, and really how they're gonna communicate effectively."

Greer said typically the safeties take over that leadership role because they are known as the "quarterbacks" of the defense, responsible for making calls and checks.

Kenny Vaccaro has talked often about embracing that type of leadership role, even though he is in just his second year. But he said this week that leadership should be a collaborative effort rather than a forced one.

"I think the worst thing that can happen is when you anoint a guy and not just let him prove himself," Vaccaro said. "You don’t want to just give a guy that position. It’ll happen on its own, honestly. And I think we’ve got a lot of leaders in the secondary. So I don’t know if a guy will get kinged as a leader of the secondary.

"I think everybody has their own qualities, and we all just bring that together. ... We gather each other together."

Vaccaro said Jenkins (a former defensive captain) used to be known for his "powerful speeches" before games. He said that neither he nor Byrd is a "speech guy" and that they are both guys who prefer to lead by example.

"We talked about that (Wednesday)," Vaccaro said of him and Byrd. "We talked about we’re gonna have to just ride with each other and we’re gonna have to get out of our comfort zone. ... Definitely, though, I think we work all together."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (hand) and linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) were officially ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings after suffering injuries last week. Fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) and safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) were also ruled out for the third straight week.

Center/guard Tim Lelito was a new addition to the Saints’ injury list Friday. He did not practice with a back injury and is listed as questionable.

Center Jonathan Goodwin (elbow), linebackers Curtis Lofton (shoulder) and Kyle Knox (ankle) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) are listed as probable after fully participating Friday. However, Morgan was a healthy inactive last week and could be again this week.

As we’ve written throughout the week, Ingram will be replaced by a combination of more snaps for Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Although Ingram is off to the best start of his career, Thomas and Robinson have also started strong while the entire run game has played well.

And Hawthorne will likely be replaced by veteran backup Ramon Humber, with outside linebacker Parys Haralson also capable of sliding over to help fill the void.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera admits opponents might not respect the running of Cam Newton as much as they have the past three seasons with the quarterback continuing to recover from injuries.

But Rivera has no doubt opponents still respect Carolina's running game.

“You look at the last game we played and they had nine [players] in the box, eight in the box a lot," said Rivera, referring to Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit. "They respect the run game."

Tampa Bay also loaded up to stop the run in the opener, a 20-14 Carolina victory in which the Panthers played without Newton, who was sidelined with fractured ribs.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsWith DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert hurting, Cam Newton might take off running a little more on Sunday night.
That, in part, explains why the running game has struggled. Carolina is averaging 87.5 yards in two games, compared to 126.6 yards a game last season.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out the Detroit game with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh, and that also is a factor.

There also has been a lack of communication up front.

Then there's Newton. His four rushes -- including one kneel-down -- for 19 yards against Detroit tied a career low.

Newton averaged 5.8 carries and 42.3 yards per game the last three seasons. His 2,032 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in the past three seasons are by far the most of any NFL quarterback.

With Williams and running back/fullback Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) banged up, there might be more of a temptation for Newton to run against a Pittsburgh defense that is surrendering 170 yards rushing a game.

Don't be surprised if the Panthers turn the quarterback loose more than they did against Detroit. Newton looked as healthy as he has in months on Friday, not wearing the flak jacket during a practice in shorts.

"I never go into a game trying to force the issue," Newton said. "My main focus is always take what the defense gives me. If it's a scramble, I'm going to take it. If it's a run that coach calls, I'm going to take it. Trying to execute this offense as best as I can."

As good as Newton looked Friday, Rivera doesn't believe his quarterback will feel 100 percent until sometime in February, after the season is over, because of the pounding he'll take.

Coming into the season, Newton had been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback the past three years.

Newton remains adamant he won't change his style and slide instead of diving forward for extra yardage. He didn't slide against Detroit.

"The bigger issue is me staying healthy, staying away from big hits, as I always have," Newton said. "When that's all the defense gives me, get down and get down fast."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said tests on Harry Douglas' injured left foot were negative Friday morning, but Smith said Douglas' playing status won't be updated until next week.

Douglas was injured in the first half of Thursday night's 56-14 win over Tampa Bay. He did not return to action, although he walked around behind the bench.

"We've got a couple of days to get some treatment,'' Smith said of Douglas. "And we'll have an injury report on Wednesday.''

