Donnie Jones the 12th man for Eagles defense, Nick Foles the 13th

Donnie Jones the 12th man for Eagles defense, Nick Foles the 13th

Philadelphia Eagles punter Donnie Jones was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the second game in a row on Wednesday, which is no surprise. His seven punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line in the 24-21 win over Arizona was one shy of the NFL record.

It’s not very difficult to measure the impact that’s had on the Birds’ defense. For every yard farther away from the goal line the offense begins a drive, the less likely it is to result in a score. The 350 yards the Cardinals racked up on Sunday is better than league average, but they were held to a below-average 21 points only in part because they were often faced with long fields.

Similar situation against Washington two weeks earlier. Jones down four punts inside the 20, none bigger than the 70-yarder in the fourth quarter to pin the offense at their own 4-yard line, down by eight with 3:26 remaining. Washington drove all the way down to the Philadelphia 18 before Robert Griffin III heaved the clinching interception.

Signed in the offseason as a free agent from the Houston Texans, Jones has managed to become an invaluable weapon for the Eagles. The 10th-year veteran has leapt into second place for kicks inside the 20 for the season with 29, while he’s up to seventh in net punting average at 41.3.

Philly.com’s Jimmy Kempski wrote a wildly enthusiastic and informative piece on Tuesday about “Donnie J’owns,” one day before the specialist was honored for the second time in three weeks. In summary, Jones is getting more hang time on his punts, fewer are being returned, and he’s pinning twice as many opponents in their own end than the combination of Chas Henry and Mat McBriar for the Eagles last season:

Last season, Mat McBriar averaged 4.19 seconds of hang time on his punts. Chas Henry averaged 4.21 seconds. 19 of the Eagles' punts last season had a hang time of 3.9 seconds or less. 10 of them were 3.5 seconds or less.

The result of such poor hang time by the Eagles' punters was evident by the return yardage they allowed in 2012. They led the NFL in punt return yards allowed, with 542.

Jones' directional punting and hangtime has been far superior. This season, the Eagles have allowed 121 punt return yards. Only 3 teams have allowed less.

...

• In 2012, 40 of the Eagles' 71 punts were returned. That's 56.3%. Half of the returned punts (20) went for at least 10 yards.

This season, only 22 of the Eagles' 65 punts (33.8%) have been returned. A grand total of 1 punt return has gone for 10+ yards.

...

• In 2012, the Eagles were dead last in punts inside the 20, with 15 of them.

This season, Jones already has 29 punts inside the 20, which is 2nd in the NFL.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that if Jones is the 12th man on a Philly defense that has held opponents to 21 points or fewer in eight consecutive games, somebody should probably mention Nick Foles is the 13th. After all, the only reason Jones gets to attempt so many punts is because the Eagles are turning the ball over so little.

In the combined seasons of 2011 and ’12, no team had more giveaways than the Birds’ 75—that works out to nearly 2.5 per game. You don’t get to punt the ball away once it’s turned over, and more often than not, the opponent is probably going to wind up with great field position.

This season, only five teams have committed fewer turnovers than Philadelphia at 15, and while we don’t mean to pick on anybody in particular, a lot of that has to do with Foles. It’s been well documented the second-year passer has yet to throw an interception this season, and he’s only lost one fumble as well.

And while the offense has struggled in the fourth quarter under Foles of late, scoring zero points in the final 15 minutes over the past four games, Jones’ punts are making it difficult for the other team to come back.

Sometimes good defense isn’t really about the defense at all, it’s about doing the little things right. That means taking care of the football and playing superb special teams—both of which are emphases under Chip Kelly.

>> Donnie Jones again named ST Player of the Week [CSN]
>> Donnie Jones? More like Donnie J’owns [Philly.com]

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.