Southeast Division Report 11/22-11/28

I’m going to start a new segment where I look at how each team in the Southeast fared for the week and talk about whether they are in the right direction or not. The Southeast has always been known as the “SouthLeast” to NHL fans and with good reason seeing how the Caps ran away with it in recent years. This year, it appears to be a tad bit more competitive and we could see two or possibly three teams make the playoffs out of it. Being a Caps fan, keep a close eye on almost every team in this division so I think this will help others get a closer view on it. It’s also a way for me to branch out instead of just writing previews and recaps, haha.

Right now, the division looks like this.

Here are the numbers for the past week:

So, a great week for the Caps and Thrashers with the Lightning right behind them. Thrashers are the hottest team in the division right now and are getting amazing goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec along with a lot of scoring by committee. Capitals are on a 3 game win streak after that meltdown against the Devils to start the week. The Lightning are scoring enough to win games but also giving up a ton of goals. Cam Ward is doing all he can to keep the Canes in games but it’s not enough.Panthers can’t score enough to win anything.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s been going on with each team this week.

Capitals (3-0-1)

After being shutout and embarrassed against the Devils on Monday night, head coach Bruce Boudreau bag skated his team on Tuesday’s practice hoping to wake them up a little bit. It seemed to have worked since they have gone 3-0-0 since then with all three wins coming against divisional opponents. Their shutout against Tampa Bay on Friday night was arguably the best game they have played all season. Alexander Semin’s also been scorching hot this week recording a hat trick on Friday and another goal on Sunday against Carolina.

The returning Semyon Varlamov has also been solid since returning from injury in stopping 73 of 77 shots in 3 games. Also of note is Alex Ovechkin recording 6 assists but no goals this week. He is still energizing the team by coming out and throwing a lot of hits in his first few shifts and he’s on track for a new Capitals record in assists if he keeps it up. The goals will come eventually. Until then, the “other Alex” seems to have that part under control. Rookie Marcus Johansson has also continued to look better and he’s had a wonderful handful of games this week. I still don’t know if he’s ready to center the second line yet but he’s playing well above what I expected him to, especially for his age.

Also of note is they were without Mike Green for two games and in those two games, their powerplay was 3-8 during that time. That’s largely part to John Carlson quarterbacking the powerplay very well while Green was out. The Capitals still need to work on playing for a full 60 minutes (the game against Tampa is a rare occurrence this season…) if they want to get further in the playoffs, though.

Thrashers (3-0-0)

Thrashers took a huge step forward this week with winning all three of their games, and against tough opponents. They started things off by dominating the Detroit Red Wings (best team in the West), then shut out the Montreal Canadiens and closed things up with a solid win over the Boston Bruins. They have been receiving stellar goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec ever since he returned from his concussion as he stopped 97 out of 99 shots faced. The offense is doing their part, as well by doing a nice job of scoring by committee. The main contributors this week were Rich Peverley (2 goal game against Montreal) and Dustin Byfuglien who had a 4-point game against Boston on Sunday. He finished the week with 2 goals and 4 assists.

Solid special teams play is also contributing to the Thrashers recent success. Their penalty kill only surrendered one goal this week and their powerplay connected 4 out of 12 times. What’s still alarming is they are giving up an average of 30+ shots per game despite blocking 41 of them through 3 games. Head coach Craig Ramsay has placed a huge emphasis on their defense blocking shots and guys like Brent Sopel are doing that well. What’s good is their goaltenders are continuing to stand on their heads despite the team surrendering a lot of shots, Pavelec especially.

It’s no doubt that the Thrashers are on a roll and there’s a lot claiming this is the best team they’ve iced in franchise history. There’s no real “stars” on the team yet but Atlanta has looked better than I’ve seen in awhile the past couple of weeks. I will say that Washington, Detroit, Montreal and Boston all played some incredibly lazy hockey when they played Atlanta but the Thrashers were playing smart enough to take advantage of that and beat them handily. Other teams are going to start to prepare for them better so we’ll see if Atlanta can hang around long enough for a playoff spot then.

Lightning (2-1-1)

Good start to the week for the Lightning with a rough finish. Wins against the Bruins and Rangers but they took a beating from the Caps on Friday and then fell to the Panthers in a shootout the following night. It wasn’t the best week for their goalies as Dan Ellis or Mike Smith had save percentages below .900 and them having a negative goal differential despite scoring 11 times shows that.

Steven Stamkos still remains the league’s top goal scorer as he tallied his 20th and 21st goals this week with the latter coming on this nice sliding attempt into the net. He had 2 goals and 3 assists this week and is still scoring at a steady pace despite being held goalless in his last two games. The loss of captain Vinny Lecavalier is having somewhat of an effect in terms of leadership but not in terms of production since Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and even Teddy Purcell had very productive weeks. Malone and Purcell scoring a pair of goals and Downie recording 4 assists.Victor Hedman also scored a goal this week and finished with a +2 rating.

