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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Boston Red Sox have likely spoiled Tampa Bay Rays' playoff hopes: One year ... - MassLive.com (blog)

Red Sox Rays Baseball_Kubo-1.jpgRays Manager Joe Maddon absorbed another tough loss on Tuesday night, which pushed Tampa six games out of the wild card race.

Six games represents a significant amount when only 14 games remain in a season. Now six games out of the American League wild card race, the Tampa Bay Rays are in an almost impossible position entering the season's stretch run, and the Boston Red Sox have helped put them there.

Just like last year, the teams are locked in September games with playoff implications. But now, it's the Red Sox playing the role of spoilers, as Tampa Bay did last season by passing Boston during the season's final inning.

Nothing that happened last year has mattered this week. The Rays are 0-2 since Boston came to town despite desperately needing wins to keep pace in the competitive wild card race.

Boston still has two games remaining in Tampa this week before heading back to Fenway to face this season's version of the Rays, the Orioles.

It's the Orioles breathing down the necks of a team with a star-studded, high payroll roster. That team is the New York Yankees, not the Red Sox, and the margin is mere percentage points and one game in the loss column.

Every game remaining on the Boston Red Sox schedule is against either the Rays, Orioles or Yankees. Even though the Red Sox have no chance of making the playoffs, every game remaining does count. Especially for the teams in the opposing dugouts.

Every win by Boston is a huge loss for its opponent. The looks on the faces of the players and fans of those other teams should be familiar to Red Sox fans, who experienced the anguish one year ago.

I miss October baseball, I miss making the playoffs. I miss the race and I miss the chase, but I sure don't miss losses like the ones the Red Sox have handed the Rays the past two nights, which hurt, but don't hurt this year, not in Boston.

It's 2012 now and the Red Sox have slashed their payroll. Boston is in last place and the Rays are mired in third. After back-to-back Red Sox wins this week, both teams appear headed for an October without playoff baseball.

This year, things are different. The Red Sox are hurting opponents' chances of reaching the playoffs, rather than their own.

New England Patriots: Why Has Wes Welker Fallen out of Favor? - Bleacher Report

Two weeks into the New England Patriots' season, one thing has become strikingly evident: Wes Welker's role in the offense has been greatly reduced.

The question everyone is trying to answer is why.

In Welker, we are talking about a player who just set the franchise's all-time record for receptions and is coming off of a 122-catch, All-Pro season. Following the season, the Patriots thought so much of Welker that they smacked the franchise tag on him to retain his rights for one season at a generous $9.5 million.

Do these sound like descriptions of a player who should be sitting on the bench while Julian Edelman, who had just 48 receptions in three NFL seasons entering the year, takes the field in his place?

At this point it is seems likely that Welker is being punished quietly by the Patriots, for what, who is to say.

It would not be the first time Welker has been disciplined by coach Bill Belichick. During the Patriots divisional round game vs. the New York Jets after the 2010 season, Welker was benched in favor of Edelman for making remarks about Jets' head coach Rex Ryan. 

When asked in his postgame press conference Sunday if his lack of playing time surprised him, Welker side-stepped the question.

You know, you want to be out there, I think as a competitor and everything else, especially on Sundays, it's what we play for and what we work for and you want to be out there. At the same time, Coach felt like whatever was best for the team and I'm for that and I totally understand that and I'm just there to help out however I can.

If Welker is facing some sort of punishment, he is clearly handling it the right way and saying the right things to avoid starting any controversy. Whatever the case has been with him, he will need to again become a vital member of the Patriots' aerial attack for the foreseeable future without Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Boston Celtics: What Can the Cs Expect from Jeff Green This Year? - Bleacher Report

As a key cog in a Boston Celtics roster that invokes more questions than a Jeopardy! panel, swingman Jeff Green is the biggest uncertainty of all.  

The Cs made it to Game 7 of the Conference Finals without a suitable backup to SF Paul Pierce, but they won't be able to squeak by again this year. Pierce sprained his MCL and looked gassed in the playoffs against elite wings like longtime rival Lebron James.

The Cs require someone off the bench with the athleticism to defend the league's best scorers, who are almost invariably swingmen.  

Boston needs an ace in that role.  With Green, they've got a wild card.

