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Want to save NFL defense? Five rules to even the playing field – NFL Nation


The video of this NFL season might as well be called: Quarterbacks Gone Wild.

The touchdowns have piled up as the concepts and innovations are celebrated along with the newest generation of golden-armed passers and fresh-faced playcallers.

“… If you’re on defense, they don’t let you do a damn thing to stop (offenses). It’s not a fair fight anymore.”

Former All-Pro CB Champ Bailey

There are 31 quarterbacks — THIRTY-ONE — completing at least 60 percent of their passes. Sixteen of them have at least 15 touchdown passes after nine weeks and 16 wide receivers are on pace for 100 receptions. Statistics that were once milestones have become business as usual.

The NFL’s decision-makers and rules mavens have set offenses free to the delight of a points-adoring, fantasy-football-playing public. So much so that there might be an August night in 2028 or so in Canton, Ohio, where the Hall of Fame class is two quarterbacks and three wide receivers because, well, they’ve got all the numbers.

“[The NFL] made it that way; it’s what they want,” said Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback. “I look at it now and think if you’re on defense, they don’t let you do a damn thing to stop it. It’s not a fair fight anymore.”

Former Rams and Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who spent 15 years on the league’s competition committee, including a stint as the committee’s co-chairman, said: “I can’t really recall a significant discussion we had about a rule that would benefit, solely, the defense that wasn’t simply safety related … whatever it’s been … it’s all designed to keep the scoring up. Over time when all those things have been discussed people said, ‘Well, it will all balance out.’ I think we’ve seen, if you look at it objectively, it hasn’t balanced out — at all.”

How could the league make it more fair without putting quarterbacks in harm’s way or rolling back safety initiatives? ESPN spoke to dozens of current and former players, former head coaches, defensive coordinators and personnel executives to see what could be done to level the playing field for the defense.

From that, here are five proposals either for change or enforcement of rules (current rules are from the rules book circulated by NFL Operations):

1. Make illegal contact a five-yard penalty, not an automatic first down

The rule: “Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.”

The penalty for illegal contact is a five-yard walk-off against the defense and the offense is given an automatic first down, no matter the down-and-distance when the foul occurred.

“The punishment doesn’t fit the infraction. You stop somebody on a third-and-12 and a flag goes down for a touch foul 25 yards from the play and it’s an automatic first down. Let defenses play second-and-5, third-and-5,” said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, a former safety who played in 77 games in his seven-year career with the Rams, Packers, Redskins and Bills.

The opportunity to stop an offense that doesn’t get a new set of downs would give defenses a chance in a possession on penalties on second and third downs instead of rewarding the offense for “a touch foul that had nothing to do with the play,” Bowen said.

2. Expand the chuck zone to 10 yards

The rule: “Within the area five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, a defensive player may chuck an eligible receiver in front of him. The defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone, as long as the receiver has not moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.”

Denver Broncos defensive back Chris Harris Jr. said “that one would work right now, right this second, but that’s why (the league) will never do it because they know it would work. That’s a fair fight, I’d love that.”

Fisher said it would also force offenses to reconsider some of what they’re doing now, but saw a problem in the enforcement.

“It’s enforced right now at a soft seven (yards) or so,” Fisher said. “If you move it to 10, maybe it gets enforced at 12 (yards) or so, I think you’d get more pass interference because the ball is going to be in the air a lot when the DB is engaged at the top of the route at 10 (yards).”

3. Enforce downfield blocking rules

The rule: “On a scrimmage play during which a legal forward pass is thrown, an ineligible offensive player, including a T-formation quarterback, is not permitted to move more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the pass has been thrown.”

Just seek an opinion on this one these days and defensive coaches around the league say — loudly — offenses are repeatedly scoring touchdowns on plays, especially run-pass option plays, that should be flagged as penalties because linemen are “four, five, six yards down the field,” Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe said.

The rule is on the books “and they just need to call it,” Wolfe said. “The linebacker has no chance, he’s playing run because the linemen are run blocking down the field before the throw.”

“That’s one that will definitely have to be addressed,” Fisher said. “I have no doubt on that.”

