Film Study: How the Steelers finally foiled Brady

Film Study: How the Steelers finally foiled Brady

Everybody was waiting for the Pittsburgh Steelers to fail again.

As detailed in our Week 15 preview, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski & Company torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 173 points in the last five meetings, all New England Patriots victories.

The task was even tougher Sunday, with Pittsburgh’s offense producing just 17 points. Ben Roethlisberger threw two picks, Chris Boswell missed a chip-shot field goal and a forward-progress ruling nullified a strip and recovery by the Steelers’ D in its own red zone.

No matter.

A glaring question mark coming in, Keith Butler’s defense was outstanding … after its first series, anyway.

New England came out and dictated with tempo, creating confusion and easy yards, and then sprung Chris Hogan for the most wide-open catch (18 yards from the nearest defender, per Next Gen Stats) by any NFL player this season. The 63-yard touchdown came directly from a matchup-zone coverage bust — one of the Steelers’ concerns we detailed in Thursday’s preview — and looked like a harbinger of another big day for Brady.

Instead, that was almost all New England could muster. The Patriots followed with five consecutive punts, a 13-play, 63-yard field-goal drive that required a pass-interference penalty to convert third-and-16, and two red-zone failures that sealed the game.

After watching Brady dice up their zones for years and solve their man coverage late last season, the Steelers struck a perfect balance on Sunday. On early downs, Butler mixed in five-man pressures with matchup zones; in long-yardage situations, he used more traditional zones (dropping eight at times) but often rotated to them from various disguises; and on most third downs, he opted for 2-man coverage with a key wrinkle.

Rather than leaving his two safeties deep, Butler had them sit 10-12 yards off the line and play aggressively downhill. One of the two (usually rookie Terrell Edmunds) bracketed Gronkowski, who was also matched by a man underneath (usually Sean Davis, whom Gronk exploited in single coverage last year). The other high safety was mostly kept free to double-team routes between the numbers.

The approach dared Brady to throw deep and outside, areas he has struggled to attack with age, and limited Gronkowski to two catches for 21 yards. It also routinely forced Brady to his second or third read, which the Steelers’ pass rush made more difficult by pushing the pocket.

Despite getting home for just one sack, rushers repeatedly put bodies (their own, or New England’s blockers) near Brady’s feet, forcing him to reset and drift rather than stepping up on balance. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt combined for seven QB hits, and even 352-pounder Dan McCullers had a pressure. The payoff came with one of the worst interceptions you’ll ever see Brady throw: a hot air balloon off his back foot — as Heyward, Tuitt and Watt converged — on second-and-goal from the 16 midway through the fourth quarter.

The Patriots’ most consistent production came on the ground and off play-action, but game script limited those opportunities. Brady hit Gronkowski and Edelman for a combined 38 yards on back-to-back play-action throws early in the fourth, but New England’s final 15 snaps included 12 straight dropbacks, two runs and one play-action screen as it played catch-up.

Gronkowski’s other grab came when Edmunds played a hair too deep from his 2-high alignment, allowing a key third-and-8 conversion, but Pittsburgh held him to five total targets.

Two of those came in the final three plays, but Gronkowski was actually used as a chip-blocker twice on the final drive — a startling role for the man who had four grabs for 69 yards on the game-winning march last year.

In terms of efficiency, the Steelers weren’t quite as good as 10 points allowed would suggest. New England’s unforced errors included six presnap flags and three or four drops. Pittsburgh also faced just nine drives — it would have been eight if Roethlisberger converted the final third down — as both teams’ rushing success (254 combined yards on 44 carries) shortened the contest. The Pats wound up averaging more yards per play than the Steelers (6.6 to 6.2), with red-zone failures the biggest difference.

Even so, Butler and his unit deserve tremendous credit. Other than an early hiccup, they executed a slew of coverages and disguises with discipline and chemistry. Pass rush aided coverage and vice versa, exactly how you draw it up. And all 11 defenders rallied to the ball like madmen, eating up the screens and quick throws that used to papercut Pittsburgh to death.

Unlike last year, the Steelers have more work to do just to reach January, but if current standings hold, they’ll meet the Patriots again in three weeks. That game would be in Foxborough, but you know what they say: defense travels.

-Colts beat Cowboys with bully ball

The Colts’ win Sunday was no shock, but their methods certainly raised eyebrows.

Indianapolis beat Dallas — riding defense and timely playmaking to a five-game win streak — at its own game. Andrew Luck completed just 16 passes for 192 yards and no scores, but the Colts ran for 178 yards and held the Cowboys to 292 total yards (4.6 per play).