Though he's entering his fifth full season in the NBA, Green is still very much a prospect.  He's only 26 and already he's shown flashes of the player he's capable of becoming.  But he's also fresh off a season lost to heart surgery, which itself was preceded by a half-season of middling play for Boston.

Green enjoyed three straight seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he averaged around 15 points and six rebounds.  He's got freakish athleticism, and conventional wisdom dictates that he's a candidate to see his numbers increase sharply with transition buckets set up by PG Rajon Rondo.

There's a strong argument against Jeff Green's rate stats rising steeply as part of an up-tempo bench, laid out in a comprehensive article on Celticstown.com.  Basically, the author argues that Green was below league average in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) during his 2010 season with the Thunder, who were 12th in the league in pace (possessions per game), so running with the Cs won't do much for him.

Hi-res-5254848_crop_exactLook for Green to get more easy transition buckets this year.
Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE

But what the author doesn't take into account is that Green will likely share plenty of floor time with Rondo, last season's NBA assist leader.  There's a huge difference between running in transition with a guy who's looking to pass first (and set up his teammates in optimal spots) and running with a scorer.

Green's point guard in OKC was Russell Westbrook, a star in his own right but one who can generously be described as a shoot-first guard.  Westbrook racked up more PPG than any other point guard last season. 

When you've got a player like that at the point, he's primarily looking for his scoring opportunity. That means that by the time he does end up passing it on the break, the defense often has time to recover against the other guys in transition.

That, plus the fact that Green was part of a starting lineup that also featured the NBA's best scorer in Kevin Durant, meant that he wasn't close to the primary option in most of the Thunder's offensive sets and transition plays.

So look for Green to run with the second unit plus Rondo, and watch his efficiency increase dramatically as he's afforded easier transition buckets. 

On defense? That's a bigger question.

Green looked lost in the Cs defensive rotations during his first stint with Boston in 2011.  He has the pure athleticism to stay in front of the elite wings, but the Celtics defense isn't predicated on winning one-on-one matchups.  

Hi-res-5254846_crop_exactStrong D off the bench will earn Green plenty of minutes.
Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE

He'll need to pick up the rotations and play good help D to crack the rotation.  That's especially true if he hopes to contribute against the defending champion Miami Heat, who boast two of the best wings in the league in Dwyane Wade and Lebron.

Hopefully, a full training camp with the Cs will allow Green the chance to pick up Coach Doc Rivers' complex scheme.

If he does, he'll see time at both forward positions. He's a liability on defense at the 4, allowing a 20.5 PER as a PF in OKC's system (per Celticstown.com).  In other words, he allowed the PFs he guarded to play like 2011-12 Pau Gasol, on average.

Green will add depth to that position, but he's not an ideal option there.  

Where he'll make his most important contributions, as I've mentioned, is at the small forward position. Paul Pierce can't guard Lebron or Kobe Bryant all night and still chip in offensively anymore. The "Truth" broke down in the playoffs, and his subpar performance in the Eastern Conference Finals may have cost them a Finals berth.  

Thus, more than anything else, the Cs need Green to step up defensively so they can keep Pierce fresh and healthy.  Green is the key to their depth, their bench and their flexibility.

In fact, as the highest-ceiling member of a stacked Celtics bench, he's the key to their title hopes.

That's a lot of pressure to place on a 26-year old coming off an aortic aneurysm.

But the Cs know what Green is capable of, and they expect him to fulfill the incredible potential he's flashed in the past several seasons.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New England Patriots Look to Be Changing Plan - Rant Sports

Deion Branch New England Patriots

Stew Milne-US Presswire

When the final cuts were made shortly before the regular season started, the New England Patriots released veterans Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte’ Stallworth in favor of younger receivers Julian Edleman, Matthew Slater, and Greg Salas.  With the Patriots as AFC favorites heading into the season, it seemed to be an odd choice to be going with so much youth in support of Tom Brady but the Patriots may have changed their minds.

In 2011 the Patriots one issue on offense was their receiving corps.  They got virtually no production from six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco relying mostly on their other star Wes Welker and tight ends.  To remedy that problem, the team signed veteran Brandon Lloyd along with Gaffney and Stallworth.  Releasing either Gaffney or Stallworth was expected but releasing both in addition to Branch was completely unexpected.

