Capitals

Falcons say 49ers' Kaepernick poses new challenge

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Falcons say 49ers' Kaepernick poses new challenge

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Michael Turner's trademark high-pitched laugh filled the Falcons' locker room.

Asked about San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Turner grinned Thursday and said ``I'm glad I'm not on defense.''

Turner, the big running back, and the Falcons' offense want to hold the ball and limit Kaepernick's time on the field in Sunday's NFC championship game.

The Falcons have seen enough in Kaepernick's eight starts to respect the versatile quarterback with the long stride and strong right arm.

Kaepernick comes to Atlanta after running for 181 yards - an NFL record for a quarterback - with two touchdowns in last week's win over Green Bay. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards with two touchdowns. He became only the third quarterback, after Otto Graham and Jay Cutler, to run and throw for at least two touchdowns in a postseason game.

It's little wonder the Falcons are impressed, even after facing such other dual-threat quarterbacks as Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson this season.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon says the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick is unique.

``I think he's just a different guy altogether,'' Weatherspoon said. ``He's a taller guy, obviously. He broke the record last week, so that makes him special and different. I think he has a lot more speed. Russell is more of a quick guy. Colin is a faster guy.''

Wilson and Griffin are scramblers. Kaepernick looks more like a 200-meter sprinter with his unusually long stride.

``That's the thing,'' Weatherspoon said. ``You look at him and you think long striders are not fast, but then you look and he's covering a lot of ground and passing a lot of people. You can tell he can run. Speed won't be a surprise to us. We've watched the tape. We'll be ready to go.''

The 49ers don't have to be told they'll bring an unusually gifted quarterback to the Georgia Dome. In only half of a season, Kaepernick has given the San Francisco offense a facelift.

``He's super-fast, athletic and he can throw the ball,'' said 49ers running back LaMichael James. ``Once he breaks the pocket he's always looking downfield. He's looking to throw the ball more than run the ball. But once he takes off, he's faster than a lot of running backs and linebackers. He's an incredible athlete.''

Kaepernick has avoided the big hits that have made it difficult for such other running quarterbacks as Griffin and Michael Vick to avoid injuries.

He said his strategy is ``Run where they're not.''

``You want to run away from where the defensive players are,'' Kaepernick said. ``When they get close, get down.''

The Falcons' defense has reason to worry about the matchup. Atlanta survived its 30-28 divisional playoff win over Seattle last week despite Wilson's fourth-quarter dominance. The Falcons led 27-7 at the start of the quarter but trailed 28-27 before winning on Matt Bryant's late 49-yard field goal.

Wilson passed for 385 yards with two touchdowns and led Seattle with 60 yards rushing and a touchdown.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said he is preparing for the 49ers' ``traditional offense that we're used to seeing'' as well as the pistol formation with read-option plays that Kaepernick ran in college at Nevada.

``We're going to have to be prepared to stop him,'' Smith said. ``We're going to see things we haven't seen in terms of what they'll do with their formations.''

Wilson found open room when he took off on long runs after first looking to pass. Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said Kaepernick shows more determination to run.

``With Kaepernick, I think once he tucks the ball he's looking to run,'' DeCoud said. ``There will be a few rare instances where he has his eyes looking downfield. More times than not, if he's dropping back and tucks the ball, he's taking off to run where Russell, he had his head up looking downfield and wasn't really looking to cross the line of scrimmage. He was just trying to buy time for his guys to get open.''

Kaepernick's big game last week earned him the promise of more attention from the Falcons defense.

``We definitely have to have somebody accounting for him,'' DeCoud said, adding defensive backs have to be ready to leave their assignments to help contain Kaepernick's runs.

``Last week we kind of bought into plastering the receivers if (Wilson) broke containment because of the fact he likes to find the open receivers,'' DeCoud said. ``This week, we'll have to be cognizant of maybe coming off coverage if he crosses the line of scrimmage to thwart him making a big play on us.''

Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said the one obstacle Kaepernick can't dodge with his speed is inexperience. Sunday's game will be Kaepernick's first playoff game on the road.

