Cubs

How has Ravens' defense managed to stay great?

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How has Ravens' defense managed to stay great?

From Comcast SportsNetOWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) -- Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have spent 11 seasons together with the Baltimore Ravens, making one big play after another for a defense that is perennially among the best in the NFL. Although it's difficult to imagine the Ravens without Lewis in the middle of the huddle and Reed as the last line of defense, the unit has plenty of young players eager to make an imprint after the two aging veterans finally walk away from the game. Baltimore's defense, which ranked third in the NFL this season, is the main reason the Ravens (13-4) are in the AFC championship game and stand a decent chance of defeating the high-powered New England Patriots (14-3) for a berth in the Super Bowl. Lewis and Reed are the most recognizable stars, but they're getting help from 29-year-old Terrell Suggs, 27-year-old Haloti Ngata, 23-year-old Terrence Cody and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was 8 when Lewis played his first game with the Ravens in 1996. "You need that veteran presence and you need enough young people to run around and make the plays," Smith said. "I think it's a great mix on this team." It is quite by design. Lewis was drafted in the first round of the NFL in 1996, the Ravens' first season after making the move from Cleveland. Since that time, general manager Ozzie Newsome has worked to surround his sensational middle linebacker with enough talent to keep the defense operating at an extremely high level. Reed was plucked from the University of Miami in the first round of the 2002 draft, Suggs was the 10th overall pick in 2003 and Ngata came aboard as a No. 1 pick in 2006. Pass-rusher Paul Kruger (2009) and Cody (2010) were second-round selections, and Smith was taken in the first round last April. "Sixteen years I've been in this business," Lewis said. "Do you know how many men I have seen come walk in and out of this door?" When Lewis went to the Super Bowl during the 2000 season, Tony Siragusa was one of the defensive tackles. One year ago, Kelly Gregg was playing in front of Lewis. Now it's Cody, and there's been no drop off in production. The Ravens have been ranked in the top 10 in total defense in each of the last nine years. The cast has changed around Lewis and Reed, but the blend remains the same. "We've got veteran experience, guys that have been around a long time, and young, raw talent. When you mix those together, it's a great combination," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Ozzie deserves a lot of credit. You've got your veteran guys that do things right, good guys that are also good football players. Then you bring in good talent and they watch and learn, then pretty soon those guys are the old veteran players and they're bringing in a new batch of young guys." Baltimore is the only NFL team to reach the postseason in each of the past four years. Much of the credit goes to Lewis, Reed, and a defense that has withstood the test of time. "Old? I call it experienced," Smith said. "You've got two of the best at key spots. Their experience is what guides us, and it's helped us get to the position we're in now." Defensive end Cory Redding, a 10-year pro, said, "This is what you want to have. The veterans set the tone for the young guys on how things are run, how we jell together, how we hold each other accountable. So when they get to five, six, seven years in the league, they can say, OK, I've learned from Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. I know how to conduct myself. I know how to lead, because I saw them do it.'" John Harbaugh has been in the AFC title game twice in his four seasons as Baltimore's coach. Under his guidance, young players such as Kruger, cornerback Lardarius Webb and former sixth-round pick Haruki Nakamura, a solid safety and special teams ace, have matured into key contributors. "It's always good not to be a bunch of young guys or a bunch of old guys, or whatever," Harbaugh said. "It's good to have a nice mix of experience. Some guys can train some younger guys into a certain way of doing things. It begins to permeate everything that you are. And then those young guys, in turn, teach others. It just becomes a perpetuating type of situation." Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch said, "Ray and Ed and Suggs and Ngata have strung along those younger guys and they've picked up the speed. So it looks like regardless of who they have out there, a second- or third-year guy looks as if he's been playing there for eight, nine years with those guys. So you're playing with the best." At the center of it all are Lewis and Reed, who endlessly preach the importance of film study and dedication to the game. The Patriots are certainly aware of the overall ability of the Baltimore defense, but New England's game plan starts and ends with accounting for those two playmakers. "They're great players," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "I've played against both those guys quite a few times. You always enjoy going up against the best because you can really measure where you're at. You can't take plays off against those guys. You can't take things for granted when you're out there against them. You have to see where they're at on every play because they're guys who change the game." Reed has eight interceptions in 10 playoff games, including a key pick in last week's 20-13 win over Houston. "Ed Reed is the best weak safety I have seen since I have been in the NFL in my career," Patriots coach Bill Belichick declared. "He's outstanding on everything, including blocking punts, returning then for touchdowns, returning interceptions for touchdowns. Pretty much anything he is out there for." Lewis and Reed won't be around forever, but it might a while before the Ravens' defense drops from the top 10. When Lewis missed four games this season with a right toe injury, Baltimore went 4-0 with 26-year-old Dannell Ellerbe and rookie Albert McClellan in the middle. "In my opinion, we're built to last a long time," said Kruger, who contributed 5 sacks. "I think next year we'll be just as effective."