4. Enforce offensive pass interference on pick plays

The rule: “It is pass interference by either team when an act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball … Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched.”

When the New England Patriots slowed the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf offense in Super Bowl XXXVI with a decidedly hands-on approach to defense, pass interference and illegal contact each became a “point of emphasis” for the officials and they have clamped down since.

However, while offensive and defensive pass interference are listed together in the NFL rule book, they are not called with the same frequency.

“That one is totally off,” Bailey said. “(Offenses) are picking every play in a bunch formation, and in the red zone, and offense and defense are committing the same amount, but for every three or four on defense called, you might get one on offense. Just call it. Especially in the middle of the field where the umpire used to be.”

5. Add an eighth official to crew

The rule: “The game shall be played under the supervision of seven officials: the Referee, Umpire, Down Judge, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge.”

Fisher said it’s time to go to an eight-man crew like the major conferences in college football have been doing since 2014. The NFL moved the umpire from the defensive side of the ball to behind the quarterback in 2010 as part of safety concerns for those officials.

“But that middle of the field area where the umpire was is where a lot of these fouls are getting missed,” Fisher said. “The eighth official can then handle all that stuff in the middle of the field where the umpire used to be. College puts guys there, they’re used to playing it, we need to put that back, that guy on the defensive side. We have the feeder system, guys are already officiating that area of the field in college.

“Also flip the referee and the umpire, put the referee looking into the face of (a right-handed quarterback),” Fisher said. “ … Then the referee has a better view of hits on the quarterback because he’s not looking through the back of the quarterback and the umpire has a better view too. Because right now, once the pocket starts to collapse the referee’s eyes come off the left tackle and go to the quarterback for hits on the quarterback. And time after time we’ve seen on the film that right end on the edge pulled down at the top of the rush because the referee is on the quarterback. Call it, just call it, bring back the edge-rushing component.”

In the end even the most hopeful know, deep down, the league wants scoring. But there are those who believe it will cheapen offensive statistics and corrupt historical greatness if defenses don’t get a little help.

“Look, when I was with the Bears (1986-1995), we had a goal board — hold a team to less than 17 points, 200 yards passing, 40 percent completions,” said Dave McGinnis, who spent 30 years in the NFL. “Hell, that’s a quarter now, now your board would be 35 points, 500 yards and 65 percent passing. Defensive guys are just hanging on right now and they don’t have tenure, you know. People are going to get fired year after year because their hands are tied.”

Bailey said: “You can’t touch the quarterback, you can’t touch the receiver … there isn’t much left … You have to play top down, make tackles in front of you, catch, tackle, catch, tackle, don’t let anything over your head and close it down in the red zone. That’s all you have.”





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Ben Roethlisberger has Pittsburgh Steelers playing like team possessed – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog


PITTSBURGH — The liveliest party of the year just took place in Heinz Field, where they danced so hard in the end zone that they ran out of touchdown celebrations, and that’s when they weren’t throwing Cam Newton to the turf.

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t lying when they said they were just getting started.

The 52-21 pounding of the Panthers on Thursday tied for the most points allowed in Carolina history and showed that the Steelers look ready to make their own history. Carolina last gave up 52 points on Christmas Eve in 2000 against the Oakland Raiders.

If Ben Roethlisberger can continue to deliver masterpieces like this against a good defense, the Steelers — winners of five straight — might have their best chance at a Super Bowl since the early Mike Tomlin years.

Roethlisberger finished 22-of-25 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3, the third such game of his career. He hit every throw, as if tossing into a big net. The Steelers worked the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger’s specialty, on a short week, and the usually stout Panthers looked uneasy throughout.

Turns out this offense hadn’t unlocked everything it had this season. The Steelers had connected on three deep balls all season but hit two Thursday, a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 53-yard score for Antonio Brown, who made rookie corner Donte Jackson look silly in press coverage.