Given his familiarity with his opponent, Colts defensive coordinator (and former Cowboys assistant) Matt Eberflus’ plan was telling. As expected, he favored Cover-3 over Cover-2 to get an extra safety in the box against Ezekiel Elliott, but he also mixed in myriad changeups through blitzes.

Though he rarely rushed more than five, Eberflus sent several defensive backs on blitzes, including some with multiple Dbs. Many came from the slot, but not always — on one third down, outside cornerback Quincy Wilson aligned over the center and rushed the A-gap, an extremely uncommon tactic.

The approach was aimed at speeding up Prescott — whom Eberflus knows well from facing him in practice — mentally while keeping eyes on the mobile QB in zone. Prescott delivered some nice throws, but he let several get away from him, sailing crossers and underthrowing wide-open targets.

Indy’s defensive line gave Dallas’ battered front five fits. Denico Autry, Margus Hunt and 2017 fourth-rounder Grover Stewart fired aggressively off the snap, getting penetration or bench-pressing their man into the backfield. Such aggressiveness creates extra run lanes — Elliott totaled 87 yards on 18 carries — but it also prevents O-linemen from reaching linebackers as easily, keeping stud rookie Darius Leonard and second-year man Anthony Walker clean to make tackles.

The penetration short-circuited many runs, as center Joe Looney (starting for Travis Frederick), right guard Connor Williams (starting for Zack Martin) and left guard Alex Redmond (replacing Xavier Su’a-Filo, who left in the second) reacted too slowly to slants and backside swim moves. Looney failed to reach Hunt on an outside-zone run on perhaps the game’s most critical play, a fourth-and-1 stuff from the Colts’ 3-yard line early in the second quarter.

The D-line also bothered Prescott often with its rush. Outside of intriguing but inconsistent rookie Kemoko Turay — who didn’t play Sunday — the Colts’ front has few rushers reliant on speed or quickness, meaning most are best off going through blockers. That doesn’t always produce sacks (just three Sunday), but it’s better for pushing the pocket, and Prescott was often forced off the spot.

Hunt and Autry (six sacks in his last three games) each put dents in the line, with Autry doing the most damage. Before beating Redmond late for a sack, he forced Looney to drag him down for two holding penalties, including one nullifying a fourth-and-2 conversion in the third quarter. (Autry also blocked Brett Maher’s 48-yard field-goal attempt on the opening drive.)

On the back end, the Colts’ zones were disciplined and cohesive. They held up long enough to create a pair of coverage sacks, including one thwarting a deep play-action design. Leonard showed great awareness for routes and closed quickly to break up two throws to Cole Beasley, tipping one to Walker (who dropped an interception), and knocking another down on fourth-and-1 to open the fourth quarter. Cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Pierre Desir were steady but not standout — like most of the season — each delivering key break-ups.

While Eberflus’ unit stole the show, the Colts’ offense also ran right through a previously stingy Cowboys D. Marlon Mack led a sustained run game with 139 yards and two scores despite a long of just 21. He broke six tackles, gaining at least 4 yards after contact on 10 carries and at least 6 after contact on seven totes.

Indy’s offensive line won with both scheme and physicality. Frank Reich employed all kinds of runs with misdirection elements — most notably trap, but also split zone, pin-and-pull and some arc releases — and there was a clear emphasis on climbing quickly from double teams to reach the Cowboys’ fast young linebackers.

Center Ryan Kelly, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (often as a puller) landed squarely on Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, both of whom have proven adept at slipping blocks. The Colts’ front also handled the Cowboys’ slants and stunts quite smoothly, a testament to their composure and chemistry.

The win was Indianapolis’ seventh in eight games, but this felt different than the others.

We know Andrew Luck is capable of carrying the Colts. If the defense and run game are ready to take turns as well, this team could do serious damage in January (assuming it finds a way in).

-How sustainable is the Vikings’ new offense?

Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski had one heck of a debut as an NFL playcaller.

The newly promoted quarterbacks coach guided Minnesota to touchdowns on its first three possessions and totals of 41 points and 418 yards. More importantly, the Vikings had the balance Mike Zimmer wanted from John DeFilippo, posting season highs with 220 rushing yards on 40 carries (5.5 average).

But it’s far too simple to say everything is fixed.

There’s a reason DeFilippo was hesitant to run it. The Vikings topped 4.0 yards per carry in just three of their first 13 games, mostly due to an offensive line that struggles to clear lanes and sustain blocks. The group had issues last year too (3.9 ypc) and didn’t really replace retired guard Joe Berger. Even with rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill settling in surprisingly well, the unit remains shaky.

The Dolphins’ wildly inconsistent run defense certainly aided Sunday’s efficiency. Starting tackles Akeem Spence and Davon Godchaux were moved almost at will, and notably up-and-down linebackers Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan swung hard in the latter direction, getting sloppy with their run fits and struggling to shed blocks. Likewise, an inordinate amount of production came against very light boxes — sometimes creating 6-on-6 blocking — and via shoddy tackling by Miami’s cornerbacks, factors that can’t be counted on every week.

Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray ran extremely well, and Stefanski helped them with more use of fullback C.J. Ham (18 snaps, second most this season), adding dimension to run designs. The tight ends and wideouts also blocked well, sealing edges and allowing the backs to bounce.

Perhaps most encouraging from Stefanski’s approach was the overlap between the run and pass game, something DeFilippo’s scheme often lacked. Many of the Vikings’ passes on Sunday came out of run-heavy formations, as Stefanski put Kirk Cousins under center more, used condensed sets and employed motion toward the line to help sell play-action. Cousins, who always thrived off play-action in Washington, responded well, reading the field with definition and delivering accurately from inside and outside the pocket.

The performance wasn’t without hiccups — after Cousins’ pick-six, Minnesota gained just 18 yards total on its next four possessions (excluding the end of the first half) — and there will be bumps moving forward. Stingier run defenses and less favorable game scripts will test Stefanski’s patience. As Zimmer said afterward, “It’s easy (to run it) when you’re getting five and six (yards) a pop.”

Likewise, teams will keep double-teaming wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (just six catches for 68 yards combined Sunday) and force someone else to beat them.

Kudos to Stefanski for implementing the changes Zimmer wanted and debuting with flying colors. Now let’s see how defenses respond, and whether or not the issues that previously plagued Minnesota’s offense resurface.

–David DeChant, Field Level Media

Panthers offered $120M to move facility to S.C.

Panthers offered $120M to move facility to S.C.

The Carolina Panthers will receive $120 million in tax breaks if they move

Panthers offered $120M to move facility to S.C.

The Carolina Panthers will receive $120 million in tax breaks if they move their facility to South Carolina, after the state’s Senate approved a bill Thursday by a 27-15 vote.

Under the bill, which Gov. Henry McMaster is expected to sign, the Panthers would be exempt from paying state income taxes for players, coaches and other employees for 15 years, assuming that money is used toward a new complex in South Carolina.

Currently based in Charlotte, N.C., the team has been planning a 200-acre development in Rock Hill, S.C., about 25 miles south of its current facilities next to Bank of America Stadium. The development plans include expansive football facilities as part of a broader campus with hotels, shopping and restaurants.

The bill was supported by McMaster, but many senators pushed back against the idea of giving public funds to a team owned by David Tepper, whose net worth is estimated at $11.6 billion.

“We’d like to be there. Hopefully they help us out there,” Tepper told reporters Wednesday of the potential facility in Rock Hill. “But I could be with a (practice) bubble and a cafeteria in Charlotte, too. So it’s up to them.”

Now the path appears clear for the Panthers to proceed with the planned move, which is not expected until at least 2022. The team will continue to play games at Bank of America Stadium, its home since its second season in 1996.

Tepper also told reporters Wednesday he hopes to bring a Major League Soccer team to the area eventually, potentially housing it on the same campus in Rock Hill.

–Field Level Media

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Report: Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

Report: Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

The Miami Dolphins are signing former

Report: Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

The Miami Dolphins are signing former Buffalo Bills tackle Jordan Mills to a one-year, $3 million deal, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday.

Mills, 28, started all 48 games over the past three seasons and has appeared in 87 games with 82 starts for the Chicago Bears (2013-14) and Bills (2015-18).

Mills played 95.5 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps (1,011 total) at right tackle last season and was penalized five times — three for holding and two false starts.

He was a fifth-round draft pick by Chicago in 2013.

Mills offers veteran stability to a Miami offensive line that lost Ja’Wuan James to the Denver Broncos in free agency.

–Field Level Media

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Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

The Miami Dolphins signed former Buffalo Bills

Dolphins sign former Bills tackle Mills

The Miami Dolphins signed former Buffalo Bills tackle Jordan Mills to a one-year deal Thursday, which ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports is worth $3 million.

Mills, 28, started all 48 games over the past three seasons and has appeared in 87 games with 82 starts for the Chicago Bears (2013-14) and Bills (2015-18).

Mills played 95.5 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps (1,011 total) at right tackle last season and was penalized five times — three for holding and two false starts.

He was a fifth-round draft pick by Chicago in 2013.

Mills offers veteran stability to a Miami offensive line that lost right tackle Ja’Wuan James to the Denver Broncos in free agency.

–Field Level Media

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Jaguars release QB Kessler

Jaguars release QB Kessler

Cody Kessler is looking

Jaguars release QB Kessler

Cody Kessler is looking for work after the Jacksonville Jaguars released the quarterback on Thursday.

