ATLANTA: Ryan overcomes 3 interceptions to lead Falcons to first win
ATLANTA — Matt Ryan's early lead on the NFL interceptions list may not mean it's time for the Atlanta Falcons to worry about their quarterback.
Instead, Ryan's uncharacteristic bad decisions and rushed passes are evidence the Falcons better brace for continued all-out pressure from opposing pass rushes. Until Atlanta's overhauled offensive line provides consistent protection, the quarterback can expect to see more blitzes like he faced against Philadelphia on Sunday night.
Ryan has thrown five interceptions through two games after throwing only seven in 2018. He was sacked four times and threw two interceptions in Atlanta's opening loss at Minnesota on Sept. 8.
Another game with too many interceptions didn't stop him from finally taking advantage of too many gambles by the Philadelphia defense. Seeing the Eagles were about to leave no safeties in pass defense in another blitz, Ryan called a fourth-down screen pass to Julio Jones that clicked for the decisive 54-yard touchdown play in the Falcons' 24-20 win over the Eagles.
Ryan, 34, said the pressure he faced from the Philadelphia pass rush was unprecedented in his 12-year career. He matched his three touchdown passes with three interceptions.
"It's probably the most all-out pressure I've seen in my entire career, consistently throughout the course of the game, and so when you're going against that, there's going to be feast and famine," he said.
Coach Dan Quinn dismissed Ryan's early problems with interceptions.
"I'm not concerned because I don't think that's going to be the norm," Quinn said. "It hasn't been his history."
Injuries have contributed to the pattern of ongoing adjustments on the line, which allowed only one sack against the Eagles.
Big plays on defense are on the rise. Desmond Trufant had two interceptions and Vic Beasley Jr., Adrian Clayborn and Grady Jarrett had sacks. Takk McKinley had a tackle for a loss and linebacker Deion Jones provided the best proof he has recovered his speed after his 2018 foot injury.
Defense was a rising strength before Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen missed big chunks of last season. Holding the Eagles to 49 yards rushing on 21 carries should be a confidence builder for the unit.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Devonta Freeman has a combined 41 yards rushing with no run longer than 9 yards through two games. If defenses don't respect Freeman as a runner, it will become increasingly difficult for Ryan to have success with his play-action passes — a staple of the offense. Freeman had three carries for 18 yards in Atlanta's first five plays against the Eagles. His next two carries were for losses and he became an afterthought in the game plan.
Ito Smith had a 28-yard run on one of his four carries and could soon earn a bigger role if Freeman can't rediscover the form that produced back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016. Freeman needs a better commitment from offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Julio Jones had the biggest play but Calvin Ridley had a team-leading eight catches for 105 yards, including a 34-yarder for a touchdown. It's his second straight game with a touchdown after his 10 scoring catches as a rookie in 2018.
Tight end Luke Stocker lost a fumble, recovered by teammate Mohamed Sanu, following his only catch. Stocker also missed a block before Freeman was tackled for a loss on the first possession.
Punter Matt Bosher was unavailable for his normal kickoff duty after straining his groin in pregame drills. Sanu practiced his kickoffs following Bosher's injury, but instead Matt Bryant kicked off and Bosher punted. Bosher obviously was not at full strength; his longest of three punts carried only 42 yards.
Rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary returned after leaving the game with a knee injury. The Falcons already have lost their other first-round pick, guard Chris Lindstrom, for at least eight weeks with a broken foot. Tackle Matt Gono missed his second straight game with a back injury.
300 — Ryan's third touchdown pass was the 300th of his career, tying John Elway for 11th place.
The Falcons (1-1) play three of their next four games on the road, including Sunday's game at Indianapolis. The Colts hold a dominant 14-2 advantage in the series, most recently a 24-21 win at Atlanta in 2015.
-- By Charles Odum, AP
NEW ORLEANS: Saints need Bridgewater to validate their effort to keep him
NEW ORLEANS — Saints coach Sean Payton was on vacation this summer when he found out Teddy Bridgewater's agent was spending time on the same Bahamian island.
