Williams said his sprained right knee was “getting better” and that he was somewhat optimistic about playing. But he was walking rather stiff-legged. He also hasn’t practiced this week. Williams is listed as questionable on the injury report.
“He’s made some progress in the training room,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “There is a little more [optimism], but we’ll see how it goes. The five-hour flight and all that stuff, that will be a big deal, [if it] swells back up.”
On Monday, the Redskins held out little hope of Williams playing and they’re still preparing rookie Morgan Moses to make his first start.
Meanwhile, guard Shawn Lauvao also is questionable. He was limited again in practice Friday.
With Reed sidelined again – this will be the fifth game he’s missed this season – the bulk of the pass-catching duties at tight end fall on Niles Paul. He’s third on the team with 33 receptions and the 49ers have some weak spots in coverage at linebacker.
With Baker out, the Redskins likely will keep veteran Stephen Bowen active. He was inactive last week. It also means Barry Cofield will return to nose, one week after playing mostly in the nickel packages in his first game back from a high ankle sprain. Veteran Kedric Golston will be the backup nose tackle.
Baker injured his sternum vs. Tampa Bay and said Friday, "It's tough to lift your hands up, to reach across your body, breathe when you get tired. ... I should be OK next week."
McClain and Crawford went through their third straight day of a full practice on Friday and are listed as probable for Sunday’s game. Neither played Nov. 9 against the Jacksonville Jaguars but McClain was active.
McClain leads the Cowboys with 68 tackles, and Crawford is second on the team in quarterback hurries with 20.
Cornerback Tyler Patmon was ruled out with a knee injury and could need 2-3 more weeks for his sprained medial collateral ligament to heal.
Quarterback Tony Romo (back), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder) and defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin) are also probable. Brent is looking to be active for his first game since Dec. 2, 2012, but there are no guarantees he will be on the 46-man roster for the game.
It certainly looks like the kind of scheduling quirk that could lead a 7-3 Eagles team to overlook the Titans and sneak a glance ahead to Dallas. To Eagles coach Chip Kelly, though, there is no danger.
That sounds good, and that may be the way Kelly would like his players to behave. But it was just 11 months ago that the Eagles were traveling to Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles had won five games in a row to move into first place in the NFC East. The Vikings were 3-9-1 and would be playing without running back Adrian Peterson, who had a foot injury.
Trap game. The Eagles got crushed, 48-30. Running back Matt Asiata, whose name you do not recognize from your fantasy league draft this year, ran for three touchdowns. The game was an aberration, as the Eagles rebounded by defeating Chicago and Dallas in their final two games of the season.
The day after the Minnesota loss, Kelly was asked about how it could happen.
“I think you should go into every game with the same mentality whether it's people from the outside that consider you the favorite or don't consider you the favorite,” Kelly said. “I think if you're paying attention to that type of stuff, you're not focusing in on what you can control. The message I give and the message I've always lived with is worry about what you can control.
“You don't control what other people's opinions are. If you are, you're going to be a yo-yo up, yo-yo down guy depending on how people tell you what they think going into the game. I think your preparation should be the same. Your mindset should be the same. Sometimes it's easier said than done. It's not an easy thing to get accomplished, but I think that's ultimately the way you should get it done.”
Kelly will get more help from the Green Bay game than from the Titans on that front. A 53-20 loss should keep the players focused on the task at hand. As for the Dallas game, it will mean much more if the Eagles can win Sunday against Tennessee and be in a position to get a leg up on the Cowboys in the NFC East race.
Lose to the Titans, and the Eagles could be chasing the Cowboys the rest of the season.
Talk about a trap.
A 45-7 loss at Green Bay the previous week forced owner Jerry Jones to do something he never wanted to do: fire a coach during the season.
So in came Garrett, then the offensive coordinator, who was faced with taking on the New York Giants on the road in his first game.
The interim head coach wanted to change the culture around Valley Ranch, everything from dress codes to the approach. And the result, at least that day in East Rutherford. New Jersey worked.
"I remember we had a really good team, and we weren't winning," defensive end Anthony Spencer said of the time. "We needed a win. I loved Wade and the year before we went to the playoffs. But things just didn't work out for us the next year."
Many players didn't really know Garrett.
To deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, Garrett was simply known for the color of his hair.
"Just knew him as Red and he was the quarterbacks coach, calling plays and then he goes by Coach Garrett," Ladouceur said. "Different freaking business now. I think he was overwhelmed, too I think every coach is thrown into it. It's like any job, you got to be a rookie at some point and you got to learn and learn on the fly, which as a NFL head coach, is even harder because you're scrutinized like crazy. But where we've been and where we're going and the way he's been handling [things] I think he's been doing a good job."
Of course, Garrett became the head coach permanently, and the Cowboys have finished the past three seasons at 8-8, missing a postseason berth with a loss in the regular-season finale.
