NFC East: christian ponder

Giants actually add Josh Freeman

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
1:05
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Even after we spent the past couple of days discussing it here, and even after Matt Flynn went back to Green Bay and left Josh Freeman as the last man standing in the New York Giants' search for an extra quarterback for the offseason, it was still hard to believe it would happen. Freeman washed out of two organizations last year, and the one game he played for the Vikings after the Buccaneers cut him was hardly a helpful audition. You'll remember that "Monday Night Football" fiasco as the Giants' first victory of the season, and the fact Freeman obviously wasn't at all prepared to play in the game was the main reason they were able to stop their losing streak.

Freeman
But they did it. The Giants have in fact agreed to terms with Freeman on a one-year deal, which means he'll likely be in the building next week when they start their offseason program and will be a candidate to take some of the snaps in OTAs and minicamp if starting quarterback Eli Manning's recovery from ankle surgery takes longer than expected.

I guess, if he shows something, Freeman could beat out Curtis Painter for the backup quarterback job. That assumes second-year project Ryan Nassib can't get into that mix, but given the level of his competition I don't know why he couldn't.

I know there isn't much out there on the quarterback market, and that Freeman was the best and most experienced of the candidates once Manning had surgery last week, and the Giants decided they needed to add a reserve quarterback. But if Freeman is on the 2014 Giants, I can't see how that helps them. Nothing we've heard about Freeman over the past year has indicated he'd be a useful backup. And while I'm willing to give him a pass for his ugly exit from Tampa Bay because I believe loony former Bucs coach Greg Schiano to have been at least as much at fault for their conflict as Freeman, it says a lot that he couldn't beat out Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder for playing time after the Vikings signed him in October. It also says a lot that this week was the first time any sort of market materialized for Freeman this offseason, given the state of the quarterback market.

So if you think Freeman is going to be some sort of diamond-in-the-rough signing for the Giants, or that having him on the team makes them better prepared to weather a potential Manning absence than they were yesterday, I'm going to take the opposite point of view. The best thing you can say about this move is that it probably can't hurt. But if the addition of Freeman has any impact on the Giants' 2014 season, they're in trouble.
Nick FolesAP Photo/Ben MargotThe Eagles didn't pick him as one and don't pay him like one, but Nick Foles is playing like an elite QB.

PHILADELPHIA – Try this exercise. Imagine the Philadelphia Eagles took quarterback Nick Foles near the top of the 2013 NFL draft. Imagine he came to town with the expectation that he would be an elite franchise quarterback.

Now look at what Foles has accomplished this season. He has started five games. He has won four. He threw seven touchdown passes in a game, tying the NFL record. Overall, he has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His passer rating is 128.0, best in the NFL.

If he were Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, his team’s fans would be over the moon with that kind of production. If he were Sam Bradford or Brandon Weeden or Ryan Tannehill, there would be full-fledged cults devoted to him.

In Philadelphia? There is a fascinating wait-and-see reaction to Foles’ phenomenal 2013 season. Hours of talk radio are filled with discussion about whether Foles can be the Eagles’ quarterback – for the season, for 2014, for the long haul.

There are good reasons for this, starting with the way coach Chip Kelly has handled the Eagles’ quarterback situation. Veteran Michael Vick was Kelly’s chosen quarterback after a training-camp competition. Since Vick was injured, even as Foles has put up the crazy numbers outlined above, Kelly has simply declined to say who his No. 1 quarterback is.

“I honestly really haven’t thought about it,” Foles said. “I don’t know. Whatever he decides, wherever he goes, I’m in it 100 percent. I’ll support whatever Chip says. I don’t know how the talk will go or when it will be, but I’m all in for this team. Whatever’s best for this team will always be the most important thing to me.”

But it goes beyond Kelly’s management of a tricky situation with the veteran Vick. Eagles fans have been down this road before: Ty Detmer, Bobby Hoying, A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb have raised hopes, only to disappoint and frustrate.

Kolb is the freshest wound. A second-round pick, Kolb started two games in place of the injured Donovan McNabb in 2009. He completed 55 of 85 passes for 718 yards and four touchdowns, with three interceptions. Kolb was the first quarterback in the history of the league to throw for more than 300 yards in each of his first two career starts.

Kolb did not become the Eagles’ franchise quarterback. Neither did Feeley or Hoying or Detmer. Eagles fans are naturally skeptical of flash-in-the-pan quarterbacks. And when Foles delivered a truly terrible performance against Dallas in his second start of the season, that skepticism flared up.

Foles has played brilliantly since then, but he hasn’t quite erased the memory of his Dallas dud. But there is one more compelling reason fans here haven’t fully jumped on the Foles bandwagon. And it comes back to Kelly.

When Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman landed the Wizard of Oregon, the excitement was palpable. Kelly was going to bring his futuristic offense to Philadelphia. Surely there would be a dynamic quarterback sprinting all over the field and firing passes from the rocket launcher on his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDespite Nick Foles' great play, Eagles fans are at best cautious. They've been here before.
Foles was an afterthought. It isn’t easy going from afterthought to hero. But the truth is, Kelly has said from the start that he could run his offense with Foles as his quarterback.

“It's always about the individual, so it doesn't matter what plays are called or what scheme is run,” Kelly said. “They still have to be executed. I think he is executing them and all the credit goes to him. He spends a lot of time. He works extremely hard at it. He's got a really good grasp on what we're doing, extremely accurate in his throws. I think he's a really good decision-maker. It's exciting to see him grow here.”

Kelly has praised Foles but, with Vick to consider, he hasn’t really embraced him. Teammates who respect Vick as one of the great athletes ever to play the game are beginning to talk about Foles as a guy who just wins. Fans who keep waiting for the next Dallas dud are cautiously beginning to believe Foles just might be the guy.

For now, if not forever.

