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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After experiencing health issues in 2018, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees is returning for his 16th year as an NFL coach. Once he received a clean bill of health, coming back was an easy decision.

“I feel great,” Pees said. “I got a couple of things cleaned up, and I am feeling as good as I’ve felt in a long time.”

His return is significant for a unit that is looking to ascend to a championship level. The Titans allowed a season-high 38 points against the Colts in Week 11 when Pees was taken to the hospital with an unknown medical condition during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.

Pees believes his group has the potential to be a championship defense.

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“We are very close,” Pees said. “I don’t know where we finished this year, but I know we were in the top 10 in most of the categories and we felt good about that. I had a lot of players come in at the end of the season and talk to me and really felt good about everything, and that is the key thing.”

Under Pees, the Titans finished third in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 18.6 points per game. And opposing teams scored a touchdown on 44.6 percent of their red zone trips against Tennessee, the league’s second-best mark, trailing only the Eagles (44.3 percent).

The players say they are prepared thanks to the tip sheets Pees provides. For example, safety Kevin Byard’s red zone interception against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 happened because of a tip from Pees. Byard said Pees alerted the defense to a specific part of Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins’ stance that indicated he was going to pass block. Dallas called a play-action pass, but Byard never bit on the run fake thanks to the tip from Pees, which allowed him to pick up the wide receiver running a crossing route and intercept the pass.

Pees dialed up timely blitzes that resulted in sacks by sending Byard or cornerback Logan Ryan after the quarterback. Safety Kenny Vaccaro said Pees’ playcalling is like, “Jordan in the fourth quarter.” But the scheme will only get the Titans so far.

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The defense has holes to address, such as finding an impact pass-rusher. Outside linebacker Harold Landry, a second-round pick in 2018, is the Titans’ best option, but fourth-year linebacker Kamalei Correa is their veteran edge rusher. The Titans should add a veteran free agent such as Za’Darius Smith, who posted 8.5 sacks for the Ravens last season — including three against the Titans.

Pees had an integral role in the Ravens selecting Smith in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. He was at Smith’s pro day in Kentucky and told him he’d be a Raven. And having Pees in place lessens the risk of the scheme not matching the player, because Smith has already excelled in the same system. Smith would give the Titans a player who can line up at outside linebacker in base defense and as a four or five technique in nickel packages. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey draws a lot of attention from opposing offenses and needs a running mate who can take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

Adding a pure outside linebacker in the draft — such as Florida’s Jachai Polite, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat or Florida State’s Brian Burns — would be the finishing piece for the Titans’ defense. A rookie could provide pressure off the edge, giving quarterbacks less time to wait for the wide receivers to run their routes, thus helping the secondary.

Re-signing Vaccaro is a necessity as well. He quickly became a player who set the tone for the defense last season. Former Titans safety Michael Griffin pointed out that Vaccaro and Byard gave Pees a group similar to the Super Bowl XLVII-winning secondary that featured Ed Reed (ballhawk) and Bernard Pollard (thumper).

Tightening things up on the back end is crucial for the Titans’ defense to take the next step. The secondary struggled early in the season, giving up big plays such as Eagles wideout Jordan Matthews’ 51-yard touchdown reception and a 75-yard score by Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams, but they rebounded and finished with seven plays of 40 yards or more allowed.

“Whenever you have a secondary that doesn’t give up big plays, you are going to have a heckuva defense,” Pees said.

The continued development of linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans will help as well, but it all starts with Pees.

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The coaching talent was obvious, but the coaches were just young — in some cases, too young to even rent a car. But it was a group that helped develop one of the NFL’s most dynamic offenses for a season in Washington, and eventually delivered head coaches to three different teams.

When Matt LaFleur was hired last week by the Green Bay Packers, he became the third former Redskins assistant coach under Mike Shanahan to be hired as an NFL head coach.

One of the others, Sean McVay, is preparing his team for the NFC Championship Game in only his second season with the Los Angeles Rams. Kyle Shanahan just finished his second season with the San Francisco 49ers. Shanahan and LaFleur were fired by Washington after the 2013 season; McVay stayed through 2016, when he then accepted the Rams’ job.

