Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

The script feels awfully familiar, it's true. The Philadelphia 76ers
have gotten off to a fairly good start this season, going 10-7 in their
first 17 games, but have done so mostly at home and mostly against
fairly weak teams, and it feels like only a matter of time until they
start falling back and end up about where they've ended up in four of
the last five seasons—with a seventh and eighth-seed in the playoffs and
an all-but-certain first-round exit. The Sixers aren't a bad team, but
they're not an elite team, and they will probably be exposed for their
mediocrity sooner or later, just as they have been every other year. 

However, even though the overall story arc is a retread, the season
doesn't feel quite like a repeat. That's because a number of the
details—including some of the cast and characters—have been different
enough from past years, last year especially, to keep things
interesting. Here are some of the changed subplots for the Sixers this

1. They're winning in close games, not blowouts. When the Sixers
got off to their hot start last year, John Hollinger briefly had them
listed at the top of his Power Rankings. This year, they're in the 20s.
Why the huge disparity, despite the similar records? Scoring
differential. Last year, the Sixers were 12-5 after 17 games, but they
had an incredible +209 scoring margin, including eight wins of 20 points
or more against lottery-bound teams like the Raptors, Warriors, Pistons
and Wizards. The inflated wins, explained largely by the Sixers having
the advantage of a consistent roster from the year before in a
strike-shortened, training-campless season, made the team seem more
dominant than they actually were, and masked the fact that they still
had no idea how to win close games, an inability that would haunt them
later in the season when the rest of the league started to catch up to

This year, the Sixers aren't blowing out anybody. Their biggest win
this season was a 15-point victory in New Orleans, and their nine other
W's have been by ten points or less—in fact, for the season, the Sixers
have a negative scoring differential, having been outscored by opponents
by a total of 14 points. Most statistical analysts would point to this
decreased scoring differential as a sign that this Sixers team is weaker
than last year's, and rightly so, though on the other hand, you could
at least say that this marks some sort of progress, that the fact that
the Sixers are now able to close in close games against mediocre
opponents, where their record last year in one-possession games was
abysmal. It's a change of pace anyway.

2. They don't fast break anymore. Whether a conscious
strategic decision by Coach Collins or a matter of changes in
personnel—the departed Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams were two of the
team's best fast-breakers and most aggressive playmakers—the team
doesn't really run anymore. After finishing in the top five in the
league in fast-break scoring each of the last five years (except for
last year, when they finished eighth), the team ranks only 19th this
season, with about 13 points a game.

With Jrue Holiday as the team's primary ball-handler, the team runs a
much more precise, orchestrated half-court offense that doesn't rely on
scoring in transition. Watching Holiday in transition, he rarely looks
to be bolting for the basket, instead just steadily advancing towards
the hoop, looking for easy-score opportunities to present themselves,
and running a play if none do. Given the improved half-court option the
team has acquired (Jason Richardson, Nick Young) or developed (Evan
Turner, Thaddeus Young) this year, this makes sense, though it results
in a lot fewer highlight dunks and such as we had with 'Dre and Sweet
Lou running the team at 60 MPH.

3. They can shoot the three-ball. The primary half-court
weapon the team has added to their arsenal this year is the
three-pointer. The team averaged a solid 36.2% from three last year, but
they barely shot the long-ball, averaging about 14.6 attempts a game,
the sixth-lowest rate in the league. This year, they're shooting more
from deep—about 18.5 attempts a game—and converting at a higher rate,
38.2%, good for sixth in the league. Thanks to the recently acquired
trio of Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Jason Richardson (particularly
Richardson, averaging 2.5 treys a game on 43% shooting) and internal
improvement from Jrue Holiday (39%) and to the surprise of many, Evan
Turner (42%), teams now need to honor the Sixers' three-point shooting,
giving Jrue Holiday more options when penetrating and Thaddeus Young
more freedom to operate on the post.

4. Their starters are their scorers. For the first two years
of the Doug Collins era, our Coach seemed obsessed with keeping scoring
balance between the starting lineup in bench, with two of the team's
three best scorers—including Lou Williams, who became the first player
in nearly 20 years to lead his team in scoring as a sixth man—coming off
the bench. Well, not this year—our top four scorers all start this
year, and they're the only four players on the team averaging
double-digits in points per game. Even the odd man out in the starting
lineup—Lavoy Allen, eighth in team scoring with 6.2 points a game—has
started to pick it up, going for double-digits in three of his last four
games after only doing so three times in the team's first 13 games.

