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49ers pleased with Aldon Smith's progress at LB

49ers pleased with Aldon Smith's progress at LB

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The San Francisco 49ers figured they were in for a long term project when they selected Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith with the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft.

They're happy to have been proven wrong.

At the time of the draft the team viewed Smith as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme, despite the fact the 20-year-old played solely with his hand in the dirt in his two college seasons.

``He was never standing up at Missouri. And as a matter of fact, he played about half the time, or I would say at least 40 percent of the time, he was a defensive tackle for Missouri,'' Fangio said. ``So, he always had his hand down. So, you never were able to see that on film. You had to just project that.''

With Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks entrenched at the two outside linebacker spots last season, the team was able to bring Smith along slowly. In practice, he learned the nuances of playing in coverage and run support, but on game days he was sent on the field in passing situations to rush the quarterback as a defensive end.

The role was a good fit for Smith, who set the franchise rookie record with 14 sacks, but it was clear by season's end that Smith was too talented for such a minimal role. He was ready to be upgraded to an every-down linebacker, which can be a rocky transition.

``You just give him enough repetitions at it, both on the practice field and in the film room, to where he learns it and understands it,'' Fangio said. ``And then if he's good enough talent-wise to do it, he can do it. In this case he is. So, he's learned well both on the field and in the classroom, and he's talented enough to transfer it into a good result.''

Through four games as a true every-down linebacker this season, Smith is pleased with his progress. His 4.5 sacks account for more than half the team's total (8) and place him in a seventh-place tie in the NFL with Miami linebacker Cameron Wake. Smith admitted his play recognition and coverage skills need to improve, but feels he's on the right track there, too.

Perhaps more than anything, Smith is enjoying more time on the field.

``It's more fun,'' he said. ``Definitely just playing more is the biggest thing and then being able to get out there and contribute more to the team is big.''

Playing on a defense that features five guys who were named to the Pro Bowl last season, Smith was able to fly under the radar to a degree, especially early in the season.

Not anymore.

``I think (opposing teams are) doing more things like adding more people blocking to my side and making my life more difficult,'' said Smith, who plays on the right side of the defense behind All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith. ``They can't block everybody. If they're going to double somebody, someone else is going to be left open.''

Over the past two seasons, Aldon Smith ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks (18.5) behind Dallas' Demarcus Ware (24.5), Minnesota's Jared Allen (24) and Philadelphia's Jason Babin (20.5).

``We didn't have a doubt with Aldon,'' All-Pro linebacker Navorro Bowman said. ``He showed us what he could do with the pass and now he's playing out there on first and second down and doing a great job at it. I look forward to him continuing to get better and helping us as a defense.''

The 49ers rank third in the NFL in total defense (277.2 ypg) heading into Sunday's home game against Buffalo and fourth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg).

Preparation this week has been unique for both Smiths as Bills starting left tackle Cordy Glenn will miss the game with an ankle injury. With Glenn sidelined, they'll see a lot of matchups with his replacement, second-year pro Chris Hairston, who has started just seven games in his career and none this season.

``I can't look at that one person,'' Aldon Smith said. ``Instead of studying that person the whole week, I just have to study my rush and how I'm going to attack the quarterback.''

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

The Florida Panthers played over half of Friday’s game with five defensemen after a hit from Alex Ovechkin ultimately knocked Mark Pysyk out of the game.

Early in the second period, Ovechkin attempted to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but it was swept away at the blue line back to Pysyk. Pysyk quickly chipped the puck away and then was on the receiving end of a hit from Ovechkin.

In real time, the hit did not appear to be a big one. It wasn't even the biggest hit Ovechkin delivered in the game, as in the third period he sent Aleksander Barkov flying with a shoulder hit. But Pysyk went down to the ice after the hit and left the game soon after.

After the game, Florida head coach Bob Boughner did not mince words.

“Pysyk got a high hit to the head,” he said.

When asked if he thought the league should review the hit, Boughner said, “I hope they do because if you see the replay, it's high. It's a head shot. And the league's trying to clamp down on that. Whether there's no call, I don't blame the refs. Maybe they missed it. That happens. But those are the kind of plays that need to be reviewed.”

Based on the replay, it is hard to determine if the principal point of contact was the head. Ovechkin does not launch himself, but does appear to take an upward trajectory into Pysyk. Still, it seems like a hard sell to say Ovechkin was targeting the head.

But the hit did send Pysyk out of the game, and in today’s NHL, when head hits are a big topic of conversation and when a player is injured on a play, the NHL has shown it takes those plays more seriously.

Pysyk returned to the game for one more shift after receiving the hit, but left the game after and did not return.

“Right now we're still getting him checked out, but we'll see more in the morning,” Boughner said.

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