Kessler, who turns 26 on Saturday, was 2-2 as a starter for Jacksonville last season. He completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 709 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

A third-round pick in 2016 by Cleveland, Kessler was 0-8 as a rookie starter for the Browns and was traded to the Jaguars during the 2018 offseason for a seventh-round pick.

Kessler and Blake Bortles were the only quarterbacks used by the Jaguars last season, and now both are gone.

Bortles was released in March after Jacksonville signed Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl hero Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract.

Foles’ remaining backups on the roster are untested 2018 draft picks Tanner Lee (sixth round by Jacksonville) and Alex McGough (seventh round by Seattle).

–Field Level Media

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Reports: TE Watson to join Patriots

Reports: TE Watson to join Patriots

Reports: TE Watson to join Patriots

Tight end Benjamin Watson plans to end his short-lived retirement and sign with the team that drafted him, the New England Patriots, multiple media outlets reported Thursday.

According to ESPN, Watson will sign a one-year, $3 million deal. ESPN previously reported the tight end was also considering the Chiefs, Bills and 49ers.

Reports earlier Thursday said Watson was meeting with the Patriots, who took him 32nd overall in 2004. He played six seasons in New England, followed by three seasons in Cleveland.

Watson, 38, played four of his previous five seasons with the New Orleans Saints, including last season’s run to the NFC Championship Game.

He announced his retirement in December.

“It’s time. It’s time to be done,” he said then. “I’m going to finish strong.”

In his career, Watson has played in 195 games, with 530 receptions for 5,885 yards and 44 touchdowns. In 12 postseason games, he has 22 catches for 234 yards and three scores.

The Patriots were looking for depth at tight end following the retirement of All-Pro Rob Gronkowski. They previously added free agents Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse, and they did not draft a tight end last month.

On Wednesday, the Patriots announced the release of wide receiver Bruce Ellington. He signed with New England as a free agent on March 15.

–Field Level Media

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Jags LB Smith to skip 2019 for personal reasons

Jags LB Smith to skip 2019 for personal reasons

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said he

Jags LB Smith to skip 2019 for personal reasons

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said he won’t play the 2019 season for personal reasons.

A full-time starter the past four seasons and a 2017 Pro Bowler, Smith made the announcement Thursday on Instagram.

“At this time I must take time away from this game & get my world in order,” Smith wrote. “I must give this time back to myself, my family, & my health. I appreciate all the support I will & will not get. I just ask y’all respect my decision to not play football this season.”

He also affirmed he doesn’t plan to play for any team other than the Jaguars, despite rumors of a possible trade.

Smith, 28, was set to earn a base salary of $9.75 million this season. He signed a four-year, $45 million extension in October 2017.

A fifth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2014, Smith posted a career-high 134 tackles in 2018. He also has 26 pass breakups and nine interceptions in his five-year career.

Smith and Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey opted to sit out the Jaguars’ voluntary workouts last month, prompting public criticism from team executive vice president Tom Coughlin.

Smith made his first public comments about that controversy Monday during an Instagram live session.

“Understand this, I never left Duval. I’m never leaving Duval; it’s Duval ’til we die,” he said, referring to Jacksonville’s location in Duval County. “You understand me? Y’all seen trade rumors and stuff. Y’all seen me go anywhere? Exactly. Y’all seen the rumors go somewhere, but y’all ain’t seen me go nowhere cause I ain’t going nowhere. You understand me?”

Smith promised his followers Monday that they would learn more “this week” about what’s going on.

–Field Level Media

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Reports: TE Watson visiting Patriots

Reports: TE Watson visiting Patriots

Reports: TE Watson visiting Patriots

Tight end Benjamin Watson could end his short-lived retirement and is spending Thursday meeting with the New England Patriots, according to multiple reports.

Watson is no stranger to the organization, which made him the No. 32 overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. He played six seasons in New England, followed by three seasons in Cleveland.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that Watson also is considering the Chiefs, Bills and 49ers.

Watson, 38, played four of his previous five seasons with the New Orleans Saints, including last season’s run to the NFC Championship Game.

He announced his retirement in December.

“It’s time. It’s time to be done,” he said then. “I’m going to finish strong.”

In his career, Watson has played in 195 games, with 530 receptions for 5,885 yards and 44 touchdowns. In 12 postseason games, he has 22 catches for 234 yards and three scores.

The Patriots are looking for depth at tight end following the retirement of All-Pro Rob Gronkowski.

On Wednesday, the Patriots announced the release of wide receiver Bruce Ellington. He signed with New England as a free agent on March 15.

–Field Level Media

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Reports: CB Taylor joins Seahawks

Reports: CB Taylor joins Seahawks

Cornerback Jamar Taylor agreed to a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks

Reports: CB Taylor joins Seahawks

Cornerback Jamar Taylor agreed to a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, per multiple reports.

