Paul Hudrick

Sixers face, conquer late-game demons

Sixers face, conquer late-game demons

BOX SCORE

The Sixers on Monday exorcised two demons.

After nearly blowing a 21-point lead, the Sixers managed to take down one of the East's elite, holding on for dear life in a 117-111 win (see observations) over the Raptors during a Martin Luther King Day matinee game at the Wells Fargo Center.

Coming into today, they were 0-8 against the likes of Boston, Cleveland and Toronto — the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. They had managed just one against the Raptors in the last five seasons combined before today's win.

It took a strong defensive effort against Toronto's dynamic backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Philly native Kyle Lowry.

"We tried to keep fresh bodies on them and we ended up doing quite a bit of switching," head coach Brett Brown said. "I think that the rules, by and large, of what we were doing in pick-and-roll were solid, I thought we executed them well. But I think that individually we understood that those two, when they get going, generate most of their wins and we understood that and I give credit to our guys, a collective group of guarding them."

As a team, Toronto shot 40 percent from the field and just 28 percent from three. A big part of that, as Brown alluded to, was the Sixers' ability to stifle DeRozan and Lowry. The duo combined to score 37 points on 11 of 34 (32 percent) from the field.

Other than giving a stellar effort against Toronto's All-Star guards, the Sixers didn't help themselves out too much. They turned the ball over 21 times against the second-best team in the conference and lived to tell about it.

There were some anxious moments down the stretch, but the Sixers held on.

"I think it shows how good we can be," backup point guard T.J. McConnell said of the win. "Twenty-one turnovers is ridiculously bad. Obviously blowing that lead ... we just got to be more mature with leads like that and continue to execute and lock up on defense and limit turnovers."

McConnell was nothing short of spectacular. The third-year guard scored a career-high 18 points on 8 of 13 from the field. He also added eight assists, six rebounds, three steals and a dustup with DeRozan in the second quarter, which resulted in double technicals (see video).

Big man Joel Embiid, who was spectacular in his own right with 34 points and 11 boards (see video), was effusive in his praise for McConnell. 

"He was great the whole game," Embiid said. "He brought some energy. We moved the ball with him on the court and he found me. He's a great piece for us and he helped us a lot."

The Sixers had been in this situation before and they're likely to see it a lot more as the season goes on. There was a particularly odd sequence with the Sixers holding a 113-108 lead with 25.3 seconds remaining in the game. 

McConnell stole an inbounds pass, which led to a Robert Covington missed layup. After Lowry turned the ball over again, Ben Simmons came up with another steal. He proceeded to miss a dunk which Embiid rebounded and then missed a layup of his own before eventually getting fouled.

All of this could've been avoided if the Sixers just took the rebound and dribbled the ball out.

"All we've got to do is dribble it out and instead we're playing volleyball," Brown said. "Just dribble it out and spread it out and just win the game. 

"That's the stuff that keeps me up late — really, really late — at night, but we found a way to win. To our team's credit, we went on a 7-0 run when the game was in the balance. 

"It's not a mystery to me why this stuff happens. And it's not as simple as, 'OK, now you know why you're sick, here's the medicine to fix it.' It's growing a bunch of young guys. It's part of the challenge."

A second-half collapse avoided with a win over an Eastern Conference giant will hopefully provide the Sixers a remedy going forward. 

8 NFL draft prospects to watch in CFP National Championship

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8 NFL draft prospects to watch in CFP National Championship

It’s time to crown the college football national champion.

It’s also our last chance to get a look at some NFL prospects before postseason All-Star games and the combine.

Here are eight prospects to watch in tonight’s CFP National Championship.

Alabama vs. Clemson
Mercedes Benz Stadium
8 p.m., ESPN

Georgia

No. 27 - Nick Chubb, RB, senior (5-10/225)

Chubb fits the mold of a bell cow back. He had a ridiculous freshman season filling in for an injured Todd Gurley in which he ran for 1,547 yards on 7.1 per carry. Chubb then suffered a gruesome knee injury of his own the following season. Chubb could’ve come out after a so-so junior campaign in 2016 but opted to return for his senior year. And boy, did that move work. Chubb rushed for 1,320 yards this season and 15 TDs while sharing time with the player listed below. If not for the injury history, Chubb would easily be considered the second-best back in the draft behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. The Eagles’ biggest need certainly isn’t at running back, but with a loaded class and questions about Jay Ajayi’s chronic knee issues going forward, it’s certainly worth looking into.

No. 1 - Sony Michel, RB, senior (5-11/215)
The other half of Georgia’s dynamic rushing attack has seen his stock rise, especially after his 181-yard, three-TD performance against Oklahoma. For the season, Michel has also gone over the 1,000-yard mark while averaging eight yards a carry with 16 TDs. Despite a couple productive seasons in 2015 and 2016, this season has really gotten Michel on to the NFL draft radar. A strong combine could only boost his stock.

