Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nate Ebner's remarkable journey to NFL

Nate Ebner had no doubts about his chances to make the Patriots' roster after being pick No. 197 in April's draft.

By Kaitee Daley

October 25, 2012

Patriots rookie safety Nate Ebner didn't take the traditional route to the NFL. In fact, he never ran one route in high school football.

The quiet, bearded guy with kind dark eyes and a body built to hit people is still learning the game, with three tackles in his first seven games. But if his past is any indication, it won't be long before he makes an impact.

Ebner took his early love of rugby, a sport his father taught him growing up in Ohio, and translated it to a starring role on the United States U-19 and U-20 national teams. Then, without any high school football experience, he walked on at Ohio State and eventually earned a scholarship on special teams. And though no one was projecting an NFL future for Ebner, he dominated his pro day and got drafted in the sixth round.

How does one go from MVP of the rugby World Cup to Ohio State football and an NFL roster spot? It started with a simple promise to get a degree.

When Ebner got to Ohio State, his athletic prowess and academic responsibilities tugged him in different directions. Touring on the international rugby circuit wasn't conducive to classes and homework, and there was something about football -- particularly the promise of playing for the team he grew up watching -- that drove Ebner to try out.

Ebner's first love was rugby, but the sport's skill set has served him well in his latest calling.

"Walking on was a big step for me, not playing football in high school. I was sticking my neck out there …" said Ebner, who at 6-foot, 210 pounds had the size to play.

Ebner talked to his father, Jeff, about his new goal. But tragedy would keep his dad from seeing his son's football dreams realized. In November 2008, Jeff was killed during a robbery at the family's auto-salvaging business.

"It was real hard for me. I mean my dad and I were best friends," Ebner said.

Ebner channeled his anger and reeling emotions into Buckeye football.

"It was a distraction because I could put all my energy into it and focus on it," Ebner said, "as much as a distraction as you can have from something like that."

Ebner's father, a former college rugby player, pushed his son to finish strong in whatever task he took on. When Ebner's aunt came across rubber bracelets bearing the "FINISH STRONG" message in bold white lettering, Ebner and his support system, including many of his Ohio State teammates, started wearing them as a powerful reminder. The words stretch across Ebner's wrist at every practice and game.

It was his ability to finish strong that caught scouts eyes on Ohio State's pro day. Ebner logged a 4.55 40-yard dash, 4.04 shuttle and 6.59 three-cone drill. Though he had played just three defensive snaps for the Buckeyes in 2011, the Patriots' track record of turning under-the-radar athletes into NFL success stories wasn't lost on Ebner's backers.

"Before I even knew anything about the Patriots I had people telling me I would be a good fit in a place like New England," Ebner said. "When I found out I was coming here … I can't put it into words, it was awesome. A dream come true."

Ebner was taken with the 197th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, by no means a lock to make the Patriots' roster -- to the outside observer. Ebner, on the other hand, expected nothing less.

"Obviously it was my goal to make the team. Why else would I be here working as hard as I can?" Ebner said. "So when I found out [I made it] it wasn't really a big thing where I was excited and celebrating, it was just what I came here to do."

Being a 23-year-old rookie has its perceived challenges -- new town, teammates, playbook. But the rugby-phenom-turned-NFL-special-teamer is taking a pragmatic approach to his first season.

"I just think about what I want to do every day -- make an impact and be productive for the team and obviously earn the respect of the guys," Ebner said.

The respect, it seems, has already been earned.

"It's pretty impressive to make it here," captain and four-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said of Ebner. "He's been a good addition to the team. Hard worker. Does everything the coaches and other players ask of him."

Even fellow rookies sense Ebner's natural leadership. "He learns quick so sometimes I might have a question and instead of asking a veteran I can ask Nate and depend on him," first-year safety Tavon Wilson said.

Lately, the Patriots have had to depend on Ebner for more than just special teams play.

Injuries in the Patriots secondary have led to increased defensive snaps for Ebner. And it hasn't been easy -- he had a good look at Russell Wilson's winning 46-yard touchdown in the Patriots' Week 6 loss to Seattle. But the rookie workaholic already has the perspective of a veteran.

"That's part of the sport. They're good athletes on the other side of the ball -- they get paid, too," Ebner said of on-field gaffes. "So, you just kind of swallow it and have a short memory when it comes to that stuff."

By developing rookies like Ebner and getting consistent play from their veterans, the 4-3 Patriots are hoping to do something Ebner's proven quite good at.

Finishing strong.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dallas Clark has breakout game for Bucs

OCTOBER 22, 2012

By Joe Smith

When veteran tight end Dallas Clark was signed in the offseason, both coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman insisted he'd be a huge part of their offense.

But throughout the first five weeks, Clark, 33, was quiet production-wise, with a combined nine catches for 81 yards, including getting targeted zero times against the Chiefs.

That changed in a big way Sunday against the Saints, with Clark catching a season-high five passes (on six targets) for 51 yards and a touchdown, becoming one of Freeman's favorite options in the second half comeback.

Freeman indicated that coverage often dictates who gets the ball, especially the leverage of the safeties. With WRs Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson making big plays, it can open up the underneath areas for Clark.

