The final day of August finds the Nationals stand five and a half games behind the New York Mets in the NL East race.  Now the opponent isn’t just whomever manager Matt Williams team is facing, but the calendar.  Thirty-three games remain in the schedule…and while they have a favorable finish (18 are at home and 24 are against teams with losing records) so do the Mets (18 and 23).  MASN’s broadcast crew reminded viewers a week ago that having 6 games in hand with a 5.5 game deficit means the “Nats control their own destiny”…but the fact that they’re not sweeping series against bottom-feeders while the Mets are blazing trails though their slate of also-rans has to be discouraging.  The slow drain that is the end of the 2015 season is beginning…

Counting Cards– the Nationals visit St. Louis to face the team with the best record in the big leagues.  They were swept at Busch Stadium each of the last two years.  This does not look ideal as the Mets plow through a series with Philadelphia.  Does it not seem that the Mets will face the Phillies 30 times in August and September?

Last Week’s Heroes– Ryan Zimmerman tallied 3 homers and 10 RBI as the lineup changed around him on a daily basis.  Last Saturday the team gave away Rubik’s Cubes on “80’s Night”– while the team used a cube to shift around multiple players into different positions.  His presence is necessary if this team is to have a September surge.  Jayson Werth produced runs from atop the lineup…which is key because the club is now without their sparkplug for the season.

Last Week’s Humbled– I’m calling out the team’s medical staff for one rough year where nothing went as planned.  Denard Span is now done for the year with pending hip surgery–he’ll miss over 100 games this year.  Anthony Rendon’s followup to last year’s breakthrough campaign is an afterthought (80 games missed) while Ryan Zimmerman (41 games sidelined) and Jayson Werth (71 games out) have been hobbled as well.  They need to sacrifice chickens or something moving forward…

Game to Watch– Wednesday September 2nd Max Scherzer pitches against Michael Wacha (15-4, 2.69 ERA).  This might be a game where the Nats need to win to avoid getting swept.  Can Scherzer bounce back from what’s been one awful August (0-3, 6.42 ERA)?  The kid who almost no-hit the Nats two years ago is not the ideal guy to go up against.

Game to Miss– Saturday September 5th Gio Gonzalez (9-7, 4.11 ERA but 0-3 with a 10.22 ERA in his last three starts) pitches against Mike Foltynewicz (4-6, 5.71 with an odd array of consonants).  For those who love college football, you’re getting back into the season.  For those who enjoy the summer, you have one last weekend to swim.  For those who have put off reading Marion Meade’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, your summer reading time is running out.

For Virginia Tech football, 2014 offered the best of times and worst of times.  In a season where the Hokies upset eventual defending National Champion Ohio State in Columbus…they also found a way to lose to Wake Forest in double-overtime 6-3 after playing 60 scoreless minutes.  I’m still upset at the NCAA for not making up some reason to end that game after regulation– they couldn’t have interrupted the hot mess with a “Sorry, you’ve exceeded the time on the field allotted for the week?”  Aren’t there ever thunderstorm warnings in Winston-Salem?  Fire drill? That loss meant that the Hokies had to rally past Virginia just to qualify for a bowl…the second time in three years a win over the Cavaliers was necessary to reach six wins.  That can’t be encouraging for a fan base that’s grown accustomed to challenging for conference championships.

Frank Beamer is the longest tenured head coach in Division I football.  He’s taken his alma mater from a middling independent program that served as stocking stuffers for the likes of Clemson and Florida to a Big East and then ACC contender…regularly beating the likes of Clemson.  He’s been in Blacksburg for 29 years– and one would have to think even if this isn’t his last season at the helm, Beamer’s well past the midpoint of his tenure.  One would prefer a graceful exit and smooth transition–unlike what happened at Florida State where it was apparent Bobby Bowden had stayed a few years too long (3-six loss seasons in his last four years).  The Hokies have gone three years without a double-digit win campaign–their longest such stretch since the early 90’s.  A fourth straight disappointing season would be tough to stomach for a program that played in five of the first seven ACC Championship Games (after taking the title it’s first season in the league).

