Didinger: Eagles-49ers Scouting Report


Didinger: Eagles-49ers Scouting Report

Sizing up Sundays game between the Eagles (1-2) and San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at Lincoln Financial Field.

When the Eagles have the ball
Michael Vick appears likely to play Sunday, despite his early season battering (Week 2 concussion, Week 3 bruised hand). His health is a concern but so is his ball security.

Vick had zero turnovers in his first seven games last season, but he has 15 turnovers in nine games since then. It could have been worse because last Sunday he fumbled three times but didnt lose any thanks to some fortunate bounces. Putting him back out there with an injured hand Sunday will make every snap an adventure.

Thats especially true because the San Francisco defense is better than you think. The 49ers rank seventh overall in defense and third against the run. They have forced eight turnovers (five interceptions, three fumbles). Only Baltimore (10) and Buffalo (nine) have forced more.

The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 25 games, the longest streak in the league, so they will be a test for LeSean McCoy, who is leading the NFC with 345 yards rushing and a 6.1 yard per carry average.

The Giants had the third-best run defense in the league prior to last Sundays game, but McCoy gashed them with 24 carries (a career high) for 128 yards. He did a great job of bouncing plays outside and finding cutback lanes, but that may be harder to do this week against the 49ers and their 3-4 defense. In the 3-4, the linebackers are wider and cutback lanes close faster.

This will be the first time rookie center Jason Kelce has to deal with a 3-4 front. The alignment puts a massive nose tackle (340-pound Ike Sopoaga) right in front of him. Can the undersized Kelce, generously listed at 280 pounds, get any push against the nose tackle? He was overpowered at the goal line last Sunday by Linval Joseph and Sopoaga outweighs the Giants' tackle by more than 30 pounds.

The 49ers have a very active and physical front seven. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are good defensive ends flanking Sopoaga. The linebackers are a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Vic Fangios scheme. Patrick Willis is the best inside linebacker in the NFC. Keep your eye on No. 52 and he will take you to the football every time.

Former Penn State star NaVorro Bowman plays alongside Willis and although he doesnt have the Pro Bowl resume, he is fast becoming known to coaches and players around the league. Bowman led all defenders with 11 tackles (Willis had eight) in last weeks 13-8 win at Cincinnati.

Their secondary was awful last season (24th in the league), but it is better this year. They rank third in interceptions per pass attempt, even though the pass rush is not generating a lot of heat on the quarterback (seven sacks). That is one area the 49ers need to improve.

When the 49ers have the ball
San Francisco has a one-flavor offense. It is vanilla and more vanilla. You cant blame rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. He has a mediocre line, a gimpy running back (Frank Gore) and Alex Smith at quarterback. It is hard to do much when thats all you have to work with.

Now in his seventh season, Smith is still very limited. Harbaugh is the fourth head coach to work with him and while he offers all the usual platitudes about the former No. 1 draft pick, he shows what he really thinks with his play-calling.

Harbaugh does everything he can to keep Smith from losing the game. He calls mostly short passes and check downs. He does not let Smith throw the ball deep or down the middle. Smith is completing 69 percent of his passes, but averaging just 9.9 yards per completion. Its not exciting but, hey, this isnt Joe Montana throwing the ball.

The 49ers' offense ranks dead last in the league. They are averaging just 213.7 yards per game. The Eagles are averaging almost twice that (408.7). But give Harbaugh credit: he is doing what he has to do to win games. The 49ers are 2-1 and they would be 3-0 if they held onto a fourth-quarter lead against Dallas.

Gore has given the Eagles fits in the past, but he comes into this game with a sore ankle and an unsightly 2.5-yard rushing average. Last Sunday in Cincinnati, Harbaugh played rookie Kendall Hunter and the 5-7, 200-pounder from Oklahoma State scored the only touchdown. Gore and Hunter both will play Sunday.

From the Eagles' standpoint, the biggest concern is Vernon Davis, the 6-3, 250-pound tight end. The Eagles were toasted by Atlantas Tony Gonzalez (seven catches, two touchdowns) and Davis is even more explosive. He can outrun most wide receivers and has the ability to split even a good secondary on a seam route.

