CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was explaining on Wednesday the decision to place Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy on the NFL commissioner's exempt list -- which amounts to a paid leave of absence while Hardy appeals his conviction for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

"When I have to make decisions," Rivera said, "I make decisions that I believe are in the best interest of this organization. And don't ever forget that."

The coach pounded his fist repeatedly during his final words. He was intense. Emotional.

Unfortunately, he was 65 days late.

[+] EnlargePanthers general manager Dave Gettleman
AP Photo/Chuck Burton"There's no magic list we can hit checkboxes that bring us to the right answer," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said.
This or some form of discipline should have taken place July 15, when a Mecklenburg County judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder.

Had the team acted immediately there wouldn't be the uproar there is now, the week after video emerged of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée and days after Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was indicted on child-abuse charges.

But the Panthers didn't act immediately. Instead of being proactive, they let Hardy play throughout the preseason and in the first regular-season game.

Then they reacted -- twice -- to decisions the Vikings made about Peterson.

On Friday, Rivera said Hardy would play against Detroit. The only thing that changed between then and Sunday morning, when he deactivated Hardy, was Minnesota's decision to deactivate Peterson for its Week 2 game.

On Monday, Rivera said Hardy would practice Wednesday. Then the Vikings, who on Monday said Peterson would play this weekend, applied for Peterson to be placed on the exempt list -- and Carolina's stance on Hardy changed again.

Had the Rice video never been released and had Peterson not been indicted, Hardy likely would be preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh.

General manager Dave Gettleman is right when he said there's no textbook for how to handle situations such as this. But there is a blueprint for doing something. Less than a year ago, in November 2013, the Vikings released cornerback A.J. Jefferson the day he was arrested on a felony count of domestic assault by strangulation.

Hardy got nothing when arrested and nothing when a judge found him guilty.

"Our overriding goal has always been to do the right thing," Gettleman said Wednesday.

He then said it was the right thing to deactivate Hardy after starting him the first game. He then said placing Hardy on the exempt list was the right thing to do, too.

"There's no magic list we can hit checkboxes that bring us to the right answer," Gettleman said.

The only list the Panthers followed was the precedence set by the Vikings.

Gettleman said this situation was different from Minnesota's. And it is. The Vikings said they made a mistake in saying Peterson would be activated this week, whereas the Panthers never said they made a mistake at any point.

They simply said the "climate has changed."

It should have changed 65 days ago.

Eleven Panthers held out of practice

September, 17, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Defensive end Greg Hardy was among 11 players who did not practice for the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday.

Hardy's absence was not injury related -- it was revealed later that he was placed on the NFL's commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The other players who didn't practice Wednesday were left tackle Byron Bell (toe), wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee), wide receiver Philly Brown (ankle), right tackle Nate Chandler (toe), linebacker Thomas Davis (hip), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (back), fullback Mike Tolbert (chest), running back Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh) and tackle Garry Williams (thigh).

Also, tight end Greg Olsen (calf) and wide receiver Jason Avant (thigh) were limited.

That's six starters and a couple of other regulars -- not including Hardy.

The only two healthy running backs were Jonathan Stewart and Darrin Reaves, who is on the practice squad.

Coach Ron Rivera said Bell, Benjamin, Brown, Chandler, Thomas, Edwards, Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Garry Williams will be back Thursday on either a full or limited basis as the Panthers prepare for Sunday night's prime-time game against Pittsburgh.

Rivera said he hasn't discussed who will start in place of Hardy moving forward. Wes Horton started Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit and played mostly on first and second down in run situations.

Mario Addison came in on passing situations and had 2.5 sacks, but Rivera said Addison is more of a "situational player." Second-round pick Kony Ealy also could work into the mix.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton confirmed Wednesday that running back Mark Ingram won’t play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings after having surgery to repair a displaced fracture above his thumb.

Payton, however, said he’s optimistic Ingram won’t be out for long and called it a “week to week” situation.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Tony DejakThe Saints' Mark Ingram shined last Sunday despite suffering a serious thumb injury in the first quarter.
“The procedure went well. It’s just a matter of the swelling, the wound and the bone healing,” said Payton, explaining that Ingram couldn’t just play with a cast because the fracture was displaced. He said Ingram had two screws placed right above his thumb.

