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Sunday night wrap-up: Cutler taking charge

Jay Cutler, Jason Worilds AP

The Bears went long stretches without doing much, but at the end of the night, they had the better quarterback on the field, and that made all the difference.

While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled to hang onto the ball, only to make the game interesting, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler kept the game boring for long stretches, but made plays when it mattered most.

Cutler’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett capped a nine-play drive late in the fourth quarter, helping the Bears secure a 40-23 win over the Steelers.

Cutler didn’t break into triple digits in passing yards for the longest time, but kept his team from making silly mistakes. He also scrambled for a first down on the game-clinching drive, and hit Brandon Marshall downfield as they converted third down after third down.

It wasn’t statistically pretty (159 yards passing isn’t going to do much for his fantasy teams), but it was smart, and collected, and other qualities that haven’t always been attributed to Cutler.

While we’re still three games into his relationship with head coach Marc Trestman, they’re 3-0, and having the quarterback doing smart things with the ball is a large part of the reason why.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. Any beef Steelers wideout Antonio Brown had with offensive coordinator Todd Haley is probably over, for good reason.

Brown had a monster night, finishing with nine catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

He also made one of the highlight plays of the season so far, an amazing one-handed touchdown grab which made you grateful for automatic replay reviews of scoring plays, because it allowed you to see it many more times.

He and Haley appear to have made up.

2. There have been many changes in Chicago, but they still play an opportunistic style of defense.

Major Wright’s interception return for a touchdown was one of five turnovers forced on the night, and two of them ended up in the end zone immediately.

Part of that can be attributed to the Steelers offense, which is moving out of ineptitude, albeit slowly. But Wright also forced a Felix Jones fumble, showing the kind of aggressive and instinctive play the Bears were known for under former coach Lovie Smith. Defensive end Julius Peppers returned a fumble for a score late, showing they can make plays from many angles.

If defensive tackle Henry Melton’s knee injury is serious, it throws a kink in their plans, but they still have many playmakers on that side of the ball, and cornerback Charles Tillman isn’t 100 percent because of a groin injury.

3. The Steelers entered the game with 102 combined starts among their offensive line.

And they’re still working out how to best deploy those kids.

They used Kelvin Beachum at both tackle spots during the first half, replacing both Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams at different points.

The season-ending injury to center Maurkice Pouncey is something beyond their control, but some of the other problems are well within their grasp.

Figuring out a combination of five would help, but it also points out that the Steelers haven’t hit on some recent picks at quite the rate they’re generally given credit for.

Gilbert and Adams are second-round picks, picked when you’re counting on players being solid starters, at least. Watching them struggle shines a little light on a personnel process that is traditionally good, but isn’t flawless.

4. Speaking of offensive lines, the Bears’ looks utterly professional.

That hasn’t always been the case, but after plugging a pair of rookies into the right side, the Bears are protecting Cutler and running the ball well after three games.

First-round guard Kyle Long and fifth-round tackle Jordan Mills have held up and then some, as part of a rebuilt group. Bringing in free agents Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson to go with holdover center Roberto Garza has given them an entirely new look up front, and it’s a good one.

5. It sure looked like Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer was guilty of a penalty for lowering his head and leading with the crown of his helmet in the first half.

But it’s entirely possible officials are still wrestling with how to call it, especially in the wake of last week’s Jackie Battle call (the Titans back was fined but not penalized on the field).

For a rule so heavily discussed this offseason, it’s hard to tell anyone understands it well enough to call it consistently.

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George McCaskey: Fans have every right to be upset with Bears

Zach Moore, Jay Cutler AP

The Bears have a bye this week, so they won’t have to face the possibility of incurring more wrath from their fans for losing a fifth game in their last six tries.

The last time the Bears played at home, they heard plenty of boos from their fans while losing a game to the Dolphins and guard Kyle Long reacted angrily toward the people paying to watch him play football. Bears chairman George McCaskey was asked about that during an appearance on CSN Chicago and thinks that the team’s play this season has justified the response.

“They have every right to be [upset],” McCaskey said. “We’re 3-5. That’s a losing record. We’re winless at home and that doesn’t fit the formula for making it to the postseason. You’ve got to dominate at home. You’ve got to control your division and you’ve got to do pretty well for yourself on the road. We’re outside that formula right now and we need to correct that.”