One thing I did notice is that a majority of their top scorers ratings were in the minuses or even and they gave up A LOT of goals this week. It’s a combination of poor goaltending, backchecking and Tampa not doing enough to close out games.  They let the Rangers score 3 unanswered goals and blew a lead in the Florida game. Granted, they did rally to come back and force OT in the latter. Head coach Guy Boucher stated that he hasn’t been happy with he way the team played the past few games and it’s not hard to see why. The Lightning need to work harder at playing a full 60 minutes if they want to start winning some more division games, mainly ones against Washington. The good news is they still have four games left against the Caps and three of them are at home.

Hurricanes (1-1-1)

The Canes have not won a single game this year where they trailed after two periods and they were trailing 2-0 in both of their games against Washington this week. They had two valiant comeback efforts in both games and despite the great play of Eric Staal (scored both game tying goals) and Cam Ward, they could only get away with one point in both games. Ward did earn himself a shutout against Boston, though where he stopped all 37 shots despite his team being grossly outplayed by the B’s.

One thing I watched this week with the Canes was how much of an impact trade acquisition Ian White would have on the team. He had 2 assists and 8 blocked shots this week, which is pretty darn good buuut a bad pinch from him resulted in one of the Caps goals. Him and Tim Gleason should be a solid pairing in the future but there’s still some kinks being worked out.

One thing I can say is that that criticisms of Eric Staal being on the downside of his career might go away after this season with the pace he’s on. He didn’t set the world on fire with his numbers (2 goals, 3 assists) but he is providing a huge sense of leadership for this Canes team. He played a huge factor in the first goal of the game at Washington and scored the game tying marker. He’s also 6th in the NHL in points right now with 28. However, Staal can’t do it all by himself and sooner or later, someone else is going to have to step up. Paul Marice has shaken up the lines a little bit in the last couple of games so maybe that will have an effect later in terms of getting more people involved. Seemed to work for Erik Cole.

Panthers (1-3-0)

Pretty rough week for the Cats as they could only pick up one win and were outscored 6-12 in four games. You had to figure they would struggle to win games going into the season given their roster and lack of offensive talent. It’s even worse now that Stephen Weiss and David Booth aren’t scoring. They are trying, though. They were averaging over 30 shots a game for this week and had 40 in the Rangers game and all were shut down by Henrik Lundqvist.

Awful play on the special teams also contributes to Florida’s struggles. Their powerplay is worst in the league at 6.4% and didn’t improve at all this week and their PK gave up a goal in each game. It also wasn’t the best week for goalie Tomas Vokoun, who usually keeps them in every game. He still had a save percentage around .900 despite that. I feel that the goals will come to Frolik, Booth and Weiss seeing how they create so many chances but the three of them are almost the extent of their offensive talent so when they aren’t scoring, the team runs through a dry spell.

Brutal week for defenseman Dennis Wideman who was on ice for a lot of goals and finished the week with a -4. The assist he recorded wont make up for that. Stephen Weiss was completely held off the score sheet and was a -3, same goes for Chris Higgins. Getting Steve Reinprecht has given a small burst of life to this offense since he recorded a goal and Dimitry Kulikov recorded his first goal of the season this week.

What’s weird is despite all of these problems, Florida is barely a bottom-five team. I think that will change soon, though unless there’s some real shockers coming out of Sunrise.

Three Stars of the Week

1. Ondrej Pavelec

2. Eric Staal

3. Alex Semin

Victory #2 so close yet so far away, Panthers lose on last second FG

No matter how many breaks they get the Panthers can not seem to put away games this year. Today was a perfect example of that. Carolina and rookie QB Jimmy Clausen had two chances within the two minute warning to win the game. The first try ended in an interception while the second try had Clausen do enough to get Carolina into field goal range only to have John Kasay hit it off the upright. I’m not going to lie when I say that if Kasay were to have made that kick then it wouldn’t be Carolina winning, it’s more of Cleveland losing. The Browns complete mismanagement of this game almost cost them but luckily for Cleveland, the Panthers just find ways to lose. This one being the most brutal. I’m not putting the entire blame on Kasay but a good chunk of the loss is going to fall on his shoulders.

I am not sure where to begin here but I remember writing in my preview that stopping Peyton Hillis was going to be the only thing that gave us a shot in this game and guess what? He accumulated 194 total yards and scored 3 TD’s in the process, bulldozing Charles Godfrey on one of them. We failed to get pressure on Jake Delhomme and he looked like his 2003 form for most of the first half with how he was catching our defense sleeping by constantly using the no huddle offense. Other people besides Charles Johnson and Everette Brown need to get in on the pass rush. Having only two guys getting pressure on the QB isn’t going to do you a lot of good. Derek Landri and Nick Hayden are too inconsistent to be starting every game and they proved that today. We have Delhomme to much time to make plays but thankfully, he reverted back to the form we’ve come to know in the 2nd half and it helped Carolina get back into the game.