The injury occurred during the first quarter of Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. It was unclear if Ingram was injured when cornerback Joe Haden’s helmet hit his left hand during a tackle, or if it occurred as Ingram braced himself with the hand on the ground. Either way, Ingram popped right back up, briefly pulled his hand inward and jogged back into the huddle.

Ingram had the hand taped on the sideline soon after but played the remainder of the game, thriving with a total of 104 yards from scrimmage. Fellow running back Pierre Thomas called him “a warrior.”

“It’s obviously impressive that he played that long with it,” Payton said. “You could see on film that his exchanges were a little different and how he was taking the ball. But he’s a tough player.”

As for how the Saints will fare without Ingram, players and coaches expressed confidence even though Ingram was playing the best football of his career.

Payton, Thomas and quarterback Drew Brees said they all expect fellow running backs like Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet to step up.

"It's nothing new. We've all been through it,” Thomas said. “You always expect something like this is going to happen, and we'll be ready for it. We're going to make sure we know what to do. We're going to make sure we didn't lose a beat. We lost a good running back, but he's going to get better and get back quick.”

Payton agreed that Ingram has been especially “sharp” this season while running for a total of 143 yards, three touchdowns and 6.0 yards per carry. But he said the Saints have always preached the importance of depth.

Robinson has run for 59 yards and a touchdown this year on 14 carries (4.2 yard average). Thomas has run for 47 yards on 10 carries (4.7 average) and has nine receptions for 74 yards.

“Khiry’s a guy, shoot, he’s another back we feel like is young [but] is someone that’ll be ready for the workload,” said Payton, who proved his faith in Robinson by increasing his workload during the Saints’ playoff run last year, even though he was an inexperienced undrafted rookie.

And Brees said he is “very confident” that Robinson can handle things like pass protection as he has continued to develop in his second year.

“From the first time he stepped foot in our building until now, he’s light years in improvement in every facet of the game,” Brees said, “but I’d say especially in nickel, where you’re required to be a little more headsy in regards to protection and getting out and running outside of the backfield.”

Other injuries: Linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) and center Jonathan Goodwin (elbow) were also new additions to the Saints' injury report this week. Neither player participated in team drills Wednesday. The severity of the injuries is unknown. Hawthorne left last Sunday's game early with the injury, while Goodwin played the entire time.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton was limited with a shoulder injury (which also limited him in practice last week). Safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) and fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) remained out with lingering injuries.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The final injury report has Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, but no one in the locker room doubts he'll be ready for Thursday night's matchup against Tampa Bay.

White
White
White said he was "good" after injuring his hamstring in the Falcons' 24-10 loss at Cincinnati. He played all 68 of the offensive snaps.

Fellow receiver Julio Jones isn't overly concerned about White's status.

"If he can go, he's going to go," Jones said. "He's going to be fine. I guess he had a hamstring, but he's going to be fine. He always comes back."

White did not practice this week with the short turnaround and wasn't on the field for Wednesday's walkthrough. Still, there is plenty of optimism concerning his status.

"Roddy has played plenty of games in his career without practice," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Roddy has been in this offense for seven, eight years, since coach [Mike] Murlarkey came before me. Sometimes, you're worried about players, assignment-wise. But on a short week, you're not putting a complicated game plan [together] anyway. All the stuff that's in this game plan, Roddy knows it. When it's an experienced guy like Roddy, it's way more about his health than about 'Is he going to know what to do?'

"If Roddy's healthy, if he's able to go full-speed, he'll play good."

In other injury news, rookie left tackle Jake Matthews is probable and is expected to play coming off a sprained left ankle. With Matthews set to return, expect Lamar Holmes to remain as the starting right tackle with Gabe Carimi the swing tackle.

Jones (ankle) and rookie linebacker Prince Shembo (knee) also were listed as probable coming off injuries.
TAMPA, Fla. – Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy officially is listed as questionable for Thursday night’s game in Atlanta.

McCoy has a broken hand, but there’s some reason for optimism after he took part in Wednesday’s practice on a limited basis. McCoy and coach Lovie Smith have said a game-day decision will be made.

Linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins have been declared out. Defensive end Michael Johnson (ankle) and running back Doug Martin (knee) are listed as questionable.
Punters often are overlooked in the NFL, but such isn't the case with Matt Bosher.