McCaskey said he’s “very disappointed” in the 3-5 start for a team that “everybody in the building was expecting this team to contend for a Super Bowl,” adding that he is interested now in seeing how the team reacts to adversity. McCaskey said he has “every confidence” that General Manager Phil Emery, coach Marc Trestman and the players will have a successful response. Left unsaid are the possible repercussions if they again fail to meet the bar that ownership’s set for the team, but such reading can be done between the lines.

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Chargers getting a little healthier, which they almost couldn’t help

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The Chargers might not have cornerback Jason Verrett back for a few weeks or longer, but they are starting to get some guys healthier.

According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, the Chargers welcomed back cornerback Brandon Flowers (concussion), outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu (hamstring) and center Rich Ohrnberger (back) to practice .

Getting Flowers back is huge for the Chargers, especially because Verrett’s status is so up in the air. Flowers hadn’t practiced since suffering his concussion Oct. 19 against the Chiefs.

But the Chargers have had a revolving door at center as well, and get any kind of stability there is going to help.

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Chip Kelly wants no involvement with player injuries


Cowboys owner Jerry Jones isn’t a doctor, but he sometimes plays one on his team’s sideline.  And elsewhere.  Eagles coach Chip Kelly has no desire to do that.

Asked on Thursday why Kelly takes a hands-off approach to injuries, the coach was pragmatic.

“Because I’m not a doctor, so ‑‑ I mean, I think that’s simple,” Kelly told reporters.  “I can’t tell the guy, you know, ‘You’re this, you’re that.’  Just tell me who can play and who can’t play.  I think people waste a lot of time on things that you don’t control.

“No, I don’t control injuries; so, if someone can play, the doctors and the medical staff here I think are outstanding.   They tell me who can and who can’t.  For me to weigh in on it is ludicrous.  What am I going to ‑‑ what position could I take?  ‘Dr. [Peter] DeLuca, I see it this way.’  It’s kind of stupid, right?”

So why does Kelly want detailed info about player sleep habits and nutrition but not detailed injury information?

“Because I can’t affect that,” Kelly said.  “I can affect their sleep patterns.  I can’t affect their injury, though.  If a guy tore a muscle ‑‑ I’m not Dr. Miyagi.  I can’t put my hands together, rub them together, touch his leg and make him better.  Just tell me who can play, who can’t play.  I’m really good at what we can control and what we can’t control, and we can’t control that.  So let’s go play.”

He’s right, to an extent.  Sometimes a stern talking-to from the coach transforms an injured player into a guy who can play.  Because sometimes a guy doesn’t feel like playing and is looking for a way to avoid it.

Of course, that problem can be addressed by having the right guys on the roster — guys who won’t milk an injury to avoid practice or games.  Even then, Kelly apparently wouldn’t do anything about it.

“We never force a player to play here,” Kelly said.  “I can’t turn around and tell a rookie, ‘I know you think it feels like this, but it doesn’t.  Go play.'”

The wisdom in Kelly’s approach could be that he trusts the locker room to keep guys honest, policing the roster for anyone who may be embellishing.

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Peterson cases moves toward November 4 hearing

Peterson AP

The Ray Rice appeal hearing won’t be the only important legal proceeding on the docket for NFL next week.  On Tuesday, November 4, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will have a pre-trial hearing in Texas on pending felony charges of child abuse.

With a trial set for December 1 (and amid chatter that lawyer Rusty Hardin will still try to get the trial moved to November 18), the case is moving forward, quickly.  Plenty needs to be done; while many plea bargains happen on the eve of trial, plenty of prosecutors prefer to wrap cases up before investing significant time into preparing for trial.

In the Peterson case, prosecutors could indeed be looking for a way to work things out.  In addition to the challenge of facing Hardin, one of the more accomplished and experienced lawyers in the country, a grand jury originally refused to indict Peterson.  While an indictment eventually came, the inability of the prosecution to secure an indictment while having the stage to itself doesn’t bode well for the prosecution’s ability to secure a conviction under the very high “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit” standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

From Peterson’s perspective, the sooner the charges are resolved, the sooner he can play football.  The only problem is that he doesn’t know what the NFL ultimately would do under the personal conduct policy if he pleads guilty to the pending charge or some lesser included offense.  Already, Peterson has missed seven games with pay; as of Sunday, it will be eight.  A strong argument could be made that time served plus forfeiture of a certain number of the game checks he has received should be the fair outcome.