I will say this, the defense did play well in the 2nd half in some key situations. We stopped Hillis on 3rd and 4th and short a couple of times to keep the score within reach, they forced three turnovers (shoutout goes to Jason Williams for forcing and recovering a fumble in his first game as a Panther) and did their best to keep things from getting worse. Captain Munnerlyn had a nice game fending off Mohammad Massaquoi (Gamble was benched for some reason…) and he returned an INT back for a touchdown. However, there were still too many mistakes from the defense outside of letting Hillis crush them.

I didn’t mention Brian Robiske in my preview because he hasn’t been used by the Browns at all this year due to under performing. He had 7 catches today. One guess at who was covering him. Hint: He’s a former Bruin and is a free agent at the end of the season. There were also countless stupid penalties and one of them I consider “the turning point of the game.” I’m talking about Sherrod Martin’s personal foul which came after a stop on 3rd and goal. Browns pounded it in on the next play. It’s a shame that had to happen because Martin had a pretty solid game. Then there was Eric Norwood’s offsides on 4th and 3 which wasn’t killer but still very dumb and unnecessary.

Onto the offense, I am going to start by saying I’m not ready to write off Jimmy Clausen yet. Yes, his interception was terrible but he did all he could on the next drive to get the Panthers in field goal range. However, I will say he isn’t exactly looking like a future franchise QB right now. He hasn’t been awful the last couple of weeks, just decent at best and that won’t cut it if he’s going to be the team’s QB for years to come. I know the offensive line is playing horrible pass protection and he only had maybe 2 seconds to get rid of the ball (even when the Browns weren’t blitzing) but I want to see him put more points on the board. I want to see more passes like the one he made to Brandon LaFell at the end of the game. I don’t know if I’m making any sense or what but he’s got 5 weeks left to prove himself to the organization and he’s making progress but not enough. He’s still only thrown 1 TD compared to 5 INT’s….that’s gotta change.

It was the Mike Goodson show on offense has he had yet another impressive week on the ground and even more in the passing game. Clausen seemed to rely on Goodson as his bailout option and he made the most of it catching 8 passes for 81 yards along with gaining 55 yards on 14 carries and a TD on the opening drive and for once, no fumbles! It’s making the situation with DeAngelo Williams this off-season very interesting, for sure. Jonathan Stewart also had a long overdue good game. 12 carries for 98 yards…definitely more of the JStew we’re used to seeing.

It’s frustrating how the run blocking seems to finally have come around for this team but they still can’t pass block at all. I noticed Matt Roth in the backfield on almost every play and SS Abram Elam was able to get two sacks along with an INT today. Clausen relied on Goodson more than any receiver but I thought he tried to force it to Steve Smith a few times and it worked…twice. LaFell is looking more and more like the deep threat we were expecting to see when we drafted him, if he could get open more then that would be awesome. David Gettis wasn’t targeted once and spent most of the day returning kicks. Okay then. Dante Rosario was somewhat useful today with 3 catches but I NEVER want to see him run on a draw play again.

I’ll have more critiques/analysis in the upcoming week but for now, I’ll hand out game balls.

Mike Goodson – Another solid performance from him.

Captain Munnerlyn – He is no longer the whipping boy of the defense. He has been a decent nickel option and played well against Massaquoi today. Also added an INT and a TD to his resume.

John Baker – Just another day at the office for him. Never good when I’m handing out game balls to punters, lol.

It’s definitely a disappointing loss but I guess I’ll take it over being blown out or losing on back-to-back pick six’s like last week. The good news is we’re finally starting to see what exactly we should do in the off-season to address the numerous amount of things wrong with this team. It’s looking like finding a corner or a stud DT will be high on that list. Oh, and I guess I should say this; John Kasay….I am disappoint. Very disappoint.

NFL Week 12 Picks

Let’s do it.
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons

I’m aboard both team’s hype trains but if there’s one thing I know it’s that the Packers struggle whenever they are in a hostile environment. The Falcons are nearly unbeatable at home and they have a prolific passing attack going up against a banged up secondary. The Packers passing game also has a favorable matchup against Atlanta’s secondary but I’ll continue to take the Falcons at home until they lose a game there. The key for the Packers winning this game is getting pressure on Matt Ryan and forcing him off his game, that’s how they’ve managed to stay 7-3 despite all of the injuries.