This disparity might not exactly have been by design for Coach
Collins—he's probably still hoping to get more scoring out of Nick Young
(9.6 ppg, 38% FG), Spencer Hawes (7.2 ppg, 44% FG) and Dorell Wright
(7.9 ppg, 33% FG)—but it does sort of illustrate that the team's
strengths might not be in its depth, as it was last year, but rather
that our good players area really getting good. Which brings us to...

5. They have room for improvement. Under the guidance of
veterans Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand, the team was
probably better at the beginning of last season than it has been this
season. But that team was never going to be better than it was during
that first month of the season—its core guys had already become who they
were, and the team's ceiling was correspondingly low. This year,
though, it's all about potential, which the team is only starting to
realize. Two of the team's core players, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young,
seem to be getting better with every game, and a third, Jrue Holiday,
seems like a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award with his
play all season. The chemistry is improving, a team identity is
emerging, and the unit on a whole just seems a lot stronger than it did
when the season began a month ago—with the potential to get even
stronger as the season goes on.

Oh yeah, and there's still that other guy, the world's most
controversial seven-foot Trina superfan, healing on IR, hopefully to
join the team before season's end. Maybe he makes the Sixers a whole lot
better with his return, maybe he proves toxic upon his return and
actually makes the team worse, maybe he doesn't return at all. But the
prospect of his return, however unlikely it might appear at this point,
means you can't close the book on this Sixers season just yet, since if
he actually does join the tam at some point, they instantly go
from being one of the most predictable teams in the league to one of the
most unpredictable. After years of knowing the ending in the first
couple chapters, we'll gladly take the promise of an uncertain ending.

Temple vs. South Florida: Trip to conference championship at stake?


Temple vs. South Florida: Trip to conference championship at stake?

There’s no time to exhale for the Owls.

After pulling off a near-impossible comeback against UCF last week, Temple will play its toughest conference opponent yet when it faces USF at Lincoln Financial Field on Friday night.

Heading into the game at 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the AAC, this game already has conference championship and bowl game implications for Temple.

The Bulls' offense ran all over the Owls during USF’s 44-23 victory when the teams met in Tampa last season. USF currently sits one game ahead of Temple at 3-0 in the AAC.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup:

Scouting Temple
The Owls’ offense has struggled to find consistency this season. Temple ranks 91st in the FBS in total offense, averaging 378 yards per game.

Coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas will likely try to find ways to get the ball in senior running back Jahad Thomas’ hands on Friday. Since returning from injury against Penn State on Sept. 17, Thomas has scored two total touchdowns in every game. He has 357 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns in addition to 251 yards receiving and three touchdown catches. Sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead has complemented Thomas nicely with 403 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

Giving up big plays has been the Achilles’ heel of Temple’s defense in 2016. The Owls have given up six touchdowns of 50 or more yards from scrimmage and a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown. UCF had two touchdowns of 50-plus yards last week.

Other than the long scores, Temple’s defense has been solid, holding opponents to 316.6 yards per game, which ranks 17th in the FBS. Redshirt senior defensive end Haason Reddick has been the Owls’ defensive star. He leads the team with 35 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks.

Scouting USF
It doesn’t get much better than USF’s backfield combo of junior quarterback Quinton Flowers andt junior running back Marlon Mack.

Flowers and Mack lead a Bulls’ offense that ranks eighth in both scoring offense and rushing offense. The two combined for 550 total yards and five touchdowns in last year’s victory over the Owls. Last week, Flowers threw for 213 yards, ran for 153 yards and totaled five touchdowns in a 42-27 win over UConn. Rodney Adams has been Flowers’ favorite target through the air this season. Adams has 32 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns.

USF’s defense is giving up almost 26 points per game. The Bulls have held opponents to fewer than 20 points just once this season. At the same time, they’ve only given up more than 27 points once this season, and that was when No. 13 Florida State lit USF up for 55 points. Junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez has 65 tackles, eight tackles for loss and six sacks. Senior linebacker Nigel Harris leads the team with two interceptions.