Taylor, a nickel cornerback, follows defensive end Ziggy Ansah as another potential value find deep into free agency.

Ansah, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft, was due in Seattle on Thursday to a sign a one-year deal that could be worth $8 million. However, Ansah is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and might not be cleared until August.

Taylor, 28, is a former second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins out of Boise State but has bounced around from Miami to the Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos, where he ended last season.

The Seahawks lost cornerback Justin Coleman (Detroit Lions) in free agency.

–Field Level Media

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Reports: Seahawks agree with DE Ansah

Reports: Seahawks agree with DE Ansah

Reports: Seahawks agree with DE Ansah

The Seattle Seahawks agreed to a one-year deal with free agent defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, multiple media outlets reported Wednesday evening.

Ansah is expected to fly to Seattle on Thursday to sign, according to ESPN.

NFL Network reported earlier Wednesday that Seattle was the front-runner to sign Ansah, adding that no agreement had been finalized and the Buffalo Bills remained interested.

Had a team signed Ansah before Wednesday, he would have factored into the compensatory-pick formula. By waiting, Seattle remains in line to get third-, fourth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks next year as compensation for losing Earl Thomas, Justin Coleman, Shamar Stephen and Brett Hundley, per OverTheCap.com.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane said earlier Wednesday on 1270 The Fan in Buffalo that the team was still in contact with Ansah, and that he wasn’t necessarily buying that the Seahawks were the favorite.

“We’re still in talks with him and his agent,” Beane said. “Everything has been very good. All I’ll say about reports is I don’t buy into that garbage, especially when I consider where some of the sourcing comes from.”

Ansah visited the Baltimore Ravens and then the Seahawks in late April, after meeting the Bills and the New Orleans Saints shortly after free agency opened in mid-March. Coming off of shoulder surgery after missing nine games in 2018, Ansah saw his market be slow to develop as teams monitored his health and recovery.

NFL Network reported last month he is expected to be cleared by mid-August.

Ansah, who will turn 30 on May 29, had four sacks and seven quarterback hits in seven games (two starts) while playing on the franchise tag for the Detroit Lions last season, after posting 12 and 17, respectively, in 2017. His best season came in 2015, when he had 14.5 sacks and 34 QB hits while earning his only Pro Bowl nod.

Drafted fifth overall by Detroit in 2013, Ansah has 48 sacks and 110 quarterback hits in six NFL seasons.

The Seahawks added defensive end L.J. Collier with the 29th overall pick in last month’s draft, but they needed help at the “leo” defensive end spot after trading Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs.

–Field Level Media

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NFL notebook: McVay opens up on Super Bowl loss

NFL notebook: McVay opens up on Super Bowl loss

NFL notebook: McVay opens up on Super Bowl loss

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay experienced paralysis by analysis in the days before his team lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.

McVay took responsibility for the 13-3 defeat in the immediate aftermath of the game, and he expounded upon his faults in an interview with Sports Illustrated published Wednesday.

“In the back of my mind, (when making the Super Bowl game plan back in L.A.), I operated knowing I had another week,” he said. “That urgency to completely finalize the game plan wasn’t quite there, and that led to me watching so much film that you can almost water down your thought process.”

“You have so much time that you can overprepare and get away from some of the things that helped you get there. I watched every game from New England’s season. You see stuff that worked in, say, Week 3, but you forget about the amount of stuff that’s taken place since Week 3. You can watch so much film that you lose perspective.”

–The Seattle Seahawks have emerged as the front-runner to sign free agent defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, NFL Network reported.

The report indicated no contract was finalized, adding that the Buffalo Bills remain interested after hosting Ansah for a visit in March.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane said on 1270 The Fan in Buffalo that the team is still in contact with Ansah, and that he isn’t necessarily buying that the Seahawks are the favorite.

–Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is paying the funeral expenses for Jaylon McKenzie, the promising eighth-grade football player killed by a stray bullet last weekend in Venice, Ill.

“For him to reach out to me was unbelievable,” McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“Jaylon loved Ezekiel Elliott. He talked about him all the time. … For him to reach out to me and help me in this difficult time leaves me speechless.”

–The Carolina Panthers hired recently retired defensive end Julius Peppers as special assistant of business operations.

Team vice president of external affairs Steven Drummond said Peppers will have an office at the team facility and will be in the building several days a week.

–Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson said he is suffering from an autonomic disorder that contributed to his decision to step down after the 2017 season.

Thompson, 66, who was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame on Saturday, revealed his diagnosis on the Packers’ official website. He added that medical specialists do not believe he is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

–Washington Redskins right guard Brandon Scherff said he is 90 percent recovered from a torn pectoral muscle and will be “ready to go” for training camp.