All of this puts the Eagles in a pretty good position. They didn’t have to commit to Foles the way other franchises had to commit to Bradford or Tannehill or Christian Ponder or EJ Manuel. They wouldn’t trade their situation with Foles for San Diego’s with Philip Rivers, Dallas’ with Tony Romo or Chicago’s with Jay Cutler.

If Foles continues to play at an elite level, the Eagles will have filled the most important position in the game without taking a big risk. And if he goes the way of Kolb and Hoying and the rest, they won’t be hamstrung by a huge contract and a wasted first-round pick.

Meanwhile, they have a quarterback who has gotten them into the playoff picture, earned a display in Canton for his seven-touchdown game and has no sense of entitlement.

“I never think that way,” Foles said. “When you start thinking that way, you start getting complacent. Just because you do a lot of great things the week before doesn’t mean you’re going to go out there and do it again.”

That’s what the great ones do. Foles may not become one of them, but he at least has the chance.

Redskins run out of time, explanations

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
8:10
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PHILADELPHIA -- This is the problem with the Washington Redskins: It's not the same mistakes every week. It's just the same results. They saw it again Sunday in a game that unofficially ended their season. A team that believed it was a Super Bowl contender won't even make it to Thanksgiving with a legitimate shot at the playoffs.

It's shocking when you look back to August. It's not shocking when you look back at their play in recent weeks, when they've suffered too many breakdowns. A frustrating 24-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles? Add it to the list of frustrating games for the Redskins, who are 3-7 after a second straight loss.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Brian Orakpo
AP Photo/Michael Perez"We are what our record is," Brian Orakpo said. "We're 3-7, I'll go to war with these guys."
They couldn't generate any offense Sunday for the first three quarters, at least not when it came to the passing game. By late in the third quarter reporters were scrambling to see when the last time the Redskins were in single digits for net passing (1977).

That changed in the fourth quarter and the defense did a better job over the final five series. It matters that the Redskins played better in the fourth quarter; it doesn't change the fact they're 3-7 and have yet to play well in consecutive games.

“The feeling is just frustrating, disappointment, sadness,” Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said. “Hell, I was about to cry on the sidelines. I don't understand where we're falling apart. Everyone in this locker room wants it so bad. We just haven't been able to get it going. It's frustrating. It's something no one in this locker room wants to see happen. But week in and week out it keeps happening.”

Yes, it does. Last week it was turning Christian Ponder into a Pro Bowl quarterback. This week it was turning a Philadelphia Eagles defense into the 1985 Chicago Bears, for three quarters at least. Washington's last three drives totaled 225 net yards. Their first nine drives totaled 217 net yards.

“It's difficult, especially a game like this,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We are what our record is. We're 3-7, I'll go to war with these guys. I don't care what our record is; we fight and everyone knows it.”

Fighting's not enough. The Redskins haven't figured out how to play a complete game. They continue to endure growing pains with a young quarterback.

They say the attitude is good and that practices are strong.

“You make a mistake and guys are pissed at each other like, ‘Come on, we've got to do better, repeat the play,'" Redskins fullback Darrel Young said. “You don't see that from a team that's 3-6, now 3-7. It's something special. I don't know why we're not winning.”

There's probably a simple reason: They're not good enough. It's a brutal reality for a franchise that entered the playoffs last season with a boatload of hope for the future. One Robert Griffin III knee injury later things changed. Now the future is uncertain, not just for him but everyone.

“Just ran out of time,” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said of the game.

They've also run out of ways to explain these losses. And this season.

Jim Haslett content with four-man rush

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
1:25
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ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said their four-man pass rush has done its job, even though they’re not getting to the quarterback.

The Redskins haven’t applied much pressure on quarterbacks in recent weeks, particularly when holding a lead. When they’ve held a lead in the second half, they’ve recorded just one sack out of their four-man rush -- and it came when San Diego’s Philip Rivers held the ball for 4.4 seconds because of the coverage.

Orakpo
Kerrigan
Last week, Minnesota consistently threw quick passes into soft zone coverage to blunt the pass rush, and used play-action. It prevented the occasional stunts from being effective. However, other teams have found a way to pressure under similar circumstances.

“Last week we had a number of times where we had great pass rushes,” Haslett said. “That’s not an excuse. I don’t know how many times Ryan [Kerrigan], Brian [Orakpo] had opportunities to get to the quarterback where they were grabbed and held. That was more disappointing than anything. I thought a number of times we did a great job rushing the quarterback. We didn’t get there more for that reason than anything.”

Overall, Haslett said, he’s content with the four-man rushes. Kerrigan leads the Redskins with 6.5 sacks, Orakpo has 4 and Barry Cofield has 2.5. End Stephen Bowen does not have a sack.

Here's more to consider: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Redskins have allowed only 28.9 percent of third downs to be converted when using a four-man rush. They've allowed 41 percent to be converted with five or more rushers. But they've recorded a sack on 6.9 percent of pass attempts from a four-man rush compared to 7.3 percent from five-plus rushers.

“Yeah, I think those two are really good players,” Haslett said of Kerrigan and Orakpo. “Barry has a number of sacks; he’s doing a good job. Obviously we want to get better in all areas. We have to do a better job in that area also.”

After the bye week last season, when the Redskins were 3-6, the defensive coaches turned more aggressive and creative with the rush. With Orakpo back this season they don’t want to do that as much, putting the secondary in more stressful positions. They’d rather be able to cover with seven or six.

They have occasionally used different looks, with rookie linebacker Brandon Jenkins sometimes aligned next to Kerrigan, who is in a four-point stance. Rob Jackson's play time depends on the scheme, but he could offer some rush, too, in various situations.

“We try to do all we can do if the opportunity arises,” Haslett said. “Obviously there are things you can do based on who you’re playing, personnel and all that stuff. We’re always looking to do something to help us win the game.”

Redskins' pass rush fails late

November, 13, 2013
11/13/13
11:15
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Christian PonderBruce Kluckhohn/Bruce KluckhohnWashington linebacker Brian Orakpo's sack on Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in the first quarter on Sunday was the only sack the Redskins recorded in the game.

