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
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.

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.”

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.

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."
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars put quarterback Blake Bortles into the lineup in part to help spark the offense. It looks like they are trying the same thing with Denard Robinson.

The second-year player from Michigan has improved his ball security significantly now that the nerve damage in his hand has healed completely. That, plus his athleticism and open-field skills, have earned him more playing time. However, it was a bit of a surprise to see him used as the Jaguars’ main back in Sunday’s 33-14 loss in San Diego.

According to ProFootballFocus, Robinson played a career-high 36 snaps, which was one less than Gerhart (21) and Jordan Todman (16) combined. He ran for 25 yards and caught three passes for 7 yards, but all of his catches came behind the line of scrimmage, and PFF reports that Robinson actually had 21 yards after the catch.

Gerhart did go to the bench after fumbling on his first carry, but returned during the Jaguars’ second possession and finished with 32 yards rushing on 10 carries and had one catch for 8 yards. Despite the discrepancy in playing time, coach Gus Bradley said Gerhart has not fallen behind Robinson on the depth chart.

"Just trying to utilize everybody’s strengths," Bradley said. "You see the receivers move around, too. We’re trying to utilize their strengths. That’s been kind of our philosophy."

Robinson is still learning the position, and told me earlier in the week it’s certainly different from running the ball as a quarterback at Michigan, especially when it wasn’t a designed quarterback run. As a running back, the defense is accounting for him on every play, and he has to get through the line of scrimmage before he can use his elusiveness. When he ran the ball as a quarterback he was usually evading slower linemen at first, and then had open-field situations.

That is backed up by his stats against the Chargers. He had three carries in which he ran the ball into the middle of the line of scrimmage, and he gained a total of minus-3 yards. He had 28 yards on his six carries outside the tackles, an average of 4.7 per carry.

The Jaguars have to use Robinson inside at times, otherwise it would be obvious that the play was going to be on the edge every time he entered the game, but using him on the edge maximizes his impact.

More thoughts on the day after ...

It’s logical to go with a short passing attack because of a rookie quarterback, the concerns about the offensive line, and the lack of proven playmakers at receiver. However, throwing the ball downfield is one of Blake Bortles' strengths, along with his ability to extend plays, and Bortles only had 10 throws that traveled more than 10 yards in the air against the Chargers. He completed 24 of the 27 that traveled 10 yards or less for 158 yards, but two of those incompletions were intercepted. The offense stalled in the second half in part because the Chargers got pressure and sat on the shorter routes.

A stat that might have slipped by everyone on Sunday: The Jaguars converted as many third downs on offense against the Chargers as they have in the previous three games combined. They went 9-for-14 (64 percent) on Sunday and were 9-for-37 coming into the game. The 24.3 percent conversion rate was last in the NFL.

The defense gave up six pass plays of 20 or more yards on Sunday, including three touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, that is nothing new. They rank last in the NFL with 25 pass completions of 20 or more yards allowed, and opponents have completed 25 of 45 attempts for a league-high 687 yards and six touchdowns.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday night’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t really all that different from their first three this season.

It still wound up being a pretty equal mix of some impressive drives and some paralyzing lulls. But the biggest difference was that this time, the Saints weren’t facing a team like the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings, who lulled along with them. This time, the Saints were playing an offense that was capable of leaving them in the dust.

You know – the kind of killer-instinct offense that we’re normally used to seeing from the Saints themselves.

Quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out that the Saints actually got off to a decent start, with their first two drives crossing midfield before his tipped-pass interception late in the second quarter sent Sunday’s game off the rails.

“It’s a game of momentum, and when you’re on the road, it’s even more so,” explained Brees, who pointed out what a fine line it was between 10-7 and 17-0.

But in a sense, Brees had it backwards.

The storyline of the Saints’ first two losses at Atlanta and at Cleveland, both of which came down to the final seconds, was that they were just one or two plays away from a different outcome.

As we saw Sunday night, the Saints’ offensive high-wire act this season also left them one or two plays from this kind of implosion.

They’ve been way too stop-and-start all season, even though the overall numbers and efficiency have ranked among the NFL’s best.

And sure enough, things got a little exciting and interesting in the second half Sunday night, too, once the Saints had to hurry up and start firing away. They flashed that quick-strike ability that still hasn’t gone away with two touchdowns that brought the score within 14 points. And Brees’ final numbers bordered on fantastic (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).

But clearly something is missing.