Michael Brewer enters his second season as the Hokies starting quarterback.  The transfer from Texas Tech’s 2014 was a mixed bag:  he threw for over 2600 yards but tossed 15 interceptions and lost three fumbles.  Coach Beamer feels that Brewer has made strides in his first offseason in Blacksburg–and will be better equipped to direct the Hokies offense this fall while making fewer mistakes.  The running game looks to bounce back from what’s been a rough couple of years;  due to injuries and/or an offensive line that never came together Virginia Tech’s once-vaunted running game (Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones) has run aground.  Beamer thinks that this year things will be better: “You start with JC Coleman and Trey Edmunds is back–I told him the other day he looks faster than ever..and we got a freshman McMillan that I think’s got a great future.  We’ve really got some weapons.”  For a running game that ranked 8th in the ACC last year, that’s encouraging.

Defensively the Hokies run a 4-4 front…and it’s not necessarily the scheme that’s been successful over the years. “In any defense it still gets back to personnel…and right now we’re two-deep in the defensive line.”  Defensive end Dadi Nicolas (9 sacks in 2014) and linebacker Deon Clarke (74 tackles, 5 sacks and an INT) anchor the front eight while the last of a long line of hallowed Hokies is the standout in the secondary.  You’ve heard of Vincent, Corey and Kyle Fuller who played in the NFL after starring at Virginia Tech?  Meet youngest brother Kendall–the junior has 8 career interceptions (including a pick-3 day against Duke as a freshman).  Prepare for another strong season from the Hokies D.

Special Teams has long been a Hokies hallmark.  When the program was just getting good, it did so on the shoulders of a kicking game that seemingly made big plays every week.  “Beamer Ball” made opposing teams and their fan bases cringe every time they lined up to kick.  The coach feels that his school served as a pioneer…”I think within the last ten years everyone’s starting to emphasize special teams more…putting good people on there and I think it’s gotten tougher to gain an advantage.  I used to feel like you could gain an advantage over most everyone you played–but not anymore.”  Still, expect a kicking game that makes a difference.

The season begins with a bang– defending National Champ and Preseason #1 Ohio State comes to Blacksburg Labor Day night.  There’s the customary pre-ACC September stumble Hokie fans are accustomed to (ECU in 2008 and 2014, JMU in 2010 and Cincinnati in 2012)–but upon further review those only appear to occur in even-numbered years.  The key conference stretch for Virginia Tech will come from October 17th through November 12th– three games against fellow Coastal Division contenders Miami, Duke and defending champ Georgia Tech with a trip to Boston College thrown in for good measure.  The November 12th game is especially huge:  the Hokies or Yellowjackets have combined to win 9 of 10 Coastal Division titles.  It’s also on Thursday night– a night Virginia Tech used to dominate but are 1-4 on since 2011 and will not host this fall.  Can the pendulum swing back to Blacksburg?

Twenty-nine years into his tenure at Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer has done just about everything:  from coaching Heisman contenders to competing in championship games. He’s guided the Hokies to ten different bowls– ranging from the Sugar to the Russell Athletic.  But Beamer contends he has not accomplished one Blacksburg milestone–he told me earlier this month that he doesn’t eat the famous Lane Stadium smoked turkey legs. “I know our fans enjoy it– I don’t have an opportunity to get involved with it that much.  It’s kind of neat–that smoke..it smells nice in the stadium.  I enjoy that part of it.”  There’s no reason to think coach Beamer and the Hokies won’t enjoy the sweet smell of a successful campaign this fall.

So…that was an action packed week, right?  Who cares about the 31-13 rout of the Ravens, except for the fact that the Skins with a win over Jacksonville plus a Philadelphia loss means they take another Preseason NFC East banner.  But I digress.  Over the span of a few days the Redskins lost their biggest defensive offseason addition for the season, cleared and then un-cleared their quarterback to play against their I-95 neighbor only to see the understudies shine.  All this amidst local and national media tweeting the direction of the wind from the moment Robert Griffin III was shelved to the moment coach Jay Gruden said he was the one making decisions on who plays one night later.  Strap yourselves in sports fans…this could become a bumpy ride.