No. 7 - Lorenzo Carter, EDGE, senior (6-6/243)
I would love to profile stud LB Roquan Smith, but with how he’s played recently, it’s hard to imagine him falling out of the top 15, let alone to wherever the Eagles pick. Carter fits the mold of former Bulldog and first-round pick Leonard Floyd (Bears). Much like Floyd, Carter never reached his full potential as a pass rusher in college (14 career sacks) because of his role. But as was the case with Floyd, someone will fall in love with his measurables. Could that team be the Eagles? Carter would be an intriguing rotational pass rush piece.

No. 6 - Javon Wims, WR, senior (6-4/215)
Wims has quietly had a solid season for Georgia and provided true freshman QB Jake Fromm with a reliable target. Wims led the Bulldogs in receptions (44), receiving yards (704) and TDs (7). While the numbers aren't mind blowing, Wims has one distinguishable NFL trait: size. That size helps him beat press coverage and make contested catches, two important things at the next level. Wims also has sneaky quickness, which was evident against Oklahoma. He ran several hitches where he stopped on a dime and hauled in a couple easy completions.

Alabama

No. 9 - Bo Scarbrough, RB, junior (6-2/235)

The bruising back gained a ton of hype after monster performances in the CFP last season. After beating up Washington's highly-touted defense (180 yards, two TDs), Scarbrough was having a similar performance against Clemson in the title game (93 yards, two TDs) before breaking his leg in the third quarter. Whether it's lingering effects from the injury or other factors, Scarbrough just hasn't had the same impact this season. He's rushed for just 573 yards on 4.8 yards a carry. His freakish physique and physical running style will intrigue somebody in the middle rounds. If the Eagles want a smash-mouth heir apparent to LeGarrette Blount, Scarbrough could be that guy.

No. 34 - Damien Harris, RB, junior (5-11/221)
Part of the reason for Scarbrough's lack of production is the emergence of Harris. With 17 yards tonight, Harris will have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. That's impressive considering his timeshare at the position and playing with a run-heavy QB in Jalen Hurts. Harris may have come into the season less heralded than Scarbrough, but he'll end it being the better NFL prospect. He's a complete back and could be a steal in this deep class.  

No. 3 - Calvin Ridley, WR, junior (6-1/190)
Serious question: how does a program with a consistently inept passing game snag all these stud receivers? Following in the footsteps of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, Ridley will likely be the next 'Bama wideout to be a first-round pick. After an impressive 1,045-yard, seven-touchdown freshman season, Ridley hasn't reached the 1,000-yard plateau in either of the last two campaigns (65 yards would get him there tonight, however). But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Ridley is lightning quick and an outstanding route runner. He has decent size and can take the top off a defense (his ability to track deep balls is also exceptional) . Most consider him to be the draft's second-best receiver behind SMU's Courtland Sutton. That's probably fair, but neither receiver is expected to go in the top 15. If Ridley somehow falls to the Eagles in the 20s, they should take a long, hard look. He'd be an outstanding complement to Alshon Jeffery and give Carson Wentz another dangerous weapon.

No. 32 - Rashaan Evans, LB, senior (6-3/234)
Evans is at the heart of Alabama's stellar defense. The senior 'backer recorded 66 tackles (11 1/2 for a loss) and six sacks. He's not the easiest player to evaluate because of the run-heavy SEC and how clean the Crimson Tide's stout front keeps him. But what Evans does show is solid instincts and great burst. He trusts his eyes and doesn't over commit on fakes. He's a strong blitzer (he was recruited as an edge rusher) and plays a violent brand of football. In the small sample size of coverage snaps he has, he's looked solid. His time at MLB will serve him well, but he might be best served as a weak side linebacker at the next level. One that might look pretty good next to a (hopefully) healthy Jordan Hicks.

Sidney Jones looks comfortable in debut

Sidney Jones looks comfortable in debut

The rookie report makes its triumphant return this week with the Eagles' meaningless, ugly 6-0 loss Sunday afternoon to the Cowboys at the Linc (see breakdown). Let's take a look at this week's highlights.

1st quarter, 11:43, 1st-and-10 at DAL 39 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
This is the kind of play we've seen from Rasul Douglas all season. Douglas is lined up in off coverage against wide receiver Dez Bryant. Quarterback Dak Prescott throws a screen his way. Left tackle Byron Bell is leading the way, getting out to block Douglas. Douglas plays it perfectly and engages and sheds Bell like a linebacker, then makes a nice tackle on Bryant. Douglas also engages in a little trash talk with Bryant after the play. 