So Payton arranged a meeting and Bridgewater wound up signing a $7.2 million contract to return to the club that traded for him in 2018, and be record-setting quarterback Drew Brees backup for at least one more season.
Soon, it'll become apparent whether the effort made and money spent to keep the former Louisville star was worth it.
While the Saints have yet to announce Brees' playing status this week, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press, on condition of anonymity, that Brees has a torn ligament in his throwing thumb, has decided to have surgery, and is expected to be out at least six weeks.
Brees was hurt in the first quarter of Sunday's 27-9 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles, and Bridgewater struggled in relief, albeit against one of the top pass-rushing teams in the NFL. Payton was quick to deflect blame from Bridgewater, who went 17 for 30 for 165 yards during the last three-plus quarters of the game.
"The penalties were significant and I thought we didn't block particularly well up front," Payton said Monday after studying video of the game. "We didn't run the ball; we averaged 2 ½ yards a carry. There was pressure on the quarterback pretty consistently and it's going to be hard to win if you play that way in the front."
If Bridgewater starts this week in Seattle, as expected, he'll have the benefit of practicing with the first team all week. And Bridgewater's chances of success could rise further if Seattle's pass rush is not as formidable as the Rams' unit.
Payton has repeatedly expressed confidence in Bridgewater's ability and did so again on Monday.
"We see it on a daily basis. We see his arm strength, his confidence, we see the leadership," Payton said. "We see all those things."
Bridgewater went 17-11 as a starter with his first NFL team, Minnesota, before a career-threatening knee injury in 2015 sidelined him for nearly the next two full seasons. His lone start for New Orleans was a loss, albeit a game at the end of the 2018 regular season in which a number of prominent players were being rested for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Payton has stated often he believes game plans should take into account the strengths of available players rather than asking players to take on roles that have not demonstrably suited them in the past. So one could reasonably expect Payton to tailor his offense this week to suit those in uniform, rather than trying to attack exactly how he otherwise would have with Brees.
"You're focused on the things you can control," Payton said in regards to guiding his team through the adversity of the past weekend. "This is where you lean on leadership and you get ready to have a good week of practice. It's kind of the nature of our league sometimes. You come in on a Monday, you have a handful of things you're having to address, and that's part of the deal."
The defensive front. Along with having defensive tackle David Onyemata back from a one-game suspension, the Saints' defense simply played better up front against the Rams than in Week 1 against Houston. New Orleans sacked Jared Goff three times and also made four tackles for loss. That went with end Trey Hendrickson's forced fumble that fellow end Cam Jordan recovered and appeared to return for a touchdown — only to have his return negated because of a premature whistle blown by an official who mistakenly thought the loose ball was an incomplete pass.
"We played real well defensively, particularly in the first half," Payton said.
The game was tied at six in the third quarter and the Saints did not fall behind for good until the latter part of that quarter, when their defense was bound to wear down because of the offense's inability to sustain drives.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offensive line needs to bounce back after a rough showing. Bridgewater was sacked twice and constantly under duress. Several of his better completions were negated by holding penalties. The unit also was thinned by injury as starter Andrus Pete went down with an apparent ankle injury, replaced at left guard by Will Clapp.
Punter Thomas Morstead produced on a busy day, placing three punts inside the Rams 20 and netting an average 40.8 yards on five total punts.
While Marshon Lattimore is unquestionably New Orleans' top defensive back, he has yet to look like a shutdown cornerback. He gave up some big catches to DeAndre Hopkins in Week, 1 and was burned by former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks in Los Angeles for a 57-yard catch and a short TD.
In addition to Brees' thumb and Peat's ankle, receiver Tre'Quan Smith also appeared to have a leg injury in the second half. Linebacker A.J. Klein went to the locker room in the second half. Backup receiver Keith Kirkwood was ruled out with a hamstring injury in pregame warmups. Payton declined to provide any injury updates, as he often does on Mondays.