"A lot of things go into who gets the ball," Freeman said. "But I know that Dallas (Sunday) did the exact same thing he has been doing the entire season. And I know it's good to see him get involved. He's a big-time playmaker late in the game when we needed a play, fourth down, he comes up big for us. I'm really happy with Dallas, and how he played and excited about the growth and the understanding of his sort of game and us sort of gelling in the future."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dawson is Amazing

Phil Dawson just happens to be perfect on 12 field-goal attempts, and he does it through wind, snow and rain, including this kick at Baltimore last month.

From Terry Pluto's "Terry Pluto's Talkin' ... Browns’ special teams doing especially well"

October 21, 2012

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Pondering the sporting mysteries with Cleveland teams ... we're talking ...

About the Browns special teams ...
1. I've been a consistent critic of the Browns' special teams since Chris Tabor took over at the start of last season, a season in which they had enormous problems in several areas. But the units are operating at a high level this season. That's not just my opinion. Football Outsiders uses a complicated set of stats to rate special teams — and they have the Browns at No. 6 in the NFL. 

2. When they break it down, the Browns are No. 1 in field goals and extra points. Phil Dawson just happens to be perfect on 12 field-goal attempts, and he does it in the rain, the whipping wind and probably could boot a 52-yarder through an Old Testament downpour of frogs. Assuming the snap is good — thanks to Christian Yount, that has been fixed — and the hold is correct with the blockers doing their job, Dawson is amazing. 

3. The Browns rank No. 5 in kickoff coverage, according to Football Outsiders. They have the Browns seventh in punt returns and ninth in kickoff returns. 

4. Not sure how they figure those return stats, because it seems they should be higher. Joshua Cribbs ranks third in kickoff returns at 31.3, and he's second in punt returns at 15.4. While Cribbs has yet to run one back for a touchdown and had a costly fumble in the loss to the Giants, he's having a big-time season. He's had a 74-yard kickoff return and a 60-yard punt return.

5. The kickoff coverage team has also been excellent. STATS LLC rates them No. 6.

6. The only negative area has been punting and punt coverage, where they combine to rank 24th. Early in the season, they gave up an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown to Adam Jones in Cincinnati. Reggie Hodges is averaging 43.7 yards per punt, much better than the 40.5 from Brad Maynard a year ago. But the net yardage of 37.4 (including returns) ranks 29th. 

7. Several things have helped the special teams. The Browns kept rookies Johnson Bademosi and Tashaun Gipson specifically for the unit. Rookie linebackers James-Michael Johnson, L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson also bring speed. Veterans Ray Ventrone, Cribbs and Dawson are good leaders. 

8. Another factor is the hiring of Brad Childress as offensive coordinator has allowed Pat Shurmur to take more of a big-picture approach to his job. Last season, the head coach was the offensive coordinator, so he didn't spend as much time in the defense and special teams meetings. Now he can. That's not about Shurmur mirco-managing, but when a head coach pops into the special teams meeting and encourages the guys — it makes them feel important. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

"The two big stars of this game have to be Frank Gore and Ted Ginn Jr."

By David Fucillo

October 18, 2012

Well, that game was something else. The 49ers 13-6 win over the Seattle Seahawks was truly a tale of two halves as San Francisco made some sizable adjustments in multiple phases of the game to secure a hard-fought, much needed divisional victory. The 49ers improve to 5-2, while the Seahawks drop to 4-3. More importantly for Seattle, they are 0-3 in divisional games, and even with three divisional home games left, they can do no better than .500 in the division.

The 49ers could not have looked much worse in the first half, as they could get nothing going on offense, and the defense was getting gashed by Marshawn Lynch.
Fortunately, the team figured some things out in the locker room and controlled much of the second half. Alex Smith threw an awful interception in the fourth quarter, but thankfully the 49ers defense stepped up big to prevent Seattle from doing anything with it.

The two big stars of this game have to be Frank Gore and Ted Ginn Jr. Frank Gore thoroughly dominated the Seahawks on the ground, rushing 16 times for 131 yards. He got banged up late, but Kendall Hunter provided solid enough relief work. It was incredibly frustrating seeing the 49ers go away from the run for much of the second quarter, but thankfully they realized the error of their ways in the second half.

Ginn deserves kudos, even though the 49ers only managed three points off his big punt returns. He returned three punts for 70 yards, doing a great job for a special teams unit that was looking for plays.

It wasn't a pretty win by any stretch, but the 49ers gutted it out and got a crucial home divisional win. Now they have some extra rest time to get ready for an even bigger divisional road game. The 49ers travel to Glendale to face the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8. Given how this division is shaping up, the first team to win a road division game might end up as the team to beat in the NFC West.

49ers notebook: Special teams get five stars

By Cam Inman

October 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- Special teams coordinator Brad Seely walked out of the 49ers' locker room "really proud" of his units' efforts in Thursday night's 13-6 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

That included Ted Ginn Jr.'s familiar prowess on returns, David Akers' 2-for-2 showing on field goal attempts and, most impressive, the 49ers' suffocating coverage of Andy Lee's punts.

"They stepped up and knew they needed to improve," Seely said. "Their mindset was to get the job done."

Lee's final punt soared 66 yards before Tramaine Brock tackled Leon Washington after a 5-yard return at the Seahawks' 11-yard line with 1:36 left. Lee's first punt was downed at the Seattle 4-yard line by Dashon Goldson.

"It was lights out on the coverage teams," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And Ted Ginn had a great game."

Ginn averaged 23.3 yards on three punt returns and 20.5 yards on two kickoff returns, stirring memories of last season's opener in which he scored fourth-quarter touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns against the Seahawks.