Sunday night, Garrett takes his Cowboys, tied for first in the NFC East into MetLife Stadium again, to take on the Giants nearly four years since he became the coach.
A victory would give Garrett eight wins for the fourth consecutive season, and it would be the first time he's led a team to it's eight before December in his career. In the past three seasons, the Cowboys didn't earn it's eight victory until mid or late December.
Reaching eight victories now could fuel discussions the Cowboys might finally end their four-year playoff drought.
The players have brought into Garrett's one-game-at-a-time mantra. There are awards for scout team players, sayings posted on the walls of the practice facility about doing your job/not giving up and remaining focus on the task at hand.
Garrett has changed things from the hard nosed old-school approach of Bill Parcells and grandfatherly ways of Phillips, to how the Cowboys' did things in the 90s, when they won three Super Bowls.
Popular players such as outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware were released to make way for younger players.
“Well, we knew we had to make some hard decisions from the outset, and we had to make some decisions to move on from some players who had been cornerstone players for us and then get new players in here and along the way you have to compete. So that’s what we tried to do," Garrett said.
Along the way, they found a dominant running attack, which they have with DeMarco Murray who leads the league in rushing, and a young, hungry offensive line. The Cowboys invested three first round picks on linemen and changed the defense from a 3-4 to the 4-3, led by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli who demands his players hustle.
It's all changed for the better.
"My honest opinion, I’m just speaking on our personnel relationship, I didn’t too much understand his mindset because he went to Princeton, I’m from this small, country town [Lufkin, Texas], I didn’t understand his whole type of structure," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "I used to always think, coach, he’s always on me, he’s always on me. I guess as I grew, he didn’t treat me no different as he treated the rest of the players. He seen a lot of potential in me, and I took that as he believed in me, so it was my job to show him what he want me to be or better, and I think he does an outstanding job with us. He don’t BS around with us. He lets us know the truth."
The truth is the Cowboys have a chance to do something for themselves in the next few weeks with a win on Sunday night. But it all started that windy day at MetLife when Garrett took over the Cowboys.
Against Jacksonville, Williams didn’t catch either of the passes directed his way. It marked the first time in his career he had failed to catch a pass in a game when he had at least one pass directed his way.
In the previous game against Arizona, Williams didn’t catch a pass until the final drive. More important, the big plays have dried up.
Williams had seven catches of 20 yards or more in the Cowboys’ first six games; he has none in the last four.
Jason Garrett doesn’t seem too concerned.
“We coach him hard and he’s respectful of that and he wants to do well -- not that everyone doesn’t want to do well, so don’t get me wrong,” Garrett said of Williams. “He’s one of those guys we noticed early on that if he made a mistake, he rarely made it again.
“I think he really listens to what you’re trying to get across to him and he really wants to put into practice so he can improve as a player. I think that’s why he’s improved so quickly in the early part of his career.”
Then came the Eagles’ 53-20 defeat in Green Bay. Sanchez was hardly to blame for that comprehensive beating. But he did throw two interceptions, one that Julius Peppers returned for a touchdown, and was charged with two lost fumbles. It was Sanchez’s first taste of the kind of disappointment that he’d grown accustomed to as a New York Jet.
“You’re always competing against yourself and trying to be better, and to be the best version of yourself for your teammates,” Sanchez said Thursday. “That’s really where the competitive side comes in. More than anything, you want to win. That’s really our goal each week. This is a really fun job when you’re winning. So we’ll just try to keep winning.”
Eagles coach Chip Kelly said he thinks Sanchez has “done a good job. He's played a lot of quarterback in this league. He's been very successful in what he's done, and I thought he played really well against Green Bay. He made a really bad decision on the pass where Peppers dropped into coverage, but besides that I thought he did a really good job.”
The interceptions were troubling, because Sanchez turned the ball over a lot during his tenure in New York. He threw two interceptions in Houston after replacing the injured Nick Foles. He did not throw any in the Eagles’ 45-21 victory over Carolina the next week. So Sunday’s four-turnover performance was a return to a not especially good form.
“The second interception to [Jeremy] Maclin, I’m kind of throwing off my back foot,” Sanchez said.”It’s kind of a desperation situation, but did we really need it? We’re in four-down territory anyway. We’re thinking we have to get this third down, but we’re in four-down territory, anyway. So even if I throw it in the stands or take a sack, we’re coming back and trying to convert on fourth down, anyway.”
Sanchez was being pressured from his right by Peppers. Instead of stepping up to his left and taking a fresh look at Maclin, Sanchez rushed the throw. So he didn’t see cornerback Tramon Williams knock Maclin down. At worst, he could have thrown the ball out of bounds there.
Thing is, the Eagles would have lost that game whether Sanchez handed Peppers a touchdown or made one rushed, ill-advised throw to Williams. The Packers jumped to too big of a lead for the rest of the game to mean that much. So Sanchez can write the mistakes off as hard lessons and come back Sunday with a clean slate.