After the Panthers marched 75 yards for the opening score, the Steelers flipped the game in 13 seconds with the Smith-Schuster touchdown on their first play from scrimmage and Vince Williams‘ interception for a touchdown off an ill-advised Newton throw out of the end zone. The Smith-Schuster score was the franchise’s longest-ever first play from scrimmage.

When Roethlisberger left the game with 14 minutes, 55 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had scored points on all seven of their drives that didn’t end in a clock run-out at halftime.

On defense, the Steelers (6-2-1) sacked Newton five times and knocked down him many others. A Christian McCaffrey running game that confused the Steelers on the first drive was quickly put in park.

This was such a thorough whooping that Eric Reid‘s helmet shot on Roethlisberger with 1:15 left in the third quarter — which prompted Reid’s ejection — was an attempt to revive a fight that was dead two hours earlier.

At times, the Steelers can turn unstoppable with a fast offense thriving with James Conner as the lead back — which will only complicate matters upon Le’Veon Bell’s potential return by the Tuesday deadline to play this season.

Either way, Pittsburgh is good. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels scored. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James both scored. Even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was feeling himself, opening the playbook for fullback screens in the second quarter.

Brown and Conner, who each scored Thursday, are the first pair of teammates with 10-plus touchdowns each in their team’s first nine games since Abner Haynes and Chris Burford with the 1962 Chiefs.

Roethlisberger, Brown & Co. have shown the ability to hit the throttle in previous seasons. Performances like this aren’t necessarily unique for this group, especially in prime-time games.

But the efficiency at every level is hard to ignore right now.

And they get Jacksonville, a past playoff hindrance, next Sunday.

Based on this warm-up act, they look ready for anything.



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Steelers CB Artie Burns was late to team activity before not playing a snap


PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns‘ challenging season took another hit.

The former first-round pick was late to a team activity last week, according to sources. That could explain why Burns, despite making five starts this season, did not play a single snap on defense in Sunday’s 33-18 win over the Cleveland Browns.

One source said that activity was a pregame walk-through.

The Steelers had hoped Burns would break out in his third year in the league, but after an impressive training camp, he lost his starting job to Coty Sensabaugh in Week 3. Over the following three weeks, Burns and Sensabaugh have played in a rotation with Burns getting the start.

Sensabaugh, a seven-year veteran, played most of the Cleveland game. Cam Sutton entered the game at cornerback when Sensabaugh hurt his foot in the second half.

Burns told reporters he had to attend a team meeting when approached during Monday’s open locker room session.

Burns gave up a touchdown and a crucial penalty in Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals but had productive practices last week, telling ESPN he secured an interception on Thursday.

That same day, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said he expected Burns to learn from his mistakes.

“I think he’s gotten better over the last week or two in terms of learning to play a little bit better with technique and I think he’ll be OK,” Butler said. “I think any player that stays any length of time in the NFL, makes mistakes and either corrects those mistakes or he’s not going to have a job and that is just the nature of the League. I think Artie [Burns] is up for that. I think he will try to change and do better than he has done. I think he’s a competitor. I think it bothers him to get beat deep like with anyone else, but I think he’ll fight back.”

The Steelers selected Burns No. 25 overall in the 2016 draft. Burns recorded 26 pass deflections and four interceptions during his first two seasons but has one pass deflection, zero interceptions and a forced fumble this year.



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Derek Carr says he loves playing for Oakland Raiders even though not ‘popular’ to be one right now


Derek Carr has tweeted that he loves playing for the Oakland Raiders and that he loves “the struggle of trying to fight back for our city when not a lot of people believe in us.”

One day after Oakland traded star receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys, Carr tweeted:

Carr also tweeted a response to older brother Darren Carr, who had tweeted about the quarterback’s track record of playing through injuries.

Darren Carr’s tweet was in response to a Pro Football Talk tweet about a story by The Athletic, which reported that Derek Carr has a “fractured relationship” with his Raiders teammates.

The Athletic, citing multiple sources, reported that teammates’ confidence in Carr “has waned,” in part, because of film that appeared to show the quarterback crying after taking a hit in Oakland’s loss to Seattle in Week 6.