The most glaring absence so far has been the deep ball – which wasn’t a big problem until Sunday night, when Dallas also shut down the run game and corralled tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half.

I don’t see any concerns about Brees’ arm strength, which some people have asked about. When he did fire deep, he still had some authority and accuracy. But clearly, Brees is either not seeing what he needs to see down the field, or he’s not getting comfortable enough in the pocket to take those shots.

Once the Saints started forcing the ball downfield Sunday, it led to as many bad results as good ones: Brees’ interception into a too-tight window, fumbles by Graham and running back Travaris Cadet and at least two dropped passes each by Graham and receiver Marques Colston while the defense was repeatedly hitting them hard in the open field.

A 62-yard run by running back Khiry Robinson in the fourth quarter wound up making this game look even closer than it really was. Other than that run, the Saints gained 36 yards on 11 carries by running backs.

The Saints actually had the most efficient offense in the NFL through three weeks, according to a formula developed by ESPN Stats & Information. They earned that grade through a number of long drives that chipped away with the run game, underneath passes and third-down conversions.

Those numbers, however, masked just how thin the Saints’ margin for error was.

“So for us offensively, what do we need to do?” Brees said. “Well, we need to be ultra-efficient, score more points and take care of the football.”

It can be done – especially with seven home games remaining on the schedule. But as Brees said best of all Sunday night, “We’ve got to play better.”

Bucs should stick with Mike Glennon

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
Sometime soon, Lovie Smith is going to make the biggest decision he's made since taking over as the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Assuming Josh McCown comes back healthy in the next week or two, Smith is going to have to choose between the veteran and second-year pro Mike Glennon as his starting quarterback. But should it even be a contest?

I say no. In Sunday's 27-24 upset win over Pittsburgh, Glennon played the way McCown was supposed to. He played smart football and he led a last-minute game-winning drive. McCown, at times, played like the inexperienced quarterback in the first three games -- all losses.

Go with Glennon. He was supposed to be the quarterback of the future, and the future is now.

But I'm not sure Smith will feel the same way. Smith is known for being conservative, especially when it comes to offense, and he also has a sense of loyalty to McCown because the two were together in Chicago.

Loyalty is an admirable quality. But the NFL is a cold, harsh world where winning is all that matters. McCown is a nice guy and a good leader. But he had his chance to win and he didn't.

McCown was sidelined by a thumb injury Sunday. It's unknown when he'll be able to return. Maybe the choice is made easy for Smith. Maybe McCown will be out a few more weeks and maybe Glennon will use that opportunity to firmly cement the starting job.

But I think Glennon laid a pretty nice foundation for that job on Sunday.

Saints don't hide from harsh reality

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
ARLINGTON, Texas -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said it best: You can't jump in a hole and hide from 1-3.

The Saints’ two last-second losses were frustrating. And they took their problems seriously. But they still had that sense of, "Oh man, if just one or two things had gone differently we could have been 3-0."

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys? That was downright disturbing.

[+] EnlargeCowboys
AP Photo/Tim SharpTerrance Williams caught two of Tony Romo's three TD passes against the Saints as Dallas amassed 445 total yards in its 38-17 rout.
It was disturbing because the defense imploded so badly that folks who cover the Cowboys were comparing it to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's demise in Dallas two years ago.

It was disturbing because the offense was just as bad, getting shut out in the first half for just the third time since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

And it was disturbing most of all because this was the Saints’ chance to show who they really were on the national “Sunday Night Football” stage.

Maybe that is exactly what they did.

"We can talk all we want about talent or expectation or any of that stuff. Right now we’re not a good football team. We didn’t do anything right," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You’re glad it’s the fourth game of the year and it’s not just decided (at the end of the season that) you were a bad team. But right now, we’re a bad team."

So how do they deal with that revelation?

"There’s one way to work yourself out of these holes, and it’s cliché to anybody that hasn’t experienced it, but you’ve got to work your butt off," Strief said. "I know guys feel like they’ve worked hard, and I know sometimes it looks like you’re working hard. But we have to find more. Somewhere, in really every department, we’ve got to work harder than we have and maybe harder than we ever have before."

Secondly, it has to start with some very real X’s and O’s corrections.

On defense, the Saints have a laundry list of fixes to make, but right at the top has to be figuring out how to generate more pressure with their four-man pass rush. That was maybe their biggest key to success last season, and it has virtually disappeared this season. That could lead to those badly needed turnovers and alleviate pressure on the secondary.

