Nationals

Bama's aura of invincibility gone after near-miss

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Bama's aura of invincibility gone after near-miss

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Now it's out of Alabama's hands.

The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide has not only lost that aura of invincibility that seemed to surround Nick Saban's team through eight games and the final two minutes against LSU, but surrendered control of its fate in the national title derby. No. 9 Texas A&M made sure of that with Johnny Manziel's dazzling performance and a goal line stand in Saturday's 29-24 upset.

Bama (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) fell three spots from its nearly season-long perch atop the rankings and now must hope for some sort of shakeup among No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 Notre Dame.

The word of the night from Saban was ``recommit,'' and he used it several times after the game. The Tide nearly duplicated its last-minute game-winning drive of the previous week against LSU, but still had plenty of issues that had seldom crept up against lesser competition.

``I was really concerned about this week,'' Saban said. ``We seemed like we were a little bit out of gas, and Texas A&M is a really good team and they played really, really well. Their quarterback's a really fantastic player and made some plays that were great plays out there. And you have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to play a guy like that, and there were times when we didn't quite get it done the way we'd like to.

``I think our players will recommit themselves and do the things that they need to do to finish the season the right way, and hopefully have an opportunity to accomplish something of significance with this particular team,'' Saban said.

Alabama does still control its own fate in the SEC, but has little chance in the next two games to make a statement for poll voters or the BCS computers. Next up is a visit from Western Carolina, a 1-9 FCS team. Then comes Auburn (2-8, 0-7 SEC).

A win over the Tigers puts the Tide into the SEC championship game against No. 5 Georgia on Dec. 1. Alabama had trailed only 15 seconds through eight games. Saban pointed out that his 2003 national champion LSU team lost 19-7 to Florida and last year's Tide team dropped a 9-6 overtime decision to LSU.

Alabama's offense has been inconsistent the past two games, with performances that went from sputtering to fantastic faster than Saban can scowl. Quarterback AJ McCarron pulled off a dramatic last-gasp rescue in Baton Rouge but was picked off at the goal line - his second of the game and the season - trying to do it again.

The defense has been vulnerable, too, even though Alabama and Notre Dame yield the nation's fewest points. Bama has allowed 435 and 418 yards against LSU and Texas A&M (8-2, 5-2) but still made a stop at the end that would have forced a punt except for an offsides penalty.

``We really had a lot of undisciplined, missed assignments, not playing with the kind of discipline you have to play with, especially against their quarterback, `` Saban said.

Whatever sliver of an opening the Tide allowed, Manziel squirted through it. He passed for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 92 yards, while completing 21 of his first 22 passes.

Manziel led touchdown drives on the Aggies' first three possessions against a team that had outscored opponents 104-6 in the opening quarter. He might have left Tuscaloosa a solid Heisman Trophy candidate, he definitely left with Alabama's respect.

``That's the kind of player he is,'' Saban said. ``The players have to know that they have to contain him, that he's going to scramble, that he's elusive and he's instinctive in the pocket, and he's also fast. So if you get pushed by the quarterback, which we did once on third down, if you don't stay in your pass rush lane, he's going out the gate. We adjusted to that, because he must have had 50 yards rushing in the first quarter.''

In fact, he ran for 74 and passed for a touchdown on a play when he bobbled the ball in a crowd before rolling away from the pressure. The Aggies also converted their first seven third-down attempts, including that 10-yard TD pass to Ryan Swope and Manziel's 32-yard scamper into Tide territory in the first quarter.

``Zero-for-seven in the beginning of the game on third down kept every one of their drives alive, led to points,'' Saban said. ``We played better as the game went on, but we still didn't make the plays that we needed to make.''

McCarron passed for 201 of his 309 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 50-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper and a 54-yarder to Kenny Bell on the final drive that set up first down from the 6 before the fourth-down interception.

``Everybody needs to recommit themselves to playing better, being a little more consistent, and being somebody that they can trust us, we're going to put them in a good situation,'' Saban said.

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Washington Nationals second half preview

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Washington Nationals second half preview

The second half of the 2018 MLB season gets underway tonight, and the Nats find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture right now

In order for them to get past the Braves, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, etc., a number of things will have to go right in D.C. over the next 65-ish games.

