Extras: Young Braves, Gagne-Kovalchuk, The Big Ten and "Big Ern"

Extras: Young Braves, Gagne-Kovalchuk, The Big Ten and "Big Ern"

Tommy Hanson takes the mound for the Braves tonight as they kick off their first series versus the Phils. Hanson went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA as a rookie last season, but he was 0-2 in two starts against the Fightins, while allowing seven earned in just five innings of work. The kid knows his team needs more from him. “I’m ready to get back out there,” Hanson said. “Any time you face the Phillies, it’s a big game." [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

More on the Braves, who have another rookie lighting the world on fire this year. Jason Heyward, ranked the fifth best prospect in '09, is off to an explosive start in his Major League career. The 20-year-old right fielder is batting .302 with three home runs and 15 RBI's through his first 12 games, and his teammates are all throughly impressed. Eric Hinske even says, "He's the one." I suspect Heyward will soon be able to jump inside the baseball and destroy its very existence. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

With the Flyers series against the Devils set to continue tonight, Phil Sheridan explains that while Simon Gagne and Ilya Kovalchuk have both been frustrated on the scoreboard thus far, it's for entirely different reasons. Gagne, the top goal scorer versus Martin Brodeur in team history, has been getting plenty of opportunities that haven't found the net. I believe he's due. Kovalchuk, on the other hand, has disappointed with his lack of production and dumb penalties. Flyer defenders have really made things tough on the Devils' star. [Inquirer]

The Big Ten is planning to expand sometime in the near future, and it's going to do so with or without Notre Dame, which is why it's time for an ultimatum. Either the Irish join the conference now and reap the benefits of doing so, or the Big Ten moves forward and finds universities who will. 12-team majors are becoming the norm in college football, with the possibility of growing to 14 or 16 teams, and ND could be left out in the cold some day if they refuse to act on such an offer. [The Columbus Dispatch]

Count Ray Didinger among those who are excited for the addition of Ernie Sims, calling him an "explosive tackler" who knocks ball-carriers backward. He's certainly in a position to improve the Eagles' run defense, and adding a sure-tackler into the mix probably can't hurt, but I'm always weary whether a linebacker can learn a new scheme. Sims has played his entire NFL career in the Cover-2 and drawn multiple comparisons to Derrick Brooks, a Cover-2 linebacker. Either way, it's a solid use of the 137th pick in the draft. [CSN]

Extra point: we should all be happy the Redskins are denying interest in Terrell Owens—for now at least. Owens is coming off a horrible season in Buffalo, and he's certainly lost a step, but he still has rare size and athleticism, and in the right situation he could thrive. That would certainly be Washington, catching passes from the quarterback with whom he had arguably the best season of his career. One wide receiver, particularly at 36-years-old, would not make them a Super Bowl contender, but they'd be much more dangerous than they are right this moment.

FIlm Review: What led to Eagles' poor run defense against Washington?

FIlm Review: What led to Eagles' poor run defense against Washington?

The Eagles have vowed to get better. 

They desperately don't want to have a performance from their run defense like the one against Washington, when they gave up 230 yards on the ground. 

Head coach Doug Pederson said the run defense is "a pride thing" and the guys responsible for the performance, Jim Schwartz included, say things will get better. The defensive coordinator cited bad angles as a reason there were so many missed tackles on Sunday afternoon. 

In all, the Eagles missed 10 tackles and gave up 156 yards after contact — both more than they had given up in the first four games of the season. 

Washington's rushing yards came in some big chunks. Here's a look at some of the key running plays from Sunday as we try to figure out what went wrong: 

This is a key 3rd-and-7 from the Washington 13-yard line. On this drive, Washington ends up scoring a touchdown to go up 14-0, but it doesn't happen without this key third down conversion. 

The Eagles collapse the pocket and force Kirk Cousins to his left. That's exactly what Schwartz said he wants, to force the quarterback to his non-throwing side. Everything at this point is working out perfectly. 

Here's the angle that's really troublesome. At this point, Nigel Bradham (circled in green) has Cousins in his sights, while Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham (farther behind) are in pursuit. Curry and Graham seem to let up in their pursuit when it looks like Cousins will go out of bounds. But he doesn't. 

Schwartz talked about bad angles, and this is the perfect example from Bradham. He overshoots it and when Cousins makes his cut back inside, all of Bradham's momentum is heading toward the sideline. Curry ends up making the tackle but tackles Cousins forward for a big first down. 