Bosher
The Atlanta Falcons appreciate Bosher's ability to have an impact on games, which is why they rewarded him with a contract extension.

The Falcons signed Bosher to a five-year extension through 2019, as reported by ESPN's Field Yates. The deal includes a $2.5 million signing bonus and $5.95 guaranteed.

The Falcons also extended long-snapper Josh Harris through 2018, according to Yates. His deal included a $500,000 signing bonus.

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong emphasized Bosher's importance when he addressed the media following the season-opening win against New Orleans. Bosher was ESPN Stats & Information's punter of the week for his performance against the Saints.

"I think the best thing we did was Bosher really doing a good job of controlling the field position with the touchbacks," Armstrong said last week. "And I thought also he did a nice job of hanging the ball on punts. That kind of contained them with fair catches and that type of stuff. When you talk about coverage, we really covered one kick because Bosh was on fire and really did a nice job placing it and hanging it."

Bosher has been consistent since joining the Falcons as a sixth-round draft pick out of Miami (2011).

"He's done a really good job for us," Armstrong said of Bosher. "Very professional; works on it year-round. Tough is the one thing that jumps out with him. When I look for a kicker or punter, I'm looking for a guy that's not a typical kicker, but he's got some toughness to him. And he's got some legitimate toughness to him. He doesn't back down from anybody. That's kind of the guy we were looking for when we got him.

"He does a hell of a job for us on the kickoffs. As you know, he'll go down and cover as well. ...The other thing that nobody ever talks about is he's holding (on field goals), and he never did it before he got here."
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin offered high praise for a pair of Carolina Panthers players, including linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think he is legitimately in the argument of a J.J. Watt in terms of some of the most exciting young football players in our game,” Tomlin said. “Luke Kuechly is quite simply one of the best in the business.”

Kuechly
That lofty assessment is not merely a case of Tomlin laying it on thick when talking about an upcoming opponent.

Kuechly is the first player since a guy named Lawrence Taylor to win the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year and the AP Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.

The 6-3, 238-pounder piled up 156 tackles while intercepting four passes last season in helping the Panthers in the NFC South. Kuechly is tied for third in the NFL with 20 tackles through two games and the 2012 first-round draft pick also has a sack.

“There’s nothing that he can’t do,” Tomlin said of the Panthers’ 23-year-old middle linebacker. “He is good at blitzing. He is a sideline-to-sideline tackler. He has innate instincts. He can slip blocks. He can defeat blocks physically. He is great in the passing game.”

The Panthers used their most recent first-round pick to address their passing game on the other side of the ball.

And Kelvin Benjamin, a big and rangy wide receiver, has already provided some early returns for Carolina.

The former Florida State star has caught eight passes, including one for a touchdown, in two games, and is averaging 17.3 yards per reception.

The Steelers took a long look at the 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin prior to the draft last May and Tomlin and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert each attended Florida State's Pro Day.

“There are big wideouts and there are really big wideouts,” Tomlin said of Benjamin, the 28th overall pick of the 2014 draft. “This guy is really big. He is going to have a 50 pound or so advantage on just about every defensive back he comes across. He has good body control. He has good, strong hands. He attacks the ball. [Carolina quarterback] Cam [Newton] does an awesome job of locating balls and putting balls in locations that only Benjamin can make the plays. He is an impressive young man.”
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was a devastating moment for Devin Hester, one that nearly caused him to run away from football.

Back in December 2012, the day Lovie Smith was fired as the head coach in Chicago, an emotional Hester addressed reporters in the Bears' locker room and contemplated retirement. He never imagined playing for another coach after establishing an everlasting bond with Smith.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDevin Hester is excited to play against former coach and friend Lovie Smith when the Falcons take on the Bucs in Week 3.
"That situation goes so deep because he was the first coach who took a chance on me coming out of college in Miami," Hester said. "From that point, I just had so much respect for him. I'm a loyal guy, man. He'll always be one of my favorite coaches.

"The situation I was in back in Chicago, he was the only one that was going to bat for me. He was the only one who had the power to do it. I knew right then when he was gone, my career there was going to be pretty short."

