Saturday, November 17, 2007

Week 11: Redskins vs. Cowboys

The Cowboys are a very good offensive team. They do have their weaknesses on defense, mainly in the secondary, but have been able to gloss over those inefficiencies by getting and maintaining a lead. They score a lot through the air and have a bruising back in Marion Barber to eat up clock and hurt worn-down defenses.

On a normal day, the Redskins would have to play flawless football and make big plays in order to beat this Cowboys team that looks primed to go deep into the playoffs. However, with the already much maligned offensive line, nagging injuries to Santana Moss and the loss of Sean Taylor, this game looks to be very lopsided.

This Dallas team hasn't scored less than 24 points in any game this season and has the fifth ranked passer in Romo, completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 23 TDs and only 11 INTs. I didn't even mention the big guy that the Redskins are talking about single covering all day with Shawn Springs. Going off Springs’ recent historical success, the Redskins seem content to man up against TO on Sunday and see if Springs can keep him in check yet again. Springs is a good cover corner in this league and should have seen a lot more playing time this year than he did, but the Redskins will get burned all day if they go with this strategy. Coverage and pass rush go hand in hand and, at this point, the Redskins are just not generating the kind of pass rush that will make this idea effective. Romo is comfortable in and out of the pocket and has the necessary quickness to make plays and find the open receiver. Last week against the Giants, who defensive front line is one of the fiercest in the game, Romo was only sacked once. I just don't see, especially with Taylor out, how the Skins' secondary expects to cover all of Dallas' weapons and blitz the passer at the same time.

The Redskins' offense could have success in the passing game against a secondary that's also suffered key injuries. However, I'm still skeptical about Campbell's accuracy and ability to read a coverage scheme. This is a guy that has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a game and has recorded a passer rating of over 80.0 just twice this year. He had his best game statistically last week against the Eagles but didn't get the win. In addition, his biggest passing threat, Moss, is probable again this week; it just doesn't look good for the young quarterback.

It's just too much for an inexperience and depleted Redskins team to overcome. This Dallas team is the real deal and, while these games bring a lot of rival intensity, I don't think we can overlook their weapons and the Redskins lack of consistency and general confidence.

Redskins 10, Dallas 31

- The Hokie

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Wizards Make It Easy As 1-2-3!

The last time the Wizards made the trek to the Twin Cities, a typical road trip turned into a miserable marathon. A late February storm forced the rerouting of Washington's plane and an extended bus ride just to make it to the arena before tip-off. Caron Butler's back tightened up on the drive, forcing him out of the game, and the short-handed Wizards were dealt a 98-94 loss.

Friday, the Wizards (3-5) returned to Minnesota looking to pick up a third consecutive win against the KG-less Timberwolves - their first victory at Target Center in their last eight trips. After a dismal second quarter in which they were outscored 27-15, the big guns turned it on down the stretch, using a 34-point fourth quarter to propel the Wiz to a 105-89 victory. Butler dropped 29 on 11-of-16 shooting and Gilbert Arenas added 27 as Washington shot 51.9% from the field. (Whatever happened to that replacement squad Eddie Jordan had on the court the last week that couldn't crack 36%?). Washington also got a respectable 25 points and 20 boards combined from their three bigs - Brendan Haywood (8, 11), Darius Songaila (10, 5) and Andray Blatche (7, 4). With no dominant scorer in the middle, getting that kind of production in the paint on a nightly basis will really help this squad.

The T-Wolves (1-6) are a far howl from what they were in the days of KG, Cassell, Spree & Co., but these days, a Wizards road win against anyone is a welcome sign.


Wednesday night the Wiz got a second crack at the Indiana Pacers, this time in the friendly confines of the Verizon Center. On Halloween in Indianapolis, Agent Zero's buzzer-beating heroics sent the game into an extra frame, but the Pacers got the best of Washington,119-110. But even with a healthy Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers couldn't repeat their success against a methodical, well-orchestrated Washington offense. The Wiz shot 48.6% from the field, dished out 23 assists and coughed it up only 14 times en route to a 103-90 win (If you're keeping score at home, that's three straight games in which the Wiz have held their opponents to 90 points or fewer! Who said they can't play defense? Was it me? It's quite possible...).

Gil put up 30 on 9-of-18 from the floor and added 11 assists, while Caron - who has easily become the Wizards most reliable go-to scorer - added 25. Haywood (16) and Songaila (12) also cracked double digits as Washington's big men held O'Neal to 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting.