“There’s good and bad,” Sanchez said, citing his successful throws to Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin. “You correct the bad and reinforce the good.”
In it we discuss:
- Adrian Peterson in the future
- Tony Romo's practice schedule
- Helping Tyron Smith
- The cornerback conundrum
- Josh Brent's availability
Away we go:
@toddarcher: It certainly seems like everybody is trying to connect these dots between Adrian Peterson and the Cowboys. Some of it stems from the ESPN article on Jones earlier this season when he took a call from Peterson during a George Strait concert. Some of it has to do with Jones' penchant for stars. The first domino that has to fall is the Vikings saying goodbye to Peterson. Maybe that doesn't happen and we've all wasted a lot of breath thinking about this scenario. The threat of Peterson coming to the Cowboys could help in their talks with DeMarco Murray on a new deal. Peterson would bring a lot of baggage with him, but he's from Texas and remains a great talent. He would be an ideal fit for this offense, but so is Murray, who is younger. I don't know if either way to go would be wrong. The Cowboys have a lot of contract issues to resolve and it's not like Peterson would come cheap.
@toddarcher: I don't believe for a second that the Cowboys have not thought this through and are just focusing on the Giants. They would be doing themselves a disservice by not having a plan in place. But I do think we might be overstating this just a tad. Next week's practices aren't really practices. I'm not even sure the Cowboys will wear helmets during the three days of practice next week. They will be at most "jog-throughs," and Tony Romo should make it through those since he is doing the walk-throughs on Wednesdays when he doesn't practice. It's not that Romo can't practice on a Wednesday of a regular week. It's been the decision made by him and the team. This stretch is hardly normal but I think Romo will practice like everybody else practices next week and then gets back on the normal schedule for the Chicago Bears game. Why am I hearing Allen Iverson in my head as I type this?
@toddarcher: They are paying Tyron Smith to be the best left tackle in the NFL, so I wouldn't expect them to give him more help. He needs to play better. He has had a lot of moments where he has played like the best tackle in football. He has had some head-scratching moments too. Jason Pierre-Paul is a good player, so I wouldn't get carried away if Smith gets beat once or twice, but I don't think they need to give Smith help either. If they are sliding help to a $100 million tackle, then they have issues.
@toddarcher: I'd be surprised if Morris Claiborne isn't back. His money is guaranteed, so there is no salary-cap benefit to letting him go. They might as well see how he comes back from the knee surgery. I can guarantee they will not pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, so there's that. As for Brandon Carr, I think he could be in trouble if he does not take a cut in pay. And I'm not sure the Cowboys would offer one either, but maybe they do with him what they did with Doug Free two years ago. He is set to count $12.717 million against the cap in 2015 and I can't see the Cowboys doing a simple restructure, which would push money out against the cap in the future. He's been OK but not what they expected when he signed the $50 million deal. But if they get rid of Carr, then they put corner into the must-have territory in the draft and free agency. They would have just Orlando Scandrick as a for-sure starter.
@toddarcher: I'm not sure Josh Brent will even be active Sunday. It would be something of a surprise to me. He needs to get in better shape and he needs more practice time. I'm not sure three weeks is enough. Heck, I'm not sure four weeks is enough. But there's this question too: Whom does he bump from the 46-man roster to even be active for a game? The Cowboys like Nick Hayden more than the general fan does. Terrell McClain might be a target, but I think he has been OK too. They aren't going to take any of the defensive ends off the field. It's a difficult call without an injury to a player in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if Brent does not play at all this year.
The 7-3 Dallas Cowboys have a chance to mathematically eliminate the 3-7 New York Giants from the NFC East race on Sunday night. ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano hereby present your game preview:
Graziano: Hey, Todd, the Giants haven't won a game since the last time we did this, so I'm eager to see what questions you've come up with. But during their current five-game losing streak, the Giants' best offensive game was the loss in Dallas. It was the only game in the streak in which they've rushed for 100 yards and the only one in which the opponent didn't generate consistent, disruptive pressure on quarterback Eli Manning. How is that Dallas front seven looking these days?
Archer: The easy answer is not bad, but for those used to seeing DeMarcus Ware for close to a decade, he's not walking through that door again. The good news for the Cowboys is that they are getting healthier whereas last year they were signing guys on a Tuesday and playing them on Sunday. Tyrone Crawford did not play against Jacksonville, but he should be back. Rolando McClain didn't play against the Jaguars, but he will be back. Henry Melton has been much more active. Rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence didn't play in the first meeting because of a foot injury but he is coming on. Josh Brent is eligible to play but I don't think he will be on the 46-man roster Sunday. They have been decent against the run but have had some breakdowns. The pass rush has been better but it's still not good enough. Like the defense as a whole, the front seven is getting by.
I'll keep it simple off the top: Is this the end for Tom Coughlin?
