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NFL Week 11: Can Aaron Rodgers sling Packers out of slump?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-    There are no calls to relax in Green Bay. With the Packers falling to 4-5 and the long-term problems piling up, the message has swung to one of urgency.

Though Aaron Rodgers has reiterated the need to tune out external criticism, the Packers quarterback acknowledged a significant shift has to take place after last week’s 47-25 rout at the hands of the Tennessee Titans. If the turnaround doesn’t begin Sunday against the Washington Redskins, the threat of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 becomes even more real for Green Bay.

“There has to be that healthy fear as a player that if you don’t do your job they’ll get rid of you,” Rodgers said last week, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I think we’ve all got to go back and the urgency’s got to pick up, the focus has got to pick up … we’ve all got to play better, and that starts with me.”

Given the Packers’ approach of relying on Rodgers to lift them up, that movement may also end with him.

With an eroding run game and a defense that has surrendered 30 or more points in four of its past five games, Rodgers has been asked to sling the Packers out of their slump. He has thrown at least 42 passes in five of his last six games and is on track for a franchise-record 656 attempts. Yet he is averaging a career-low 6.5 yards per attempt as the team waits on a deep passing game to materialize.

But for all their problems, Green Bay stands just one game out of first place in the NFC North. And Rodgers used last season’s NFC wild-card win over the Redskins to dispel similar concerns about his trajectory.

Washington has a more favorable outlook in the rematch, as a revitalized defense is better equipped to defend Rodgers. Linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith lead a pass rush that will have to generate consistent pressure, and cornerback Josh Norman will be counted on to slow Jordy Nelson and the surging Davante Adams. The Redskins will also have to be mindful of tight end Jared Cook, who could make his first appearance since Week 3.

Here are four other matchups that will define Week 11 in the NFL:

Cowboys’ offensive line vs. Ravens front seven

Is the spotlight in Dallas big enough for five offensive linemen? Rookie standouts Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have earned their deserved praise during an 8-1 start, but the dominance of the Cowboys’ front is impossible to overlook.

The line has paved the way for Elliott to become the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,005 yards, and Eric Dickerson’s rookie record of 1,808 yards is well within reach. Prescott has also been well protected, as his 4.4% sack rate ranks eighth in the NFL.

Despite boasting the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, Baltimore will be hard-pressed to break through against a line with three potential all-pros in left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is questionable with a thigh injury but is expected to play after practicing Thursday and Friday. The Ravens will need their massive nose tackles — 340-pound Brandon Williams and 339-pound Michael Pierce — to set the tone up front.

Eagles QB Carson Wentz vs. Seahawks’ pass rush

A revitalized rushing game helped Philadelphia break out of its slump last week with a win against the Atlanta Falcons. Wentz can’t count on a repeat performance from Ryan Mathews and Co. against Seattle.

The Seahawks gave up three rushing touchdowns to the New England Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount last week, but they have allowed just 3.5 yards per rush on the season, tied for second-lowest in the NFL. Facing a rookie quarterback in an offense struggling to break out of its conservative shell, Seattle will likely stack the box and force Wentz to make plays to the outside. Yet Philadelphia can’t afford to fall into obvious passing situations, as Seattle’s formidable pass rush is tied for third with 29 sacks.

With just two touchdowns and four interceptions, Wentz will likely have to rely on the methodical drives that have salvaged the Eagles’ offense during this rocky stretch. He would be wise to target Jordan Matthews, who should avoid some of the more unfavorable matchups against the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary by operating out of the slot. Seattle’s defense is also not without its vulnerabilities, as it has given up at least 24 points in each of its last three games.

Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Colts’ secondary

For all of the talk about Tennessee’s “exotic smashmouth” run game, Mariota’s leap in his second year has been one of the biggest catalysts for the offense’s breakout season. Now Mariota can make a significant mark on the AFC South if he can hand Andrew Luck his first career loss to the Titans on Sunday.

In 34-26 loss to Indianapolis in Week 7, Mariota’s chance at ending Tennessee’s drought against its division rival evaporated when Robert Mathis returned a strip-sack fumble for a touchdown in the final two minutes. Since then, Mariota has completed 70% of his passes for 878 yards and nine touchdowns with just two interceptions.

Indianapolis can’t count on Mariota missing the mark as frequently as he did in the first contest this season. Bottling up the ground game will be a priority for a defense that has allowed 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, tied for 29th in the NFL. But Mariota could be the difference-maker if Luck has another big day and the game turns into a shootout.

