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MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs reliever Pedro Strop will sit out at least a week of spring games after straining his right hamstring on his final pitch against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday.

“According to the MRI, it was barely noticeable,” manager Joe Maddon said on Tuesday. “So we don’t think it’s going to be anything horribly long but we don’t know for sure. We’d like to think we’ll be able to get him ready for the beginning of the season.”

Strop, 33, is the Cubs’ de facto closer as Brandon Morrow is on the mend after minor elbow surgery this past winter.

The team stressed the injury to Strop was minor enough that he can keep throwing, but the Cubs won’t risk him causing more damage to himself in a game.

Strop injured his left hamstring late last season while running to first on a ground ball during a rare plate appearance.

He saved 13 games last year, in place of Morrow, who missed the entire second half. Morrow is expected to miss the first month of this season and if Strop is out as well, the Cubs are likely to turn to Carl Edwards Jr, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler to close games. The latter two have ninth-inning experience.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur still needs to hire a special-teams coordinator and fill a few low-level positions on his coaching staff, but two weeks after he was hired as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach his first staff has taken shape.

Here’s a look at where things stand and which positions still need to be filled:

Offense:

Coordinator

Who’s in: Nathaniel Hackett

Who’s out: Joe Philbin

While Hackett has never worked with LaFleur, they share the same background in the West Coast offense. Hackett’s father, Paul, coached under Bill Walsh. LaFleur learned the system from Kyle and Mike Shanahan (who also was schooled in the Walsh offense). Hackett’s hiring was made official last week. Philbin, who went 2-2 as interim head coach this past season after Mike McCarthy was fired, recently cleaned out his office at Lambeau Field and has been released by LaFleur.

Quarterbacks

Who’s in: Luke Getsy

Who’s out: Frank Cignetti, Jim Hostler

Getsy served as the Packers’ receivers coach from 2016 to ’17 before leaving to become offensive coordinator at Mississippi State. He’s returning, sources told ESPN, to coach Aaron Rodgers and the other quarterbacks. Rodgers, who called Getsy “an unsung hero for us this year as a coach” after the Packers beat the Cowboys in the 2016 playoffs also said that Getsy has “gotten those guys ready to play and we’ve got great contributions from a number of guys.” Cignetti spent only one season on the Packers’ staff. Hostler, who worked closely with the quarterbacks as the passing game coordinator, also was released. He was hired by the Panthers to coach receivers.

Running backs

Who’s in: Ben Sirmans

Although it hasn’t been announced yet, he will be one of the few holdovers from McCarthy’s staff, sources told ESPN last week. Sirmans completed his third season with the Packers and helped developed Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.

Offensive line

Who’s in: Adam Stenavich

Who’s out: James Campen, Jeff Blasko

LaFleur rolled the dice on going with a young coach who knows the system over the experienced Campen, who was a favorite of both the linemen and Rodgers. Campen was quickly hired by the Browns as associate head coach/offensive line and took Blasko (assistant O-line) with him to Cleveland. Stenavich, a Wisconsin native who was on the Packers’ practice squad in 2006 and 2007, was an O-line assistant with the 49ers, where he coached in the Shanahan/zone-blocking scheme that LaFleur plans to employ. The move, first reported by NBC Sports Bay Area, was confirmed by ESPN.

Receivers

Who’s in: Unknown

Who’s out: David Raih

LaFleur let Raih leave for the Arizona Cardinals, where he was reunited with new coach Kliff Kingsbury. The two worked together at Texas Tech. Raih coached receivers for only one season after Getsy left but had been with the Packers in various offensive coaching capacities since 2014.

Tight ends

Who’s in: Justin Outten

Who’s out: Brian Angelichio

Outten worked with LaFleur when both were on the Falcons’ staff in 2016, when LaFleur coached quarterbacks and Outten was a coaching intern. The move was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday. Up to that point, Angelichio had been in limbo but now will be free to pursue other jobs. Like most of McCarthy’s staff, Angelichio was under contract through the 2019 season, meaning he will be paid by the Packers if he doesn’t land another job.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be one of the few holdovers from Mike McCarthy’s staff. AP Photo/Mike Roemer
Defense:

Coordinator

Who’s in: Mike Pettine

LaFleur’s first move was to retain Pettine for a second season in charge of the defense. In Pettine’s first year, the defense made a modest jump from 22nd to 18th in the league in yards and from 26th to 22nd in points allowed. It did so despite an inordinate number of injuries and without a dominant edge rusher.

