Thursday, December 29, 2011

Calm customer Henery on verge of records

Alex Henery has made his last 14 field goal attempts. (US Presswire)

By Reuben Frank

December 29, 2011

It’s not that he’s comatose, it’s just that nothing affects him. Nothing bothers him. Nothing ever gets to him.

OK, maybe he is comatose.

“My wife will always say, ‘How do you not stress out about anything?’” Alex Henery said. “And I just say, ‘There’s no reason to stress out about anything, it’s not going to make something better or worse.’

“I don’t really stress on myself, whether it’s football or life. It’s just how I approach things. If something big is coming up, my wife will say, ‘How are you not nervous?’ I don’t really know. I just don’t get nervous. Stressing out never helped. It’s just how I approach things I guess. It works out.”

So far, it’s worked out very well.

The Eagles cut ties with one of the greatest kickers in NFL history, six-time Pro Bowl pick David Akers, and replaced him with a rookie fourth-round draft pick. And if that’s not pressure, what is?

“Coming here to fill Dave’s shoes, I never really stressed myself about that,” Henery said. “I just wanted to come here, show what I can do, do my job the best I can, and it’ll all work out how it works out.”

Whatever his approach, it’s working. Since missing two field goals in the Eagles’ loss to the 49ers, Henery has been perfect.

He’s made 14 consecutive field goals, the fifth-longest streak in franchise history and just three shy of Akers’ club record of 17, set in 2001 and matched in 2009. And he’s within range of both the NFL single-season rookie accuracy record and Akers’ single-season Eagles accuracy record.

Overall, Henery is 22 for 25 on field goal attempts this year (88 percent), including a miss from 63 yards against the Falcons.

With one or more field goals without a miss in the Eagles’ finale against the Redskins on Sunday, he’ll break Akers’ franchise record of 88.2 percent accuracy, set in 2002.

Henery is also working on the second-most accurate rookie placekicking season in NFL history.
No. 1 is current Cowboys rookie Dan Bailey, who has made 32 of 36 attempts (88.9 percent) this year. So any combination of one Bailey miss and no Henery misses will leave Henery as the most accurate rookie kicker ever.

All of this, by the way, is of zero interest to Henery.

“It doesn’t really mean too much,” he said. “Just like in college, the records I got, I couldn’t even tell you what they were.”

One of them happens to be the NCAA record for most accurate kicker in college football history at 90 percent.

Take away the 63-yard attempt just before halftime in Atlanta and Henery is right in that 90 percent range again ... 92 percent, actually.

Rarified territory for any kicker.

“He’s continued to work at it,” special teams coach Bobby April said. “Certainly, working with the same two guys (long snapper Jon Dorenbos and holder Chas Henry) has helped him. And I think even adjusting to the NFL has helped him.

“Even though it’s easier to kick on the Pro hash than the college hash, he was in a habit of a different approach to the ball for so long kicking it off the wider hashes that even though it was easier ... it took a while for us to get the right approach.

“He’s doing a good job. I think he’s just going to keep getting better and stronger.”

Most importantly, Henery has rebounded from that disappointing day against the 49ers. Since missing wide right from 33 and 39 yards in a game the Eagles lost by one point, he’s made all 14 attempts he’s taken in the Eagles’ last 11 games.

Henery said the 49ers game didn’t shake his confidence – after all, Akers missed two field goals in that game as well. Instead, he used it as a learning experience, studying the two misses and making sure not to make the same mistakes again.

“I guess that’s how I approach everything,” he said. “Whether you do good or bad, just move on from the next one. Don’t let it affect you too much, just move on to the next kick.”

Overall this year, Henery ranks eighth in the NFL among kickers with 20 or more attempts at 88.0 percent.

For the record, Akers (three times) and Gary Anderson (in 1996) are the only Eagles kickers in history to make 85 percent of their kicks in a season.

“I guess it shows the hard work I’ve put into it and myself wanting to be perfect every attempt,” he said. “That’s really the big thing – just being happy with how I hit the ball. That’s more important than the records. I really don’t pay attention to the records. If I focus on each kick, those things will come with it. That’s kind of how I look at it.

“As long as I’m doing my job, those numbers will come how I want them to be. You can’t think like, ‘Oh, if I miss this one my percentage will go down to this or that.’ Just prepare for each kick the best you can.”

Most of Henery’s field goals were mid-range this season, but he bombed a 47-yarder against the Bears in November and easily made a career-long 51-yarder Sunday in the Eagles’ win over the Cowboys. He’s a perfect 5 for 5 this year on attempts in the 40s and 50s.

“I think he’s getting stronger as the season goes on,” head coach Andy Reid said. “It looks like he’s doing a good job. Looks like his kickoffs are maintaining their depth, and even a couple extra yards on to it where he’s booting a few of them out of the end zone, and that’s a good thing.”

Henery said what looks like him getting stronger is actually just him becoming a better kicker.

“I don’t know if I’ve gotten stronger,” he said. “I’m not trying to get stronger during the season, just trying to maintain. I think it’s really more just hitting the ball where I want to hit the ball.

“A lot of kickers will over-kick and then they’ll decline as the year goes on. I just feel like I’m a good rhythm, hitting the ball well, and it’s been going in.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ex-Husker kicker Henery happy in Philadelphia


December 23, 2011

Alex Henery pondered the question as though his cell phone reception was breaking up.

