Longhorns' defense in crisis

Longhorns' defense in crisis

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) The Texas defense is in crisis.

Players say they have no confidence in stopping the run, they struggle to line up correctly and openly wonder if everyone is playing hard every play. And week after week, the Longhorns (4-2, 0-2 Big 12) can't seem to tackle.

``Tackling is something you should have learned a long time ago,'' cornerback Quandre Diggs said. ``We miss a tackle and it goes for 95 yards.''

The list of flaws and dismal performances the last four weeks have many Texas fans calling for second-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to be fired. Others question coach Mack Brown's ability to hang on beyond this season after a 63-21 loss to Oklahoma.

Brown said he has confidence in Diaz, and the coaching staff is working hard to fix the problems.

``We've got a chance to go back and win the next six ball games and win 10 games, and that's what we're planning on doing,'' Brown said. ``You circle the wagons.''

But can the defense be fixed?

The Sooners were just the latest team to paste a unit that was supposed to be the best in the Big 12 and rank among the best in the country. After giving up nearly 700 yards last Saturday, Texas is now on pace to have the worst defense in its long history. The loss stung even worse when Texas learned that end Jackson Jeffcoat would be lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro suggested the defense may be fractured in the locker room.

``Three or four guys are really playing hard, and some guys aren't playing hard,'' Vaccaro said after the team watched the Oklahoma game film and its blooper reel full of missed tackles and blown assignments.

``It's just causing a cancer on the team. If we're ever going to be anything decent, everybody's just got to play hard,'' Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro is one of the most outspoken players on the team, but he didn't name names and said he won't be giving any fiery speeches.

``Big speeches are not what's going to help,'' Vaccaro said. ``It's got to come from within.''

The Longhorns began the season brimming with confidence and posted a 45-0 shutout over New Mexico in the second game. Since then, Texas has surrendered at least 31 points in four straight games with the score going up every week. Texas ranks 99th in total defense (449.7 yards), 94th in scoring defense (allowing 33 points per game) and 103rd in rushing defense (209 yards).

Oklahoma pounded out 343 yards rushing, including Damien Williams' 95-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that seemed to break Texas' spirit. Vaccaro said the Sooners taunted the Longhorns by telling them they were going to run - and Texas still couldn't stop them.

Now Texas has to prepare to play Baylor (3-2, 0-2), which has beaten the Longhorns the last two years and brings one of the top offenses in the country to Austin.

``We have no confidence in our run defense,'' senior defensive end Alex Okafor said. ``If we don't play well, they will put 50 or 60 on us. ... The issue is effort and relentlessness and we don't have it.''

Vaccaro said the Longhorns sometimes don't even line up in the right spots for the defense Diaz calls.

``A lot of runs and a lot of plays are made by one guy not being in the right spot,'' Vaccaro said. ``If we can't get lined up ...''

Fan criticism is focused on Diaz, who spent one season as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State before taking the Texas job before the 2011 season. He makes more than $600,000 a year.

In 2011, Diaz's defense got better toward the end of the season and finished ranked No. 11 overall. And it was just three years ago under former coordinator Will Muschamp that Texas ranked No. 3 in total defense and the Longhorns played in the BCS national championship game.

Brown told Diaz that criticism comes with the job at Texas.

``You take it and man up to it and move on,'' Brown said. `It's part of the reason you get paid a lot. That's part of the deal here. You guys want to be head coaches, learn now because you are going to get some questions later. I don't want you pouting.''

Diaz is searching for answers.

``Our guys want to tackle. There's not an issue of shying away from contact,'' Diaz said.

The Longhorns have been weak up the middle with inexperienced tackles and linebackers, but no position has struggled more than strong safety, where Adrian Phillips and Mykkele Thompson can be seen bouncing off ball carriers every week. On one play against Oklahoma, 260-pound Sooners fullback Trey Millard hurdled Thompson and bowled over Phillips on a 73-yard catch and run.

On Monday, Diggs noted that Thompson was primarily a quarterback in high school and lashed out at reporters who had predicted great things for the defense before the season.

``You guys weren't having this conversation. You thought we were good at the beginning of the year,'' Diggs said. ``I guess you guys think anybody is going to come out and be an all-American.''

Diggs vowed the defense would get better, and chastised fans who worry that two consecutive losses is the start of worse to come.

``If you give up after two losses, you weren't a real fan anyway,'' Diggs said.

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Need to Know: The forecast for Redskins Park today is a media circus

Need to Know: The forecast for Redskins Park today is a media circus

Here is what you need to know on Tuesday, August 21, three days before the Washington Redskins host the Broncos in their third preseason game. 

Talking points

Looking at a few different topics this morning:

—What was going to be a normal, ho-hum Tuesday preseason practice at Redskins Park will now be on hyperdrive thanks to the addition of Adrian Peterson. After mostly ignoring the Redskins for most of the offseason the national media will turn out in force to chronicle the arrival of AD. Yes, it’s AD as in All Day as I was reminded by several Sooners on Twitter in the past few days. I suppose that now that he’s here I’d better get it right. 