Stat Standout

Wizards statistics during their five-game losing streak vs. the three-game win streak:

Team FG % --------------------36.7-----------------------------47.7

Opp FG % ----------------------44.6-----------------------------40

Assists/Game -----------------15.2------------------------------23

Rebounding Margin ----------(+2)-----------------------------(+18)

Turnover Margin -------------(-11)-----------------------------(+3)

Avg. Scoring Margin ---------(-13.8)---------------------------(+13.3)

What can we take from this? Sharing is caring, people. It's also the key to winning basketball games. And it all starts from the point of attack. Through the first five games of the season, Gil was averaging just 4.4 assists per contest. In his last three, Agent Zero has just about doubled his average to 8.3 dimes per game. While his 9-for-18 showing against Indiana was a sign of his increasing confidence in his surgically-repaired knee, it's essential that Gilbert continues to get his teammates involved to take pressure off himself and to make it harder for opposing defenses to key in on one particular scorer. With Caron lighting it up from everywhere, Gilbert becoming more aggressive each game, Antawn getting his looks, Haywood getting put-backs on the inside and DeShawn Stevenson nailing open jumpers from the wing, the Wizards are very tough to defend. Add a little production from Songaila, Blatche and Antonio Daniels off the bench and you've got a dangerous offensive team. That's what we've seen from these guys the last three times out. Now they just have to keep it up and prove they can compete against more talented squads.

Up Next

The Wiz return home to host the surprising Portland Trailblazers. Without their top draft choice, Greg Oden, the Blazers (4-5) have started strong out of the gates, stringing together four consecutive home wins against New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas and Detroit. They've faltered on the first two stops of their four-game East Coast road trip, losing at Denver and suffering a complete collapse against the 76ers after leading by as many as 22 points in the third quarter, before losing 92-88. The Blazers are led by second-year studs Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, who each average over 19 points per game and provide match-up nightmares for opposing defenses. Portland is young throughout their lineup, but they have sure-handed point guards in former Terp and Wizard Steve Blake and former
Yellow Jacket Jarrett Jack and big bodies down low with veterans Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla.

Key Match-Up

  • Antawn Jamison v. LaMarcus Aldridge - At 6-foot-11 and with a freakish wingspan, the second year forward out of Texas will wreak havoc on the inside against a mediocre at best defender in Jamison. Look for Eddie Jordan to use his new-found big-man lineup - which features Haywood, Songaila, Blatche, Butler and Arenas or Daniels at point - to give the Wiz more size on the interior to defend Aldridge and Przybilla. If Aldridge is guarding Jamison, look for the Wizards' All-Star forward to try to draw his defender out on the perimeter to create room for penetration from Arenas and sharp cuts to the rim from Caron. Aldridge's length makes him a dangerous shot blocker, but Jamison ability to get off quick runners in the lane should allow him to reach his usual offensive totals.

This is a much improved Blazers unit that, even without it's top pick, has the talent to take down the Wizards - as evidenced by their wins against the likes of Dallas and Detroit. But they looked tired in the second half in Philly and they'll certainly be feeling deflated after letting a 25-point second quarter lead evaporate. Meanwhile, the Wiz are firing on all cylinders and in spite of their short travel turnaround, they should be able to keep things rolling against Nate McMillan's team. Captain Caron breaks 20 for the 7th consecutive game and the Wizards win it by 9.

-- The Tar Heel

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Caps: 2, Tampa Bay: 5

Capitals 2, Lightning 5

Another day, another loss, another few decibels that the 'Fire Hanlon' chorus ratchets up.

To their credit the Capitals came out hard, looking like the desperate team that they are and were the better team for the majority of the first forty minutes. The Capitals could have easily been up 2-0 and in control of the game after the first period were it not for a stupid penalty by Schultz that lead to blue-line slapshot goal from superhuman Vincent Lecavalier, and Milan Jurcina doing his best Bryan McCabe Tom Poti impression, handing the puck over the Jan Hlavac in the process (thought Brent Johnson must bear some of the blame here - Hlavac let go a weak shot that trickled through the five-hole).