The rebuilding Raiders (1-5) traded Cooper to the Cowboys for a 2019 first-round pick Monday. The Raiders also traded star pass-rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears before the season for two first-round picks.

Coach Jon Gruden told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Monday that he has no plans to trade Carr, however.

“We’re not trading anyone else,” Gruden said when asked by Mortensen specifically about Carr. “We’re trying to stay competitive and figure out a way to compete this next game (against the Indianapolis Colts).”

Carr, who is the second season of a five-year extension that included $70 million he signed with the Raiders last year, has struggled in his first season with Gruden, throwing eight interceptions to just seven touchdowns in six games.

In the game against the Seahawks in London, he had 23 completions but averaged just 0.39 air yards on those passes. Since 2006, when ESPN first began tracking air yards, there have 3,481 instances of a quarterback completing 20 passes in a game, and no one averaged fewer air yards on their completions in those games than Carr.





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Coach Doug Marrone says Jacksonville Jaguars playing ‘a lot of bad football’


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone didn’t mince words about the state of his football team after a two-game losing streak in which they were outscored 70-21.

The Jaguars may have been a Super Bowl contender when the season began, but now they’re struggling with basic football fundamentals.

“We have to do a lot of things better,” Marrone said. “I’m more focused on what we have to get done in practice and do those things before we can even go the next step and get out there on the field Sunday.

“We have a lot of time between now and Sunday to correct a lot of bad football that we have been playing.”

The Jaguars (3-3) host streaking Houston (3-3) in a critical AFC South game at TIAA Bank Field. The Jaguars are coming off blowout losses to Kansas City and Dallas, with the supposed elite defense having given up 63 points, 49 first downs, and 802 yards in the two games.

The offense has been even worse. Quarterback Blake Bortles has committed six turnovers — five interceptions — and the offensive line has struggled because four starters are banged up and the fifth is the third-string left tackle. In addition, the team’s wide receivers are having a hard time getting open.

Also not helping is that the team’s best offensive player — running back Leonard Fournette — is out indefinitely with a right hamstring injury.

That’s why Marrone said the team is going back to stressing basic football fundamentals rather than worrying about injuries, scheme and playcalling. The Jaguars can’t just assume the defensive front will have success against a Texans offensive line that has given up the second-most sacks in the NFL (25).

“Well if you think of it like that, I think that’s a pretty good path to probably get your ass kicked,” Marrone said. “Fundamentally, we have gotten away from some things and that is on us as coaches. What I have challenged the coaches and I challenged myself with this week is, ‘Hey listen, we have to get back to fundamentals. We have to stick with something that we can sink our teeth in and this way we can go out there and just perform.’

“This may just be my philosophy that anytime you see football being played as poorly as we have been playing, then that is what it comes down to [fundamentals]. That is my philosophy. You guys may differ, but you have to do things well fundamentally. Usually when you do that, you have a chance to play better.”

Marrone is energized by the challenge of getting the team back on track. It means a lot of extra hours and work, but he’s been in this situation before and responded.

He believes it can turn a team’s season around.

“There is no magic pill or magic moment that you can just snap your fingers and go,” Marrone said. “The only way to start playing better is you have to work your ass off. You have to work hard. You have to go back there. You have to coach better. We have to play better. I have to do a better job. That is how simple it is.

“It is like that with anything in life, whether it is football, family or work or whatever it may be. You eat some s— and you go out there and you get your act in gear. You pull it up. I like it because it is challenging. What’s better than hitting adversity and coming back from it?

“It happens all the time. It happens to me my whole entire life. For me, I like it. I don’t want to be here, make no mistake about it, but the one thing you don’t have to worry about — the one question you are not going to get is are you comfortable? There is no way anyone in this building should be comfortable. We know that. We earned that right to be where we are. We are the ones that put us where we are.”



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Ben Roethlisberger says running back James Conner deserves playing time when Le’Veon Bell returns


PITTSBURGH — James Conner has earned a prominent role in the Steelers offense with or without Le’Veon Bell, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday.