Scherff, 27, sustained the season-ending injury during a 38-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 4.

–Free agent running back Bilal Powell has been cleared to play after a career-threatening neck injury and is looking for an employer.

NFL Network reports Powell sent a letter to NFL teams to say he was “really looking forward to getting back to work.” The 30-year-old sustained a season-ending neck injury with the New York Jets in October and underwent surgery soon after.

–The Indianapolis Colts will induct defensive end Dwight Freeney into their Ring of Honor during a Nov. 10 game against the Miami Dolphins.

The date was confirmed on Twitter by team owner Jim Irsay, who announced Freeney’s selection last week.

–Kansas City signed longtime linebacker Derrick Johnson to a one-day contract so he could retire as a Chief.

Johnson, 36, played his first 13 seasons with the Chiefs, earning four Pro Bowl nods, before playing six games with the Oakland Raiders in 2018.

–Joe Thomas, a former All-Pro offensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns, joined the NFL Network in various on-air roles.

Thomas will be added to the network’s on-location pregame and postgame shows for 13 Thursday night games, as well as coverage of the Super Bowl, NFL Scouting Combine and the draft.

–The Philadelphia Eagles signed safety Blake Countess to a one-year extension, after claiming him off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams last week.

Countess was a restricted free agent but is now under contract through 2020. He was primarily a special teamer for the Rams.

–The New England Patriots waived/injured former Houston and Detroit wideout Bruce Ellington, who was signed in free agency in March.

Ellington caught 31 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown across seven games with the Texans and Lions in 2018.

–The New York Giants signed former Cowboys running back Rod Smith.

Smith had 129 touches for 631 yards and six touchdowns in four years with Dallas, the past three as a backup to Elliott.

–The Chicago Bears signed free agent linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who last played for the Jets.

–Field Level Media

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After Masters’ bet, man goes big on Tiger to win Slam

After Masters' bet, man goes big on Tiger to win Slam

James

After Masters’ bet, man goes big on Tiger to win Slam

James Adducci, who took home $1.19 million on a bet when Tiger Woods won the Masters, is again putting his faith in the 15-time major champion.

Adducci took $100,000 of his winnings and placed it on Woods to take the title at all four majors this season, according to Golf Digest, which confirmed the bet through sports book operator William Hill U.S. Adducci placed the bet at SLS Casino in Las Vegas, the same sportsbook where he gambled $85,000 on Woods to win the Masters at 14-to-1 odds.

Adducci, a 39-year-old from Wisconsin, is getting 100-to-1 odds on Woods winning the Grand Slam, which would pay out $10 million.

The second leg of the Grand Slam, the PGA Championship, will be held next week at the Bethpage Black course in Farmingdale, N.Y., with the U.S. Open in June and the British Open in July. Woods is the betting favorite for the PGA Championship at 8-1, according to Westgate Sportsbook.

No golfer has ever won all four modern majors in the same season, although Woods held all four titles at the same time over the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The term Grand Slam was coined in 1930, when Bobby Jones won the British Open, U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur.

–Field Level Media

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Cowboys’ Elliott pays funeral costs for slain eighth-grader

Cowboys' Elliott pays funeral costs for slain eighth-grader

Cowboys’ Elliott pays funeral costs for slain eighth-grader

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is paying the funeral expenses for Jaylon McKenzie, the promising eighth-grade football player killed by a stray bullet last weekend.

“For him to reach out to me was unbelievable,” McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“Jaylon loved Ezekiel Elliott. He talked about him all the time. When Ezekiel was playing, he would sit in front of the TV. His eyes were glued to the TV, watching him. For him to reach out to me and help me in this difficult time leaves me speechless.”

McKenzie, 14, was featured in an article in Sports Illustrated last November titled: “Six Teens Who Will Rule the Future in Sports.”

He played running back, wide receiver and defensive back at Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis, Ill., and already had Division I college offers from Missouri and Illinois.

Elliott has ties to the area, having played prep football at John Burroughs School in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue, Mo.

–Field Level Media

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Former All-Pro OT Thomas joins NFL Network

Former All-Pro OT Thomas joins NFL Network

Former All-Pro OT Thomas joins NFL Network

Joe Thomas, a former All-Pro offensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns, has joined the NFL Network in various on-air roles.

Thomas will be added to the network’s on-location pregame and postgame shows for 13 Thursday Night Football games this season, starting Sept. 13 when the Carolina Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Thomas is also slated to appear on the NFL Network’s coverage of the Super Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine and the draft, as well as various daily programs.

“I am thrilled to join NFL Network and Thursday Night Football,” Thomas said in a statement. “Throughout my playing career, I quickly realized there are few events which can rival the excitement and action of primetime NFL games, and having the chance to be a part of that atmosphere each week is something I greatly look forward to.”