Pick: Falcons

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Buffalo Bills

Fully expect the Steelers to derail the Bills spirits just like they did to the Raiders last week. I also expect there to be a new record for personal foul penalties against Pittsburgh and maybe only one or two of them will be justified.

Pick: Steelers

Carolina Panthers vs. Cleveland Browns

I don’t care how many picks Jake Delhomme will throw, if you can’t score then you’re not going to win a lot of games and Carolina can’t score. Cleveland proved that themselves last week against Jacksonville.

Pick: Browns

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New York Giants

With 1/2 of their receiving corps out, the Giants are going to make a living by running the ball and playing good defense, which they do well. This is a good game for them to get back on track in both areas since the Jags have a poor run defense and have a tendency to turn the ball over. However, I like this Jags team a lot and I think they can pull the upset. It’s a risky pick but I’m a risky person. The Giants starting Brandon Jacobs sort of works in Jacksonville’s favor since they will be seeing more of a slower back and the Jags have a very fast defensive line. How many plays Jacobs will see before Bradshaw gets put in is still a mystery, though. I’m going to say five.

Pick: Jaguars

Minnesota Vikings vs. Washington Redskins

I’m going to say the Vikings will get back on track here with a new coach kind of like Dallas did. Why I say this is because Frazier is smart enough to run the ball more and the Redskins have the worst defense in the league. Get to the Redskins early and don’t put the game into Favre’s hands and winning becomes a lot easier. Then again, Favre might have an easier time throwing all over this secondary, though. Just stay away from DeAngelo Hall.

Pick: Vikings

Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans

So…how is the Texans defense going to screw this one up? They’ve had one heartbreaking loss after another this season and a home game against a divisional rival is a perfect set up for another one. I will reluctantly take the Texans, though since I see them in desperation mode and the Titans are a mess. If Randy Moss hardly made an impact against Washington’s D, what makes you think he’ll fare any better against the Texans? Except for the fact that they might be worse.

Pick: Texans

Miami Dolphins vs. Oakland Raiders

How long is it before Dan Henning goes back to what works for the Dolphins? That, of course being running the football. It’s going to be a battle of backups with Tyler Thigpen and Bruce Gradkowski so I hope one of these coaches/offensive coordinators figures out that who ever has the better running game will win. I’m going to ride the hot streak and go with Darren McFadden and Oakland in this game for that reason. He was shut down against Pittsburgh last week but it was against arguably the best D in the league. Dolphins aren’t pushovers either but I think Run DMC will find his groove in this game and the Raiders will win. If only for the fact that Henning will call passing plays with the primary receiver being covered by Asomugha the whole game.

Pick: Raiders

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks are tough at home but the Chiefs are the better team here. Plus, Seattle’s secondary has been torched in past weeks and Matt Cassel has been playing very well the past few weeks. It helps that Dwayne Bowe is looking more like the receiver people expected him to be.

Pick: Chiefs

St. Louis Rams vs. Denver Broncos

I will take the Rams mainly because they’re the better all-around team. Denver can pass the ball better but the Rams have the personnel to shutdown Knowshon Moreno. I also don’t think Denver has enough to stop Steven Jackson and I’m still very high on Sam Bradford. He’s made a lot of no-name receivers look very good this season and will continue to do so against Denver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Baltimore Ravens

The Bucs really need to win this game to disprove all of their naysayers. I’m not a “naysayer” of them but I do think the Ravens will win. The Bucs D hasn’t fared well when playing against an offense that’s as versatile and with as many weapons as Baltimore. Josh Freeman will do his best to keep the ball away from Ed Reed, which he’s capable of but not while having Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson in his face. Baltimore should win but Tampa isn’t going down easy.

Pick: Ravens

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Chicago Bears

Eagles have a tough test. I said after the Redskins game that I would wait until they’ve beaten a team with a good defense before I jump on the bandwagon and they beat the Giants last week. Granted, they looked a bit “off” and the playcalling still kind of sucks but it was still enough to win. A good matchup here is Julius Peppers against his old NFC South foe Mike Vick and seeing if even he has enough to bring him down. The Bears play a defense that restricts teams from getting big plays and the Eagles offense thrives off that so I think Philly will be slowed down a lot in this game. LeSean McCoy will be the x-factor and if they can use him on screen plays effectively that might be enough to win. There’s also the issue of them playing only a few healthy CB’s against a QB who can take advantage of that. I’m going to pick the Eagles here because I think the Bears defense will eventually break after the Eagles keep chipping away at them.

Pick: Eagles

San Diego Chargers vs. Indianapolis Colts

Taking another risk and picking the Chargers on the road because they’ve played great the past few weeks and are getting Vincent Jackson back. It is tough to pick against Peyton Manning at home but I still see San Diego as the best team in the West and they’ll keep pace to win the division.