Bell hasn’t signed his $14.5 million franchise tag while preserving his health for a long-term contract in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, but he’s planning a return for the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Conner has produced as the starting running back, rushing for 342 yards and five touchdowns on 84 carries and adding 22 catches for 239 yards.

“I think James has done some amazing things and deserves to be on the field,” Roethlisberger told the media from his locker Wednesday, ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We also know what Le’Veon is and what he brings to the table. I guess we’ll cross that bridge if and when it happens.”

Bell, an All-Pro in 2017, has averaged nearly 129 total yards per game since entering the league in 2013. He wants to sign with Pittsburgh but rocky franchise-tag negotiations have complicated matters. The Steelers most recently offered a five-year, $70 million deal that Bell rejected because of low guarantees ($17 million).

Bell does a little bit of everything for the offense, and in his absence, the Steelers have asked much of Conner, too. He struggled with pass protection, injuries and conditioning as a rookie but has progressed steadily in his second year. Conner has two fumbles, however, and the rushing attack stalled from Weeks 2-4, averaging 2.8 yards per carry.

But Roethlisberger said the numbers don’t tell the entire story about Conner’s well-rounded game.

“If you look at the overall picture of what we’ve asked him to do every week, I think it’s been going up every week,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that’s what gets lost in what a running back [does] and what he’s been doing — pass blocking, picking up the blitz, catching out of the backfield. I don’t want to jinx anything, but he’s catching almost everything I’m throwing to him, and he’s in the right spot all the time quickly.”

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said a Bell-Conner combo can be “very effective” because of Bell’s patient running style coupled with Conner’s explosion through the hole. Pittsburgh’s offense typically relies on one workhorse back, but Roethlisberger said both players can help spell each other to stay fresh for a long season.

The Steelers (2-2-1) have a Week 7 bye but need a win over the 4-1 Bengals to tighten the AFC North race. Steelers-Bengals games have featured a litany of injuries and fines for questionable hits. Roethlisberger hopes for a cleaner game, noting NFL rules preventing ill-intended hits haven’t curbed issues in the past.

“It’s not about just the physicality of the football game, to me,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s when it gets the extracurricular, the dirty stuff that you wish was cut out of it, and hope is cut out this time.”



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Former Detroit Lions TE Joseph Fauria hurt playing volleyball, not chasing puppy


Doggone it. As it turns out, the reason that ex-NFL tight end Joseph Fauria gave for spraining his ankle in 2014 — chasing his puppy down the stairs — was too good to be true.

At the time, Fauria, who was with the Detroit Lions, said he missed two steps while chasing after his 3-month-old Pomeranian/husky mix, Lil’ Rufio, at his apartment after Week 3 of the NFL season. While bracing for a fall, he put his 265-pound frame on his left foot and sprained his ankle.

“He was about to pee and I was like, ‘Come here you little … nugget,'” Fauria said then. “I wasn’t running but I was chasing him downstairs and I just misstepped … and I just didn’t end up well.”

But that wasn’t the true story. Fauria said in a recent podcast of his that he suffered the injury while playing volleyball, which he originally had dismissed in 2014 as a rumor.

“When I come down, I come down on just ankle, left ankle,” Fauria said of how he suffered the injury while playing volleyball with neighbors. “This most amazing, shocking pain that I’ve ever felt in my entire life shoots up my leg, and immediately I’m like, ‘Career’s over.’ … That’s how much it hurt.”

Instead, fearing the Lions wouldn’t pay him for injuring himself for playing another sport, Fauria put the blame on Lil’ Rufio.

“Did I want to lie to my head coach? No, but I was thinking about myself,” Fauria said. “… [Friends] told me that if the team, the organization, the Lions found out I was playing volleyball and I got hurt playing volleyball, that they could exercise the option of not paying me.”

Fauria wound up playing just two seasons in the NFL, and he never played another down after returning in November and catching six passes during that 2014 season.





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New England Patriots Nate Ebner on the challenges of playing rugby and NFL


With rookies Christian Scotland-Williamson and Jordan Mailata both attempting to make the switch from rugby codes to the NFL, ESPN’s Mike Reiss caught up with Nate Ebner — a Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots and a U.S. Olympic Sevens rugby player — on the challenges they will face to make the grade.