This next play was just a little counter draw that ended up going for a huge 45-yard gain. Rob Kelley takes the handoff, which looks to be going right. The entire Eagles' linebacking group bites hard. Still, right end Connor Barwin is free and has a chance to make the play. 

He doesn't. Just a missed tackle. 

Kelley finds some open field. Rodney McLeod is the next guy to beat and Kelley simply turns him around. You'll see Mychal Kendricks enter the frame. Kendricks showed great recovery speed to get back in the play and has a chance to finally bring the running back down. 

Nope. Can't do it. Eventually, McLeod recovers to bring him down. 

This last play ended the game on Sunday. The Eagles punted the ball away with the hope that their defense would stop Washington and give them the ball back. Instead, Matt Jones broke off a 57-yard run on 3rd-and-7. 

Jordan Hicks over pursues, probably thinking the run was going wide. But he loses his gap and Jones is off to the races. 

Once Jones gets past the first down, it doesn't really matter that it was a 57-yard run. It could have been an 8-yarder and the game was over. 

So what did we learn? 

Well, Schwartz was right. Angles absolutely killed the Eagles on Sunday. But when they have a guy wrapped up, they need to bring him down. Sure, that's not Earth-shattering, but they couldn't do it on Sunday and it led to a loss. 

Sixers to ease in Jahlil Okafor off bench, expect more from him on D

Sixers to ease in Jahlil Okafor off bench, expect more from him on D

The Sixers struggled to carve a clear role for Jahlil Okafor last season as he and Nerlens Noel split time out of position in the frontcourt. Brett Brown has a more clear picture of how to utilize Okafor in his second year, highlighted by goals and a shift to the bench. 

Okafor has been sidelined from preseason action because of his right knee. He underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear in March and aggravated it during the final training camp scrimmage. 

Okafor said he felt “pretty sore” after scrimmaging Monday, his first since camp, and he was better after going through individualized training and work in the water on Tuesday. This setback has forced him to exercise patience. 

“I know I told you guys I wasn’t frustrated a few weeks ago, but at this point it has been frustrating because I’ve been doing all the right stuff and I want to see me back out there sooner,” Okafor said after practice Thursday. “But I can’t rush my body, I can’t rush my health. ... I would love to have the opportunity to be there for opening night and play in front of our fans. Right now it’s looking like that’s probable."

The Sixers plan to use Okafor in a reserve role to start the season. Okafor expects to be on a 12- to 15-minute restriction, similar to Joel Embiid, when he is cleared to play. 

“I think about it all the time, but I talk to him. We’ve talked about this for months,” Brown said of Okafor's coming off the bench. “It’s not anything that is going to surprise anybody. He’s been fantastic. ... I talked with Jahlil about a lot of things and that could be, to start the year it will be, a scenario.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in 2015, started 48 of his 53 games last season. He is approaching this year with realistic expectations given his restrictions and is not concerned about being out of the starting five. 

“I’ll be fine,” Okafor said. “That won’t be a tough adjustment for me. I came off the bench a couple of times last year.”

Brown’s focus is not necessarily on how Okafor starts the game, but how he finishes. He would like Okafor and Embiid to be able to play together at the end of games to give the team a fourth-quarter boost.

“If it ends up you’ve got Jahlil coming off the bench and he’s going against backup five men, you think you probably have an advantage there,” Brown said. “If he does anything, he scores the ball, he scores buckets, he gets points. You can see how that can be a really nice role for him and for us.”

Okafor led the Sixers in scoring last season with 17.5 points per game. Brown, though, is focusing on his defensive improvements. The Sixers are looking to play an uptempo system in which they will need Okafor to hustle on defense each possession. Okafor slimmed down and added muscle this summer to prepare for the season. 

“He has to be elite in two areas to me,” Brown said. “Transition defense first — A-plus-plus-plus, get back. If you’re tired, if you’ve got to conserve energy, it’s not that way. It’s running back on offense. We have to get him back on defense.

“Then he has to be better skilled, better drilled by me, [a] high level of accountability with pick-and-roll defense. ... You can go over to defensive rebounding (as) a close third, but those two things happen the most.”

Okafor expects to be more effective on the defensive end after getting adjusted to it as a rookie. 

“(I want) to be smarter on defense, knowing where to be,” Okafor said. “My first year playing in the NBA, it was just a lot going on. Everybody was so fast.” 

Brown sees a focused 20-year-old who is more disciplined and ready to embrace whatever role he is given this season. 

“I can’t wait to coach him this year," Brown said. "I think he’s going to come back and have a great year. His body tells me that, his attitude tells me that. He’s in a good place personally."