When you look at the Eagles' secondary (eight touchdown passes allowed), you think Uh oh. This could be the week defensive coordinator Juan Castillo puts one of his ace cover guys maybe Nnamdi Asomugha, maybe Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the tight end. If the game plan calls for shutting down Davis, it would be a good idea to go with a shutdown defender. The corners have a better chance of staying with Davis than any of the safeties.

The 49ers invested some high draft picks in the offensive line and so far they dont have much to show for it. Left tackle Joe Staley has not developed as they hoped. Trent Cole should win that matchup. Guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis, both first-round picks last year, are still prone to breakdowns. Smith was sacked 11 times in the last two games, so the Eagles' rush (12 sacks) should have a big day.

This week, the Eagles finally acknowledged that rookie Casey Matthews isnt ready for prime time. He will be replaced at weak-side linebacker by fellow rookie Brian Rolle, who has shown more speed and better instincts.

Special teams
This is where the 49ers are most dangerous. Their special teams are more likely to put points on the board than their offense. Ted Ginn Jr. has already returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns. He can break a big one any time he touches the ball.

David Akers will make his return to Lincoln Financial Field Sunday. The Eagles' all-time leading scorer is having an excellent season with the 49ers. He is seven for seven on field goal attempts with two over 50 yards. Andy Lee leads the league in punting with a 46.3 yard net average.

The Eagles' special teams have been nothing special through three games. Alex Henery is five for six on field goals, but his long is 38 yards. Chas Henry ranks 21st among punters, a 37.7 yard net. DeSean Jackson is averaging just 4.8 yards on punt returns.

The Eagles have dominated the series in recent years, winning the last five games, four of them by at least two touchdowns. Harbaugh is the 49ers' fourth head coach since 2003. If you can name the other three (Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary) you really need to get a life.

It sounds crazy to talk about a must-win game in Week 4 against the 49ers, but the Eagles find themselves in that situation after losses to Atlanta and the Giants. It is hard to believe they could play as badly Sunday as they played last week and thats what it would take for them to lose to Smith and the NFLs 32nd-ranked offense.

Eagles 28, 49ers 10.

E-mail Ray Didinger at viewfromthehall@comcast.net.

NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final


NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of the San Jose Sharks gathered around the Campbell Bowl for a celebratory picture after winning the Western Conference final.

In that moment, all those past playoff disappointments and collapses were forgotten. It will take four more wins to put to rest those questions about if they had the fortitude to win it all.

Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two more and the Sharks advanced to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.

"It's a pretty cool feeling," Thornton said. "Obviously it's our first time. It was pretty neat to get this done at home. The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We've waited 18 years or so. So it's a great feeling."

Joonas Donskoi also scored, Logan Couture had an empty-netter and Martin Jones made 24 saves as a Sharks team notorious for postseason letdowns will play for the championship that has eluded Thornton and Marleau since they entered the league as the top two picks in 1997.

Thornton assisted on Pavelski's goal less than four minutes into the game to set the tone and Marleau had two assists in the third period that set off chants of "We Want The Cup! We Want The Cup!"

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," Marleau said. "We've had some really good teams over the years."

Despite making the playoffs 16 times in 18 seasons and winning the second-most games in the NHL since the start of the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have been known for their soul-crushing playoff disappointments.

They won just three games in three previous trips to the conference final, were knocked out twice in four seasons by a No. 8 seed and most notably blew a 3-0 series lead to lose in the first round to Los Angeles in 2014.

The impact of that loss lasted for a while as San Jose missed the playoffs entirely last season. But led by first-year coach Peter DeBoer and bolstered by some key acquisitions by general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks recovered this year and are now only four wins from a championship.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be Monday night. The Sharks will either host Tampa Bay or visit Pittsburgh, depending on which team wins Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.

"It's a great moment for those guys who have put in a lot of work but we still have another series to go," Couture said. "We still have four more wins to try to get. It's another step. This is the third one now. We're ready for that next challenge."