"What? Could I be playing indoor soccer in an adult league in Omaha right now? Sure. I guess. But this gig is working out pretty well right now," he said.

Henery, easily one of the all-time Husker greats, capped a record-setting college career and was the fourth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles last April.

Although the much-mocked "Dream Team" Eagles have not performed up to expectations, Henery has lived up to his prospects.

The rookie from Nebraska by way of Omaha Burke is 11th in the NFL in field-goal accuracy (20-of-23) and he's hit all 40 of his extra-point kicks. The 6-foot-1, 177-pound kicker even has two tackles this year.

Comparatively speaking, Henery, the 120th player taken in the draft last spring, is worth every bit of his reported salary of $375,000 this year and $2.7 million over four years.

"I came in and had to re-establish myself as a kicker -- new team, new ball, bigger, faster opponents," Henery said this week from his home near downtown Philadelphia. "Kicking is kicking. I've made the technical adjustments week by week and the game has slowed down again for me.
"When you're a freshman, like when you're a rookie, the game and everything seems so fast you can't think straight," he said.

His two missed field goals in an exhibition game had Eagles fans mumbling about the team getting rid of longtime kicker David Akers.

Then Henery missed a couple more field goals, including a 63-yard attempt just before halftime of the Atlanta game, but he's hit 18 straight -- the seventh-longest streak in the NFL.

Henery came to the Eagles along with rookie punter and kick holder Chaz Henry. The two worked extensively on their timing with veteran long snapper Jon Dorenbos.

"They help me get over the bad kicks and onto the next one," Henery said.

Henery and Henry also trade off punting and kicking for a brief time in practice -- "Just in case," Henery said.

According to Eagles Insider, Philadelphia special-teams coach Bobby April said the group of Henery, Henry and Dorenbos has worked out well.

"I think he's (Alex) just getting very consistent in his daily routine and all of them have worked hard at that," April said.

The Eagles have a long-shot chance to reach the playoffs. They could win the NFL East ... if they beat Dallas on Saturday and the New York Giants lose to the New York Jets, then Philadelphia would have to win on New Year's Day against Washington.

"Things have to fall into place and we have to win our last two, but it's good to know we have a chance," Henery said. "I don't find a lot of guys talking about it in the locker room, but as a kicker, you're kind of out of it anyway. You kick. You make the kick and that's about it."

In the meantime, Henery holds his own when somebody brings up what school produces the best kickers.

"We've got Josh Brown at the Rams, had Kris Brown for all those years with Houston, Adi Kunalic just signed with Carolina and Sam Koch is still punting for the Ravens -- Nebraska is kind of a Kicker U. these days. And I'm sure Brett Maher, the way he's kicking for the Huskers, he'll be kicking in this league some day, too."

Yanda First Ravens Pro Bowl Guard; Seven Make AFC Team

By Joe Platania

December 28, 2011

The Ravens have always prided themselves on being tough guys. In football, the toughest guys are in the trenches.

Yet, no offensive guard wearing a purple uniform had ever been named to the Pro Bowl ... until now.

Starting right guard Marshal Yanda
may be nursing bruised ribs and a bruised thigh, but he accomplished what stalwart Edwin Mulitalo surprisingly never did; he is one of seven Ravens players named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad on Tuesday night.

The seven-player haul -- which could increase, depending on players from other teams that choose not to go to Hawaii -- marks the second-largest in Ravens history; eight Baltimore players were named to the league's annual all-star game after the 2003 and 2006 seasons. In 2003, they shared the league lead with Kansas City.

The others were fullback Vonta Leach (during his first season as a Raven), running back Ray Rice and the team's four defensive headliners: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, and free safety Ed Reed.

There were seven Ravens that won the fan balloting at their positions, but tackle Michael Oher (a fourth alternate) did not get enough player and coach support and fell off the roster while Rice, who lost the fan vote at his spot to Houston's Arian Foster, graduated to the team.

Yanda's first selection is especially newsworthy, given the Ravens' Pro Bowl drought at the position and the productivity of players like Yanda in the team's offense.

the second of two third-round picks in the 2007 draft (86th overall), has not committed a penalty all year and has helped pace running back Ray Rice to an NFL-high 1,869 scrimmage yards and 1,173 rushing yards, fifth in the league.

"I am ecstatic," Yanda said. "That is really the only thing I can say. This is such a great honor, something that I never really expected. When I made it to the NFL, I was so happy to be on a team and playing in the league, and now, to be a part of a Pro Bowl team is something very special.

"You don't get there alone; you have to be on a good team and playing well as a unit. I am thankful for my teammates and coaches who helped me get to where I am."

One of those was certainly Rice, named to his second Pro Bowl during a three-year span.

If he gets a mere 4 receiving yards in Cincinnati this Sunday, he will become the second player in NFL history to have multiple seasons of 1,000 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving; Marshall Faulk was the first.

"This is a great honor, and I really want to thank my offensive line and coaches for helping me to become the player I am," Rice said. "This is a team award, and I hope that everyone on our team can take pride in the fact that they helped seven of their teammates attain this honor.

"Also, thanks to my peers, coaches and fans that voted me in. But, I will celebrate after the season. We have unfinished business to take care of over the next few weeks.”

Leach can certainly say the same, as he was allowed to leave the Houston Texans as a free agent, signing with Baltimore during the post-lockout-shortened offseason. Along with Yanda and the line, Leach was just as responsible as anyone for Rice's 2011 outburst.

"This means a lot to me, especially with it being my first year on a new team," Leach said. "With changing teams, the lockout and trying to learn a new playbook, I am so proud and happy to be going with my backfield mate [Ray Rice]. This is a great thing and something to celebrate.

"But, that will have to wait until after the season. Right now we are getting ready for Cincinnati and a strong playoff run."

When Leach took the lead at his position at the last minute, he became the seventh Raven who ended the Pro Bowl fan voting period in first place before the coaches and players tallied their ballots earlier this week.

Each voting bloc (fans, coaches, players) counts one-third toward the final total. A record number of votes were cast by fans this year, with more than 100,000,000 casting ballots on and through their mobile phones.

The NFL is the only major professional sports league to combine those three elements into its all-star game voting and was the first league to offer online input, in 1995. Major League Baseball has had All-Star Game ballots cast by fans for starting position players in each league since 1969, and occasionally even before then.

The overall leading vote-getter in this year's Pro Bowl tally was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with nearly 1.6 million votes. New England quarterback Tom Brady led the AFC fan vote with 1.4 million votes.

Each roster will have 43 players, two fewer than the normal regular-season game-day total.

For a third straight year, the Pro Bowl is taking place on the idle Sunday between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.

The game will be played at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Jan. 29 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu and will be seen on NBC (WBAL-TV, Channel 11), the same network carrying the Super Bowl the following Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Two years ago, an experiment during which the game took place at the Super Bowl site -- in that case, Miami's Sun Life Stadium -- was a ratings hit, if only for the curiosity factor. But the game has returned to Hawaii, the venue from 1980-2009, the subsequent two years.

Since the Pro Bowl took on its current post-merger AFC-vs.-NFC format in 1971, the AFC holds a slim 21-20 advantage. The NFC has won three of the last four games and four of the last six.

In order to provide an incentive for players to participate, the per-man bonus money has increased dramatically from 1971 levels, which doled out $2,000 per player to the winning team and $1,500 to the losing side.

For the last three years, the winning team has received $45,000 per player, with the defeated squad getting $22,500 per man. There has not yet been any indication whether those figures will be going up again this year.

The honored Ravens, for the most part, already have lengthy Pro Bowl resumes.

Leach was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2008, his first full season with the Houston Texans after three years in Green Bay and a stop in New Orleans; he graduated to starter's status last year.

Ray Rice's lead blocker is also no stranger to all-star play, having taken part in the 2003 Blue-Gray All-Star classic after his senior year at East Carolina, winning offensive MVP honors during that game.

For Lewis, this year's Pro Bowl is his eighth straight and 13th of his career. Reed was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl team and eighth of his tenure. Suggs made his fifth Pro Bowl team and, strangely enough, first in an odd-numbered year. Ngata's Pro Bowl is his third straight.

"First off, I definitely want to give a tremendous amount of credit to my coaches, especially Clarence Brooks and Ted Monachino," Suggs said. "Without them, I wouldn't be where I am now. I felt like a kid when I got the call; I was excited and honored.

"This wouldn't be possible without my teammates. Without the secondary making the QBs hold the ball, or the linebackers plugging up those holes, I wouldn't have the chance to do what I do, and I am thankful for them. I also want to thank the fans who voted for me.

"But to be clear, I have no intentions of playing in the Pro Bowl. I plan on being in practice with my teammates that week, getting ready for the Super Bowl.”

All told, 78 Ravens have been awarded Pro Bowl berths in team history, an average of almost five per year.

Besides Oher's fourth-alternate status, quarterback Joe Flacco and safety Bernard Pollard were third alternates, special teamer Brendan Ayanbadejo was tabbed as a second alternate and, for the third time, left guard Ben Grubbs is a first alternate.

For purposes of clarification, the above Pro Bowl totals merely indicate how many teams to which each player has been named, not how many in which he has played.

For example, Reed has played in just six of the eight Pro Bowls to which he has been formally invited, missing the last two years because of hip and ankle injuries, as well as a death in the family.

In 2006, tackle Jonathan Ogden, fighting a toe injury that would eventually force him to retire, made the trip to Hawaii, but did not play.

That same year, linebacker Bart Scott filled in for Lewis (hand) and quarterback Steve McNair's place was taken by then-Tennessee Titans starter Vince Young.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chris Rucker one of NFL's top rookies of the week

Colts vs. Texans: Five pivotal factors

Can Colts' defense rise again?

By Reggie Hayes

December 22, 2011

Rucker & Lacey
No, it's not a sequel to the old cop series, “Cagney & Lacey.” It's the Colts' cornerback combination of rookie Chris Rucker and revived third-year player Jacob Lacey. Rucker played so well in the Colts' win over the Titans he was a candidate in an NFL promotion for top rookie of the week. Lacey was playing so poorly earlier in the season, he was inactivated while healthy. He had an interception return touchdown against Tennessee. Both players need another strong game against an offense hurt by quarterback injuries.

The Freeney/Mathis Express
It's been a while since the defense had as satisfying a day as they did against Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. They were able to play with a lead for once and force the kind of pressure that led to hurried throws and three-and-outs. Mathis wants to close the season strong in this contract season. Freeney's finish is important, too, considering this has been an overall productive season. They'll be trying to rattle Houston quarterback T.J. Yates.