11 — The number of times the Saints were penalized in Los Angeles, adding up to 87 penalty yards.
The Saints will try to win in Seattle for the first time since 2007 — and will have to do so without the best quarterback in franchise history, and one of the best in the history of the NFL.
-- By Brett Martel, AP
TAMPA BAY: Nothing guaranteed, but avoiding 0-2 start big for Bucs
TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never been very good at defying long odds, so avoiding an 0-2 start to the season was very important for a young team that hasn't made the playoffs in more than a decade.
While the Bucs know first-hand that starting fast doesn't guarantee anything, however Thursday night's 20-14 victory at Carolina gave them their first win under coach Bruce Arians and recent history suggests it gives them a far better chance of earning a postseason than if they hadn't held on to beat the NFC South rival Panthers.
"You always want to get the first one off your back. ... A road win in the division is always big. It's going to help us," Arians said.
The Bucs started 2-0 a year ago with an upset of New Orleans on the road and a victory at home against then-defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, only to drop 11 of 14 games the rest of the way to miss the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season.
While Tampa Bay faded, others who got off to slower starts surged.
Ten teams that began 1-1 or 0-2 wound up making the playoffs in 2018, most in the NFL since 2002. Eight of them split their first two games, while Seattle overcame losing its first two and Houston did it from 0-3.
Two years ago, the Saints were the only team to rebound from 0-2 to make the playoffs. Seven teams did from 1-1.
The Bucs haven't had a dominant defense since the team's 2002 Super Bowl run, however they're off to a nice start in a new system installed by new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who worked for Arians in Arizona before landing his first head coaching job with the New York Jets. Through two games, the Tampa Bay defense has only one touchdown — none Thursday night when the unit limited Carolina's Christian McCaffrey 37 yards rushing on 16 attempts.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Costly penalties nearly undermined the team for the second straight week. The Bucs had two touchdowns called back because of holding calls during their season-opening loss to San Francisco. Arians nearly did his team in Thursday night, when he drew a flag for calling consecutive timeouts in the final minute with the Panthers driving for a potential go-ahead score. The delay of game penalty turned fourth-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 3 into fourth-and-a half-yard. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves saved the day, stopping McCaffrey for no gain on a gadget play that left the Panthers answering questions why they took the ball out of Cam Newton's hands in that situation.
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett, primarily a backup with the Denver Broncos before signing with the Bucs in free agency this year, sacked Newton three times and leads the team with four through two games. That's huge, considering the team's best pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul, is out with a neck injury suffered in an offseason car accident.
Arians said Barrett has been all the Bucs expected.
"When we evaluated him (when Barrett was with Denver), whenever he was in, he flashed. He's a slippery pass rusher but he's also got power," Arians said. "So yeah, I think we were hoping that he would give us that, and he's delivered."
Tight end O.J. Howard made two costly mistakes in the season opener against the 49ers, losing a fumble that ruined one scoring opportunity and having a pass skip off his hands into the grasp of a defender for an interception. He played extensively against the Panthers, but didn't have any passes thrown his way and after four catches against San Francisco. He had a sore ankle coming out of the opener, however Arians said the injury had no bearing on Howard being shut out Thursday night.
"No, no," the coach said. "That's just the way the game goes."
Rookie inside linebacker Devin White suffered a knee injury against Carolina and is day-to-day.
"So far, it looks like a grade-one, medial MCL (sprain). ... As strong as he is, I don't know how much time he'll miss," Arians said, adding the first-round draft pick was walking without a brace Friday.
2-of-12. The Bucs' third-down conversion rate against Carolina, a number that's going to have to improve dramatically if they're going to be successful.
Players have three days off, returning Tuesday to begin preparation for a home game vs. the New York Giants on Sept. 22.