On offense, the Saints need to figure out how to hit on some deep passing plays. It was OK for three weeks when their offense was still very efficient. But those big plays were sorely missed against a Dallas defense that was also corralling Jimmy Graham and shutting down the run game at the same time in the first half.

On special teams, the Saints need to decide whether kicker Shayne Graham is still their guy, and they could use a little juice in the return game.

"It’s challenging, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. But that’s on all of us right now," Payton said. "It’s on me, it’s on our staff, it’s on the team. Obviously it’s not where you want to be, and we’ve got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we’re not winning."

Last but not least, those fixes have to pay off immediately with a Week 5 win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (also 1-3) before the Saints head into their Week 6 bye.

They don’t get much more "must-win" than this. The Saints haven’t lost a home game with Payton on the sideline since 2010 (not counting his 2012 suspension). And they certainly can’t stop now.

"We had a bad day today. That’s clear. Everybody sees it, everybody sees the score. You know, we’re disappointed and slightly embarrassed," Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’ve gotta go get this game against Tampa, get away from the bye and get on a roll.

"What we have on this team, the character of these guys, we’ve got to put more into the process. And we’ll get this thing corrected."
When injuries started to mount for the Atlanta Falcons last season, the downward spiral never stopped.

Once again, the injury bug has bitten the Falcons on both sides of the ball. And once again, a defensive leader is among the walking wounded.

Strong safety William Moore suffered what is thought to be a significant shoulder injury during Sunday's 41-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Coach Mike Smith did not immediately provide an update on Moore's status, but the tone of the locker room wasn't too optimistic. In fact, one player indicated Moore "might be out" as if the injury could be serious enough to jeopardize Moore's season.

Nothing will be certain, however, until Smith provides an injury update either during his Monday afternoon news conference or on Wednesday, when the injury report is released.

The Falcons are bracing for the worst.

"William is a big part of our defense and he sets the tone for us back there," rookie safety Dez Southward said. "I don't know anything about his situation. I hope that he comes back. But he is the heart and soul of this defense. Guys love him and listen to him. So, I'm wishing the best for him. But at the same time, I know that if he's not able to play, others, including myself, have to be ready to go."

The Falcons already lost their primary defensive leader when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an Achilles injury during the preseason. Moore immediately assumed more leadership and vowed to be more vocal. He was playing at a high level -- and playing smarter in terms of avoiding illegal hits -- before suffering the shoulder injury late in the first quarter of Sunday's game.

If Moore is out for any amount of time, Kemal Ishmael will have to develop quickly. Ishmael got a head start when defensive coordinator Mike Nolan started using more of a three-safety look featuring Moore, Ishmael, and free safety Dwight Lowery. That could become a threesome of Lowery, Southward, and Ishmael.

"Willy Mo has a big impact on our defense and he's one our senior leaders; a veteran guy who has been here," Ishmael said. "But this is the NFL. Guys have to step up and play at the same level as the starters do. We're just going to have to work through it and push through."

Moore was Ishmael's biggest supporter leading into the season, which should give Ishmael more confidence if he becomes the starter for any amount of time.

"Ever since I came here, Will's a guy I've always looked up to," Ishmael said. "His style of play is similar to mine and I just feed off of him. I watch what he does in practice and I just learn from him. For him to respect me like that and talk about me, that's awesome, because I'm basically under his wing.

"I'm going to do everything I can to help this team -- and help this defense -- to win."

After surrendering 558 total yards against the Vikings, the Falcons need all the defensive help they can get.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- So which was the anomaly? The New Orleans Saints' stunning defensive turnaround in 2013? Or their stunning regression this season?

Sunday night's debacle in Dallas shouldn't be pinned on the Saints' defense alone. The number of guilty parties after their 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was roughly equal to the number of seats on the team plane. And nobody was shying away from that fact after the game.

But the Saints' offense has a track record that offers hope and optimism going forward. Heck, they even tried to turn this one into a real game with two quick second-half touchdown drives.

It's the defense that remains the biggest question mark after yet another meltdown Sunday night. It let Tony Romo throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, while DeMarco Murray ran for 149 yards and two scores.

"Definitely, I think now, after these couple games, it is a big deal now," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, one of many who had started to chafe at the constant line of questions about what was wrong with the Saints' defense after the first two losses. "First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK, now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

Those questions were especially hard to ignore this week in Dallas, where so many people who follow the Cowboys were asking both before and after the game if the bloom was off the Rob Ryan rose?

