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

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Before we bounce around the NFC South, I should introduce myself, as I hit the ground running a bit in covering the Falcons27-24 win over the Bears on Sunday in my first day on the job. 

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

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

You can follow me on Twitter at @gregauman, and you can email me at greg.auman@fox.com if you have any questions. It’s great to be on board and here’s a first quick spin around the division after a busy Sunday with two hard-fought wins.

Backups shine for Saints defense

The most impressive part of New Orleans’ 27-20 win over the Rams is the way the Saints defense played despite being without four key starters sidelined with injury in pass-rushers Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport, linebacker Pete Werner and corner Marshon Lattimore.

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

“[Elliss] has probably for the last few years been the best kept secret in the NFL,” linebacker Demario Davis said after the game. “We knew what type of player that he was, and he is getting an opportunity to show the world. I know that no one is shocked when they watch him in our building. Just give him some time and he is going to be on everybody’s radar.”

Kenny Albert, Jonathan Vilma react to Saints’ victory

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

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

And at corner, the Saints continue to get every-down play from two extremes — 33-year-old Chris Harris, signed to the practice squad in October, and rookie Alontae Taylor, the team’s second-round pick from Tennessee.

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

Panthers: Glass is one-quarter empty, not three-quarters full

Carolina’s defense played well to hold Baltimore to three points into the fourth quarter, but late letdowns (and costly turnovers) led to 10 points and a 13-3 Ravens win, and moral victories hold no importance to interim coach Steve Wilks.

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

Lamar Jackson leads Ravens to tough win over Panthers

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

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

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

Falcons: Zero sacks allowed for first time since season opener

Especially coming off a loss to the Panthers in which Marcus Mariota was sacked a season-high five times, the Falcons’ offensive line played one of its best all-around games of the season Sunday, keeping an opponent without a sack for the first time since the season opener.

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

Mariota’s success hasn’t been measured in gaudy statistics as much as efficiency — Sunday was his fourth game this season with a QB rating of 100 or higher, and the Falcons are 3-1 in those games, with another win where his rating was 99.8. Winning without high passing yards is uncommon in today’s NFL, and Mariota threw for only 131 yards Sunday, the third time this season Atlanta has won with 135 passing yards or fewer, a feat only the Titans can match across the league.

Falcons QB Marcus Mariota on win over Bears

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

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

Bucs: Back to business after much-needed bye

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

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

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

That run defense will have quite a challenge Sunday in Cleveland, where the Browns have the No. 5 rushing offense in the league, averaging 150.9 yards per game on the ground. Nick Chubb ranks fourth in the league with 923 rushing yards to go with 11 touchdowns, though the Bills were able to hold him to 19 yards on 14 carries in Sunday’s Buffalo victory in Detroit.

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


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