"It was fun to see Ted get in the flow of things, and he really helped the field position," Seely said.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Alex Henery sets NFL record

October 17, 2012

By Reuben Frank

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Riley Reiff impressive in expanded role

By Justin Rogers

October 16, 2012

As you may have already read, Detroit Lions first round draft pick Riley Reiff played a season-high 22 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Actually, he was on the field for 25 plays, but three were erased by penalties.

Here's a quick breakdown of what happened when Reiff was on the field:

• He played 17 first down plays, five second down snaps and was out there on third down situations twice, including the Lions' final offensive snap in overtime.

• The Lions ran the ball 17 times and passed just five while Reiff was on the field.

• Reiff lined up on the right side of the line 16 times and on the left nine times. It was more balanced in the first half, but in the second half, he was on the right side of the alignment eight times compared to just once on the left end.

• The Lions had 14 effective gains and eight non-effective plays, including a couple short-yardage situations. Although the result of the play was ineffective, Reiff and the offensive line provided excellent pass protection on the deep pass Titus Young dropped.

• Overall, on the 22 plays Reiff was on the field, the Lions gained 155 yards. That's 7.0 yards per play. Included in that total were eight plays of 10 or more yards.

As for his individual play, Reiff was impressive, particularly in the way he handled Eagles defensive end Jason Babin, one of the best edge rushers in the NFL.

Admittedly, Babin is average against the run, but Reiff got excellent push all day, moving the veteran defensive end all over the field, taking him to the ground on multiple occasions.

Reiff also showed good ability to get to the second level, whether coming straight off the line, or peeling off one block to get to another.

We didn't get to see a lot of Reiff in one-on-one pass blocking situations. The Lions effectively used tight end Will Heller on chip blocks twice, lessening the responsibility of Reiff on those plays. On a third snap, the Eagles rushed three, all on the opposite side of the offensive line, leaving Reiff with no blocking assignment.

On the two plays where Reiff did have one-on-one responsibilities in pass protection, he was solid. He controlled Babin on a 1st-and-10 play in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 36-yard completion to Calvin Johnson.

Also, at the end of the first quarter, after quarterback Matthew Stafford failed to find an open receiver on his initial run through his reads, Reiff was able to stay in front of defensive end Brandon Graham, allowing Stafford to roll out of the pocket and extend the play. The quarterback eventually found Mikel Leshoure for a 12-yard gain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mixed wishes for Steven Hauschka

October 13, 2012

By Mike Reiss |

RENTON, Wash. -- The text messages that Seattle Seahawks placekicker Steven Hauschka has received from friends in his hometown of Needham, Mass., have been a little more frequent this week with the New England Patriots coming to town.

"They're wishing me the best, but not wanting us to win," he relayed Friday. "They're like, 'I hope you have five field goals but you don't pull it out.' They want the best of both worlds."

Tough crowd. But it's all in good fun for Hauschka, who grew up admiring Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, has an autographed picture of Vinatieri's famous snow bowl kick, and understands the passion of New England fans because he was once one of them.

But these days, he views the matchup against his hometown team as pure business.

"In the past five years, everything has kind of changed since I've been playing. The allegiances change," he said. "Obviously, I'm the biggest Seahawks fan now. It seems like every week there is something new, you're playing an old teammate, an old coach, you're playing in a town where you know everybody, or an old team. You kind of get used to all those distractions and it's football at the end of the day."

Like teammate Breno Giacomini, who grew up in Malden, Mass., and first started cheering for the Patriots when quarterback Drew Bledsoe was drafted in 1993, the 27-year-old Hauschka reflected Friday on attending his first Patriots game in the 1990s when Scott Zolak replaced Bledsoe and led the team to victory.

Fast-forward 20 years later, and this time it will be Zolak watching Hauschka, providing analysis for the Patriots' radio broadcast at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

"I like the matchup. They are obviously a great team but I think our team fights hard to the end," said Hauschka, who has made 51 of 62 career field goal attempts, and is 10-of-11 this season. "We have a tough stadium to play in. Anything can happen in that stadium."

For Hauschka, who is expecting only a few friends in town for Sunday's game, breaking through in the NFL has been a long journey.

It started at Middlebury College, then N.C. State, while his NFL resume includes mostly brief offseason and preseason stints with the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos. There was even a stop with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League.

He joined the Seahawks at the start of last season, and this is as close as he's had to a secure regular-season job in the NFL.

"I just stayed on course and kept kicking, and knew I would get another opportunity. You just have to make the most of that opportunity," Hauschka said, adding that a big part of his breakthrough has been trusting his abilities, treating every kick the same, and developing a rapport with snapper Clint Gresham and holder Jon Ryan.

So far, so good.

"Steven has been really consistent for us," head coach Pete Carroll said. "He's a very smart kid, great worker, big kid for a kicker (6-4, 210). He's just been very effective and hopefully we can just keep him knocking them in. We haven't asked him but just a couple times to have to bomb any kicks, but his consistency has been excellent."

Monday, October 15, 2012

The amazing Phil Dawson

From Terry Pluto's "Scribbles"

October 15, 2012

Wow! Browns’ win in the wind is a wonderful windfall.

In that whirling wind, Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 38 and 41 yards. The amazing Dawson is now 12-of-12 this season. Maybe, just maybe, he will finally make a Pro Bowl.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rams' Kendricks is keeping busy

St. Louis Rams tight end Lance Kendricks is congratulated by Daryl Richardson, left, after catching a 7-yard pass for a touchdown during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in St. Louis.


