Backups shine for Saints; Akiem Hicks key to Bucs defense: NFC South analysis

Before I bounce around the NFC South, I should introduce myself, as I hit the ground running a bit to cover the Falcons’ 27-24 win over the Bears on Sunday in my first day on the job.

My name is Greg Auman and I am very grateful to be joining the Fox Sports NFL staff as an NFC South writer. I’ve been around the division for a while, covering the Bucs for the past 10 seasons for The Athletic and before that, the Tampa Bay Times. This is an intriguing division — just look at the standings and you’ll see that the last-place team in the AFC East or NFC East has a better record than the South-leading Bucs at 5-5, but there is no shortage of stories ahead. .

The NFC South could have a complete rotation at quarterback in the offseason if Tom Brady doesn’t return with the Bucs and the other three teams move forward with new or younger options. That will make the NFL Draft a major topic of conversation at the game’s most important position, even if the Saints don’t have their first-round pick right now.

You can follow me on Twitter at @gregauman, and you can email me at if you have any questions. Great to be on board and here’s to a quick first lap through the division after a busy Sunday with two hard fought wins.

Backups shine for Saints defense

The most impressive part of New Orleans’ 27-20 win over the Rams is the way the Saints defense played despite being without four key starters due to injuries to running backs Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport, linebacker Pete Werner and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Paving the way? Linebacker Kaden Elliss, a 2019 seventh-round pick out of Idaho, set his career high in tackles for the second straight week: seven last week in place of Werner, and 11 Sunday in the win over Los Angeles. Werner had been one of the league’s leading tacklers when he went down with an ankle injury, and Elliss has as many tackles in the last three games (23) as he has in his first three NFL seasons. He also had 1.5 sacks in Sunday’s win, giving him 4.5 this season.

“[Elliss] “He’s probably been the best-kept secret in the NFL for the last few years,” linebacker Demario Davis said after the game. “We knew what kind of player he was and he has a chance to show the world. I know no one is surprised when they see him in our building. Just give him some time and he’ll be on everyone’s radar.”

Kenny Albert, Jonathan Vilma react to Saints’ win

Kenny Albert, Jonathan Vilma react to Saints' win

Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma praise Saints QB Andy Dalton for his performance against the Rams and predict New Orleans will have success down the stretch.

Without Jordan and Davenport, the Saints also lost Payton Turner to an ankle injury and still got production from backups Carl Granderson and Tanoh Kpassagnon, pressed into much bigger roles. Granderson, 25, has also matched his career high in tackles two weeks in a row: six last week and seven Sunday, including 1.5 sacks. Kpassagnon, who had a sack last week, added a half-sack Sunday against the Rams.

And at cornerback, the Saints continue to play both tight ends: 33-year-old Chris Harris, signed to the practice squad in October, and rookie Alontae Taylor, the team’s second-round pick out of Tennessee .

“If you think about all the guys, we have a high-level game that’s not in our lineup [today], for us to come out and execute is phenomenal,” Davis said. “It feels great, but that’s just the nature of the league. One of our slogans is: Most people don’t care about your problems and the other half are glad you got them. Regardless, you have to find a way and we were able to do that today.”

panthers: The glass is a quarter empty, not three quarters full

Carolina’s defense played well to hold Baltimore to three points in the fourth quarter, but late letdowns (and costly turnovers) led to 10 points and a 13-3 Ravens win, and the morale victories don’t matter for to interim coach Steve Wilks.

“I thought we played a great half of football, but one half is not enough,” Wilks said. “We’ve got to learn how to finish. That’s the key with us. … I love the way the defense has played. It’s given us a chance, a chance.”

Lamar Jackson leads Ravens to tough win over Panthers

Lamar Jackson leads Ravens to tough win over Panthers

Lamar Jackson threw for 209 yards and added 31 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore’s win over Carolina.

The Panthers benefited from the return of safety Jeremy Chinn, who played for the first time since Week 4 after missing six games with a hamstring injury. Chinn played every snap and tied for the team lead with 10 tackles, helping with a red zone defense that held the Ravens to a touchdown on four trips inside the 20-yard line. Pass Brian Burns was tireless, playing all but one defensive play and had a sack, giving him a team-best eight tackles this season.

Carolina has held back-to-back opponents to 15 points or less, the first time that has happened since the start of 2021, when the Panthers did it three times in a 3-0 start. They’re 5-20 as a team since then, but a defensive resurgence is a promising step, even at 3-8 and in last place in the NFC South. Next up for Carolina is a home game against Denver, the league’s lowest scoring team at 14.7 points per game.

Falcons: Allowed zero sacks for the first time since the start of the season

Especially after a loss to the Panthers in which Marcus Mariota was sacked a season-high five times, the Falcons’ offensive line played one of its best games of the season on Sunday, holding an opponent without a sack for first time. since the beginning of the season.

“You have to give our guys a lot of credit up front,” Mariota said after the 27-24 win over the Bears. “I mean, really, they dominated. To be able to do that, and to be able to be balanced like that, it makes us hard to stop.”

Mariota’s success hasn’t been measured in flashy stats as much as in efficiency: Sunday was his fourth game this season with a QB rating of 100 or more, and the Falcons are 3-1 in those games, with another victory where his rating was 99.8. . Winning without high passes is rare in today’s NFL, and Mariota threw for just 131 yards Sunday, the third time Atlanta has won by 135 yards or fewer this season, a feat only the Titans can match league-wide.

Falcons QB Marcus Mariota in win over Bears

Falcons QB Marcus Mariota in win over Bears

Marcus Mariota talks to FOX Sports’ Pam Oliver about Atlanta’s 27-24 win. “I’m excited to use this momentum for the weeks ahead,” he said.

Four Falcons offensive linemen – left tackle Jake Matthews, center Drew Dalman, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary – have played every game this season, but left guard has been a different story. With three on injured reserve, the Falcons turned to Chuma Edoga, who was claimed from the Jets in the final preseason cuts. After zero offensive snaps all season, Edoga played every Sunday,

Bucs: Back to business after a much needed bye

Tampa Bay returned to training camp Monday after a much-needed bye week, allowing players to rest and recover after a key Week 10 win over the Seahawks in Munich, Germany.

Part of the reason for the Bucs’ two-game winning streak has been returning key players from injury, especially on defense, with safety Antoine Winfield, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and corners Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting returning from injuries. They could get even healthier soon if safety Logan Ryan (foot) and wide receiver Russell Gage (hamstring) can return to practice.

Hicks, in particular, has been crucial to the Bucs’ improvements against the run, returning in the last two games after being sidelined since Week 2 with a plantar fascia injury in his foot. The Bucs are 4-0 when Hicks plays and 1-5 when he doesn’t, and the numbers are clear in stopping the run, as Tampa Bay allows just 70 yards per game with Hicks in the lineup and 148 when he’s out. The defense as a whole allows 10.5 points per game when Hicks plays, compared to 23.0 when he doesn’t.

That run defense will have a big challenge Sunday in Cleveland, where the Browns have the league’s fifth-ranked rushing offense, averaging 150.9 yards per game on the ground. Nick Chubb ranks fourth in the league with 923 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns, though the Bills were able to hold him to 19 yards on 14 carries in Sunday’s win over Buffalo at Detroit.

Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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