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Westhoff thinks special-teams safety changes are hurting the game

Westhoff AP

When the NFL moved the kickoff point from the 30 back to the 35, the complaints came.  And then they went.

But now they’re back.  Sort of.

Newly-retired NFL special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, in an item written for Peter King’s TheMMQB.com, argues against rules changes aimed at making special-teams safer.  “The Touchback Era is Ruining the Game,” the title declares in somewhat hyperbolic fashion.

Is the game less exciting without as many kickoff returns?  Sure.  Is it being ruined?  The ticket sales and TV ratings would suggest otherwise.

Yes, touchbacks are up.  But the less frequent returns, typically coming from deep in the end zone, seem to be more successful.  And in turn more exciting.

The returns possibly are yielding more yardage because teams no long have an incentive to keep and groom players who are adept at running down the field and making the kind of high-speed tackle that puts cervical spines at risk.  With fewer “live” special-teams plays, the 53-man roster and 46-man game-day lineup will be driven more by needs in other areas than kickoff coverage and kickoff return.

Westhoff also suggests that new rules aimed at protecting the center and guards on placekicks will result in fewer blocked attempts from the middle of the line.  “What I worry about when I see the diminished impact of special teams on NFL games today is this: Would Steve Tasker or Bernie Parmalee or Larry Izzo have had careers in football today with these rules?” Westhoff writes.

For every attempt to make the game safer, problems like this will arise.  The special-teams specialist diminishes, and the spot on the roster will go to a guy who will now get more opportunities to develop into a contributor on offense or defense before he washes out of the league.  In that sense, the change can create other careers by making the window open a bit longer for a player regarded as a project.

The push toward safety will have that same impact elsewhere.  Prior to 2009, former Lions running back Jahvid Best would possibly still be playing pro football.  The current emphasis on illegal hits against defenseless players eventually will devalue players who can deliver a devastating hit in the secondary.

Similar shifts happen for reasons other than rule changes.  Pocket passers are becoming passé.  Workhorse tailbacks are sharing the load, short-circuiting tales of the determined tailback who gets better as the game goes on.

Blocking tight ends have become more scarce, supplanted by oversized wideouts who line up wide as much or more than they line up tight.  Which has caused middle linebacker to shrink, or disappear.

When it comes to special teams, the biggest change in the last two generations came not from rules but from technique.  Thirty-one years ago, Redskins kicker Mark Moseley was the league’s MVP.  Since then, the Grozas have been supplanted by the Gramaticas, with straight-on kickers yielding to guys who kick the football a lot farther when kicking it like it’s a fútbol.

Due to safety rules or otherwise, the game will continue to change.  And men who otherwise would have had NFL careers won’t.  Others will fill the void, hoping that the next shift won’t render them obsolete, too.

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Report: Dislocated hip for Dennis Pitta

Dennis Pitta AP

The Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta during Sunday’s victory over the Browns and they’ll likely be without him in the coming weeks as well.

Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports that Pitta has been diagnosed with a dislocated right hip. That’s the same hip he had surgery on last year to repair a dislocation and fracture. Per Wilson, another fracture hasn’t been ruled out and Pitta’s status for the rest of the season will be up in the air until the doctors have come to a conclusion about the extent of the damage.

“When you’re in the middle of a game you don’t think too much about that stuff, but, yeah, it’s not easy,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Dennis is a good friend. He’s a good teammate and he’s a hell of a player. No matter who it is, it’s tough to see that happen especially when it looks like it might be what it is or it might be serious.”

Owen Daniels would take on a more important role with Pitta out of the lineup, but, as the Ravens learned last season, replacing Pitta isn’t all that easy given Flacco’s comfort level with the tight end.

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Seahawks take halftime lead, but Russell Okung goes down

sherman AP

The Seahawks are picking up where they left off in the Super Bowl and outplaying the Broncos, but they may have suffered a significant loss in the process.

Seattle, which took a lead into the locker room at halftime, also had to finish the half without starting left tackle Russell Okung, who walked off the field after what appeared to be an injury to his shoulder. The team later said he was questionable to return.

Okung was blocking Broncos defensive end Demarcus Ware and went down appearing to be in a lot of pain. He got up holding his left arm gingerly. Okung is the player most responsible for protecting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and losing Okung for any period of time would hurt.

But the Seahawks appear to be rolling today against the Broncos. Wilson has completed 11 of 13 passes for 145 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and although Peyton Manning has completed 11 of 16 passes and avoided any turnovers, he has just 87 yards through the air. The Seahawks may just have the Broncos’ number.

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Chiefs take 14-3 halftime lead at Miami

Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

Some strong running by Jamaal Charles‘ replacement has helped give the Chiefs a halftime lead.

