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Falcons secondary gets big boost from backups

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Falcons secondary gets big boost from backups

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Robert McClain was one of those offseason signings that hardly anyone notices.

A seventh-round draft pick, he had already been cut by two teams when he caught on with the Atlanta Falcons.

The 5-foot-9 cornerback turned out to be a steal.

McClain has been a huge part of the Falcons' injury plagued secondary, which lost star cornerback Brent Grimes in the very first game and is now dealing with Asante Samuel's ailing right shoulder.

``He looks like a first-round pick to me,'' Atlanta safety William Moore said Wednesday. ``Dude can play some ball.''

McClain has broken up eight passes, which is tied for second on the team behind Samuel, and has allowed the Falcons to carry on just fine with their plan at the beginning of the year - to have three cornerbacks on the field in most situations, teaming with Samuel (when healthy) and Dunta Robinson. The Falcons (11-1) have already clinched the NFC South championship and are in prime position to lock up home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

Atlanta travels to Carolina (3-9) on Sunday.

Back in January, when the Falcons signed McClain shortly after their first-round playoff loss to the Giants, Moore got a tip from secondary coach Tim Lewis:

Keep an eye on this guy.

``I could tell he's a heck of an athlete,'' Moore said. ``Coach Lewis gave us the heads up before he came in. He said, `We got us a steal right there.' From day one, Robert stepped in there and just took over. He's been lights out already, and I know for sure he's going to get better down the stretch.''

McClain caught the eye of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan from the first day of training camp.

``He's kind of a quieter guy on the field,'' Ryan said. ``But he makes plays. That's one thing that stuck out to everybody in training camp. When you went against him, he didn't back down from anybody. He's got this quiet confidence to him.''

McClain made the team, but was inactive for the opener at Kansas City. That's when Grimes, perhaps the team's best cornerback, went down with an Achilles' injury.

``There's always going to be injuries on a team every year, but you don't expect it to be that early in the season,'' McClain said. ``It was sad to see that happen. Grimes is a great player. I learned a lot just being around him during the offseason.''

Those lessons clearly paid off. McClain dressed out the following week and broke up one of Peyton Manning's passes in a victory over Denver. McClain has played a major role ever since.

Just don't expect the 24-year-old to get complacent. Not after being cut by both Carolina and Jacksonville early in his career.

``I'm always going to have that hunger,'' McClain said. ``Nothing is guaranteed. You've got to keep working hard every day, keep showing the coaches and the other players that you can play.''

McClain isn't the only cornerback to make a surprising contribution.

Last week, Samuel was knocked out of the game early by his lingering shoulder injury, forcing Christopher Owens to play an expanded role in the secondary. Though largely a disappointment during his four-year career, he broke up two passes and made three tackles against Drew Brees and the high-scoring New Orleans Saints, a huge contributor in the 23-13 victory.

``I'm not getting too high,'' said Owens, who was a third-round pick in 2009 but has mainly been limited to special teams. ``I've had some growing pains. I'm still having them. I'm not perfect. But it's a beginning.''

The Falcons are just thankful to have more depth in the secondary than even they realized at the beginning of the season.

With the cornerbacks locking down things on the outside, the safeties are able to freelance more in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system. Both are having the sort of seasons that will likely lead to Pro Bowl consideration. Thomas DeCoud has a team-high five interceptions, while Moore leads in tackles (105) and has four picks.

``We have not missed a step,'' DeCoud said. ``Everybody is really comfortable with each other. We all get along very well. That allows a guy who hasn't gotten many reps to come in and feel comfortable with the guys around him. That's a testament not only to their talent but our camaraderie as a secondary.''

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New set of injuries leaves Redskins offensive depth chart in shambles

New set of injuries leaves Redskins offensive depth chart in shambles

At the onset of the 2018 NFL season, few expected Josh Doctson and Jordan Reed to be among the most healthy players on the Redskins.

Both players dealt with injuries in their early careers, and had spotty training camp attendance in Richmond. And yet, 12 games into a season littered with other offensive injuries, Reed and Doctson had been largely healthy. 

That changed in Sunday's thumping from the Giants. Reed strained his big toe, and might not return this season. It's particularly alarming to hear of as he had surgery on both feet last offseason. Doctson landed in concussion protocol after the Giants game, and his status will be updated Wednesday at practice. 

The Redskins offense had not been productive with Reed and Doctson in the lineup, let alone out of it. Reed will certainly be out for Sunday's game in Jacksonville, and Doctson will be somebody to watch. 

