Nationals

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith's presence on the San Francisco defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.

Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day - Smith, in particular.

``I'd take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,'' Gore said Wednesday. ``At 75-80 percent, he's better than anybody at his position. ... I'm not scared, haaa! But he's a beast, man.''

Smith is expected to return to the field for Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back ``The Cowboy'' as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).

Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: ``God willing and the creek don't rise, he will play.''

Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith's health. San Francisco secured the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.

It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go - with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there's Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.

Smith is a smash-mouth footballer to the core. The definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.

``Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there's a character of our team that's enhanced, is driven by Justin,'' Harbaugh said earlier in the week. ``And that's the way I think of it. That's what I sense and feel when we're out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.''

Until last month, Smith had started 185 consecutive games dating to his rookie season of 2001.

While the 49ers have praised Ricky Jean Francois for his fine play filling in for Smith, No. 94 is needed on the field now as San Francisco looks to get past last season's disappointing finish and finally return to the Super Bowl. This team lost in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion Giants, failing in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.

``It's a big lift, for the simple fact Justin's a Pro Bowler and to try to fill his shoes, they're big shoes to fill,'' linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. ``He creates a lot of havoc for the backfield and draws a lot of double-teams.''

Smith dominates the right side of the line with his sheer physical strength and spot-on instincts. He is probably the biggest reason linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks this season - falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet Aldon Smith didn't have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Smith sidelined.

While the team doctors will have the final say, Smith will offer his input regarding his health - ``the player knows his body best,'' Harbaugh said. And Smith has already said he will be on the field to face the Packers.

``Well, he's told me he's ready, and he's ready to go, and that's enough for me,'' Fangio said. ``He's a leader both by example and verbally, and more so by example. He plays with a tenacity and an effort level that's second to none. And it's just contagious to everybody.''

Not that opposing coaches need to be told what they have in store seeing Smith. And certainly not Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers lost 30-22 in the season opener against San Francisco in September at Lambeau Field.

``Justin Smith's a very good football player,'' McCarthy said. ``And we're preparing for him to play. We've gone back far enough, they've got plenty of film on him, and make sure we're ready.''

The Cardinals regularly pounded the ball toward Smith's spot when he was out for the regular-season finale Dec. 30.

``He's a great leader not only for our defense but for our whole team,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``It's going to be big having him back out there.''

No matter that Smith doesn't own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL's more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year's Pro Bowl.

And he is the league's top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792.

``We need Justin,'' Brooks said. ``It changes the whole attitude of the defense.''

Notes: Harbaugh has yet to announce his starting kicker - newly signed Billy Cundiff or struggling veteran David Akers. ``No, not one that we're ready to announce yet,'' Harbaugh said. When asked if it might come down to 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives are named, the coach said, ``that's possible.''... Harbaugh said Candlestick Park received new turf several weeks ago. ``I thought it was OK,'' he said. ``It's not like it is in September. Most grass fields tend not to be as lush in the winter months.''

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Nationals walked off again, this time by Cardinals' Paul DeJong

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Nationals walked off again, this time by Cardinals' Paul DeJong

ST. LOUIS -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez was awake most of the night after Washington lost on a walk-off grand slam Sunday.

He likely won't be catching up on that missed sleep Monday.

Paul DeJong handed the Nationals their second straight walk-off loss, capping a back-and-forth finish with a game-ending solo homer in the ninth inning of the St. Cardinals' 7-6 victory Monday night.

DeJong took Koda Glover (0-1) deep leading off the ninth on a 3-1 pitch. A night earlier, Ryan Madson allowed a game-ending ninth-inning grand slam to the Chicago Cubs' David Bote in a 4-3 defeat.

"I don't sleep most nights, I like to watch replays of the game," Martinez said. "And last night was no different."

Washington's bullpen has blown saves in three of its past four games. All-Star closer Sean Doolittle has been on the disabled list since early July, and top setup man Kelvin Herrera went to the DL with right rotator cuff impingement last week.

"I don't know what else to do," Martinez said of the bullpen.

The usually stoic DeJong wasn't quite sure how to celebrate his first career walk-off homer. He started calm, keeping his head down as he rounded the bases. After coming around third, though, he whipped his helmet into the grass, threw his arms down and bellowed out a roar.

"My first walkoff, it felt so good I had to do something a little different," DeJong said.

The Cardinals recorded their 10th walkoff of the season and DeJong became the sixth different player to end a game in grand fashion.