October 10, 2012

After catching a 7-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford, tight end Lance Kendricks gave a matter-of-fact hug to running back Daryl Richardson and center Robert Turner in the end zone. End of celebration.

In short, Kendricks acted like he'd been there before.

Actually, he has, but he hasn't. In two preseasons with the Rams, the 2011 second-round pick has scored four TDs. But his grab against Arizona marked his first touchdown in the regular season.

"Long time coming, but hopefully there's a lot more," Kendricks said.

In some ways, Kendricks has been a victim of his stellar rookie preseason, when he led the Rams in catches (11), yards (155), and TD catches (three). He made it look easy that August and looked like a star in the making.

But once the regular season started, he had some costly drops, a couple of which would have resulted in touchdowns. For a while, it looked like he might have lost some confidence. But then in Game 5, in Green Bay, he caught four passes for 71 yards, including a long of 45 yards.

Although lost in the din of a fifth straight loss, Bradford's high-ankle sprain, and even the Cardinals-Brewers baseball playoff series, it looked like Kendricks might be settling in as a pass-catching threat.

But the very next day, the Rams traded for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, and that meant fewer pass-catching opportunities for everybody. Over the final 11 games of 2011, Lloyd was targeted nearly 11 times a game. Kendricks went from being targeted 5½ times a game before the Lloyd trade to just 3.2 times a game.

Factored in as well around midseason was that Kendricks missed one game entirely and was slowed in a few others by a mid-foot sprain. Long story short — fans, media, and coaches never got to see if Kendricks could approach that preseason form.

"It was the kind of adversity you go through in a season," Kendricks said. "We were losing games, and things got almost desperate if you want to say it. But you keep learning and you keep trying to pick the brains of those around you.

"You keep trying to work on your technique. You try to get better as a player. Even though the stats aren't showing up on the board, you can still run a good route, you can still pass block, whatever."

Chalk it up to experience, or lack thereof, as a rookie.

"I think I definitely learned a lot," Kendricks said. "I think I had a lot on my shoulders. A lot I wasn't able to overcome, but I tried to control what I could do. And I just tried to play as hard as I could for the time that I was on the field."

During the offseason, Kendricks worked on getting yards after the catch. During the six-week break between the spring practice period and the start of training camp, he also worked on his conditioning, endurance and focus back home in Milwaukee with something called "hot yoga." It's yoga done indoors with the thermostat turned up to 90 degrees.

"Ninety degrees for 90 minutes," Kendricks said. "It's a big room with a lot of people in it, so it gets real hot. So you do the poses and try to stay in there. It's supposed to cleanse you, and when you come out you're supposed to feel more refreshed and more focused and all that good stuff."

He did it twice a week, with a group that included lots of college students and mothers.

"I kind of just tried it on my own," he said. "I read a couple articles about it. And I learned other players and other athletes did it. They were less injury-prone and more flexible."

Kendricks started 2012 with a solid preseason (five catches for 78 yards and TD). Once the regular season hit, he dropped a couple of catchable balls against Chicago, as well as one against Arizona. But they were all shorter passes and weren't drive-stoppers or TD-killers.

"The one where I kind of back-shouldered it (against Arizona), nine times out of 10 I make that catch," Kendricks said. "It's kind of frustrating, but it's like, you know, move on. Move on and play the next play."

Otherwise, Kendricks has caught just about everything thrown his way. He has been targeted only 15 times so far this season but has 10 catches, the third-highest total on the team behind Danny Amendola's 32 receptions and Brandon Gibson's 13.

The Rams would like to see Kendricks improve on his "out-of-frame" catching — balls where he has to reach out for the football. But otherwise there are no complaints.

"He's been playing very well," coach Jeff Fisher said. "His blocking, I think that goes unnoticed. But I was happy that he was able to make that (touchdown) catch. He made a big catch for us (against Seattle) to keep a drive alive down the middle part of the field, so he's coming on. Rob (Boras) is working with him, doing a good job with him. It's hard to take him off the field because of his ability."

Boras is the Rams' tight ends coach.

Kendricks has participated in about 85 percent of the team's offensive snaps this season. In three of the Rams' five games, only the starting offensive linemen and quarterback — who almost never leave the game barring injury — have played more snaps on offense.

Because of the injury situation on the offensive line and protection issues, Kendricks has stayed in to block on numerous pass plays. Would he like to get the ball more?

"Who doesn't?" Kendricks said. "It'll come. We've got a ton of season left. I'm not worried about that."

And with the injured Amendola out for a month or two, Kendricks could help pick up the slack.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Dave Zastudil Makes Second Chance Stick

Punter Dave Zastudil launches a kick Thursday night against the Rams.

By Josh Weinfuss

October 6, 2012

Dave Zastudil’s right knee was finally feeling better during the summer of 2011.

It had been 21 months since he last punted in an NFL game, a 49-yarder against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 1, 2009 that Devin Hester returned for 69 yards. Zastudil spent those months recovering from a knee surgery that shut him down midway through the 2009 season through the balance of 2010.

Years of planting his right leg before kicks had caused tendonitis, which resulted in dead tendons. They wouldn’t rebuild or regenerate on their own and by the bye week in 2009, with eight games left in the season, Zastudil couldn’t bear the pain anymore and opted for surgery. Doctors had to rupture his patella tendon during surgery in order to reattach it.