Ryan was hired as the Saints' defensive coordinator last year after being fired by the Cowboys following a disappointing second season as their defensive coordinator in 2012.

It seemed as though Ryan got the last laugh on the Cowboys when New Orleans routed them 49-17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season. But now Ryan has admittedly found himself in a spot once again where he needs to "prove it."

The New Orleans defense was supposed to be more loaded than it has been in any time in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They finished fourth in yards allowed and points allowed last year, and then added Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd for good measure.

Instead, they're currently ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed and 31st in turnovers forced (one, which came way back in the first quarter of Week 1).

"It's nothing about the scheme," Saints middle linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "What it comes down to is you gotta whup the man across the line from you. And if you don't do that, then you're not gonna be successful. If you gotta man him up, then you man him up. If I gotta tackle the running back, I gotta tackle the running back. It's plain and simple. There's no magic schemes. You gotta whup somebody in front of you."

So what is it, exactly, that's not working for the Saints' defense?

The only correct answer is, "Everything."

They haven't been able to force turnovers. The pass rush has been practically non-existent -- this may be the biggest head-scratcher of all since both Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette emerged as 12-sack guys last season. Blitzing hasn't worked, and not blitzing hasn't worked.

They missed tackles in bunches in both Week 1 at Atlanta and Week 4 at Dallas. They had breakdowns in their coverage assignments during the first two weeks before Ryan simplified his checks and adjustments last week. And that seemed to work in a 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings. But it sure didn't work at Dallas. Nothing did.

"I felt like we were heading in [the right] direction, we took a small step. But we took three steps back today, and that can't happen," said Lofton, who insisted confidence hadn't wavered -- but that reality hasn't disappeared, either.

"You can't run from 1-3," Lofton said. "So when you watch film, we don't point fingers around here, we use thumbs. The first thing I'm gonna do is see how I can get better and help this team win. If each guy does that and is accountable to each other, then we'll get where we need to get to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

No sugar-coating: There were no real fiery speeches in the Saints' locker room. But there was a whole lot of harsh reality. The Saints (1-3) were cautiously optimistic after their first two losses came down to the final seconds. But they were a lot more matter-of-fact after this blowout saw Dallas jump to a 31-3 lead:

"We have to be realistic right now with ourselves. Right now we're not a very good football team," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You're glad it's the fourth game of the year, and it's not just decided -- it's the 15th [game], and you were a bad team. But right now we're a bad team."

Added safety Kenny Vaccaro: "It is a big deal now. First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK. Now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

"There's not going to be much good to see on this film," coach Sean Payton said. "We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."

Why the fake punt? The Saints did just about everything wrong Sunday night, but the most inexplicable decision seemed to be their fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had closed the gap to 14 points. If you're gonna try for a miracle, why not at least have Drew Brees throwing it instead of punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-9?

Payton said, hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong decision. But it was a play the Saints had considered for a while, and they had the ball on the hash mark they wanted. But the Cowboys covered it well.

Effort and energy? Payton has never been shy about calling out his team when he feels like the effort and energy aren't there. But he stopped short of doing that this time.

"I don't know, necessarily," Payton said. "We'll grade that when we put the tape on. I thought they came in with the right mindset. Obviously, though, it didn't match what Dallas' was."
MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the oddest sights from Sunday's Falcons-Vikings game was seeing lanky tight end Levine Toilolo, at 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, line up at right tackle for the Falcons to close out the game in a 41-28 loss.

"When you have tight ends playing offensive line for you, it limits what you can do, limits the playbooks,'' quarterback Matt Ryan said. "But I think our guys battled. I thought Levine stepped in and did a good job.

"It limits what you can do. It makes things a little more difficult. But I think we tried to make the best of that situation.''

The situation was created after the Falcons lost starting offensive linemen Joe Hawley, Justin Blalock and Lamar Holmes to injuries. Center Hawley was carted off the field with a knee injury and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday, as reported by ESPN's Adam Caplan. Hawley left the locker room on crutches and with his right leg in a brace, but there's optimism about his injury not being season-ending. Holmes, the right tackle, also exited the locker room on crutches and had his left foot in a boot. Blalock, the left guard, was sidelined with a back injury.

The Falcons dressed seven offensive linemen as tackle Ryan Schraeder and rookie center/guard James Stone were inactive. Peter Konz finished the game at center for Hawley while Gabe Carimi finished at left guard for Blalock.

