On Locking Up The Defensemann

On Locking Up The Defensemann

Thankfully, I've never been sick enough to warrant a Get Well Soon card. I have, however, gotten the requisite birthday cards, always opened with that "Will some cash or a check fall out?" anticipation. Well, yesterday, Nick Grossmann got a combination of both. Sidelined with a knee injury, The Defensemann received and signed a 4-year contract to stay in Philadelphia, as Nick covered yesterday
The digits appear relatively favorable for the club (4 years, $14 mil; $3.5 mil cap hit), which has seen improved rearguarding since trade deadline deals brought Grossmann and Pavel Kubina to town. The Flyers had steadily been among the league's worst in allowing goals, surviving on their ability to light the lamp at a higher clip than most nights' opponents. But Grossmann and Kubina brought size and experience to the blue line, and along with improved goaltending, the Flyers have become a more balanced team. 
As I imagine was the case for most Flyers fans, Kubina was the more recognizable commodity at the time. We've seen much more of him over the years, and his name is usually thrown around when deadlines approach. However, it's been Grossmann who's had the bigger impact since coming over. 
Without Chris Pronger, the Flyers had only two bigs on the blue line—Coburn and Andrej Meszaros. Grossmann's impact was immediate, bringing an ability to clear the porch and reliably manage the attacker under his charge. Puck-moving ability is key for defensemen in the Flyers' system, and it's not a particular strength of Grossmann's. But the team already had vertical mobility, and it's not as though Grossmann is a sieve with the puck on his stick. In fact, he's appeared better than advertised in nearly every way. 
Our intel on Grossmann was decidedly thin when he came over. Due to the NHL's conference-heavy scheduling and his playing in Dallas, we knew little of him before reading the trade-day descriptions that basically all said the same things. Dallas dealt him in part due to a perceived inability to retain him when he became a free agent this coming summer; his star had also fallen in Big D, where he was moved from the top pairing to the second. 
It appeared at the time of the deal that the Flyers would give the 27-year-old, 6'3"/227 Grossmann a solid look, and if he panned out as expected, bolster the defense for the next few seasons by inking him to an extension. 
That's exactly how it has played out, despite the interesting timing of his signing coinciding with a knee injury. Grossmann already wears a brace on one knee, and Joe Vitale's hit injured the other one. There's no definite timetable on his return (or at least, one has not been given aside from "day to day"). The Flyers must be pretty confident that the injury is minor and transient though, or they wouldn't have consummated the deal. 
BLUE LINE LANDSCAPEWhat the Grossmann contract says about the team's overall defense plan is unclear. 
Uncertainty abounds on the blue line's horizon, where Kimmo Timonen has one year left on his contract and quite possibly his NHL career. Chris Pronger's NHL future is uncertain at best, though the book is not yet closed. Matt Carle will be a coveted free agent when the spending season opens this summer, unless the Flyers extend him first, which could be tough with the market often friendly to players who fit his description. Pavel Kubina has said he'd like to be re-signed by Philly, but if that happens, it'd likely have to be at a much lower cap hit than his current $3.8 mil. Andrej Meszaros has two more seasons left on his current deal, both at $4 mil per, though he could always be dealt, and the Flyers made Braydon Coburn their cornerstone this past fall when they extended him through 2015-2016 at $4.5 mil per season. (Figures in this section courtesy of CapGeek.com.)
Hamstrung by the uncertainty of Pronger's future and the permanence of his 35+ contract, the Flyers have lined up Coburn and Grossmann as fixtures, but most other slots could be in play going forward. As usual, they'll be linked to any defenseman looking to change addresses this summer. 
The team has overcome tremendous bad luck with their defensemen, from Pronger's severe concussion to a slew of injuries throughout the season. Meszaros is likely out until the second round timeframe at best, Grossmann is "day to day," and a career's worth of long minutes has taken its toll on Timonen. And yet, the Flyers are a contender when the playoffs begin next week. Paul Holmgren's deals to bring on defensive depth may have saved the season, as well as being tryouts for the future. 
Yesterday, the team anted up on Grossmann, who appears to be a safe bet provided his knees hold up. 

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Sixers ready, rested with hope for dry court

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Sixers ready, rested with hope for dry court

The Sixers (4-14) will tip off against the Orlando Magic (7-12) at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night (7 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Floored
Let's try this again.

The Sixers will return to the Wells Fargo Center court for the first time since Wednesday's game against the Sacramento Kings was postponed because of moisture on the floor.

While the Sixers were frustrated that they couldn't face the Kings, the team was also happy that player safety was made the top priority in the postponement decision.

"It was disappointing not to play," head coach Brett Brown said after practice on Thursday. "It got to a stage the longer that it went and it was being prolonged and prolonged, I'm glad that ultimately we didn't play."

2. Rested and ready
The postponement of Wednesday's game means the Sixers haven't played since Monday's road loss to the Toronto Raptors.

Center Joel Embiid should be even more rested than his teammates since he didn't make the trip north of the border because it was the second game of a back-to-back set.

When Embiid does return to action Friday against the Magic, he will have a little more freedom. The NBA's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month had his minutes restriction raised from 24 to 28 earlier this week.

That should only mean good things for Embiid, who turned in a strong effort when the Sixers faced off against the Magic earlier this season. Embiid recorded 18 points and 10 boards for his first-ever double-double in a 103-101 loss to Orlando back on Nov. 1.