Defensive line

Who’s in: Jerry Montgomery

Pettine and LaFleur valued the work Montgomery did with Kenny Clark, who is on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowler, and how he developed younger players such as Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster after Clark, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson — the three opening-day starters — all were lost to season-ending injuries. Montgomery’s re-hiring has not been officially announced yet by LaFleur but was first reported by ESPN. Montgomery has been with the Packers since 2015 in various positions with the defensive line.

Linebackers

Who’s in: Kirk Olivadotti

Who’s out: Patrick Graham, Scott McCurley

Graham is expected to become the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator once they’re able to officially hire New England’s Brian Flores as head coach after the Super Bowl. McCurley was told he would not be retained after 13 years with the Packers in various capacities. Olivadotti, the son of a longtime NFL defensive coach, worked with LaFleur on the Redskins’ staff in 2010. He had two separate stints with Washington totaling 16 seasons. The move has not been announced yet but has been confirmed by ESPN.
Defensive backs

Who’s in: Jason Simmons

Who’s out: Joe Whitt Jr.

Simmons, who oversaw both cornerbacks and safeties last season, is expected to be retained, sources told ESPN, but LaFleur dismissed Whitt, who was almost immediately hired by the Browns as pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach. Whitt, who had been with the Packers since 2008, finished second to Pettine for the defensive coordinator job in 2018 but became the defensive pass game coordinator. It’s unknown if LaFleur will use those titles on his staff.

Special teams

Who’s in: Unknown

Who’s out: Ron Zook

LaFleur almost immediately fired Zook, who had run the Packers’ special teams since 2015, and then interviewed highly regarded Dolphins special-teams coach Darren Rizzi. However, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Rizzi will not be joining the Packers. Given how poorly the Packers’ special teams have performed, this is a key hire for LaFleur, who said: “I want to attack matchups on special teams. And we always talk about ‘penalty-free aggression.’ We want to make sure that we are playing aggressive, but we’ve got to be smart. We don’t want to put ourselves in negative situations.” Special-teams assistant Maurice Drayton’s status is unknown.

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The seven-win turnaround of the Cleveland Browns in 2018 gave their fans plenty to cheer about and great hope for the future, and much of the excitement was fueled by their first-round draft picks of the past two years. The Baltimore Ravens weren’t to be overlooked, either, after storming from behind to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers and win the AFC North crown.

Coach of the year — John Harbaugh, Ravens: An argument can be made that Harbaugh should be the NFL Coach of the Year, not just of the division. He put together his best coaching job in his 11th season in Baltimore, leading the Ravens to the playoffs by overcoming distractions and pressure-filled situations. Many teams would’ve fallen apart at the bye, when Baltimore faced a three-game losing streak, questions about Harbaugh’s job security and a hip injury to starting quarterback Joe Flacco. But Harbaugh rallied the team around rookie QB Lamar Jackson and a new offensive scheme, which transformed a 4-5 team into a playoff contender. There had been questions about Harbaugh’s future in Baltimore because the Ravens had gone 40-40 in five seasons since winning the Super Bowl (2013-17), including a three-year playoff drought before the season. But, in 2018, Harbaugh left no doubt that he remains among the upper echelon of coaches in how he steered a struggling team to the division title.

Division Award Winners

Some postseason awards are easy to pick — defensive player of the year in the NFC West? It’s easily Rams DT Aaron Donald. Other awards? Wide open.