``You've got to get in his mind and change the looks up on him,'' Peterson said. ``He's a great quarterback, doing a lot of good things for his team, but the common denominator is that he's still a young quarterback.

``He can't run from that.''

NOTES: Smith said CB Christopher Owens (hamstring), who hasn't played since Dec. 22, ``looked well-rested and recovered from his injury'' in practice. ... DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) and DE John Abraham (left ankle) had limited participation in practice for the second straight day.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

John F. writes: Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky's career goals record? What will it take?

It will take 237 more goals.

OK, but what does that mean exactly? Ovechkin will turn 34 before the start of the season. Let’s say he plays seven more seasons and retires when he is 40. He would have to average 34 goals per year to do that.

That seems doable for Ovechkin, but you have to remember that Father Time is undefeated. At some point the production will decrease. You also have to wonder if he will even play that long. That’s no guarantee. If he does, it would be hard for him to return to Russia to play in the KHL, which many believe he would want to do given his outspoken pride for his home country.

For this to be a realistic possibility, it is going to require at least one more 45-50 goal season and probably another 40 goal season on top of that. He is going to have to get a good chunk of goals this year while he is still productive because eventually he is not going to be able to score 50 goals anymore. Then he won’t be able to score 40, and so on.

I can’t sit here and tell you that it is impossible because Ovechkin keeps redefining what is possible for a goal scorer over 30. Having said that, I still am not willing to say I think he will do it. Considering we all marvel at what he has been able to do the last two seasons and he still sits over 200 goals away, I still have my money on the Great One keeping his record.

Blake B. writes: The Capitals appear to have addressed all of their necessities this offseason (i.e. filling their 3rd and 4th lines, unloading salary and making tough but necessary trades). What are the biggest question marks, uncertainties and holes entering the 2019-2020 season?

There are a few and some of your fellow readers asked about them as well this week. For me, depth offense is a concern. The Caps got only five goals from their bottom-six in seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes. One goal was an empty-netter, one was a penalty shot and the remaining three came from Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, who are both gone. Offensively, the team did not get better, so where are those goals going to come from? More on this later.

Players like Connolly and Burakovsky provided injury insurance. Both players could plug into the top-six in case of injury. Hagelin and Panik now look like those players, but both look like offensive downgrades in that respect.

On defense, the team looks pretty set assuming Nick Jensen can handle a top-four role. I wrote about this as part of our “Burning Questions" series we are currently running. The team’s defense truly hinges on Jensen. If he plays well, you have a clear top-four with an upgraded bottom pair thanks to the acquisition of Gudas. If Jensen does not play well, you have a major hole on the blue line and no clear candidate to fill it, plus a defenseman with three more years on his contract after this season.

And then there is the power play. Brian MacLellan focused on defense in the offseason, so the team should be improved in that area and on the penalty kill. The sacrifice was losing some offensive depth, but you can potentially make that up if the team rebounds on the power play. More on this later too.

Ben C. writes: Our bottom-six seems to be better defensively now. How do you think they will contribute offensively?

I also wrote about this very subject for our “Burning Questions” series. Hagelin is a very versatile player, but offense is not his strong suit. He managed only five goals and 19 total points last season. He has never scored 20 goals in any season of his career and has reached 30 points only once in the past five years. Eller has tallied 38 and 36 points in each of the past two seasons, the best two seasons of his career. But, like Hagelin, he has never scored 20 goals at any point in his career. Panik scored 20 goals only once in 2016-17 when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he totaled 14 goals and 19 assists.

Simply put, there is no way a third line of Hagelin, Eller and Panik will produce as much offensively as the third line did last year. The good news, however, is that If the team improved defensively as much as they hope, they shouldn’t need to.

Ben R. writes: Do you anticipate any changes to how the PP gets run this year considering how inconsistent it was last year either a new scheme or different personnel?

The obvious glaring issue with the power play last season was zone entry, so fingers crossed that this will lead the team to scrap the horrendous slingshot which doesn’t work and is ugly to watch. Considering so many other teams utilize it as well, however, I am doubtful they will, but one can hope.

I wonder if Tom Wilson will see more time in T.J. Oshie’s spot in the slot. Wilson does not play that spot as well as Oshie does, but if the team does move on from the slingshot, then the dump-in may be more common and you need that bigger body to fight for the pucks in the corners and behind the goal line to keep possession.