Douglas had two catches for 14 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Buccaneers. After he exited, Eric Weems saw more time at receiver. That could be the same plan if Douglas doesn't return for next Sunday's game at Minnesota.

Smith previously indicated receiver Roddy White was close to playing against Tampa Bay coming off a hamstring injury, so it appears White will be ready to face the Vikings.

TAMPA, Fla. – A day after a 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith stood by quarterback Josh McCown.

“Josh is our starter,’’ Smith said. “We’re looking at one game right now. It would be simple if Josh was the only guy that played bad. It seems like that’s the only guy I’m asked that about is Josh. You could ask that about quite a few people, starting with me as the head coach based on that effort. But a little more goes into it than that.’’

That, of course, is assuming that McCown is healthy when the Bucs (0-3) return to action next week against Pittsburgh. McCown suffered a right thumb injury in the Atlanta loss. Smith said McCown was having an MRI on Friday and the results weren’t yet available. Second-year pro Mike Glennon stepped in and finished the game in McCown’s spot.

After the game, Smith hinted there would be some changes. That’s still the case, but Smith said Friday that there wouldn’t be sweeping changes.

“Everything’s on the table,’’ Smith said. “It’s not just one thing. We have a few more days to evaluate what we’re doing. When that happens, changes have to be made on what we’re doing. At the same time, though, as I told the team, you have to draw on history a little bit, too. Our history in Tampa, our team that lost in the NFC championship Game lost 45-0 to Oakland and beat Green Bay the following week and ended up playing in that championship game. As coaches, we’ve had games like this. You can’t put too much into it having a lingering effect on your season. We just played bad this one night.’’

Although there could be some lineup changes, Smith said the Bucs aren’t going to suddenly change their schemes.

“I don’t think you tear it apart and start all over,’’ Smith said. “No. We had a bad performance. What we need to do individually is each one of those players needs to look at themselves in the mirror and see what he did play by play. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re critiquing every play and what happened. Sometimes when you do that you see that it’s not 20 million things that they did right. It’s just a few things that we did wrong. So we’re not tearing everything down or anything like that. I believe in what we’re trying to do. But, sometimes when you are new, it takes a little bit longer.’’

To bring heat, Panthers call 'NASCAR'

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On at least one play during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit the Carolina Panthers lined defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison in the middle at tackle in order to create more quarterback pressure.

It's called, appropriately, "NASCAR."

"We put four guys out there and say, 'Go fast,'" coach Ron Rivera said on Friday.

The formula is simple, and one that might have to be used more to apply pressure with 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy on leave of absence until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The intent is to put as much pressure as possible on the quarterback with the front four, allowing the linebackers to drop into coverage. It works hand-in-hand with the cornerbacks being physical with wide receivers in the first five yards, to throw off the play's timing.

It's a philosophy that helped Carolina lead the league in sacks last season with 60, without having to blitz a lot.

Rivera said there will be times when you will see defensive tackle Kawann Short surrounded by three ends, or four ends and no tackles. It will always be the fastest and freshest players the Panthers have in obvious passing situations.

Regarding fresh, Rivera said he has to find a way to cut down on the snap counts for Johnson. With Hardy out against Detroit, the team's third all-time leader in sacks (54) was on the field for 62 of 72 defensive snaps.

That was 18 more than the next defensive lineman and 28 more than the next end.

Johnson was double-teamed much of the time because the Lions didn't have to worry about Hardy on the other side. He had no sacks for the game and has none for the season.

"Will he continue to get doubles like he did last week?" Rivera said. "If he's getting doubled, then other guys have got to step up, a la what happened with Mario [2.5 sacks]."

Among others Rivera cited as needing to step up was second-year tackle Star Lotulelei, who also has no sacks.

"We're going to be physical," Rivera said. "We're going to buy that extra step. But we want the four fastest to go, just to get up in there and haul butt."

Rivera said he likely will stick with the rotation he used to replace Hardy at right defensive end against Detroit. Wes Horton started and played mostly on first and second down. Addison played mostly on third down and pass rush situations.

Second-round draft pick Kony Ealy began mostly on third down, but worked more into the rotation on first and second. He could be used to give Johnson a break.