Offensive MVP — Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Pittsburgh relied on Roethlisberger’s arm more than ever in 2018. Big Ben was prolific as a passer in his 15th season, leading the league in passing yards (5,129), completions (452), attempts (675) and interceptions (16). Roethlisberger’s 34 touchdown passes were a franchise high. Without running back Le’Veon Bell in the lineup, Roethlisberger and the Steelers decided to increase the quarterback’s workload with a combination of no-huddle offense, five-wide sets and screen passes that served as de facto running plays. This was especially the case on the road, where Roethlisberger averaged 49.2 attempts in each of his last five full games away from Heinz Field. Roethlisberger’s rib injury cost the Steelers a loss in Oakland and a playoff berth. If the 9-6-1 Steelers had qualified, Roethlisberger and the offense would have been among the most dangerous attacks in the AFC. Despite the turnovers — including four red zone interceptions — Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a chance in every game. Five of the Steelers’ six losses were decided by seven points or fewer. In achieving his first 5,000-yard passing season, Roethlisberger proved no quarterback in the AFC North was better.
Defensive MVP — Myles Garrett, Browns: Garrett reached the Pro Bowl in his second season, but the star pass-rusher said he has bigger goals. Among them: All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year, a playoff run and a championship. As for his 2018 season? “B-minus,” he said the day after the season. Because? “Thirteen and one-half [sacks] is all right,” he said. “I had a couple of TFLs (tackles for a loss) to go along with it. It is a good year. It was not great. It was not bad. Right there in the middle.” Garrett is hard on himself. He came within one-half sack of matching the team record held by Reggie Camp. Garrett’s 13½ sacks were the most by a Browns player since 1984, and came with frequent chips and double-team attention. Garrett was the first overall pick in the draft in 2017, and the only thing that held him back as a rookie was a sprained ankle and concussion that forced him to miss five games. In his second season, he started every game, often playing more snaps than most of the other defensive linemen. Garrett’s 1,012 snaps put him on the field for 86 percent of the Browns’ defensive plays.

Rookie of the year — Baker Mayfield, Browns: Terrell Suggs summed up the feeling about the AFC North’s future after he battled to stop the team’s rookie quarterback in Baltimore’s season ending win over the Browns. “Everybody knows the history of football in Cleveland, and that guy is going to be something for years to come,” Suggs said. Suggs’ assessment was shared by many, as team after team praised the play of Mayfield. In a season in which Nick Chubb came 4 yards short of 1,000 and Lamar Jackson changed the Ravens’ season, Mayfield had the finest rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history, setting a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes and throwing a touchdown pass in each of his 13 starts. Mayfield didn’t just energize a team — he energized a city. He lived up to the billing of the first overall pick and guided the Browns to the biggest season-to-season turnaround in team history.

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SEATTLE — The Arizona Cardinals are on the clock.

The Cardinals secured the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft after losing to the Seattle Seahawks, 27-24, on Sunday at CenturyLink Field to end their season 3-13.

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Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski kicked the 33-yard. game-winning field goal as time expired.

They’ll have the top pick in the draft for the first time since 1958.

With Arizona the only three-win team heading into the weekend, the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders were in a three-team race for the second spot, which was determined by strength of schedule. The 49ers will pick second based on their .504 strength of schedule, with the Jets (.506) and Raiders (.545) picking third and fourth.

A look at the tentative draft order of the top 20 spots:

2019 NFL Draft Order
The 2019 NFL draft order after Sunday’s early games. The loser of Sunday night’s Colts-Titans game will pick No. 20. Picks 21-32 will be determined by the losers of each playoff round with the Super Bowl champion picking No. 32 overall.

TEAM, RECORD
1. Cardinals (3-13)
2. 49ers (4-12)
3. Jets (4-12)
4. Raiders (4-12)
5. Buccaneers (5-11)
6. Giants (5-11)
7. Jaguars (5-11)
8. Lions (6-10)
9. Bills (6-10)
10. Broncos (6-10)
11. Bengals (6-10)
12. Packers (6-9-1)
13. Dolphins (7-9)
14. Falcons (7-9)
15. Redskins (7-9)
16. Panthers (7-9)
17. Browns (7-8-1)
18. Vikings (8-7-1)
19. Titans (9-7)
20. Steelers (9-6-1)

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The door has been left ajar. Eli Manning’s future with the New York Giants remains uncertain going into this offseason.

That is where everything stands on Jan. 3, which just so happens to be Manning’s 38th birthday. He has one year remaining on a contract that has a no-trade clause and will pay him $17 million if he’s on the roster for the 2019 season.

Except there are no guarantees. Manning initiated a sit-down with general manager Dave Gettleman on Monday that was extensive and “no-holds-barred,” according to Gettleman. There was no resolution on Manning’s future by the end of the meeting.

The Giants at this point aren’t sure who will be their starting quarterback for the 2019 season.

“I can’t answer that question,” Gettleman said, “because I don’t know what the field is right now.”

Gettleman and the Giants will go through their evaluation process before a final decision on Manning’s future is solidified. Manning wants to play. “I do. I do,” he said during an interview with Mike Francesa on Wednesday on WFAN.