Tailback Knile Davis racked up 69 first-half rushing yards, including a 21-yard TD run off an inside handoff, as Kansas City took a 14-3 lead after two quarters in Miami.

Charles, the Chiefs’ lead back, is inactive with an ankle injury.

The Chiefs also got a solid first half from quarterback Alex Smith, who completed 8-of-11 passes for 112 yards, with the highlight a 20-yard TD pass to tight end Travis Kelce on a crossing pattern.

The Dolphins got on the board at the end of the half on a 22-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis. However, Sturgis missed a 48-yard attempt earlier in the half, and Miami has just the three points to show for gaining 210 first-half yards.

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No suspension for Baker or Peters, but a “ton of fines” coming

Baker Getty Images

Despite being ejected during Sunday’s game at Philadelphia following a cheap shot that sparked a melee, Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker and Eagles tackle Jason Peters face no further missed time.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, neither player will be suspended for his actions on Sunday.  However, both face stiff fines.

And it won’t just be those two giving money to the league.  According to the source, a “ton of fines” will be levied on the players who participated in the brouhaha.

Baker sparked the fracas with a hit on Philly quarterback Nick Foles after an apparent interception.  The interception was overturned via replay review.

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49ers take 14-6 lead into halftime

Colin Kaepernick, Calais Campbell AP

Drew Stanton got a lot of help from the special teams and defense in a win against the Giants last week, but the first 30 minutes of this week’s contest haven’t brought the same kind of support.

Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers on two 80-yard touchdown drives and the 49ers defense stiffened up once the ball was in their own territory, leaving the Cardinals in a 14-6 hole at halftime in Arizona. Kaepernick showed no hangover from his turnover-filled second half against the Bears last Sunday night as he completed 14-of-18 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown to Michael Crabtree over the first two quarters.

Kaepernick also ran for 45 yards, which came in handy as the team was converting 5-of-7 third downs against the Arizona defense. That failure to get off the field is something the Cardinals didn’t experience last week and it makes for a much harder road the rest of the way because it puts even more pressure on the offense to perform without their starting quarterback.

Stanton did lead one long drive of his own, a 17-play opus that eventually petered out on the San Francisco side of the field. The Cardinals got three points out of it, but it’s clear that the offense is going to need to more than field goal drives over the rest of the game if they’re to make it three straight wins to start the season.

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After loss, Jaguars name Blake Bortles their starter

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Jaguars have switched starting quarterbacks.

Blake Bortles has been named the team’s starter, head coach Gus Bradley said after Jacksonville’s 44-17 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday, according to the Jaguars’ official Twitter feed.

Bortles relieved Henne at halftime and showed promise in his first NFL regular season action, completing 14-of-24 passes for 223 yards with a pair of touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 30 yards. Moreover, Bortles was sacked just once, and he handled pass rush pressure quite well.  On the other side of the ledger, Bortles was intercepted twice, with one pick returned for a score.

Nevertheless, the Jaguars’ offense showed life with Bortles, who wasn’t at all overmatched. These factors made it an easy call for the Jaguars, now 0-3, to make the switch.

While the Jaguars made a major long-term decision Sunday, the Colts (1-2) regained their footing in the short term, racking up 529 yards against Jacksonville’s porous defense. Quarterback Andrew Luck was outstanding, completing 31-of-39 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns.

With the Texans’ loss to the Giants, Indianapolis moved within one game of the AFC South lead. The Colts host the struggling Titans next Sunday.

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Eagles hold off Redskins 37-34 on a chaotic afternoon in Philly

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The best thing about Sunday’s Eagles-Redskins game is that they’re going to play again later this season.

Philadelphia moved to 3-0 with a 37-34 win after 60 minutes filled with all the twists and turns that you’d want to see from an NFL game. There was a huge play by DeSean Jackson in his return to Philadelphia, a full-scale brawl that resulted in a pair of ejections, comebacks by both teams and almost 900 yards of offense between the two teams.

The Redskins had 511 of them in Kirk Cousins’s first start of the season. It’s one that will likely embolden those that feel he’s a better fit for the Redskins offense than Robert Griffin III. Cousins was 30-of-48 for 427 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon and he was able to make some big plays through the air in the second half to keep the Redskins in the mix after they blew a 10-point lead in the first half. He threw an interception and couldn’t convert a first down after a bad punt gave the Redskins the ball in Eagles territory with two minutes to play, but it was a very strong performance overall for Cousins.

Nick Foles’s numbers weren’t quite as gaudy, but his performance was just as strong. Foles shook off hit after hit, including the Chris Baker block that touched off the aforementioned brawl, to complete 28-of-42 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns. The last of them was a 27-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin just after that brawl, breaking a 27-27 tie and giving the Eagles the lead for good.

