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Unbeaten Falcons dominating the turnover battle

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Unbeaten Falcons dominating the turnover battle

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) When the Atlanta Falcons gather in the meeting room at the beginning of each week, they can always count on coach Mike Smith jotting one thing on the board.

Turnover margin.

Smith has made that a priority during his five years as coach, and the Falcons are sure following his lead this season. Atlanta is 5-0 for the first time in franchise history and, not so coincidentally, has a plus-10 edge in turnovers, tied with New England for the best mark in the league.

The safeties are leading the way. Thomas DeCoud has four interceptions, while William Moore has chipped in with two picks. Both give credit to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, saying he has done a good job of disguising coverages and allowing everyone to play to their strengths.

``Go get the ball,'' Moore said Wednesday. ``The ball is the most important thing on the field.''

The Falcons have already nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries. The offense, meanwhile, has turned it over just four times - three interceptions by Matt Ryan, plus a fumbled snap by the quarterback in last week's victory over Washington.

``When you talk about turnovers, you really want to talk about the turnover ratio,'' Smith said. ``It's interactive. It's one of the stats that offense, defense and special teams all contribute to. Not only are we creating turnovers, we're not turning the ball over.''

The Falcons had a more passive approach on defense under previous coordinator Brian VanGorder, but that has certainly changed since Nolan arrived. He's willing to take some chances - even get burned from time to time - if it puts his guys in position to make game-changing plays of their own. In a league that keeps tilting more and more in favor of the offense, turnovers have become the most effective way to swing the momentum.

``We have an offensive mentality in terms of what we're doing defensively,'' Smith said. ``We're attacking the football.''

The Oakland Raiders (1-3), who visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday, are certainly mindful of the Falcons' ball-hogging ways.

``They do an outstanding job of keying the quarterback, of seeing the quarterback's eyes,'' said first-year coach Dennis Allen, whose team has as many turnovers as it has caused. ``They play extremely fast. They play full speed on every play. They understand where the ball is going. They do a nice job of route recognition. Plus, they get a little pressure on the quarterback, which speeds up the process for them. They're doing an outstanding job of taking the ball away. We've got to be aware of that.''

This is nothing new for Atlanta, which also ranked among the top 10 in turnover margin the last two seasons.

But it's clear the Falcons are more intent on taking the ball away, running all sorts of blitzes and stunts rather than being content to sit back in zone coverage - a change in philosophy that made even more sense after Brent Grimes, perhaps the best defender in a trio of high-priced cornerbacks, went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1.

Another of those cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson, might be thriving more than anyone in the new system.

Last week, he had one of two interceptions in the closing minutes (DeCoud nabbed the other) to clinch the 24-17 victory over the Redskins. But Robinson is doing a lot more than just dropping back in coverage. He's blitzing. He's coming up to provide support against the run. He's having his best overall season since joining the Falcons in 2010.

``I'm a football player first,'' said Robinson, who ranks fourth on the team with 27 tackles. ``(Nolan) is allowing me to play football. He's allowing me to be part of the run game. He's allowing me to blitz at times. I'm not just a cover corner. I'm not just a guy who sits outside and doesn't have any action all day. I like to get involved in the game. He's doing a great job of getting me involved early in the game. Once that happens, I feel like I can make any play.''

Don't forget the guys in the trenches, either.

As Allen said, the Falcons have been getting good pressure on the quarterback, ranking 12th in the league with 13 sacks.

No surprise their defensive backs are playing so well.

``Everything starts up front,'' linebacker Mike Peterson said. ``That's why the guys on the back end have been getting those picks. Apparently, I need to remind those guys on the back end that they can't do their job unless the guys on the front end do theirs.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

Hockey is a game of organized chaos.

Sure, pucks can take some unexpected bounces, but a lot of what you see on the ice doesn’t happen by accident.

Trailing 2-0 early in the third period of Game 1, Patric Hornqvist got the Pittsburgh Penguins on the board with a deflection that scuttled past Braden Holtby.

You may dismiss the play at first glance as a lucky deflection off a wide shot, but it actually was much more coordinated than that.

The play starts with defenseman Justin Schultz holding the puck at the blue line. He buys time, sees Hornqvist and fires a wrister at the net. The shot is not going on net, but the net isn’t the target.

You can see the play here:

Schultz is specifically aiming to put the puck in a position for Hornqvist to deflect it on goal.

“Justin does a great job just changing his angle, having some patience and just delivering pucks down to the net that gives our forwards an opportunity to get a stick on it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game.