Each one helped the other, said Mike Shanahan, the Redskins’ head coach from 2010 to 2013.

“When guys are really driven and want to learn the game and all of a sudden someone knows something someone else doesn’t, they want to know what that guy knows,” Shanahan said. “When you have coaches like that, you get a lot better. A lot of guys are experts at their position, but could care less to understand the total game. But guys that want to know everything usually get an opportunity to be a coordinator or head coach.”

That’s what happened with this group. At the time Shanahan compiled this staff, there was some criticism that he was simply allowing his son to hire his friends. Turns out, they were gathering good, young minds. They all run a variation of a West Coast system, with each one including wrinkles from various stops; McVay incorporated some of Jay Gruden’s offense, for example. But each of the three shared a core belief in what they ran in Washington. It also helped that Mike Shanahan would have his coaches present their offense in front of the defensive coaches and vice versa. It sharpened their ability to present in front of a group — a key skill for a coordinator or head coach.

“You have guys that really understand what was going on when they were coaching together,” Shanahan said. “They had a system they believed in. Obviously every coach is as good as his personnel. … You have to have a system that gives you a chance and then in turn to put people in situations so they can attack a defense.”

Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Jay Gruden talk before a 2015 game in Atlanta. John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
For Mike Shanahan, the ascension of this group started with Kyle Shanahan and what he had done in Houston in 2008 and 2009, the two years before joining his father’s staff. The Texans, with Kyle as the offensive coordinator, finished fourth and third, respectively, in yards per game, and improved from 17th to 10th in points.

“You could see it in the play-action game and you could see it in the drop-back game,” Mike Shanahan said. “When people get an opportunity to be a coordinator and call plays for a couple years, you take a look at what they’re thinking compared to what they’ve done in the past. Guys who make their offense grow, what they usually do in the offseason is study everyone in the NFL and say how can we make our offense better, what can we do to go from the middle of the pack to the top five? If you have those types of coaches on your staff and then combine that with some better players, you have a chance to get into the top five.”

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In 2010, the Redskins ranked 18th in yards and 25th in points. By 2012, they had nine new starters, including dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. That season, the Redskins ranked fifth in yards and fourth in points while taking the zone-read option to new levels in the NFL. Griffin won Rookie of the Year honors, throwing for 3,200 yards and rushing for 815. That season, Kyle Shanahan was still coordinator with LaFleur as the quarterbacks coach and McVay coaching the tight ends.

“What they did was the same things that had been done before,” Mike Shanahan said. “We just implemented it with what Robert did best. That was a running game with maybe three or four running plays with the same play-action game with it.”

Shanahan said he knew there was something different about McVay. He started with the Redskins in 2010 when he was 23 years old, serving as an assistant tight ends coach. He became the full-time tight ends coach in 2011. Shanahan liked how McVay took a big-picture approach.

“You could see right away Sean embraced it and embraced knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a defense and all the things as a head coach you’re hoping your coaches have, but very seldom have,” Shanahan said. “Usually guys know their positions and very few want to know everything or have the ability to learn everything.

“I knew right away and I told many people even after the first year he was with me that it won’t be long before he’s a coordinator because of his thirst for knowledge and [desire] to understand everything on both sides and the ability to communicate with people. You just knew it was going to happen.”

Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur coached Robert Griffin III during his dynamic Rookie of the Year campaign in 2012. John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
McVay became Gruden’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and, after calling plays for most of three years, was hired by the Rams as head coach at age 30. LaFleur had the longest wait of the three, going to Notre Dame in 2014 as quarterbacks coach before joining Kyle Shanahan with the Atlanta Falcons a year later for two more seasons. He then went to the Rams, serving as McVay’s offensive coordinator (though not calling plays) for one season. LaFleur called plays in Tennessee this past season. Like Kyle Shanahan, he’s only 39.

“Matt didn’t have the background that Sean or Kyle had,” Shanahan said. “He’s got a lot of confidence because he’s been going at it for five years. He’s going to have to depend on coaches help him because he’s only in his second year calling plays. With that there’s a learning curve; all coaches go through it.”