Pick: Chargers

San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals

Yawn….get ready for another Monday Night Snoozefest. Or maybe it’ll be surprisingly awesome! The Cardinals QBs aren’t good enough to win games and Troy Smith’s provided a small spark for the 49ers. Key word there being small considering they did get shutout last week. Either way, it’s two pretty bad football teams but the Niners seem to suck less right now.

pick: 49ers

Panthers-Browns matchups

It’s that time of the week where I’ll look at what some of the key matchups will be in this Sunday’s Panthers/Browns game. First I’ll talk about some updates on injuries for the Panthers. The word is that QB Jimmy Clausen is healthy and WILL start for tomorrow’s game, which is good news for Carolina. Also, we will likely see the return of RB Jonathan Stewart this week but it’s unclear if him or Mike Goodson will start. WR Brandon LaFell has also been practicing this week and looking to return. LG Travelle Wharton is still hurt and will not play, which means Mackenzey Bernadeau will start there and backup safety Jordan Pugh will also not play. Recently signed Gerald Alexander will take over his snaps.

For Cleveland, the key injuries other than QB Colt McCoy are CB Eric Wright, TE Benjamin Watson, WR Joshua Cribbs, LB Scott Fujita, LB Eric Barton and DE Kenyon Coleman. All are listed as either doubtful, questionable or have already been ruled out. McCoy is the one that sticks out the most but the injuries to Watson, Coleman and Wright are going to play a huge factor, as well.

Panthers Offense vs. Browns Defense Matchups

Jimmy Clausen vs. Browns Defense

Clausen’s seemed to be improving before getting hurt against Tampa Bay so I am holding out hope that he will continue to improve for the rest of the year. The Browns defense is one that thrives on capitalizing on big plays with their young corners and I can see Clausen possibly throwing a pick or two with how many passes he has deflected. He hasn’t taken a lot of shots downfield this year and that may work to our advantage against Cleveland with how many ball-hawks they have in their secondary, especially considering the weakest link, Eric Wright, listed as doubtful. Short routes and quick screens to David Gettis and Steve Smith could be his best friend. A lot will depend on how he responds to blitzes that Rob Ryan is likely to dial up. Clausen hasn’t responded well against them so far this season but he showed a lot of composure under pressure in the Tampa Bay game so I am holding out hope that it carries into this game and for the rest of the season.

Mike Goodson/Jonathan Stewart vs. Browns front 7

Eric Barton and Kenyon Coleman both being out for this game is going to be huge because Coleman and Barton are huge players for the Browns when it comes to stopping the run. Carolina has maintained their strategy of running the ball even with Goodson and he’s been successful so I am thinking it will continue with Stewart being back. Stewart has been a gigantic disappointment so far but I am hoping he has some kind of a breakout game soon and this might be the one to do it. The Browns are going to be depending a lot on NT Ahtyba Rubin to stop the run and he’s been excellent at doing that thus far so it should be a good matchup. SS TJ Ward has also been contributing to stopping the run as well and he’s been very good at it. Barton’s injury means that Jason Trunsik will play the LILB position, which is a favorable matchup if you’re a Panthers fan. His partner, Chris Cocung, may have his hands full. Needless to say, this is a very favorable matchup for the Panthers to establish a running game and I think Goodson and Stewart will be able to do a decent job of running it down the Browns throats. Of course, the offensive line needs to do their jobs as well and the playcalling is going to factor into how successful we are at the running game.

Steve Smith/David Gettis/Brandon LaFell vs. Sheldon Brown/Joe Haden/Abram Elam

I’m not sure how many three receiver sets we run but if we do run some then I am assuming Elam will play the nickel position to cover LaFell or Gettis. I think a better matchup for this would be to put Steve Smith in the slot position like he wanted to in the pre-season but Davidson has been apprehensive to do so. This is how the Ravens have so much success at passing the ball so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for us, if only to give Smitty a better matchup. Elam is having a great rookie season but Smith can always find a way to get open and it’s a good opportunity for him to take advantage of a young secondary. I mentioned earlier that Clausen is more likely to throw shorter passes rather than taking shots down field but it should be taken into account that the Browns secondary loves to go for turnovers and forcing interceptions which could lead to them giving up big plays. In the end, I think Clausen is more likely to take the safe route and protect the ball.

Dante Rosario vs. Matt Roth/David Bowens

I think I’ve said a few times that I’ve given up on Jeff King and Dante Rosario completely but I see Clausen targeting him a lot in this game. Whether or not he catches the ball is the question. Roth and Bowens have shown skills in pass protection so if Rosario lets more passes go off his hands then it could be going the other way for six.