With these latest injuries, it's almost impossible to come up with a real depth chart for the offense. Here goes:

QB: Josh Johnson, Mark Sanchez, Colt McCoy
Note: Seriously, these are the QBs. McCoy is not healthy enough to play but the team is not placing him on season ending IR yet either.

RB: Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson, Byron Marshall, Kapri Bibbs, Samaje Perine
Note: Against New York, Marshall landed on the active roster ahead of Bibbs. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but not much this season has. 

WR: Jamison Crowder, Maurice Harris, Michael Floyd, Jehu Chesson
Note: With Doctson possibly out with a concussion, the Redskins don’t have enough WRs for the Jags game. If that happens, expect Simmie Cobbs to get called up from the practice squad. Darvin Kidsy is another option.

TE: Vernon Davis, Jeremy Sprinkle
Note: With Reed out the Redskins will likely call up J.P. Holtz from the practice squad. Matt Flanagan is another practice squad option, but he projected to be a fullback. Seeing as the third tight end plays a decent amount of snaps in the Redskins offense and special teams, the organization might look outside the team for help if Reed gets put to the injured reserve. 

OL: Trent Williams, Chase Roullier, Morgan Moses, Tony Bergstrom, Luke Bowanko, Zac Kerin, Austin Howard, Ty Nsekhe, Kyle Fuller 
Note: The Redskins really hope Bergstrom can get back on the field this week as the Austin Howard guard experiment went poorly. The team just added Fuller on Tuesday. 

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Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- The stars came out for the Capitals on Tuesday night. 

There was Alex Ovechkin continuing his marvelous age-33 season with a hat trick, his first since Nov. 25, 2017. Nicklas Backstrom had four more assists. That’s his second four-point game in six games. T.J. Oshie returned from an 11-game absence (concussion) and scored on the power play. Evgeny Kuznetsov set up two goals. 

Anything else?

It all added up to a 6-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings and Washington is rolling. With that kind of firepower why wouldn’t it be? The Caps have won 11 of their past 14 games. At 18-9-3 and with 39 points, Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division and has a chance to build on that lead with five of its final eight games of 2018 at home. 

It didn’t hurt that the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets coughed up a 2-1 lead to the Vancouver Canucks at home Tuesday, allowing two goals in the final five minutes to lose 3-2 in regulation. The Blue Jackets are stuck on 34 points and suddenly the Capitals have a five-point lead in the division. 

“The season is all progress,” Backstrom said. “You keep building your team getting all the roles intact. Lately the last couple of games we’ve been playing good hockey, we’ve been playing with a lot of speed, we’ve been playing quick. That’s when we’re hard to play against, I think.”

The recent hot streak starts with Ovechkin, in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. It was his 126th multi-goal game and he passed former Washington forward Dino Ciccarelli (125) for the 11th-most in league history.

“I’ll take it,” Ovechkin said. “Couple lucky goals.”

Ovechkin has points in 12 straight games (13 goals, six assists) and 18 of his 19 points during that stretch have come at even strength – with admittedly a few empty-net tallies tossed in for good measure. He extended his NHL lead to 25 goals – four ahead of Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point (21).  

If Ovechkin records a point against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday he will tie his career best of 13 games set between Dec. 30, 2006 and Feb. 1, 2007. That was the year before this incredible run of sustained success began with Washington’s first playoff berth in the Ovechkin era. They didn’t even wear red uniforms back then. Ovechkin ranks eighth in points (38) in the NHL through 30 games. 

“I don’t watch much hockey so I can only go off the years I’ve been here but he’s playing outstanding,” Oshie said.

“At that level that he got himself to last year right at the start of the year … he’s really just kept building off that. It’s fun being on this side of that when Big O is going like that. It’s a privilege to play with him out there and you think maybe there are not other ways he can kind of amaze you and wow you but there was another example tonight.”

Last year, he didn’t get to 39 points until Dec. 30, which was game No. 40. He had three assists that night against the New Jersey Devils and ended that game at 41 points. He didn’t get to 25 goals until a Jan. 2 game against Carolina, which was Game No. 41. Ovechkin finished with 87 points (49 goals, 38 assists) and is well ahead of that pace and halfway to his magic number of 50.   

“The age he's at to still continue to not only want to get better, but to be able to,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said.

“After just the way he's played the game with such a physical presence and the energy he has and the size he is, it's not easy. He's been great in our room, the leadership is really stepped up for me, the best I've seen him lead in our room during the regular season. And then his overall play is following right along with it. I know some other years statistically have been better, but for me it's his best two-way hockey that he's played.” 

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