Capitals

Witten eyes record after spleen injury, slow start

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Witten eyes record after spleen injury, slow start

IRVING, Texas (AP) Jason Witten had nearly as many drops as catches through three games this season, back when his side still hurt just about every time he moved because of a lacerated spleen.

The Dallas Cowboys tight end dismissed any suggestion that the injury had anything to do with an uncharacteristic case of stone hands. The seven-time Pro Bowler didn't really even want to say how long it took to feel normal again once he decided to play in the season opener just 23 days after getting hurt in a preseason game.

Coach Jason Garrett puts it somewhere around a month into the season, which is about the time Witten started a career-best stretch so prolific that he has two games to get the six catches needed to break Tony Gonzalez's tight end record of 102 in a season. Witten could get it Sunday at home against New Orleans (6-8).

``You know, we talked about him saying, `I'm playing in that Giant game,' after he had the lacerated spleen, and I'm thinking to myself, `This guy's crazy,''' Garrett said. ``He wasn't quite himself for probably three or four weeks after that. I think we all saw that. And then for him to kind of, `OK, I'm feeling better now' and get back to what he's been doing, I think he's had a remarkable year.''

Witten turned 30 in May, and once he made it through that opener against New York, it was easy to forget about the injury as he stumbled through two more games and reached Week 4 with five drops, four penalties and eight catches. Too old already? Hall of Fame career nearing an end?

Hardly. In the past 11 games, he has 89 catches for 847 yards and two touchdowns, including his first scoring hookup with Tony Romo in last weekend's 27-24 overtime win against Pittsburgh that put the Cowboys (8-6) in control of their playoff fate with two games left.

Witten reset his franchise record with 18 catches in a loss to the Giants in October, and a week later broke Michael Irvin's career Cowboys record of 750 receptions. With 793 catches, Witten is likely this year to join Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe as the only tight ends with 800, and he's third behind those two with 8,832 yards. Gonzalez set the single-season mark for catches in 2004.

``I have so much respect for the game and this position,'' Witten said. ``To be able to be even thinking about passing that kind of record that's stood the course for almost 10 years by the greatest tight end that ever played, to break that, no question it's special. I think you're more proud of the body of work over the course of 10 years than you are just one season.''

Witten was part of Bill Parcells' first Cowboys draft class in 2003. He played in 15 games, with seven starts, as a rookie, and missed the only game of his career with a broken jaw. Barring injury, he's about to complete his sixth straight season of starting every game.

That streak was in serious jeopardy after he took a hard blind-side hit on a broken play in a preseason game at Oakland. It was easy to rule him out for the opener after the diagnosis because the Cowboys started the season three days earlier than everyone else and had 10 days to get ready for Week 2.

Witten thought otherwise, even with his old-school former coach whispering in his ear about taking it easy during a phone call.

``He was like my dad: `Take care of yourself now. Be smart,''' said Witten, a bit bemused. ``Remember, this guy, 10 years ago when I had the broken jaw, it didn't seem like that was the same response.''

The Cowboys were just happy to have him on the field against the Giants, so some balky play and two catches for 10 yards didn't faze anyone. He four catches against the Seahawks, but had the same number of drops, then two catches again, this time for just 8 yards, against Tampa Bay.

Witten finally broke loose with 13 catches for 112 yards and a garbage-time touchdown from Kyle Orton in a blowout loss to the Bears.

``I've never thought, `Well, I'm about to taper off here, let's see if I can hang on,''' Witten said. ``It's always been it gets higher every year. And going into this year, that's what it was.''

With or without a lacerated spleen.

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

It all comes down to this.

The Eastern Conference Championship is on the line Wednesday as the Capitals take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here are five keys for how the Caps can win and advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

Score first

Game 7 is in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are deeper offensively and defensively and have a goalie capable of shutting down an offense.

Oh, and the Lightning are 8-1 when scoring first this postseason.

The Capitals are at their best when they are dictating the play. They want to play physical, trap the blue line and counter against the Lightning. None of those are particularly great strategies for chasing a game.

That makes the first goal critical.

The Lightning fans have seen their team lose twice at home already this series and fail to close out the Caps in Game 6. They have watched their team reach the conference finals two straight years in 2015 and 2016, fail to win the Stanley Cup in either year and fail to even make the playoffs in 2017.

Not only does playing with a lead better suit their game plan, but if Washington scores first that crowd is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Gauge the referees

The Caps were very physical in Game 6 and they found success with that game plan. You would expect them to have a similar approach to Game 7, but they need to be careful.

In Game 6, it was clear the referees had put away the whistles. There were a few questionable plays on both sides that the referees let go. In a Game 7, you would hope the referees take the same approach, but they may not.

Tampa Bay’s power play is very good and the Caps cannot afford to give them many opportunities, but Washington will still want to play a physical style. It’s a fine line to walk so the Caps will need to quickly figure out how strictly the referees are calling the game and adjust accordingly.