"They're all special, all emotional," St. Louis interim manager Mike Shildt said. "These guys have the mentality, `Do your job, keep the line moving.' They have a lot of trust with each other."

The Cardinals have won six in a row and moved to nine games over .500 for the first time this season.

DeJong's 380-foot drive ended a wild final two innings.

Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko homered in the eighth inning to put St. Louis up 6-4. Gyorko started the rally with a leadoff drive, and Carpenter followed with a three-run homer off Sammy Solis.

The Nationals tied it at 6 in the top of the ninth on RBI singles by Daniel Murphy and Matt Wieters off closer Bud Norris. Dakota Hudson (3-0) relieved Norris and stranded two baserunners by retiring Wilmer Difo and Adam Eaton.

Juan Soto and Bryce Harper homered for the Nationals, who have lost five of seven.

Gyorko sparked St. Louis' big eighth inning with his homer off Justin Miller. Kolten Wong and Patrick Wisdom then singled to set up Carpenter's 33rd homer. Carpenter has homered in seven of his past 10 games. He extended his major-league leading on-base streak to 31 games with a first-inning bunt single. He has 17 homers during that string.

Harper won a 10-pitch battle with starter Miles Mikolas by drilling his 29th homer leading off the fourth to lead 2-1.

Ryan Zimmerman added a run-scoring double in the second for the Nationals.

Jose Martinez had four hits for the Cardinals.

Mikolas gave up four runs on four hits over seven innings. He struck out four and walked one.

Tommy Milone started for Washington and gave up two runs on 10 hits over 4 1/3 innings.

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Need to Know: Redskins' Gruden would like clarification on the new helmet rule

Need to Know: Redskins' Gruden would like clarification on the new helmet rule

RICHMOND—Here is what you need to know on Tuesday, August 14, two days before the Washington Redskins host the Jets in their second preseason game. 

Talking points

The NFL officiating crew of Carl Cheffers visited the Redskins facility over the past couple of days to give their annual rules update seminar to the players, coaches, and media. The big topic was, of course, the new rule that prohibits players from leading with their helmets when contacting another player. 

Here is the exact wording of the rule, per the video that was shown to the players, coaches, and media. 

The officiating standards for the Use of Helmet rule are:

  • Lowering the head (not to include bracing for contact)
  • Initiating contact with the helmet to any part of an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area — lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent’s torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul.
  • Making contact on an opponent (both offense and defense)

Prohibiting players from leading with their helmets in the interest of safety is an admirable goal. Jay Gruden said that he was in favor of it in theory, but he saw issues in the implementation.

"We are in constant dialogue, we have the video, we’ve seen multiple videos and we understand what they’re trying to do, and we respect that,” said Gruden. “We will try to play to the rules, but there still are some gray areas there that I’m concerned about as a coach that can cost you football games and can cost players suspensions and all that. So hopefully those gray areas don’t come up and bite you.”

Gruden was asked to drill down on the “gray areas”. 

"I just think they are the 'bang-bang' type plays,” he said. “You know, the receiver goes up for a pass and the defensive back has a low target and then at the last second the receiver ducks his head; I mean is it targeting or not?”

Gruden said that he hoped that the officials would keep their flags in their pockets if there was any doubt. I asked Cheffers what they would do if it wasn’t clear if a violation had been committed. His response did not answer my question, but it did shed some light on the process that is going on during the preseason.  

“Certainly in preseason we do things differently than we do in the regular season,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to build a library of plays—stuff that we call, stuff that we don’t call—we’re going to build a library to make a decision when the regular season comes to exactly what they want us to call and exactly what they want us to stay away from. At that point, we’re doing exactly as they direct.”

So, in other words, the enforcement of the rule is a work in progress. I suppose that’s the only way to do it since the rule is fewer than 50 words and the owners voted on it without any real input from the competition committee or anyone else. Some trial and error is called for. 

The problem is, the trial and error won’t end when the season starts. And, last time I checked, a loss due to a mistaken application of the rule would be just as costly in September as it would be in December.

Bureau of statistics

The Redskins were penalized for 733 yards last year; only one team, the Panthers, was penalized fewer yards. 

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The agenda

Today: Jay Gruden news conference 9:30; Practice with Jets 9:45; players available to the media after practice.

Upcoming: Preseason Jets @ Redskins (Aug. 16) 2 days; Final cut (Sept. 1) 18 days; Season opener @ Cardinals (Sept. 9) 26 days

In case you missed it

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page,Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler