Nationals

Packers may make lineup change at center

Packers may make lineup change at center

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Jeff Saturday has one Super Bowl ring and was looking forward to having a chance to play for another with the Green Bay Packers getting ready to return to the playoffs.

His role in helping the NFC North champions try to make a deep run in the postseason has changed before the playoffs even started.

Coach Mike McCarthy has decided to take Saturday, a 14-year veteran in his first season with the Packers, out of the starting lineup at center and replace him with Evan Dietrich-Smith with two games left in the regular season. Green Bay (10-4) hosts the Tennessee Titans (5-9) on Sunday.

``We will probably go with Evan Dietrich-Smith to start the game,'' McCarthy said Friday.

Although Saturday has been coping with neck and shoulder injuries and didn't get on the practice field this week until the team held a short workout Friday, McCarthy indicated the late-season change isn't due to medical reasons. Saturday is probable for the game.

``Obviously as a player, you want to play,'' Saturday said. ``But I support Evan, and I know he's a great player. He'll get the job done and do what he needs to do to play well and get us a win.''

Saturday doesn't believe his recent health issues are a factor in the potential shake-up.

``I don't think so,'' he said. ``I haven't been able to go this week, but when you look at it, I think Evan has worked hard, played good. Give him a chance to go see what he can do at center and see how he plays. I should be ready to go (Sunday), so I don't think that really has any kind of factor of what's happening.''

Dietrich-Smith, 26, a third-year player, is 11 years younger than Saturday and has started only seven games as a pro. This would be Dietrich-Smith's first NFL start at center.

Conversely, Saturday has logged 220 starts (including the playoffs) and is a five-time Pro Bowler, most of his work coming at center with the Indianapolis Colts when Peyton Manning was the quarterback.

``It's obviously an honor,'' Dietrich-Smith said. ``I've got a lot of respect for Jeff. I'm just going out there to help the team win as best I can, and this is the move they want to make. I'm just going to do my job.''

Dietrich-Smith recently started four straight games for the Packers at left guard after they lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a season-ending hip injury and filled the void by moving left guard T.J. Lang outside. Lang suffered an ankle injury Dec. 2, missed the next game and was replaced at right tackle by undrafted rookie Don Barclay.

When Lang returned for Green Bay's division-clinching win at Chicago last Sunday, he was back at left guard, Barclay stayed at right tackle and Dietrich-Smith was back on the bench.

McCarthy said center is the best position for the versatile Dietrich-Smith, an undrafted free agent out of Idaho State in 2009. He started 44 games playing four different positions in college but never at center.

``Honestly, I think it's still going to be a little bit of learning out there on the fly with the guys and getting some chemistry. I think that's the biggest part,'' Dietrich-Smith said. ``Comfort-level-wise, yeah, center's somewhere that I feel really comfortable at. But you still in the NFL, the chemistry you've got with the five guys up front, that's a big thing, and I think we've got to develop it out there Sunday.''

What Dietrich-Smith has going for him in getting the supposed starting nod at center is the support of Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's quarterback made favorable comments about Dietrich-Smith earlier in the season, referring to him as the team's center of the future.

``I always take appreciation for him backing me so much, and I've always tried to take advantage of my opportunities,'' Dietrich-Smith said. ``For him to go out there and say he's got a lot of faith in me means a lot to me.''

Saturday said it was ``disappointing and tough.''

``I'm here to play football,'' he said. ``I told coach, I came here to win a Super Bowl. Winning the NFC North is great, but that wasn't why I was here. I looked for more of the postseason. It's disappointing from that side. If coach McCarthy thinks that gives us the best chance to win and go on and do things in the postseason, then that's what it is.''

Saturday is under contract for two years, but referred to himself as a ``stopgap.''

``You're 37 years old. I've been around this thing long enough to know that it's not a long future. I think if (Dietrich-Smith) plays well I wouldn't think they'd go back and make another change,'' he said.