The Giants can cut Manning and save $17 million against the salary cap. They could also try to trade him (they’re unlikely to find a taker, given his age and salary) or bring him back at a reduced price. That might work for Manning. Make no mistake: He wants to return.

These are all options. But the ball appears to be in the Giants’ court when it comes to bringing Manning back for a 16th season. They have a key decision to make, and there are positives and negatives to each side of that decision.
In his 15th season with the New York Giants, Eli Manning completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,299 with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Pros for returning
Experience: Gettleman described Manning as a “mensch.” Because he is. It’s the way Manning carries himself and the person he is that warrants that Yiddish designation. As coach Pat Shurmur has noted on multiple occasions, Manning handles himself as the ultimate professional.

The Giants appreciate this, especially from their quarterback. Manning plays a difficult position and does so in New York, which is among the toughest markets. He handles all the extracurricular stuff with ease.

If the Giants bring in a new quarterback, who knows how that newcomer will handle the pressure and the demands? Manning is a known quantity in this regard. There would be no such concerns if he returns. There would be no slip-ups and/or growing pains. Manning also wouldn’t need time to acclimate to the offense or his receivers like a new quarterback. Continuity and experience are positives for Manning in this instance.

2019 NFL DRAFT

When: April 25-27
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
How to watch: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN App

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• McShay’s Mock Draft 1.0: Going 1-32 »
• Meet the 2019 quarterback class »
• Kiper & McShay: 2019 draft primer »
• Kiper’s Big Board » | McShay’s Top 32 »
• Tracking underclassmen declarations »
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Still something left? The first half of the season was a disaster for Manning and the Giants. He threw eight touchdown passes in eight games, and they went 1-7 before the bye week. The offensive line was in shambles, and Manning was a mess. He was sacked 31 times in the first eight games, and the Giants failed to score more than 20 points in six of their seven losses.

It got better in the second half, when the offensive line solidified, and Manning was sacked only 16 times. He threw 13 of his 21 touchdown passes in the final eight weeks. Given more time and with the offense adjusted to take pressure off the quarterback, there was more success. The hope if he returns can be that they found a workable formula that Manning and the Giants can build off and try to duplicate next year. Maybe there is one more quality year or run left in that arm and body.

Clean break: The Giants have been careful about what they said about Manning this season, even when he struggled. This wasn’t an accident. This is an organization cognizant of public perception, especially when it comes to the greatest quarterback in franchise history. They know it was a bad look the previous season when he was effectively benched for Geno Smith.

If Manning returns for 2019, it would make the cord-cutting perhaps as clean as possible. He plays out the final year of his deal (and perhaps mentors the quarterback of the future), and next offseason they can move on with minimal repercussions. Manning’s contract will have expired, and after 16 seasons, most will accept that it’s time to move on after two Super Bowls and a storied career that could land Manning in the Hall of Fame.

Cons for returning
Really, again? Gettleman mentioned Wednesday the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He was talking about cutting bait quickly on some of his own mistakes this season, but that logic can be applied to Manning as well this offseason. If the Giants trot Manning out again behind an average or subpar offensive line, why would anything change, even if he does have perhaps the best weapons in the league? Working with Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard wasn’t enough for Manning to lead anything more than a middling offense over the course of a 16-game season. And that was after an awful 2017 season as well.

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The Giants tried to make it work with Manning. They drafted a running back No. 2 overall and an offensive lineman in the second round. They signed Beckham to a long-term deal and made Nate Solder, at the time, the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. They’ve used four of their past five first-round picks on offensive players. It hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s time to take a different approach with the most important position on a football team. Otherwise, they could be sitting out the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years.

Deteriorating play: Say what you want about Manning, but he isn’t playing at the level he was during the Super Bowl seasons. He’s just not. Some of it is a result of Father Time. It catches up to everybody in this game. Manning is 38 years old now and less mobile than ever. His arm, while still serviceable, is not as strong as it once was. He struggled in inclement weather this season and is quick to bail with a defender in his face.