Regardless of what the league would do, the time is quickly coming for the prosecutors and Peterson to decide whether there will be a trial, or whether there will be a plea bargain.

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Jay Gruden: Barring setbacks, RG3 starts Sunday

Washington Redskins Getty Images

All the signs have been pointing to the return of Robert Griffin III to the starting quarterback job in Washington for this Sunday’s game against the Vikings, but there’s no more reason to read even the most obvious of tea leaves.

Redskins coach Jay Gruden gave up the masquerade game on Thursday and announced at his press conference that Griffin will be the starter as long as he doesn’t have any setbacks with the dislocated ankle that has kept him out of the lineup since Week Two.

“He’s our starter and he gives us the best chance to win,” Gruden said, via Mike Jones of the Washington Post.

Gruden added that Griffin has been medically cleared to play and that there’s no great benefit to holding him out until after the bye week because the team will be off for so much of the time rather than practicing. With Griffin cleared on the physical front, the focus now turns to “getting him ready from a quarterback standpoint.” Based on how Griffin looked pre-injury and in the preseason, there’s ample work to be done on that front. Barring another injury, that work will likely continue throughout the second half of the season.

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Giovani Bernard misses another practice

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

The Bengals look like they have a good chance of getting wide receiver A.J. Green back in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Jaguars as Green participated in practice again on Thursday.

Green’s return would be a reason for happiness in Cincinnati even with the rest of the lineup in tiptop shape. It could be even more welcome this weekend as the probablity that running back Giovani Bernard will miss the game grows.

Bernard missed a second straight day of practice on Thursday because of the hip injury he suffered against Baltimore last weekend. Geoff Hobson of the team’s website reported Bernard’s absence and added that “you have to figure he’s going to be out” when the Bengals take the field against the Jaguars.

Jeremy Hill would stand to see a spike in playing time and touches if Bernard is indeed out of the lineup this week. Cedric Peermand and Rex Burkhead would be other backfield options for Cincinnati, with Hobson opining that this could be the week for Burkhead, a second-year player, to get his first NFL carry.

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Report: T.J. Lang doesn’t need ankle surgery, hopes to return after bye

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Packers lost right guard T.J. Lang to a left ankle injury after the first series of their game against the Saints last Sunday night, but it doesn’t look like that his absence will extend too long as a result.

Rob Demovsky of reports that Lang avoided structural damage when he went down while blocking on the extra point after the Packers Offense opened the game with a touchdown. Per Demovsky, the injury was diagnosed as a sprain and there’s no timetable for his return as yet.

The Packers are on their bye this week, which allows Lang a good chunk of time to recover before the team would need to make a decision about his status for their Week 10 date with the Bears.

Lane Taylor replaced Lang against the Saints and had a bad moment when he got pushed backward on a failed fourth down conversion try by running back Eddie Lacy. Demovsky suggests that J.C. Tretter could also be an option if Lang can’t play. Tretter was set to start at center this year, but landed on injured reserve with the designation to return because of a knee injury. Corey Linsley has done a solid job at center and could remain there even though Tretter is now eligible to return.

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Hernandez’s lawyers advance unusual argument to support change of venue

Hernandez AP

Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez remains on track to stand trial in January for the June 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.  His lawyers remain interested in moving the trial out of Bristol County, the site of the crime.

According to John R. Ellement of the Boston Globe, Hernandez’s lawyers have fashioned a somewhat unusual argument in support of their position that the case should be moved.  They contend that the prosecution essentially plagiarized the work of the federal prosecutors opposing a change of venue in the Boston Marathon bombing case.  Hernandez’s lawyers contend that, if the state-level prosecutors really cared about keeping the case against Hernandez in Bristol County, they would have come up with their own arguments.