Ryan Kalil vs. Ahtbya Rubin

Being able to block Rubin will depend on if we have success in the running game through the middle. I could see him being double teamed by Kalil and MackBern but that will open the door for the Browns to blitz from the right side. Same thing if we have Geoff Schwartz double team him because then that makes it easier for Matt Roth or Marcus Bernard to blitz us, and Bernard has 6.5 sacks on the season. The offensive line played better last week in terms of run protection so I hope that will continue since this unit is weaker than the Ravens. Pass protection is another story. Let’s just say things will be easier if Kenyon Coleman is out and that the right side of their front 7 seems to be pretty weak compared to the right. Kalil’s been disappointing this season so I’m a little nervous about him being a key factor in this game but he is an All-Pro center so I hope he starts to look  more like one in this game.

Browns Offense vs. Panthers Defense

Jake Delhomme vs. Panthers defense

As a Panthers fan, I know all about Jake since he was the QB here for basically his entire career. Right now, he’s nothing more than a game manager and I have to think the Browns are smart enough to know that and will try to keep him as limited as possible, especially when you think of who they have in the backfield. Jake will have to take a shot eventually and he is very good at reading coverages but his biggest flaw is trying to force throws that aren’t there. I don’t know how much we will see of that on Sunday but Charles Godfrey and Richard Marshall will take advantage of bad throws when they see them. However, they are also the most prone to get burnt on long passes so be aware of that, too. Our defense has been around Delhomme long enough to know his habits and the Browns run a similar offense to ours when it comes to having a QB that only manages the game instead of winning it so I think we shouldn’t be too surprised with what Delhomme will throw at us this Sunday. His immobility will also make things easier on our pass rush.

Peyton Hillis vs. Jon Beason and James Anderson

Anderson has been a tackling machine all season and Beason’s always been ace at stopping ball carriers and they will have their hands full against Hillis this Sunday. Hillis is big enough to run over them and fast enough to get past them and how we’ve fared against the run in recent weeks doesn’t make me confident in how we’ll do in this game. Stopping Hillis will likely determine whether we win or lose. Kind of like how we didn’t stop Matt Forte against the Bears and that lost the game for us…..in the first quarter. I don’t have a lot of confidence in either Nick Hayden or Derek Landri so I’m placing hopes in Beason and Anderson in bringing this guy down.

Mohammad Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey vs. Richard Marshall and Captain Munnerlyn

I’m assuming that Massaquoi will be lining up against Marshall instead of Chris Gamble seeing how that’s a more favorable matchup for him, but us switching things up and keeping Massaquoi on Gamble for the entire game would make things a lot easier for us considering he’s the lone bright spot of this pass defense right now. Slot receivers have killed us all year and with Josh Cribbs out, Stuckey will probably get most of the targets. Munnerlyn has been solid the last few weeks at the nickel position but I have to wonder if he will keep it up. He definitely has to speed to chase them down but coverage isn’t his best asset. Marshall’s been abused the past few weeks and I’m guessing the Browns will notice this and throw in his direction all game. However, he also has two interceptions and Delhomme is bound to throw a few wayward passes, which is where him and Godfrey are useful. Sherrod Martin will probably have a chance to get his first INT of the season, too if Delhomme isn’t careful. Godfrey will have some extra responsibility with taking down Peyton Hillis if he gets into the secondary, especially on passing plays, which the Browns will definitely run.

Benjamin Watson/Evan Moore vs. Nick Harris

Tight ends have also killed us this year and Watson has more targets than any Browns receiver so Harris being able to cover them is going to be critical. However, Watson may not play in this game so a lot might be depended on 2nd year man Evan Moore, who is big but hasn’t produced yet for the Browns this season. Still, I can see him playing a factor, especially with plays at the goal line.

Joe Thomas vs. Charles Johnson, John St. Clair vs. Everette Brown

First matchup speaks for itself; our best pass rusher against their best offensive lineman. Second one is a little more favorable to us since the Browns offensive line was very poor last week in allowing a mediocre Jacksonville run defense to shut them down. It’s also nice that the Browns offensive line and QB is noticeably slow and we have four very athletic defensive ends who will be more than happy to take advantage of this matchup.

Keys To Victory

– Stopping Peyton Hillis.If we can stop the run, then that puts the game into Delhomme’s hands we know how the story goes then.

– Take advantage of any opportunity the Browns give us. That means scoring on drives we force turnovers on. I’m too lazy to look up the stats for this but I am very sure we are near the bottom of the league when it comes to scoring off turnovers.

– Move the ball efficiently. The defense hasn’t been playing well the past week because they’ve been on the field for too long. Which leads me to the problem of the offense not being able to sustain any good drives. Nothing but three and outs or turnovers. This needs to change drastically if we want to win more than one game this year.