Raiders RB Latavius Murray vs. Texans’ front seven

Monday night’s game in Mexico City would appear to be a natural showcase for Derek Carr, as the brother of former Texans QB and No. 1 overall pick David Carr said Houston never spoke with him leading up to the 2014 NFL draft. But with the Texans ranking No. 3 against the pass, Carr may take a backseat to Murray for another week.

The Raiders adeptly switched up their offense when faced with a similar outlook against the Denver Broncos, and Murray carried the offense with 114 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 20 attempts. That formula might be used against a Texans team that ranks 26th against the run. Murray was limited with an ankle injury this week, but he seems set for another significant workload coming off the bye.

Houston can’t afford to stack the box against Murray, as Carr can take advantage of one-on-one matchups for wide receivers Amari Copper and Michael Crabtree. The Raiders’ offensive line has been stout in protecting Carr and opening holes for Murray, but Jadeveon Clowney has been adept at disrupting opposing offenses.

Five key lessons from the NFL preseason

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)     —-  The NFL preseason is effectively over. Yes, all 32 teams will be in action Thursday night to officially close out the exhibition lineup, but very few starters or key players will be exposed to further injury in what will amount to glorified tryouts for those clinging to roster spots.

But last weekend’s games helped crystallize takeaways we’ve gleaned throughout August. Here are five key observations likely to carry over into opening day:

1. Ezekiel Elliott is ready to go

Despite nursing a tweaked hamstring for much of training camp and reportedly being a touch overweight, the Dallas Cowboys’ prized rookie tailback appeared ready for prime time during his pro debut Thursday when he rumbled for 48 yards (on just seven carries), displayed nice vision, looked solid in pass protection and turned the tables by laying the lumber to hard-hitting Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor. It’s obviously a small sample, but the Cowboys will desperately need Elliott to build on that kind of effort as he’s likely to become the focal point of their offense as long as fellow rookie Dak Prescott is filling in for injured quarterback Tony Romo. Even when Romo returns, Elliott (and fellow backs Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden) must allow Dallas to win the time of possession battle in order to shield a suspension-riddled defense from additional exposure.

2. Lingering QB questions

The summer spotlight has been predictably directed at quarterbacks. Yet few have provided satisfactory answers to the questions surrounding them.

— Prescott has been a revelation, looking like the steal of the draft. But how will he fare once defenses begin gearing up to stop him?

— New England Patriots seat warmer Jimmy Garoppolo had his shakiest outing Friday, underscoring how unproven he is as he embarks on a bid to do a month-long Tom Brady impersonation.

— The Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers were hoping one of their signal callers definitively emerged as the clear-cut starter. Didn’t happen. The Los Angeles Rams would have liked No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff to show he’s ready to take the reins. Nope. Barring something unexpected, all of these teams will almost surely remain in QB flux much of the season.

— The Cleveland Browns’ Robert Griffin III, Houston Texans’ Brock Osweiler and Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill are all facing lofty expectations while adapting to new teams and/or new coaches. Stay tuned after weeks of mixed results.

— The Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco and Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck are coming back from major 2015 injuries, and Luck is once again processing a new scheme. Rust could be an issue for both.

— The left ACL tear suffered by Teddy Bridgewater at Tuesday’s practice casts a pall over the Minnesota Vikings’ season. With Bridgewater’s year already over, Minnesota will almost certainly look to obtain a veteran passer. But with opening day than two weeks away, Shaun Hill — the definition of a journeyman backup and guy who’s started eight games (all in 2014) in the previous five seasons — must take the reins … and that likely means plenty more handoffs to Adrian Peterson.

3. Offensive line play is a concern

The amount of hitting permitted in the offseason and training camp has been governed since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011. But classroom environments and walk-throughs are not nearly as conducive as live practices in forging cohesive O-line play. And several teams expected to have issues with their front five haven’t mitigated those concerns.

— The Browns are breaking in two new starters (plus Griffin) but surrendered five sacks of RG3 on Friday and still aren’t effectively running the ball.

— Jay Cutler was sacked five times in 36 preseason dropbacks while working behind an extremely inexperienced group that currently lacks Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long (shoulder). The Chicago Bears’ starting offense has produced all of 11 points this month.