Really, everything depends on how the team decides to fix its zone entry problem. If it remains status quo, then I do not see any changes. If they finally realize how awful the slingshot truly is, then you have to work on a new method for zone entry and put together the best personnel to operate it.

Chas L. writes: With T.J. Oshie possibly looking at less playing time on the third line, is it time for the Caps to bring up a prospect or two? With all the new free agent additions, the Caps all together have gotten a lot older age wise. Would it hurt to maybe push down players like Lars Eller and Oshie and bring up some young prospects?

A few things. First, moving Oshie down to the third line was more realistic before they lost so much offensive depth. I have written on this topic before about how I believe reducing Oshie’s minutes would be beneficial given his playing style, but I am not sure how realistic an option this is when the two candidates to replace him would be Hagelin and Panik.

Hagelin’s offense is a bit too limited for me to put him in the top-six when the team is at full strength. He is a solid replacement player if there is an injury in the top-six, but otherwise that is not ideal. Panik, on the other hand, is an unknown coming in as a free agent.

Second, bringing in prospects is a great option if you have prospects ready to make the jump. The Caps do not think they do and they showed that with all the depth signings they made in the offseason. You do not sign Panik or Garnet Hathaway for four years if you think Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Shane Gersich are going to be taking their jobs at the start of the season.

MacLellan was probably hoping more prospects would be ready for the NHL as they would have been cheap replacements for the players lost, but I am not sure anyone is ready to make that jump yet.

Third, part of the appeal of pushing Oshie to the third line, if that was still a realistic possibility, would be to play him with Eller. They have great chemistry together and this would be a formidable third line. Pushing Eller to the fourth not only would push Nic Dowd out of the lineup, but it would also waste Eller’s skill. There comes a point where a team can have too much depth and it becomes a waste. If Washington had several home-grown centers knocking on the door, trading Eller would be a more realistic possibility. As of now, however, that is not the case.

John F. writes: Not to go full-Don Cherry, but is the lack of "good Canadian boys" on the team a concern? (For the record: I don't think it is).

No. Where players are from is completely irrelevant. It is foolish and I would argue racist to think having one specific nationality is the key to winning. I can take Don Cherry’s “old man yelling at clouds” takes because those are harmless. His blind support of all things Canadian while downplaying players of other nationalities, however, is infuriating to me.

Cherry may want to believe the Caps won the Stanley Cup because of Tom Wilson and Braden Holtby, but this completely ignores the all-time great Russian who won the Conn Smythe, a Russian who led the team in scoring, a future Hall of Fame Swedish center, a top defensive pairing with an American and a Czech and a Dane who scored the Cup clinching goal.

This is a ridiculous sentiment that for some reason lingers in Canada, where no team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, but I am sure that is just because none of those teams had enough Canadian players.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Mike Rizzo provides an injury update on Max Scherzer

Mike Rizzo provides an injury update on Max Scherzer

After being placed on the 10-day injured list with a mid-back strain, Max Scherzer is supposed to come off of the IL by Saturday in time for the Nationals' third game of their series against the Atlanta Braves.

When he will actually pitch, is another question.

On Tuesday, Scherzer reportedly told manager Davey Martinez he's feeling "a lot better." Nationals GM Mike Rizzo followed up those comments during his spot on The Sports Junkies Wednesday.

"If he’s capable of pitching he will," Rizzo said.

Rizzo told the Junkies that he will find out more information about Scherzer's status prior to Wednesday's final game against the Baltimore Orioles. He said he, in conjunction with the Nationals' medical personnel, made the decision to place Scherzer on the 10-day IL.

“He was incapable of pitching the way Max Scherzer pitches so we all decided to put him on the IL," Rizzo said.

Scherzer was scheduled to start against the Braves this weekend, but the decision will depend on how Scherzer feels.

‘We’re still in July," Rizzo said. "Guarantee you this: If this is September and we needed this win, you couldn’t keep Max off the mound. Sometimes I have to be the adult in the room and just say, ‘sorry, buddy, not this time.”

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