It’s a pass rusher’s dream: a double-digit lead in the second half, providing a chance to focus on rushing the passer and picking up a sack. Or two.

The Redskins have been presented with those situations in each of the past three games. They haven’t feasted.

The Redskins led Denver by 14 points in the third quarter and lost. They led San Diego by 10 in the fourth quarter and surrendered the lead before winning in overtime. And they blew a 13-point third-quarter lead at Minnesota. What could have been a good stretch for the Redskins turned into a frustrating one, with two losses.

“We let those leads go,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “That’s disappointing because that’s a situation we want. We want them to be in obvious pass situations and we weren’t able to capitalize defensively.”

You can’t just blame the defense. In each of those games the offense also did not do its job. Against Denver, after the Broncos cut the lead to seven the Redskins responded with two first downs on their next five drives (and one turnover). Against San Diego the Redskins managed one first down on their next drive following the Chargers’ cutting it to three points. And, against Minnesota they managed one first down in three of their last four drives of the game. They need to respond better.

But here are the passing numbers of opposing quarterbacks the past three weeks when the Redskins lead by 10 or more points: 15-for-19, 153 yards, two touchdowns and one sack. Yes, they’ve faced Denver’s Peyton Manning and San Diego’s Philip Rivers, two of the NFL’s best. But Christian Ponder went 6-for-6 with a touchdown against them, too.

And, when the Redskins have led in the second half the past three games quarterbacks have completed 29-of-42 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, one sack and an interception.

“Teams haven’t gone away with what they’re going to do in the second half,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “You get those situations where you get a team that says, ‘Screw it we’ll start chucking the ball up left and right.’ Teams are sticking to their game plans, establishing the run, a little play action. It’s rare to see that. [Usually] you get teams that are down and they get pass happy.”

Orakpo is right; Denver ran the ball on five of its next 11 plays after falling behind by 14. Minnesota passed the ball on six of its nine plays after trailing by 13, but the threat of running back Adrian Peterson enabled the play-action to still work. Ponder hurt them by extending plays, too; the Redskins rushed six and played man on his 14-yard run late in the third quarter.

“To their credit it worked,” Orakpo said of the Vikings. “They stuck to the game plan and they didn’t panic. It almost came off like they weren’t down at all. We weren’t able to take off like me and Ryan wanted to.”

But the Redskins only hit Minnesota’s quarterbacks once on the last 14 pass drops. They did not hit Manning after the 21-7 lead. They did hit Rivers once and sacked him another time. In general, though, the pressure hasn’t been there.

In many cases, teams have attacked the Redskins with quick three-step drops and throws. Washington has tried to run stunts and blitzes, but the quick throws negate them. They ran an occasional stunt against the Vikings on a third and six, but Ponder unloaded the ball in 2.1 seconds; so by the time Orakpo raced inside the pass was gone. Another time on third down Ponder threw in 1.3 seconds for a first down. Manning and Rivers threw quickly as well, but there were downs when both held the ball a little longer (on the sack of Rivers, he had the ball for 4.4 seconds because of sound man-to-man coverage).

That means the coverage must buy the rush more time. The Redskins played more zone versus Minnesota, in part most likely to help defend Peterson better when he tries to bounce wide, and the Vikings pounced with quick throws to open areas.

“When you’re stunting you need them to hold the ball a half second or two longer,” Orakpo said.

Of course, defenses have pressured Washington on seemingly quick passes. Griffin was sacked in 2.4 seconds and then 2.8 seconds on consecutive plays in the third quarter last week -- not necessarily instant pressure, but certainly quick. So it can be done. Ponder escaped some pressure, but he did have a few drops where after 2.8 seconds he still faced no pressure.

If the Redskins want to turn their season around they must improve with their four-man rushes in particular.

“I’m surprised by it last week because we had them in situations we wanted them,” Kerrigan said. “We were up 27-14 and their backs were against the wall. As a pass rusher that’s a situation you dream of. That was disappointing to let that lead go. That’s the game Rak and I and everyone on the defense wants.”

A lot of it comes back to an inability to stop teams on third downs. In those three games, when playing with the lead in the second half, the Redskins have allowed six of 11 third downs to be converted. That goes back to pressure -- and coverage, too. The offense must be more consistent to help, but at some point the defense needs to do it themselves.

“If we were satisfied ,we would have won those games in the second half,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “So that’s what we’re talking about. What do you have to do to improve in that area? You’ve got to get better on third downs.”