No running allowed
A huge factor in the Colts' win over the Titans last Sunday was the defense's ability to stop running back Chris Johnson. He managed only 20 yards on 14 carries before one big 35-yard gain. Texans backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate will present similar problems. Indianapolis' renewed vigor against the run could be attributed to an overall boost in morale with Mike Murphy taking over as defensive coordinator. Credit, too, should be given to the strong tackling of linebackers Pat Angerer and Ernie Sims. Sims looked unleashed for the first time this season.

Orlovsky control
The success of quarterback Dan Orlovsky against the Titans can be attributed to offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's decision to keep Orlovsky from trying riskier plays. The Colts relied on the running game to set up the pass, and Orlovsky got rid of the ball quickly most of the time when he did go to the air. Given time, and the offensive line did a decent job Sunday, he can find sure-handed targets in Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Jacob Tamme.

Offensive line drive
The Texans will bring the heat on Orlovsky, so it's critical for the offensive line to have a strong showing. Joe Reitz's return to left guard was a nice boost against Tennessee, and left tackle Anthony Castonzo rebounded after a rough game against the Ravens. If the Colts can keep this current line healthy, these last two games could result in some positive building blocks for the future.

The pick: Colts 23, Texans 20

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tennessee Stud: Karl Klug makes an impact as a rookie with NFL's Titans

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Karl Klug (97) for a 7-yard loss in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. The Saints won 22-17. (AP Photo/Frederick Breedon)

December 18, 2011


Karl Klug is starting to feel the pressure.

Even some folks back home in Caledonia are making requests.

Klug doesn’t see it happening.

“No one wants to see me dance,” Klug said.

Klug, a Caledonia native in his rookie season for the Tennessee Titans, is happy to deliver sacks. Heading into today’s game at Indianapolis he has six, which leads the team and is fourth among NFL defensive tackles.

However, don’t expect him to flex his biceps, do the Charleston or prance for the cameras after his quarterback hits. It’s simply not in his football DNA.

“Be humble and work your (butt) off,” Klug said. “Make sure you’re coming to work every day and don’t be a distraction.”

That attitude helped Klug go from a 207-pound freshman at the University of Iowa to a two-time All-Big Ten defensive lineman and NFL prospect. The Titans selected him in the fifth round of the draft his past April.

Klug, at 6-feet-3, 275 pounds, still has the “undersized” label in the NFL. His 19 tackles, six sacks and four passes knocked down help tell the story of his physical ability and mental determination to overcome any negative stereotype.

“No. 1 is his work habits,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “No. 2 is he understands the leverage of playing inside and the leverage of holding up big guys and having hand-to-hand combat in there.”

Klug spent the summer in Iowa City working out and worrying about the NFL lockout.

When that got resolved, he began worrying about making the team.

“What if I got cut the first day?” he said.

Klug didn’t, of course, and got to live his dream of playing in the NFL. The Titans hosted the Minnesota Vikings in their first preseason game on Aug. 13, which only added to the big dose of adrenaline rushing through Klug’s body, since he grew up a Vikings fan.

There hasn’t been a particular “welcome to the NFL, rookie”-type moment.

“I’ve gotten put on the ground plenty of times,” Klug said.

And he’s taken his share of opponents down. Klug had four tackles in his first NFL regular-season game on Sept. 11 at Jacksonville. His first sack came a week later against Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco.

Klug has played in all 13 games with one start and is working behind Jurrell Casey, a rookie from USC. The Titans have recently been using Klug as a rusher in nickel formations, which yielded two sacks Dec. 12 against New Orleans.

“The talent here is pretty insane,” Klug said. “But it’s the same feeling from high school to college and from college to here. I thought these guys were gods and they never make mistakes. They are talented, but at the end of the day they still are human.”

Klug has single-handedly converted Caledonia into a Titans town, not to mention making the bar at Ma Cal Grove Country Club the local hotspot on Sundays.

“A lot of people are going out there, family and friends,” said former Caledonia football coach Carl Fruechte. “They’ve got the Titans on NFL Ticket and we have a couple of Gatorades and watch Karl.

“His jersey is on every kid in town. There’s a lot of excitement and as a coach I’m really proud of his work ethic. I just can’t say enough.”

Karl and his twin brother, Kevin, played for Fruechte as Caledonia became a small-school powerhouse in the mid-2000s. The Warriors lost to Eden-Valley-Watkins 21-7 in the 2005 MSHSL Class AA state title game when the Klugs were seniors.

“It’s funny, because (former teammate) Sam Gerardy called about a week ago and we brought that up,” Klug said. “It’s frustrating looking back at it, but that was a long time ago and you’ve got to move on.”

Fruechte said he knew he had a special player on his hands during Klug’s junior season. Klug had a badly sprained left ankle and was cleared to play with permission from his parents.

“The Kasson-Mantorville coaches talk about it to this day,”Fruechte said. “He was playing on one leg and getting double-teamed the whole game and it didn’t matter. We still had a chance to win it. You thought, ‘OK, this dude is special.’”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Productive Klug a find for Tennessee

Karl Klug reacts after sacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the Titans' Week 14 game.
December 15, 2011

By Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Karl Klug is shockingly modest, which is refreshing from a defensive lineman who’s made a good share of plays.