Shortly after releasing Branch, who was the MVP of the Patriots 2004 Super Bowl win, the team traded for Salas.  Salas was a fourth round selection by the St. Louis Rams in 2011 and was acquired for a 2015 NFL Draft pick.  But on Tuesday the Patriots turned around and rectified what they obviously feel was a mistake.  They released the newly acquired Salas and re-signed Branch.

This isn’t the only surprise that has come from the Patriots this season.  With the acquisitions made this offseason it looked as though the Patriots were going back to a receiver focused passing game rather than the tight end focused passing game of 2011.  But when the final cuts were made the Patriots were clearly staying with the plan that had success a year ago.  The team surprised everyone further by dramatically decreasing the snaps of their four-time Pro Bowl receiver Welker in week one before dropping him from the starting lineup in week two.

Tuesday’s move seems to have another plan change as well.  With tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez being focal points of the offense, the team has been using primarily two receivers.  But on Sunday Hernandez was injured which will see him miss significant time and this move seems to see the Patriots moving to using three receivers more often.

The Patriots made a surprising move just before the season started when they chose to go with youth over experience at wide receiver.  But just two weeks into the season they seemed to have changed their minds.  The signing of Deion Branch shows that the team now believes they will have more success by replacing at least one and possibly multiple young receivers in favor of veterans who have long experienced the grind of an NFL season.  We’ll see where this ideological shift leads the Patriots when they take on the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday night.

New England Patriots: The Biggest Early Season Storylines - Bleacher Report

It's only Week 3 of the NFL regular season, but the New England Patriots have already made plenty of headlines.

Some news out of Foxborough has been positive, some has been negative, but it's all been noteworthy. From players stepping up, to schemes phasing out, there's a lot of food for thought.

Here are the top storylines of the Pats' 2012 campaign thus far.

Where's Waters?

Brian Waters is AWOL.
Brian Waters is AWOL.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Patriots have reconfigured the offensive line in the absence of veteran guard Brian Waters.

Waters hasn't reported to the Patriots after missing all of offseason OTAs and training camp. Needless to say, the delicate situation has caused a stir.

Per a tweet from the Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young, the Pro-Bowl lineman reportedly contemplated retirement following the Super Bowl. Then, on Sept. 3, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss discussed the notion that Waters may want to stay home in Texas because last year was tough on him and his family.

When Patriots president Jonathan Kraft shared his thoughts on the radio show 98.5 The Sports Hub on Sept. 9, a different perspective was voiced. According to the Boston Herald, Kraft said "Brian has chosen not to report and not to come in, so he’s on a reserve status. He’s under contract to us. He’s probably going to have to decide what’s in his personal best interest.”

If Waters was willing to come back, it would be hard for the team to refuse.

Although, the Globe's Manza Young tweeted on Sept. 18 that Waters doesn't appear interested after he turned down a pay raise.

Even if Waters did return, he would need to find a new number. Currently, rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower is donning No. 54, a number previously worn by both Waters and folk hero Tedy Bruschi.

Stevan Ridley, the Lead Running Back

Stevan Ridley has earned the No. 1 job.
Stevan Ridley has earned the No. 1 job.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Heading into the season, it appeared as though the Patriots would continue to use a backfield committee approach.

Things have changed, thanks to former third-round draft pick Stevan Ridley.

Ridley locked up the starting tailback job through his Week 1 performance. The Natchez, Miss. native rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Tennessee Titans. Even as a receiver, Ridley looked more than capable, catching two passes for 27 yards.

In Week 2, Ridley continued to be the man, gaining 95 total yards on 21 touches.

Despite strong efforts from 2011 second-rounder Shane Vereen, vet Danny Woodhead and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden, the Patriots have found their No. 1 back.

The entire rushing corps will certainly have some sort of role in the offense. However, Ridley has taken the ball and ran with itâ€"in more ways than one.

Questionable Offensive Line

Nate Solder has recovered from a shaky preseason.
Nate Solder has recovered from a shaky preseason.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

New England's offensive line looked like a serious threat during the preseasonâ€"for all the wrong reasons.