A few questions will be hanging over the franchise these next few months, so to help break down what to look for during the Nats’ second half, I enlisted some fellow NBC Sports Washington writers to help me out, roundtable-style.

Without further ado, here are some second-half predictions.

Contributors:

Ryan Wormeli - @RyanWarmly
Cam Ellis - @KingsleyEllis
Michaela Johnson - @mjohnson262
Tyler Byrum - @theTylerByrum

Most important player in the second half:

Ryan Wormeli: Stephen Strasburg.

Everyone knows Max Scherzer is going to dominate as the Nats’ ace, and everyone knows Bryce Harper will hit home runs. In fact, assuming health, everyone knows the team will be pretty good at most spots. Strasburg, however, is the one that can take the Nats, to quote former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, from “good to great.” If he’s elite as their number two starter, this team is making the playoffs. Book it.

Cam Ellis: Bryce Harper.

Michaela Johnson: Bryce Harper, in the sense that it’s critical he gets hot again. Hopefully, his Home Run Derby win sparks something.

Tyler Byrum: Gio Gonzalez. 

There are a couple of ways to look at this. Of course, Bryce Harper needs to be better and Stephen Strasburg has to come back fully healthy from the disabled list for them to even have a chance. Even if those two do that though, it probably will not be enough to make a climb in the division. 

Last year Gonzalez had easily the second-best season of his career. With a 15-9 record and a 2.96 ERA in 2017, Gonzalez could easily be a No. 2 pitcher on half of the teams in the major. This season his ERA is sitting at 3.72 and has only won six of the 19 games he started. More than just looking at his stats, his outings are short too, making it to the seventh inning only three times this year. Additionally, the two-time All-Star is on pace to strike out the fewest batters this season than in the past decade.

Max Scherzer will get the Nationals a win once a week, hopefully Strasburg will get it done too, but Gonzalez is the Wild Card.

Nationals X-factor:

Ryan: An X-factor is someone whose play can dramatically impact the team’s success. If they’re successful, the team wins. If they play poorly, the team suffers.

This can apply to a number of players on the Nats, but I’m going to go with Juan Soto. He’s already exceeded expectations all season long, and helped keep the team afloat. They probably wouldn’t be within shouting distance of the postseason without the young phenom.

If Soto maintains his abnormally strong play while the rest of the team gets it going, the ceiling on this team is higher than any in the National League besides maybe the Dodgers and Cubs. If not, then they can still be okay, but probably not good enough.

Cam: Stephen Strasburg.

Michaela: Daniel Murphy. Since returning from injury he’s been solid, batting .324 in July. Davey Martinez has good discretion when it comes to resting vs. playing guys coming off injury, and I foresee a strong comeback for Murphy.

Tyler: Bryce Harper.

This is Harper’s team and it always will be with him on the roster. Yes, that .214 batting average is not going to win him a pennant, but Harper is so much more to this team. The 2018 Home Run Derby champion has to bring the fire to the Nationals night-in and night-out, whether or not he is able to get hits on the board. 

Some people want to question his leadership ability (we’re not going to touch that topic), but he needs to inspire his guys in the clubhouse.

Show us the Harper that we saw at the derby, even with a poor batting average, and we’ll see a different team out on the field in the second half.

Will the Nationals make the playoffs?

Ryan: I’m actually very on the fence about this question. I’m going to say yes, but it’s like 51-49. I just am too impressed with the Braves and Phillies, and the latter especially seems keen on making an aggressive move at the trade deadline.

Cam: Yes, BUT it'll be the wild card game at Nats Park and extremely stressful.

Michaela: If I was making a call based on what we’ve seen in the first half, obviously not. But I have high expectations for the second half based on a Harper resurgence and Murph recovery, so I’m going to say yes.

Tyler: Yes. There is too much talent on this roster for them not to. With Strasburg coming back it will be more than just Scherzer dealing out there. The Philadelphia Phillies should cool down at some point too and it will be a two-headed race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves for the division.