Graziano: Well, this game surely isn't. Coughlin will certainly coach out this season, and I honestly think his future as the Giants' coach will depend a lot on how the Giants do in their final six games. If they rally against a December schedule that includes games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis and get back to 7-9 as they did last year, it'll be easier for Giants ownership to justify giving Coughlin another year of this rebuilding project. If they fall completely apart and finish, say, 4-12 or 3-13, I imagine all bets are off and no one is safe. A lot of people want a definitive answer on Coughlin's status, but I don't believe ownership has made one yet. They love him and love having him as their coach, and if he does decide to leave or if they decide to move on from him, they know they'll need a good plan in place for how to replace perhaps the best coach in franchise history (apologies to Bill Parcells). So it's no sure thing, but the way this team is playing and the inevitable fact that they'll miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons does not work in his or any other coach's favor.
What's Jason Garrett's status these days? Has the Cowboys' surprisingly good season done anything to quiet those who perpetually call for his head?
Archer: A little bit it has, but if they don't make the playoffs then the calls for his job will be heard again. I've written that he deserves to be extended. I think the plan he has put in place has started to come together. But it will all be determined by what they do from now on. As you know, they have lost three straight winner-take-all season finales to the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. At least Garrett had them in position to win the division, but this year they have to get over the top. Jerry Jones has been patient with Garrett and often talks about wanting him to be the coach long term, but he hasn't backed those words up with a new deal. Along with the contractual statuses of Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, this one could get juicy here down the stretch.
How much of this Giants mess is on GM Jerry Reese? They have let guys go and not had replacements ready, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
Graziano: I think it's almost all on Reese, Todd, and you've hit it right on the head. His drafts have been flat-out terrible from the standpoint of finding players who have turned out to be foundation pieces. Do you know that, since Reese became Giants GM in 2007, only three of his draft picks have signed second contracts with the team? And none of those three was a first-rounder? (They're Will Beatty, Ahmad Bradshaw and Zak DeOssie.) You're right that the Giants haven't done a good enough job of finding and developing players to replace those who have left, and the result was that last year's roster got so hollowed out that they had to sign more free agents than any other team in the league just to fill out a 53-man roster. That's why I say this is a rebuilding project that has to take more than one year, and why I blame Reese much more than I blame Coughlin or the coaching staff for the mess this team is in. The Giants don't fire GMs as a matter of policy. They've had only three of them in the past 38 years. But as I said when we were talking about Coughlin, if things get really ugly over these final six weeks, all bets are off.
Let's move the discussion to the field. When the Giants and Cowboys played in that Week 7 game, Murray have to leave for a while with an injury. He came back and seems to have been fine since, but are there any signs of his extreme workload wearing on him? And are they doing anything to keep him from wearing down?
Archer: There really hasn't been any drastic change in his production. He has had 100 yards in every game but one this season and even in that Arizona game he averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He had at least 22 carries in the first seven games of the season but has maxed out at 19 in each of the past three. I don't know if that is by design. Some of it has been dictated by the circumstances of the games. They are using Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar earlier in games to spell Murray some. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said he is not worried so much about the carries as he is the snaps Murray plays. He's a three-down back and has 36 catches. It's a tricky balancing act the Cowboys have to follow because Murray is so valuable to what they do. He said he felt refreshed after the bye week and largely stayed off his feet. Whatever the Cowboys do in their final six games will be with the same formula they used in their first 10 games: a lot of Murray.
When these teams met in October, it looked like Manning was feeling his way through the change in offense pretty well. Is this scheme a fit for what Manning does best or is he held back by what's around him?
Graziano: The group around Manning sure has taken a pounding. The Giants lost top wide receiver Victor Cruz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, and they were without starting running back Rashad Jennings for four games due to a knee sprain. Jennings was back last week, and I thought the offense would look better as a result, but then Manning went and threw five interceptions, nearly doubling his season total. (He'd thrown six in his first nine games.) You're right that Manning was looking comfortable in the new offense until last week, and I think all eyes are on him Sunday night and the rest of the way to see whether this last game was a fluke or whether it's a sign that "Bad Eli" is always potentially around the corner no matter what system they put him in. One thing he has dealt with is a lot of pass-rush pressure, and that crescendoed a bit last week against the 49ers. They may make some changes on the offensive line this week, and if those changes help protect him better, I think he gets back into that rhythm he was in earlier in the year.
When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia TV: CBS
The Philadelphia Eagles are bouncing back from a 53-20 trouncing in Green Bay last week. They need to regain their sense of confidence as they enter the part of their schedule that will determine whether they are contenders or pretenders.
The Tennessee Titans are coming off a tough Monday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are a team still trying to find a new identity under coach Ken Whisenhunt.
The two teams meet Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. NFL Nation reporters Paul Kuharsky, who covers the Titans, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, discussed the matchup.
Phil Sheridan: The Eagles led the NFL in rushing last season but are now down in the middle of the pack. They've been trying to get their running game back to a high level all season. After the Titans allowed 206 rushing yards to the Steelers Monday night, is there anything they can do to stop LeSean McCoy after a short week?