With the loss, the Blues' postseason woes continue as the franchise still seeks its first championship and first trip to the Cup final since 1970. Coach Ken Hitchcock's second goalie change of the series did not work as Brian Elliott allowed four goals on 26 shots in his return to the net.

Vladimir Tarasenko, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, got his first points of the series when he scored twice in the third period but it was too late for the Blues, who still trailed 4-2.

"It stings right now," captain David Backes said. "Six more wins and we're having parades on Market Street. Right now ... not enough."

This was the first time in San Jose's history that the team played with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line. The atmosphere in the Shark Tank reflected the high stakes with the fans at a frenzy during pregame introductions and the "Let's Go Sharks!" chants starting soon after the puck dropped.

The Sharks fed off that energy and were buzzing early as Hitchcock predicted before the game. St. Louis nearly silenced the crowd when Alexander Steen got a chance in the slot early in the period but Jones robbed him with a glove save.

That led to a breakaway for Thornton, who missed the net on his chance. But Pavelski recovered the puck behind the net and before Elliott knew what was happening, Pavelski tucked the puck in on a wraparound for his NHL-leading 13th goal of the playoffs.

San Jose added to the lead early in the second when Ward tipped a point shot from Brent Burns past Elliott to make it 2-0.

Ward's second goal and another by Donskoi in the third period removed any drama and allowed the fans to celebrate and the Blues to ponder their missed opportunity.

"They're hurting right now," Hitchcock said. "We're all hurting. "You don't want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block."

Marleau played his 165th career playoff game, the most ever for someone who never played in the finals. Thornton is next on the list with 150 games, followed by Curtis Joseph with 133. ... The only franchise that has played longer than San Jose without going to a Cup final is Arizona, which began NHL play as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979-80.

NBA Playoffs: Cavs respond to destroy Raptors in Game 5


NBA Playoffs: Cavs respond to destroy Raptors in Game 5


CLEVELAND -- Back home, the Cavaliers were not hospitable.

They rudely roughed up the Raptors again.

LeBron James scored 23 points then sat the fourth quarter, Kevin Love scored 25, and Cleveland unleashed tenacious defense on Toronto to regain control of the Eastern Conference finals with a 116-78 rout of the Raptors in Game 5 on Wednesday night.

On their court in front of 20,000-plus screaming fans following two straight losses in Canada, the Cavs opened a 34-point lead in the first half and never slowed while taking a 3-2 series lead.

They can clinch their second straight conference title and trip to the NBA Finals with a win in Game 6 on Friday night in Toronto.

"We ought to be able to transfer that on Friday," James said. "Playing in that beast of an arena that we're going to we got to be composed, we got to be tough and we got to be sharp."

The Raptors, who came in with momentum and confidence after winning Games 3 and 4, left Quicken Loans Arena shaken and one loss from having their deepest playoff run stopped.

"They kicked our butts, bottom line," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "That's been all three ballgames."

James had eight assists and six rebounds in 31 minutes before checking out late in the third quarter with the Cavs up 37. He spent the fourth quarter resting on the bench while Cleveland's reserves finished the romp.

Kyrie Irving added 23 points and he, James and Love outscored the Raptors 43-34 in the first half. Cleveland has won its three games in the series by a combined 88 points.

"They are a different team here," Casey said. "We came in here with a chance to do something special and we didn't get it done. They pushed us around and took what they wanted."

DeMar DeRozan scored 14 points and Kyle Lowry had 13 for the Raptors, who were overwhelmed from the start. Bismack Biyombo had just four rebounds after getting 40 the past two games. The only positive for Toronto was center Jonas Valanciunas, who returned after missing eight straight games with a sprained right ankle. He scored nine points in 18 minutes.

Playing defense as if every possession was the game's last, Cleveland held Toronto to 34 points in the opening half while building a 31-point halftime lead -- the largest in conference finals history. Since their expansion arrival in 1993, the Raptors had never been down by 30 before in any game -- regular or postseason -- at halftime but they have rarely seen a defense like this either.