This game we out of reach for Washington with defenseman Paul Ranger's goal with 28 seconds remaining in the second. With that goal the Capitals seemed to lose all their confidence; you could see in their body language in the third period that they just didn't think they could win. With the way they have been piling up the losses recently and how much difficulty everyone not named Ovechkin has had scoring this year that is somewhat understandable and I can't say I didn't have the same reaction. But just because it's understandable doesn't make it acceptable and like so much else that's been going wrong with the Capitals you have to look at the bench boss first.

McPhee is slow to fire coaches - when Cassidy went on his infamous rant in the middle of a road trip with the team struggling he wasn't fired until the trip's conclusion. Given that I think there's very little chance Hanlon gets the boot before the conclusion of this ten-games-in-sixteen-days bit that ends December 1. That said if the Capitals don't either pick up a good number of points or win the last three or four in that stretch I think McPhee will send Hanlon packing. It'll be a shame in a lot of ways - Hanlon is good guy and has done a lot of good for this team over the last couple years and it will be a loss for the organization to be without his attitude but the reality is he is not getting the job done. And injuries can no longer be the excuse.

Capitals goaltender rankings for last nights game:

  1. Alexander Ovechkin
  2. Mike Green
  3. Brent Johnson
Quick Hits
  • Tampa' home uniforms are horrible. They look like ninja costumes you'd buy an eight-year-old for Halloween.
  • Can someone get Donald Brashear some pine tar? He seems to drop his stick every shift.
  • That play in the first period where Kozlov failed to bury the rebound from Ovechkin's shot on the PP is one of those plays you just watch and say 'Of course. That's exactly how the season is going.'
  • He's more than willing to scrap with the big boys but I've never felt Andre Roy could match up with the top-tier fighters in the NHL.
  • The NFL instituted a new rule so that throwing the ball after the play now results in a penalty. I don't think it would be a bad idea for the NHL to follow suit, at least in cases where it's out of frustration (I'm thinking of when Lecavalier whipped the puck against the back board after being called offside).
  • As earlier noted the Ducks put Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers today; the sense I got was that Caps fans were wishy-washy about whether they wanted him to replace Johnson. I wonder if anyone changed their mind after last night?
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Two-for-One: Caps/Cats Recap and Caps/Bolts Preview

With their game against Florida last night the Capitals kicked off a period of ten games in sixteen days, eight of which are against division opponents. It goes without saying that the Capitals need to put up a decent number of points - 12 or more in my opinion - through these ten games to salvage their season. They'll have the chance to do so, playing Florida four (!) times and Tampa and Atlanta once each (other games are two with Carolina and one each with Philly and Buffalo).

It's been said many times already, and by many people, that the Capitals need to turn things around quickly to have any hope of making it to the playoffs; if the Capitals can't put up some points through these ten games we won't have to say that anymore because the season will be over and we'll all be praying (1) to win the draft lottery and (2) for John Tavares to enter the draft (note: #2 may be conditional on #1).

As for the actual games - I don't think there much I can add to the commentary from last night's loss to Florida beyond what is being said at Japers' Rink and 3 Grumpy Caps Fans. What I do want to note is this:

  • This loss comes in large part because two of the Capitals most important players, Tom Poti and Michael Nylander, had terrible games. Poti was the primary Cap to blame on both of Florida's goals. It was especially bad on the second one when he made a pass any hockey player past the age of seven ought to know not to attempt. Nylander had at least four very questionable (read: terrible) passes and by the end of the game I'd lost all faith the Capitals were going to do anything when he touched the puck.
  • It's absurd Chris Clark was called for a dive when he was knocked down in front of the net and the Panthers' player (don't recall who) did not receive a diving penalty on the play where Jeff Schultz was called for interference.
As for tonights game, mark me down as someone who expects a Caps win. Yes, the Capitals are struggling, yes they are playing in Tampa and yes Vincent Lecavalier has been the best player in the NHL over the last couple weeks.

But I still think Tampa Bay simply is not that good; I know Lecavalier is not this good and I don't think the Capitals are this bad. Simply put the Lightning (7-1-1) and Lecavalier are overachieving and the Capitals are underachieving and both should return to levels that reflect their overall talent pretty soon (I have more faith Tampa will start to stumble that I do that the Capitals will start a winning streak. But I digress).