“The only thing that made it OK was that I knew I couldn’t play. Physically I couldn’t do it,” said Zastudil, who faced a long recovery period. “It was hard. You miss the locker room, you miss the guys, you miss the lights, the atmosphere and the game. I missed that.

“But I knew that if I got healthy and I worked I could come back and be effective for a team again.”

The Houston Texans wanted to try out Zastudil, and flew him to Texas last summer. The workout was going well, Zastudil said, until he tweaked his oblique muscle. Zastudil left Texas and headed home to Ohio without a job.

For the first time in his career, he thought he may never play football again.

“I thought maybe that was it,” Zastudil said. “I felt maybe I just wait until someone gets hurt and get a tryout or something. That was probably the lowest part of my career.”

Then the Cardinals called.

As the special teams coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Spencer watched AFC North rival Baltimore draft the punter out of Ohio University in the fourth round in 2002. But Spencer wasn’t a Zastudil fan just because he was among the top five punters in college or because he was an All-American.

What stood out most to Spencer was that Zastudil was one of Ohio’s captains.

“I mean how many times is your punter the captain?” said Spencer, now the Cardinals’ special teams coach. “That speaks volumes about who Dave Zastudil is.”

Zastudil had punted against Spencer-coached teams 49 times since 2002, averaging 40.8 yards per punt.

“I was always impressed with Dave,” Spencer said. “I was impressed with him when he was at Baltimore, I was impressed him obviously when he was at Cleveland, and you think sometimes you might be able to find a nugget.”

Zastudil is in his 11th year in the NFL and he’s seen enough that not much excites him anymore. But when Spencer called him during training camp in 2011, Zastudil said it surprised him “a little bit.”

He dropped everything and jumped at Spencer’s offer to join the Cardinals late in training camp. Life was breathing back into his then-33-year-old legs but he came with questions. The job wasn’t handed to Zastudil. He had to earn it. His first opponent was the Cardinals’ incumbent punter, Ben Graham.

“I knew I couldn’t blow this shot because of my past injuries,” Zastudil said. “And teams eventually don’t like to take chances on guys who’ve had a past. I knew deep down if I got healthy I could be effective for a team.”

Zastudil won the starting job and punted a career-high 87 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards. His 3,929 yards were also a career high by almost 300. His season average and season long of 66 yards were both the second best of his career.

Zastudil answered his questions but he still wasn’t where he wanted to be.

With a full offseason ahead of him, Zastudil dedicated himself to training his body and his mind. Listening to former Mike Tyson trainer Teddy Atlas, Zastudil heard something that stuck with him.

“He says, ‘When you get to a point in your career, you’re either surviving or you’re winning,’” Zastudil said. “And I think for a little bit of time, maybe I was surviving. I was surviving with the injuries, just trying to get back. This offseason, I made a goal to myself that I needed to start winning again.”

He let go of any doubts that filled his head, whether about his health or ability. He stopped paying attention to numbers and stats, except for one: field position. And he made a few tweaks to his technique with the help of former NFL punter Chris Gardocki, who spent time at training camp in Flagstaff and still advises Zastudil.

Zastudil ranks seventh in the NFL in net punting average at 42.4 yards per punt and is first in total punts (33), total yards (1,556) and punts downed inside the 20 (12).

“He might be our most valuable player right now,” Spencer said. “And that’s with the likes of Patrick Peterson on your team.”

Zastudil doesn’t throw the ball or catch it. He doesn’t cover receivers or rush the quarterback. He doesn’t score.

But Zastudil may be the most important player on the Cardinals’ roster. He punted seven times Thursday night against the St. Louis Rams, and all but one pinned the Rams on their side of the field. The one that didn’t was returned to the 50. Of those six, three punts forced the Rams to start from their own 8, 4 and 11-yard-line, respectively.

“It helps a lot as a defense,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “You put the guys on a long field, backed up, it’s an opportunity. He changes the whole field position for our team when he gets it inside the 10-yard-line.”

Zastudil saw what life after football could’ve been like. He felt the emptiness of not driving to the stadium on Sundays. He felt the adrenaline tug at him. He tasted the football afterlife and didn’t like it.

“I think it makes you appreciate the game more,” he said. “Being out for a year, year and a half, you realize what you’ve missed.

“Everybody’s going to eventually have to walk away from the game. I wasn’t ready. I was ready to come back and still play. Fortunately, Arizona gave me the opportunity.”

Zastudil has always been preparing for life after football. In 2006 and 2007, Zastudil took classes at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern, respectively, through NFL programs. He interned in a fixed income department while playing in Cleveland. He’s seen teammates lose money on bad investments and he wants to be prepared. Zastudil majored in finance at Ohio and is leaning toward a career in it after he retires.

“I’m going to play until they kick me out or my body doesn’t let me,” he said. “I love the game. I love what I do. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Someday you got to know it’s going to end. For me hopefully it’s not anytime soon.”

Monday, October 08, 2012

Giants' Markus Kuhn starting in place of Rocky Bernard

Rookie Markus Kuhn will make his first career start in place of an injured Rocky Bernard today against the Browns.

By Jorge Castillo

October 7, 2012

The Giants declared five players out by Friday and two more were ruled doubtful so there wasn't much suspense over who would be the seven inactives today against the Browns. The Giants officially announced the inactives for their matchup against the Browns today and the seven expected to be out today are the ones not suiting up.