But Shanahan knows why Green Bay hired him, even though LaFleur spent only one year calling plays. He pointed to the success the offense had in Atlanta as well as with the Rams the past two years.

“It proves if you do get players in the system, you can be a top offense in the league,” Shanahan said. “That’s why people take a chance with a guy like Matt. They’ve gotten that opportunity maybe a year or two earlier than normal just because of the success they had and because they wanted a guy that’s part of a system like that. It makes sense.”

Despite the offensive brain power, for a variety of reasons the Redskins posted one winning season in their four years together. Still, Shanahan says he feels satisfaction from this trio’s rise.

“Guys like Sean and Kyle and Matt, they really studied to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of a defense,” Shanahan said. “Now they’re in position to give themselves a chance to win a Super Bowl. It’s fun to see.”

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — On the day they introduced their first offensive-minded head coach in more than 20 years, the New York Jets were forced to play defense.

CEO Christopher Johnson defended the decision to hire Adam Gase, insisting Monday that he isn’t worried about the negative reaction from fans.

“I get it,” Johnson told reporters after the formal news conference. “Part of it is I have to earn their trust. We just had a couple of down years. I have to earn their trust. I think they will see, if not right now, they’ll see it pretty soon as a great hire.

“I’m not trying to win Twitter. I’m trying to win football games. I think we’re going to win some football games here.”

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In two seasons as the acting owner, Johnson has presided over 5-11 and 4-12 seasons, resulting in Todd Bowles’ ouster. After interviewing eight candidates, including former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, the Jets picked Gase, in large part because of his background with quarterbacks. That was the theme of the day: quarterbacks and Sam Darnold, who had input on the coaching search. The Jets’ hierarchy overlooked Gase’s mediocre record with the Miami Dolphins (23-25) because they believe he can turn Darnold into a star.

“It’s really the first time I’ve been able to get with a guy this young, this early in his career,” said Gase, who has worked with Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill. “He’s hungry for knowledge. He wants to be coached. When you have a player like that who also has the physical traits, it’s exciting for me.”

Gase said his first priority is hiring a staff. The Jets haven’t announced any hires, but they have retained special-teams coordinator Brant Boyer, sources said. Former Cleveland Browns interim coach Gregg Williams has been floated as a defensive coordinator candidate, but that isn’t a done deal. Gase might not hire a quarterbacks coach, suggesting that he will be hands-on with Darnold.

The Jets’ most recent head coach with an offensive background was Rich Kotite, who went 4-28 in 1995-96. The league is trending toward so-called quarterback whisperers, and the Jets joined the fad.

“To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, he’s coaching to where football is going,” Johnson said of Gase.

“I’m not trying to win Twitter. I’m trying to win football games,” Jets CEO Christopher Johnson, left, said in defending his hiring of head coach Adam Gase, center. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
McCarthy is an offensive-minded coach, and unlike Gase, he has won a Super Bowl. Johnson described McCarthy as a “terrific” candidate who enjoyed an “incredible run” with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, but that wasn’t enough to convince him and general manager Mike Maccagnan that McCarthy was right for the Jets, who haven’t made the playoffs in eight years.

“To me, to Mike, seeing how Adam has gotten the best out of quarterbacks in different stages of their careers is vitally important, no question,” Johnson said in explaining why he preferred Gase.

“It’s not that there was anything wrong with McCarthy or any of the other guys. They were fantastic, but Adam took it to another level.”

Johnson refuted reports that said talks with McCarthy and Baylor coach Matt Rhule broke down because management wanted to pick their assistant coaches. Rhule, in a radio interview after Gase was hired, said he didn’t want to be part of “an arranged marriage.”

“No, that never happened,” Johnson said. “I completely deny it.”

Gase didn’t bring much electricity to his first news conference, speaking for less than two minutes with his opening remarks. He avoided bold statements and spoke in generalities, not sharing his vision for the team.

He lamented Miami’s offensive struggles last season (31st in yards), saying the Dolphins sacrificed statistics for wins. He also claimed that he is on board with the Jets’ power structure. He won’t have control of the roster, an authority he held in Miami.