Instead of choreographing sack dances, he’s minimizing his work in a rookie season that already includes six sacks, the fourth-most for any defensive tackle in the NFL and fifth-most for any rookie. It’s the most sacks for a rookie defensive tackle in franchise history.

He’s got three in his last two games as a nickel rusher, including two in last week’s loss to the Saints.

But to hear him tell it, it wasn’t a very good effort.

“The thing is, that’s only two plays out of the entire game,” he said. “That’s all I made. I don’t really feel like I had a good game. Yeah it looks nice on the stat sheet, but I’d like to make more plays.”

He also said that half his sacks this season have been a result of great coverage that’s made the quarterback hold the ball too long.

Jason Jones’ locker is next to Klug’s, and he overheard these comments.

He said the fifth-round draft pick out of Iowa is being too modest.

“In this league, when you get a sack, you’ve got to take it how you can get it, man,” Jones said. “I’d like six sacks right now, I’ll tell you that. … You’ve got to be humble, that’s good, and he’s coming in and doing his job.”

Coach Mike Munchak said Klug’s got great hands and is doing things that go far beyond his six sacks, 26 tackles and four passes defensed.

Klug had a four-game stretch without a quarterback takedown before the production against Tampa Bay and New Orleans, but it didn’t represent a lull.

“Sometimes you play some teams where even though you’re doing well it doesn’t show up in the box score, you don’t see the tackles or the sacks, but he’s actually doing a lot of good things out there,” Munchak said.

“He creates a lot of problems out there. He’s gotten a lot of pressures, he’s forced quarterbacks out of the pocket quite a bit, he’s beaten his guy when the ball gets out. He wins one-on-one quite a bit.”

That’s a pretty good review.

The Titans’ 2011 draft class looks great so far, and so far Klug qualifies as an excellent find.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SI praises Titans' Karl Klug for playing like 'the Tasmanian Devil'

Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints is sacked by Karl Klug #97 of the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on December 11, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Saints defeated the Titans 22-17.

December 12, 2011

Fine Fifteen

1. Green Bay (13-0). I'm not trying to minimize the loss of Greg Jennings, if he is lost for the rest of the regular season. But the Packers' next game of consequence is either 33 or 34 days from now, in their first playoff game. If they win one of their final three games, they clinch homefield throughout the NFC playoffs and would have time for Jennings to rehab even an injury of medium severity, like a torn MCL.

2. Baltimore (10-3). Terrell Suggs: three sacks, three forced fumbles. The only questions about Suggs and the All-Pro team is wondering if he'll be classified as an outside linebacker or defensive end. Either way, he's an All-Pro.

3. New England (10-3). I bet Tom Brady really wasn't all giddy and happy with Bill O'Brien, the way it appeared in the postgame presser, for biting his head off when he threw the bad interception late in Washington . But I also bet Brady appreciates a normally placid coach going freakazoid too, because a throw like Brady's shouldn't be acceptable.

4. New Orleans (10-3). I don't know how you throw a better ball than Drew Brees' second TD pass to Marques Colston Sunday in Nashville . So perfectly thrown that if Colston had been sleepwalking, it would have nestled softly into his hands in the end zone and he never would have felt it.

5. Pittsburgh (10-3). In Ben's Rehab They Trust.

6. San Francisco (10-3). Blew a 12-point lead in the second half. To John Skelton. Not good.

7. Houston (10-3). Pinch yourself, Houstonians. You're going to see NFL playoff football in your town for the first time since 1993.

8. New York Jets (8-5). These Jets remind me of last year's Jets. Stumbled late, then built up enough steam to be a factor in the playoffs. Here comes momentum.

9. Denver (8-5). At some point you just have to go along for the ride, sit back, enjoy it and realize you're witnessing one of the greatest stories we've seen in the NFL in a long, long time.

10. Atlanta (8-5). Amazing. For a team that has played so inconsistently all season, these Falcons are on the way to 10-6, at least ( Jacksonville , at New Orleans , Tampa Bay ), with a good shot at the fifth seed in the playoffs.

11. New York Giants (7-6). Any team with a quarterback as good and as clutch as Eli Manning is going to be one heck of a tough out in the playoffs. Now the Giants just have to get there.

12. Tennessee (7-6). The most impressive loser of them all Sunday. My Lord, where did this Karl Klug come from? (From Iowa . Fifth-round rookie. Another great and underrated product from the Kirk Ferentz School of NFL Development.) Plays like the Tasmanian devil. Six sacks bounding inside and outside.

13. Detroit (8-5). The mystery team of the next three weeks. Could see them go 0-3, 3-0 or anything in between (at Oakland , San Diego , at Green Bay ). I mean, predict that.

14. San Diego (6-7). Not saying I believe, but the Chargers have won two in a row by a 75-24 composite score, and Philip Rivers has completed 76 percent with six touchdowns and no picks. Here come the wacky Chargers again.

15. Chicago (7-6). The Bears have a path to the playoffs, but it would be best if Caleb Hanie drove the bus there instead of playing quarterback.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quiet Yanda lowers boom for Ravens

Even with new deal, physical guard takes nothing for granted

By Kevin Van Valkenburg

December 10, 2011

If you really want to appreciate the violence of football when the Ravens take on the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday, take your eyes off Ray Rice and Joe Flacco for a second and focus on right guard Marshal Yanda.