Win the goalie matchup

In this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had two bad games and four good ones. He lost both of his bad games and won three of his good ones. He did not win the fourth, however, because he was outplayed by Braden Holtby.

Vasilevskiy was great in Game 6, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled to get on the board. When the Caps finally did, Holtby shut the door to make sure the Lightning could not climb back. Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals on 32 shots, but Holtby turned away all 24 of the shots he faced for the shutout.

This is Game 7. There is no Game 8 just because you run into a hot goalie. If Vasilevskiy is on his game again on Wednesday, Holtby will have to be just as good if not better to make sure the Caps win.

Beat the fourth line

Playing at home in Game 6 allowed the Caps to get away somewhat from the Alex Ovechkin vs. fourth line matchup the Lightning have found success with. At 5-on-5, Chris Kunitz played 6:55 against Ovechkin, Ryan Callahan played 6:22 and Cedric Paquette played 6:12, considerably less than the 13:04, 13:46 and 13:42 each respectively logged in Game 5.

With Game 7 in Tampa, Barry Trotz will not be able to get away from that matchup. That means Ovechkin will just have to beat it.

That does necessarily mean he has to score a hat-trick. Ovechkin was one of the team’s top performers in Game 6 despite not logging a point as he helped establish a physical tone that ignited the team. But he has to make sure at the very least that his line is not outscored by the fourth like it was in Game 5 when Paquette and Callahan each scored.

Have a short memory

If you have a bad game in Game 1, you know you can bounce back in the series. A Game 7, however, is winner take all. If there’s a bad bounce, a bad call by the referees, a bad play, a missed save, whatever it may be, the Caps have to be able to put it out of their minds quickly.

There is no room for the “here we go again” mentality on Wednesday. The fate of this season will be determined within 60 minutes. If Holtby is not on his game, the Caps will have to battle through it. If Ovechkin has a bad night, the Caps will have to battle through it. If the referees decide they are going to call everything down to the letter of the law, the Caps will have to battle through it.

If something goes against them, they cannot allow it to bog them down mentally as we have seen at times in Game 7s of the past.

Likewise, if things go well they need to put that out of their heads as well. Desperation will grow among the Lightning as the game goes on. This is not the time to sit on a lead or circle the wagons.

Washington can’t let mistakes or success go to their head until the clock hits 00:00.

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 23, 65 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What to look for at OTAs

Redskins OTAs started yesterday. The no-contact drills are the first time during the offseason program that the offense and defense are permitted to line up against each other. The-no pads aspect of it does take off a lot of the edge but the reality is that this will be the closest thing to football we will see until training camp starts in late July. 

Here are some things that I will be looking for during today’s practice.

Who’s in? Jay Gruden told us earlier that we should expect to see some injured key players not participating as they continue to recover from 2017 injuries. Specifically, OT Trent Williams (knee), OT Morgan Moses (ankles), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring/toe) will only be spectators if they are at Redskins Park at all. Other players who may sit out or participate only in light drills are RB Chris Thompson (leg), and ILB Mason Foster (shoulder). The Redskins have been relatively healthy the past few offseasons so we will see how they deal with the aftermath of the injury scourge that hit the team last year. 

Seven-on-seven—Sure, it’s fun to watch the full team drills with 11 on each side but since blocking and tackling is limited by the rules about contact, there isn’t much to be gleaned from watching an off-tackle run. But when they eliminate the guards, tackles, and interior defensive linemen it’s all passing and then we can watch how well Alex Smith and his receivers are connecting. One thing I’ll keep in mind is that Smith decided not to get the receivers together for a “passing camp” before the offseason activities started. He said that he wanted to get to know the playbook first. Because of that they can be forgiven if they are not quite as sharp as they might be. Also, how natural does Derrius Guice look coming out of the backfield to catch passes? His primary job will be to carry the ball, but if he is a legitimate pass-catching threat, the whole offense will be harder to defend.

Rookies vs. pros—In rookie camp two weeks ago we saw Trey Quinn putting defensive backs on the ground with some moves and Troy Apke showing great makeup speed on some long passes. But those tryout defensive backs and quarterbacks are no longer around. How will Quinn look against veteran Orlando Scandrick or second-year corner Josh Holsey? Will Smith’s ball placement negate Apke’s speed? In the one-on-one pass blocking drills, which emphasize technique over power, can Daron Payne get past Brandon Scherff?

The big guys—With Williams and Moses out, who will line up along the offensive line? Does Payne line up at nose tackle or is he used more as an end with Tim Settle in the middle? Is Ziggy Hood in the middle or will he work outside? How is Phil Taylor looking after a quad injury ended his season in training camp? As noted, the rules make it hard to tell much about linemen before Richmond but we try to glean what we can. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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My reaction to this tweet from the NFL illustrating the changes to the kickoff rules:

Timeline  

Today’s schedule:Redskins OTA practice 11:30; Jay Gruden and Alex Smith press conferences, players available coming off the field, after practice, approx. 1:30

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 20
—Training camp starts (7/26) 65
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 79

The Redskins last played a game 143 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 109 days. 

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