Hester decided to gut out one more disappointing season in Chicago before signing with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Now, he'll face his former coach for the first time Thursday night as Smith's Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to the Georgia Dome.

"I just have so much respect for him not only as a person, but as a coach," Hester said. "He was fun to be around."

Smith is just as anxious about the reunion.

"Everyone who knows me knows that Devin's one of my favorites," Smith said. "He's one of my favorite players, talking just football. My first head job and I got to coach the greatest returner of all time. That was special, the things I was able to see him do with his hands on the ball.

"But when I talk about favorite, Devin Hester is family. This is a lifetime relationship we have here. Devin Hester is one of the best people you'll ever get a chance to meet."

Smith wanted to sign Hester in Tampa, particularly since the return game is something the Buccaneers are lacking. Hester also has a close tie with Buccaneers receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker and would have been utilized on offense. In the end, the Falcons' three-year, $9 million deal to Hester that included $4 million guaranteed was something the Buccaneers couldn't match.

"I wanted Devin to get as much money as he possibly could," Smith said.

Hester also respects Smith for believing in him as a receiver. Hester actually came to the Bears as a return man/defensive back. In 2009, he had a career-high 57 catches for 757 yards and three touchdowns in then-offensive coordinator Ron Turner's scheme.

Critics often questioned Hester's ability to absorb the offensive playbook. Such talk annoyed Smith.

"It's a shame when you get labeled a little bit for something," Smith said. "I remember when Brandon Marshall first got there in Chicago and talked about how special Devin was as a receiver. If you're special with the ball, you're special with the ball. It's a shame what happened with him as a receiver in Chicago."

A big part of the problem was the lack of chemistry between Hester and quarterback Jay Cutler. It's no secret Cutler scolded Hester, at times. It led to Hester asking not to play offense his final season with the Bears.

"I don't know all the dynamics on that, but you've got to really search hard not to like Devin Hester," Smith said.

In Atlanta, Hester has opened eyes at receiver. He gives the Falcons another dynamic weapon alongside Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas. Hester has six catches for 101 yards with a long play of 35 yards. He had two touchdown receptions in preseason games.

"That's the great part about what Mike (Smith) has done along with Terry Robiskie and Dirk Koetter, to see that Devin can do more than just return kicks," Smith said.

In the return game, Hester sits one touchdown away from setting the NFL record for all-return touchdowns. He is currently tied with mentor Deion Sanders at 19.

Wouldn't it be something if No. 20 came against his old coach?

"He's a lifetime friend; I feel like he'll be a part of my family forever," Smith said. "And he's the greatest returner of all time. So when you're on the opposing sideline, you're not real happy about that."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took a wait-until-after-the-season approach on Monday when asked if his current unit is better than the one that finished last season second in the league.

I'm not as patient.

It is better.

To be fair, how much better -- and maybe for how long -- depends on the future of defensive end Greg Hardy. Last season's sack leader was placed on the inactive list before Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit as the team re-evaluated his domestic violence case.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60.
Hardy played a huge role in the defense's overall success a year ago because of his ability to play end, tackle and drop into coverage. It took two players to replace what he does on Sunday.

At the same time, Carolina's ability to shut down Detroit's high-powered offense without Hardy is evidence that this unit is better because of depth, experience and leadership.

It's definitely better than last year's defense two games into the season, a big reason Carolina is 2-0 instead of 0-2 as it started 2013. Just look at the numbers as the Panthers head into Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They rank fifth in the NFL in total defense (293.5 ypg.) and second in scoring defense (10.4 ppg.). A year ago after two games, they were 26th (403 ypg.) and 18th (18 ppg.).

You can go down the line -- rush defense, pass defense, sacks and turnovers -- and Carolina is significantly better now.

The secondary that was questioned throughout the offseason is a primary reason. Two weeks into last season the Panthers were in a state of disarray with starting free safety Charles Godfrey suffering a season-ending Achilles injury and the left cornerback position unsettled.

This year's group, despite the loss of safety Mike Mitchell to Pittsburgh and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota, is a solid mix of veterans and young players who have quickly come together as a cohesive group.

They already have three interceptions compared to one the first two games last season. Left cornerback Antoine Cason has an interception and a forced fumble.

"I really thought the secondary put on one of their better games out there,'' McDermott said.

Experience up front also has helped. Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were rookies a year ago. Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein, the anchors at weakside linebacker, were basically special team contributors until Carolina traded Jon Beason to the New York Giants before the third game.

And as hard as it might be to believe, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is better -- particularly in terms of pass defense and forcing turnovers.

He preserved the Tampa win with a late forced fumble. His knockdown of a pass 25 yards down field against Detroit is one only a handful of middle linebackers could make.

McDermott doesn't have to wait to say Kuechly is better now than last season.

"I would say so,'' he said.

Statistically, it's hard argue the entire defense isn't better. The Panthers are allowing 4.6 fewer points and 7.7 fewer yards than last year's team.

They have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60. They have twice as many forced turnovers (6) from a team that finished tied for sixth with 30.

"I think we are headed in that direction," coach Ron Rivera said when asked if this defense was better. "We have a lot of guys that have been in the system for [a few] seasons now. You are starting to see where guys don't have to make checks or calls. They just know what their assignments are.

"We can be better, and we've still got a long ways to go."

On that McDermott agreed.

And the ultimate goal, as linebacker Thomas Davis said, isn't to be better than last season's defense. It's to be the best defense in the NFL.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Glance at the NFL statistics this week and you'll see Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Paul Worrilow atop the league with 29 combined tackles.

It would appear to be a significant accomplishment for a second-year player who came to the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Delaware. But the only number Worrilow sees is four: He's counted four missed tackles for himself through the first two games.

One was during Sunday's 24-10 loss at Cincinnati, when Worrilow and strong safety William Moore both missed a chance to corral Bengals running back Jeremy Hill on a checkdown from quarterback Andy Dalton. A 3-yard gain suddenly became an 18-yard explosive play with Hill's 15 yards after the catch.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Paul Worrilow
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFalcons linebacker Paul Worrilow leads the NFL with 29 tackles.
"It was just a poor tackle attempt, thinking that you were going to be able to take a shot at a guy," Worrilow explained. "Obviously, we both whiffed. That's something that I usually don't do. I usually try to just secure the tackle and get the guy down. ... That's one that sticks out that you'll never do again."

Another against the Bengals occurred when Worrilow couldn't get off a block in time to wrap up Giovani Bernard on a fourth-quarter run.

"There was a penalty on the play, and it came back," Worrilow said. "The play might not count on the stat sheet, but that's one of those that plays over and over in your mind as you're preparing for the next game."

Worrilow deserves plenty of credit for not being content with his play. He could have been somewhat comfortable following a solid rookie season, during which he led the Falcons in tackles with 127 and had back-to-back 19-tackle efforts against Carolina and Seattle. Instead, he never became consumed by those gaudy numbers after his team finish the season 4-12.

Falcons coach Mike Smith appreciates Worrilow's self-criticism and willingness to strive for perfection.

"I think the guys that are really truly driven, it's not about what they did well, it's about what they can improve on," Smith said. "Paul is that way. He's a guy who is hypercritical of his play. And when you are hypercritical, I think it's a good trait to have as a football player.

"Is he too critical? Absolutely not. I like that. He's a guy that studies the game extremely hard. For a second-year player, I think he's light years ahead of other people that I've been around in terms of his understanding of the game."

Worrilow needs to be a sure tackler Thursday night against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers boast a rather elusive running back in Bobby Rainey, who is coming off a 144-yard rushing outing against St. Louis. Rainey rushed for a career-high 163 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 41-28 win over the Falcons last season.

"He's definitely a guy you have to wrap up," Worrilow said of Rainey. "A lot of times I see they (Rainey and Doug Martin) take on the contact and they're going forward for 3, 4 more yards. Like you always teach, wrapping up and not diving is something that's going to be big."

Worrilow will try his best to do his part. His teammates have to follow suit.
TAMPA, Fla. – Buccaneers middle linebacker Mason Foster gave a ringing endorsement to the man who is likely to take his place in the starting lineup Thursday night.

Fletcher
Foster is expected to sit out with a dislocated shoulder. That means Dane Fletcher likely will get the start.

“Dane is a veteran,’’ Foster said. “He’s a proven player in this league. He had a great camp and he’s ready to go. He’s a great linebacker. He’s going to step in and make it happen.’’