"We've got to be smart," Rivera said. "One of the things we've got to be aware of is that we don't wear Charles out."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams returned to practice on Friday and is expected to play in Sunday night's prime-time game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The team's all-time leading rusher missed last week's 24-7 victory over Detroit with what has been called a thigh injury, but he clarified on Friday that it's a hamstring injury. He also was limited in practice much of this week and continues to be listed as questionable.

But Williams took reps with the first team on Friday and appears ready to go, barring a setback.

Also back at practice were running back Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) and wide receiver Jason Avant (hamstring). Both are expected to play.

Coach Ron Rivera said he's most concerned about starting wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring), who did not practice Friday and is listed as questionable. He said Cotchery ran on the treadmill in the pool and will be re-evaluated on Saturday.

Cotchery said he likely will be a game-time decision, adding he's not so much worried about playing against his former team as he is being ready for the long haul.

Rivera said no decision has been made on whether to bring a player up from the practice squad to take defensive end Greg Hardy's spot on the 53-man roster. Hardy on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The decision to use the spot will be determined by the injury situation. Rivera said running back Darrin Reaves or one of two wide receivers -- Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas -- could be brought up.

Rivera also said there's a chance that spot is left open for defensive end Frank Alexander, who's set to return on Sept. 29 from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Gerald McCoy hopes for quick return

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
TAMPA, Fla. – On the day after a 56-14 loss to Atlanta, there was at least one small bit of hope coming out of One Buccaneer Place.

All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said he hopes he’s able to return for next week’s game at Pittsburgh. McCoy missed the Atlanta game with a broken hand. McCoy said he wanted to play, but it was in his best long-term interest not to.

“Of course I wanted to [play], but it’s a long season, and I’d rather my team have me in the long run than just for one game,’’ McCoy said. “There was a chance that if I played last night, I could’ve completely messed my hand up, and then needed surgery, which would put me out for good. I had to play it smart, but I’m working to get back.”

McCoy also took exception to talk from fans that Tampa Bay Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp kept right on playing through a broken hand.

“Let me clarify something, because I’ve seen some people trying to give me a hard time for missing the game,’’ McCoy said. “Everybody says Sapp played through it. But let’s get our facts straight. Sapp sat out a game, too. He missed a game in Minnesota , and then came back against Green Bay away, and had a pretty good game. So let’s get our facts straight, OK? Thank you.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wes Horton doesn't have a catchy nickname like Greg Hardy's, aka the Kraken, the player he and a platoon of others are replacing at right defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.

So let's give him one.

How about Gemini Jr.?

Before he began chasing quarterbacks, Horton chased his father around the original set of "American Gladiators," a television phenomenon that ran between 1989 and 1996 featuring amateur athletes against the show's gladiators in tests of agility and strength.

[+] EnlargeMichael Horton
Courtesy Wes HortonMichael Horton was Gemini, one of the six original "American Gladiators." Here, he holds his son Wes, left, a Panthers defensive end, and his son Shane, right, a linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts.
Michael Horton was one of the six original gladiators. He was known as Gemini, apparently fitting because of his split personality: calm one second, aggressive the next.

"It was a hot show," said Wes, who was born a year into the show. "[My dad] was kind of the man around town for a while. It was cool to play on the sets and travel around the country and do all kinds of crazy contests, throwing people around and being a big, strong guy."

Wes still throws people around, only now it's offensive tackles and running backs -- and an occasional quarterback. He got his first start in Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit after Hardy was placed on the inactive list.

With Hardy out indefinitely after going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, Horton will get more opportunities.

Next up is Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game at Bank of America Stadium.

"It's just going to come down to more snaps from all of us and being consistent with those snaps," said Wes, who will share the position with Mario Addison and Kony Ealy. "It's not enough to show flashes and have a big play here and move on to the next game.

"We've got to be impact players."

Wes' father was all about flash. From a tight red, white and blue spandex costume to swinging on ropes and tackling contestants, he was a muscle man's superhero.

"I can still get in the spandex very easily," said Michael, now a consultant on physical fitness in the Los Angeles area. "I'm in as good a shape now as I was then."

Wes isn't so sure about his father wearing spandex, but the being-in-shape part he won't deny.

"He trains me in the offseason," Wes said. "Pretty much every aspect of football, he shoots me advice. He's my No. 1 critic after games. I always call him and say, 'Pop, how'd I do?'"