Mike Reiss: What did you find most challenging about the transition from one sport to the other?

Nate Ebner: “That’s a big question. I grew up playing football. I didn’t play in high school. But I’ve been around it; I watched it every day. It’s part of our culture. I transitioned in college too; I was in my second year in college and I had three years of eligibility before the NFL when I walked on, so I had some time to do it at Ohio State.

“That first year was actually a humbling experience, because I thought I would be able to go in and lean on my athletic ability a bit more. But learning the ins and outs and stuff that has to do with football — offensive formations as a defensive player, and all the different packages, I could go on and on about that. It’s basically a lot to learn. It was hard. You play rugby — there are 15 guys on the field and you don’t sub [out].

“I play rugby union, Jordan Mailata plays rugby league, and that’s different. Rugby league is a different version of rugby.

“But again, the transition for me was a humbling one. There’s a lot to learn, but you just have to grind away at it. That’s the biggest thing I can say. My biggest learning years were definitely my rookie year in the NFL. I played three years of college football and didn’t really grasp it like I did in my rookie year. So to come straight into the NFL right away with no real experience, it’s going to be challenging [for Mailata and Scotland-Williamson]. It’s challenging enough as it is just to make it, for everyone, even if you grew up playing the sport your whole life.”

MR: What surprised you? Something maybe you didn’t see coming?

NE: “The amount of studying that you have to do. In rugby, and coming from all my experiences, we studied film a little bit but not to that extent; it’s a game where you go out and practice. The amount of film study was a surprise, how much detail went into it. Knowing what I know now, I realized it’s what you need to do to gain every edge you can on your opponent and totally understand situations.

“Another surprise is that people who really understand football, it’s almost like a second language. There’s so much verbiage, and that verbiage changes from team to team and can even change from week to week within the same team. But there’s definitely a football language out there that you have to learn and understand. That was news to me as well.”

MR: How much time did it take to adjust to the pace of the game?

NE: “It felt fast at first, but that’s because I didn’t know what I was doing. If you do anything for the first time that requires speed, it’s going to feel fast until you understand it. Until you get used to it, it feels like everything is flying.

“The biggest thing I learned is that you can’t have any false movement in the plays. In rugby, you can afford a couple wasted steps here and there. The game’s constantly flowing, you don’t really get a break, so people are tired. In football, you can’t afford to be going the wrong direction or take false steps. No wasted movement — that was new.”

MR: What skill sets from football lent themselves to rugby?

NE: “That’s such a tough thing to answer. For me going back to rugby like I did, I would say the biggest thing that helped was just the explosiveness and strength you gain training in football, and football made me a more explosive rugby player. It’s a different ball, it’s a different skill set, even the way you tackle and play defense can be different. People love to correlate the two because they’re contact sports and you tackle, but they’re also very different sports too. Man-to-man coverage is nothing like being in a ruck and vice versa, there are plenty of examples.”

MR: How challenging was the mental switch from one sport to the other?

NE: “For me going from rugby to football — I had a lot to learn. I couldn’t just let the game flow and play because your footwork is important, your eye control is important, what you’re thinking about in certain situations is important.

“I think the speed of playing in the NFL helped me slow the game of rugby down. But even with that, my first World Sevens Series event that I did in Singapore felt like the game speed was flying, compared to when I was in the [2016] Olympics just a couple months later. So it still took some getting used to.

“The hardest part for me going from football back to rugby wasn’t mental, it was cardiovascular. Trying to transition from six years away from rugby and playing in the NFL where I get a break after six seconds of playing with all-out effort, to having to continually move — tackle, pass, get up, run, ruck; all those things — that cardio was a monster.

“It’s unlike anything most football players have experienced, and would be a very different kind of challenge to do what those men do on the Sevens team day in and day out. Again, another part of the game that is very different.”

MR: How did a rugby tactics book compare with a playbook?