Potential Kris Bryant trade market becomes clearer after Anthony Rendon lands with Angels

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USA TODAY

Potential Kris Bryant trade market becomes clearer after Anthony Rendon lands with Angels

The first domino of this offseason’s third base market has fallen.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, free agent Anthony Rendon is set to sign a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

The Texas Rangers were also linked to Rendon in recent days, but they’ll now have to shift their focus elsewhere. Texas’ attention is now on the other superstar free agent third baseman — Josh Donaldson — as MLB.com’s TR Sullivan reported. The same can be said about Rendon’s former team, the Washington Nationals.

This leads us to the Cubs and Kris Bryant. With Rendon off the board and Donaldson soon to follow, a potential trade market for the Cubs third baseman is growing clearer.

Only one of the Rangers and Nationals can sign Donaldson, not to mention his most recent team — the Atlanta Braves. When Donaldson’s domino falls, two of these teams will be left empty-handed in their pursuit of a third baseman.

The Los Angeles Dodgers also were linked to Rendon, though they don’t necessarily need a third baseman with Justin Turner manning the hot corner. Their pursuit of Rendon points to how they’re willing to shift Turner off third base, however. Add them to the list of teams seeking third base help.

Add that all up, and you have four teams in the market for Donaldson. The Cubs aren’t guaranteed to trade Bryant, but they’ll soon find themselves with some leverage. For the three teams that don’t land Donaldson, the most logical move will be to inquire with the Cubs about trading for Bryant.

Bryant’s unresolved grievance case will be an issue in any potential negotiations. The difference between two years of control (if he loses) and one (if he wins) is big when it comes to his value. Even though they’ll have leverage over interested teams, the Cubs will yield stronger trade proposals for Bryant if he loses his case.

But, again, a trade is no certainty. What is certain is teams will be inquiring about Bryant in the not-so-distant future, once Donaldson chooses his free agent destination.

Four observations: Bulls rout Atlanta Hawks in much-needed get-right game

Four observations: Bulls rout Atlanta Hawks in much-needed get-right game

The Bulls picked up a valuable get-right win in a 136-102 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks. Observations from a game the Bulls had to win, and did handily:

The bench provided a spark (again)

Bulls starters not named Zach LaVine got off to a sluggish start in this one. At the 3:14 mark of the first, the Hawks led 29-21 and were shooting a scalding 13-for-18 (72.2%) from the field (3-for-6 from 3-point range). LaVine had 12 of the Bulls’ 21 points.

The hosts ended the period ahead 37-33, buoyed by a 16-4 run by a bench unit of Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine, Thad Young, and Daniel Gafford. Valentine hit four floaters over that stretch, Gafford had a resounding block, White had a strong and-one take over Alex Len and Thad Young tallied five points, for good measure. 

Bench runs have become commonplace for this Bulls team, even in the midst of a three-game losing streak. This one carried over into the second quarter, which the Bulls won 29-19, holding Atlanta to 6-for-21 (28.6%) shooting, 2-for-10 (20%) from three. They didn't look back from there.

Young finished the first half with nine points, four rebounds, and two assists. White had a flashy night — tallying 19 points. Valentine and Gafford connected on a handful of alley-oops (which has quickly become a tradition).

Zach LaVine bounced back

LaVine — averaging 20 points on 33.3% shooting during the team’s three-game losing streak — was ripe for a breakout, and this Hawks team (29th in the NBA in defensive rating) presented an opportunity to bounce back. He took advantage.

As mentioned, LaVine carried the Bulls offense early: he had 18 first-half points on 7-for-9 shooting. Embedded in that line were a few highlight-reel dunks that awoke the United Center:

He tacked on a cool 17 (!) in the third quarter before coming out with the game out of reach for the Hawks. LaVine finished the night leading all scorers with 35 points and shot a staggering 7-for-7 from 3-point range. When he’s on, it’s too much fun, and he dazzled in this one. 

In a favorable matchup, the defense kept rolling

Coming into this game, we knew the Bulls defense, theoretically, matched up well with Atlanta’s offense plan of attack. For the most part, that bore out, in practice.

Kris Dunn was outstanding in containing Trae Young tonight, hounding him off of every screen (where he was usually aided by a hedge from the big in coverage) and staying attached even in instances when Young was able to penetrate.

Young didn’t score until the 11:07 mark in the second quarter and finished the night with 15 points on 4-for-14 shooting (1-for-6 from three) and seven turnovers. This is the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA we’re talking about here. He did rack up 13 assists (six in the first quarter) — and some were very, very pretty — but most of those came in transition. In the halfcourt, the Bulls’ set defense effectively bottled him up.

The Hawks, as a team, committed 23 turnovers on the night, which the Bulls were able to convert into 15 points. Atlanta is an inferior opponent, yes, but it was a strong showing, nonetheless.

Blowouts are fun

This one was a little too close for comfort early on but ended in a rout. The Bulls simply outclassed the Hawks, winning statistical categories this team has often been overmatched in, from rebounds (42-40) to points in the paint (78-42), to blocks (7-4), to the 3-point battle. Lauri Markkanen even utilized garbage time to turn a fine stat line into a good one: he had 10 points in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 22 points on 8-for-9 shooting. 

So, you know what? Rest your brain with some of the best clips of the night. You’ve earned it:

 

 

 

 

The Bulls can push questions about fourth-quarter stagnation, cold shooting streaks, and crowded rotations until this weekend. This was a solid overall performance.

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