Michael knows football. He spent nine years between the NFL, Canadian Football League and USFL before turning to television. While he never made it past what was then the taxi squad in the NFL, he always knew Wes would.

"He probably should have gotten drafted, but that's another deal in itself," Michael said of his 6-foot-5, 270-pound son, who was signed by Carolina as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Cal in May 2013. "He's on course to be a very good football player, and his work ethic will get him there."

Wes played mostly on first and second down against Detroit. He was the run-stopper, the player who did all the dirty work. Addison got the headlines with 2.5 sacks even though he played six fewer snaps (28).

Wes is OK with that, too, although he'd one day like to be an every-down player.

"Wherever they want to put me on the field, I'm more than willing to step in there and give it everything I have," said Wes, whose brother Shane is a linebacker for Toronto in the CFL.

In some respects, Wes is like his father. He's a gentle giant off the field. Then, when the whistle blows, he turns on the aggression.

But he wants to make one thing clear: He never dreamed of wearing spandex and being an America Gladiator. As much fun as he had playing on the Powerball, Swingshot and Eliminator on the show co-hosted by former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, his goal was to be in the NFL.

Wes still could use a nickname, though.

Let's let his father pick one.

"Oh, gosh," Michael said. "He would probably say something easy like 'Terminator.'"

Vikings vs. Saints preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
It has been a turbulent start to the 2014 season, to say the least, for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-1) and New Orleans Saints (0-2) as they head toward their Week 3 matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Minnesota’s issues run much deeper than football. Star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted on a felony child-abuse charge in Texas; on Wednesday, the Vikings put Peterson on their exempt list, barring him from games and practices.

The Vikings deactivated Peterson for their Week 2 game, a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots.

The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to use their home opener to rally back from two stunning, last-second losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: How much did the Vikings miss Peterson on the field last Sunday? And how do they try to fill that void this week?

Goessling: Against a Patriots team that appeared vulnerable against the run, they missed Peterson considerably. He didn't have a great first game of the season in St. Louis, but a large part of what Peterson brings to the offense, even when he's not being terribly productive, is the number of looks he opens up for others simply by the attention he commands from defenses.

Matt Asiata caught a touchdown pass last week and is a decent between-the-tackles runner. They also like rookie Jerick McKinnon, though they haven't gotten him involved in the offense yet. But no matter what the Vikings do, they're not going to be able to replace Peterson. They have some good weapons in their passing game, and they'll have to make them work. Without Peterson, though, the Vikings' offense looks a lot less intimidating.

The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram. How will that change their offense this weekend?

Triplett: It's basically the exact opposite of what you just described. Ingram has been off to a fantastic start -- probably playing the best of his career. But he's also more replaceable than Peterson because the Saints have such good depth at running back. Veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year pro Khiry Robinson are both off to good starts this season as well. And they're more than capable of increasing their workload.

Most important, the entire Saints run game has been thriving since late last season, which has helped all three of their backs. The Saints are tied for fifth in the NFL with 156.5 rushing yards per game, and they’re ranked second with 5.7 yards per carry. Normally those numbers translate to victories.

What other parts of Minnesota's offense will the Saints need to prepare for? It looks like Cordarrelle Patterson has given the Vikings a new dimension. And can Matt Cassel match points with Drew Brees if needed?

Goessling: You're right about Patterson adding some new wrinkles to the Vikings' offense. He has taken the baton from Percy Harvin, in the sense that the Vikings can use him out of the backfield, get the ball to him on screens and employ him as a kick returner. The one area where Patterson still needs to improve, actually, is as a receiver. He struggled mightily last week while trying to get separation from press coverage, and while his route-running has improved, he's still learning how to be a reliable option for Cassel.

As for Cassel's ability to match points with Brees ... boy, I don't know. The Vikings had trouble protecting him last week, and he threw a couple of bad interceptions when he wasn't able to look off defenders. If it turned into that kind of game, I'd be a little worried about the Vikings' ability to keep up.

One of the ways the Saints' offense could get rolling, obviously, is Jimmy Graham. Is there any recipe to slowing him down right now? What would your advice be to the Vikings about how to cover him?

Triplett: Well, don't ask the Browns. They tried a little bit of everything last week, including Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and corner Buster Skrine at times. And Graham just exploited the size mismatch.