3. Protection plan
Perhaps Embiid's bump in minutes will help the Sixers better protect the paint this time around.

During the season's first meeting, in which the Sixers blew an 18-point lead, the Magic scored a massive 60 points in the paint. Former Sixer Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka led the way with 45 combined points.

The Sixers can't allow that type of production inside, especially from a team that ranks 25th in the league with an average of 39.5 points in the paint per game.

4. Injuries
Jerryd Bayless (wrist), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Former Sixer Jodie Meeks (foot) is a game-time decision for the Magic.

5. This and that
- The Sixers have lost three straight to the Magic.

- Vucevic has averaged 20.3 points and 13.2 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

- Dario Saric scored a career-high 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting in the season's first clash.

A closer look at the Cincinnati Bengals, a team the Eagles should beat

A closer look at the Cincinnati Bengals, a team the Eagles should beat

You think Eagles fans have it bad? After five straight trips to the playoffs, Bengals fans were expecting their team to be good. Really good. Instead, they're 3-7-1 and on the verge of their first losing season since 2011.

And in all honesty, the Eagles should probably clinch it for them. With the Bengals' best player out with an injury, there's nothing particularly scary about this team. The offense is running out of weapons, and the defense, while good, has its weaknesses.

This is the Eagles' chance to get back to .500 and make one final desperation push. Can they take advantage?

 

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Andy Dalton

After a breakout 2015 campaign in which he finished second in the NFL with a 106.2 passer rating, it seems Dalton is back to his usual self. The sixth-year veteran's 63.5 completion percentage and 7.4 yards per attempt are better than what he's posted in years past, but down significantly from last season, while sacks are up. About the only thing that's carried over for Dalton from his career year is he seemingly learned to take care of the football, as he's thrown only six interceptions in 11 games. Dalton is a game manager with upside in a perfect situation. The 2016 Bengals are not that situation.

Strength: Nothing in particular

Now that All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green is out with an injury, as is versatile running back Giovani Bernard, the Bengals offense isn't exactly loaded with weapons. Prior to Green and Bernard going out, the duo combined for somewhere around 60 percent of the team's production. They still have Tyler Eifert, a Pro Bowl tight end who presents matchup issues, and running back Jeremy Hill, who is like a sledgehammer with legs. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL as well, although the rest of the unit is just okay. Without Green, there's nothing very impressive about what this group can do.

Weakness: Red-zone offense

This might seem oddly specific, but moving the football hasn't been a problem for the Bengals. Cincinnati's offense ranks 10th in the league in terms of yards per game, yet at 27th is near the bottom when it comes to scoring. Even when Green was healthy and despite having big bodies like Eifert and Hill, for some reason the Bengals have really struggled to put points on the board. Part of the problem is Dalton, who's only thrown 12 touchdown passes, but his 2.9 touchdown percentage is by far the worst of his career, so it's not easy to explain why. This team simply doesn't score a ton, which is probably why they only have three wins.

 

DEFENSE

Strength: Pass defense

Cincinnati has playmakers at every level of the defense, which can make them a difficult team to pass against. It starts up front, where Geno Atkins is pushing up the middle and underrated Carlos Dunlap is coming off the edge top create a hostile environment for quarterbacks. Dunlap had 13.5 sacks a season ago, and when he doesn't get to the passer, he often bats passes down at the line, as he's done 10 times this season. The Bengals boast a fine trio of cornerbacks as well, with Dre Kirkpatrick's three interceptions, veteran Adam "Pacman" Jones and 2014 first-round draft pick Darqueze Dennard. The unit ranks 10th in passing yards per game and has 11 interceptions, so while not impenetrable, they are tough.

Weakness: Run defense

Although it may be difficult to throw against the Bengals, opponents have had little trouble finding room to run. It seems odd with guys like Atkins and Dunlap up front, not to mention quality veteran linebackers like Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey, but the fact is they aren't getting the job done. Cincinnati ranks 28th against the run overall and 26th in terms of yards per carry, allowing an average of 4.4 per attempt. It's pretty clear what the strategy should be against this defense, particularly for an offense with mediocre talent at wide receiver. Run the ball, then run the ball some more.

X-factor: Vontaze Burfict

There may not be a bigger wild card in the NFL then Burfict. The fifth-year veteran isn't an X-factor in the conventional sense that he'll rack up a bunch of sacks or create a ton of turnovers. A 2013 Pro Bowler, Burfict does lead the team in tackles, so he'll be in on a lot of plays. The bigger concern though is really whether he might go head hunting or dive at a player's legs and potentially hurt someone. Not to say he's not a talented player, but you could argue that threat makes him a bigger game-changer than any conventional charting numbers will measure.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Mike Nugent has seen better days. Cincinnati's kicker has missed five field goals, including all three tries from 50 or more yards, plus a whopping four extra points this season, which makes you wonder a little bit what the team is still clinging to. The Bengals' return game isn't especially dangerous either. Alex Erickson handles the bulk of the work, and does have strong averages on both kicks and punts, although he has yet to take one to the house this season.

 

COACHING

Marvin Lewis (14th season, 115-108-3)

Somehow, despite not winning a playoff game in seven tries over 14 seasons, Lewis is still the head coach of the Bengals. Probably not for much longer though. He's in his third straight year of lame-duck status, and one more defeat would guarantee the club its first losing season since 2011. Then again, Lewis has survived down seasons before, including a pair of four-win campaigns separated by only a year. He's a good coach, but as Eagles fans well know, sometimes after 14 years it's simply time to move on. The Bengals are weird, so who knows what they will decide, but at this point, Lewis has been given more than enough second chances and opportunities.