"I think we just have to regroup,'' rookie left tackle Jake Matthews said. "We have to look back at the film and see what things we did well. Obviously, there was a lot that we needed to improve on. Losing three key guys like that is never easy. I've never been a part of a game where we're playing with just four offensive linemen.''

Like Ryan said, it significantly limited what the offense was able to accomplish in the fourth quarter as the Falcons tried to erase a 10-point deficit. Ryan was intercepted by Vikings safety Harrison Smith with 3 minutes, 30 seconds to play. He threw another interception on a desperation throw as time expired.

Now, the Falcons have to put this game behind and hope that the offensive line is healthy enough to move forward. Schraeder and Stone appear destined to be active for next Sunday's game against the New York Giants. Promoting guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad would be another option for more depth. And the team could look outside for help as well, if needed.

The Falcons already lost veteran tackle Sam Baker (knee) in the preseason, so they were shorthanded coming into the season. And protecting Ryan was the primary emphasis for 2014, and that goal might be hard to accomplish with so many moving parts. If he doesn't get proper protection, the offensive can't be as dynamic as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants it to be.

"It's one of those things that we have to adjust and guys have to be ready to step up and play,'' right guard Jon Asamoah said. "I'm proud of the guys that came in today. Pete and Gabe came in there, as well as Levine, and competed.

"With Levine, that was a first. But Levine is a smart guy from Stanford. We communicated and he held up out there.''
MINNEAPOLIS -- When a defense gives up 558 yards to a team playing without its best player and with a rookie quarterback, something is seriously broken.

As the Atlanta Falcons tried to explain their defensive woes after Sunday's 41-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, plenty of folks attempted to absorb the blame. Nose tackle Paul Soliai put it on himself for not stopping the run -- although he wasn't solely responsible for surrendering 241 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Linebacker Paul Worrilow pointed to himself for not getting off blocks -- but he was far from the only one who encountered such a problem.

[+] EnlargeDwight Lowery
Ann Heisenfelt/AP PhotoDwight Lowery and the Falcons were unable to stop Teddy Bridgewater during the rookie QB's first start.
The Falcons (2-2), supposedly bigger, tougher, and stronger on defense this season, found themselves offering very little resistance on that side of the ball. That's why the Vikings' running back tandem of rookie Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata -- filling in for Adrian Peterson -- combined for 213 rushing yards, including a 55-yard run by McKinnon. That's why first-time starter Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 30 passes for 317 yards with no interceptions.

"They ran the ball, they threw the football, and they did basically whatever they wanted to in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage, and that is very alarming," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The way we have played on the road through the first two games is a big concern because we are going to be getting into a stretch here that we have to be on the road for a number of weeks."

Indeed, the Falcons play four of the next six games away from the Georgia Dome, where they looked like a totally different defense in a 56-14 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sunday looked more like the defense most grew accustomed to seeing during last season's 4-12 misery.

So how will the issues be fixed? Free safety Dwight Lowery might have offered the best take on the matter.

"It's going to take all of us," he said. "Not just players. Coaches. Scheme. Understanding where you fit. Understanding adjusting.

"It's a long season. It's not like we lost the Super Bowl or anything. We've just got to improve. Whoever improves the most from week to week mostly likely is going to be in the hunt to do some things during the season. We just have stay as positive as we possibly can and make sure that we're improving each and every single day, each and every single opportunity and when it's time to perform, perform."

Part of the adjustment might include playing without defensive leader William Moore; the strong safety went down with what appears to be a serious shoulder injury.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan tweaked his lineup against the Vikings by inserting rookie Prince Shembo into the starting lineup ahead of Joplo Bartu, but the defense was so bad all-around that it was too hard to say if the move had any impact. Bridgewater and the Vikings ruled the middle of the field with play action and tough runs. Team owner Arthur Blank had a blank stare on his face as he watched the defense surrender 351 yards and 24 points in the first half.

The Falcons started the second half playing more inspired on defense, allowing them to take a 28-27 lead on Antone Smith's 48-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. But Bridgewater engineered a nine-play, 78-yard drive at the start of the fourth quarter, ending in Asiata's 1-yard touchdown run, sucking plenty of life out of the Falcons.

"We can't be two different teams," Lowery said. "The NFL is about consistency. That's how you get a job. That's how you keep your job. And that's what we need to develop."