Whenever anything is off schedule, it’s a dead play for the Giants with Manning. It’s hard to operate with these deficiencies in today’s game, in which there is more passing and a higher demand on rushing the passer. Quarterbacks are consistently under pressure, and a premium is put on being able to avoid the rush. Even Manning’s own coach prefers a more mobile quarterback.
That is — and never was — Manning’s strength. Now, he’s no longer a top-half-of-the-league quarterback. He isn’t making enough plays. Andy Dalton and Carson Wentz finished tied for 17th in the NFL with Manning after throwing 21 touchdown passes. The problem: Dalton and Wentz each played in 11 games. This might be the most compelling of all reasons to move on if the Giants want to win. Scoring points by throwing the ball around the yard is the name of the game these days. Manning hasn’t consistently made enough plays in recent years.

No hope: Those on the Giants’ roster the past few years have experienced little success. They never won Super Bowls with Manning (aside from Zak DeOssie), and their eight wins the past two seasons are fewer than that of any team besides the Cleveland Browns, who were winless in 2017.

It’s a hard sell to that locker room for the Giants to come back into next season with most of the same key pieces, including the quarterback. Earlier this season, there were doubts from more than a few players about whether they could still win with Manning as the quarterback. Was some late-season success enough to completely erase those doubts? What happens when the Giants inevitably struggle offensively at some point next season? The doubts will resurface. This needs to be factored into the equation as the Giants make their decision on Manning’s future.

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PITTSBURGH — Injured Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert had fun with a Steelers coach discussing his impact on Sunday’s game despite being on injured reserve since October.

“Hey I am ahead of schedule! Glad the @steelers are still thinking about me tho,” tweeted Eifert, who was sent to IR on Oct. 5 with an ankle injury.

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In a weekly interview with Steelers.com previewing the upcoming opponent, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked where he thinks Eifert ranks in terms of the game’s best tight ends. The Steelers host the Bengals in Sunday’s season finale needing a win and help to reach the playoffs.

“I think he’s very good,” Butler said. “I think he’s up there. He can get deep on you. He does a good job of catching the ball, all that stuff. He’s going to be a problem for us to cover.”

At one point earlier in the interview, Butler was asked which players will fill the void left by injured receiver A.J. Green, “besides Tyler Eifert, the tight end.” Butler said Eifert is doing a good job and referenced John Ross and Alex Erickson as impact players.

Butler also discussed quarterback Jeff Driskel’s mobility on designed runs, the difficulty of tackling running back Joe Mixon, the speed of Ross and whether Tyler Boyd will be on the field for the Bengals on Sunday. Butler pointed out he typically references players by numbers instead of names, since that’s how he sees them on game film.

Eifert has been a fixture for the Bengals offense since entering the league in 2013 but will have missed both Steelers matchups this season. The Steelers and Bengals last played Oct. 14, with Pittsburgh winning 28-21 to extend its winning streak over the AFC North rival to seven games.

During his weekly session with reporters Thursday, Butler discussed the state of his defense, which ranks ninth in total defense, first in sacks and 15th in scoring defense. The Steelers are 8-6-1 and need the Cleveland Browns to defeat the Baltimore Ravens to loosen up Baltimore’s half-game divisional lead.

“There are some guys that weren’t here with us last year that are getting better, but again we aren’t good enough,” Butler said. “We are what we are. I don’t know how many games we won by three or lost by three or whatever. Those games we won last year and ended up 13-3. You lose those games, like we did this year, then we’re where we are.”

Butler has been with the Steelers since 2003, serving as a linebackers coach for 12 years before head coach Mike Tomlin promoted him to a coordinator role in 2015.

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The time to feel down about star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury has passed.

The San Francisco 49ers know they now must prepare to go ahead with the rest of what was supposed to be a promising season with backup C.J. Beathard at the helm instead of the player who immediately became the face of the franchise.
“There’s a lot of people out there doubting us and counting us out,” Beathard said Wednesday. “I think everybody in the building is excited and we’re ready to get rolling and win some games moving forward.”

There’s good reason to doubt the 49ers, who were 1-10 last year under Brian Hoyer and Beathard before Garoppolo took over as starter following a midseason trade from New England. He immediately injected life into a struggling franchise by winning all five of his starts to end last season.

The 49ers (1-2) rewarded him in the off-season with a $137.5 million, five-year contract and entered this season with high hopes that might have been dashed when Garoppolo blew out his left knee when he planted and tried to cut up field rather than run out of bounds late in a 38-27 loss at Kansas City.

Coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t try to sugarcoat the gloom when he delivered the bad news to his players Monday, telling them it was understandable to feel down.

