Nationals

Falcons know they can't afford mistakes vs. Brees

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Falcons know they can't afford mistakes vs. Brees

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons are ready to prove they aren't defenseless against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

Since Brees joined the Saints in 2006, Atlanta is 2-10 in the NFC South series, and the Falcons know why.

Brees hasn't just beaten Atlanta with his right arm. His footwork, field vision and game preparation are just as lethal.

``That's why we've got to finish plays,'' Falcons safety William Moore said. ``That's the biggest thing. You will think the play's over, and Drew will step up and hit something big.''

Maybe when the Falcons (8-0) visit New Orleans (3-5) on Sunday, Atlanta will have a better chance at success now that Mike Nolan is their first-year defensive coordinator.

Atlanta has dropped three straight in the series, and its blowout loss in Week 16 last December at the Superdome was one reason the Falcons weren't exactly disappointed when Nolan's predecessor, Brian VanGorder, left for Auburn.

Nolan, now in his 14th year as an NFL coordinator, says that Brees not only has great players around him, but adds that the record-setting quarterback is also blessed with an elite intangible - pocket presence.

Nolan respects Brees' innate ability to avoid sacks and pressure by knowing which way the pocket is moving while keeping his eyes downfield.

``Whether it's to step up or move to the left or the right and to avoid it when a guy's coming, he's not looking at you,'' Nolan said. ``The good ones look down the field. They're not thinking about all the stuff going on around them, but they have an ability to kind of move where the pocket allows them to stay alive. He does a great job with that.''

This season started out tough for Brees in the pocket. With coach Sean Payton suspended for the season and unable to help New Orleans correct its protection problems, Brees was sacked an uncharacteristically high 12 times in the first five games.

During the last three games, however, Brees has been sacked a combined three times. Not surprisingly, the Saints have won two of three.

Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is planning on Sunday's matchup being as tough as any Atlanta's defense will face. He remembers a 2010 loss at the Georgia Dome in which the Falcons had 10 free runs at Brees, but finished with just one sack.

``His pocket presence is better than most quarterbacks we've faced this year, so it will be a challenge for us and particularly our young guys, Babineaux said. ``Our hands are going to be full.''

Under Nolan, Atlanta is hardly conventional with its schemes, dropping defensive ends deep in coverage, using a four-man front with three defensive tackles, moving four-time Pro Bowl end John Abraham from side to side and deploying disguised blitzes.

Despite his impressive numbers in 12 series games - eight 300-yard games and 10 games with at least two touchdowns - Brees expects to see some different looks from the Falcons.

``Even though it's a new system, everybody does their offseason study,'' Brees said. ``They might acquire a guy here and there that brings a different strength. You definitely can see some new twists to what they're doing. They're playing extremely well.''

In winning their third straight over Atlanta last December, the Saints kept Brees on the field in the fourth quarter of a blowout victory at the Superdome. By finishing the game, Brees set the NFL single-season record for yards passing.

Far worse for the Falcons was getting knocked out the division race. They had to settle for a wild-card playoff berth and were crushed two weeks later at the New York Giants.

DeCoud said Atlanta won't focus on the past. There's too much at stake, particularly having to cover New Orleans' route combinations in which they might send Devery Henderson and Lance Moore deep, send Graham over the middle, have Colston on a slant pattern and running back Pierre Thomas ready for a screen or short pass in the flats.

``On first and second down, they'll try a tricky play-action and steal something over the top, but then on third down they get into their concepts,'' DeCoud said. ``If you study enough film - and even games that aren't in our breakdown of what we're given this week - you can get a feel for what they're going to do.''

But just because they know what's coming doesn't necessarily help the Falcons.

``Our hands are going to be full,'' Babineaux said. ``We just have to make sure we wrap up. He's very slick. He can move around and get away from a lot of pressure. We've got to make sure when we're there that we wrap up and get that sack.''

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Follow George Henry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ghenryAP

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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