The only two who had a chance -- slim, at that -- of playing were LB Keith Rivers and OT David Diehl. But they're inactive. It'll be the third straight game Diehl's missed since spraining his MCL against the Buccaneers in Week 2. Rivers also missed last week's game against the Eagles.

Like in recent weeks, Sean Locklear will start at right tackle and Will Beatty will get the start at left tackle with Diehl out.

Rocky Bernard is out with a quadriceps injury so 26-year-old rookie Markus Kuhn will make his first career start. Expect to see plenty of Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck in the interior as well.

Kenny Phillips sprained his MCL last week and Stevie Brown will start in his place. The Giants had the option to activate Tyler Sash, coming off a four-game suspension, for today's game, but decided not to. They would have had to waive another player to make room on the 53-man roster. The Giants have until tomorrow at 4 p.m. to activate Sash. If they don't, Sash will be waived.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Jay Feely And Dave Zastudil Have Anchored Arizona Cardinals Kicking Game

October 3, 2012

By michaelfromct

The Arizona Cardinals defense has gained most of the credit for the team’s perfect record. However, lost in the accolades is the fact that their punter, Dave Zastudil, and their field goal kicker, Jay Feely, have both been superb.

Punters are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL — they get no respect. But let’s give a little credit where credit is due. Zastudil has punted 26 times, and 9 of those kicks have landed inside the 20-yard line. He’s forced 9 fair catches, and when opponents do rerturn a punt, the yardage gained has usually been minimal because his punts are high. He’s averaging a solid 47.5 yards per kick, forcing Cardinals opponents to start with poor field position almost every time he punts. He was particularly good in the Cardinals last game against the Dolphins.

Kicker Jay Feely has been perfect in his seven field goal tries this season. In fact, he has nailed 18 in a row going back to last season. He hasn’t tried any 50-plus yard field goal this year, but he has kicked several 40-plus yarders through the uprights. And he also has been perfect on his extra point tries.

It’s nice to have a punter and a field goal kicker that are both so consistent and reliable.

Professional Football Player, Dallas Clark, Named Play Again™ First National Brand Ambassador

By David Isserman

October 5, 2012

Viscos LLC, the maker of the joint solution, Play Again™, has announced today that it has named professional football player, Dallas Clark, as the first Play Again Brand Ambassador.

“Oftentimes, we see retired athletes suffering from severe joint pain. With the issues I was having with my knees, I was concerned about my future career as a football player and was worried that I too would suffer the same fate as these other athletes,” explained Dallas Clark. “After starting Play Again at the suggestion of my doctor, I began feeling much better. Without a doubt, Play Again has helped my knees feel great and has given me the joint support I needed to become more active on and off the field,” he added.

Introduced in 2012, Play Again is a unique and revolutionary viscosupplement consisting of high molecular weight hyaluronic acid (HA) patented for the relief of joint pain and discomfort due to arthritis and fibromyalgia. HA is the main ingredient in healthy joint fluid. Play Again replenishes HA as the aging human body stops producing it.

“We are pleased to introduce Dallas Clark as our first Brand Ambassador,” commented Debbie Ecksten, President of Viscos LLC. “As both a dedicated Play Again user and our first Brand Ambassador, Dallas will be an invaluable addition to our team as we raise community awareness about Play Again during our launch into retailers this fall,” she added.

“Play Again is an amazing product that will help so many people. As the first national Brand Ambassador, I am excited to tell everyone about Play Again so that they will hopefully take it and enjoy the same benefits that I have personally experienced with my knees,” concluded Dallas.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Bears' Spaeth draws praise


October 3, 2012

LAKE FOREST – For much of his six-year career, Matt Spaeth has hidden in plain sight.

The Bears’ blocking tight end came out of anonymity for at least a few minutes Wednesday as quarterback Jay Cutler praised him for his role on the team. Spaeth was on the field for 60 percent of the offense’s snaps Monday against Dallas, and he helped J’Marcus Webb in pass protection while also filling in for injured teammate Evan Rodriguez as a run blocker.

“He’s a wild card in our offense,” Cutler said. “He moves around a lot. We ask him to do a lot of different roles in the passing game and the running game.

“[He] doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Week-in and week-out he’s a guy you can count on, no matter what we ask him to do.”

Spaeth said he appreciated the compliments, but he was fine without being in the headlines.

“To be honest with you, I don’t really care if I don’t get the credit,” Spaeth said. “I want to be out there, I want to play football. My thing has been, since I’ve been here, I’ll do whatever they ask me to do."

Spaeth also can be effective as a receiver, although that is not his primary responsibility. He has caught 44 passes for 329 yards and seven touchdowns in six seasons, which included 60 games with the Pittsburgh Steelers and 19 games (and counting) with the Bears.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Unsung Hero: Tight End Matt Spaeth's Blocking Against Cowboys


OCTOBER 2, 2012

Tight end Matt Spaeth didn’t show up on the stat sheet on Monday night against the Cowboys. He didn’t even reel in a single catch, but he came up big all night long.

Spaeth is in his sixth season in the NFL and he has made an impact as a blocker. He spent four seasons in Pittsburgh (07-10) before coming to the Bears last off-season.

He filled in for injured fullback Evan Rodriguez as the lead blocker against Dallas. He also lined up in his usual spot on the line as a natural tight end.