“That’s not something I was really interested in,” he said. “That’s just kind of how it worked out in Miami. It was something that was almost offered up. … I knew coming in here it would be a team effort. I can do my part, which is coaching the team.”

Gase received a strong endorsement from Manning, who called Johnson last week to advocate for Gase. Asked about Manning’s recommendation, Gase smiled and said, “I feel like he’s had to do it too much.”

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PHILADELPHIA — A 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 was the low point of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, but quarterback Nick Foles says it was also the turning point.

“That game has helped us become the team we are today,” Foles said Wednesday as the Eagles began preparations for this weekend’s divisional playoff against New Orleans. “Going through that, that’s not easy as a team to lose like that. But there was never a pointing of the finger. It actually brought us closer. It can separate a team or it can bring us closer, and it brought us closer.”

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That loss dropped the Eagles to 4-6 and put their postseason hopes in peril. They responded by winning five of six to capture the sixth and final playoff seed.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, stinging from what he described as an embarrassing loss to his former team, took issue with the Eagles’ demeanor during that game and suggested some players lacked fight.

“At that point in time, obviously, that’s the low point of our season. But at no point did we doubt that we have the locker room,” Jenkins said. “We just knew that we had to put it together. Since then, I think we responded and earned our opportunity to go back down there.”

Late in that game, Jenkins made an obscene gesture, extending his middle finger toward Sean Payton following a Saints touchdown because he believed his former coach was running up the score — a sentiment others in the Eagles locker room, including tackle Jason Peters, have shared.

Coach Doug Pederson, however, did not play into that angle when addressing the media Wednesday.

“No, I did not [think they ran up the score]. Listen, we get paid to play, just like they do. We just didn’t make enough plays,” Pederson said. “We have to keep them out of the end zone and we have to score. We didn’t do either one very well.”

Foles has been a key part of the Eagles’ turnaround since that loss. He has won four straight in place of the injured Carson Wentz, including a 16-15 thriller over the Chicago Bears in the wild-card round last weekend.

As Bears kicker Cody Parkey lined up for the potential game-winner at the end of the game, center Jason Kelce found Foles on the sideline to let him know that he was going to miss him if this was in fact the end. Then came the Treyvon Hester tip and the double doink, extending Foles’ time in Philly and setting up a rematch with a Saints team that sparked the turnaround.

“”It means the world,” Foles said. “I’m not worried about the future, but at the same time, I understand where I stand. And every time I wear that jersey is special and to play with guys like Jason, that’s special. I’ve been fortunate to play with the best center in the game.

“I’ll never forget that. Fortunately, we tipped the field goal and it didn’t go in, which was a huge play by Hester. But we get one more week together, at least.”

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ezekiel Elliott’s importance to the Dallas Cowboys was on full display Sunday, and he did not even play.

For the first time in his career, Elliott was healthy and did not dress for a game. The Cowboys did not even want him going through pregame warmups. At least in 2016, when the Cowboys had home-field advantage wrapped up, Elliott was able to wear his uniform and sit on the bench for four quarters.

On Sunday, Elliott was in a blue sweat suit.

And the Cowboys won anyway, beating the New York Giants 36-35.

Now a rested Elliott will lead Dallas against Seattle in the wild-card round on Saturday. He ran for 127 yards on 16 carries during the Cowboys’ Week 3 loss in Seattle, but he also lost a fumble. The Cowboys are looking to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they’ll be facing a Seahawks team that was middle of the pack in rushing defense.

Elliott still kept busy Sunday. He ran the pregame huddle, bouncing around his teammates, pumping them up. On the sidelines, he was talking to his fellow running backs. When Rod Smith bulled his way in for a 1-yard touchdown, Elliott met him with a leaping high-five.

Ezekiel Elliott won’t be wearing a sweatsuit when the Cowboys host the Seahawks. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
“Each and every drive I was coming to the sideline and he had something to say. Or as I’m going back out there, [he was] encouraging us,” Dak Prescott said. “But he was definitely locked in. That’s what you need from your running back and a leader of the team.”

By sitting Elliott, the Cowboys showed just how important he will be to their playoff success.