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wizards Looking to Go Streaking

Whew! That took a while. The Wizards (1-5) finally got their first win of the season Sunday in Atlanta against the pesky young Hawks by a final score of 101-90. It was also Washington's first complete game of the season and showed that sharing is one of those important lifelong values that doesn't become insignificant when you leave the playground.
All four starters cracked double digits in scoring, Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison both notched double doubles, but the stat of the night was the Wizards' season-high 26 assists. Who knew it was ok, and sometimes even the smart thing to do, to pass up a 1-on-5 three-pointer in favor of a bounce pass to a cutting Caron Butler or to kick it out of the double-team to a wide open DeShawn Stevenson on the wing? Well, now the Wizards know...we hope. Until Agent Zero gets back to 100%, the best thing he can do for his team is to draw defenders and find the open man. At 20.3 ppg, Gil still leads the team in scoring, but his 35.6% from the field isn't cutting it. Based on Sunday's showing - he tallied a season-high 8 assists - it appears Arenas is finally finding other ways to help this team win.
The Wiz shot a season-high 43.2% from the field and connected on 20-of-25 free throws in the game.

Wednesday night, the Wiz get their chance to keep a good thing going when the Indiana Pacers (3-3) visit the nation's capital. In their first meeting - the season opener for both teams - a Jermaine O'Neal-less Indiana squad blitzed the Wiz in overtime en route to a 119-110 win. Mike Dunleavy abused the defense for 25 points and 12 boards and Jamaal Tinsley and Danny Granger both scored 20. The keys to that loss were Washington's inability to stop Tinsley's penetration (8 assists), their failure to defend the three (the Pacers hit 13), and their own offensive foibles (36.4% shooting).

The good news is the Wizards finally figured out how to put the biscuit in the basket Sunday in Atlanta and they should continue to shoot at least a respectable percentage against a Pacers' D that's giving up 102.9 points per game. The bad news is that O'Neal is back and he's averaging 13.2 and 8 through six games.

Key Match-Up

  • Jamaal Tinsley v. DeShawn Stevenson - In their first match-up, Tinsley routinely broke down his defender and found room in the lane to get off his own shot or find an open teammate on the perimeter. Because of Stevenson's offensive ineffectiveness, Eddie Jordan went with Antonio Daniels for most of the second half and the extra period. While Daniels provides more of an offensive burst, Stevenson is the team's only real perimeter defender. With the two-guard finding his rhythm on the offensive end again - he scored 11 on 4-of-6 shooting against the Hawks (including an important three late in the third) - look for Jordan to trust Stevenson to limit Tinsley's effectiveness. If he can do that and drop in a couple of open threes, the Wiz have a good shot in this one.

Prediction - With their next seven opponents boasting a combined 12-27 record, the Wiz need to put up W's to get back in the hunt in the Southeast. Orlando (5-2) leads the division. I'll take Washington by 7 to start a 2-game win streak.

-- The Tar Heel
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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Considering A Caps Coaching Change

With the Capitals off to a 6-10-1 start and tied for fewest points in the NHL it's not surprising that there have been a decent number of fans (especially on the internets) calling for Hanlon's dismissal. Let me say that for most of the season I have not been one of them. In my opinion the team was outplaying it opponents most nights even if the results did not reflect it and to call for the coach's head was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and a bit of scapegoating. Plus, as both Cory from the Washington Times and Tarik from the Washington Post pointed out, if you look at the Capitals from 2006-07, take away Poti, Clark and Semin but add Nylander and Backstrom you get....the Caps from 2006-07 (essentially). My argument for giving Hanlon more time (aside of the injury troubles) was that when deciding whether to fire a coach you have to look not just at results; not just whether the team is winning or losing but how they're winning or losing and that since the Capitals were playing well but getting bad results it wasn't fair to pin it on Hanlon.

Well in this regard I'm nothing if not consistent. I still think the most important thing to look at is how a team is playing and recently, with the way the team have performed and the decisions Hanlon's been making, I'm starting to lose faith that he will be able to have success even when this team gets reasonably healthy.