He did a great job at paving lanes for running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Despite an injured ankle, Matt Forte was able to be successful and Spaeth lining up in front of him certainly helped.

He helped out J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi on both sides of the offensive line, helping to slow down the best pass rusher in the NFL.

The offensive line allowed only two sacks on the night and one of those came in garbage time, the first came with Cutler holding onto the football for nearly five seconds.

Spaeth was a big reason that the Bears protection up front was so good. J’Marcus Webb had a couple issues with DE DeMarcus Ware, but for the most part held his own.

There were numerous plays that Spaeth held his own against Ware not allowing him to pressure Cutler. Despite a false start in the first quarter, Spaeth was almost flawless.

Take away that forced fumble by Ware and the offensive line played its best game by far all season. Cutler completed 18 of 24 of his pass attempts. A big reason for that was the protection up front allowing Cutler ample time in the pocket, and the receivers were able to gain separation.

At times, the Bears used backup guard Chris Spencer in the backfield as a lead blocker, while they used Matt Spaeth on the line as a tight end. Spaeth alongside fellow TE Kellen Davis did a solid job on Monday night.

Despite the talent on the Cowboys defense, the Bears offensive line really made it easy for Cutler to complete passes with time and ease.

Spaeth provided double team help for Webb and Carimi to protect the Cowboys pass rushers as well. Because of Spaeth’s performance he’s the unsung hero from the Bears Week Four 34-18 win in Dallas.

The Bears should continue to use Spaeth both on the offensive line as a tight end and in the backfield as a fullback. He will continue to be an integral part of the Bears success in the battle of the trenches.

Special mention for an overlooked weapon

October, 2, 2012

By Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals' overtime victory against Miami in Week 4 was remarkable on several fronts.

We discussed many of them after the game.

Two special-teams aspects went relatively unexplored.

One, field goal kicking has improved to the point that Jay Feely's winning 46-yard kick wasn't a big part of the story. Missing from that distance in that situation would have commanded more attention than succeeding commanded. We expect NFL kickers to convert from that range (and if you're a St. Louis Rams fan, you expect to convert from much, much longer).

Two, Cardinals punter Dave Zastudil and Arizona's coverage team helped swing field position.

As noted last week, ESPN's Mark Simon tracks and honors the best NFL punters each week.

Seattle's Jon Ryan received special mention for work performed during the Seahawks' victory over Green Bay. Simon named Zastudil his top punter for Week 4, filing this report:

Dave Zastudil was the busiest punter in the NFL this past weekend.

He was also the league’s best punter.

The Arizona Cardinals veteran is our selection for Punter of the Week for Week 4.

Zastudil’s had a career-high nine punts in the Cardinals overtime win of the Dolphins.

Eight of the nine punts resulted in an increase in the Cardinals win probability for the game (it’s also worth noting with that that all nine of the punts came with the Cardinals losing or tied).

Zastudil’s average punt helped the Cardinals chances of winning 3.3 percent, the best average in the league for the week, the fourth-best by any punter in a game this season.

That included punts that netted 51 and 48 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime that each increased the Cardinals chance of winning by 4.7 percent.

Seven of Zastudil’s nine punts were either downed, out of bounds, or fair caught.

Zastudil got credit for three punts on which the Dolphins ended up with field position inside their 20-yard line, but also had three more in which they were on their own 21 or 22, and another in which a holding penalty on the return pushed Miami back to its 11.

How good was Zastudil?

Consider this:

In the last 20 seasons there have been 354 instances of a punter punting at least nine times in a regular-season game.

Zastudil’s 47.3 gross punting average rates second-best among them,
trailing only a 49.6 yard average from Dolphins punter Brandon Fields against the Jets in 2010.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Phil Dawson's brilliance overshadowed by ineptitude of Cleveland Browns

Through wind, snow and rain, Phil Dawson always seems to come through for the Browns as he did on this kick Thursday night in Baltimore, one of three from at least 50 yards that he made against the Ravens.

By Bill Livingston

September 28, 2012

BEREA, Ohio -- The best kicker in local history is not nicknamed for his toe and wasn't drafted by the team with which he has spent his whole career. Or by anyone else.

A Cleveland kind of guy, even though he is from the sunny climes of Texas, Phil Dawson was an undrafted free agent who was released twice before landing with the expansion Browns in 1999.

He still plies his trade in the snow, mud and wind of the AFC North, including the lakeshore gales of Cleveland Browns Stadium.

He has never made the Pro Bowl because he plays for the Browns.

He won't make the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the same reason.

Not even defying age will do the trick.

At 37, in his 14th season, the Browns' place-kicker is not only better than ever, but is among the best of all-time. He has made 284 of 340 field goals, or 83.5 percent in his career, which is the 11th-best accuracy mark of all-time.

It is better than Jan Stenerud, the only full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame (66.8 percent); better than Lou "The Toe" Groza, who also played tackle for more than half of his 21-year Browns career (54.9 percent); and better than one of this year's Hall of Fame nominees, Morten Andersen (79.7)
Other Hall of Famers include such "also kicked" position players as George Blanda (52.4 percent), Bobby Layne (69 percent) and Paul Hornung (47.1 percent, including a "What was Lombardi thinking?" 12-of-38 in 1964.)

But here's the real "kicker" to the story: Only 10-for-18 from 50 yards or farther for his first 11 seasons, Dawson is 11-for-12 from loooong distance from the start of last season through the rainy Thursday night loss in Baltimore.