“Leaving aside all of the reactions one might have on many levels to this extensive, undisclosed submission of another’s work to a court, the conduct appears to convey a lack of interest on the part of the Commonwealth in fashioning its own vigorous opposition to Hernandez’s motion for a change of venue,” Hernandez’s attorneys wrote, via Ellement.  “By simply cutting and pasting the work of others, the Commonwealth conveys the message that a recycled opposition is sufficient to blunt Hernandez’s motion for a change of venue.  In so doing, the Commonwealth greatly misapprehends the well-founded basis for Hernandez’s motion and the unique circumstances of this case.”

Prosecutor Samuel Sutter downplayed the notion that the use of portions of the filing in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev prosecution in any way undermines the state’s opposition to the requested change of venue in the Hernandez case.

“To the extent that both the Tsarnaev and Hernandez change of venue motions raise the same basic legal issues, we were required to cite the same Supreme Court cases setting out the governing law as the US Attorney’s Office,” Sutter said.  “Any experienced legal observer would understand that this is a standard practice.”

Without actually seeing the documents, it’s impossible to know whether Sutter’s staff simply cut and pasted the mechanical portion of the analysis that sets forth the appropriate legal standard and cites the past cases from which those rules emerged — or whether they actually lifted verbatim the specific arguments made by the lawyers applying those standards to the facts of the case.  While it’s very common for portions of briefs and memos and written judicial opinions to be used again and again and again in similar documents, the idea that prosecutors would borrow arguments specific to the facts of one case to a different case seems bizarre, to say the least.

Then again, it’s possible that the same issues in the Tsarnaev case arise in the Hernandez case, and that Sutter’s staff liked the arguments that the feds used in the Tsarnaev case.  Even then, it would be odd if anything other than relevant legal standards and citations were cut and pasted from one case to another.

Ultimately, there’s nothing “wrong” about using content from other legal documents.  Lawyers are loathe to reinvent the wheel, and nothing in a legal brief is protected by copyright.  But it’s a way for Hernandez’s lawyers to make the prosecution look bad and/or sloppy, both to the judge and to anyone who may hear about this specific wrinkle and ultimately serve on the jury.

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Jason Verrett will miss a few weeks, may need surgery after season

San Diego at Denver Getty Images

Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett may have been pushing it coming back for the Broncos game.

And now he’s going to have some time off, and decisions to make later.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Verrett will miss the next two to three weeks because of his latest shoulder injury, and “will look at surgical options after the season.”

That certainly sounds like a Band-aid approach to something that could bother him even after he returns, which makes time to heal something he obviously needs. And there’s no guarantee that he’ll be back at all if he doesn’t progress over the next few weeks.

The first-round pick was an important part of their defense, and it’s easy to see the temptation to push him for the Broncos game since fellow starter Brandon Flowers was out with a concussion.

Now, it remains to be seen how effective Verrett can be when he does return.

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Jerry Jones defends his presence on the Cowboys’ sideline

jerryjones AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has no plans to stop his practice of visiting the sideline during games, saying he thinks he can help inspire the team with his presence.

Jones, who went on the sideline during Monday night’s loss to Washington, said it was important for him to be there after Tony Romo suffered a back injury.

“No. 1, I wanted to go down there and do what I could, look our guys in the eye, look at them, inspire them to overcome Romo not being out there and overcome what I thought was a critical time,” Jones said on KRLD, via the Dallas Morning News. “First of all, I’ve been down there hundreds of ball games. Everyone that follows it has certainly seen it, either criticized it or whatever or lived with it. Secondly, if you look around this league, you’ll see owners, I noticed Bob McNair down there during the entire, almost first half when we played Houston. But you’ll see owners all the time on the sideline. I’m not going to say all the time, you’ll see certain owners down there a lot. But that’s from that standpoint. I know for a fact you see a lot of management people on the sideline.”

Jones said that if people think he’s out of place on the sideline, they’re wrong. Jones believes that in order to do his job running the team, he needs to see the team up close.

“It’s just not an issue,” Jones said. “I’ve always felt that seeing the attitude, seeing what’s going on, getting the pulse, looking at who’s in to it, looking at how they’re into it, looking at how they’re reacting on the sideline, all of that is just part of understanding the team, getting to be a better decision-maker.”

Jones didn’t buy the Cowboys to be a hands-off owner. It’s his team and his stadium, and he’ll go wherever he pleases.