-- By Fred Goodall, AP
CAROLINA: Is Cam Newton running out of time as Panthers' quarterback?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton has lost his last eight starts, and it's becoming increasingly obvious the Carolina Panthers' hopes of turning him into a pocket passer are failing.
That raises questions about the former No. 1 pick's long-term future in Carolina.
Whether it's a matter of coaches not wanting to jeopardize Newton reinjuring his right shoulder or sprained foot or Newton not wanting to run as much, it is clear the 2015 NFL league MVP is no longer the dominant multidimensional quarterback he once was. He's run five times this season for minus-2 yards, fumbling twice .
Newton was once one of the toughest and most dangerous quarterbacks in the league when he combined running with passing.
But with the Panthers getting away from using the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder in read option plays, Newton is among NFL's bottom tier quarterbacks. Accuracy has never been his strength — he's a 59.6 percent career passer.
Newton completed 24 of 50 passes for 324 yards in Carolina's 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday night. But he missed 15 open receivers — 10 passes overthrown, five underthrown — according to ESPN Stats & Information research. ESPN also cited Newton being 0 for 10 passing while under duress, along with taking three sacks.
"All fingers are just pointing back to me specifically on offense," said Newton, who has not thrown or run for a touchdown in his last four starts.
The bottom line remains this: For Newton to be effective he needs to be able to run. But in his last six starts he's run for more than 35 yards only once and hasn't run for a score since Oct. 28, 2018. The Panthers are 0-7 when Newton runs twice or less in a game.
NFL defenses no longer seem to fear Newton as a runner.
"He can't take them hits like that," Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said. "It's going to eat his body up. ... We expected more throwing as he is getting older in his career."
Under the current setup, if Newton can't make the transition to being primarily a pocket passer the Panthers could have a tough decision to make after the season.
Newton is scheduled to cost $21 million under the 2020 salary cap. The Panthers, however, could save $19 million under the cap by releasing him and dealing only with $2 million in dead cap space, according to Sportrac.
The options behind Newton remain unproven.
Kyle Allen is the 2 quarterback. He led the Panthers to a 33-14 win over the Saints in Week 17 last year but looked shaky in the preseason. The Panthers drafted Will Grier from West Virginia in the third round, and while they're high on him as a long-term replacement he's not yet taken the next step to being NFL ready. He has been listed as inactive the last two games.
The best immediate option may be letting Newton do what he does best — run the football.
Despite the loss, Carolina's defense was strong for most of the game, particularly linebacker Luke Kuechly. He finished with 17 tackles, including two for a loss, one of resulting in a safety when he dragged down Peyton Barber in the end zone. But the defense could certainly use help in the form of points from the offense, which failed to score a touchdown against the Bucs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Panthers pressured the quarterback — sacking Jameis Winston three times — but they need to force turnovers. Carolina has just one takeaway in two games and didn't force any against Winston, who has shown a penchant for turning the ball over.
Undrafted rookie kicker Joey Slye is doing a nice job filling in for Graham Gano, who is on injured reserve. Slye is 6 of 7 on field goal attempts, including 3 of 3 on kicks of longer than 50 yards.
Left tackle Daryl Williams is on a one-year, prove-it deal but things didn't go so well against the Bucs. He allowed sacks to Shaquil Barrett on back-to-back plays, had a holding penalty and didn't come up with a good block on Christian McCaffrey's fourth-and-1 run at the Bucs 2-yard line on a crucial play late in the game. Rookie second-round pick Greg Little is expected to return next week from a concussion and could offer some competition at that spot.
The Panthers reported no injuries but hope an extra few days of rest will allow outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (hamstring) to play in Week 3 against Arizona.
3 of 17. The Panther' combined conversion rate on third and fourth down against the Bucs. Carolina was 3 of 14 on third downs and 0 of 3 on fourth down.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner must figure out a way to get Newton going and find more ways to protect him. Carolina has a good chance to rebound on Sept. 22 at Arizona.
-- By Steve Reed, AP