Nationals

Falcons look to bounce back from dismal showing

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Falcons look to bounce back from dismal showing

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons finally played a stinker of a game.

They don't want it to become a habit.

Certainly not at this time of year.

The Falcons (11-2) already clinched the NFC South title but have struggled to win in the playoffs, so they are especially mindful of having some momentum going into this postseason.

``A lot of teams get hot at the right time. They can string a couple of wins together and carry that into the postseason,'' safety Thomas DeCoud said. ``On the other side of the coin, you definitely don't want to drop a couple of games going into the postseason, because that will be in the back of your mind and keep you from progressing in the postseason like you want to.''

The players normally get the day off after victories, so it was a rare Monday appearance for many of them at the team's suburban training complex. They studied film and met with the coaches, trying to figure out what went wrong in their worst performance of the season.

Atlanta lost to division rival Carolina 30-20 in a game that wasn't really that close. The last-place Panthers (4-9) raced to a 23-0 lead midway through the third quarter and were never seriously challenged.

``We didn't play up to our standards in any phase,'' coach Mike Smith said. ``The first thing you have to do is make the corrections from the tape of the game. Believe me, there were plenty of them in all three phases.''

After taking 24 hours to review their shoddy performance, the Falcons will turn their attention to hosting the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday. The New York Giants (8-5) are clinging to first in the NFC East and desperate for a win to stay in front of Washington and Dallas.

Last season, the Giants routed the Falcons in the opening round of the playoffs 24-2 - the third straight one-and-done postseason appearance for Atlanta since Smith took over in 2008.

These guys know they can't afford another postseason flop.

``The teams playing their best football at the end of the season are usually the teams that get to where they want to be in the last ballgame,'' Smith said.

For some reason, the Falcons looked totally flat against Carolina, a team going nowhere that played with a fire and passion totally missing on the Atlanta side. The Panthers took 28 of the first 34 snaps and built a 356-86 edge in total yards before the visiting team showed any sign of life.

At that point, it was far too late.

Smith was especially troubled by his team's dismal performance on third downs - both offensively and defensively. The Falcons converted just 2 of 8 times, while the Panthers came through on 9 of 15. That's why Carolina built a commanding edge in time of possession, holding the ball more than 10 1/2 minutes longer than Atlanta.

``We weren't the type of team we wanted to be, that's for sure,'' Smith said. ``You kind of get behind the eight ball when you can't get off the field on third down. We've got to be much better on both sides of the ball on third down.''

Despite their impressive record, the Falcons have struggled at times against seemingly inferior opponents, leading a number of pundits to speculate that the team is headed for more disappointment in the playoffs. Naturally, the loss to the Panthers stirred up even more doubts about Atlanta's ability to make a deep run in January.

DeCoud shrugged off the negativity.

``We can't be tuned into that type of stuff,'' he said. ``After a while, that stuff becomes a distraction.''

The Falcons know the skeptics will become even louder if they lose two in a row. Sure, they still have the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but that didn't do them a bit of good in 2010, when they were routed at home by the Green Bay Packers.

After losing to Carolina, Smith knows his team must send a clear signal to the rest of the league: Beware of Atlanta in the playoffs.

``It's very important,'' he said. ``There are a lot of things that are going to happen over the next four weeks that affect the Atlanta Falcons and affect probably eight or nine other teams in the league. That's what makes it fun. We've got to go out, first and foremost, and play our best football here in the fourth quarter'' of the season.

Obviously, that was the goal last week, as well.

``We've just got to move on,'' offensive guard Justin Blalock said. ``We have gotten to this point because of a certain mind-set. You have to have a short-term memory and hope there's not too many days like that one yesterday. But there's going to be some.''

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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 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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