It was a tough performance for Foles and he was helped out by Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews at different points. Jackson’s touchdown was a reminder of what the Eagles lost, but Maclin and Matthews (16 catches for 213 yards and three scores between them) made it clear that all is well on the depth chart.

The battering of Foles and the loss of three starting offensive linemen aren’t coincidental, so the Eagles will have to hope that center Jason Kelce can make a quick return after leaving Sunday’s game with an abdomen injury.

All those hits, the fight and Jackson’s theatrics on his touchdown all helped amp up the emotions in Philly on Sunday afternoon, making for one of the more exciting games of the young season. They’ll do it all over again in Week 16.

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Ravens come through late, knock off Browns on last-second field goal

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

This one’s going to hurt for Cleveland.

Placekicker Justin Tucker’s 32-yard field goal as time expired gave the Ravens 23-21 victory over the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday.

It was a thoroughly frustrating fourth quarter for the Browns (1-2). First, kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 50-yard field goal and had a 36-yard field goal blocked. Then, with a 21-20 lead and chance to close out the game in the final minutes, the Browns went three-and-out deep in their own end, setting up the Ravens at midfield at the two-minute warning.

Two plays later, the Ravens made the game’s pivotal play. Wide receiver Steve Smith beat cornerback Joe Haden off the line, and quarterback Joe Flacco hit him for a 32-yard gain. Now, the Ravens were in slam-dunk field goal range, and Tucker — one of the game’s clutch kickers — gave Baltimore the win.

In victory, Flacco completed 19-of-31 passes for 217 yards with one TD and one pick. The Ravens’ ground game was very productive even without Bernard Pierce, racking up 160 yards. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro helped pick up the slack with 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

The Browns got another solid performance from quarterback Brian Hoyer, who connected on 19-of-25 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown. But Hoyer also went over the line of scrimmage on a fourth quarter TD pass to Miles Austin, resulting in a loss of down. On the next play, Cundiff’s field goal was blocked.

And in the end, Cleveland couldn’t close out Baltimore (2-1).

The Ravens suffered a potentially serious personnel loss in the win, as tight end Dennis Pitta departed the game on a stretcher after a right hip injury. He was taken to a hospital, according to the club.

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Matt Cassel has broken foot, which means it’s Teddy Time

Teddy Bridgewater AP

The Vikings’ starting quarterback job is Teddy Bridgewater’s for the forseeable future.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters after the game that starter Matt Cassel has several broken bones in his foot, which means the job is Bridgewater’s by default.

Asked if Bridgewater was his starter moving forward, Zimmer replied: “That is correct.”

The rookie did not look overwhelmed in his first NFL action, despite losing to the Saints. It wasn’t the toughest defense to play against, but there were at least some signs of life from their offense.

And since they don’t figure to have Adrian Peterson back on the field anytime soon or ever, any bit of hope on offense is a good thing.

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Rashad Jennings runs wild in first Giants win of year

Houston Texans v New York Giants Getty Images

The Giants got their first win of the 2014 season on Sunday and they did it with a lot of help from one of their biggest offseason acquisitions.

Running back Rashad Jennings posted a career-best 176 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries as the Giants cruised past the Texans 30-17 in New Jersey. Jennings was helped by a strong performance by the Giants offensive line, but he made the most of his opportunities by hitting holes quickly and keeping things moving after initial contact.

It was exactly the kind of power running game the Giants wanted to add to their team and you could see the possibilities for their offense on Sunday. When the Giants weren’t battering the Texans with Jennings, they were having Eli Manning throw quick passes that his receivers held onto more often than they did in the first two weeks of the season. Manning wound up 21-of-28 for 234 yards and two touchdowns and Victor Cruz was a positive factor for the first time of the season with 107 yards and a score.

All the quick passing helped keep J.J. Watt in check. Watt had an impressive sack early and blew up Jennings on one running play, but the Giants were able to keep him from dominating matters up front and that’s a big win for an offense these days.

Houston lost for the first time of the year and one major, if obvious, takeaway is that they’re better off when they don’t have to rely on Ryan Fitzpatrick to generate the lion’s share of their offense. Fitzpatrick settled down after getting picked off twice in the first half, but those picks were damaging and the team’s offensive totals got a boost by an 80-yard scoring drive when matters were already settled. If running back Arian Foster gets healthy, the Texans should be able to get back on track but things look a lot bleaker if he’s out for any extended period.

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Chargers overcome another injury, beat Bills 22-10

Philip Rivers AP

The Chargers keep losing parts, but keep making plays.

They improved to 2-1 with a 22-10 win over the Bills, which saw them get even thinner on offense.