Quarterback Carousel– with RG3 still recovering from the concussion sustained against Detroit, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy combined to complete 30 of 39 passes for 285 yards (which means they’re still checking down a little too much) with 3 touchdowns and an interception.  The “Kirk only put up big numbers against backups” argument no longer holds as much water.  Yes, Cousins threw a pick but bounced back from the INT to lead the Skins to a pair of touchdowns.  Both have looked sharp in the preseason while Griffin remains 6-13 with three sacks and two fumbles.  The Star Trek parallel remains:  a Kirk, a McCoy plus a guy wearing a red shirt that doesn’t make it out of the episode.

Running Rookies– while Alfred Morris gained 4 yards on 7 carries and caught 2 passes for 6 yards, his understudies looked ready to headline.  Matt Jones (7-57) and Trey Williams (9-39) both give confidence to an attack that’s going to run first this fall. Jones is averaging over 6 yards a carry while Williams has over 100 yards this August.  At least there’s no controversy at this position…but give the Redskins time.

Ryan & Rashad Receive– Ryan Grant and Rashad Ross made the most of their time on the field…combining for 11 catches and 120 yards with 2 touchdowns.  We all know that it becomes the DeSean & Garcon show once the regular season begins…but much like one enjoyed Lenny & Squiggy’s antics on “Laverne & Shirley”, Grant and Ross have their place.

Third & a Tale of Two Halves– the Skins converted on 7 of 13 third downs…with Kirk Cousins moving the chains 5 of 7 times while Colt McCoy went 2-6 (including a 4th quarter kneel-down).  The team ran 4 times (1-4) and passed on the other 9 third downs ( 7-8 passing and a scramble resulting in 6 conversions).  Yardage breakdown:  3-3 short, 3-5 midrange (4 to 6 yards needed) and 1-5 long-distance. 

Deceptive Defense– they held the Ravens to 13 points and shut the Purple & Black out after halftime.  But when both first teams were on the field the Skins D was less than dominant:  while allowing Baltimore to convert 4 of 7 third downs they allowed points the first three times the Ravens had the ball.  The fourth possession?  A missed field goal.  There were bright spots– rookie Preston Smith notched 4 tackles and a sack while Jackson Jeffcoat tallied a sack and an interception.  Moving forward, will the loss of Junior Galette slow the pass rush just enough to expose the patchwork secondary for what it is?

Flying Flags– SEVEN penalties for 65 yards.  These are the Preseason Skins I’ve grown to know and love!  Four were on the offensive line:  Morgan Moses, Spencer Long and Je’Ron Hamm all picked up holding calls while Trent Williams was whistled for a false start.  One was on defense (Travian Robertston roughing the passer) while the special teams flags were from holding on a kickoff return (Dre Quan Hoskey) and running out of bounds on a punt (Deshazor Everett).  Did  the penalties hurt?  The Williams false start turned a 2nd & 12 into a 2nd & 17 on a drive where the Skins missed on a 4th & 1.  They bounced back from other flags to move the ball downfield and still score.  Even Everett’s penalty benefited the Burgundy and Gold– on the re-kick  the Ravens fumbled and the Redskins recovered, going on to score.  August Magic, baby!

Special Situations– Cobra Kai Forbath drilled all 4 extra points while also connecting on a 44 yard field goal.  Tress Way averaged 37 yards per punt.  The Skins did allow a 103 yard kickoff return– but there weren’t major breakdowns this week.

 

The novelty of summer is long gone…and the sunburns are no longer funny.  It’s still hot outside in a manner that resembles a wool blanket…and the pool water has the feel of bath water.  Football is underway but they’re still playing games that mean nothing.  August this year gives us five weekends…and the local baseball team is trying to find itself for a September Surge.  Welcome to the Dog Days of Summer…

The Dog Days of Summer originally referred to the hottest days of the year in the Roman Empire, when the dog star Sirius (of the constellation Canus) was in ascension.  The actual dates of the Dog Days has the exactness of college football polling:  July 24 to August 24 in Ancient Rome, July 6-August 17 in The Book of Common Prayer (1522) and July 3-August 11 in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  So in theory I’m sneaking the Dog Day reference in just before it’s socially unacceptable…thank goodness the white pants I’m wearing are still cool through Labor Day.  Time to celebrate dogs of all types and a Nationals team that may be having its day eventually.

