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Lions QB Matthew Stafford struggling this season

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Lions QB Matthew Stafford struggling this season

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) Matthew Stafford was really looking forward to this season last summer.

The Detroit Lions quarterback expected to pick apart defenses by finding one-on-one matchups and throwing to Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles.

If none of those receivers was open, he couldn't wait to connect with Brandon Pettigrew or Tony Scheffler.

And if the tight ends were covered, tossing a short pass to speedy running back Jahvid Best seemed as if it would be good option.

Not so much.

Stafford might have just two of the aforementioned targets Saturday night when the lowly Lions (4-10) host the NFC-leading Atlanta Falcons (12-2).

``There are NFL teams that go through this, and we're one of them,'' Stafford said. ``It's obviously easier when guys stay healthy and you can work with the same guys all year.''

That's what happened for the most part last year when Stafford stayed healthy for a change and had a trio of receivers - before Broyles was drafted - a pair of tight ends and Best to throw to during a 5-0 start.

Since a concussion knocked Best off the field more than a year ago, the Lions have lost almost twice as many games as they've won. Losing Best in the backfield has made the team even more one-dimensional, relying on Stafford to throw early and often.

Stafford finished last season with 663 attempts, the third-highest total in NFL history. With 629 throws this season, he is on pace to easily break the league's single-season mark of 691 set by New England's Drew Bledsoe in 1994.

His attempts this season are up, and he is down in other categories.

Stafford's rating ranks 24th in the league after it was among the best last season. The Lions are 10-0 when Stafford has a 105-plus QB rating, but he hasn't reached that level of production and efficiency in more than a year.

He has thrown 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, a season after breaking out by throwing for 41 scores and getting picked off 16 times. His .595 passing percentage ranks 21st after connecting on 63-plus percent of his passes a year ago.

Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, though, still thinks the 24-year-old Stafford is on track to be one of the NFL's best quarterbacks - ever.

Linehan said Stafford is not the one to blame for his QB rating dipping drastically.

``It has more to do with the continuity of his receiving corps that has not been there,'' Linehan said. ``We didn't have any injuries last year with the guys we were counting on.

``It's not an excuse, but you're not going to have the same rhythm and timing if you've got a revolving door at your skill positions.''

Stafford has been good enough to help Johnson chase a record. He is 182 yards receiving from breaking the single-season mark of 1,848 set by Jerry Rice with San Francisco in 1995.

That's of little consolation for either player, or the team, during the franchise's 10th double-digit loss season in 12 years.

Shaun Hill, Detroit's 32-year-old backup QB, said Stafford will eventually find out this season helped him when he looks back.

``That doesn't take away from the sting of the season, but in the long run, he will be better for it,'' Hill said.

Stafford is hoping he can bounce back quickly from his worst game statistically since the No. 1 pick from the 2009 NFL draft was a rookie.

``The great thing about this league is you got another chance and you got another opportunity to go out and play and play well,'' he said.

It would be tough to play worse.

Stafford completed just 24 of 50 passes for 246 yards without a TD and had two of his three interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, who had lost nine straight. That extended Detroit's losing streak to six games.

Privately and publicly, Stafford took the blame for the latest setback that gave Detroit the NFL's longest active losing string.

``This losing streak has hurt an awful lot, but good quarterbacks are always going to put it on their shoulders,'' Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said.

The Falcons don't feel sorry for Stafford, a former Georgia star, but they're also not getting too cocky about keeping him humbled.

``Sometimes the season doesn't go the way you planned, but he's still playing well,'' Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said. ``He's right up there at the top in passing yards among all the quarterbacks.''

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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AP Sports Writer George Henry in Flowery Branch, Ga., contributed to this story.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter:http://twitter.com/larrylage

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A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

In the 2017-18 season, the Washington Capitals finished dead last in the NHL in shots on goal. While the modern wave of analytics stressed possession as measured by shot attempts, the Caps bucked that trend and elected to focus more on generating high-quality shots even if it meant shooting less. The result was a lot of frustrated fans, but 3.12 goals per game -- good for 9th in the NHL -- and a Stanley Cup.

Since the 2017-18 season, however, the offensive mindset in Washington has changed and that is evident by how much the defense has been involved in the offense this season.

“When you get more pucks on net, it's more chances you're going to get to score,” Dmitry Orlov said.

That represents a significant mindset change from the team just one year ago.

“It doesn't make a ton of sense for me to take a wrist shot from the blue line if there's not a screen,” Matt Niskanen said in October 2018. “Maybe one out of 300, 400 is going in, especially with my shot. You can shoot to create if there's traffic around and stuff, but just in general, shooting just to shoot isn't a good philosophy I don't think. That kind of gets lost in the analytics crowd. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to just waste it."

But an offensive philosophy that places such a high degree of emphasis on high-danger opportunities limits the offensive role of the defense since defensemen are much less likely to find themselves in those high-danger areas of the ice. Most shots from defensemen are going to be the type Niskanen was referring to.

The team has gradually softened its stance since then which has led to more involvement from the defense and more shots.

In the 2017-18 season, Washington ranked 30th in the NHL with 3,607 shot attempts at 5-on-5. In 2018-19, the team improved to 17th with 3,713 5-on-5 shot attempts. It may be a small sample size just 11 games into the season, but the Caps currently rank 16th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts per game (38.3).

One difference is more perimeter shots including from the blue line.

"We're switching more to shooting the puck whenever you have a chance or a lane," Jonas Siegenthaler said. "A couple years ago, you were always looking for the next play or a green shot."

While Niskanen seemed not to be a fan, the defensemen seem to enjoy the opportunity to try to contribute offensively.