Quick Takes: 3-6

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
3:40
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  • I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: I’ve just never felt the same vibe in the locker room as I did a year ago -- not only during the hot streak, but before it began. I wonder if some were so caught off-guard by what happened early -- after thinking they had taken a step as an organization -- that it caused more frustration than when they were 3-6 in 2012.
  • That’s not a knock on the players per se; it’s more about every season has a different feel. I remember thinking they could play better a year ago (no way did I think seven straight wins). They did enough things well to give off that feel, like running the ball well and having an electric quarterback and an opportunistic defense. They didn’t just express confidence, but rather seemed confident. Just not the same now.
  • The NFC East is still not a good division. Dallas is banged up and playing at New Orleans while Philadelphia plays Green Bay (minus quarterback Aaron Rodgers). But I’d need more reason than that to think the Redskins could go on a 2012 type run. A lot more reason.
  • By the way, yes the Eagles catch a break playing the Packers without Rodgers. The Redskins caught one too playing a banged-up 1-7 Vikings team.
  • [+] EnlargeAlfred Morris
    Win McNamee/Getty ImagesAlfred Morris is part of a young nucleus that excited Redskins fans, but this season has turned sour.
    If you’re a fan, and my guess is if you’re reading this then you are, this has to be one of the most disappointing seasons in a long time. The town had fallen in love with the Redskins again, because of Robert Griffin III, yes, but also because of guys like Alfred Morris. The future looked bright (and, offensively, it still does). Look what’s happened; a fan base that has felt burned and misled for years probably feels that way once again. And probably will, at least until free agency when the flush-with-cash Redskins become active again.
  • There’s still reason to be optimistic about the future. Except now you must cross your fingers.
  • Running quarterbacks have hurt Washington more than I thought. Christian Ponder has now played well in consecutive games, and a large part of the reason why is his ability to extend plays. Chicago’s Josh McCown did the same thing in the second half against Washington.
  • If one guy gets out of his rush lane, those quarterbacks have taken advantage. And it stresses the coverage more than it can handle. You see the difference an explosive guy like Denver’s Von Miller makes when a quarterback starts to get loose in the pocket.
  • The Redskins were said to be built to protect a second-half lead because of the presence of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. But in the past three games, when they had double-digit leads, the Redskins have recorded one sack and they did not apply a lot of pressure. Orakpo and Kerrigan are good pass-rushers capable of big games. But they’re not a weekly menace. Not a knock; it’s just who they are and they are good, but this is what I’ve heard from people who know a lot more football than me. It’s just another factor. Nobody’s closing.
  • But this is not about one player or even two players. It's not about one side of the ball, either. It's just that they can't play a complete game because one side always comes up short.
  • Not sure I’ve ever seen Santana Moss as speechless as he was in the locker room after the game. He had a crushed look on his face. Gave us short answers, something he never does.
  • You could also see on Kerrigan's face how much it bothered him that he dropped an interception. He knows that could have been the difference in the game. If he hadn’t scored, he would have put Washington deep in Vikings’ territory. Instead, the Vikings kept the ball and drove down for a touchdown and 28-27 lead. When Kerrigan says it will stick with him, you believe him.
  • I don’t know if Kerrigan would admit this or not, but I wonder how much his knee bothers him. His hands and strength and relentlessness are why he’s good. He can still do well. But it looked like a couple times Thursday where it might have been the case. Sometimes, though, you get an idea in your head -- that maybe it’s still an issue -- and you see things differently. That’s a long way to say: I’m not sure, but I wonder.

Rapid Reaction: Washington Redskins

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
11:33
PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings:

What it means: The goal-line stand against San Diego only prolonged their season by a week; it did not result in the hoped-for momentum that would turn their season around. And now the Redskins (3-6) can forget the playoffs. Yes, they’re still alive mathematically, and yes, they must continue to believe they can do something. But they’ve yet to show that they can string together two good games, let alone seven. They had a chance to gather momentum from the start with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line and settled for a field goal, then quickly allowed a Minnesota touchdown. They had a 13-point lead in the second half and then allowed a 1-7 team to score 20 consecutive points. They’ll win a few more games, but to think this team will suddenly turn anything around is wishful thinking. There’s just no proof to the contrary. When you lack great players, you'd better do the "little things" well. The Redskins have not done that this season. Those costly 15-yard penalties were overcome last year; not this year.

Stock report: Going down: Interior pass protection. Guard Chris Chester and center Will Montgomery in particular appeared to be the main culprits in at least some of the pressure. It changed the game in the second half. The protection was good in the first half; it’s possible Minnesota caused Robert Griffin III to hold the ball a little longer with different looks. But the Redskins did not do enough to offset this pressure. Going down: Defensive resurgence. Yes, the Vikings had a couple shorter fields. But they also were playing with an inconsistent quarterback and without their No. 1 tight end and two starting offensive linemen. They scored 34 points.

Third downs: The Redskins bolted to a big lead because of their third-down success in the first half. They lost the game in part because of their failures on that down. In the first half, Washington converted 9 of 11 third downs. In the second half they were 0-for-5, including one from the 4-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Minnesota applied more pressure, which hurt, but there was at least one drop, and at the goal line Griffin’s pass was a bit high and behind receiver Pierre Garcon.

Next: The Redskins don’t play again until Nov. 17 at Philadelphia, a game that could have meant something had they won at Minnesota.
Griffin/PetersonUSA TODAY SportsThe running of Adrian Peterson, left, and Robert Griffin III could decide Thursday's game.
The last time the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins met, it was an electrifying affair between two soon-to-be playoff teams on a picturesque autumn day in Maryland, with Robert Griffin III halting the Vikings' comeback attempt on a back-breaking, jaw-dropping 76-yard touchdown run that gave the Redskins a 38-26 win last October.

The circumstances couldn't be more different for Thursday's matchup in the dingy Metrodome. The Vikings are 1-7, with their quarterback situation in chaos and their defense coming off its third last-minute collapse of the season. The Redskins, meanwhile, are in the process of recovering their identity, with Griffin still on the mend from a torn ACL and regaining his comfort with the team's read-option scheme. Washington's defense has been one of only three in the league worse than Minnesota's, undoing some of the work of an offense than can still score at will.

To get you ready for the first game of Week 10, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Redskins reporter John Keim got together to discuss the matchup and what's next for two teams in the middle of tumultuous seasons:

Ben Goessling: John, when we saw these two teams face off last October, the Vikings had no answer for Griffin, and if the Redskins' offense is at full speed on Thursday night, I'm not sure things will work out much better for Minnesota this time. Missed tackles have been one of their biggest problems this season, particularly with their back seven, and they know all too well how dangerous RG III can be when he gets into the open field.

It seems like the Redskins’ offense is getting back to what it was before Griffin got hurt. Does he look comfortable running the read-option again, or is it still a work in progress?

John Keim: Griffin started to look more comfortable running it a couple games ago. He’s still not as explosive as he was, but he’s also still faster than most quarterbacks. It’s more his willingness to keep the ball and be a threat, something he wasn’t in the first part of the season. They need him to be a threat running the ball because of how much it opens up the offense; they are just not capable of sitting back and hurting teams throwing the ball without some form of deception. That’s because of where Griffin is as a passer. Teams definitely have defended the option a little differently this season, whether more disciplined against it or in terms of focus. The emphasis for almost every team has been on stopping Alfred Morris, mainly because teams didn’t fear Griffin going wide or they thought he wouldn’t run. The read-option success also is determined by the style of the defense; Denver, for example, made it tough to run. The work-in-progress part, too, comes in the passing game. The Redskins loved throwing over the middle after a zone-read fake, but teams started taking that away. So they had to go to more out-breaking routes, which take longer to develop. Also, Griffin is more accurate between the hashes.

