Capitals

Sproles could return to resurgent Saints run game

201211111311474827741-p2.jpeg

Sproles could return to resurgent Saints run game

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Darren Sproles is back at practice and close to rejoining a New Orleans running game that hardly resembles the anemic one he was part of before he went out with a broken left hand.

The Saints were last in the league in rushing, averaging only 72.6 yards, through their first seven games of this season.

During each of their last two games - victories over Philadelphia and previously unbeaten Atlanta - the Saints have gained at least 140 yards on the ground while clawing their way back to the fringes of the NFC wild card playoff race.

``We've been getting a great push up front, creating little seams for us to run through,'' said Mark Ingram, who has looked like a running back transformed the past two weeks. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. ``has been doing a great job of dialing up the right calls at the right moment and we've just been running hard. So we've definitely had some of our best runs this year the past two weeks.''

It is not clear whether Sproles will play at Oakland this Sunday as coaches and trainers monitor how he handles practices with a protective glove on his injured hand. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday's practice was non-contact and Sproles was officially listed as limited.

``He caught the ball well,'' Vitt said. ``He ran great. I was very encouraged with his work today.''

If Sproles does return, coaches will have to figure out the best way to work him back into the rotation with Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.

``We're going to activate whoever gives us the best chance to win. That changes week to week on the opponent that we're playing, the fronts that we're seeing, the potential weather we're playing in,'' Vitt said. ``Those things help us make a decision on a week to week basis on who will play in the game.''

The speedy Sproles is often more of a threat in the passing game out of the backfield than on running plays, though he has been productive carrying the ball as well at times. This weekend, rain is expected in the San Francisco Bay area. Meanwhile, Oakland ranks 21st against the run. Those factors could sway the Saints toward a game plan similar to the hard-running approach, featuring Chris Ivory, that they used the past two weeks.

Ivory has burst back onto the scene in New Orleans after sitting out the first seven games with little explanation from coaches as to why. His performances in the past two games make it tough to keep him out of the lineup now.

Ivory has carried the ball 17 times for 120, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. That includes a 22-yard touchdown against the Eagles and a stirring 56-yard scoring run against the Falcons.

Asked whether he thought his last two outings would make coaches think twice before benching him again, Ivory said, ``Yeah, they would. But I think as long as I'm doing the right things and get a plus on the plays that I get, I think that just helps me out and allows them to give that much more trust in me.''

The improvement hasn't been all Ivory, though. Thomas has averaged nearly 5 yards per carry the past two games, though he has also seen regular work in the short passing game, particularly on screens. Ingram, meanwhile, has had two of his best games of the season.

In the first seven games, Ingram rushed 47 times for 134 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. In the past two games, he has rushed 23 times for 111 yards, a 4.8-yard average.

Ingram scoffed at the notion that he was more motivated to produce after witnessing Ivory's emergence, but the former Heisman Trophy winner acknowledged that he naturally does not want to be outperformed by anyone at his position.

``Seeing him run hard is great and he's a great runner, but just because he runs hard doesn't mean he makes me run harder. I mean, I run hard anyway,'' Ingram said. ``You see him go out there and do well, you want to do well. It's not anything crazy, but definitely, as pros we're competitors and you definitely want to do a good job.''

Whatever the case, Oakland defenders have noticed that the Saints' ground game is rolling again, giving them something else to worry about as they also try to figure out how to slow down Drew Brees and New Orleans second-ranked passing game.

``That's been one of the keys to them turning their season around. They've been able to run the ball pretty well the last few games,'' Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell said. ``They've got Pierre Thomas, Ivory and Ingram. Those are pretty physical backs. We're going to have to do a good job on the edges. The corners are going to have to tackle. We have our hands full, but it's a challenge that we're looking forward to.''

NOTES: Three players missed practice: RT Zach Strief (groin), DE Junior Galette (left ankle) and CB Corey White (left knee). Although Vitt did not specify the severity of White's knee injury, he said it did not require surgery. ... WR-KR Courtney Roby returned to practice after missing the past two games with an injured left shoulder.

---

AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Alameda, Calif., contributed to this report

---

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

Quick Links

What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

Just four more wins. It hardly seems possible.

For only the second time ever and for the first time in 20 years, the Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. And they could actually win it.

They’re not there yet. The Vegas Golden Knights have cruised through the playoffs thus far and continue to shock the hockey community with their postseason run. Washington’s players need to think about how to beat Vegas, not what happens after.

But while the players cannot and should not look ahead, for fans, it’s hard not to. It’s hard not to dream about that moment when Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup over to Alex Ovechkin.

Winning the conference is always a huge achievement that should be celebrated, but this year is different than 1998’s run. Back in 1998, the Caps played against a Detroit Red Wings team that is one of the greatest teams in NHL history. They were the defending champions after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers the year before. Washington suffered the same fate as the Flyers, losing in just four games.

