Ravens

No. 5 Cardinals face Western Kentucky in Nashville

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No. 5 Cardinals face Western Kentucky in Nashville

Playing a rival sometimes requires going the extra mile.

With No. 5 Louisville and Western Kentucky, it means going an extra hour south.

The Cardinals and Hilltoppers resume their annual rivalry Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. The game is part of a series in which Louisville hosts two games, WKU one on campus with one in the Music City.

Louisville (10-1) has become used to playing at neutral sites this season. The Cardinals played three games last month at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, losing to Duke in the championship game.

Saturday also marks the Cardinals' second trip to Tennessee in a week. They beat rival Memphis last Saturday.

Western Kentucky (8-4) leads the series 39-36, including 5-2 on neutral courts. Which is exactly why Louisville coach Rick Pitino likes this game.

``With the exception of one time, Western Kentucky always plays us tough,'' Pitino said Friday. ``They played us tough at home last year, beat us once at home and we know it's going to be a great basketball game. And we look forward to progressing from the last game we played against FIU.''

Pitino said he was encouraged by Louisville's play in the 79-55 victory over a Florida International team coached by his son Richard. The Cardinals outshot the Panthers 49 percent to 33 percent, scored 25 points off 14 turnovers and were solid from 3-point range (12 of 32) in winning their fifth straight game.

Sophomore forwards Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds, providing another nice effort while center Gorgui Dieng continues recovering from a broken left wrist. Although the 6-foot-11 junior has dressed the past few games and has been working out with the Cardinals, Pitino still doesn't expect him back until January.

``If he's able to play, he'll play,'' senior point guard Peyton Siva said about Dieng. ``Right now, we're not trying to rush him back. We need him more for the end of the season than right now.''

Dieng's absence has provided minutes for 6-foot-8 freshman Montrezl Harrell, who had seven points and five rebounds in 20 minutes Wednesday night. Though more suited for power forward, he has gotten a good dose of life in the pivot and Pitino believes that will help him even after Dieng returns.

Louisville faces a WKU squad that has lost two in a row since a six-game winning streak. However, those Hilltoppers' losses were at rival Murray State and Virginia Commonwealth, both of which reached the NCAA tournament last season.

And Western Kentucky's win total is way ahead of last season's pace. The Hilltoppers didn't win their eighth game until Feb. 4.

They've improved in several areas under second-year coach Ray Harper. Besides winning 15 of 20 games dating back to last season, the Hilltoppers have raised their scoring average eight points from a year ago to 68.2 and are grabbing four more rebounds per game (40.3).

Sophomore guard T.J. Price (16.9 points) leads WKU's offense.

The Hilltoppers are also 2-0 in the Sun Belt Conference. But the number that the Cardinals should be wary of is WKU's 2-1 mark in Nashville, including a 68-54 win in 2008 over a Louisville team ranked third at the time.

Louisville won last year's game 70-60 at home but had to overcome a 13-point deficit with eight minutes left. That's enough to keep the Cardinals' attention on this in-state rival rather than on another one down the road next Saturday.

Especially since WKU has been strong against Louisville on neutral ground.

``This is a rivalry game,'' Pitino said. ``We consider them a rival and we hope they consider us a rival. We've got great respect for their tradition and their program, so we know how hard they're going to play. They weren't nearly as good as us last year, and it was anybody's game.''

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How the Ravens will try to slow down the NFL’s best offense in Kansas City

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How the Ravens will try to slow down the NFL’s best offense in Kansas City

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have got a big problem on their hands. Or, more accurately, they’ve got a bunch of problems to deal with.

The Kansas City Chiefs have, since the beginning of last season, been the NFL’s best offense. With reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, all-pro Travis Kelce at tight end and a seemingly replenishing stable of speedster wide receivers, the offense has been nearly unstoppable.

They’ve scored 34 points per game this year. Mahomes has passed for 821 yards and as a team, they’ve averaged 479 yards each week. 

Now it’s the Ravens turns to get a chance at stopping, or at least slowing down, the NFL’s most vaunted attack.

“World-class tight end, world-class sprinters out there at wide receiver,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “Obviously you’re talking about an offense that averages over 35 points per game last year. It doesn’t look like there’s any drop-off from last year. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The man leading it all, Mahomes, is perhaps the league’s most talented quarterback. He won MVP last season after throwing for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions. 