NOTES: The Packers won't have veteran S Charles Woodson and WR Jordy Nelson for another game Sunday. Both players were ruled out Friday. Woodson, who practiced on a limited basis this week, hasn't played the last two months because of a broken collarbone. Nelson, who has been bothered by a hamstring injury, will miss a third straight game. Woodson spoke after practice Friday and said he isn't sure whether he will have a chance to play in the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at Minnesota to get him some game action before the playoffs. ``I don't feel like I have to play in it, but it'd be great to just get out there and play football,'' Woodson said. DE C.J. Wilson (knee), RB James Starks (knee) and TE Tom Crabtree (hamstring) also are out.

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Nats' offense needs to get going to maintain control in NL Wild Card race

Nats' offense needs to get going to maintain control in NL Wild Card race

Playoff prediction formulas have the Nationals at above 90 percent to qualify, but at the moment it doesn't exactly feel that way. 

With their 4-2 loss to the Cardinals on Monday night and the Brewers' win over the Padres, the Nats are now only 1 1/2 games up in the NL Wild Card race. Milwaukee erased two games in four days.

The Nats are just a half-game ahead of the Cubs for the first spot. They want that for home field advantage.

The schedule has been unforgiving with this series against St. Louis the Nats' fourth straight against a division-leading foe. The Cardinals are in the drivers seat in the NL Central with an 84-66 record overall and a 26-11 mark since Aug. 7.

Offense has been the Nats' most glaring issue of late. Their two runs on Monday gave them only 10 total in their last four games. The lone win came Sunday when the offense broke out for seven runs to avoid a sweep against the Braves.

The Nationals are going to need to get their bats going to close the deal on a postseason berth. They have only 13 games remaining and all but three are against clubs with winning records. They have two games to go against the Cardinals, who boast the NL's second-best ERA.

Several Nats players have stood out recently for their shortcomings at the plate. Trea Turner, who went 0-for-4 on Monday, is now 5-for-31 (.161) in his last eight games. He's sporting a .284 on-base percentage in his last 17 outings.

Adam Eaton also went 0-for-4 against the Cardinals and is currently 2-for-15 going back to the start of the Braves series on Friday night. He's batting .163 in his last 16 games with a .229 OBP.

That's just the top of the order. Ryan Zimmerman is now hitless in three straight games. Gerardo Parra, who for most of this season has been a plus off the bench, is 3-for-46 (.065) going back to Aug. 13.

Then there's Yan Gomes, who despite getting a hit on Monday is now 3-for-20 (.150) in his last six games. Gomes has done an admirable job by catching nine of the last 10 games, but Kurt Suzuki's bat has been missed. Suzuki, who has 16 homers and 58 RBI in only 81 games, has been sidelined due to right elbow inflammation. 

The lack of offense has put undue pressure on the pitching staff. Stephen Strasburg wasn't sharp on Monday, but managed to get through five innings with only two runs allowed. The Nats' bullpen then gave up a pair of runs split between Sean Doolittle and Hunter Strickland in the seventh.

It wasn't pretty, but allowing four runs is manageable. Scoring only two runs is a major problem. The Nats are now 5-24 this season when they score two or fewer runs.

Scoring is what got the Nationals to this point, currently holding a playoff spot. Since May 24, when they began their turnaround at 19-31, the Nats have scored more runs than any other NL team. 

They have to get back to that and soon. A lot can happen in the next 13 games.

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Steelers bolster secondary by trading for disgruntled Minkah Fitzpatrick

Steelers bolster secondary by trading for disgruntled Minkah Fitzpatrick

According to a report from Ian Rapoport, the Ravens will have to deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick two more times this season.

The Steelers boosted their secondary by adding Fitzpatrick in a trade with the Dolphins on Monday night. The Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in exchange for the cornerback.

The Dolphins, after their opening week loss to the Ravens, gave permission for Fitzpatrick to seek a trade. Then the Steelers came calling. 

Fitzpatrick is a second-year defensive back who was a 2018 first-round pick out of Alabama. He expressed frustration in recent weeks about playing out of position and the team's lack of direction. 

Against the Ravens, Fitzpatrick was torched in the secondary that allowed Lamar Jackson to throw for five touchdowns in a 59-10 win. 

The Steelers will most likely have Fitzpatrick fully integrated to the lineup by the time they host the Ravens on Oct. 6. They'll head to Baltimore on Dec. 29 in Week 17.

At 0-2, the Steelers are making a big gamble on Fitzpatrick and his future in the league considering what their 2020 draft pick could be.

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