Watch him from the moment the Ravens break the huddle, the way he sizes up the defense as he walks to the line of scrimmage, then bends his knees and coils into a stance. It's like watching someone load a cannon. When Flacco begins barking his cadence, it's like lighting Yanda's fuse. The explosion is seconds away.

"He is always going to be the aggressor out there," said Ravens center Matt Birk, who has seen and heard the ferocity of Yanda's collisions up close for three seasons. "It really doesn't matter if it's a run or a pass. He loves to initiate contact. He loves to go after guys. And good is never good enough. He plays like he's competing for his job on every single play."

Yanda has been doing some of his best work of late, especially as the Ravens began focusing on their running game as they make a push to secure a playoff berth and home-field advantage. Yanda was particularly menacing in the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns last week, a game in which Baltimore set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts. Rice had a career day, running for 204 yards, and if you watch the replays on several of his big runs, you can see Yanda bullying a defensive tackle or a linebacker, moving him aside like a human snowplow.

"It was fun to maul guys and get after 'em," Yanda said. "When you pound the football like that, it's a lot of fun."

Such performances are what the Ravens envisioned during the offseason when they signed Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract and returned him to his natural position at right guard. Baltimore's running game has struggled at times this season -- it's 14th in the NFL at 114.8 yards a game and 18th in yards per rushing attempt at 4.1 -- but it appears to be rounding into form.

This is the longest stretch of Yanda's career that he's been injury-free -- he missed most of the 2008 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- and able to focus on playing guard. He spent most of 2010 at right tackle because the team needed him to solidify the position after Jared Gaither was lost for the season with a back injury, and Yanda looked good for the most part. Sports Illustrated's Peter King named Yanda the best right tackle in the league in his year-end awards. But the Ravens wanted him back at guard, knowing that's where he has a chance to consistently be an elite player.

"It's been really good to feel settled in and stick at a position I really like," Yanda said. "I think I'm playing at a high level because I'm comfortable. I know I'm probably not going to have to bump to tackle, and I'm between two really good players in Matt [Birk] and Mike [Oher]. That's nice. You really can't ask for anything more than that."

It wasn't a secret that getting Yanda re-signed was the Ravens' biggest priority when the NFL lockout ended. Within hours, the team released veterans Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg and Willis McGahee to create salary cap space, knowing that several teams planned to woo Yanda. The attention was flattering, but it also made Yanda a little uncomfortable. A lot of free agents love to be wined and dined and convinced they're a team's missing piece. Yanda quietly went home to Iowa, stopped answering his cellphone, helped his father run the family farm in Anamosa and left it to his agent to deal with the details.

"I just needed to get away from everything," Yanda said. "I decided to work out in Iowa and not worry about it. We talked to some teams, but the goal was always to stay [in Baltimore]."

If there was trepidation about making Yanda one of the highest-paid guards in football even though he has never made the Pro Bowl, Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't share it. People frequently bring up Yanda's strength and toughness when they praise him as a player, but Harbaugh believes his technique and his competitiveness are unmatched.

"He's fundamentally as good as any [guard]," Harbaugh said. "I can't think of one thing that he's not good at. He executes every technique very well. He's really strong, really strong, [he has] great feet [and is] a good bender. But that's not what makes him the player he is. I think it's just his personality, who he is as a person. Nobody works harder than Marshal. Nobody cares more."

Legend of the stun gun

Yanda's toughness and ability to tolerate pain can't be overstated. During Yanda's rookie season, Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle were goofing around in the locker room, playing with a stun gun someone had given them. One put $600 on the floor and McAlister made an announcement: Anyone man enough to voluntarily get shocked with the stun gun could keep the money.

"I was a rookie, and $600 was a lot of money," Yanda said. "I said, 'Hell, I'll do it right now.'"

The entire team gathered in a circle, many convinced Yanda would chicken out.

"I grew up on a farm," Yanda said. "I've been shocked a lot by electric fences for cattle. And we had an outlet in our shop that would shock you all the time. I've been shocked plenty of times before."

Over the years, the legend of what happened that day has grown. Players who weren't there talk about it as though Yanda got hit with 50,000 volts by a police-grade Taser. But he just rolls his eyes when he hears that.

"They really hyped it up like I got Tasered," Yanda said. "It was a stun gun, and I don't even know if the batteries were fully charged. It wouldn't have stopped a 10-year-old worked up into a rage."

McAlister zapped Yanda once and the locker room went nuts. Convinced he should make them feel they got their money's worth, Yanda told McAlister and Rolle to zap him again. They did, and he barely blinked. He scooped up the cash and uttered a quote that left everyone in awe.

"That's the easiest 600 bucks I've ever made in my life."

Lucky man

Yanda doesn't need to indulge in such youthful foolishness these days. Not only has his bank account grown, but he has been blessed in other ways, too. He married Shannon Hunt in Iowa this summer, and they had a big celebration with friends and family. Yanda said former Raven Chris Chester, a close friend who now plays for the Washington Redskins, tore it up on the dance floor.

"He was dancing his butt off," Yanda said. "It was hysterical, to say the least. Some of the guys got after it. I paid a pretty big bar bill."