The causes for alarm are:

  • The Capitals always come out and play hard in the first period and this is a reflection on their coach. However they almost always come out and get outclassed in the second (The Peerless Prognosticator recently had a great post with the stats on this). This too is a reflection of the coaching staff. While the Capitals are able to start the game well it seems that all the opponent has to do is go into the locker room and make a few adjustments in order to be successful. The Capitals have clearly been unable to do the same and are paying the price in the second period. The odd thing though is that the Caps don't get dominated in the third which seems to indicate they are making adjusts - after being outplayed in the second. Perhaps what the coaching staff needs to do is realize that you need to make adjustments to keep you opponents off-balance no matter what.
  • Playing Donald Brashear on the powerplay. I understand Hanlon's desire to have that big body in front on the PP and it's a good idea. But you know what? The Capitals are the biggest team in the NHL. There's no reason to throw out Brashear just because he's a little bigger than your other options. For the record Brashear is listed at 6'3'', 239. The Caps have comperable options like Dave Steckel (6'5'', 218; 30 goals in the AHL last year), Viktor Kozlov (6'4'', 224), Brooks Laich (6'2'', 205), Matt Pettinger (6'1'', 205) and Matt Bradley (6'3'', 210). Okay, none of them are as big as Brash but the model for this approach is Red Wings winger Tomas Holmstrom, who is officially listed at 6'0'', 203. Brash offers nothing useful on the powerplay other than a big body in front, whereas those other players at least have some offensive upside.
  • Taking so long to get Nylander and Alexander Ovechkin together/playing Boyd Gordon on the top line. I was fine with starting the season with Ovechkin/Kozlov/Fleischmann and even going to Ovechkin/Kozlov/Clark. But when the injuries started to hit and the Caps couldn't get the puck in the net it was time to play the team's best playmaker with the team's best scorer, not throw Boyd Gordon on the top line. I love Gordon but he is not a top-line player, he is a a checking line center and it's a job he does very well. Which brings me to the second problem with putting Gordon on the top line - it eliminates the possibility of having any sort of checking like when you have you best defense forward playing on the first line.
I do hope Hanlon can turn things around because I really like the guy. He was the anti-Bruce Cassidy when he came in and helped steer the team through two miserable seasons while keeping morale relatively high. He clearly knows how to get the best out of checking line players and over the last couple years the Caps have built a reputation as one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against. Plus he's always seemed like a classy guy. But the reality is that when he does things like throw Brashear on the powerplay, seemingly pick lines out of a hat and fail to make necessary in-game adjustments, it seems like he isn't going to be successful even with a healthy team because these look like bad coaching decisions.

Poti's back. Clark is supposed to be back Thursday. Semin is still out, but you can't blame massive underachieving on missing one player unless it's the goaltender. It's possible the injuries were to blame for some of the odd decisions and that the scrambled lines and failure to make adjustments came as a result. That's why it's not time to throw Hanlon under the bus yet. But if this team starts into another downward spiral that's going to wind up being another 2-8-0 stretch it will be Hanlon's time to go, not because the Capitals have had a disappointing and injury-plagued season, but because Hanlon has looked lost behind the bench.
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Monday, November 12, 2007

A Lack of Defensive Depth

It's been apparent for the past decade what the Redskins' main fault is; lack of player development and necessary depth. In this day and age, no player can or does play every down. Their physical limitations just don't allow them to compete at the level necessary every minute of every game. The Redskins have a very good starting defense, but once you get past that front line, it's incredibly weak.

This chink in their armor was revealed again versus the Eagles after a third quarter knee injury knocked Sean Taylor out of the game. The hole left by his absence was exploited by Brian Westbrook whose speed and agility was more than a match for the second hand scrub the Redskins used to replace Taylor. In addition, regardless of being physically gifted, every Redskin defender showed their inexperience and lack of game awareness against the Eagles as they continually bit on screen pass after screen pass; the biggest one resulting in the winning touchdown. It's not enough to just be a coordinator in this league. These coaches need to make their players better. Good teams improve throughout the season, but the Redskins are making the same mistakes they made during week one and have shown little growth. It is vital that they not only recognize what continues to go wrong, but that they fix it.

Offensively, the Skins are taking baby steps. Jason Campbell looked comfortable in the no-huddle scheme, but I don't think for a second that he is capable of running an offense the way someone like Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner does, so while it's nice to know he can compete in this fashion it should not be an every week kind of thing. Still, in the end, the offense failed when it mattered. Campbell only completed 2 of 7 passes for 17 yards in the final two possessions with two fumbles and a sack. This shows Campbell's continued hesitation and indecisiveness and in this area he needs to continue to get better. I'm not really sure what it takes, other than experience, to thrive in pressure situations, but I'm afraid the young stud may not have what it takes to win under pressure.

The Skins need to get better as an entire team. They have a lot of potential and a lot of raw talent but at this point in the season and in their careers, they haven't put it all together. It's a good start, but their shot at 2008 playoff glory faded this past week.

-The Hokie

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