A couple plays later, Prescott delivers a terrible throw and misses an open Bryant. Douglas then gives Bryant a nice shot at the end of the play. You have to love Douglas' enjoyment — not just willingness — of physicality as a corner. Again, he talks a little trash to Bryant. You also have to love the swagger.

1st quarter, 6:39, 1st-and-10 at PHI 18 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
As the season has gone on, Corey Clement has surprisingly taken on the role as the team's third-down back. On this play, he shows why. Quarterback Nick Foles is lined up under center with Clement as the deep back. Clement steps up, identifies the blitzer in linebacker Damien Wilson, meets him under control, keeps a solid base and stands Wilson up at the line of scrimmage. It allows Foles to make a great throw to Zach Ertz for nine yards on an otherwise rough day for the Eagles' QB. This was arguably the best play in pass protection an Eagles back has made all season.

1st quarter, 3:12, 3rd-and-5 at PHI 47 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
On this play, the Cowboys are trying to get the ball to wideout Terrence Williams quickly so he can make a play after the catch, trying to take advantage of Douglas' off coverage. Instead, Douglas reads the play, crashes in on Williams and makes another sure tackle.

Sidney Jones, making his NFL debut, also had a nice jam on Bryant, but it must be noted Bryant looked extremely uninterested on the play since it wasn't going his way.

2nd quarter, 12:51, 1st-and-10 at PHI 19 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
WR Mack Hollins gets in on the action during the start of the Nate Sudfled era (I kid). Hollins is lined up out right and runs a slant. Demarcus Lawrence realizes it's a three-step drop and instead of rushing the passer, gets in the passing window. Sudfeld makes a really nice play, getting Lawrence off the ground and then throwing around him. Hollins does a nice job staying alive and not giving up on the play. Hollins secures the catch, makes a nice move and gets nine yards.

2nd quarter, 4:48, 2nd-and-9 at DAL 5 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
Jones is in off coverage on this play on the outside receiver. Prescott throws yet another WR screen, this time to Ryan Switzer who is lined up in the middle of the trips formation. Jones engages the receiver attempting to block him, sheds him and makes a solid tackle on Switzer. Pretty impressive play for a guy that hasn't played a football game in a year.

3rd quarter, 10:30, 2nd-and-6 at DAL 41 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
The Cowboys give the ball to Ezekiel Elliott on a zone run to the right. Converted safety now LB Nathan Gerry is lined up to the left to the side of the run. La'el Collins comes out to block Gerry. Gerry does an outstanding job taking on Collins with his right shoulder to keep his left arm free. Not only does Gerry do this, he actually knocks Collins to the ground and is in on the tackle with Chris Long. This is a great play for any linebacker let alone a guy just learning the position after converting from safety in college.

4th quarter, 12:19, 3rd-and-7 at PHI 20 - Eagles 0, Cowboys 0
This was a nightmare drive for Douglas (see Roob's observations). He got beat by Brice Butler for 30 yards on a 2nd-and-22 from the Dallas 7. He was then called for an illegal contact penalty — as ticky-tack as it may have been — on a deep ball to Bryant. The rough drive ended with Douglas allowing the only points of the game. Playing off coverage as usual and looking like he had outside leverage on a zero blitz, Butler runs a slant. Prescott gets the ball out quickly to Butler and Douglas doesn't have the speed to recover and the play goes for a TD.

4th quarter, 10:34, 1st-and-10 at DAL 28 - Cowboys 6, Eagles 0
On this play, Prescott rolls out to his right. Jason Witten is running a crossing route. Gerry has outstanding coverage, but Prescott attempts to force the ball in anyway. Gerry breaks up the play and nearly makes an outstanding, backhanded interception.

Analysis
Douglas made some plays early but really struggled late, especially on the aforementioned touchdown drive. Jim Schwartz constantly plays him in off coverage because he fears Douglas doesn't have the speed to recover if beaten deep. Maybe Douglas can instill some confidence in his coach — which likely won't be Schwartz — to give him more reps in press coverage next season.

Considering Jones hasn't played football in a year and came out of the game with just some cramping, you'd have to consider it a successful debut. He bit the cheese on a double move by Williams but overall looked smooth and comfortable out there. He was an elite talent at Washington. I had him ranked as the best corner coming out, ahead of the Saints' Marshon Lattimore. You have to be excited at the thought of this guy being in the starting lineup next season. 

There's been a lot of clamoring for Hollins to get snaps over veteran Torrey Smith (see report card). It's a little late in the season to make a move like that, but I get what the fans are saying. Hollins will get plenty of chances to be a bigger part of this offense going forward. He's another prospect to be excited about going forward.

Have to say, I wasn't expecting to write a ton about Gerry in this space, but the kid impressed me. He put on weight and had to learn a brand new position so he didn't see much action all season. His experience as a safety will certainly help him in coverage. He hauled in 13 interceptions during his time at Nebraska. The Eagles might have found something here.