49ers' defense set to shut down Cardinals

49ers' defense set to shut down Cardinals

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) The San Francisco 49ers might have the most formidable front seven in the NFL, but those aren't necessarily the guys leading the way for the NFL's top-ranked defense.

A team known for stopping the run is now even better at stopping the pass.

The 49ers led the NFL in rushing defense last season, but this year the pass defense ranks No. 1. A lot of that has to do with the play of four rangy defenders on the back end who have grown as a unit to become a shutdown secondary.

The next challenge comes Monday night in a key NFC West game against Arizona, a team with a weak running game that likely will have to throw to catch up with first-place San Francisco in the division.

That approach hasn't worked so well for opponents so far this season. In today's pass-happy NFL, San Francisco (5-2) has held five of its seven opponents below 200 yards passing and three to 115 yards or fewer.

Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are in their second season together as a starting unit and seem to be getting better by the week. San Francisco has allowed an average of just 130.7 yards passing over its past four games.

``They're playing outstanding together,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday. ``There's so much communication on the back end, communicating calls, communicating leverage, strength, formation, what the call is, technique they're going to play. There's a lot of communication that takes place back there.''

The secondary was at its best during last week's 13-6 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, who did little damage through the air while finishing with 115 yards passing.

The 49ers frustrated rookie quarterback Russell Wilson into just nine completions in 23 attempts, and Goldson swooped in from the deep middle for his second interception to thwart a Seattle threat late in the third quarter.

Goldson, who like Rogers went to his first Pro Bowl last season, has picked up where he left off last year and the defensive backs around him also have shown growth.

``Dashon's just one of all the guys out there that has improved that much,'' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ``I'd say the same thing for Whitner, Brown, Rogers, (nickel cornerback Chris) Culliver, all those guys back there. When you get a bunch of guys improving a little bit, it adds up to big results.''

It has led to a dynamic secondary that is benefiting from the strong play of a front seven that features All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith and All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Those players got a lot of attention last season when the 49ers ranked No. 1 in rushing defense, with several opponents abandoning the run altogether after falling behind. San Francisco's run defense remains strong but has slipped to 10th in this week's NFL rankings.

San Francisco's weekly defensive philosophy is to force teams to pass, which makes the secondary's performance even more impressive. There has been no weak link this year in a pass defense that finished higher than 20th in the NFL rankings just once over the past seven seasons. That was last year, when the 49ers were 16th.

``We're just more familiar and understand the defense better and we're comfortable in the system and playing it well right now,'' Brown said. ``We're all on one page, and if we do give up a pass, it's nothing major. Everybody has opportunities to jump routes and make plays, and the good thing about it is guys are making those plays.''

The 49ers will get tested in Arizona by a familiar face that has given San Francisco problems over the years.

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been a regular 49ers nemesis, and he played a big role in the Cardinals' 21-19 victory in Arizona last December - San Francisco's only NFC West loss during Harbaugh's two seasons with the team. Fitzgerald burned the 49ers for seven receptions and 149 yards receiving in that game, including a 46-yard touchdown reception that sparked Arizona's comeback from a 19-7 deficit.

The 49ers return to the scene of that loss Monday eager to show what their surging pass defense can do against Fitzgerald and the Cardinals.

``They move him around a lot so I think we'll all have an opportunity to go against Fitzgerald,'' Brown said. ``We have confidence in all our guys that we all can cover and match up with those guys well.''

NOTES: Harbaugh began his news conference Saturday by announcing that 49ers CEO Jed York and his wife Danielle have a newborn son named Jaxon, their first child. ``The 49ers have more depth now and we're very excited about it, excited for them,'' Harbaugh said. ``Good measurables and a strong name.'' ... OT Joe Staley, who did not practice earlier this week due to illness, was limited in practice Saturday and is listed as questionable to play against the Cardinals ... QB Alex Smith (sprained finger) and RB Frank Gore (bruised ribs) both are listed as probable ... The 49ers will be playing in their second consecutive prime-time night game against a NFC West foe after a Thursday game against Seattle on Oct. 18.

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Reflections on Rich Tandler and a life well lived

NBC Sports Washington

Reflections on Rich Tandler and a life well lived

I haven’t felt this way since my father passed last April. I’m not comparing the two, at all, but there were some similarities.

Rich Tandler had life experience. Few people accomplish what he did; total life reinvention. 

Think about that. 

After raising his two successful children and a lifetime in the restaurant business, Tandler created a blog. That blog became big enough to eventually become a full-time job, and over time, put him on television and send him all over the world. 

That’s wild. 

We get so caught up in the “startups” and “disruptors” from Silicon Valley that we missed a true internet success story in Rich Tandler. Our world has become extra cynical. The loudest snark wins, especially on the internet. 

Tandler didn’t trade in those currencies. 

He provided good, quality information. He provided insight and analysis from six decades of obsessing over a football team. 

And fans loved him for it. 

The outpouring from folks that read "Need to Know" or listened to the podcast has been incredible. I’ve been flooded with messages from people, and one overwhelming response is that while they didn’t really know Tandler, they feel like they did.

Well, I was lucky to know him pretty well. And his persona on air was the same way off air. 