I know players have questioned the Vikings' defensive play calls. And I know the offense hasn’t helped them. But what are the other reasons this defense has struggled?

Goessling: In some ways, the Vikings probably shouldn't have been as decent on defense as they were last season. They were only 14th in the league and 30th against the pass, but they survived because their front four got enough pressure on the quarterback to mask growing pains in the secondary. And they had cornerback Antoine Winfield playing some of his best football at age 35, while helping their young defensive backs get into position. This season, they haven't gotten to the quarterback consistently -- though they did it until defensive coordinator Alan Williams called off the dogs in the final minutes of the Dallas game -- and they've been burned by teams that can throw screen passes and get rid of the ball quickly. The Vikings' linebackers and defensive backs have missed quite a few tackles. Not having Winfield has hurt them there. So has not having safety Harrison Smith, who's out with turf toe. But it's been surprising to see linebacker Chad Greenway come up empty as much as he has. He might be covering for other linebackers, and he might have lost a step at age 30, but he's been targeted regularly in pass coverage and has done better work as a blitzer than he has in open-field situations.

Speaking of pass defense, what do you make of the Redskins'? They’ve been shredded in four games, and in the other four, they’ve allowed less than 220 yards. Is that because of the quarterbacks they’ve faced, or are they just that inconsistent?

Keim: Both. They have faced five of the top seven rated passers and six of the top 11. The result is a pass defense that, if the quarterback has time, will get picked apart. They’ve done well for stretches -- holding Denver to 14 points through three quarters, for example. Tony Romo did not have a good game against them. They’re not getting good pressure consistently, but part of the problem is the quarterbacks they’ve faced excel at reading a defense and unloading the ball quickly. Their safety play has been erratic to say the least. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has been terrific in the past four or five games. Rookie corner David Amerson will make plays, but also gives them up; he’s very aggressive and will get beat on double moves. He can be set up. The linebackers are inconsistent in coverage. So they have issues, but a lot does stem from the quarterbacks and passing attacks they’ve faced.

That might not be a problem this week, though. Christian Ponder was a first-round pick in 2011. Why does he still struggle so much?

Goessling: It's been the same set of issues with Ponder for most of his three seasons with the Vikings, which is probably the most frustrating thing about him. We hear plenty about how smart Ponder is, how good he is at digesting a game plan and diagnosing a defense, but when he gets on the field, it's like he's unable to translate that into action. He seems like he thinks too much and doesn't trust himself to throw into tight windows, so he either holds the ball too long or takes off if his first read is covered. He's got good feet, and can extend drives when he runs, but he hasn't learned how to move in the pocket or how to extend plays instead of giving up on his receivers. Nobody expected him to turn into Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but there are plenty of situations where Ponder could be more effective if he just played with a little more gumption.

The Redskins have been blown out every time they’ve been on the road this season. What has been their biggest problem away from Dan Snyder’s quaint little stadium in Maryland, and do you expect those problems to carry over into Thursday’s game?

Keim: That’s a good question. They’ve played well for stretches on the road. At Dallas, their kick and punt coverage failed them. They hit a point where it looked like they had taken over the game, only to lose all the momentum and then fall by 15 points. At Denver they were up 21-7 in the third and playing outstanding, only to fall apart in the fourth quarter and lose by 24. They were never in the game at Green Bay. Ever. Part of it, perhaps, stems from not having the same level of confidence as last season. So when something goes wrong it snowballs a lot faster. It also reflects the inconsistencies of each unit. There is always a breakdown on offense, defense or special teams that leads to momentum-changing plays. Against Denver, the defense was great for three quarters but the offense responded with weak drives and then turnovers. Against Dallas it was a punt return for a score and then a 90-yard kickoff return. They get punched in the mouth and don’t respond, something they fought back against a year ago.

Why do you think the Vikings have gone from a playoff team in 2012 to a one-win team in 2013?

Goessling: It would be convenient to put it all on the Vikings' three-man weave at the quarterback position, but the issues go much deeper than that. The team gambled on a young secondary developing, and it hasn't worked. The offensive line hasn't been anywhere near as good as it was last season, and -- it's hard to believe we've gone this long without mentioning it -- they couldn't count on Adrian Peterson to run for 2,097 yards again. He's fourth in the league with 711, but he hasn't been able to take over games like he did last season. With Peterson having merely a good season by his standards, the Vikings don't have much margin for error. That's why they're 1-7, and that's why I think we're both in agreement they'll be 1-8 after Thursday night.

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Five questions facing the Redskins