The players appreciated that sentiment even if they know they must move on and prepare for Sunday’s road game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

“It’s cool to see your head coach acknowledge that, yeah, we all feel it for a little bit,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “That’s OK to acknowledge it but we don’t need to dwell on it. We just need to find what we need to do to get better.”

The Niners under Garoppolo were a dynamic offence. They ranked sixth in the league in scoring and in yards per play in eight starts with him under centre. That was a big jump after ranking in the bottom 10 of the league in both categories before Garoppolo took over.

The 49ers believe Beathard’s experience playing as a rookie, the opportunity to watch Garoppolo succeed in the offence and going through an entire off-season program will make Beathard a better player this time around.

He got one snap last week after Garoppolo got hurt and threw a touchdown pass to George Kittle. The play was negated by a penalty, the 49ers settled for a field goal and the offence never got the ball back.

“You see it in his decision making,” Juszczyk said. “He’s just much more decisive out there. You can tell things aren’t spinning in his head so much. He gets the ball out quick and has a lot of confidence.”

Beathard started five games as a rookie last year, completing 54.9 per cent of his passes with four touchdowns, six interceptions, 6.4 yards per attempt and a 69.2 passer rating that was second lowest in the NFL.

He wasn’t helped by the fact leading receiver Pierre Garcon had gone down with a season-ending injury, the running game was inconsistent and the offensive line was hampered by injuries. That contributed to Beathard taking 19 sacks last year but also allowed him to prove his toughness to his teammates.

“That wasn’t exactly the situation I wanted to put C.J. into,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I think myself and a lot of our team earned a lot of respect for him. Not all the weeks, but some weeks, he was in a very tough situation. He never wavered, never saw his confidence change and when he eventually was benched and we put Jimmy in, you would think a guy would be less confident after that. You guys can ask him, but I truly believe he was more confident. Even though he struggled at times, he truly believed he could do it. Those are the kind of guys you want to go to battle with.”

NOTES: San Francisco worked out several quarterbacks Tuesday but decided to promote Nick Mullens from the practice squad to serve as the backup for now. Mullens originally joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and spent all last year on the practice squad. … RB Matt Breida (knee) and WR Marquise Goodwin (quadriceps) were limited in practice. … S Adrian Colbert (hip), G Joshua Garnett (toe), G Mike Person (knee), CB Richard Sherman (calf), T Joe Staley (not injury related), S Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) did not practice. … The 49ers signed DL Ryan Delaire, OL Christian DiLauro and DB Dexter McCoil to the practice squad.

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson isn’t as troubled as most people seem to be by the Oakland Raiders’ lack of a pass rush.

The way Johnson sees it, there are other ways for the defence to impact games.

Yet with only two sacks in two games, Johnson also realizes something has to change.

“It’s a lot of ways to contribute to being a really good defence besides getting sacks,” Johnson said Thursday. “Don’t get me wrong, sacks help big time but red zone defence is a big part of being a really good defence. Turnovers for sure. It’s still early.”

Oakland’s pass rush, or lack thereof, has been heavily scrutinized since the team traded 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears a week before the season opener.

Mack has had a sack and a forced fumble in each of his first two games while helping the Bears to an NFL-leading 10 sacks. Mack also scored a touchdown in his Chicago debut against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

Conversely, the Raiders pass rush has been sparse at best. Defensive end Bruce Irvin got to Rams quarterback Jared Goff for a coverage sack in Week 1 while rookie defensive lineman Maurice Hurst dropped Case Keenum in Week 2.

Like Johnson, Oakland defensive co-ordinator Paul Guenther believes there are other ways for the Raiders to be effective. During Guenther’s stint as Cincinnati’s defensive co-ordinator, the Bengals had more than 33 sacks only twice in four seasons but finished in the top 20 overall three times.

“Obviously you’d like to have sacks but if you really look at it, when you look at the statistics year in and year out, the teams that are up there in sacks aren’t necessarily playoff teams. A lot of times they’re not,” Guenther said. “You’d always like to get a number of sacks. It kind of feeds off each other and the kind of personnel you have. That’s not the most important thing but obviously you want to get after the opposing quarterback.”

Oakland has forced only one turnover in two games. The Raiders are also 26th in defensive third-down efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 12 of 27 opportunites.

Johnson said there is a sense of urgency in Oakland’s locker room, although the 35-year-old sounds more concerned with the Raiders’ inability to stop the Broncos on their game-winning drive in the final seconds last week than he is about the pass rush.