“We all know the leading rusher in the NFL is an important player,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “But he’s also had more touches. Maybe the guy we played [Saquon Barkley] might’ve been right there with him, but [Elliott] had more touches than anybody I’ve ever been around as far as 15 games. This was real similar to his rookie year when he didn’t play in the last regular-season game when he led the league in rushing that year either.

“I think it will help him, think it’ll be a little jolt for him feeling refreshed going into next week’s game.”

In a league dominated by passing, the Cowboys will look to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl in an old-school manner: the running game and defense.

Elliott won his second rushing title in three seasons on Sunday without taking a snap. He finished the year with 304 carries for 1,434 yards. As a rookie in 2016, he had 1,631 yards in 15 games to win the rushing title.

The last team to win a Super Bowl with the rushing champion was the 1998 Denver Broncos when Terrell Davis ran for 2,008 yards. In the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s, Emmitt Smith was the rushing champ in 1992, 1993 and 1995.

“We ask him to do a lot of things,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “We play through him. He’s our playmaker, so they obviously want to get him as many touches as possible.”

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In the 15 games Elliott played, he accounted for 39.4 percent of the Cowboys’ scrimmage yards, 2,001 of the 5,082 yards, the highest percentage of any player in the league. Through the first 15 weeks, David Johnson of the Cardinals was second at 35.9 percent.

Since selecting Elliott fourth overall in 2016, the Cowboys have not hid their desire to get him the ball. A lot.

In three seasons, he has 5,247 yards from scrimmage. He is only the fourth player in league history to eclipse more than 1,900 scrimmage yards in two of his first three seasons. Eric Dickerson (1983-84), Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2002-03) are the only others to have done it twice.

Elliott missed six games in 2017 because of a suspension but would have had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards based on his totals through 10 games.

“They drafted me the No. 4 overall pick and I’d like to think that I’ve fulfilled all the expectations that they’ve expected of me,” Elliott said.

This season, Elliott became a bigger part of the passing game partly because he had to with the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten. His 77 catches are the most by a running back in a season in franchise history. He entered the year with 58 catches in 25 games. He matched his career total with three touchdown receptions this season.

“I’ll never say somebody can replace Witt or what Witt meant, obviously. But just having [Elliott] in your back pocket, knowing you’re in trouble, knowing a blitz is coming or something like that, you got a back you can get it out to or no telling when he gets it, what he might to do with it,” Prescott said. “That serves this offense so much and keeps us ahead of the chains.”

Twice this season Elliott had games with more than 200 scrimmage yards. His four games of at least 200 scrimmage yards are tied for the most in team history with Smith and DeMarco Murray.

“I don’t know anybody who’s better with the ball in his hands,” Beasley said of Elliott.

The Cowboys took the ball out of Elliott’s hands against the Giants.

That won’t be the case in the playoffs.

The Cowboys’ road to Super Bowl LIII will have to be paved by Elliott.

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — Los Angeles Chargers tight end Virgil Green has an immense chip on his shoulder for Sunday’s game.

Facing his former team in the Denver Broncos for a second time this season, but for the first time on the road, the 30-year-old tight end said he felt disrespected his last three years in Denver.

“I’m really trying to go at them and show them what they had and didn’t use,” Green said. “I don’t think they respected the way I played the game, the way I went about my business.

“I feel like here — not only from my teammates, but from the coaches and the organization — I feel like the work I do is more respected here than it was there.”

Although his agents talked with them, Green said the Broncos did not extend an offer in free agency.

Instead, the Nevada product signed a three-year, $8.6 million deal to join the Chargers, returning to his home state of California.

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With Hunter Henry suffering a torn ACL knee injury in May, Green assumed the role as the Bolts’ No. 1 tight end.

Although Green has posted modest numbers in the passing game this year, with 19 catches for 210 receiving yards and a touchdown, he has been a big addition to a Bolts’ running game that’s averaging 107.4 yards per game, ninth in the NFL. Green has played 608 snaps on offense for the Chargers.

“It just wasn’t healthy mentally for me to be there anymore,” said Green of being in Denver. “So I knew I had to get out of there. … This is the happiest I’ve been in a real long time.