This year is a battle between two more evenly matched teams. Picking the Caps to win this series is not outlandish or crazy at all. This year, they could actually do it.

So before the puck drops for Game 1 and all dreams are pushed aside for the realities of what may happen, allow a fan a chance to think about what seeing the Washington Capitals actually hoist the Stanley Cup would actually mean.

Breaking news: Washington is not Canada and the Capitals are not an original six team. Hockey is not ingrained in the culture of D.C. the way it is in Canadian cities or in places like Boston and Detroit. Unlike in Vegas where the success of the team in its inaugural season has caught the city by storm, the Capitals won only eight games in their first year. Eight wins doesn’t exactly help a team grow roots in the community.

If you’ve been a fan of the Capitals long enough, chances are you’ve seen some pretty tough times. There have been plenty of playoff disappointments in this team’s history even before the current era. There was also the rebuild that began before the lockout that saw a very bad team play in front of a half empty stadium for several years. And they would not have even gotten to that point without the “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982.

But through it all, that small group of hardcore fans kept coming back. Some may have wavered from time to time, but they came back because being a hockey fan is different than other sports.

It’s hard to be a sports fan in any city with an NFL team and not follow football. Football may not even be your sport, but there is almost on obligation to following it because coverage and interest in football is so prevalent. It’s hard to avoid.

You have to seek out hockey

Hockey at times has been viewed as more of a niche sport than mainstream. Before the age of Alex Ovechkin, if you were from Washington and you were following the Caps, it was because you loved both.

So why did those Caps fans keep coming back after so much heartbreak? Because despite all of the disappointing seasons we always walked away telling ourselves, this will just make it that much sweeter when they do win.

One day, it will all be worth it.

That’s why we watch sports, isn’t it? We watch with the knowledge that sometimes, our hearts will be broken but it’s OK because the good will always outweigh the bad. And the worse the bad times are, the better the good times will feel afterward.

We kept telling ourselves that for a long time, but admittedly some years were tougher to get past than others. It’s hard to keep believing when you’ve seen your rival beat you nine times out of 10 in the playoffs heading into this year’s postseason. It’s hard when a team cannot seem to overcome its playoff history despite having one of the best players of all-time on its roster.

When Ovechkin was drafted, the question we all asked ourselves was not whether he would bring a Cup to Washington, but how many? He brought new fans with him, he brought excitement with him, he brought validation with him…at least initially.

But with every passing year, doubt began to creep into our minds. The upset loss to Montreal in 2010 stung, but Ovechkin was still 24. There was still hope that one day, he would still win the Cup.

Now at 32 years old, many did not know what to expect from the Great 8 this year. When would decline start to show in his game?

Ovechkin is part of why we want the Cup so badly. We want to see the best player in this franchise’s history honored. We want to see the player who transformed hockey in Washington from niche sport to mainstream take his proper place in the sport’s history. No one wants to hear him described as one of the best players to never win a Cup because he should be remembered as one of the best players, period.

But that’s not all of it.

This is about all those times we told ourselves this would all be worth it someday. This is about how we used to cope with the sting of another postseason heartbreak by thinking about what it would feel like when it was finally our year. This is about how we stuck with the team when the stadium was half empty. This is about the blue jersey in our closet with the eagle on the front and the black one hanging next to it with the capitol building on the front. This is about all the 5, 12, 32 and 37 jerseys. This is about replacing Esa Tikkanen as our lasting Stanley Cup memory.

When the Washington Redskins have a rough year, those fans who can remember them think about those three Super Bowl wins. When the Washington Wizards fall short, those fans who can remember it think about the championship in 1978. Even if you’re too young to remember the Super Bowls or NBA championship, those banners still give your team a sense of validation. They have their little piece of history to be proud of.

That’s what this would mean. A Stanley Cup would be not just for the players, it would be for the fans who stuck it out through thick and thin, those fans who despite everything still supported their team. This win would be about the Capitals forever earning their spot in the heart of Washington sports alongside the Redskins and Wizards.

This would be about never having to tell ourselves again that someday all the love we pour into this team will pay off.

A Stanley Cup would mean finally getting to experience a championship and realizing, yeah, it was all worth it.

Let’s go Caps!

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

Quick Links

Capital One Bank just made a Caps-themed update to its logo and we're here for it

Capital One Bank just made a Caps-themed update to its logo and we're here for it

Capital One is repping the district in a big way: by changing their logo to incorporate the Capitals' font and name. 

The new Capital One logo appears on the bank's websites and social media ahead of the Caps' Stanley Cup Final games, which begin on Memorial Day Monday in Vegas.

The McLean, Virginia, based bank recently purchased the naming rights to the Capitals' home arena, formerly known as "Verizon Center." And in the first year of its renaming, the Capitals have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. Coincidence? 

We've seen a small, Northern Virginia town change its name to "Capitalsville," and now Capital One Bank is all-in for the Caps.

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS: