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Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill offers first attack in trash-talking war vs. the Cowboys



PHILADELPHIA – Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill got the trash-talking started in earnest in front of Sunday’s pivotal game against the Dallas Cowboys, with comments that are sure to make their way onto Dallas’ bulletin board.

“I mean, you look at Dallas’ history, they always choke,” Grugier-Hill said, via NBC Philadelphia, “so we’ll go down there and make them choke.”

The defending champs are starting to regain some swagger after winning two in a row to get to 6-6. With a win over the 7-5 Cowboys, they’ll pull into first place in the division.

But it’s no gimme.

The Eagles lost their first matchup to Dallas, 27-20, at Lincoln Financial Field on November 11. That kick-started a four-game win streak for the Cowboys, who are coming off an upset win over the New Orleans Saints. While Dallas has been resting since that Thursday night game, the Eagles have a quick turnaround after hosting the Washington Redskins Monday night.

The Cowboys are listed as 3.5 home favorites.

The Eagles are 2-3 against Dallas under coach Doug Pederson, but do own bragging rights when it comes to big moments in the rivalry of late, including a 24-22 win in Dallas in the 2013 regular-season finale to claim the NFC East championship.

The Cowboys have an 80 percent chance to win the NFC East, according to ESPN FPI, while the Eagles have just a 14 percent chance. If Dallas can’t close the deal, Grugier-Hill’s words would have some extra weight to them.

Sunday will go a long way in deciding both teams’ fate.

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Can Pittsburgh finally tame Steelers killer Rob Gronkowski? – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog



PITTSBURGH — Rob Gronkowski is known by more nicknames than the famed “Gronk” around the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.

Steelers coaches and players have called Gronkowski everything from “freak” to “dangerous man” this week as they prepare for the tight end who’s tortured their defense for years.

Coach Mike Tomlin has seen effective coverages against Gronkowski in the past.

“But we haven’t been a part of it,” said Tomlin in preparation for Sunday’s clash with New England (9-4). “We’re looking to be.”

The numbers validate Tomlin’s point. In Gronkowski’s past five games against Pittsburgh, he has 34 catches for 592 yards and five touchdowns. That’s more yardage than all but eight NFL tight ends produced in the entire 2017 regular season.

The Steelers (7-5-1) have tried a bit of everything on Gronkowski, who last season was kept relatively in check before exploding for 69 yards on the final drive of the Patriots’ 27-24 victory. Oh yeah, he also caught a two-point conversion after that drive.

Safety Sean Davis was covering Gronkowski for most of that game, and the performance still bothers him, though he’s resigned to the fate that Gronkowski makes ridiculous catches through tight coverage.

Davis has moved from strong to free safety, so he won’t match up with Gronkowski on Sunday. But he’s got a promise on which to deliver.

“I’m just going to make sure those deep shots Gronk got on us last year, on me last year, you’re not going to get it this year,” Davis said.

Questions persist about whether Gronkowski’s game is deteriorating due to mounting injuries over nine seasons. From 2010 to 2017, Gronkowski produced at least eight touchdowns in every season with 10 or more games played. This season, he has three touchdowns in 10 games, along with a modest 637 yards on 43 receptions.

But he still garners the same respect in the Steelers locker room. Defenders say his massive 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame makes contesting catches difficult for defensive backs, and Gronkowski is athletic enough to get past linebackers.

“Make sure we put a couple of bodies on him, make sure the safeties know where he is at all times,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “One-on-one [coverage] — that’s what they want.”

The Patriots move Gronkowski around enough that everyone must be ready. Slot corner Cam Sutton doesn’t expect just one player to shadow Gronkowski. “Everybody in the secondary” can get lined up with him on a given down, he said.

Mixing coverages can help, because as defensive coordinator Keith Butler points out, quarterback Tom Brady “will hurt you” if you stay in the same look all game. Brady has 23 touchdowns and one interception in his past eight games against Pittsburgh, with seven wins.

The Steelers’ defense is not exactly brimming with confidence entering this crucial matchup. The unit hasn’t picked off a pass since Week 10, and during this three-game losing streak, Pittsburgh has given up five drives of 60-plus yards in the fourth quarter.

But linebacker T.J. Watt likes his defense against any NFL team — as long as the Steelers do a few things.

“Just going out and getting some damn turnovers — make some splash plays and do our job and not try to do too much and we’ll be just fine,” Watt said. “We’re getting so close. We have a lot of tipped passes, dropped interceptions. I think we know we’re so close, and one of these games, it’s going to all come together for us.”

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From streak to slump: What has happened to Adam Thielen? – Minnesota Vikings Blog



EAGAN, Minn. — The Monday Night Football audience didn’t just sense Adam Thielen‘s frustrations, they heard them. Loud and clear.