"Heavy ball, wet environment, and old Phil Dawson just keeps going," said Browns coach Pat Shurmur after Dawson slammed three field goals of 50 yards or more through the uprights.

Dawson credits increased strength and flexibility for supersizing his career in what should be twilight. That's because the ball certainly isn't flying any farther than it did before. As for performance enhancing chicanery -- puh-leeze. At 5-11, 200 pounds, Dawson looks like your neighbor, not an NFL player.

He kicked two extra points in a loss to the Rams in December in 2003, which would not be remarkable, except he did so in a game in which he broke his left arm.

He went career-long in November of 2008, simply giving former coach Romeo Crennel a nod, signifying that even the cold, speculative fringes of possibility were within his range. Then he kicked a 56-yarder high and true through the 14-mph winds of Orchard Park, N.Y., to win the game, 29-27.

If Dawson is known nationally for anything, it is for his game-tying field goal off the goalposts' support, the "gooseneck," in Baltimore in 2007 on the last play of the game. It was a 51-yarder, which was first ruled no good, then good. Another Dawson field goal then won it in overtime. It was the Browns' last victory over the Ravens.

Usually, kickers are either known as long bombers or chip-shot artists. Dawson, though, is both.

The Raiders' thunderfoot, Sebastian Janikowski, is 31-for-59 for his career from 50 yards or more. Overall, though, he's at 79.9 percent, not as good as Dawson.

Groza had an outlier season in 1953, making 23 of 26 field goals, 88.5 percent, when the rest of league was at 41.3 percent. Washington Times' sports columnist Dan Daly combed through the play-by-play sheets for his book "The National Forgotten League" and found that Groza mainly made tap-ins. Only four of his field goals were longer than 30 yards.

Due to the rise of soccer-style kickers, NFL field goal accuracy in the 1960s for the first time was higher than the league's quarterback completion percentage. The gap has only grown since then. So the very glut of good kickers keeps Dawson from standing out as much as he should.

With pro football being such a big-game sport, a career spent with the Browns has also kept Dawson from such moments former Patriots kicker Adam Vinateri twice experienced, breaking ties with last-play field goals in the Super Bowl.

Since the franchise's rebirth, Dawson has been an island of professionalism amid the stormy seas of the organization.

After the second-half kickoff in the last home game against Buffalo, Dawson watched his sons, Dru, 11, and Beau, 9, race each other to pick up the tee. Dawson, only half-jokingly, said he was afraid a wrestling match might break out over it.

Thursday's Baltimore game, Dawson's 203rd in a Browns uniform, left him tied with former tackle and current radio analyst Doug Dieken for third place on the franchise's all-time list of games played, behind Clay Matthews and Groza.

In the locker room afterward, Dawson presented Dieken with a signed ball. "203," was scrawled on it. Beneath it, Dawson wrote, "To a has-been from a never was: We fooled 'em for a long time."

That's not true. On many given Sundays, he's been all that was hot in Cleveland.

Henery makes four FGs, plays unlikely hero

Four field goals on Sunday night in the Eagles' win over the Giants made Alex Henery 8-for-9 on the season.

By Geoff Mosher

October 1, 2012

Alex Henery makes clutch fourth-quarter kicks all the time. They just happen at practice and in his mind more than they actually take place in real games.

“You prepare yourself every game that it’s going to come down to you,” the Eagles’ second year kicker said. “So when it comes, you’re ready for it and you’re not really shocked.”

Henery was the rare offensive hero for the Eagles on Sunday night against the Giants, as he made all four of his field goal attempts to account for 12 of the team’s 19 points. His 26-yarder with less than two minutes left in the fourth served as the game-winner in the Eagles’ 19-17 win.

Henery also made kicks of 25, 48 and 35 yards. The 48-yarder, his longest this season and second-longest of his career, put the Eagles up 13-10.

Considering that he spent the week practicing with a new holder (punter Mat McBriar) and long snapper (Kyle Nelson), those are some impressive numbers.

“I knew it was gonna be big,” Henery said of the 48-yarder. “Especially the way the game was going. After this week, working with a different snapper and holder, I was real happy with how it went [Sunday] and I hit the ball real well.”

Making his game even sweeter were two misses from his counterpart, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, from 54 yards out in the final 15 seconds. Tynes missed wide left on the first attempt, which came off his foot mere seconds after Eagles coach Andy Reid called timeout to ice the veteran. Tynes then came up short on his second attempt.

“He’s a good kicker,” Henery said. “He’s made a lot of big kicks over the years. That was the tougher way to kick tonight, I think, into the wind. It was just something that it didn’t go and we got the win.”

Tynes is one of the NFL’s most clutch kickers. He kicked the overtime 31-yarder in the Giants’ 20-17 win over San Francisco in the NFC Championship earlier this year to become the first player in league history with two postseason overtime makes. His other, a 47-yarder, came in the Giants’ upset of the Packers in the 2008 NFC title game.

Henery, a fourth-round pick last year, is still carving his reputation after being drafted to replace David Akers, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer who signed with San Francisco last season after the Eagles let him walk.

Henery made 24 of 27 kicks as a rookie, setting a franchise accuracy record (88.9), and was the most accurate rookie kicker in NFL history.

Not many Eagles games have come down to Henery in the final minutes, but he prepares each week like it's inevitable.

“Every game you tell yourself you need to make all of them,” he said, “and it’s going to come down to you eventually.”

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