“I have no ill feelings toward them, I just felt like the way I played the game wasn’t respected as much as it is here.”

Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said he has been pleased with how Green has played for the Chargers.

“He’s been an unselfish player,” Whisenhunt said. “He’s a tremendous blocker. He’s done a good job in the pass game and worked hard. So it was a tremendous move by [general manager] Tom Telesco and his group to get Virgil signed, because that position is always hard to find guys that you think could be as consistent as Virgil has been, and he’s been a really good player for us.”

Green knows he will have his hands full this weekend against edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. The duo totaled two sacks in Denver’s surprising 23-22 win over the Chargers at StubHub Center last month.

“They did some things against us that we’re kind of prepared for this go-round,” Green said. “But those guys that they have are some pretty unique guys. That stuff that Von can do, the stuff that Chubb can do, they can cause some havoc. So you definitely have to be on your A-game and make sure we take the fight to those guys.”

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TAMPA, Fla. — So much for struggling without Jameis Winston.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not only thriving in the suspended quarterback’s absence, they’re evolving into an offensive juggernaut that’s set to perform on a national stage when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit Monday night.

Thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick and a talented collection of playmakers that include DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, the Bucs (2-0) are off to their best start in eight years and have the NFL’s top-ranked offence.

The Steelers (0-1-1) are not far behind at No. 2, however inconsistency on defence has Ben Roethlisberger and Co. winless through two weeks.

“I respect what they’ve done. I’m not so sure I’m surprised,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Tampa Bay’s emergence with wins against the New Orleans Saints and the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

They’ve done it with Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old journeyman who has thrown TD passes for seven NFL franchises, delivering the best two games of his career.

“Man, he’s got some explosive weapons. He’s stepping in for Winston, but Fitz is not a step-in guy. This guy has started in multiple cities,” Tomlin said.

“We’ve seen him extensively in Cincinnati and Buffalo. He’s a smart guy, Ivy League-educated, always made good decisions. That’s why he’s been able to sustain himself and play for the length of time that he’s played.”

What once looked as if it might be a potentially disastrous stretch to open the season with Winston suspended three games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy suddenly is an opportunity for the team’s first 3-0 start since 2005.

Very encouraging for a franchise that has missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons, the second-longest drought in the league behind the Cleveland Browns (15).

Fitzpatrick believes he’s playing the best football of his career.

“But, I mean, it’s early. Consistency is the biggest thing,” the 14th-year pro said. “Trying to stay consistent with a high level of performance and just continue to try to win games.”

As well as things are coming together for the Bucs, though, it’s been rocky times for the struggling Steelers, off to their worst start in five years.

Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell has not reported to the team and signed his one-year franchise tender

And star receiver Antonio Brown made headlines after shouting at offensive co-ordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline last week and then responding to criticism on social media from a former team employee by suggesting the team trade him if it wants to find out how productive he can be without Roethlisberger.

Tomlin, however, isn’t flinching.

“We are two weeks in. We do not have a large body of work. We are focused on winning this next opportunity,” the coach said.

“I am not ready to paint with a broad brush … in terms of where our football team is or what is going to define this group.”

Some things to know about the Steelers and Buccaneers:

JUJU ON THAT BEAT

All the self-created melodrama surrounding Brown has overshadowed another significant development for Pittsburgh’s offence: the continued rise of second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The 21-year-old came on strong over the second half of his rookie season in 2017 and has picked up right where he left off. Smith-Schuster is tied for Brown for the team lead in receptions (18) and his 240 yards receiving ranks fifth in the league.

“He just has a great knack and feel for the game, knowing when to sit down in zone, knowing when to move in man,” Roethlisberger said.

“He uses his body and size at times, so I think he’s really studied the game, and studied his game and has really gotten better.”

RING OF Honour

Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl as a player with the Steelers and later transformed Tampa Bay from a laughingstock into a championship contender as a coach, will be inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony.

He joins Hall of Famers Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, as well as Doug Williams, Jimmie Giles, Mike Alstott, John Lynch, Paul Gruber, coaches John McKay and Jon Gruden and late owner Malcolm Glazer as members of the ring.