Derrius Guice underwent surgery to repair his torn ACL yesterday (see his tweet below). I haven’t heard but I assume that someone will say that the surgery was a success. Looking at a recovery time of about nine months, Guice could be ready for the start of OTAs in mid-May. But given how cautious this organization tends to be with injuries during the offseason program, we may not see him on the field until training camp. 

—Speaking of injuries, there were over a dozen players who were not participating in practice on both Saturday and Sunday. As I noted here a couple of days ago Jay Gruden has become very tight-lipped when it comes to giving out information on injuries. And teams are not required to give out any injury information at all during the preseason. So it’s hard to sort out veterans’ days from players with minor injuries that are being rested because the game isn’t until Friday from injuries that are reasons for legitimate concern. The first injury report will come out two weeks from tomorrow, so we are mostly in the dark until then. 

—I’m hearing from fans and some in the media that undrafted free agent Cam Sims is a lock to make the 53-man roster. I would suggest pumping the brakes. He has a great opportunity and I have him on the 53 in my last prediction. But he has been erratic. The Jets preseason game, where he made a big-time error when he had a pass bounce out of his arms, turning a completion into an interception then made some key, acrobatic catches was essentially a microcosm of his training camp. He needs a strong finish both in practice and in the two remaining preseason games to get locked into a spot. A few plays like the botched reception and he could be on the outside looking in. 

—Montae Nicholson quietly had a good camp and he has played well in two preseason games (he was one of the few starters to play against the Patriots). He struggled in coverage in the early part of camp. The Redskins are changing their scheme to play left- and right-side safeties instead of free and strong. That means that Nicholson, who played free last year, had to learn the coverage responsibilities for both positions on both sides of the field. It took him some time to get up to speed and during that time it was not unusual to see Nicholson trailing behind a receiver who had a couple of steps on him. He is not immune to making mistakes or just getting beaten on occasion (news flash: NFL rules are set up for DBs to get burned). But he should get the job done most of the time and be the player the Redskins hope he will be. 

Bureau of statistics

Nicholson’s 40 time at the NFL Combine in 2017 was 4.42, the third fastest among safeties and tenth fastest Amon all defensive backs. 

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The agenda

Today: Practice at Redskins Park 1:00; Jay Gruden news conference and player availability after practice, approx. 3:00

Upcoming: Preseason Broncos @ Redskins (Aug. 24) 3 days; Final cut (Sept. 1) 11 days; Season opener @ Cardinals (Sept. 9) 19 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, and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler


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Baltimore Ravens crash Andrew Luck's homecoming with 20-19 preseason win

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Baltimore Ravens crash Andrew Luck's homecoming with 20-19 preseason win

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Baltimore Ravens spoiled Andrew Luck's Indianapolis homecoming.

They picked him off before allowing a completion, and Terrell Suggs nearly chopped the ball out of Luck's hands on a sack. The Ravens then secured a 20-19 preseason win over the Colts by stopping a late 2-point conversion run.

Luck was just OK in his first home start since Jan. 1, 2017. But he did receive a roaring ovation from the crowd when he took the field, led the Colts to one score and apparently emerged unscathed after going down twice on sacks.

"Not too sharp, certainly red-zone turnovers are a negative, missed a couple of throws I'd like to hit," he said. "And I didn't feel like we, as an offense, got into any semblance of a sustained rhythm."

Expectations were high following a solid start in Seattle.

This time, the Colts (1-1) looked sloppy.

Luck missed his first three throws, the third winding up in the hands of Ravens safety Anthony Levine Jr. Luck rebounded to finish 6 of 13 for 50 yards and set up 45-year-old Adam Vinatieri for a 57-yard field before leaving in the second quarter.

If Luck had his way, he might have played longer. But first-year coach Frank Reich wasn't taking any chances with Luck's surgically repaired arm.

"We just never found a rhythm for him and some of his balls were not his best balls," he said. "But I still have a lot of confidence we're headed in the right direction."

Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens looked better.

Flacco went 7 of 9 for 72 yards and one touchdown. Jackson then showed flashes of what helped him win the 2016 Heisman Trophy.

Jackson was 7 of 15 for 49 yards and a TD and carried four times for 26 yards before giving way to another Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III, in the fourth quarter.

Indy still had a chance at the end after Tarell Basham recovered a fumble at the Ravens 9. Five plays later, Phillip Walker threw a 9-yard TD pass to Zach Pascal with 2:24 left. But the Ravens (3-0) stopped Walker on the 2-point try, recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.

"Happy to get the win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We did a lot of things that weren't winning football, especially in the second half."

The Ravens made it tough on Indy all night.

They stopped Indy twice in the red zone and nearly had a third when Jordan Wilkins fumbled the ball into the end zone, where it bounced right into the hands of receiver Chester Rogers.

Flacco gave the Ravens a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when he hooked up with John Brown on a 7-yard score, and Jackson's masterful hurry-up drive at the end of the first half ended with Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal with 2 seconds left.

When Colts rookie Nyheim Hines fumbled away the opening kickoff of the second half, Jackson hooked up with Chris Moore on a 7-yard TD pass to make it 17-10.