— The Seattle Seahawks are again playing mix and match in front of Russell Wilson, who was sacked four times in the second preseason game and forced into some of his best jailbreak improv Thursday. The Seahawks don’t have a single starting linemen from their 2013 title team.

— Luck went down three times in the Colts’ dress rehearsal Saturday, when starting guard Jack Mewhort sustained a knee injury that could cost him a month.

4. The NFC East is a mess

A division that already looked like a toss-up may be spiraling into further chaos. The Romo-less Cowboys’ problems have steadily mounted throughout the offseason. The Washington Redskins running backs are not only unproven but already significantly banged up. The Philadelphia Eagles are breaking in a new coaching staff — and that means major schematic departures on both sides of the ball — and poised to lose right tackle Lane Johnson to a 10-game suspension.

But no team seems to be in more disarray than the New York Giants. Their $200 million free agent investment into a defense that allowed the most yards in the league in 2015 has flashed early returns. But the offense, even when evaluated with the preseason asterisk, has been shockingly inept. The Giants’ 185.3 yards per game are nearly 40 yards fewer than the next-worst team, and their 31 points ranks only ahead of the Bears (29). Saturday, New York’s starters played into the second half, yet produced zero points, three first downs and 61 yards in eight drives. Quite a foreboding start given the heightened expectations on this team, rookie head coach Ben McAdoo and embattled GM Jerry Reese.

5. Concerns for franchise players

Nine players received the franchise tag in the offseason. Four (the Broncos’ Von Miller, Ravens’ Justin Tucker, Buffalo Bills’ Cordy Glenn and New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson) eventually signed long-term extensions. But Miller, the $114.5 million-dollar man, must fulfill the expectations of being the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback — on a team with major QB issues. Meanwhile, Glenn’s training camp was short-circuited by a high ankle sprain, and Wilkerson just appeared in his first game since his 2015 season ended with a broken leg.

Josh Norman also cashed in, becoming the league’s best-compensated corner (five years, $75 million) courtesy of the Redskins after the Carolina Panthers rescinded his rights. If Norman’s bank account didn’t put a target on his back, he’s invited one courtesy of a motormouth that has lobbed barbs at Odell Beckham, the Panthers, Commissioner Roger Goodell and others. Carolina and Beckham (twice) will get to test Norman’s claim that he’s the NFL’s top cornerback on the field, an assertion that’s been hotly debated elsewhere.

Finally, four of the tagged players will suit up without the comfort of long-term security, entering what amounts to another contract season. Will the pressure get to them?

— Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery battled hamstring issues (again) in camp and had a case of the drops in Chicago’s third preseason game.

— Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry ended months-long isolation from the team Sunday, when he finally signed his one-year tender. How he’ll look Week 1 (he won’t play in the final exhibition game) is anyone’s guess.

— The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson must prove he’s worth a lengthy financial commitment while taking over No. 1 corner duties from departed Janoris Jenkins.

— And, most notably, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins is most definitely in a “prove it” scenario (and with those non-descript backs lining up behind him) as the Redskins opted for proof that he can replicate his 2015 breakout season rather than mint him as a franchise passer.


NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss races at Michigan, Darlington

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —   Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss at least the next two races as he continues to recover from a concussion, according to a release from Hendrick Motorsports Wednesday.

Earnhardt was not cleared to race at Michigan International Speedway this weekend or Darlington Raceway on Sept. 4 after being re-evaluated Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

Alex Bowman will make his second start of the season this weekend at Michigan. Jeff Gordon will return to the car at Darlington, where his seven wins lead active drivers.

“We know how hard Dale is working to get back,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in the release. “He’s following what the doctors are saying, to the letter, and doing exactly what he needs to do. Everyone wants to see him in a race car, but his health is first and foremost. We’re behind him.”

Earnhardt last raced at Kentucky Speedway but subsequently complained of nausea and balance problems stemming, it was discovered, from concussions sustained earlier in his career. He has missed five races so far, with Michigan and Darlington extending his absence to seven.

He reasserted at a press conference two weeks ago that he intended to return to the series and honor his contract with HMS — which runs through next season — but said timetables were premature until he was healthy. Hendrick had been working on a contract extension for Earnhardt earlier this year.

Bowman replaced Earnhardt at New Hampshire Motor Speedway  — finishing 26th because of a cut tire and late crash — before former teammate Gordon came out of retirement to contest four races, with a best finish of 11th Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Gordon was unable to race at Michigan because of a prior commitment.

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