"I like that more, personally," Siegenthaler said. "Pretty sure the guys like it too. If the D gets the puck up on the blue line, if he sees the lane he shoots, we have two guys in front of the net. I think the forwards they like that too. It's never a bad play."

But the main tweak to the offense this season is the emphasis on the defensemen to pinch in the offensive zone. Basically the defensemen are encouraged to move up deeper into the zone and join the attack if they have an opening to do so.

"Our style of defense is taking time and space, be hard on people," Michal Kempny said. "You can now short in on the short side, like pinching. It's kind of a little change instead of least season, but I think we are getting more and more comfortable every game and just keep it up."

This change led to Kempny, a player who previously had scored only 11 goals in his NHL career, scoring a goal in his first game after returning from injury. It also is a factor in John Carlson’s offensive surge to start the season. Even a player like Siegenthaler can often be found deep in the zone joining the attack.

"The whole system is more aggressive," Siegenthaler said. "I think somehow it kind of translates to the D-men. You're always moving so you're not afraid to join the rush or go up to the play with the forwards."

"It's a little bit of our aggressive mindset that you've heard me discuss from the beginning of the year," head coach Todd Reirden said at practice Saturday. "As opposed to major, major systematic adjustments, a lot of it's been our mindset. Yeah, there's been some tweaks and some different things there, but it's something that we're able to do this year. ... I think we've kept pucks alive a lot more in the offensive zone and our D are in a spot where they're able to help with keeping those pucks alive."

This philosophy is not without risk. Whenever a defenseman moves up it can leave the team more vulnerable to a quick breakout or counter attack. The players have to be in constant communication so the forwards know when someone has to move back to the blue line in order to compensate for a defenseman moving up.

"We have to have a forward back to cover for them," Reirden said. "I think our forwards have done a really good job of, when our D have been active, of covering for them. It's not perfect yet, but it's something that we're working on. We've obviously given up a couple goals along the way through the learning process of trying to be a little bit more aggressive in that way, but I think the benefits for me outweigh the negatives right now."

The Caps’ began to shift their philosophy last season with more shots on goal. This year, they incorporated a larger offensive role for the defense, one that meshes well with the team’s more aggressive mindset.

Just 11 games into the season, it seems to be working.

Washington ranks third in the league with 3.73 goals per game while Carlson leads the entire NHL with 20 points.

"We're really playing on our toes more, we're using our skating to be more of a factor keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone," Reirden said, "And then whenever we're able to convert on them, that's always a bonus."

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Redskins at Vikings Week 8: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

Redskins at Vikings Week 8: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has had Thursday's date circled on his calendar for a long time.

Cousins will face the Redskins for the first time on Thursday since leaving the franchise that drafted him. In 2018, the Redskins allowed him to walk in free agency after two straight seasons playing under the franchise tag.

It's no secret that Washington has struggled to find stability at the quarterback position since Cousins left town. Since his departure, the Redskins have started five different signal-callers (played six) in 23 games, and have a cumulative record of 8-15. 

While the Cousins storyline will grab many headlines, Redskins quarterback Case Keenum may feel that he has something to prove, too. Keenum led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game in 2017, but Minnesota signed Cousins the following offseason, allowing Keenum to walk. He signed with the Broncos, and was traded to Washington earlier this year after one season with Denver. 

Thursday marks Keenum's return to Minnesota. The last pass he threw in U.S. Bank Stadium miraculously landed in the arms of Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, connecting on a 61-yard touchdown pass as time expired to send the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.

Redskins running back Adrian Peterson has also been looking forward to Thursday's clash. It's not his first time back in Minnesota, as he returned in 2017 when playing with the Saints, but he's eager to play against the franchise he spent a decade with and became one of the best running backs in NFL history. 

The all-time series is tied 13-13, but the Vikings have won three of the last four contests between the two. Here's everything you need to know.

REDSKINS at VIKINGS WEEK 8

Who: Washington Redskins (1-6) vs. Minnesota Vikings (5-2)

What: Game 8 of the 2019 NFL regular season

When: Thursday, October 24, 8:20 p.m.

Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota

TV Channel: FOX, NFL Network

Live Stream: NFL.com/watch and pregame and postgame coverage streaming on NBCSportsWashington.com

Radio: Redskins Radio Network

Spread: Vikings, -16

Over/Under: 42.0

Weather: 42 degrees, partly cloud (U.S. Bank Stadium is indoors)

REDSKINS at VIKINGS TV SCHEDULE:

6:00 p.m.: Redskins 100

6:30 p.m.: Redskins Nation

7:00 p.m.: Redskins Kickoff Live

11:30 p.m.: Redskins Postgame Live (NBC Sports Washington Plus)

REDSKINS 2019 SEASON SCHEDULE:

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Redskins at Eagles (L, 32-27)

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, Cowboys at Redskins, (L, 31-21)

Week 3: Monday, Sept. 23, Bears at Redskins, (L, 32-27)

Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, Redskins at Giants, (L, 24-3)

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Patriots at Redskins, (L, 33-7)

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, Redskins at Dolphins, (W, 17-16)

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, 49ers at Redskins, (L, 9-0)

Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 24, Redskins at Vikings, 8:20 p.m.

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Redskins at Bills, 1 p.m.

Week 10: BYE

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, Jets at Redskins, 1 p.m.

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Lions at Redskins, 1 p.m.

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, Redskins at Panthers, 1 p.m.

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Redskins at Packers, 1 p.m.

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, Eagles at Redskins, 1 p.m.

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, Giants at Redskins, 1 p.m.

Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Redskins at Cowboys, 1 p.m.

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