NE: “This is another aspect of rugby that, to me, is more like basketball. Whatever you think of a basketball playbook, I’d say rugby is more similar to that. A football playbook is on a completely different level.

“A lot of basketball is running down the court — fast breaks, 3-on-2s, 2-on-1s, some double teams so try to find the open guy. Rugby is a lot like that — quick turnover, fast break, we’re going the other way; try to find the overlap, try to find the 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situation. It’s very similar in that regard.

“Every once in a while you will have the set piece, like a half-court play, where you run a certain play and it’s not an exact play where something specific has to happen. It’s kind of like there are suggestions off this play, like a pick-and-roll [in basketball]. You can keep the ball, or shoot it, or hit the roll guy. You have to take what the defense gives you and rugby is the exact same as that.”

MR: How did you find the different shape of the balls?

NE: “I grew up with a football and a rugby ball, sitting side by side. If you’re an athlete, we do drills with tennis balls all the time, it doesn’t matter — the ball, you catch it.”

MR: How does the buzz of playing in the Olympics compare with playing in the NFL?

NE: “To me, they’re completely two different things. Playing in the NFL is a great experience, walking out to play in a Super Bowl, for a championship, that’s what you do it for. It is the most-watched event in all of sports. It’s amazing to be a part of, special in its own right.

“But walking out with a United States badge on your chest and being on a completely different continent and walking out for the opening ceremonies and having a different country cheer for you because you’re representing the United States — and getting a chill because you know what you represent, what’s on your chest and what you’re there to do and how this thing is so much bigger than you — that’s an unmatched feeling in and of itself. They’re both awesome.”

MR: Any final thoughts?

NE: “Professional sports require so much more than just athletic ability. There are going to be challenges along the way. Some people have a lot of potential. This kid [Mailata] is 6 feet 8 inches, 350 pounds and runs like a tight end. That’s some God-gifted size and ability. Just look at his highlights. So he has a start right there.

“But he’s going to be competing with guys who are similar size and they know what they’re doing. I think it’s a hard transition. There is a lot to football. But it’s doable. I’ve done it, others have done it. But it’s hard, a lot of guys have failed, too.

“It’s challenging at the top of anything. You can talk about business, art, sports, etc. The best in the world are the best for a reason. So it’s tough… but you can do it if you work hard enough.”



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Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach June Jones says Johnny Manziel should be playing in NFL


Johnny Manziel didn’t play in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ season opener against Calgary, but coach June Jones says the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner should be playing in the NFL.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised the last three weeks what a good teammate he is, how smart he is, how he sees the game,” Jones told ESPN.com. “He should be playing in the National Football League, and I believe he will when he gets through with us.”

The Cleveland Browns released Manziel in March 2016, two years after the former Texas A&M star was the No. 22 pick of the NFL draft. Manziel’s career with the Browns was marred by off-the-field issues that ultimately led to two stints in rehab for alcohol and drugs.

After spending two years out of football, Manziel in May signed a two-year deal with Hamilton of the Canadian Football League to rebuild his career. The 25-year-old spent the opener on the sideline playing behind Jeremiah Masoli, who completed 25 of 36 pass attempts for 344 yards and an interception during the 28-14 loss.

Jones said in late May that Manziel had no chance to overtake Masoli as the starter before the June 16 opener.

But Jones was impressed enough with Manziel’s performance — 12-for-20 for 88 yards and 1 touchdown — in the preseason finale against Montreal and everything he has seen off the field to predict a successful comeback to the NFL.

“It’ll take two years,” Jones said. “They’re [NFL executives, coaches] waiting to see that he’s taken care of his off-the-field problems.”

From what Jones has seen so far, Manziel is on the right path.

“He’s humble,” he said. “He’s growing up every day.”

Jones made the comments during an interview about Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert. Jones helped Gilbert rebuild his confidence in college after Gilbert transferred from Texas to Southern Methodist University, where Jones coached from 2008 to 2014.

While Jones acknowledged Manziel doesn’t lack for confidence “at all,” he admits there is work to be done. But he expects Manziel to one day compete in the NFL, just like Gilbert — the leading candidate to back up 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton — is now.