Paul Kuharsky: Well, the first time they were that bad against the run, allowing Dallas 220 yards in Week 2, they rebounded and fared much better in Cincinnati (116). But several good backs have fared very well against them -- DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster and Le'Veon Bell chief among them. The combination of players and scheme isn't particularly good at this stage at holding ground games down.
I think if McCoy is McCoy and Darren Sproles is Darren Sproles, the Titans could easily yield plays to each. Bell clobbered them inside the tackles, and I see the Eagles have sent nearly 62 percent of their rushes that way. They'd be wise to make the Titans prove they've fixed the issue.
Have the Eagles been able to maintain the pace of their offense and the big edge in plays that Chip Kelly covets? How much have things changed with Mark Sanchez at the controls?
Sheridan: The Eagles have run 24 more plays than their opponents this season (748 to 724). But that number is a little misleading. The Eagles have had a few games with Kelly's ideal of a significant advantage in the number of offensive plays run: They ran 92 to Arizona's 70 and 83 to Houston's 60, for example. Meanwhile, Carolina ran 82 plays to the Eagles' 62 and San Francisco had an 83-60 advantage.
So it's hard to draw many conclusions. They lost in Arizona, where they ran more plays, and in San Francisco, where they ran fewer. They won against Houston and Carolina, despite the difference in plays in those games.
The Eagles' running game has not been as consistent this season, which has hurt their ability to control the ball and pound out first downs when needed. And they have turned the ball over 25 times, which means 25 possessions have ended prematurely. In general, the Eagles have been trying to work their way back to the kind of offense they had last season.
Sanchez hasn't changed things as much as you might think -- or the Eagles might have hoped. Like Nick Foles, he turns the ball over quite a bit. While he was very good against Carolina, he was just OK against Houston and Green Bay. The Eagles are hoping to see Sanchez get into a good rhythm against the Titans this week.
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that Zach Mettenberger seems remarkably aware and in command for a rookie quarterback. Considering he threw a pick-six on the first attempt of Monday night's game against the Steelers and then played pretty well, is maturity a notable trait of Mettenberger's? Do you see him developing into a winning quarterback?
Kuharsky: I think he has a chance. It's a real small body of work, and on such a bad team any sign of hope can get looked at disproportionately. But he's shown week-to-week improvement. A rookie having success against a Dick LeBeau defense is rare, and Mettenberger really rebounded from that first pass to have a solid night. Two weeks ago in Baltimore, he held the ball too long too often and was sacked five times. Against the Steelers he and the protection were better, and he didn't get sacked at all. He's completely willing to stand in against the rush and make throws as people close around him. Chaos doesn't fluster him much, and that's a good sign for an immobile guy drafted to stand tall in the pocket and deliver. Pair that with his big arm and it's certainly intriguing. He's got six games left in this nine-game audition.
McCoy's production is way off from what he did last season. How much of that's been him, how much of it's been defenses and how much is it hurting the Eagles?
Sheridan: It is definitely hurting the Eagles. It seems like a long time ago now that McCoy was talking in training camp about rushing for 2,000 yards this season. We didn't even laugh at the idea, although it seems ridiculous now.
The first problem was the rash of injuries along the offensive line. That group stayed healthy all of last season, which had a lot to do with McCoy's success. It has been slowly returning to health, but still hasn't gotten its mojo back yet. Starting to wonder whether it will, at least this season.
Also, it turns out that if you lead the league in something, the league notices. Yes, opposing defenses are doing things differently against the Eagles this year. One trend: The Eagles keep encountering defensive strategies that their opponent hasn't shown on film in any previous game. Some of that is simply defensive coordinators prepping for the Eagles' no-huddle offense, which doesn't allow for much substitution or adjustment. Some of it is to stop McCoy. Either way, the Eagles have had to constantly adjust their approach because they've game planned for an entirely different look.
When they do focus on the run, the target is the inside zone blocking schemes the Eagles had so much success with last season. Second-level defenders keep appearing in the holes just as McCoy starts toward them. Since the Eagles' most mobile linemen, Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis, have just returned from injuries and are still rounding into shape, those defenders are not getting blocked this season.
A year ago, the Eagles were the team switching to a 3-4 defense after years in a 4-3. So it's not surprising to see the Titans near the bottom of the NFL against the run. They are ninth against the pass, though, which is pretty respectable. Is there something they're doing especially well, or is it a case of teams running the ball so well they don't have to throw that much against Tennessee?
Kuharsky: Well, some of those big run games we discussed have made it so opponents haven't needed to throw so much, yes. That's a factor. They have blitzed more and more, and more effectively. And while they have question marks in the secondary, they've played OK there. Jason McCourty has tracked top receivers and fared pretty well. Even when a guy like Antonio Brown was making a lot of catches to convert third downs, McCourty was right there a lot of the time. I expect he will spend time on Jeremy Maclin.
The other starting corner, Blidi Wren-Wilson, is making progress but is beatable and probably will be targeted. The Titans have been bouncing between base and dime, without a lot of nickel, so it will be interesting to see what grouping the Eagles prefer to get on the field when they can control it.
The Titans fare pretty well at avoiding big plays -- and some of the big ones they've allowed this season have been short or mid-range catches they've allowed to turn into big plays with missed tackles or bad angles. Opponents have connected on just 15 passes in the air 20 yards or more. That seems like a pretty good number considering their people in defense.
What is Season 2 of the 3-4 looking like in Philadelphia? Connor Barwin has 10.5 sacks. A week after sorting through LeBeau's defense, what will the Titans see Davis dial up?
Sheridan: The defense has, for the most part, been much more sound and more versatile in Year 2 under Davis -- example, they have a dime package this season, which they did not have during the 2013 season. Let's pretend that farce in Green Bay never happened, for the sake of our discussion here. I mean, it did happen, but it seemed like a perfect storm of a deeply misbegotten game plan and some very poor play by the Eagles.
Before that, the Eagles' defenders had finally gotten the hang of two-gapping, making them fairly sound against the run all season. And they have had some games where they've been excellent at generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Throw in some turnovers and it's as disruptive and effective as the Eagles defense has looked in almost a decade.
The Eagles have faced Kirk Cousins and Austin Davis this season, so they have seen a couple of young quarterbacks. They try to disguise their coverages and bring pressure from unexpected places in order to take advantage of the inexperience. I'm sure they'll attempt to do that with Mettenberger. Then again, the Eagles had their most significant defensive success against Cam Newton and Eli Manning, so maybe Mettenberger has the edge here.
The San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins meet for the second time in Week 12 in as many years. And just like last season, both teams appear to be heading in opposite directions. This time, though, the Niners and Washington meet on a Sunday in Santa Clara, rather than on a Monday night outside of the nation’s capital. NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez and John Keim break down the matchup.
Gutierrez: Hey, John, wasn’t too long ago that Robert Griffin III was the toast of football in his Superman socks as the epitome of the unselfish athlete. Now? Seems like he represents all that is wrong with Washington's NFL franchise and lacks an accountability gene. What is the truest picture of RGIII you can paint at this point in time based on your interactions with him and what teammates say?
Keim: I'll start with this: No one who was in his news conference Sunday felt he had thrown teammates under the bus. Or at least none of the people I talked about it with later. Before he said the one line in which he went too far, Griffin had spent the entire time blaming himself and saying how he needed to play better. I’ll knock him when it’s justified and in this case what he needed to do is what Jay Gruden later said: Worry about yourself. Yes, there are teammates who don’t like him and, especially last year, there were guys who felt he should take more blame. There are others who love him. A big problem was that so much became about him, especially after the knee surgery, that it dominated too much of the conversation. Also, it led to a circus atmosphere that players grew tired of and definitely turned off some players. But I'll also say: Even Darrell Green had his detractors when he played here, probably more than you’d think. I don’t worry who likes whom -- not since I was in high school at least. I worry more about whether the guy is earning respect based on his work and his play. Griffin has work to do in that area -- he certainly earned it as a rookie, but not the past two seasons. I think what he represents to Redskins fans as much as anything is lost hope. I’ve never seen a honeymoon with an athlete in this town like I did with Griffin, where he was almost irrationally beloved. And then he played the way he did as a rookie and fans rightfully dreamed of a fantastic future. Now they face a cold reality: Griffin hasn’t become who they hoped and might never do so and this franchise has no clue how to build a winner.
I liked Chris Borland in college, but felt he had strong limitations and would be vulnerable in certain areas and perhaps better in a 4-3 defense. But he seems like one reason this defense has continued to flourish despite injuries. Are you surprised by what they’ve done given some of their losses -- and how have they maintained a high level of play despite injuries? And what is the impact of Aldon Smith’s return?
Gutierrez: Given the amount of star power missing from the defense all season long, yes, I’m somewhat surprised by how well the defense has played. So kudos to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Truly, the Niners have been in every game but one, the blowout loss at Denver in what amounted to a coronation for Peyton Manning as the NFL's TD passing king, and that’s a credit to the defense. Because while the Niners' 308.8 yards per game surrendered average is the fourth best in the NFL and on pace to be better than last year’s mark, they are down in just about every other category. Points allowed is up from 17.0 to 21.2, third-down percentage defense is up from 34.1 to 44.7 and opponent total QBR is up from 39.9 to 48.8. And still, the defense has been the steadying influence. Sure, Patrick Willis is on IR, along with nose tackle Ian Williams. Glenn Dorsey is back to spell Williams, NaVorro Bowman's 21-day evaluation window was opened on Tuesday and Smith made an impact Sunday at the New York Giants, causing quarterback Eli Manning to hear footsteps as he threw five interceptions. Teams have to account for his brand of speed rush now and, with rookie Aaron Lynch a virtual Smith clone on the other side, Smith’s impact grows. So long as Ahmad Brooks buys in.
