1. The New Orleans offensive line. Drew Brees was sacked six times and the running game never got going in Sunday’s loss to St. Louis. Right tackle Charles Brown struggled mightily and it’s likely he’ll be back on the bench soon because Zach Strief is coming back from injury. But the problems weren’t all due to Brown. New Orleans has some highly regarded players across the rest of the line, but none of them played well Sunday. Guard Carl Nicks had a bad game and fellow guard Jahri Evans also appeared off. Jermon Bushrod has developed into a dependable left tackle, but he wasn’t dependable against the Rams.
2. Jonathan Vilma, Saints linebacker. He has been one of the top players in the NFC South the past few years. But Vilma doesn’t look the same this year. Part of it might be because of a knee injury that’s been bothering him all season. Against the Rams, I saw Vilma miss a couple of tackles he never would have missed a few years ago.
3. Olindo Mare, Panthers kicker. Carolina cut veteran and fan favorite John Kasay to make room for Mare, who landed a huge contract. Mare has kicked well most of the season. But he missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt that would have sent Sunday’s game with Minnesota into overtime. Yeah, Kasay was old and couldn’t kick off, but I don’t recall Kasay ever missing very many 31-yard kicks.
1. Kregg Lumpkin, Buccaneers running back. He’s 27, but this reserve has all of 14 career carries and has never scored an NFL touchdown. Ready or not, Lumpkin’s about to get an increased role. With Earnest Graham lost for the season to injury, Lumpkin is going to be the top backup to LeGarrette Blount. He also is likely to be used as the third-down back. The Tampa Bay coaches are high on Lumpkin and they better be right because he’s only a Blount injury away from being the feature back.
2. Jason Snelling, Falcons running back. Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been lost for the season with a knee injury. The Falcons did sign Mike Cox and he could be used as the lead blocker for Michael Turner at times. Snelling is the top backup to Turner at tailback, but he has filled in at fullback from time to time. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons decide to let Snelling and Cox share the duties at fullback. At 237 pounds, Snelling might be a little light for a fullback. But he’s a good blocker and his ability to run and catch passes could add a new dimension to Atlanta’s offense if he’s playing fullback.
3. Julio Jones, Falcons receiver. The rookie was off to a pretty good start before missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. The bye week helped Jones get healthy and he returned to practice Monday. I’m expecting a big second half of the season from Jones. Remember, he was thrown right into the starting lineup and didn’t have a true offseason because of the lockout. He seemed to catch on pretty quickly, but this little break has given Jones a little time to really process everything.