National Nightmare Over– to be able to say that so close to August 9th was something special too.  After losing six straight to NL West contenders San Francisco and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nats were able to go 4-2 against bottom-feeders  Colorado and Milwaukee.  While one would have hoped for sweeps in both cases, it was kinda nice to see this team win consecutive games for the first time since July 30th and win back to back series for the first time since June.  Now they have to make up 5 games in the NL East and catch the New York Mets over the next 39 games.  While they play six games against their division foe, the other remaining games are slightly in the Mets favor.  Thirty of the Mets other 33 games are against clubs with losing records…compared to 27 of 33 for the Nats.  The Mets do go on the road more (21 games as opposed to 15 for the Nats) and are ten games under .500 away from Citi Field.  But all the scoreboard watching means nothing if the Nationals can’t take 2 of 3 in each series with the NL’s underbelly…and they probably need a sweep or two in there somewhere.  One nightmare ends, giving way to sleepless nights.

Dynamic Dogs I– I grew up without a dog in the house but my grandparents had a succession of pugs from about 1970 through 2006.  Full line of succession:  Charlie Brown–Samantha–Muffin–Miss Emma–Polly–Nelson–Jetson–Watson (the line lives on with my late uncles kids).  In a manner that was fun at the time (they’ve got two dogs now!) but now kinda uncomfortable (did the aging pug know what was happening when its heir apparent was drafted), each dog coexisted briefly with the next generation (kind of like Cousy playing with Russell who played with Havilicek who played with Cowens who played with Bird) What’s great about pugs is that they’re small and plucky, so kids can deal with them and not be petrified.  Also–if the screen door at the Cape hits them in the face, who’s to know?

Last Week’s Heroes– 2015 has not been kind to Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.  Both have spent plenty of time on the disabled list;  and when they’ve been healthy each has had stretches of hitting under .200.  Manager Matt Williams’ masterstroke of moving Werth to the leadoff spot jumpstarted what was a stagnant offense (12 runs in the previous 6 games)–as the leftfielder hit. 320 while scoring 5 runs and driving in 3 more from the top of the order.  Zimmerman (still on a pace to drive in 96 runs over 162 games played) hit .261 last week while notching 10 walks.  If both can continue to stir from their summer slumber, this offense could do more than simply wake up before season ends.

Dynamic Dogs II– two other pets from my childhood that bring smiles to my face are Jenny and Phoebe.  My Uncle Jeff’s dog Jenny (a Brittany I believe) had a nice propensity for jumping into marshes and running into skunks.  My Uncle Henry’s dog Phoebe (Doberman Lab mix) would get into scuffles with my Grandmother’s pugs to the amusement of the kids and the horror of the adults.  She also used to chase UPS trucks…to the amusement of Federal Express.

Last Week’s Humbled– rough starts for Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer kept the Nats from sweeping the Rockies and Brewers.  Both have pitched well this year before recent stumbles:  Scherzer was once 10-7 with an ERA amongst the leaders  (he’s 1-3 since the All Star Break with an ERA north of 5) and allowed 3 runs over 6 innings Thursday.  Gio was the Boy of Summer (5-0 with an ERA of 1.47 over 8 summer starts between June 21 and August 10) before posting an 11.73 ERA over his last two outings.  If the Nats are going to catch the Mets (if the NL East leaders go 20-19 they need to play .641 ball), they can’t be relying on a rookie and a guy who’s been on the disabled list twice.

