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Griffen giving Vikings another solid pass rusher

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Griffen giving Vikings another solid pass rusher

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) The Minnesota Vikings weren't sure if they could count on Everson Griffen after two spotty seasons, despite the potential he flashed as a pass rusher.

After two games as a nearly-every-down defensive end, Griffen's progress has been clarified. With personal growth through a tragic experience, some technique improvement and a recent chance for more playing time, Griffen has proven his worth and helped strengthen the Minnesota defense at a critical time.

``You've got to take full advantage of the opportunity, and that's all I did,'' Griffen said after practice Friday. ``Just showing them that they can trust in me and that I'm accountable. When your number is called, you have to be ready to play and go in there and perform.''

Brian Robison sprained his right shoulder early in the Dec. 16 victory at St. Louis, so Griffen was promoted from his nickel-package role to the base defense. He returned an interception for a touchdown, showing remarkable athleticism to catch the ball cleanly and maneuver toward the end zone, and had three quarterback hurries. In the win on Sunday at Houston, Griffen had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss.

``One day I will be a starter in the NFL and once that happens I will take full advantage. I'm happy for my progress and just to help this team,'' Griffen said. ``Whatever I can do - inside, outside, whatever - I'm here for the cause and I'm down with the Minnesota Vikings.''

Griffen fell to the fourth round in the 2010 draft, coming out of USC after his junior year. He was hampered by a turf-toe injury and inconsistent performance, but Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell also described Griffen at the time as a guy who ``enjoyed the college life a little bit.'' With Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison ahead of him, Griffen played sparingly on defense and mostly on special teams coverage as a rookie.

That winter, he was arrested for an alleged assault on a police officer in Los Angeles during a scuffle that ensued from a traffic stop, though a felony charge was not pursued by authorities.

In 2011, Griffen's playing time increased. He had four sacks, four tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries, becoming the primary backup to Allen and Robison after the departure of Edwards. But he was still prone to untimely penalties, and his main value remained on special teams.

With Allen and Robison entrenched in their starting spots, the Vikings experimented in training camp with Griffen at linebacker, but that ended quickly when both parties determined there wasn't a fit. With assistance from new defensive line coach Brendan Daly, Griffen adjusted his hand placement to improve his pass-rush moves. He devoted himself to more film study. And, after the sudden death of his mother in October, Griffen took another step forward in his maturation.

``He's come so far,'' coach Leslie Frazier said. ``Being able to manage his free time, understanding what it means to be a pro and act like a pro, both at practice and in games as well, and off the field. He's one of those guys, as we speak, that has really bought in to the right way of doing things.''

Griffen has the quickness to excel at his position. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams, looking at video of the players he inherited soon after he was hired before this season, recalled watching Griffen in action for the first time.

``There was a blur going across the screen and I was thinking, `Is that a linebacker? Is that a safety running across the field?''' Williams said. ``And I went back and forth a couple of times and I got my program out and looked at it, and it was Everson Griffen. I looked at his height and weight and I was thinking, `Wow, we have something here.'''

Griffen has moved to defensive tackle in the nickel scheme when opponents are likely to pass, with Letroy Guion coming out. He also gives Allen and Robison breaks from time to time at end. With Robison questionable to play this Sunday against Green Bay, Griffen is certain to see significant time on the field again. His greatest value is being able to drop back in coverage on zone-blitz calls or get to the quarterback on a rush just as quickly.

``I knew they could count on me from the very beginning, but I proved to them that they really can now,'' Griffen said. ``It's a good feeling. I just want to go out there and keep on improving and helping this team win. That's all I want to do.''

NOTES: CB Antoine Winfield was listed as questionable with knee and hand soreness. RB Adrian Peterson, who has been bothered by an abdominal injury, was listed as probable. ... Frazier said Robison has improved but wants to gauge Robison's assessment of his condition before clearing him to play. ... Winfield will wear a wrap with protective padding on his hand. He didn't practice all week, but part of that is his veteran privilege. ``Just being cautious today, but I think he'll be ready,'' Frazier said.

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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