According to the coach, it is a play the Penguins practice daily and one that is reminiscent of former Capital Sergei Gonchar who routinely made smart plays from the blue line to set up his teammates.

Gonchar was one of the top offensive defensemen in the league over a playing career that spanned from 1994 to 2015. He recorded 811 points in his NHL career, 416 of which came during his 10 seasons with Washington.

Now, however, he serves as an assistant coach for the Penguins helping the defensemen practice plays just like the one Schultz made to set up Hornqvist.

“Sergei is so good at helping those guys with the subtleties of the game and just those little skill sets along the offensive blue line,” Sullivan said. "I don't know that there was anybody better in his generation than Sergei was and he does a great job at relaying some of those subtitles to our guys and those guys, they work at it daily.”

Deflections are obviously very difficult for a goalie to handle. It is nearly impossible to react to the puck’s mid-air change of direction. A goalie has to be positioned perfectly to make the save. It also gives shooters at the blue line more targets. Rather than shooting just at the 42x78 inches of the net, players can shoot on net or in the shooting lane of any of their teammates anywhere on the ice. Essentially, the entire offensive zone becomes a potential target.

There’s a reason the Penguins have been as good as they are for as long as they have. They are not getting lucky bounces, they are creating their own deflections thanks in part to the expertise of the former Cap.

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The Redskins drafted for need, and this time, that is just fine

The Redskins drafted for need, and this time, that is just fine

ASHBURN, Va. -- After months, and maybe years, of the Redskins front office explaining that the NFL Draft came down to taking the best player available, the organization might have veered from that strategy Thursday night.

The Redskins selected Alabama defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne with the No. 13 overall pick. It's a fine selection, but the team made it not necessarily because Payne was the best player available, but because he was the best player available at a position of desperate need. 

"There were quite a few guys that were worthy of that pick, quite frankly, but for what we were looking for and the fit, I think Da’Ron is perfect for us and what we were looking for," Washington head coach Jay Gruden said after the first round ended.

Payne should help right away on the Redskins defensive line, but plenty of fans want to know why the team didn't select Derwin James and Tremaine Edmunds at No. 13. Both freak athletes, James could have helped the Redskins' secondary while Edmunds could help at the linebacker spot and rushing the passer.

Asked specifically if Payne was on top of the board at No. 13 with Edmunds and James present, the coach wasn't quite crystal clear.

"Yeah, he was up there. There’s a lot of scenarios we tried to play through and guys were getting picked and we’re happy as heck to get Da’Ron. He’s one of our top guys."

For Gruden and the Redskins, this pick was about competing in the NFC East.

"You see what’s going on in our division with Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott and Philadelphia, the way they run the ball," the coach said. "Our [2017] ranking on defense wasn’t quite up to speed at 32nd."

The coach is right. 

The Redskins struggled mightily last season against the run, coming in dead last in rush defense. In turn, they struggled in the division, going 1-5. Dallas and Philadelphia already run the ball very well, and now by drafting Barkley second overall, the Giants could be a strong run team too. 

There is no question Payne will step in and help against the run, and that should happen immediately. Gruden even said the Redskins will use Payne at the nose tackle position, likely with Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis lined up next to him. 

The question on Payne is pass rushing ability, and he's eager to prove it's no question at all. 

"I’m going to get after the pass rush and just dominate the run every chance I get," the new Redskins said in a conference call with media. 

In thre years at Alabama, Payne logged three sacks. Read that again. It's not a misprint. 

For interior defensive line players, sacks aren't always a great measure of effectiveness. Getting good push up the middle disrupts the quarterbacks time in the pocket, and that often results in sacks off the edge. Payne should be able to help in that capacity.

"I think he's got great power, and a lot of times the sacks that don't show up on the stat board, he enabled other guys to get them because of the push of the pocket that forces the quarterback outside. I think Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Ryan Anderson will be very happy to have Jonathan Allen and Da'Ron Payne in the middle pushing that pocket," Gruden said. "Stats don't always tell a story about pass rushers."

The Redskins made a smart, safe pick with Payne. He will help the team from Day One. 

The Redskins eschewed the chance for a riskier, but maybe more rewarding pick in Derwin James or Tremaine Edmunds. And that's ok.

If Payne boosts the run defense, like he should, he will be proven worth the No. 13 pick.

If Payne boosts the run defense, and proves capable as a pass rusher, then Redskins fans will forget all about James and Edmunds. 

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