Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina Panthers. After Monday’s firing of general manager Marty Hurney, Rivera should be more than a little worried about his future. Hurney was the guy that largely was responsible for hiring Rivera, so the coach has lost a big layer of insulation. Whoever ends up being the general manager might want to bring in his own coach. The only way for Rivera to prevent that would be to go out and win big throughout what’s left of the season. But have you seen anything from the Panthers so far that makes you think they can suddenly turn it around?
Tampa Bay’s pass rush. Perhaps the main reason the Bucs got lit up by Drew Brees (377 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday) was because they didn’t put any pressure on the quarterback. A lot of times, the Bucs sent only three rushers. That made no sense, especially because the Saints were without injured tight end Jimmy Graham, who creates all sorts of matchup problems. New Orleans’ wide receivers are good, but they don’t present any special matchup problems. The Bucs didn’t need an extra man in coverage. They just needed to go with a standard pass rush.
Jerry Richardson, owner, Panthers. The pressure on Richardson is perhaps greater now than at any point since the Panthers came into the league. Fans are understandably down on the Panthers. Richardson’s got a major decision to make in how he replaces Hurney, and another huge decision on what to do about Rivera. It’s critical that Richardson gets it right this time. Carolina fans are a loyal bunch, but this team hasn’t won since 2008. If the Panthers don’t turn things around quickly, they run the risk of alienating their fans. Also, continued losing isn’t going to help Richardson’s chances of getting public funding for upgrades to Bank of America Stadium.
Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Saints. He still hasn’t turned into the star that I think he has the potential to become. But Jenkins made one of the biggest plays of his career Sunday when he tackled Vincent Jackson at the 1-yard line to prevent a touchdown, and the Saints followed that up with a successful goal-line stand and then went on a touchdown drive of their own. Jenkins was on the other side of the field when Jackson caught the ball and began running free down the sideline. It was a great hustle play by Jenkins, who also took a perfect angle as he got closer to Jackson, who seemed to run out of gas as he neared the end zone.
Joe Vitt, assistant head coach, Saints. Vitt is back as the interim coach after serving a six-game suspension. Aaron Kromer did the best he could in a bad situation while filling in as the head coach. But the return of Vitt, who ran the team through training camp, could really help the Saints. Vitt is a wise and experienced coach. He also is the closest thing to Sean Payton you’re going to find. When Vitt was running the team in the preseason, it looked like business as usual. The Saints are in a hole. But they’re on a two-game winning streak, and the return of Vitt should push whatever momentum has built up the past two weeks in a positive direction.
Josh Freeman, quarterback, Buccaneers. He didn’t win Sunday, but Freeman got into a shootout with Brees that went right down to the last play of the game. He threw for 420 yards, three touchdowns and was not intercepted. Little by little, you can see Freeman building chemistry with his receivers, grasping a new offense and gaining the confidence of a new coaching staff. I don’t think any final conclusions should be drawn yet. But Freeman is showing signs he can be a franchise quarterback and, if things continue in a positive direction, he could be headed for a nice contract extension in the offseason.