In four exhibition games, the Pats' blockers allowed 10 sacks, per NFL.com. The quarterbacks were being hit left and right, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was left to watch the mess unfold.

But in times of worry, it's important to remember that Scarnecchia has 43 years of coaching under his belt. He's seen the best out of his blockers, so he defends them to the brink.

Case in point: Nate Solder.

The second-year left tackle has had an up-and-down season. When he's not saving quarterback Tom Brady's blindside, he's fighting off the Matt Light comparisons.

When asked about the 2011 first-rounder on Aug. 23, Scarnecchia stood firm, via Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald. Scarnecchia said he thinks “Nate Solder is a better player today than he was all of last year. You figure that out. Next question.”

Scarnecchia's assessment has proved to be an accurate one.

Two games into the regular season, the O-line crisis hasn't been as dreadful as previously thought. In total, five sacks have been allowed.

The protection certainly hasn't been great, but hasn't been horrible, either. For a group that's moving on from Dan Koppen, Matt Light and perhaps Brian Waters, things must be put in contrast.

The Success of Top Draft Picks

Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones chase down Titans' quarterback Jake Locker.
Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones chase down Titans' quarterback Jake Locker.
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Top draft selections Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson have made an immediate impact.

Jones and Hightower have secured starting jobs at defensive end and strongside linebacker respectively, while Wilson is receiving his share of reps in the secondary.

Jones has recorded a strip-sack, Hightower has recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and Wilson has hauled in two interceptions.

WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia caught up with Jones, who provided a level-headed opinion on the early success of the rookies. “I feel like as far as the rookie class, we’re very mature. We all are leaders on our own. That’s one characteristic we all have,” said Jones.

The exuberant talents have lived up the hype right off the bat. Still, it will be a task to keep the momentum going throughout the campaign.

The Lack of Welker

Wes Welker's reduced role was the talk of the town.
Wes Welker's reduced role was the talk of the town.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Wes Welker didn't have the season debut he would have hoped for. Consequently, the Patriots faithful were left to speculate why.

The franchise-tagged slot receiver collected an underwhelming three catches for 14 yards against the Titans in the opener. Yet what was more glaring was his limited role in the offense.

CBSSports.com's Nick Underhill vets that Welker sat out 24 of New England's offensive snaps. However, Underhill explained that Welker only missed seven pass plays, which effectively breaks down the enigma with No. 83.

Attempting to throw water on the fire, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels attributed Welker's quiet game to the game plan against Tennessee. According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, McDaniels said:

“Wes’ role is the same as we’ve always gone. We’ll go each week and try to do what we think is best to help us win. Sometimes that may include playing more multiple tight ends. Sometimes it might be playing a lot more receivers. We kind of try to feel that out as we go through our preparation and then make the decisions that go along with it.”

Welker had a better game against Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, catching five passes for 95 yards. Yet he wasn't in the game as much as Julian Edelman, explained ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss via Twitter:

Devastating Injury to Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez suffered a serious ankle injury during Week 2.
Aaron Hernandez suffered a serious ankle injury during Week 2.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 16, tight end Aaron Hernandez got his leg caught in a pile of bodies. He limped off the field with the help of trainers, putting no pressure on his right ankle.

As a result, the Pats' offense is without its most dynamic talent. The Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard analyzed how the personnel was impacted following Hernandez's injury via Twitter:

New England's home opener provided many with the same feeling the 2008 home opener did: deflation.

Against the Kansas City Chiefs four years ago, following a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, Tom Brady tore his ACL and MCL. The entire season shifted with one blow to the leg. This is all too similar.

Fortunately, the injury to No. 81 does not appear to be as severe. NBCSports.com's Pro Football Talk tweeted an injury update:

The Return of Deion Branch

It wasn't the end after all.
It wasn't the end after all.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When wide receiver Deion Branch was released by the Patriots during the final cuts this preseason, it was unclear what his future entailed.

Now, it looks like Branch will be back in Foxborough catching passes from Tom Brady.

According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter (h/t ESPNBoston.com), the 33-year-old Branch has agreed to terms with the Patriots on a new deal.

Seeing as though Branch's locker was never taken down, per Jen Slothower of NESN.com, it's not a shock that No. 84 is back. 

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