Thomas played 11 seasons with the Browns, earning 10 Pro Bowl invitations and six first-team All-Pro nods. He retired after the 2017 season.

The New York Post reported Wednesday that the NFL Network is being forced to cut $20 million out of its projected budget and has eliminated five shows. The network said it was shifting its programming based on a celebration of the NFL’s 100 season this year.

“As part of an increased investment in programming and content for 2019, NFL Network will unveil several shows geared towards a celebration of the NFL’s 100th season,” an NFL network spokesman, Alex Riethmiller, said in a statement to The Post. “These shows will replace a handful of existing shows from our 2018 schedule.”

–Field Level Media

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Report: Seahawks front-runner for DE Ansah

Report: Seahawks front-runner for DE Ansah

Report: Seahawks front-runner for DE Ansah

The Seattle Seahawks have emerged as the front-runner to sign free agent defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, NFL Network reported Wednesday.

The report says no contract is finalized, adding that the Buffalo Bills remain interested after hosting Ansah for a visit in March.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane said Wednesday on 1270 The Fan in Buffalo that the team is still in contact with Ansah, and that he isn’t necessarily buying that the Seahawks are the favorite.

“We’re still in talks with him and his agent,” Beane said. “Everything has been very good. All I’ll say about reports is I don’t buy into that garbage, especially when I consider where some of the sourcing comes from.”

Ansah visited the Baltimore Ravens and then the Seahawks in late April, after meeting the Bills and the New Orleans Saints shortly after free agency opened in mid-March. Coming off of shoulder surgery after missing nine games in 2018, Ansah’s market has been slow to develop as teams monitor his health and recovery. NFL Network reported last month he is expected to be cleared by mid-August.

Ansah, who will turn 30 on May 29, had four sacks and seven quarterback hits in seven games (two starts) while playing on the franchise tag for the Detroit Lions last season, after posting 12 and 17, respectively, in 2017. His best season came in 2015, when he had 14.5 sacks and 34 QB hits while earning his only Pro Bowl nod.

Drafted fifth overall by Detroit in 2013, Ansah has 48 sacks and 110 quarterback hits in six NFL seasons.

The Seahawks added defensive end L.J. Collier with the 29th overall pick in last month’s draft, but they could still use more help at the “leo” defensive end spot after trading Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs.

–Field Level Media

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Redskins G Scherff targets training camp return

Redskins G Scherff targets training camp return

Redskins G Scherff targets training camp return

Washington Redskins right guard Brandon Scherff said he is 90 percent recovered from a torn pectoral muscle and will be “ready to go” for training camp.

Scherff, 27, sustained the season-ending injury during a 38-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 4.

“I think it was just a fluke injury,” said Scherff, who competed in the Redskins Charity Golf Classic earlier this week. “My arm got caught in a weird position, and my pec popped. There’s nothing you can really train for that injury, but it’s all about getting stronger and eating healthier — I’ve been doing that a lot better — and just not worrying about (the injury). Just going out and playing football.”

Scherff was the Redskins’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2015 and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017.

Before the injury, he had started 54 of a possible 56 games.

–Field Level Media

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Freeney to join Colts’ Ring of Honor on Nov. 10

Freeney to join Colts' Ring of Honor on Nov. 10

The Indianapolis Colts will induct defensive

Freeney to join Colts’ Ring of Honor on Nov. 10

The Indianapolis Colts will induct defensive end Dwight Freeney into their Ring of Honor during a Nov. 10 game against the Miami Dolphins.

The date was confirmed Wednesday on Twitter by team owner Jim Irsay, who announced Freeney’s selection last week.

A first-round pick (12th overall) by Indianapolis in 2002, Freeney played 163 games with the Colts from 2002-12. He earned three first-team All-Pro selections, made seven Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl championship during that tenure.

Freeney ranks second in franchise history in sacks (107.5) and forced fumbles (43).

Freeney becomes the 16th member of the Ring of Honor, a group that includes former teammates Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James and Jeff Saturday and former coach Tony Dungy.

–Field Level Media

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McVay regrets ‘overpreparing’ for Super Bowl

McVay regrets 'overpreparing' for Super Bowl

Head coach

McVay regrets ‘overpreparing’ for Super Bowl

Head coach Sean McVay experienced paralysis by analysis in the days before the Los Angeles Rams lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.

McVay took responsibility for the 13-3 loss in the immediate aftermath of the game and expounded upon his faults in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

“In the back of my mind, [when making the Super Bowl game plan back in L.A.], I operated knowing I had another week,” he said. “That urgency to completely finalize the game plan wasn’t quite there, and that led to me watching so much film that you can almost water down your thought process.”

