Nationals

Packers focused on stopping Bears WR Marshall

Packers focused on stopping Bears WR Marshall

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Greg Jennings thinks Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall is a genius.

Marshall had made headlines one day earlier when he went off on the rival Green Bay Packers during his weekly media availability. But it was something Marshall said later that Jennings found brilliant: Marshall's attempt to bait the Packers into matching their cornerbacks up with him man-to-man.

Marshall said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers ``did an amazing job of game-planning me'' in the teams' Sept. 13 meeting, in which Marshall caught only two passes for 24 yards in Green Bay's 23-10 victory.

Then, Marshall dared the Packers to try to cover him 1-on-1 in Sunday's rematch at Soldier Field.

``I didn't beat double or triple coverage or whatever they were throwing at us,'' Marshall said. ``I take it as a slap in my face when guys talk about my lack of ability to do something against them when they have help all over the place. I'm looking forward to 1-on-1 coverage. Hopefully, those guys in games like this may go to their coach and say, `Let me have him. I want Brandon Marshall. I want to stop Brandon Marshall. Let me have him 1-on-1, press coverage.' And we'll see what happens.''

On Thursday, Jennings had answered questions for about three minutes before bringing up - unprompted - what Marshall had said.

``I think he's smart for saying whatever he said. So I'm going to be smart, too,'' Jennings said, a wide smile stretching across his face. ``Man, I wish the Bears would play us 1-on-1 and man-to-man.

``I think he's smart. That reverse psychology, I think it's pretty impressive. So yeah, man, the Bears are always playing cover 2. I think they're scared not to play cover 2.''

Then, Jennings laughed.

``Hey,'' he said, ``I'll give it a shot.''

The cover 2 defense has been like kryptonite to the Packers' previously unstoppable offense this season. Using two deep safeties to take away big plays, the scheme has prevented Green Bay from replicating last year's success, when the Packers scored 560 points (second-most in NFL history) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the NFL MVP by throwing for 45 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

Later, Jennings called Marshall's statements a ``tactic.''

```Play me one-on-one.' What receiver doesn't want you to play man-to-man coverage the entire game?'' he said.

Here's the bad news for Marshall: There's no way Capers is going to do that on every down Sunday. Even with cornerback Tramon Williams' ability to cover, he's assured of having help over the top from a safety much of the time, as he frequently did against Detroit's Calvin Johnson in the team's two games against the Lions this year.

For while Capers' scheme is certainly complex, one of the main tenets of the veteran coordinator's approach is simple: Stop the opponent's best players.

Whether it's Johnson, or Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, or, yes, Marshall, Capers formulates his defensive game plan each week by asking himself which offensive players could hurt his defense the most. While the results have varied over the last few years, the approach has remained the same.

``When we look at an offense, we look at who their top two or three producers are,'' Capers said recently. ``And (we ask), what do you have to try to do to limit their production? (We're) going to say, `Well, this is where we have to start.'

``What do you have to take away to win the game?''

For the Bears, it's obviously Marshall.

Marshall has caught 101 passes for 1,342 yards and nine touchdowns, while Chicago's next three wide receivers have a combined 65 receptions for 748 yards and five TDs.

Marshall has had seven 100-yard games this season and has caught at least 10 passes in his last three games. The only other team to shut him down was San Francisco, which held Marshall to two receptions for 21 yards Nov. 19, when quarterback Jay Cutler missed the game with a concussion and backup Jason Campbell started in his place.

According to safety Morgan Burnett, Capers' weekly Wednesday presentation to the defense begins with a portion of the slide show listing the opposing team's top players. Even though it's self-evident, the emphasis helps remind the Packers of how important it will be to contain those targets. This Wednesday, the discussion predictably began with Marshall, Burnett said.

``You know what they like to do. You watch the film; you know who the go-to guy is,'' Burnett said Thursday. ``At the same time, that doesn't mean you just ignore everyone else.

``Of course, Brandon Marshall is the go-to guy. But you still have (other) playmakers in Devin Hester. You have the rookie, Alshon Jeffery, who's a big receiver, and then you have (running back) Matt Forte, who's a threat in the running game and the passing game.''

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.

Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?

While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.

This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.

There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.

Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.

It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.

Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long. 

Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.

Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.

The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.

The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.

In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.

Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.

Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.

I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.

It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.

Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.

The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.

In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.

The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.

“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”

Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.

In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”

Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.

“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”

If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.

It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.

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Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard out against Wizards

Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard out against Wizards

The Wizards will catch a break on Saturday night when they host the Toronto Raptors in the second game of their regular season, as Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard is being held out due to rest.

Leonard, who has been dominant so far for the 2-0 Raptors, is being limited in back-to-backs after he missed 73 games last season due to a quadriceps injury. The Raptors played the night before against the Celtics.

With Leonard out, the Raptors will likely rely on C.J. Miles and O.G. Anunoby at the small forward position. Shooting guard Delon Wright is also out with a shoulder injury.

Though Leonard and Wright are out of the mix, Toronto still has plenty of talent including All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry is averaging 21 points, seven assists and 3.5 rebounds through two games. 

Serge Ibaka has been their third-leading scorer with 15 points per game to go along with 6.5 rebounds. They also acquired Danny Green in the Leonard deal and he's off to a strong start with 12.5 points and five rebounds per game.

Leonard's absence may be noticed more on the defensive end, as he is one of the best in the NBA on the perimeter. That could make things a bit easier for Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr.

The Wizards and Raptors next play on Nov. 23. That game is in Toronto.

 

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