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
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Five questions facing the Redskins:
  1. Can Robert Griffin III have a second consecutive strong game? That hasn't happened yet this season, certainly not to the level Washington needs. The Redskins received favorable matchups against the Chargers and Griffin responded by throwing with more decisiveness and confidence than at any point this season. The Redskins need to continue focusing on the run, even though Minnesota ranks 11th in rush defense and eighth in yards per carry. That creates better passing opportunities for Griffin. He improved last week, but was coming off his worst game. The Vikings have struggled against the pass -- more from a series of short throws, than big killer passes. If Griffin is patient he'll be fine in this game.
  2. Can they stop Adrian Peterson? They have in the past as Peterson has carried 44 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns in four career games against the Redskins (yes, he left one game early with the torn ACL). Washington has held him to 4.09 yards per carry; only four teams who have faced him at least twice have a lower average. So the answer is: yes. They need to make quarterback Christian Ponder beat them, so eight man fronts will be plentiful. But a bigger key will be swarming Peterson, who excels because of his vision and quickness at cutbacks. A one-on-one with Peterson often is deadly for a defense. For a guy with a bad team he's having a good year: seven touchdowns, 4.6 yards per carry and 711 yards.
  3. Will the goal-line stand propel them? Momentum is a tricky thing in football, but confidence is not. The Redskins at least exited Sunday's overtime win over San Diego with more confidence. They had an abundance of it last season, even during their rough first nine games. But they have not played well enough to feel that confident in what they're doing this year. Last season's memory only takes you so far. But that goal-line stand saved their season; a loss would have ended any legitimate playoff talk. And if they go out and play well against a 1-7 team Thursday? Then, yes, you can say the goal-line stand turned this around.
  4. Is Darrel Young now a touchdown machine? He was Sunday, but the way San Diego played up front dictated that's where the Redskins knew they should go. So they did and the Chargers more often than not were caught staring at running back Alfred Morris as Young bulldozed past them. The Chargers did not slant their line as much, leaving gaps for a straight-ahead runner such as Young. He's had success on those carries against other teams, notably the New York Giants. But when Young gets touches, it's more often not a new trend but rather a wrinkle specific for that defense. It also provides defenses something else to worry about in short yardage situations.
  5. Has David Amerson turned a corner? No pun intended, of course. In some ways yes, and in other ways no. Amerson showed once again versus San Diego that he'll play physical -- his stop of Danny Woodhead at the goal line was huge, showing a great deal of competitiveness, too. He's a playmaker, which means you'll have to live with ups-and-downs. The interception he made was terrific; played it aggressive and was decisive. That same mindset led to him being burned on a double move later in the game for a touchdown. The talent is there, but for now there's good and bad.

This week Dallas Cowboys close it out

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
7:31
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Last week, the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Detroit Lions on a touchdown with 12 seconds to play. On Sunday, they beat the Minnesota Vikings on a touchdown with 35 seconds to play.

“The nature of this league is that you’re going to play close games, so get used to it if you follow football,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Get used to it if you’re a player. As a coach you have to get used to it. That’s the nature of this league. You have to do things that the winning teams do at the end of the ballgame. We were able to do that this week.”

They were unable to close out against the Lions. They were unable to close out against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6, losing on a last-second field goal. They were unable to make plays in the fourth-quarter of losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.

On Sunday, Tony Romo directed a nine-play, 90-yard drive for the winning points and the defense was able to come up with a final-second stop when Christian Ponder's Hail Mary fell woefully short of the end zone.

After a Romo pass was intercepted with 4:29 to play, the defense came up with a big three and out, aided by some curious play calling.

“We were able to show everyone we could close out games now,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. “I know that was everyone’s question, focusing on, ‘Can the Cowboys close out games?’ But it just shows everyone we can do it.”

This week it did. But Sean Lee knows it’s a week-to-week league.

“You find a way to win,” Lee said.

Welcome to AT&T Stadium

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
10:50
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Welcome to AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys kick off the second half of their season against the Minnesota Vikings.

Different at home: AT&T Stadium has been friendlier to the Cowboys this year than recent years.

A win would give the Cowboys their fourth at home this season, matching their total from 2012, but more importantly it would keep them on top of the NFC East.

The Cowboys are averaging 36.5 points per game at home, compared to just 21 on the road. The biggest difference is in the ground game. In the four games, the Cowboys have rushed for 380 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. On the road the Cowboys average just 3.2 yards per carry.

A friendly month: Everybody is well aware of the Cowboys’ and Tony Romo’s issues in December. November is a much different story.

Romo has the best record of any quarterback in November at 21-4. He has thrown for 6,994 yards on 553 of 826 passing with 58 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

If the Cowboys want to stay atop the NFC East race, then they will need another strong November. Of their four games in the month, the Cowboys play only one team with a winning record (New Orleans, Nov. 10).

Welcome back: Maybe it is just a coincidence that the Cowboys’ offense has fizzled since DeMarco Murray sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Oct. 13 against the Washington Redskins.

Murray will return to the lineup Sunday after a two-game absence. In his first game back last year from a six-week layoff with a foot injury, Murray carried 23 times for 83 yards and a touchdown in a win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Slowing down the running game: With a passing game that has gone nowhere the Vikings rely heavily on running back Adrian Peterson.

While not as magical as he was in 2012, Peterson still has 571 yards rushing on 128 carries and six touchdowns. The Cowboys struggled in slowing down Reggie Bush of the Detroit Lions last week. Bush had 21 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown.

In their last home game, the Cowboys allowed 216 rushing yards to the Redskins.

The Vikings do not have the passing game to match their running game, but the Cowboys' pass defense is not exactly filled with confidence this week either. If there’s good news it’s that Christian Ponder is not in Matthew Stafford's neighborhood.

Double Coverage: Vikings at Cowboys

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Jared Allen and Tony RomoAP PhotoJared Allen's Vikings and Tony Romo's Cowboys match up on Sunday in a game where neither team looks like much of a playoff threat.

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys kick off the second half of their season at AT&T Stadium on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, who are still looking for their first win in the United States this season.

A playoff team a year ago, the Vikings have been one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL. At 4-4, the Cowboys are looking at their third straight 8-8 season under Jason Garrett.

ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the game in this week’s Double Coverage.

Archer: I think a lot of people assumed the Vikings would be a serious playoff threat, but obviously that’s not the case. How is it sitting with the veterans on the team like Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and guys who have experienced success?

Goessling: A lot of those players have been disappointed, but they all seem to be sticking behind coach Leslie Frazier, at least for now. There have been a few hints of discontent from players with the defensive scheme, but nobody seems to be quitting on the season. A lot of the problems are out of the Vikings’ control, at least in the sense that they can do only so much with the roster they have. It’s hard to win and have an open competition at quarterback at the same time. And the Vikings’ moves in the secondary have backfired terribly. This hasn’t been the same team without Antoine Winfield, and now that Harrison Smith is hurt, the Vikings have few playmakers on the back end of their defense.