“You have so much time that you can overprepare and get away from some of the things that helped you get there. I watched every game from New England’s season. You see stuff that worked in, say, Week 3, but you forget about the amount of stuff that’s taken place since Week 3. You can watch so much film that you lose perspective. You have 18 games of film you can pore over. And then I even watched the Philly and Atlanta Super Bowls closely.”

McVay said after the Super Bowl that he was outcoached, tipping his hat to Bill Belichick and the Patriots for a better plan and superior execution.

Los Angeles under McVay was No. 2 in scoring in the NFL in 2018.

McVay also told SI that he didn’t take enough time to absorb what it took to become NFC champions.

“I didn’t appreciate it,” McVay said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for the journey, and I appreciated what the season had entailed. But I could have appreciated the week and entirety of the event more. I kept myself kind of isolated because I didn’t want any distraction.”

–Field Level Media

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Ex-Packers GM Thompson reveals nerve disorder

Ex-Packers GM Thompson reveals nerve disorder

Former Green Bay Packers general

Ex-Packers GM Thompson reveals nerve disorder

Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson said Wednesday he is suffering from an autonomic disorder that contributed to his decision to step down after the 2017 season.

Thompson, 66, who was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame on Saturday, revealed his diagnosis on the Packers’ official website.

“I have been diagnosed with an autonomic disorder,” Thompson said. “I feel that it’s important to mention that based on the test results and opinions of medical specialists, they feel that I do not fit the profile of someone suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”

Thompson played linebacker for the Houston Oilers for 10 seasons from 1975-84, appearing in 146 games.

He served as the Packers general manager from 2005-17, helping to build a roster that became a perennial playoff contender and won a championship in Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, “autonomic nerve disorders (dysautonomia) refer to disorders of autonomic nervous system (ANS). … Symptoms are wide-ranging and can include problems with the regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, perspiration, and bowel and bladder functions. Other symptoms include fatigue, lightheadedness, feeling faint or passing out (syncope), weakness, and cognitive impairment.”

Thompson, whose current position with the Packers is senior advisor to football operations, thanked the organization for its support.

“The Green Bay community and the fans of the Packers have always been and will continue to be very special to me. It is my hope and belief that I will be able to overcome this disorder,” he wrote.

“Finally, I’d like to ask that you respect the privacy of myself and my family as we move forward.”

–Field Level Media

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Europe opts for three captain’s picks for 2020 Ryder Cup

Europe opts for three captain's picks for 2020 Ryder Cup

European Ryder Cup captain Padraig

Europe opts for three captain’s picks for 2020 Ryder Cup

European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington will use three wild card picks instead of four when his team defends the cup at next year’s event at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Nine golfers for the European squad will qualify through the point system. Four will be chosen from points accumulated exclusively in European Tour events, with the next five coming from the World list, where points are gained for starts on any tour.

Europe won the 2018 event in Paris, when captain Thomas Bjorn made four at-large selections.

“I have said on many occasions that one of the reasons for recent European success in the Ryder Cup is continuity,” Harrington said via Golf Digest. “It is a theme that will be prevalent across my captaincy and I think you can see that in the overall qualification process for the 2020 team.

“Having said that, I am pleased that the (European Tour) tournament committee agreed to the change of wild card numbers. I have spoken to a number of people regarding the ninth player automatically qualifying for the team and, in my experience, a player is more comfortable when he has qualified, hence my reasoning behind this change.”

The 43rd Ryder Cup will be played on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., from Sept. 25-27, 2020. The U.S. team, led by captain Steve Stricker, will use four captain’s picks.

–Field Level Media

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Panthers give retired Peppers an office job

Panthers give retired Peppers an office job

After years of pounding quarterbacks on

Panthers give retired Peppers an office job

After years of pounding quarterbacks on Sundays, Julius Peppers will punch the clock from Monday to Friday as the Carolina Panthers’ newest office hire.

The team announced Wednesday that they are giving the recently retired defensive end the title of special assistant, business operations.

“Julius is a special person and he will help us in a variety of ways,” Panthers vice president of external affairs Steven Drummond said. “His role is part special projects on the business side and part ambassadorship. We are giving him an opportunity to work in several parts of our business while also helping us engage and grow our business with fans and partners. He will be a tremendous asset.”

Drummond said Peppers will have an office at the team facility and will be in the building several days a week.

Peppers, 39, ranks fourth on the NFL’s all-time sacks chart with 159.5, including 97 during his 10 seasons with the Panthers (2002-09 and 2017-18).

The No. 2 overall pick by Carolina in the 2002 draft, Panthers also played for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers during a 17-year career that included 11 interceptions, 52 forced fumbles and 266 games played. He made nine Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team All-Pro.

–Field Level Media

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