Dynamic Dogs III– they say a dog is a man’s best friend…and two of my good friends have had incredible dogs I’ve had a chance to get to know.  Molly was a golden lab my friend Jim owned…and on multiple times I’d be over at his place only to be assaulted by the dog.  One year they sent me a Christmas card with Molly on the cover–and I only recognized her after holding the card one inch away from my face.  Harley is another friend’s King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Tri-Color that went over and above the call of duty last fall…returning a thrown frisbee to my buddy’s girlfriend.  The frisbee read “Will you marry me?”.  She said yes…and Harley is officially Wing Dog of the Year for 2014.  Harley gets to bring a plus one to the ceremony…

Game to Watch– Tuesday Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 4.22 ERA) pitches against San Diego’s James Shields (9-5, 3.74).  Since coming off the DL, Strasburg has won 2 of 3 starts while posting an ERA of 1.35 and notching 25 strikeouts to 2 walks.  Grab some popcorn…

Dynamic Dogs IV– I have owned three dogs in my life.  Ringo was a dachshund and Martini was a poodle;  sadly both had the staying power of a Kardashian marriage due to allergic reactions.  Reggie was a schnauzer/poodle my wife and I got from a rescue shelter that was fed people food (not by me who was the hard-liner).  Reg was abused by a former owner and was blind in one eye while also having seizures a few times a week.  He couldn’t do a lot but lay down– which was perfect for someone recovering from multiple surgeries.  Reggie’s heart was much larger than his body…and he was a tremendous comfort in a less than ideal time.  Outside of the times he repeatedly relieved himself on the living room rug.

Game to Miss– Thursday Gio Gonzalez tries to turn around what’s been a rough recent run against the Padres Andrew Cashner (who’s had a rough 2015 at 5-12 with an ERA of 4.03.  Take a nice run on the Custis Trail…or visit the Georgetown Waterfront before it becomes too late in the year (the neck-chain wearing posers usually take August off, so you’re safe).  Enjoy the half price oysters at Tony & Joe’s from 4 to 7 pm.

Previously appearing on the Sports Page at WTOP.COM… with Virginia Tech coming up this week-

When asked what his goals were in this year’s rough and tumble Big Ten East last week, Maryland coach Randy Edsall responded as he has for the most part during his tenure in College Park: “You want to finish first.” Really?  In a division that boasts the defending National Champ, a recent regular in the top 10 and two bigtime blue bloods?  “That’s what you’re striving for. That’s what we’re building for. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll find out where we are after we play this year.” Athletics Director Kevin Anderson brought Edsall over from Connecticut precisely because Edsall had the vision that Maryland could become a conference contender instead of a program whose ceiling seemingly was a treadmill of 8-4 and 7-5 seasons with the occasional trip to second tier bowls in third tier locations (full disclosure: I have an uncle and aunt who run a chocolate shop in Boise and it rocks).  Since taking over in January 2011, Edsall’s goal has been to play for conference championships–and now the question is, can he get this program there?

The program’s first in the Big Ten should be considered a success:  a 4-4 conference mark that includes a first-ever win over Penn State in Happy Valley and a first-ever win over Michigan anywhere.  Non-conference victories at South Florida and Syracuse.  Plenty of upside for a team many (myself included) thought would have a tough time scraping together 5 wins, let alone the 6 necessary for bowl eligibility.  On the downside, Maryland was exposed by East Division foes Ohio State and Michigan State while experiencing the rude awakening of a 45-point loss at Wisconsin.  And then the Thanksgiving dessert of a home loss to Rutgers in a game where the Terps led by 25 late in the second quarter.  A less than competitive loss to Stanford in a Bowl whose name that escapes most (Foster Farms for those scoring at home).  While Terp fans saw possibilities of the program moving forward, they were also greeted by the limitations.

Quarterback is the question mark for this program.  For the first time since 2008, CJ Brown will not be a part of the program.  Last fall the sixth-year senior started all 13 games– the first Terps QB to start every game of the season since Sam Hollenbach in 2006.  Stability at this position hasn’t exactly been a recent occurrence due to injuries as well as ineffectiveness–and having a healthy and productive signalcaller for 12 regular season games is key to getting a 13th game.  As of the second week, three contenders were taking snaps with the first team offense:  Senior Caleb Rowe (1768 career yards passing with 12 TD’s and 10 INT), junior Perry Hills (1422 yards with 9 TD & 7 INT in four fewer career games) and transfer Daxx Garman (2041 career yards with 12 TD and 12 INT in nine games at Oklahoma State last fall) will compete for the right to be QB-1 against Richmond September 5th.  Coach Edsall has been impressed with each during workouts thus far…but nobody has separated themselves from the others as of yet. 