Storyline to watch: Can Temple’s defense contain a running quarterback?
UCF freshman McKenzie Milton broke off a 63-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper last week. Quarterbacks like Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, SMU’s Matt Davis and Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. gave the Owls problems by running the ball last season. Flowers is a special player who will once again challenge Temple with his arm and his legs. He threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 90 more yards and another score against Temple last season. If the Owls can find a way to shut down Flowers, they’ll give themselves a good shot to win the game.

What’s at stake: A trip to the conference championship?
After only three conference games, that might seem a little far-fetched. However, after last week’s win over UCF and a win on Friday, Temple would have tiebreakers over the only teams with fewer than two losses in the AAC East Division. A loss to the Bulls would give Temple two conference losses, meaning USF would likely have to lose three times for Temple to win the East, even if the Owls won all their remaining games.

South Florida’s offense looks poised to give Temple trouble once again, but the Owls have kept it close in every game this season. Flowers and Mack are too much for another Temple comeback. USF 31, Temple 20.

Eagles' defense knows it must quickly correct tackling issues

Eagles' defense knows it must quickly correct tackling issues

As Washington running back Matt Jones made a quick cut to head upfield for a 57-yard gain late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, linebacker Jordan Hicks, after he over-pursued and couldn’t make a diving play to recover, ended up face down, grasping for where Jones used to be.

That play on third down wrapped up the win for Washington.

A fitting end for an Eagles defense that had trouble tackling throughout the long afternoon at FedEx Field.

“When you shoot your gun, you've got to hit,” Hicks said on Thursday. “You can't miss.”

The Eagles missed plenty during their 27-20 loss to Washington. Missed tackles, seemingly out of nowhere, became a huge issue last week.

In all, according to ProFootballFocus, the Eagles missed 10 tackles on Sunday. And Washington picked up 156 yards after contact.

Coming into the week, the Eagles had missed just eight tackles and had given up just 149 yards after contact all year.

“We're at this point in the season where you're going up against these guys and your body might feel a certain way or whatever, but there are no excuses at this point,” Hicks said. “We understand that. We've worked a lot on tackling. We have really this whole time. So it's obviously a point of emphasis from the past two games. It's definitely something we have to correct.”

So the simple question is this: How do you fix missed tackles?

The answer isn’t so simple. Safety Malcolm Jenkins explained that once teams get into their seasons, they really don’t practice tackling anymore, especially with defensive backs. They’re more concerned with installing that week’s game plan and learning coverages.

Jenkins said linebackers practice tackling during the week some, but if defensive backs want to practice tackling, they have to do it on their own after the team practice is over.

While the tackling itself was bad on Sunday, there was a problem that led to the problem: bad angles.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said his players took too many bad angles to the ball, which makes it much more difficult to tackle. Hicks agreed, saying the effort was there, but the bad angles made things tough.

Perhaps the effort went a little too far.

“I think the other part of it in this [last] game, and again, one of our failures in this [last] game, is we let one play affect the next,” Schwartz said. “I think in the first three games, even parts of the Detroit game, we didn't let a bad play affect our next play. I referenced one of the toss sweeps, we were short on the block and then on the next play, we came up and everybody overran it and the ball cut all the way back on us.

“In other words, we over-corrected and guys were trying — rather than just doing their job, the old adage in the NFL is, ‘Do your job,’ and we got guilty of trying to cover up and do a little too much. They need to just concentrate on theirs and [make] good tackles.”

When asked on Thursday, Schwartz was critical of his defense and himself (see story). The Eagles gave up 230 yards on the ground and 493 yards total — by far their highest totals of the season.

And a lot of it was just not getting Washington players down when they had the chance.

“I think that needs to be fixed and we will fix it,” Fletcher Cox said. “We've just got to calm down and just play ball. You've got guys coming full speed at a ball carrier and of course sometimes they're going to whiff, but the second guy has to be there to get the guy on the ground.”

The good news for the Eagles is that the Vikings have been the worst rushing offense in the NFL through their first five games, averaging 2.5 yards per attempt. But Schwartz joked that after watching the Eagles’ film against Washington, the Vikings will try to run 65 times on Sunday.

They likely won't do that, but Minnesota will probably be happy to test the Eagles’ run defense on Sunday.

If the Eagles want to win, they’ll have to cut down on those pesky missed tackles.

“You just get back to work, man,” WILL linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. “I just think it was one of those games where he was just slipping off. We have some of the best tacklers on this team and we were missing tackles. It's as simple as that. I think we just get back to work, get back to the fundamentals and basics and handle our business.”