The Cavs were all over the court, swarming and stifling DeRozan and Lowry, who combined for 67 points in Game 4.

A courtside doctor might have stopped this one in the first half.

Love found his shooting touch after it went missing during the lost weekend in Toronto, where he went just 5 of 23 and was benched for the fourth quarter of Game 4. He finished 8 of 10 from the field, a confidence-boosting performance that should temporarily quiet his critics.

"Kevin Love being Kevin Love," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "He had two bad shooting games and we made a big deal out of it. Nothing he does amazes me. We gotta keep him aggressive all the time."

The Cavs made a point of getting Love the ball right away and he responded by making all four field goal attempts, dropping a 3 late in the first quarter that pushed the Cavs to a 37-19 lead.

"He was just locked in," James said. "We saw that and just wanted to keep giving him the ball. The easiest one he had tonight, he missed."

Cleveland's onslaught continued in the second quarter, and when James got free for an easy two-handed dunk, Cavs fans could relax and begin making TV viewing plans for Friday.

These looked more like the Cavaliers who opened the postseason with 10 straight wins, obliterated the Raptors by a combined 50 points in Games 1 and 2 and given a chance to beat whomever survived in the West.

Center of attention
Valanciunas hadn't played since May 7. He scored two quick baskets in the first quarter when the Raptors were still close.

Raptors: Dropped to 2-7 on the road in this postseason. ... Played a game every other day since April 29, going 7-7. . Biyombo and Valanciunas are the only teammates with at least 120 rebounds this postseason.

Cavaliers: Trumped their 31-point win in Game 1, which was the previous most lopsided playoff victory in team history. ... James played in his 191st career postseason game, moving him ahead of Magic Johnson for 12th place on the all-time list. ... James (1,320) is tied with Kobe Bryant (1,320) for the second-most free throws in postseason history. Michael Jordan made 1,463. ... Improved to 7-0 at home in these playoffs.

Up next
Game 6 is Friday night in Toronto.

Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games


Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Crawford singled in Matt Duffy with two outs in the 10th inning, and the surging San Francisco Giants beat the San Diego Padres 4-3 Wednesday for their 13th win in 14 games.

Duffy singled off Brad Hand (1-2) with one out, pinch-hitter Hunter Pence popped out, Duffy advanced on a wild pitch and Crawford hit a 1-2 offering over center fielder Jon Jay as Duffy scored standing up.

Crawford also singled and scored after some alert baserunning in the second inning. Duffy and Denard Span drove in runs for the NL West-leading Giants.

San Francisco completed a three-game sweep, extended its winning streak to five and improved to 9-0 against the Padres this season. The Giants' two walkoff wins in the series were against Hand (see full recap).

Arrieta moves to 9-0 in Cubs' win over Cards
ST. LOUIS -- Jake Arrieta remained unbeaten on the season despite allowing as many as four runs for the first time in nearly a year and the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-8 on Wednesday.

Arrieta (9-0) joined the White Sox's Chris Sale as the only nine-game winners in the majors.

Arrieta allowed four runs in a regular-season game for the first time since June 16, 2015.

Arrieta became the first Cub to win his first nine decisions since Kenny Holtzman in 1967 and it is the best start to a season for the franchise since Jim McCormick went 16-0 in 1886.

Kris Bryant hit a three-run homer and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist each drove in two for the Cubs (see full recap).

Bradley extends hit streak to 29 in BoSox victory
BOSTON -- Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his major league-best hitting streak to 29 games, Xander Bogaerts homered to extend his hitting streak to 18 games and the Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Wednesday night for their fourth straight win.

Travis Shaw had three RBIs and Boston moved to a season-best 12 games over .500. The Red Sox have scored eight or more runs 10 times in their last 14 home games.

Steven Wright (4-4) had another solid outing, giving up three runs, two earned. He has now given up three runs or fewer in eight of his nine starts.

Chad Bettis (4-3) held the Red Sox scoreless through three innings but was responsible for seven runs over the next two innings before getting pulled.

The Rockies have lost six of their last seven -- all on the road (see full recap).