OK, time for a question so simple it’s hard: Is Washington a better team with Colt McCoy under center than with RGIII?
Keim: I think they’d look sharper in aspects of their offense with McCoy right now, though people forget in the first half of that win over Dallas the offense was put in fantastic positions and did almost nothing with him at quarterback. Then he flourished in the second half. I’d trust him to take the proper drops and get the ball out in rhythm, which would be a big benefit. Keep in mind, though, that the Redskins would have beaten Minnesota a week later with Griffin had the defense showed up in the second half. But he failed miserably against Tampa Bay. Still, with McCoy maybe they become a six-win team rather than a four- or five-win team by season’s end. I think he’s just a good backup ultimately. But the Redskins need to find out what they have in Griffin. His talent is terrific so if he develops he’d take them far. But there’s definite frustration, which you heard from Gruden Monday. Perhaps Gruden was sending a message to the owner as well, knowing that Griffin is his guy (after all, he gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder only two years ago).
Washington always has drama, but it’s usually because the team loses and then the dam bursts. But the Niners have their own drama with Jim Harbaugh and what will happen in the future. What do you think will happen -- and how have the players handled this? How big a topic is it with them?
Gutierrez: To a man, at least publicly, the players insist the Harbaugh storylines are media created and driven and pay them no mind. And that’s easy to believe …when the Niners are winning games. But the stories pick up steam when they lose and you know that old yarn about where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Look, it’s a Super Bowl or bust season for the Niners and while they are three plays away from being 3-7 (the Eagles not pounding it in from the 1-yard line, the fourth-and-10, 51-yard catch by Michael Crabtree at New Orleans and the Giants unable to get into the end zone despite having first-and-goal at the 4-yard line), they are in the thick of the playoff race. Anything less, and I have a hard time seeing Harbaugh returning. In fact, with so much drama, real and imagined, I can still see Harbaugh moving on after the season, despite having one year left on his contract. The two most popular rumored destinations at the moment? Try his alma mater at Michigan and that Silver and Black outfit across the Bay in the Oakland Raiders. But like anything else, this is a very fluid situation. Very fluid.
The 49ers are 7-2 against the NFC East under Harbaugh, including 3-0 this season against the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants. Why does Washington have a chance Sunday in Santa Clara?
Keim: Because I’ve covered the NFL long enough to never be surprised by anything. A few weeks ago the Redskins went to Dallas as double-digit dogs and looked like a completely different team than they’ve looked for most of the season. They went to Philadelphia earlier this year and lost by three. Of course, they also lost at home by 31 to the Giants and by 20 to Tampa Bay. The problem is, I’m guessing offensive tackle Trent Williams won’t play and that leaves Washington vulnerable against guys like Smith. Very vulnerable. And the Niners’ defense still looks pretty good despite the injuries. The Redskins turn it over too much and take too many negative plays, which they absolutely can’t do Sunday. Their defense, I think, can do all right against the Niners’ offense and that could keep the game interesting for a little while. Then you never know. With DeSean Jackson, they’re often one throw from stinging a team. Maybe it’s a one-in-a-million chance they win. To which the Redskins would say, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
What have you thought of Colin Kaepernick’s play this season? Where has he progressed and what is he struggling with?
Gutierrez: I’ll use the words of a scout who gave me a breakdown of Kaepernick one month into the season -- he has not necessarily regressed, but he has not progressed as much as many thought he would have by now, either. A lot of that has to do with an uncharacteristic number of drops by his receivers, a decidedly down year by tight end Vernon Davis and his being sacked 32 times (tied for the league lead). Look, the offense goes through him more this year than ever, and even he would admit he has been inconsistent. Telling you exactly why is another matter entirely. But our good friends at ESPN Stats & Info provided a glimpse. His total QBR rating of 54.9 this season is his worst in any season since he became the Niners’ starter, trailing the 68.6 he had last year and the 71.8 he posted in 2012. And his yards per pass attempt (7.4), yards per rush (4.9) and sack percentage (8.5) are also career lows. He is still working on his touch on fades, though he did finally connect on one, to Anquan Boldin, and Kaepernick is dangerous as a runner, though the Niners would prefer he become more of the prototypical pocket passer.
Phillip Thomas: The Redskins have made it clear they’re not just going to play young guys just to “see what they have.” Typically, they have a good feel after practice and meetings. But safety is one position where it’s harder to gauge where they’re at just from practice, because there’s no live hitting.
So, at some point, Haslett said he’d like to see Thomas in a game. The second-year safety has dealt with a Lisfranc injury and a hamstring injury in his two seasons. This summer, he was noticeably bigger and then he added weight when he was sidelined. Haslett said he weighed 233 pounds but is back down to 210, a much more comfortable weight for him.
