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Bama's defense just as stingy despite NFL exodus

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Bama's defense just as stingy despite NFL exodus

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) That exodus of NFL talent hasn't made Alabama's defense any more generous.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide still leads the nation in run, pass, scoring and total defense - just like last season. In fact, the numbers are all slightly better than last year's national title group that drew speculation about whether it was `Bama's best.

The Alabama's doing it despite losing seven starters - three NFL first-rounders and four first-team All-Americans from the defense.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said it's just part of Nick Saban's assembly line of talent.

``They change jersey numbers, not guys,'' Dooley said on Monday. ``They sign the same guys every year, just different names. They draft. We recruit. And they get the first 25 picks of the draft.''

The Tide (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) undoubtedly faces its biggest defensive challenge in Saturday's visit to quarterback Tyler Bray and the Volunteers (3-3, 0-3). The Vols rank 22nd nationally in total offense and 24th in scoring, compared to average rankings of 69 and 77 among Alabama's first six opponents.

That doesn't make Alabama's stinginess much less impressive, even if the comparisons to past great defenses can wait.

The Tide held Missouri to 3 yards rushing last weekend and has five interceptions and eight sacks in the past two games.

Defensive end Damion Square attributes the success to how well young players like safeties HaHa Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri and linebacker Xzavier Dickson have stepped in for departed stars. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw were among the first 35 players selected in the draft.

``Those guys are playing excellent,'' Square said. ``It's not the guys who have been out on the field for a while and played a key role in this defense for a while, it's the guys that stepped in and took the place of Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. Those guys are playing great football and that's the reason our defense is playing the way it is.''

Linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Dee Milliner are veterans who have moved into starring roles. Mosley had 12 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery against Missouri to earn SEC defensive player of the week honors. Milliner and Ohio State's Bradley Roby are tied for the national lead with 14 passes defended, including 12 breakups and two interceptions.

The statistical wealth is mostly spread around beyond them. Four players have two interceptions apiece and only Mosley has topped 26 tackles.

``It's been a hard-working group,'' Saban said. ``They've had a really good attitude about what they want to try to do. I still think there's a lot of areas that we need to improve on. We're going to be challenged in a way that we've never been challenged by the quality of the offensive team that we're playing this week in their capabilities in the passing game as well as the balance they have running the ball.''

Collectively, the numbers are more impressive and stack up well to the 2011 group. Alabama has allowed 55.3 rushing yards a game, down from 72.2 last season; 81 passing yards (111.5); 7.5 points (8.2) and 181.1 yards on average (183.6).

Saban said he doesn't care about rankings and would just as soon change the subject, thank you.

``It only matters at the end, what was the whole body of work you could do on a consistent basis,'' he said. ``None of the rest of it matters. We're going to play a lot better teams, and a lot better offensive teams in the future. And we're going to be challenged in different ways. I'm concerned about reacting to those challenges properly. Not what we've done last week or the week before. So I'd appreciate it if we don't have to talk about that anymore. Where we're ranked, what we're doing or what we did. I'm looking at what we're going to do, if that's OK.''

It seems to be OK with Alabama players, who are more outspoken about what they're doing wrong than what they're doing well.

``That's instilled in us that you can always get better,'' linebacker Trey DePriest said. ``We haven't put together a perfect game yet. It's kind of unrealistic that we can put together a perfect game. It helps a lot, so we don't get complacent. There's no complacency. Each week we try to go out there and get better.''

---

AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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3 stars of the game: Caps save their season in physical win over Lightning

3 stars of the game: Caps save their season in physical win over Lightning

This one is going to go the distance.

The Washington Capitals staved off elimination on Monday with a 3-0 Game 6 win to force a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Andrei Vasilevskiy looked unbeatable for much of the game, but T.J. Oshie finally got one past the Lightning netminder on the Caps' first power play since the second period of Game 4. Devante Smith-Pelly finished them off with a third-period tally.

Game 7 will be on Wednesday with a spot in the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

Here are the three stars of Game 6.

1.  T.J. Oshie: Oshie scored the goal that saved Washington's season.

The Caps were doing everything right, but they just could not get one past Vasilevskiy. Finally, Oshie struck with a one-timer from the high-slot that just managed to beat Vasilevskiy.

Oshie also added an empty-netter to ice the game away.

We will never know how close frustration came to really wearing down Washington, but it probably came closer than you think. Just seconds before Oshie's goal, John Carlson rang a blistering slap shot off the inside of the post. It was so close, the horn went off briefly, but play continued. Had Washington not been able to finish off the power play, would they have recovered or would Vasilevskiy officially have Halaked them?

2. Andrei Vasilevskiy: Don't let the score fool you, Vasilevskiy was absolutely brilliant. He really stood out in the first period when he denied great chances again and again to keep the score locked at 0-0. You knew he was on his game when he denied a great chance from Alex Ovechkin from the slot with the blocker. His best save, however, was saved for Evgeny Kuznetsov when he was on the ice and desperately extended the arm just in time to deny Kuznetsov.

Vasilevskity made a total of 32 saves in the losing effort.

3. Braden Holtby: Though he was not tested as much as his counterpart, Holtby was equally as brilliant in his 24 save performance for his fifth career playoff shutout.

The Lightning made a real push in the second and third period and some key saves by Holtby ensured the Caps did not give up the first goal or the game-tying one. The most critical save came on Anthony Cirelli in the second period with the game still tied at 0-0. A Lightning 2-on-1 resulted with Cirelli coming in all alone on Holtby, but the Caps' netminder just managed to extend the toe for the save.

Smith-Pelly had seven goals in the regular season. he has four in the playoffs. Smith-Pelly put the exclamation point on the game with his third period goal to extend the Caps' lead to 2-0.  He was set up by a phenomenal pass by Chandler Stephenson.

It was clear from the outset that the Caps wanted to be very physical in this game and Smith-Pelly really took that message to heart with 

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

Juan Soto, the highly-regarded 19-year-old Nationals' prospect, got his first major league start of his career tonight. 

How did it go, you ask? Surely it would take Soto - who was in Single-A less than two weeks ago - some time to adjust? 

What were you doing at 19??

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.