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Jarvis Landry is the AFC special teams player of the month

Miami Dolphins v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry couldn’t do enough to beat out Sammy Watkins as the NFL’s offensive rookie of the month for October, but his performance for the month still earned him some honors from the league.

Landry has been named the AFC special teams player of the month. Landry averaged 35.6 yards per kickoff return for the month, which was good for second-best in the league in October, and also had four punt returns for 16 yards.

Landry is averaging 31.3 yards per return for the season, which is the best in the league among regular returners and would be the best in Dolphins franchise history if Landry is able to keep it up for the entire season.

The Dolphins made Landry the 63rd pick in the draft in May and he’s settled into a role on offense in addition to his kick return duties. Landry has 25 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown, which is short of Watkins territory while still being a second way that he’s making the Dolphins’ decision to add him to the roster look like a smart one.

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Dennis Pitta a few months away from knowing if he can play again

Dennis Pitta AP

Tight end Dennis Pitta is out for the rest of the season after fracturing and dislocating his hip for the second time is any many seasons, but he joined the Ravens at a team Hallowwen function on Wednesday night.

Pitta was appropriate costumed in a hospital gown and wheelchair with his wife dressed as a nurse and his young son in a doctor’s coat. Pitta’s real doctors performed surgery on his hip the day after his Week Three injury and he has some more healing to do before he can start rehab and find out whether or not he will be able to continue his playing career.

“In a few months, we’ll see how I’m feeling and how things are going, and we’ll be able to make some determinations then,” Pitta said, via the Baltimore Sun. “It’s still too early to kind of tell, and I’ll continue on like I did last year and get myself ready to get back on the field.”

Pitta said there was doubt that he could return after his first injury, but he was on the field before the 2013 season came to a close. That’s obviously not a possibility this time around and even Pitta’s confidence that he’ll “get through again” may not be enough after lightning struck for a second time.

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Perfect month nets Shayne Graham NFC special teams honors

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

A lot of people have expressed concern about various parts of the Saints roster this season as they’ve opened up with a 3-4 record over the first two months of the season.

Kicker Shayne Graham hasn’t been one of the players to elicit worry from observers, though, and his performance in October was good enough to make him the league’s choice as the NFC special teams player of the month.

Graham made all nine field goals and all nine extra points he tried in the month and had 14 points in last Sunday night’s victory over the Packers. Graham made three field goals in each of the team’s three games in October — they had a bye in Week Six — and was the only kicker in the league to hit that many field goals in each of his team’s outings.

While the NFL has closed the deliberations on the top players of the month, Graham will get a chance to add to his October totals on Thursday night when the Saints face the Panthers in the final contest before the calendar turns to November.

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Rashad Jennings won’t play on Monday night

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Earlier this week, Giants running back Rashad Jennings said that his sprained MCL had not healed enough for him to return to action.

Nothing has changed over the last few days. As a result, Giants coach Tom Coughlin announced Thursday that Jennings will miss a third straight game when the Giants host the Colts on Monday night.

The Giants were hopeful that Jennings would be able to return this week after injuring his knee against the Falcons in Week Five, but things are taking a bit longer to get right for a player who had given a major boost to the Giants running game before getting hurt. They’ll hope to have him back when they continue a rough stretch of the schedule that features a Week 10 trip to Seattle and home games against the 49ers and Cowboys.

Rookie Andre Williams and Peyton Hillis will be the Jersey outfit’s top two backs against the Colts, who will be trying to rebound defensively after getting torn apart by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in last Sunday’s loss.

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PFT Live: Emmitt Smith, Week Nine picks

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The Cowboys have the league’s most productive running back in DeMarco Murray and find themselves in first place in the NFC East at the halfway point in the season.

Having the league’s top back and being one of the league’s top teams went hand in hand when Emmitt Smith was toting the rock in Dallas, which makes it a good time to check in with the Hall of Famer to see what he thinks about his old team. Smith will join Mike Florio on Thursday’s edition of PFT Live to share his thoughts about Murray, the Cowboys and this weekend’s matchup with the Cardinals, who happen to be another former employer of Smith’s.

That Cowboys-Cardinals game is the biggest in the NFC this weekend, although it probably can’t knock Broncos-Patriots from the top spot among all games. Florio and MDS will share their picks for those two games and all the rest of the action from Week Nine during Thursday’s show.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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