Other offensive issues include an inexperienced wide receivers corps (Stefon Diggs & Deon Long taking their combined 113 catches & 7 TD’s to the NFL) where junior Amba Etta-Tawo is the only returning WR with at least 10 receptions in 2014. Good thing the Terps have a recent history of having freshmen wideouts produce.  Can the running game get the best out of Brandon Ross and Wes Brown?  Brown’s been banged up and Ross wasn’t as effective in 2014 as previous seasons.  Will an offensive line that has three seniors be able to produce a better running game (12th in the Big Ten) and keep the quarterback safe (12th in sacks allowed)?

Defensively, the Terps move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front.  The reasoning can be seen in Big Ten games where they got bulldozed by Ohio State and Wisconsin (allowing 269 and 311 yards rushing).  Yannick Ngakoue is expected to be the major presence for the front seven while DE Quinton Jefferson comes back from injury.  With linebacker Abner Logan’s season done thanks to an ACL injury, more will be expected of Jermaine Carter and Jefferson Ashiru.  The secondary should be solid with lightning rod William Likely manning one cornerback position and Sean Davis making the transition from safety to the other corner spot.  Likely is also a major force as a kick returner…and was one of two players on the team’s preview guide.

The other player to be the “face of the program” this summer is an unlikely individual– Australian kicker Brad Craddock.  The reigning Lou Groza Award winner (after making 18 of 19 field goals) returns for his senior year with his eye more than simply on the uprights.  When one thinks of kickers, one thinks of foreign flaky types long on accents and short on credibility in the locker room.  Not this kid– Craddock is taking an active role in the leadership of the team while mentoring younger players like Ngakoue. 

Maryland’s schedule this year begins with a soft September– home games against Richmond, Bowling Green and South Florida before the team visits West Virginia (Terps haven’t won in Morgantown since 2002).  The Big Ten slate begins with a bang– a night game with Michigan (and khakied coach Jim Harbaugh) before a trip to preseason #1 Ohio State.  A neutral site battle with Penn State concludes an October that could turn a season from a treat to a trick with ease.  Top 20 teams Wisconsin and Michigan State loom in November.  Maryland could very well be a better team this fall with a worse record than the one they earned in 2014.  The path to a potential Big Ten title or even bowl eligibility will not be easy.  But ease has never been on the mind of coach Randy Edsall.

“You want to finish first.  That’s what you’re striving for. That’s what we’re building for. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll find out where we are after we play this year.”

The scoreboard reads “Redskins 21, Detroit 17” but the first string stink is still somewhere above Fed Ex Field.  Thank goodness they go to Baltimore next week because it still might not dissipate by then.  Instead of August optimism the Skins emerge what feels like a Pyrrhic victory…with more questions than answers.  One thing is certain– this team is now 15-3 in the preseason since 2011.  August Banners, BABY!

RG3ver– Let’s begin with the hot mess that was the night of Robert Griffin III.  Four possessions that garnered just one first down and seven net yards.  The Face of the Franchise completed 2 of 5 passes for 8 yards while fumbling twice and getting sacked three times.  The final fumble and sack saw Griffin suffer a concussion.  He doesn’t look good.  And his offensive line gave him limited time to get comfortable against the Lions pass rush.  He got crushed in such a manner that reporters asked coach Jay Gruden why they sent him out for a fourth possession when the first three were unmitigated disasters.  He might be ready to go for next weekends game in Baltimore, but do you want him facing the Ravens pass rush?

McCoy and Kirk Beaming Up– both backups had big nights.  Colt McCoy promptly led the offense 80 yards on 10 plays the first time he set foot on the field…resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run by Matt Jones.  He had them on the 1-yard line with under 10 seconds to go in the half before losing a fumbled snap (cue the Benny Hill theme music) on the final play of the second quarter.  Colt’s lone possession of the third quarter resulted in an 8 play, 87-yard march that ended when he found Reggie Bell on a 19-yard TD strike.  All Kirk Cousins did as the third-stringer was direct the Skins 80 yards on 14 plays to paydirt.  Cousins and McCoy combined to complete 13 of 18 passes for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns–passer rating 138.9.  Or 90 points higher than the starter.