Fletcher will call the defensive plays. That’s something he did when he stepped in for Foster during Sunday’s loss to St. Louis. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he has confidence in Fletcher.

“When Dane got in the ball game [Sunday], he did some good things,’’ Frazier said. “It’s tough when you’re not getting as many reps in practice on some of the things you have to do in the game. But, for the most part, we were pleased with his work. With this week being a short week, he still won’t get as many reps. But he’ll be able to get some film study and prepare and I think he’ll go out and play well Thursday night.’’
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Although Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White missed Tuesday's practice with a hamstring injury, coach Mike Smith sounded more concerned with having White rested for Thursday night's quick turnaround game versus Tampa Bay.

White, already dealing with a troublesome left knee, injured his hamstring during Sunday's 24-10 loss at Cincinnati. He indicated he was "good'" following the game.

"It's not important for Roddy to practice,'' Smith said. "We'd like for Roddy to practice, but it's all about getting Roddy ready on a short week. And some of these guys across the league that have some age with them, on a short week, you've got to get them to Thursday. And that's our intention.

"Right now, our goal is to have Roddy as healthy as he can be for the ball game on Thursday night.''

White
White
Smith indicated White, 32, would be on a limited schedule moving forward after injuring his left knee in a season-opening win over New Orleans. It is unclear when White injured his hamstring against the Bengals.

White played in 133 consecutive games before missing three games last season with a high ankle sprain and hamstring pull. He seems likely to gut it out if his latest hamstring injury isn't as serious as last year's.

In other injury news, rookie tackle Jake Matthews was a full participant in Tuesday's practice coming off an ankle sprain. Matthews expects to play against the Buccaneers but realizes it's up to the coaches.

Smith sounded optimistic about Matthews' status.

"It was great to have Jake back out to practice today,'' Smith said. "It was good to get him back into the starting lineup. We're pleased with the progress that he's made with the athletic guys in terms of what they've been doing with him. And we've been able to basically go through a full practice with him today.''

Smith stopped short of declaring Matthews good to go for Thursday.

"Anything can happen, but we were really pleased with what he was able to do last night and in practice today,'' Smith said.

If Matthews returns, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Gabe Carimi at right tackle ahead of Lamar Holmes. Carimi has been at left tackle with Matthews out of the lineup.

Wide receiver Julio Jones (ankle) and linebacker Prince Shembo (knee) participated in Tuesday's practice.

The Falcons have an abbreviated walk-through on Wednesday.

Josh McCown frustrated with start

September, 16, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- On talk radio and message boards, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown has been taking a beating.

But it’s not any worse than what McCown is saying to himself.

“It’s awfully frustrating,’’ McCown said Tuesday. “I’m not going to shy away from that. I’m very disappointed. I’m disappointed in myself and just this start. It’s not what anybody wants.’’

The Bucs are 0-2 and McCown, who was signed in the offseason to provide a veteran presence, has thrown three interceptions -- all at crucial times. McCown was asked to evaluate his play and he didn’t give himself passing marks.

“At the end of the day, you hear about quarterbacks being measured by wins and we’re 0-2,’’ McCown said. “For me, that’s how I evaluate it. I say, 'What could I have done better to help us win the ballgame?’ In both games, I really felt like I did a lot of good things except the three turnovers in those games. Those have been critical.

“As I evaluate myself, that’s really what I focus on, not letting that happen. That will continue to be the focus as it is every week. The other part is that I’m pleased with how I’m playing, throwing the ball and those things. I feel like that part is good. But I’ve just gotten outside the pocket and made bad decisions with the ball and you can’t do those things.’’

The interceptions are surprising because McCown threw 13 touchdown passes and just one interception for the Chicago Bears last year.

“I look back on the tape last year and it’s not there,’’ McCown said. “It’s not something I was doing. It’s frustrating to me.’’

McCown admitted he might have been pressing at times.

“Not every play has to be made,’’ McCown said. “I’m pleased with my decisions in the passing game. When I get outside the pocket, I’m really frustrated with those. Those aren’t good. That’s what’s got to change.’’

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The numbers don't always tell the complete story, and there's no better example on the Carolina Panthers than rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his first two NFL games.

From a fantasy football standpoint, Benjamin had a solid opener with six catches for 92 yards and an amazing 26-yard touchdown in a 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

He graded out a 70.