Final Thoughts/Prediction:

I know that everyone’s given up on this season already and rightfully so. You don’t get a shot at a #1 draft pick too often but I’d rather see us go down swinging than continue to put on one pitiful performance after another. Plus, I’d feel a little more comfortable going into next season if the team would look a little more competitive for the rest of the year because I know that it’s a team full of young players looking to win rather than just a bunch of scrubs. This is a game that we can win but it will not mean anything if we don’t execute. If the Panthers were to win this game, then I will see it being something like 20-14. Maybe I’m giving our offense too much credit there? That’s what I get for being an optimist.

 

Know Your Enemy: Cleveland Browns

Much like the Rams game, at the beginning of the year I saw this Sunday’s game against Cleveland as one the Panthers “should probably win.” Again, that view has now changed drastically with the Panthers on pace for the #1 draft pick and the Browns being a work in progress. The Browns are coming off two very bad seasons and are currently in a rebuilding process much like the Panthers only they seem to be having a little more success than us. A 3-7 record isn’t good by any means but the Browns have stayed competitive and in almost every game they’ve played this year. However, they still make too many mistakes to be a contender. They seem to have found some direction under head coach Eric Mangini with a solid offensive corps and promising defense led by Rob Ryan. The Browns have also found some promise in their rookie QB Colt McCoy however, he will not be starting this game due to an injury. Instead, it will be longtime Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, which could change the whole view of this game. How much he will change it is a good question, though. The Browns might have enough to win even with Delhomme at QB with how bad the Panthers have been playing. Remember the Bears game? Let’s examine this Browns team a little more closely.

Arguably, the MVP for the Browns this year is RB Peyton Hillis who was acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos for Brady Quinn. Hillis usually gets around 20 carries a game and has always made the most of them. He is pretty big at 240 pounds and is capable of plowing over tacklers but he also possesses a lot of agility for a guy his size which makes him very dangerous. It’s a wonder why he never made it as a starter in Denver because he’s been a stud for Cleveland. Hillis will likely give the Panthers a lot of trouble this Sunday since they’ve had problems stopping the run all year and this is the guy you DON’T want to face when you are weak in tackling like some of our linemen and secondary are.

Look for Delhomme to throw a lot of screen passes his way. I’m assuming the Browns will tell Jake to just manage the game and not try to do too much given his tendencies to turn the ball over. He is considerably less mobile than McCoy so how much success the Panthers will have against him will be determined by how much pressure they can generate from the front four. If they can get in his face and make him uncomfortable, then he’s more likely to turn the ball over. Cleveland’s favorite pass plays are short routes over the middle to tight ends and slot guys, which has killed the Panthers in previous games. Carolina was towards the bottom at covering tight ends for awhile and Cleveland’s tight end, Benjamin Watson gets more targets than anyone else on the team. Be on the watch for him. Also, Josh Cribbs who typically lines up at slot and I think they will switch Mohammad Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey to that position too. Whether or not Delhomme can get them the ball is the question. I’ve said numerous times that Delhomme can be a decent QB now if he’s not asked to do too much. Hopefully the Browns know that. With a line that’s given up 23 sacks this year, they will hope that Carolina’s pass rush played like it did last week where Joe Flacco had literally all day to throw.

Rob Ryan’s defense has also been a bit of a work in progress where there’s a lot of promising players but they aren’t the most talented staff. They do get a decent amount of pressure from the front 3 but Ryan loves to dial up blitzes every now and then so Jimmy Clausen can expect to see people in his face all game. The absence of Scott Fujita might make things a little easier on Carolina but Aaron Rubin, Kenyon Coleman and Matt Roth will be enough trouble as it is. They also have a great young secondary who picked the ball off four times last week against Jacksonville. The guys who stick out to me the most are safeties TJ Ward and Abram Elam. Clausen has to be careful on longer passes over the middle since these two will be all over the field. As far as their corners go, I think this is one of the few cases where an opponents #1 corner being out is a bad thing for us. Eric Wright has been abused all season and outperformed by Joe Haden, who has 3 interceptions so there’s a chance that Haden and Brown will be the #2 corners and both are solid. I will only hope that those two double team Steve Smith to give David Gettis and Brandon Lafell more room to work with but I think defenses are going to start respecting Gettis more since he’s proved he can be dangerous when left open.

The Browns also have the tendency to run a fair amount of trick plays whether they be fake punts or utilizing the versatile Josh Cribbs as a QB, Carolina has to be aware of them. Also of note is that they have a kicker who has been with the team since the organization’s existence in Phil Dawson and he has always been solid. Just like us and John Kasay.