Running Back Rotation– Alfred Morris enjoyed a light night, gaining 10 yards on 3 carries (a sweet 10-yard run in the first quarter moved the chains) before taking a seat.  Trey Williams, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson each averaged over 5 yards a carry…which should be encouraging–even if they were going against backups.  It appears as though there’s solid depth behind Morris this year;  the question being how will they mix and match the backs over the flow of the game and in specialty situations.

Third and What Did You Expect?– the Skins converted 8 of 13 third down attempts.  We ask you to guess who fared well and who didn’t…stumped?  Robert Griffin III was unable to move the chains on all 4 of his chances:  two short incompletions and a 4-yard pass to Roberts on 3rd & 21 were the highlights.  The lowlight was a 3rd & 16 where RG3 fumbled, was sacked and suffered a concussion on the same play (the only saving grace is that he didn’t lose his shoe as well).  Colt McCoy converted both of his 3rd downs, both runs– Darrel Young’s one yard dive set up a first and goal on the drive that put the Skins on the board and Trey Williams 38 yard scamper put the team ahead for the first time.  Kirk Cousins faced the most 3rd downs of the trio, converting 6 of 7 (completing 6 of 6 passes).  Yardage breakdown:  3-4 short, 2-3 medium and 3-6 long distance.

Case for the Defense– what’s good for the RG3 defenders is also good for the defensive apologists.  The Skins allowed the majority of the points given up in the first half again this week…surrendering scores on two of the first four times the Lions had the football while giving up 12 completions in 15 first half pass attempts.  The tackling was less than ideal and the secondary appeared soft on multiple occasions.  But they got off of the field on 3rd down the majority of the time (7 stops on 12 attempts) and notched four sacks.  For a unit that didn’t get pressure on the quarterback last year that’s encouraging…but what’s discouraging is that for the second straight week the supposed first-stringers allowed points to their counterparts.

Special Situation– losing Adam Hayward for the season to a torn ACL is a major blow to the kicking game, especially one week after fellow special teams stalwart Niles Paul went down for the year with a broken ankle.  The kicking game has been woeful the last few years, and losing the best two coverage guys is not the way to go about trying to get better there.

Cobra Kai– when not sporting his new red leather jacket and minibike, Mr. Forbath nailed both of his extra point attempts.  The new NFL rules are hardly fazing the Valley champ…and Ty Long appears to be the newest incarnation of Daniel LaRusso.  He won’t even look at Elisabeth Shue, let alone talk to her.  Tress Way averaged 51 yards per punt.  No mercy…

Did I say something about an ominous roadtrip last week?  How a west coast swing could rejuvenate or roast the Nats postseason hopes?  I think it’s more of a roast now…with the cooking temperature more of a charred-medium well.  After an 8-3 win at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals have dropped six straight (by the composite score of 36-12) to slip under .500 for the first time since May 5th.  Ineffective hitting and poor pitching have cost this club in equal doses during their 4-11 start this month…and now the Nationals are running out of excuses, answers and time.  Forty-five games remain in the 2015 season…and if the first place New York Mets (still sounds funny, I know) simply split their final 44 games the Nats would need to finish 27-18 to force a tie.  A tall task for a team that’s 10-20 since the All Star Break.  How did we get here?

Hopeless Hitting– since the midsummer hiatus, the Nationals rank last in the Majors in hitting and 25th in runs scored.  They’ve also notched the 3rd most strikeouts in the big leagues.  Before the break the club ranked 13th in hitting, 14th in runs scored and struck out the 14th most times in MLB.  Not having Denard Span atop the order to set the table (his 24-26 BB-K ratio is the best on the team) takes a lot of steam out of the offensive engine.  Jayson Werth’s lost season (.145 with 4 extra-base hits since coming off the disabled list) further drags down a lineup that needed a midseason infusion of power.  Can you imagine where this team would be minus “Plan B’s” Michael A. Taylor and Yunel Escobar?