From a team standpoint, Benjamin was better in Week 2 despite having only two catches on eight targets for 46 yards, two dropped passes and a holding penalty in a 24-7 victory over Detroit.

He graded out a 93.

As Benjamin noted, "At the end of the day, it's all about the team.''

Despite the praise Benjamin got for his production in Week 1, his overall play was lacking when it came to the so-called little things. He didn't block well, and he wasn't always engaged in the play when it wasn't a pass to him.

"That was my main focus coming into this game,'' Benjamin said on Monday. "I knew they were going to have a lot of double coverage on me, so my main focus was just playing fast with plays to open it up for [other] guys and just blocking downfield for my running backs. I just tried to play real physical on the running.''

Carolina's other wide receivers responded. Jason Avant had five catches for 54 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown, after having one catch for no yards in the opener. Jerricho Cotchery had four catches for 46 yards, including a 2-point conversion catch.

Benjamin responded with better blocks. One of his best came in the second quarter when he held up the defender for quarterback Cam Newton to run 13 yards to the Detroit 12 on the read option.

"I was pleased with it,'' Benjamin said as he began preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh. "I didn't get a holding call, so that's always great.''

Benjamin was referring to his holding call in the second quarter that negated an 11-yard run on the end-around by wide receiver Philly Brown.

Newton and Benjamin almost connected for a touchdown a few plays after the above block, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver was pushed out of bounds while making the catch in the left corner of the end zone.

As for the drops, Benjamin didn't have a good explanation other than he didn't bring the ball into his body. One in particular could have gone for big yardage as Newton hit him in the hands over the middle.

But Newton came right to Benjamin, who made a spectacular one-handed, 24-yard grab with a defender tight on him down the left side line.

"It just shows the relationship between us, the trust issue,'' Benjamin said. "I hold myself to a higher standard. I've just got to move on from [the two drops]. I can't let that hold me back.''

Matt Ryan wants more consistency

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:50
PM ET
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It obviously was a tale of two games for Matt Ryan and his offense as the Atlanta Falcons amassed 568 total yards and 37 points in a win over New Orleans, then dipped to 309 total yards and 10 points in a loss to Cincinnati.

As the Falcons prepare for Thursday night's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ryan expects to regain an offensive rhythm.

"On a positive note, I think there are some things we've done well, more so in Week 1 than Week 2,'' Ryan said Tuesday. "But I think the run game has been pretty efficient up until this point. We need to continue to be efficient in the run game.

"And then in terms of the pass game, I think that's an area ... we just need to be more consistent. One of the thing that we've seen is that one week, we're capable of making a bunch of explosives. The following week, we're not. We've got to get to a point where we in and week out, we show up and play the way that we're capable of.''

The Falcons had 14 explosive plays -- 12-plus-yard runs or 16-plus-yard passes -- against the Saints in the opener. They had just eight against the Bengals and weren't able to play the same up-tempo style.

A big part of the problem in the 24-10 loss to the Bengals was the offensive line's inability to protect Ryan, who completed 24 of 44 passes for 231 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. Right tackle Lamar Holmes struggled the most and took ownership for his poor play.

Ryan was asked about what advice he'd give Holmes coming off such a bad showing.

"It happens: It happens to everybody,'' Ryan said of Holmes' struggles. "Week to week, sometimes you don't play your best. But in this league, it's all about moving forward and trying to be better than you were last week.

"You can't dwell on it. This league is humbling week to week. And you're going against the very best football players in the world. Sometimes they're going to get you. But part of being a professional is being able to move past that, staying confident and trusting in your abilities. And I think Lamar will do that.''

There is a chance Ryan will get rookie left tackle Jake Matthews back from a left ankle sprain, but that's not guaranteed. If Matthews returns, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Matthews at left and Gabe Carimi at right tackle.

"Jake's a talented player,'' Ryan said. "If we get the opportunity to get him back, that would be huge.''

At least the Falcons could get some relief if Buccaneers star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is out with a broken hand. Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said it's "not looking good for this week'' with McCoy. Starting middle linebacker Mason Foster also is out with a shoulder injury, meaning the Bucs will go with unproven Dane Fletcher to replace Foster.

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