“Really the last two games the first half was pretty good team effort but we have to finish the close ones, win the close ones,” Johnson said. “As a defence we have to be hoping for that situation, saying, ‘Hey, if we stop them it’s over.’ It’s not the whole defence. It’s a play here, a play there. Not being tight enough here or communication. Just a little something on each play of that last drive hurt us.”

With nine new starters and a 10th — Irvin — playing a different position than he did a year ago, the argument could be made the Raiders are still going through growing pains.

Johnson isn’t buying it.

“That’s too easy of an excuse,” Johnson said. “We’ve been together for a little bit. We know the plays. We just have to execute better. Our defensive co-ordinator knows we can do that. We need to help him out by making some plays. We have to make plays.”

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DAVIE, Fla. — There was a time when Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills was bothered by the backlash over his decision to kneel on the sideline during the national anthem, his way of following Colin Kaepernick’s lead and protesting social injustice. He is no longer worried. If anything, his resolve got stronger. “We’re not going anywhere,” Stills said. Stills was one of two players who kneeled for the anthem in Week 1 around the NFL. Fellow Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson was the other. League-wide, only about 10 players participated in any form of protests. On Thursday, two days removed from meeting with veterans on Sept. 11 and getting lauded by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Stills insisted that his pregame statements are not going away. “It’s not going to change,” Stills said. “Activism isn’t something you just kind of get involved in and then turn your back on it. Once your eyes are open to some of the things that are happening, you continue to work and try to grow and create change for the rest of your life. It’s something I’m committed to forever.” Stills said the Dolphins, who had established a team policy during the off-season saying that players who protested on the field could be subject to a suspension of up to four games, have not tried to stop him from kneeling. The Dolphins’ policy and all NFL punishments for protests were put on hold as the league and union negotiate. Dolphins coach Adam Gase chose the captains for this year’s team already, and Stills — just as he was last season — is one. It’s a clear sign that Gase has no problems with Stills’ stance, or his leadership capability. “I think he’s been the most productive slot receiver the last two years in the NFL,” Gase said. “That’s nothing new to us.” Stills met with reporters for about 10 minutes Thursday. There was one question about his two touchdown catches against Tennessee in Miami’s 27-20 victory. The rest of the session revolved almost entirely around kneeling, not catching Stills went to Miami-area VA Hospitals on Tuesday , along with Wilson and a few other members of the Dolphins organization. Some of the patients were moved to tears, and Stills said he spoke with several veterans privately — most of them understanding where his protests are coming from and what they are about. “This has never been against the military or the flag or the police,” Stills said. “And so just for them to have the opportunity, for us to have the conversation, for them to approach me and say that, that meant a bunch.” There are some, however — most notably, President Donald Trump — who insist on describing the kneeling and other similar actions, such as Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch staying seated for the anthem, as a protest of the flag. Trump retweeted a photo on Sunday that showed Stills and Wilson kneeling as the anthem played. In a separate tweet, Trump said NFL television ratings are declining and wrote that if “the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!” Rubio, R-Florida, took to Twitter this week to applaud Stills . “You don’t have to agree with how or why he has chosen to exercise the 1st Amendment before every game to acknowledge the hours he gives voluntarily, on his day off, to serve his fellow Americans,” Rubio tweeted. Stills said he understands the backlash is not going to stop. “It’s not about being the face or who gets the notoriety for it,” Stills said. “It’s just what I care about outside of work and what I spend my time doing when I’m not here working for the Dolphins.” Stills first kneeled during the anthem in 2016 and has been vocal discussing racial inequality and other issues. The player protests — started by Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since that season — have become a divisive topic. The debate was refuelled earlier this month, when Nike made Kaepernick one of the faces of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign . Kaepernick lauded Stills and Wilson for kneeling last weekend. Stills said he would like to see more players protest. “Obviously, we’d be encouraged to see more guys participating in the protest, but I understand that everyone makes their own decisions,” Stills said. “I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. It’s never been about that. It’s not about what other guys are doing. I understand my position and what I’m standing for, what I’m standing up for.”

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MIAMI — Ben Simmons dressed quickly after he became the first rookie to record a triple-double in the NBA playoffs since Magic Johnson. The visiting locker room in Miami can get as humid and thick as the South Florida air outside. And after the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Heat 106-102 Saturday afternoon to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in this first-round matchup, it was extra crowded, and extra hot, backstage.