When teams have had success against Graham, they had to devote more than one resource. The Patriots pressed him with corner Aqib Talib and played zone behind him; the Seahawks bracketed him, often using Earl Thomas as a spy; and the Eagles chipped him with defensive ends off the line. The problem, though, is that exposes teams to all of the Saints' other weapons, including their much-improved run game and dynamic new receiver Brandin Cooks. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's almost immune to double-teams.

So where is the Vikings' defense most vulnerable?

Goessling: Especially against a team that can spread them out like the Saints can, I'd have to say it's the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the top cornerback, but he was playing with a groin injury last week, gave up four catches and got flagged three times. Captain Munnerlyn gave up a touchdown, and the secondary depth is a concern. As you mentioned, the process of stopping Graham is a group effort, and the Saints have so many options that the Vikings could have trouble keeping up, especially if they have as much trouble getting to Brees as they did to Tom Brady last week.

Speaking of defensive vulnerabilities, the Saints' defense looks to have taken a significant step back in the first two weeks of the season. First, where has the pass rush gone, and second, do you see a quick fix for the defensive issues?

Triplett: I definitely expect vast improvement by the Saints' defense. The talent is there, from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. All have actually played well this season. But the Saints were done in by things such as missed tackles in Week 1 and blown assignments and penalties in Week 2. All extremely frustrating -- but correctable -- issues.

The biggest concern is the depth at cornerback. The Saints might have to make a change at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where teams have been picking on Patrick Robinson. A more consistent pass rush would certainly help in that department as well.


Steelers vs. Panthers preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.

Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:

Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?

Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.

The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.

How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery fitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?

Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.

There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.

The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?

Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.

Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.

Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.

Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?

Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.

The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.

What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?

Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.

David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?

Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.

As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.
ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had quite an impressive night himself in a 56-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, setting franchise single-game records for completion percentage (87.5 percent) and passer rating (155.9). However, he was more excited to talk about wide receiver Julio Jones than his own marks.

Jones, showing no ill effects of an injured ankle he suffered last week in Cincinnati, caught nine passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns, including a falling, over-the-shoulder 40-yard touchdown grab good enough to be a "SportsCenter" Top 10 play for the next week.

"It was a hell of a catch," Ryan said. "Just his ability to adjust as the ball goes over his shoulder, as good as it gets. He had a great release on the route. It's something that we feel like we can give him a chance because he's one of those guys that has the ability to make those kind of plays. He showcased that tonight."

Jones, who missed most of last season following right foot surgery, now has 23 catches for 365 yards with three touchdowns. He did not speak to the media following Thursday's game.

But Ryan had plenty to say about his top target. Jones is expected to have a major impact on a weekly basis, but his role was even more emphasized Thursday with Roddy White (hamstring) sidelined.

The Buccaneers had no answer for Jones and didn't really alter their defensive strategy to slow him down.

"Julio is as good as he's ever been, if not better," Ryan said. "He's only going to continue to get better because he's got a better understanding of defenses that he's going against. He's got a better understanding of our offense. I think he's playing the best he's ever played."

So that would make Jones virtually unstoppable, correct?

"Yeah," Ryan said. "Defenses are going to have certain ways that they're going to try and stop him. But we feel like anytime he gets in that one-on-one situation, that's a win for us."

Roddy White itching to get back

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Atlanta Falcons' 56-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • Coach Mike Smith said receiver Roddy White was close to playing after injuring his hamstring in last week's loss at Cincinnati. White himself was confident about playing in the game, and Smith implied White probably would have played had it been a Sunday game rather than played on Thursday. As White strolled through the locker room, he yelled out, "I'll see you all next week," as if to say he'll be ready to face Minnesota.
  • Safety Kemal Ishmael was all smiles by his locker showing his gold. Well, he was golden with a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown to put the Falcons up 21-0 in the first quarter. "It started up front with great pressure, great recognition from the linebackers, and having trust in my corner," Ishmael said. "It was just knowing what was coming and taking a chance."
  • Defensive tackle Corey Peters cracked a rare smile before exiting the locker room. He had reason to be pleased with his individual performance after notching one of the Falcons' first three sacks of the season. Peters, who is finally back to form following last year's Achilles tear, also had four tackles for losses and two quarterback hits. "I think that my attitude is better and I'm just back into the flow of things now," Peters said. "I'm starting to get my feet back under me. It's been like four weeks of practice. I'm just enjoying myself. I'm really enjoying the game."
ATLANTA -- There has long been a belief in NFL circles that Lovie Smith is one of the brightest defensive minds in the game.