Porous Pitching– the first half of the season was punctuated by Max Scherzer’s no-hitter against Pittsburgh and near-complete game victory against the Orioles to send the Nats into the All Star Break with major mojo.  Since then, not so much.  After going 10-7 with a 2.11 ERA (and just one no-decision), Scherzer has staggered to a 1-2 mark (plus three no-decisions) with an ERA of 5.18.  The rest of the staff has slipped as well…ranking 23rd in ERA after ranking 9th before the break.  In the first half of the season, the Nats allowed the fewest walks– and since the break they rank 10th.  Not horrible, but a major slippage that further exposes a light-hitting offense.  Even the boy of summer (Gio Gonzalez was 5-0 with an ERA of 1.47 over 8 starts since June 21st) wasn’t immune, as Saturday’s meltdown clinched another series loss for the Nats (they’ve won just 2 series since the Break).

Meet the Mets!  Sweep the Mets!– Thankfully the Nationals reside in the worst division since last year’s NFC South.  The New York Mets lead by 4 and a half games–and that’s after getting swept by Pittsburgh.  Now that Yoenis Cespedes is in Queens to prop up a soft lineup, the pitching staff that’s getting the most out of its arms (1st in quality starts and 3rd in ERA) is beginning to hit innings-thresholds they haven’t in their careers.  Will we see skipped starts or the famed “Strasburg Shutdown” with any of their young hurlers?  This week the Mets visit the hot-hitting Orioles (30 runs scored in three weekend wins over Oakland)  and Colorado (whom they swept last week).  For those scoring at home, the Mets Magic Number is a Seaveresque 41.

Bryce’s Bat– despite hitting .217 with one homer and 4 RBI last week, #34 remains in the triple crown hunt.  Harper ranks 3rd in hitting (.328), nine points behind Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt.  He leads the NL in home runs with 30– one more than Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and Colorado’s Nolan Arenado.  Without a ton of guys on the basepaths to drive in, Harper’s fallen to 5th in RBI– 11 behind Goldschmidt and Arenado.  Behind the big numbers, Bryce remains way in front in slugging (.638).

Last Week’s Hero– Ian Desmond’s already eclipsed his first half home run total– with 8 bombs since the break.  Last week the shortstop hit .333 with 3 HR and 4 RBI while scoring 5 runs.  Despite the fact that even when hitting well he’s a strikeout machine (Desmond’s 131 whiffs rank 5th), it’s nice to see the infielder bounce back from a nightmarish first half.  Sadly, he’s just one guy out of eight in the everyday lineup.

Last Week’s Humbled– Max Scherzer has pitched very well this season.  Last Friday was not one of those moments.  On a night where the team desperately needed a solid outing from their best starter, Scherzer coughed up 6 runs on 7 hits over 3 innings.  The bullpen that could have used a breather instead saw more action…and the Nats instead of turning around a rough week had to deal with a lost weekend.

Game to Watch– Friday the Nats host Milwaukee.  Hopefully they’ll return from the roadtrip in one piece.  Gio Gonzalez (despite his most recent start) has posted the best numbers of any starter this summer (although his numbers include a high pitch count that occasionally gets him out of games earlier than one would prefer).  Plus, the team is giving away Nationals/Miller Lite caps, which I think have bottle openers on the brim.  That won’t ever put out an eye.

Game to Miss– Let the record show I am all in with Jordan Zimmermann.  He should have started Game 1 last year.  He shouldn’t have been pulled in the 9th inning in Game 2.  Even though he’s an impending free agent, I’m hoping they’re able to bring him back in 2016.  After a midseason rough patch, Zimmermann’s put together two solid starts (striking out 15 while allowing 2 ER over 13.2 IP) with nary a win to show for his efforts.  Do I want to see Zim pitch?  Yes.  Do I want to see his efforts wasted on handcuffed hitting or a bullpen blunder?  No thank you.  He pitches in Colorado Tuesday evening…I’ll be watching The Usual Suspects (20th anniversary of its release was August 16th).  Hand me the keys…

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