Three weeks later, Yanda signed his contract with the Ravens and decided to pack his belongings into a U-Haul and drive 14 hours through the night to get back to Baltimore. It might seem like an unusual trek for a newly minted millionaire, especially when he could hire someone to do it for him, but it was typical Yanda. As he navigated the road back to Maryland, he couldn't help but feel like a lucky man.

"I definitely don't have any complaints," Yanda said. "You work your butt off in college just to get to the point where you're going to get drafted. The next big thing is to make it. Then you're trying to play well enough that you can get a really nice contract and be really well off.

"I was really scared after my knee surgery. I didn't know if I'd be able to come back and play at a high level. That really kind of showed me that this could be over tomorrow. It could be done. That's why I don't take any day for granted. Now it's all about playing confident and playing well. I want to get to the Super Bowl and do great things. I want to play dominant football."

Friday, December 09, 2011

Ravens: Tough guy Yanda one of the game's best

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard Marshal Yanda (73), left, blocks against Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (96) during a game in Jacksonville, Fla., Oct. 24.

December 8, 2011

By Aaron Wilson

OWINGS MILLS -- Hauling buckets of grain, performing back-breaking chores, pitching out calf stalls at the family dairy farm later devoted to raising pigs, Marshal Yanda built his legendary toughness.

Growing up on the farm outside of rural Anamosa, Iowa, the Baltimore Ravens' gritty offensive guard would rise at dawn to tend to the animals.

And the farm work became a competition with his older sister, Katie, before and after school.

"We always worked hard, and that pretty much set the foundation of my work ethic," Yanda said. "That's how I go about my day, working hard for the things that you want."

Yanda grew up four-wheeling, bouncing on a trampoline, go-kart racing and playing basketball.

He later emerged as a scholarship football player and captain of the Iowa Hawkeyes football team following a detour at a junior college after he didn't apply himself academically in high school.

Today, Yanda has established himself as one of the top offensive guards in the game. He returned to his natural right guard spot this year after signing a five-year, $32 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Engulfing defensive linemen with a powerful hand punch and leg drive, the 6-foot-3, 315-pounder has provided strong blocking for the sixth-highest scoring offense in the league.

Every snap is a heavyweight fight with Yanda, who transforms football into a brawl with his go-for-the-throat mentality as he plays to the echo of the whistle.

"He's one of the toughest guys I know," right offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "I know if I had to be stuck in an alley and had to pick one person to be with, I would pick Marshal to watch my back. I love playing besides him.

"If I have a big game, it's because of him. If I'm having a good season, it's because of Marshal. If he don't make the Pro Bowl, I'm going to be pissed."

Capable of playing either offensive guard or tackle, Yanda tore three ligaments in his right knee against the Indianapolis Colts three years ago. He regained his leg strength through a grueling rehabilitation.

Three seasons later, the former third-round draft pick brings a sturdy presence to the line of scrimmage.

"You always want to try to be physical," Yanda said. "They instill that in offensive linemen. You've always got to be physical and try to really dominate guys."

Yanda led a lot of the interference for Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice during the Ravens' 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Rice gained a career-high 204 yards and scored a touchdown, and Baltimore set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts. The Ravens rushed for 290 yards, the third-most in franchise history.
In particular, Yanda's ability to pull and kick out defensive ends and linebackers was a pivotal factor in Rice having gaping holes to roam through.

"If you want to talk about every single little technique, I can't think of one that he's not good at," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He executes every technique very well. He's really strong, really strong, great feet, a good bender.

"But that's not what makes him the player he is. I think it's just his personality, who he is as a person. Nobody works harder than Marshal. Nobody cares more."

The lore about Yanda reaches beyond stonewalling Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley or blocking defensive ends that tower above him.

On cash bet during his rookie year, Yanda supposedly took three Taser shots to the chest.

The story gets better every year since it was actually a stun gun that former cornerback Samari Rolle once brought to work.

"It wasn't like a cop's Taser, and it wasn't that high voltage since Samari had the batteries on low," Yanda said. "It wasn't bad at all. They built it up where I got tased. Hey, it was a bet."

High-intensity and relentless, Yanda is a mauling blocker despite a lack of ideal size.

The avid outdoorsman plays with a pronounced nasty streak.

"It all starts with being physical," Yanda said. "You have to think aiming point, assignment and landmarks when you're blocking."

Other than his bank account, money hasn't changed Yanda's lifestyle.

He remains a modest individual whose biggest splurge was purchasing a larger house near the Ravens' training complex with a backyard for his wife, Shannon, and their young son, Graham.

"It's not necessarily about the money, it's more about pride in the game and doing my job for the team," Yanda said. "The money is great, but when I'm out on the field, I'm thinking about making blocks so my team can win and doing my part to the best of my ability. I'm really happy to be here."

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Marshal Yanda is "the best guard in football"

From Andy Benoit's "Week 13 Film Review: Cowboys Thrown Off Rhythm"

December 6, 2011

A closer look at some of the games from Week 13, with the benefit of film review:

Ravens O vs. Browns D

With rain pouring and the field sloppy, the Ravens went with a basic plan and ran the ball down the Browns’ throats. Guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda were simply spectacular. Yanda, with his mobility and ability to land well-angled blocks multiple times on a single play, has been arguably the best guard in football. This was the second time in a month that Cleveland’s defense gave up over 260 yards on the ground. Not coincidentally, the last time was against Houston, an offense that has a zone-blocking scheme similar to Baltimore’s. The Ravens wanted to get the Browns playing laterally so that Ray Rice could identify cutback lanes and, in general, rely on his speed and acceleration. Rice was masterful in showing the necessary patience and vision for that. The Browns should be concerned about the continued ineffectiveness of first-round rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor (his partner, Ahtyba Rubin, was not much better this game). The only defender who won his matchup on the line was second-round rookie end Jabaal Sheard, who, with power amplified by quickness, got the better of Michael Oher all game.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Colts' Clark honored to be on trophy

Ted Kwalick (left) and Dallas Clark presented the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award to Drake Dunsmore of Northwestern at the Indiana Convention Center.