Tandler helped me a in a lot of ways. I can be impulsive and have a temper, Tandler would calm me down. Whenever I had something important to say, news to break or a sharp angle of criticism, I would run it by Tandler first. Sometimes, maybe often, I would say too much, and he would reign me in. 

Tandler loved pointing out mistakes. If the universe gave honorary degrees for pointing out minor math errors in salary cap blog posts, Tandler would have a Ph.D. 

He was smart and he was sharp. Good natured but feisty. 

He could dish it out plenty in a media room full of alphas. And he literally dished it out; Tandler controlled all the plastic utensils and paper plates that every media member used at Redskins Park. When we were running low on forks, Tandler would put out some not too subtle calls to action. 

I think for a while he considered the podcast an annoyance, but somewhere along the way, we had a breakthrough. He realized its potential, and everywhere we went, listeners came up and told us how much they enjoyed it. 

That made an impact on RT. And seemingly overnight, he was all in. That’s when things really started to gain steam. Wherever I am in my career, Tandler played a huge role in it. 

But that kind of doesn’t matter now. We will keep the pod going but it will never be the same. Not better, not worse, but way, way different. Same thing with writing and TV. The show will go on, but it won't be the same. It will never be the same. 

In the hours since I learned of Tandler’s passing, I’ve done some reading. I drank a bunch. And I ended up landing on some YouTube videos. 

The one I kept going back to was Jimmy V’s famous ESPY speech. Before he died, Jimmy V implored us all to think, laugh and cry every day, and that would lead to a good, full life. 

If there was ever a dude that laughed, it was Rich Tandler. 

His belly laugh was contagious, and his wit was superior. There were the wacky Tandler’s Got Jokes, and the sly one liners about players, plays and our road antics. 

It wasn’t all laughter either. Tandler was smart as hell, and he was always thinking about new ways to present content for Redskins fans. 

Seriously, our organization employs an army of young and talented digital-first thinkers. And Tandler generated more web traffic than all of them. He constantly tried to figure out why people would read something, or the optimal time for us to drop a new podcast. 

Where I’m an idea guy, Tandler was all execution. I’m a terrible planner and constantly late. Tandler would be on time and busting my chops about our lack of schedule. It’s just how we operated. 

As for crying, Tandler didn't do it much. I did see him tear up from laughing a few times, and once because it was real windy when we were taping a segment and something got in his eye. 

I’m not much of a crier either. I’m glad that Jimmy V was, but it’s just not me. 

Thinking about Tandler though in the last 36 hours, there have been some truly hard moments. He was kind and gracious. A true gentleman. 

He never took personal shots at the team we cover, or their front office. Plenty do. He would certainly say when things were bad, and say it loudly. He was binary in a world full of context. 

He was a good dude. He was my coworker, my partner and my friend. 

And damn if it isn’t getting dusty in here all of a sudden. 

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Three things to watch for Wizards' regular season opener against the Heat

Three things to watch for Wizards' regular season opener against the Heat

The Washington Wizards open their regular season on Thursday night against the Miami Heat. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Will Howard play?

Just one week ago, it would have seemed near impossible that Dwight Howard, the Wizards' biggest offseason acquisition, would be ready to play in the season opener, but after three solid days of practice, it can't be ruled out. The Wizards plan to evaluate him throughout the day on Thursday to determine if he can take the court in what would be his first live game action with his new team.

Howard, 32, missed the entire preseason and nearly all of their practices leading up to the opener with a strained piriformis muscle. Though reports have been encouraging from his three practices, he is not yet in game shape. Even if he can play, expect him to be limited. If he can't play, Ian Mahinmi will get the start.

Heat are banged up

Miami is not only coming off a game the night before, as they lost in their season opener to the Orlando Magic, but they are missing some key guys. Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow are out due to injuries.

That will leave Miami perilously thin at the guard and small forward position. That happens to be an area of the roster where the Wizards are especially deep, now with Austin Rivers as the backup shooting guard behind Bradley Beal and with first round pick Troy Brown Jr. behind Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr.

That said, Waiters and Ellington being out means Dwyane Wade may get more run and, as we saw in the preseason, he is still very hard to stop. He is capable of a big night, especially given it's so early in the year and he doesn't yet have the wear-and-tear of a long season.

Can Beal reach the next level?

One of the most important indicators of how much better the Wizards will be this season is the continued improvement of their young players. John Wall, Porter and Oubre are included in that and particularly Oubre, who is entering an important season in the final year of his contract.

But the guy who improved more than anyone last year and has a chance to take another big leap this season is Beal. Now with one All-Star nod under his belt, what does he have for an encore? 

If Beal can get his scoring average up even higher from the 22.6 he put up last season, he could enter the All-NBA conversation. And he now has more help than ever with Rivers behind him. Beal should, in theory, be more fresh each night with Rivers taking away some of his workload. 

The Heat offer a good matchup defensively for Beal with Josh Richardson. He is one of the more underrated players in basketball and is a menace on the perimeter.

"I've been a fan of his since I played him in college at Tennessee," Beal said. "He's always been a pest. He's super athletic, sneaky athletic. And I feel like he developed his shot to where you have to respect it. If you go under [on screens], he's shooting it."