So, the Browns are certainly no pushover and Carolina has to find a way to stop Peyton Hillis if they want to win. That’s how the Jags were able to beat them last week despite turning the ball over six times. Browns fans themselves will be watching with a lot of interest to see how Joe Haden does at the #1/2 corner position with Eric Wright being out. I have the feeling they are going to enjoy it a lot but hopefully Carolina can find a way around it. I think it’s going to depend on if the Panthers can get any big plays. As I said earlier, the Browns commit a lot of mistakes that end up costing them games and it’s up to the Panthers to take advantage of those mistakes to win.

Lightning-Capitals post-game thoughts

The last recap I wrote was after Washington’s no-show against the Devils on Monday night. Since then, they had a great effort and a 3-2 against Carolina and tonight, an even better effort and a 6-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s been a few times where I’ve said “this has been the best game the Caps have played all year” but I think tonight’s game takes the cake in terms of overall performance. The Caps stepped on the gas pedal and didn’t let up for the entire game. What everyone will be talking about in this game is the 2nd period where Alex Semin recorded a natural hat trick, his third hatty of the season and 2nd against the Lightning. Earlier, I wrote a piece wondering if Semin’s hot streak earlier in the month was just typical Sasha or if it was here to stay. Well, his last three games before Wednesday were brutal but tonight was a complete 180. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson had two beautiful set ups on those goals, as well. Speaking of MoJo, he keeps getting better and better. Had a rough night on the faceoff circle (5/12) but he picked up 2 assists and won a critical faceoff that setup John Carlson’s goal.

 

– Remember how rough things were when Mike Green and Tom Poti were hurt in October? Remember how much the powerplay struggled and how much extra responsibility guys like John Carlson had? Tonight, we were in a similar situation. No Green or Sloan in the lineup meant that Poti had to play top 2 minutes and Braden Fahey was recalled. Guess what happened? Powerplay converted twice and the Alzner/Carlson pairing shut down Steven Stamkos’ line.  Stamkos, St. Louis and Downie only recorded 4 shots the whole game. The whole defense played pretty well considering Tampa only had 17 shots the entire game.

– Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored in a few games but you can’t deny that he’s making an impact when you watch him play. The last couple of games, he’s started things up by throwing huge hits and getting the team energized. He also has a good chunk of assists to boot. Picked up two of them tonight.

– Three defenseman scored tonight (Carlson, Erskine, Poti). I think the latter two are off to set career highs for goals at the rate they’re going. I honestly didn’t know Erskine had such a huge shot until he knocked out Mike Smith with his and had the rebound bounce right into the net. Speaking of Mike Smith, I can never understand why he is still an NHL goalie. Brutal.

– It’s nice to see Varly get another shut out even though he didn’t have to work that much. He made the saves he needed when he had to though and that’s what matters.

– Look how much better the team played when Tomas Fleischmann and Tyler Sloan aren’t in the lineup. Just sayin’. I didn’t even notice Mike Knuble was back for most of the game, though but I’m hoping that changes.

This is why I didn’t freak out about a couple road no-shows last week. This team is too good to play like that and the goals will come to this team eventually. You wait it out and you’ll get performances like tonight’s. However, I am not expecting them to play like this every game even though I would love that. I am also not expecting the Lightning to look like they did tonight in future games. It was an effortless showing by them. A big reason why Johansson and Backstrom could set up Semin so perfectly was because of how much space the Lightning’s defense gave them. Anyway, what I’m saying is that this is more of what I expect from the Caps but only in a perfect world can we see it every night.

 

Three Stars

1. Alex Semin

2. John Carlson

3. Marcus Johansson

Chris Pronger is the first victim of the “Sean Avery” rule

Unfortunately for him, it was enforced incorrectly and it likely cost the Flyers a win against the Calgary Flames.

If you’re unfamiliar with this, ever since Sean Avery’s unique screen of Martin Brodeur a few years ago the NHL made it illegal to screen a goaltender by not facing the play and distracting the goaltender. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty will be issued to those who do. This is what was called on Pronger when he screened Kiprusoff on what lead to what would have been the game winning goal for the Flyers. As you can see, it’s a pretty bad call. Pronger was facing Kiprusoff the whole time and the only thing that would constitute as distracting the goalie was Pronger sticking his arm out. Whether he was doing that to distract Kipper or just direct the play is up in the air but I personally think it wa sthe latter.

I think the big problem with this being called “unsportsmanlike conduct” is that wouldn’t the refs call it when Pronger stuck his hand in front of Kiprusoff? They called it when the goal was scored to wave it off which leads me to say that this is one of the worst calls I’ve seen in awhile. I’m not going to cry “THE LEAGUE IS OUT TO GET THE FLYERS!” like a lot of fans are but this just an example of how bad officiating is in professional sports and the league needs to do something to fix it. This can be said about pretty much every sport, sadly.

Pronger’s comments about it were also entertaining “I guess it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not going to get into the he said-she said with the refs. And I’m the he.”.