Speaking of quarterbacks, it looks like Tony Romo is playing some of his best football this year. I suppose with him, we never really know what to think until the playoffs, but does it seem to you like he’s turned any type of a corner?

Archer: I think he’s played at a higher level than most people want to say for the past few years, but he’s been stuck with this tag that he can’t shake until (if) the Cowboys make the playoffs and win a couple of games. This year, he has more say in the offense in terms of the game plan, so I think that has him feeling more weight to make the correct play and not be so much of a gunslinger. He’s struggled the past three games with his accuracy, but he’s made big plays and mostly stayed away from the bad ones. He remains creative when things break down, but he’s also willing to take a sack or throw the ball away.

Peterson is coming home, so to speak. How have things been different for him this season after 2,000 yards last season?

Goessling: He has been dealing with a minor hamstring injury for the past few weeks, but I think the biggest problem for Peterson has been the play of his offensive line. The group hasn’t been anywhere near as good as it was last season at opening holes for Peterson, and fullback Jerome Felton has struggled to get into a rhythm after missing the first three games because of a suspension. At times, Peterson has looked impatient, wanting to make that one extra cut for a 60-yard run and winding up with a 2- or 3-yarder when the hole closes. He’s also seeing more eight-man fronts than any other back in the league, and without a line that’s able to handle the extra attention, Peterson isn’t going to beat those defenses all the time. Even he isn’t that good.

But maybe this is the week the Vikings can resurrect their passing game, playing against the worst pass defense in the league. Are the Cowboys so bad that they’ll have trouble even with the Vikings’ ensemble cast at quarterback?

Archer: Unless Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman or Matt Cassel morph into Peyton or Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Matthew Stafford, I can’t see it happening, even as bad as the pass defense has been. When it has played against middling quarterbacks -- Alex Smith (yes, I know he’s 8-0, but he’s not a great passer), Sam Bradford, a returning-to-health Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles -- the defense has looked good. When it has faced top passers, it has allowed the most 400-yard games in NFL history for a season -- in just eight games. Monte Kiffin’s scheme is very basic and designed to not give up big plays, yet the Cowboys have given up a ton of big plays. They have missed DeMarcus Ware the past two games and will have a banged-up secondary Sunday. If Ware returns, that should help, but I think the biggest aid for the defense will be whomever Frazier picks to play quarterback.

For years, the strength of the Vikings D, to me anyway, has been the pass rush. Statistically, it’s not very good, but is that a product of the secondary issues you talked about?

Goessling: I’d say it’s the other way around. The Vikings were certainly better in the secondary last year than they are this year, but they were helped out by the fact the front four was getting to the quarterback enough to keep teams from exploiting them in the passing game. This year, the Vikings have been done in by teams that can get the ball out quickly (the Lions and Packers, especially), and they just haven’t gotten much push up the middle. Allen and Brian Robison are hustling, but they can do only so much when they’re getting the bulk of opposing teams’ attention. The Vikings still aren’t a blitz-heavy team, but they have had to bring extra guys a little more often than usual this year and Aaron Rodgers burned them on a blitz Sunday. If Romo gets the ball out quickly, he should have plenty of openings. The good news for the Cowboys is A) the Vikings could have three defensive backs out with injury, and B) Josh Robinson will be on the field.

The week after the Vikings lost in the final seconds against the Bears, they got beat by the Browns at home. Do you expect any kind of shell shock from the Cowboys after that Matthew Stafford touchdown last week?

Archer: I really don’t. The Cowboys have had so many of these types of losses that they know how to bounce back. The bad thing is they have had to do this too often. We came up with 21 losses since 2005 that can be described as “crazy” with late-game shenanigans. The Lions loss was just another one to add to the list. The Cowboys lost a game in 2010 because they missed an extra point. They lost a game in 2008 in overtime on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. And those both came at Arizona.

So the Cowboys somehow do a good job of compartmentalizing things and putting a bad week behind them. Garrett deserves some credit for that, I guess.

 

Alfred Morris needs more carries

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
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ASHBURN, Va. -- He knew he'd receive extra attention. What the Washington Redskins really need is for Alfred Morris to receive more carries.

They know that as well as anyone, coming off a season in which much of their offensive success stemmed from the ground game. But slow starts, poor third-down conversions and falling behind in games has equaled a ground game that yearns for more.

[+] EnlargeAlfred Morris
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAlfred Morris expects to play Sunday against the Cowboys and boost the Redskins' running game.
The good news for Washington is that Morris expects to play Sunday at Dallas. He said the bruised ribs he suffered against Oakland feel fine, with some "remnants" of the injury. But Morris practiced in full Monday and said it's "nothing serious, nothing that will hinder me out there playing so I'm not worried about it."

Which is what the Redskins need. Morris averages 5.3 yards per carry after gaining 4.8 per run a year ago en route to 1,613 regular-season yards. He also averages 2.30 yards after contact, after getting 1.92 per run in 2012. The big number: Morris averaged 20.9 carries per game in 2012; he's averaging 14 this season.

"It's not that teams know who I am, they do know but at the same time I'm not getting that many carries," Morris said. "As long as we win I [couldn't] care less. I'll do my part regardless."

Morris said he's not frustrated.

"Even if it's not running the ball I can get in on the passing game," Morris said, "keeping the blitz off Robert so he can get that opportunity to make his reads and make his throws. Whatever I can do to help my team win, even if they want me to run down on special teams I'm fine with that."

It doesn't change his approach or alter his enjoyment, either.

"I love what I do. I have fun out there," Morris said. "My fun isn't dependent on how many carries I get or how many touchdowns I score or how many yards I get. I get to do what I love to do every day. I'm blessed enough to be in the NFL. Hundreds of thousands of people who wish they were in our shoes but they're not. I don't take it for granted. I appreciate it."