After a 35-yard catch-and-run ahead of the two-minute warning in the second half of the Minnesota Vikings’ 21-7 loss at the Seattle Seahawks, ESPN’s field mics picked up a colorful outburst when the Pro Bowl wide receiver voiced his concern with what was transpiring on offense.

Thielen leads the NFL in receptions, with 103, but his production has decreased considerably since he posted 100 yards receiving for eight straight weeks to open the season. In Seattle, Thielen wasn’t targeted and didn’t catch his first pass until 6:12 left in the third quarter. For the first time in the past two seasons, he didn’t catch a pass in a half.

“A little bit frustration of not moving the ball,” Thielen said of his outburst. “When you’re an athlete and a competitor, you feel like you can win. So, you want the ball in your hand, you want opportunities. So that’s probably where that came from.”

It’s not like he wasn’t getting open. On Minnesota’s second drive of the game, Thielen was free of defenders 20 yards downfield. Sensing pressure, quarterback Kirk Cousins dumped off a pass behind him to running back Latavius Murray that went for 2 yards. Instead of finding Thielen on fourth down from Seattle’s 1-yard line with more than nine minutes to play in the game, Cousins targeted tight end Kyle Rudolph in double coverage in the back of the end zone. The pass was broken up, and the Vikings failed to score.

Thielen’s production dip has been noticeable since Week 9, when his 100-yard streak was snapped by the Detroit Lions. With Stefon Diggs sidelined due to an injury to his ribs, the Lions zeroed in on Thielen, limiting him to four catches for 22 yards.

After averaging 115.6 yards receiving in the first eight games of the season while catching 76 percent of his targets, Thielen has caught 64 percent of his targets over the past five weeks while averaging 62.2 yards per game. Amid a rough stretch for Minnesota’s offense, Thielen was back to his ways against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12 (eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown), but he has been quiet outside of that.

Thielen isn’t the only one whose numbers have decreased after a hot start. Diggs has gone three straight games without eclipsing 100 yards receiving, and he was visibly frustrated during a defeat at the New England Patriots as cameras caught him ripping off his helmet and screaming after being left wide open.

So what’s happening?

“I think a lot of discussion, even talking to my own family after the game, that they noticed watching on TV of Adam and Stefon are being doubled and taken away,” Cousins said following the tilt in Seattle. “That was true probably the first two third downs of the game, and then really the rest of the game I didn’t notice it showing up. So, while that is happening — that happened against the Lions, that happened against the Patriots and it’s going to happen. But it’s not play in and play out all game long. So I don’t want to overstate that. Certainly, from time to time they’ll be doubled.”

Teams typically utilize bracket coverage when putting two defenders on one player, but the way the Patriots and Seahawks chose to routinely double Thielen and Diggs with defenders playing man coverage is less common. But it’s far from surprising that teams have begun to deploy this strategy to contain the prolific receiving duo.

“I didn’t ever think I’d get triple-teamed,” Diggs said. “That’s something that I’ve never experienced in my life. For me, I can beat double-teams. I feel like I can still win. And if it’s three guys, I’ve got to beat three guys. It don’t really matter how it comes up. But more importantly, we’ve got guys on the outside that can win, and if I’m occupying three people, I know we’ve got some guys out there that can get involved.”

Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski hopes to reignite Thielen and Diggs on Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins in a game that could establish the tone offensively for what the Vikings aim to do the rest of the season.

“I think it’s our job and we’re charged with getting those guys the football in space,” Stefanski said. “It changes, and it varies by game, because certain teams have a certain plan to take those two guys away. The nice part is we have a very unselfish group, so if it’s going to be a big Stefon Diggs game, Adam’s great about it. If there is going to be a big Kyle Rudolph game, those guys are great about it.

“So, I think the ball goes where the ball goes; but we as coaches, need to try to design plays to get the ball, obviously, to our playmakers.”

Another way Stefanski could do that is by getting running back Dalvin Cook more involved in the passing game.

Cook has 50 yards receiving on just 13 catches over the past two games, and opportunities to get him involved in the passing game could help him evolve into the Vikings’ No. 3 receiver. The two touchdowns he has scored this season have come as a pass-catcher.

The influences Stefanski pulls from the previous offensive coordinators he has worked under will start to become evident on Sunday. But judging by the success former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had utilizing running backs in the passing game, particularly with screens, Cook could get more involved.

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Kobe Bryant gives Cleveland Browns pep talk before playing Denver Broncos



The Cleveland Browns, getting ready for a prime-time game in Denver, had a special guest at their team meeting Friday — one who knows a little bit about Showtime.

Former Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant spoke to the team for about an hour at its hotel, then took questions from the players.

Bryant, whose relentlessness and competitive drive were hallmarks of his career, talked about the “Mamba Mentality,” and what motivates him.

The Browns (5-7-1), have won three of their past four games and are coming off a 26-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers. They play the Broncos at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

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