Now that's just a myth. Thursday night's 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was a reputation-destroyer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach.

Smith told his team after the game that it now bears a scar that's not going away. That's true, because people will remember this one for a long time. Smith also now has a scar on his résumé.

Tampa Bay (0-3) played as bad a game as you could imagine. How bad was it? The 42-point margin of defeat was nearly a franchise record.

Think about that for a second. This is a franchise that opened 0-26 as an expansion team and had plenty of dismal days under the likes of Ray Perkins and Sam Wyche. The Bucs were losing 56-0 on Thursday night before scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns, long after the Falcons pulled their starters. Had that margin stood, the franchise record (45 points) would have been shattered.

In their first two games, the Bucs lost close games to backup quarterbacks, Carolina's Derek Anderson and St. Louis' Austin Davis. Against the Falcons, the Bucs faced an elite quarterback in Matt Ryan -- and the defense got absolutely shredded. Atlanta put the game out of reach in the first quarter, powered by two touchdown passes from Ryan.

The Falcons gained 300 yards of total offense in the first half. The Bucs had 63. But this isn't about Tampa Bay's offense -- that unit came into the season with questions. Tampa Bay's defense was supposed to be the team's strength. Now it, too, has major questions, tops among them: Can the Bucs, who have just four sacks this season, win a game if they keep playing defense like this?

Let's try to be fair to Smith for a minute. His defense was without injured All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and middle linebacker Mason Foster. But Atlanta's domination was so thorough, McCoy and Foster might not have made much of a difference. Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier simply didn't have the defense ready for an Atlanta offense that's very good, even without injured receiver Roddy White.

"I'm embarrassed by our play," Smith said. "We failed in all phases. It starts with the head football coach."

Smith got that part right.

"What we're going to do in the future, we're going to make some changes," Smith said.

It's hard to overhaul a defense while the season is in progress. But that's what Smith is going to have to do, or else his team and his reputation are going to end up with a lot more scars.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 56-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Falcons, whose NFC South record improved to 2-0, are extremely dangerous when they are clicking on all cylinders. Quarterback Matt Ryan set the tone early by marching his team on a a six-play, 70-yard scoring drive, capped by his 3-yard touchdown pass to Harry Douglas, in the first three minutes of the game. The Falcons scored 21 first-quarter points, and it was pretty much over after that. If the Falcons can jump ahead early like they did Thursday night, not many teams will be able to keep up with them. And if the defense plays inspired football like it did, the Falcons could be unstoppable. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. It's just one game -- although a very dominating one -- but the Falcons have to find their rhythm on the road at Minnesota the next time out.

Stock watch: Ryan's stock plummeted last week as he posted just a 48.6 passer rating in a 24-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Well, that's a distant memory now after Ryan posted a career-high and franchise record 155.9 passer rating Thursday, completing 21 of 24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His 87.5 completion percentage was a franchise single-game record (minimum 20 attempts). Ryan again made some plays with his feet, and his top receiver, Julio Jones, caught nine passes for 161 yards and two scores. The biggest difference for Ryan from last week was the return of rookie left tackle Jake Matthews to the lineup off an ankle injury. If Ryan gets the proper protection, he'll put up elite-quarterback numbers every time out.

Walking wounded: The Falcons left the game rather banged up at receiver. Douglas injured a foot in the first half but didn't return, although he walked around the bench area in the second half. Devin Hester left the field before halftime with cramps but returned in the second half. He then limped off the field in the second half and went straight to the locker room. The Falcons already were without veteran Roddy White, who expected to play in the game but was inactive due to a hamstring injury. The Falcons have 10 days to rest up for their next game against the Vikings, so maybe those injured players will be healed up by then. If not, a guy such as rookie Bernard Reedy might have to be activated from the practice squad.

Game ball: As Chicago Bears radio play-by-play man Jeff Joniak would say, Hester was "ridiculous" as he set an NFL record with his 20th career touchdown return -- a 62-yard punt return -- to surpass mentor Deion Sanders. Hester high-stepped to the end zone in Deion Sanders-like fashion, and he also scored his first-career rushing touchdown on a 20-yard reverse.