But there's no doubt the Redskins appreciate what Morris brings to the ground game -- and its importance to the offense and quarterback Robert Griffin III's passing. They love using play-action passes, but it's hard to do that when you can't run as much or have fallen behind too far. And when the run game is clicking, it forces the defense to use a safety closer to the line of scrimmage.

"It opens up doors for everything you do," Redskins fullback Darrel Young said. "It means the deep ball's open and the corners have to play man. I'll take my chances with Pierre [Garcon] in man coverage."

The result: better passing opportunities. Last season, Griffin averaged 12.49 yards per pass attempt off play-action -- and his 169 dropbacks were second most in the NFL behind Minnesota's Christian Ponder. This year? Griffin is averaging 7.00 yards per play-action pass attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He averaged 8.6 play-action dropbacks in the first five games; 11.3 per game last season.

The real key was Griffin's play fakes fooling the linebackers, whether off regular play-action or zone read play-action. At times when the linebackers dropped back, they lost sight of the ball and were out of their lanes. The result: better alleys for after the catch.

"When everyone else is chasing the run and you get the ball, three's a lot more room because they're chasing you instead of you coming to them," Garcon said. "There's definitely a lot more room to run."

But it starts with being able to get Morris additional carries.

"It's frustrating but he's not a guy based off numbers," Young said. "He's not a guy that needs to have the ball. He's one of the coolest guys I've been around. He's still humble ... . Now we have to take it to the next level."

That's what the coaches say they want too. Nobody knows better than them how much more efficient the offense is when Morris and the ground game are churning.

"We believe in the running game," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "Usually, teams that can run have a lot of success. We always have that philosophy. Hopefully this week we can get back to where we think we can running the football."
Our man Todd McShay has re-worked his latest mock draft Insider to reflect Sunday's Darrelle Revis trade, and there are changes throughout. This is a first-round-only update, so sorry, Redskins fans. We'll catch up with you a little bit later in the day. As for the fans of the other three NFC East teams, here are Todd's latest picks and my thoughts. Which I know is why you're here, after all. Right? Right????

4. Philadelphia Eagles: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma.

In this mock, the top two tackles (Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher) go to Kansas City and Jacksonville with the first two picks and the Raiders take defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd at No. 4. So Todd gives the Eagles Johnson, who seems to be a fast riser and has been identified by draft analysts as a good fit with Chip Kelly's offense due to his athleticism. (Never gets old, right?) And while I have no issue with the Eagles going offensive tackle at No. 4, this feels high for Johnson with defensive guys like Dion Jordan and Star Lotulelei still on the board. If Fisher or Joeckel is there, I think they'll bite. But if those guys are gone, I'm thinking defense for the Eagles at No. 4.

18. Dallas Cowboys: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri.

Look. Basically, I've decided I'm not going to believe in this historic first-round run on offensive linemen until I see it. Todd has six offensive linemen being taken in the top 15, which has not happened since 1966. And while I acknowledge that this is a somewhat unique draft devoid of Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin III/Trent Richardson-type skill position talent at the top, I still feel like somebody's going to draft a quarterback or two earlier than we think they should. Three days before the 2011 NFL draft, you couldn't find a mock that had Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder all going in the top 12, and yet there they all went.

Some of the teams drafting in the first half of the first round are doing so every year, and you don't become one of those teams by making good decisions on draft day. The Cowboys need an offensive lineman badly in the first round, and while I respect the heck out of Todd's work and Mel Kiper's work, I'm leaning on history for my belief that one of the top six offensive linemen will be there for Dallas to take at 18. If not, absolutely a three-technique defensive lineman is a great pick here as long as they're going to grab a guard in Round 2. I just don't think it comes to that.

19. New York Giants: D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston.

Well, here's a new name for the Giants. I like what Todd's doing here, applying a big pile of history that tells us the Giants don't like to take linebackers and offensive linemen in the first round and identifying a position they do, historically, consider worthy of a first-round pick. In this mock, Hayden is the third defensive back off the board, following Alabama corner Dee Milliner (to Tennessee at 10) and Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro (to St. Louis at 16). I don't know how the Giants have him rated vis-a-vis guys like Desmond Trufant and Xavier Rhodes, but in no way should anyone be surprised if they take a cornerback here.
Over at the Dallas Cowboys' team web site, Nick Eatman has a piece about the offensive line and the reasons why improving it this offseason should be a bigger priority than team owner Jerry Jones has indicated it is. Nick's point focuses not on the line's need to protect quarterback Tony Romo, who just signed a huge contract extension last week, but on the run game.

Jones' statement at the scouting combine that the line could be under-prioritized because Romo has shown an ability to succeed behind a bad line overlooks the run game, and Nick believes that's a mistake:
Everyone loves to point the finger at Romo for turning the ball over in costly situations. But it seems like there are too many other quarterbacks out there that rarely have to put the ball up when it gets inside the 10. Yeah, a Christian Ponder can win games in this league if he gets to hand it off to Adrian Peterson, who will score 12 times.

And, of course, you guys all know that. You know the Cowboys need to run the ball better. Everyone does.

But it’s just another reason why the Cowboys must fix this offensive line up front. Sure, Romo has the ability to avoid a few blitzes now and then, but the last two years are proof the running backs need more help when the team gets close to the goal line.

First, you have to send kudos out to any writer for a team's official web site who has the guts to criticize something the team's owner said. But second ... yeah. I mean, DeMarco Murray has shown an ability to pick up yards behind poor blocking, but he's also shown an ability to get injured and miss huge chunks of the season. Wouldn't it be nice if he and whoever else is carrying the ball out of the Dallas backfield this year had some holes to run through?

There are 20 days until the NFL draft. The Cowboys have done nothing so far this offseason to improve the offensive line. They hold the 18th pick in the first round. If they don't use it on an offensive lineman, it'll be clearer than ever that their priorities are way out of whack. And the biggest problem the offense had in the 2012 and 2011 seasons will be the biggest problem the offense has in 2013.

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