“We want to get Phillip some work,” Haslett said. “I don’t know when it is. We have to find out if he can play. At some point in season he deserves an opportunity to play. I don’t know when that will be. Is it during a game or a whole game?”
Haslett blamed himself for the failed blitz that resulted in a 54-yard touchdown pass to Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans last week. The problem is that linebacker Perry Riley didn’t blitz – a gap had opened where he was supposed to blitz. And the typically in that situation vs. that blitz, the Bucs would throw short.
But when Riley didn’t blitz, thinking he was supposed to drop into coverage, the Bucs capitalized.
“I’ll take that one,” Haslett said. “The score’s 20-7, we’re trying to make something happen, trying to get the ball back and you go with one of those risk-reward blitzes. Against Dallas, it was good. It didn’t work this week.”
Defensive end Chris Baker (sternum), tight end Jordan Reed (right hamstring) and tackle Trent Williams (knee) did not practice Thursday. Guard Shawn Lauvao (concussion) was limited and linebacker Trent Murphy (knee) was a full participant.
This was my No. 1 takeaway from the Giants' locker room Thursday. I learned a lot in there, including the facts that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie thought the movie "Interstellar" was too long and center J.D. Walton got a paycheck this week that was for $0.00 because his previous checks had failed to withhold federal income tax and they're in the process of correcting that. ("Tight budget," Walton joked.)
"When you have a dude of that caliber and he's got that dog in him, you have to have kind of a nasty attitude to go against him," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "He's a tough cover. One of those big guys who's good to the ball. You just have to cover him for as long as you can."
He is, and it likely will fall to Rodgers-Cromartie to handle him as long as he can. Rodgers-Cromartie was too injured to play much of the Week 7 game in Dallas, leaving it to Prince Amukamara to handle Bryant, who caught nine passes for 151 yards in that game. Amukamara is out for the year now, so that's no longer an option. And while Rodgers-Cromartie is in better shape now than he was that week (read: actually practicing), his leg and back injuries continue to flare up and force him out of games for stretches.
That means the Giants won't be able to stick Rodgers-Cromartie on Bryant all game as they'd like to, and that they'll have to arrange coverage on one of the game's most fearsome receivers with some combination of him, Zack Bowman, Jayron Hosley and Chykie Brown.
"It does make it difficult to match up without a full-strength 21," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, oddly referring to Rodgers-Cromartie by his uniform number. "I'm encouraged by what we see out of 21. Obviously, he's feeling better, because before he just didn't practice. But we never know, because sometimes he's working well and then he'll tighten up in a ballgame and he'll need a break. So we never know."
Fewell said he was "very confident in Brown," indicating that he might draw the Bryant assignment if Rodgers-Cromartie can't. But the point is, whatever solution they come up with will be an imperfect one, and that's a tough pill to swallow, especially given the already tough matchup of their 32nd-ranked run defense against NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray.
That list included quarterback Tony Romo, who returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday.
The only player who did not practice is cornerback Tyler Patmon, who has a knee injury.
Defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin), defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (knee), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder) and linebacker Rolando McClain (knee) went through full practices.
Things are a little different for the Giants.
Four starters did not practice on Thursday: defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (calf), defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (knee), right tackle Justin Pugh (quadriceps) and linebacker Jacquian Williams (concussion).
So it wasn’t a big surprise when McCoy lashed out at reporters this week. Indeed, McCoy lashed out partly because the reporters asking him questions know that he is prone to such outbursts. It’s not that they dangle bait and see if he’ll bite, exactly, but it’s close.
"I'm not even going to address 'am I the same player?'" McCoy said. "That's for you all to figure out. Are you crazy? I am the same player. I'm not going to sit here and play that game, like, 'Am I the same player?'"
One reason for McCoy’s quick trigger: His contract guarantees him just $1 million of his 2015 salary of $9.75 million. He will count $11.9 million against the salary cap. Considering the Eagles released Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson last winter, it may have crossed McCoy’s mind that no one is secure here. Coach Chip Kelly seems to have a genuine affection for McCoy -- which was not the case with Jackson -- but affection doesn’t overrule logic. Being the key to a league-leading running game provides better security than the coach’s affection.
Earlier in the season, McCoy chafed at the ongoing questions about what was wrong with the Eagles’ running game. Injuries along the offensive line were part of the picture. So was the way defenses were approaching the Eagles’ zone blocking schemes. Several teams came out in defensive looks that the Eagles had not seen them play on game film.
McCoy had two rough games against Washington (19 carries, 22 yards) and San Francisco (10 for 17). Then he had four consecutive games above 80 yards, including those two games above 100 yards. With the offensive line returning to good health, it seemed like the problems were over.
And then McCoy ran for just 19 yards on 12 carries in a win over Carolina. In Green Bay Sunday, he amassed 88 yards on 23 carries in a 53-20 loss.
So the questions began again. McCoy heard them. Clearly, he didn’t like them.