By Mark Ambrogi

December 3, 2011

Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark found out several months ago that his name would be part of the Big Ten annual awards.

Clark attended the awards gala Friday night at the Indiana Convention Center and still is shocked. The award for the conference's top tight end is named for the former Iowa player along with former Penn State star Ted Kwalick.

This year's award went to Drake Dunsmore of Northwestern.

"I still don't understand why I'm on here," Clark said. "There have been some great tight ends come through this conference. It's truly an honor. I'm hoping they don't go back and make a correction."

Clark enjoyed meeting several of the former Big Ten stars, including Kwalick, who was an All-American in 1967 and '68.

"I was just talking with him about how tight end was played back in that day and how it is now," Clark said. "It's an honor to be amidst all these great people. I just went around and said as many hellos as possible."

Zastudil's big punts

From Darren Urban's "Defense Continues Hot Streak"

December 5, 2011

In a game where field position was crucial, the Cardinals got kicks from punter Dave Zastudil that were the reason they wanted to bring him on as a replacement for Ben Graham.

Zastudil averaged 50.1 yards on seven punts Sunday, with a net of 45.0, as the Cards found themselves constantly backed up deep in their own end and needed to change field position. Five times Zastudil punted from his own 21-yard line or deeper, and three of those times came from within the Cards’ own 9.

“We do a lot of situations in practices where we are backed up, especially punting out of the end zone,” Zastudil said. “It’s one of those deals where you practice it over and over and try to do it. We had great coverage.

“It’s just nice the coaches believed in me and gave me a chance to come here and play.”

Zastudil is averaging 45.4 per punt with a net of 37.9 this season.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Phil Dawson named "best player in the history of the new Browns"

Cleveland Fan Reaction: 2011 Cleveland Browns November Review

December 2, 2011

By Zac Wassink

November 2011 was an especially painful month for Cleveland Browns fans. The Browns didn't just lose three of four games during the month. They were dominated by the Houston Texans, and they suffered heartbreaking defeats against both the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Now, the Browns have to finish the regular season with two games against the Baltimore Ravens, two games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and one away game against the Arizona Cardinals. Cleveland is just two defeats away from yet another losing season.

When do pitchers and catchers report?

2011 Cleveland Browns November review: MVP

I sure hope the Browns ownership erects some sort of statue in honor of placekicker Phil Dawson once his career comes to an end. Dawson was the most (the only) consistent offensive weapon the team had during the month of November, and he was twice betrayed by poor snaps on what could have been game winning field goals. Dawson, the best player in the history of the new Browns, has once again been solid this season. He just deserves better than to be stuck on another losing team.

2011 Cleveland Browns November review: LVP

Peyton Hillis yet again. Hillis played once in November, during Cleveland's final game of the month against the Bengals. He looked OK during that particular contest, but also showed rust in the latter portions of the game. I hope someday we learn all there is to know about Hillis' bum hamstring, one which had better been severely injured during October and November. I can't remember any player falling down a fan favorite list as quickly as Hillis has since late August. At this rate, I don't see how he can be with the franchise past January.

2011 Cleveland Browns November review: Pain

Being a fan of Cleveland professional sports is rarely easy. The last three games played by the Browns were enough to make any fan want to hit the bottle; hard. They were a 22-yard field, a chip shot for high school, collegiate and professional kickers, away from defeating the Rams on November 13. The snap took an unfortunate bounce, however, and Dawson's attempt sailed well wide of the uprights.

The following Sunday, the Browns were one yard away from losing to the Jaguars. An odd play call saved Cleveland on this day, however, as Blaine Gabbert's pass fell harmlessly to the ground. The good fortune didn't last long. Another bad snap, this time on a 55-yard field goal attempt, set the wheels in motion for a game winning field goal for the Bengals on the final Sunday of November. It was a painfully fitting way for the month to end.

2011 Cleveland Browns November review: Unanswered questions

November was a reminder of how much we don't know about this offense. Is Colt McCoy capable of winning at this level? Will running back Montario Hardesty ever stay healthy for an entire NFL season? Of the trio of Chris Ogbonnaya, Hardesty and Hillis, who will be starting for the Browns in 2012? Can the Browns find a real playmaker among players such as Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi or Jordan Norwood? 12 weeks into the season, the Cleveland offense still looks like one stuck in September, one still trying to "find itself." It's a big reason the Browns are 4-7.

2011 Cleveland Browns November review: Overall grade

Shoddy, questionable play-calling. A defense that gave up a 51-yard play during the final meaningful drive of a contest. Three losses in four games. Fans can try to spin things all they want. November was a bad month for the Browns, a month that all but guaranteed the team will finish the 2011 campaign below .500.

Grade: D-

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