Simmons read the situation just as he reads the court — quickly and effortlessly — put on his dark gray shirt and headed to the much cooler podium room before most of his teammates were back at their lockers. Veteran move for a 21-year-old.

It’s easy to forget how young these Sixers still are sometimes with the way they’ve been rolling over the past two months. Philadelphia has now won 19 of its past 20 games (including a 17-game win streak). But none of those wins was as improbable as the game they flat-out stole from the Heat on Saturday night.

“I was shocked that we won this game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told ESPN after the contest. “The fourth quarter was good to us. But the first three periods were terrible.

“It’s unheard of to win a game with 27 turnovers. A playoff game, let alone a game. But we found a way to win in the fourth period. The exciting thing is … we have so much more to grow and give. We have so much more to grow and give.”
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons struggled with turnovers, but they helped lead a fourth-quarter turnaround in Miami. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
Brown’s eyes lit up as he repeated that last line. He was an assistant coach in San Antonio when the Spurs were building their dynasty around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. He often has talked to his players about how they’ll need to learn to win and grow together — just as those three future Hall of Famers did. There is no substitute for experience. No coaching that can harden and sharpen a team like the playoffs.

But the more these playoffs go on, and the more these Sixers’ talents keep shining against this veteran, savvy, hard-nosed Heat team, the more you start to wonder if Philadelphia might just be precocious enough to win now.

When asked whether he knew his team was ready to win a game like this yet, Simmons said without missing a beat: “Yes. I do it in ’2K’ all the time.”

It was the kind of thing a 21-year-old would say without any hint of self-consciousness.

Told of Simmons’ remark, Brown laughed and said, “Ah, youth.”

But maybe that’s why this is working so far. You see, these Sixers are eminently more talented than those old Spurs teams. Simmons and Joel Embiid are generationally significant talents. Dario Saric would be the best player on many other teams. Only Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell fit the Spurs’ mode of overlooked college players who developed to become valuable pieces on a contender.

“I think he [Brown] looks at it like I’m the Tony of the team and [Embiid] the Tim,” Simmons said. “But I think he knows now that we’re two different players, and now it’s coming together the way it’s supposed to. We’re learning, we’re learning.”

They certainly are. The Sixers were downright awful for three quarters Saturday, turning the ball over 24 times. Miami took advantage with 28 points off those turnovers.

Embiid wasn’t shooting well (2-for-9 through three quarters, 2-for-11 for the game), clearly bothered by the protective mask and visor he has to wear throughout the playoffs after breaking a bone in his face March 28.

“I can’t really say anything, because I knocked down shots the other night and then tonight it was a little more foggy than usual,” Embiid said. “I was sweating, and I do sweat a lot, so every time I was running down the floor, I was like dripping to the max. At some point, I think I threw it to the bench and was just like, ‘Give me another one.’

“But that’s the only way I can stay on the court and play, so I just got to do it, no matter if it affects my vision. I still feel like I can have an impact, even if I’m not knocking down shots.”

So in the fourth quarter, Embiid focused on the defensive side of the ball and absolutely dominated with five rebounds and three blocks.

“Jo was unbelievable at the rim,” Brown said. “He was great defensively.”
Simmons essentially did the same thing on the offensive end, controlling the game like a point guard well beyond his years. In the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-10 Australian scored nine of his 17 points, grabbed five of his 13 rebounds and polished off his first playoff triple-double — after recording 12 triple-doubles during the regular season.

With their two stars leading at both ends, the Sixers settled into a remarkably poised groove in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over just three times and holding the Heat to just 19 points in the final frame.

“They’re good. They’re special,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “They put the right team together. Sometimes the playoffs become too big for certain guys. Some guys don’t know how to match the intensity of the playoffs. They already play to that intense level. They have an edge to them.

“I give a lot of credit to their point guard and leader, Ben. He does a great job of getting them settled.”
High praise from a three-time champion who already has willed his team to one win in the series — and nearly did again Saturday, with 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.

The 76ers became the first team since the 1986 postseason to win a game in the playoffs with at least 27 turnovers. In the end, Miami might just be giving the Sixers the test they need to grow up ahead of schedule.

“There’s no other team like Miami that’s this physical,” Simmons said. “I think after this, we’ll be ready for anything.”