“We have a huge project,” Jones said of Manziel. “We’re going to get that done, too.”



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Playing ‘Big Nickel,’ Patriots value safety position – New England Patriots Blog


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Bill Belichick was hired as New England Patriots coach in 2000, he made it clear through his initial first-round draft choices what type of defense he intended to run.

It was a base 3-4, and Belichick invested top picks in defensive linemen Richard Seymour (2001, No. 6 overall), Ty Warren (2003, No. 13 overall) and Vince Wilfork (2004, No. 21 overall), in part because those players uniquely fit the two-gapping scheme and projected to be on the field for the majority of snaps.

Nineteen years later, with Super Bowl LII as the most recent example, the Patriots’ base 3-4 defense has diminished in usage and importance. The significant majority of snaps (80-90 percent) are now played in sub packages, and for the Patriots, it’s most often their “Big Nickel” grouping, with three safeties, two cornerbacks, two off-the-line linebackers and four defensive linemen.

In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots had their top three safeties — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon — on the field for 63 of 75 defensive snaps. While the results weren’t what they hoped for in that game, the three-safety approach was consistent with how they played for significant stretches of 2017.

It’s a point that is topical to highlight, as it accompanies an ESPN.com piece on potential trade suitors for Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

Do I really think the Patriots — with their entire safety corps returning in 2018 — would deal for Thomas?

It’s highly unlikely.

But a case could at least be made that no team in the NFL values the safety position as much as the Patriots based on their usage of the Big Nickel, so it’s at least worthy of a conversation.

Along those lines …

Why Big Nickel? As the game has become more spread out offensively, with more three-receiver packages and/or tight ends who are essentially big receivers, it has put more stress on defenses to match up. So the Big Nickel provides a nice middle ground — a defense that adds an extra defensive back to support in the passing game, but one that, in theory, remains stout enough against the run with a safety who can play some linebacker-type duties.

What makes it work? Versatility within the safety group. McCourty entered the NFL in 2010 as a cornerback and can sometimes be tapped to fill those responsibilities. He also has moved down to more of a linebacker position, where his sure tackling and toughness have shown up. Chung also has experience playing the “star” position (inside corner), and has proved to be effective in coverage against top tight ends and tough-minded against the run. Harmon is more of a pure center-field type, but also has some versatility to do different things. That creates options that can be used on a game-plan basis, or even on a play-by-play basis. This season, McCourty, Chung and Harmon are back, as well as top backups Jordan Richards and Nate Ebner and practice squad players Damarius Travis and David Jones. From an NFL-wide perspective, the Texans are an example of a team that might be envisioning more Big Nickel possibilities after signing versatile free agent Tyrann Mathieu and drafting Justin Reid in the third round to pair with returning starter Andre Hal.

Importance of depth. With the Patriots running the majority of their snaps in the Big Nickel, it almost makes the No. 3 safety a starter, and thus, the No. 4 player on the depth chart is more than the traditional backup who might be viewed as less likely to play on defense. One injury and that No. 4 player becomes a critical piece, or it forces the defense to go away from the package to something altogether different.

History lesson. It was a few years ago when Belichick traced the origins of the nickel defense to Washington coach George Allen in the early 1970s, explaining how Allen would bring in a defensive back for a weakside linebacker. “It was just a one-for-one substitution of a better pass defender in passing situations for a linebacker,” Belichick explained, noting that, as a Colts assistant in 1975, he broke down a 1974 Redskins-Rams game, with the Redskins reacting to the Rams using a not-often-seen-before package of two tight ends, two receivers and one back. “It created a lot of problems for Washington’s defense because it was always a strongside, weakside 3-on-2, 4-on-3 matchup. That personnel group ended up creating a real problem because you were able to get three receivers out to either side after the ball was snapped; defense didn’t know what it was. That really struck me.” Things have obviously evolved since then, but in simple terms, the Big Nickel has essentially become a Patriots modern-day version of what Allen was trying to combat: It’s the versatile defense that — if played well with good personnel — can match up to any offensive grouping.



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