This season, he’s already ushered in discussions that he could throw for 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns, which would completely shatter the NFL’s previous records. In his third season, he’s already one of the league’s most feared players.

“You have to play to the whistle,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “He’s a guy that can extend the play – smart guy, big arm, strong arm. They have a lot of different movements and gadgets and a lot of different things going on with their offense, so you have to have disciplined eye control, 100 percent communication and just play as a unit for 60 minutes.”

One of Mahomes most dangerous traits, however, is his ability to throw the ball on the run. With a cannon for an arm, Mahomes is just as dangerous throwing across the field while scrambling as he is while he’s stationary in the pocket. 

In last year’s thrilling Week 14 game, a 27-24 Ravens loss, Mahomes threw his first no-look pass, which caught the eye of the NFL and was one of the highlights of his stellar season. 

Later in the game, with the Ravens up by seven, Mahomes and his offense were faced with a fourth and nine. After Mahomes took the snap, the play broke down and he had to scramble to his right. On the move to his right, he threw the ball across the field nearly 40 yards in the air to Tyreek Hill, who took the ball into the red zone. 

Multiple Ravens players and coaches said they still think about that play and game, even into this season.

“You keep him in the pocket as much as you can,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You make him throw under pressure as much as you can. You cover the guys as well as you can. Then, you play football. That’s what you try to do. If he throws one up down the middle again, hopefully, we’ll get it this time.”

Mahomes’ arm strength is just one of his abilities as a passer, of which there are many. By far, however, that’s what can change a defense the most.

“The thing about Mahomes, is once he scrambles, he’s looking across the field, down the field, he’s not scared to make those type of throws,” safety Earl Thomas said. “Most quarterbacks won’t try that.”

It might be easier to handle Mahomes, however, if he didn’t have a team full out some of the best receiving weapons in the league. 

Unfortunately for the Ravens, he does. 

Even without Tyreek Hill, who is out with a shoulder injury, the Chiefs have been able to replace him with a host of other speedy receivers that both the Jaguars and Raiders weren’t able to figure out.

“Hill runs about a 4.21 40, (and) they put in a guy that runs about a 4.22 40,” Martindale quipped. “They’re fast.”

Sammy Watkins leads the team in receiving with 247 yards and three touchdowns, but the rest of the wideouts are loaded with speed, too. Demarcus Robinson has 172 yards and two touchdowns, while Mecole Hardman has 61 yards (albeit on four receptions) but is as speedy as ever. 

Then, at tight end, Kansas City has perhaps the game’s best tight end in Kelce. He’s got 195 yards and a touchdown this season. 

The receivers and their speed are one thing, but when they can take the top off the defense only to have Kelce under the middle, the Chiefs present a world of problems for opposing defenses.

“He’s just going to be hard to cover,” Harbaugh said of Kelce. “I don’t care what you do, how you cover him, how many guys you put on him – he’s going to be a challenge to cover. You don’t really expect to shut him out. We’re going to try to keep the batting average down just a little bit. I’m sure we’ll throw some different things at him.”

The man calling the shots is Andy Reid, one of the most respected and creative offensive minds to ever stand on the sidelines in the NFL. 

The Chiefs can hurt you through the air and even on the ground. Running back LeSean McCoy has averaged five yards a carry over 20 carries this season, too.

Even with left tackle Eric Fisher out with an injury, it’s hard to find a significant weak part of the offense. And that includes behind the white lines.

“Andy Reid, to me, we’re talking about all these young and innovate offensive coordinators, he’s the grandfather,” Martindale said. “He’s the OG of the innovators of offense. The offense he has in Kansas City, everybody steals from. He’s the king of the RPO, he’s the king of the shots, he’s the king of the screens. I think we’re just the men for the job, but it’s a tough out.”

The Ravens think they can be that out for the Chiefs. They added Earl Thomas in the secondary in the offseason, and even with Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young sidelined, still boast one of the top units in the NFL.

And not only are the Ravens prepared to stop the Chiefs explosive offense, they’re confident, too.

“Luckily, the Ravens have me playing free safety, controlling the deep end,” Thomas said. “I plan on eliminating all the big plays.”

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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