The Chargers continued to run the ball, even after losing Danny Woodhead to an early ankle injury (more troubling as they were already without Ryan Mathews).

While replacement Donald Brown wasn’t eye-popping, he ran well enough to keep the clock and chains moving. He had 31 carries for 62 yards, which was important for the time they took more than the ground they covered.

That was all Philip Rivers needed to keep things balanced. Rivers threw a pair of touchdown passes to Eddie Royal and was 18-of-25 for 256 yards, consistently able to get yards in chunks.

The Bills never found any offensive rhythm, in their first loss of the season. Much of that had to do with San Diego’s defense, but they looked disjointed throughout.

Sammy Watkins finished the day with two catches for a grand total of 19 yards, hardly what they’re expecting from their first-round pick (and next year’s).

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Jason Peters, Chris Baker ejected after brawl in Philly

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The Redskins and Eagles are having an old-fashioned NFC East slugfest. Literally.

The game came to a halt in the fourth quarter when a hit on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles touched off a wild brawl between members of both teams. Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker laid out Foles with a blindside block during an interception return, which led Eagles tackle Jason Peters to confront him and then both sides spilled onto the sideline in one of the bigger fights in recent memory.

There was far too much going on to give a proper blow-by-blow, but it ended with both teams being directed to their benches over the public address system. Baker and Redskins left tackle Trent Williams were both immediately ejected from the game.  Referee Tony Corrente later explained that not Williams but Eagles tackle Jason Peters was ejected. That leaves the Eagles with no reserve offensive linemen as Jason Kelce was already lost to an abdomen injury.

Foles remained in the game and the Eagles kept the ball because all of the above need not have happened. The ball hit the ground before Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland corralled it, but it was incorrectly ruled a clean pick. It was overturned on replay, but not before the rest of a 27-27 game was greatly impacted by bad feelings spilling out all over the place.

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Cowboys storm back to beat the Rams

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It was an ugly start for the Cowboys. And an even uglier finish for the Rams.

In a game that saw St. Louis jump out to an early 21-0 lead, the final 35 minutes of play were all Cowboys, and Dallas won 34-31.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made one very bad decision, a pick-six to Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins, but otherwise he was accurate and efficient.

Dallas receiver Dez Bryant had a big day, catching a 68-yard pass on which he got so wide open that the Rams’ defense didn’t even seem to realize he was on the field. Also having a big day was Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who lost a fumble early but gave the Cowboys some big plays late, including a 44-yard run that was his longest since 2012. Murray ended the game with 24 carries for 100 yards.

There was a bright spot for the Rams in that young quarterback Austin Davis looked pretty good for his second consecutive start. Although the game ended with Davis throwing a desperation interception, he went over 300 yards and threw three touchdown passes. If Davis proves himself to be a legitimate NFL starter, that’s a bright spot for the entire season.

But Davis wasn’t enough today. This was a heartbreaking loss in St. Louis.

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Bengals throttle the Titans 33-7 to move to 3-0

Andy Dalton, Mohamed Sanu AP

The Bengals are still perfect.

That’s a reflection of their record, and perhaps their offensive balance, after a 33-7 win over the Titans pushed them to 3-0 heading into their bye week.

It was their 11th straight home win, setting a new franchise record.

Giovani Bernard ran for a pair of touchdowns, and Andy Dalton caught a touchdown pass from wide receiver Mohamed Sanu as part of a diverse attack.

All told, it was an efficient performance, even though Dalton threw an interception and only finished with 169 yards.

That was more than enough to beat the Titans, who looked hapless throughout the game.

From taking a safety while trying to punt to missing field goals to turning the ball over, they were bad in all three phases.

Jake Locker threw two interceptions for the Titans, who fell to 1-2.

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Raiders comeback falls short, Patriots survive a scare

ridley AP

The Patriots were the heaviest favorites in the NFL this week. But the Raiders didn’t make it easy today in New England.

Although Oakland stormed back and appeared to have scored a game-tying touchdown in the final minute, a penalty wiped that touchdown off the board and the Patriots survived to beat the Raiders 16-9.

The Patriots sealed the win when Raiders quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass and hit receiver Denarius Moore, only to have the ball ricochet off both Moore and Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan before New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork — of all people — intercepted it to clinch the game.

As he has been for most of the season, Tom Brady was unspectacular. But he did enough not to lose, completing 24 of 36 passes for 234 yards, with one touchdown (to Rob Gronkowski) and no interceptions.

Carr was not particularly good, completing 21 of 34 passes for 174 yards. But he didn’t have any interceptions until that game clincher, which was not his fault.

And that’s about all the Raiders can hang their hats on — Carr wasn’t terrible, and they weren’t terrible. But they also weren’t good enough to win.

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