More likely scenario: Bryce Harper is traded at the deadline OR he signs a long term extension in D.C.

Ryan: I figure everyone will say he signs a long term extension, and I’m not going to swim against the current here. It’s highly, highly unlikely that he’s traded at the deadline, but given the national conversation surrounding his future in the nation’s capital, I thought it was at least worth asking.

Cam: Signs an extension this offseason.

Michaela: He signs an extension, based solely on this quote.

Tyler: Signs extension. There is no way the Nationals will trade the leader of the team and the guy that just won the Home Run Derby on his own field. Sure it is fun to debate but that is the last thing that this clubhouse needs at this moment. 

On Monday night he showed his power and just why he is worth the lucrative extension.

However, trading Harper would be a typical case of #DCSports.

Who leads the Nats in batting average in the second half?

Ryan: Daniel Murphy. If he was never hurt entering the season, he could very well have been the betting favorite to lead the team in average all season long. He’s far enough removed from the Disabled List at this point to feel comfortable taking a shot on his pure hitting talent.

Cam: Anthony Rendon

Michaela: Juan Soto

Tyler: Trea Turner. He is due for a turnaround and none of the pressure is on him. There might also be some extra juice after his All-Star team snubbing. 

Biggest/most important trade deadline acquisition

Ryan: Going to go out on a limb here and say the Nats in a bit of a panic move but one that’s completely defensible, do what it takes to pry JT Realmuto away from the woeful Marlins.

Cam: Another starting pitcher. It's Matt Harvey Time!

Michaela: *fingers crossed* Starting pitching.

Tyler: Manny Machado, Dodgers. This is a no-brainer. Once written off a decimated by injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back to being a World Series contender once again. Sitting at the top of the division, with no one in the National League pulling away, Machado will put the Dodgers back as the team to chance.

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Need to Know: The best cornerbacks the Redskins will face in 2018

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Need to Know: The best cornerbacks the Redskins will face in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Friday, July 20, six days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The five best cornerbacks the Redskins will face in 2018

This week we’ll be looking at the best of what the Redskins will face during the 2018 season. Today the cornerbacks are up. They are roughly ranked by Pro Football Focus’ coverage metrics, although I did some juggling based on interception totals and other factors. Prior to this, we looked at the best teamsreceivers, running backspass rushers, and quarterbacks

1. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals—The athletic Peterson has been All-Pro three times and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven years in the league. He hasn’t had a big interception total since he got seven in 2012, but that is mostly because quarterbacks only throw his way about once every ten snaps he is in coverage. 

2. Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars—I could easily have ranked Ramsey over Peterson. I went with Peterson because he’s been doing it for longer and he’s only 28. Ramsey has justified his No. 5 selection in the 2016 draft. His long arms and ball skills serve him well. He has the size to defend the bigger receivers and the athleticism to be effective against shifty and speedy receivers. 

3. A.J. Bouye, Jaguars—If Alex Smith tries to throw away from Ramsey he will encounter trouble on the other side. It’s been trendy to say that Bouye is underrated for so long he’s in danger of becoming overrated. But he’s not there yet. Bouye was one of four full-time (played at least 60% of snaps) cornerbacks who did not allow a touchdown pass last year and he had by far the most plays in coverage. 

4. Malcolm Butler, Titans—If the Brady-Belichick Patriots don’t win another Super Bowl, the coach’s decision to keep Butler on the bench as Nick Foles shredded the New England secondary will be marked as the end of that era. Maybe Butler isn’t good enough to have made a difference, but it would have been interesting to see. He’s with the Titans now and he will give Smith problems in December. 

5. Marshon Lattimore, Saints—Last year’s defensive rookie of the year plays an aggressive style both in press man coverage and when tackling receivers who have caught the ball. An ankle injury sent him out of the game against the Redskins early, perhaps one of the reasons why Kirk Cousins was able to light them up for 322 yards and three touchdowns. 

Best of the rest: Desmond Trufant, Falcons; Brent Grimes, Bucs; Logan Ryan, Titans;k Jaire Alexander (rookie), Packers

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline 

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 6
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 20
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 43

The Redskins last played a game 201 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 51 days. 

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