NOT HERE TO TALK ABOUT THE PAST

The Steelers have made it a habit of stubbing their toe early in the season only to find their groove at midseason and reach the playoffs each of the past four years. Not that their resiliency has provided them any sort of comfort facing the club’s worst start since 2013.

“It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I’m not worried about what we’ve done two years ago, a year ago. Worry about what we’ve got to do now, the present. Be in this moment. Understand we made some mistakes. Now we’ve got to correct it.”

FLAG DAY

Defensive breakdowns and Brown’s behaviour aren’t Pittsburgh’s only problems. The Steelers have hurt themselves under an avalanche of penalty yards.

Pittsburgh has been flagged 24 times for an NFL-high 206 yards in penalties through two weeks.

Tomlin described the issues as “popcorn,” meaning they’re coming from all over the place. If there’s a bright side for the Steelers, it’s that they’ve found a way to clean things up as the season progresses.

A year ago they were called for 23 penalties through two games and finished with the ninth-fewest penalty yards in the league.

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AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was cited for careless driving last week after he was involved in a minor collision in Tampa.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, on Feb. 13, at approximately 5:05 p.m., Winston was traveling northbound on the Veterans Expressway (State Road 589) when the vehicle in front of him came to a complete stop due to traffic ahead. Winston failed to reduce his speed in time to avoid the collision, with his Ford 250 rear-ending Tyler and Anna Stepka in their Subaru Forester.

Damage estimates were approximately $2,000 per vehicle, according to the crash report. The report said that Winston “operated the vehicle in a careless or negligent manner,” although it was deemed that he was not distracted. Alcohol use was not suspected, and subsequently, Winston was not tested for impairment.

No one was injured in the crash.

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METAIRIE, La. — Remember when New Orleans Saints kicker Wil Lutz was still an unproven commodity?

Remember when the Saints burned through 11 kickers in 11 years under coach Sean Payton?

Both seem to be things of the past now, after Lutz capped a strong sophomore season with two huge playoff kicks.

Lutz’s 43-yard field goal that put the Saints ahead of the Minnesota Vikings with 25 seconds remaining last week was especially clutch — before, you know, the thing that happened with Stefon Diggs and the “Minnesota Miracle.”
Wil Lutz connected on 86.1 percent of his field goal attempts this past season. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire
As Saints punter/holder Thomas Morstead told Lutz after the game, “We didn’t win, but that was a game winner.”

“Yeah, it probably would have been the most important kick of my career,” Lutz said. “But in our position, you treat every kick the same. So I wasn’t looking at it like that at the time of the kick.

“Of course, looking back on that, I’ll carry it into the offseason and know we finished on a note like that, personally. Obviously, it would have been nice to have been the game winner and get the chance to go to the NFC Championship Game. But I think it’ll be something to grow on and just knowing that I can handle that situation without budging.”

Did Lutz do what he said? Did he treat it just like “any other kick” when he was in that moment?

“Yeah, everything felt the same,” Lutz said. “I knew there was still time on the clock. So I knew it wasn’t like a walk-off kick. I think I managed to keep my heart rate low that whole last drive, and I think that’s the important part of those situations. So, yeah, everything felt good. It felt like a normal kick.”

Morstead said the kick was a “no-doubter” and “cool just to be a part of that.”

“And he’ll draw on that in the future, even though it didn’t end up being the iconic kick that it could’ve been,” said Morstead, who also credited first-year long-snapper Zach Wood.

Lutz also tied his career high with a 57-yard field goal a week earlier in the Saints’ playoff win over the Carolina Panthers (though he missed a 58-yard attempt wide left in the first half against Minnesota).

Lutz, 23, didn’t have a perfect season in 2017, when he made 31 of 36 field goal attempts and 47 of 50 extra point attempts in the regular season. He would be the first to tell you that.

“It wasn’t a great season by any means. There’s about five kicks I’d like to have back,” Lutz said. “But it’s definitely a step up from last year. And every year you try to take a step up from the year before. So I think we got a good stepping stone going into next year, and hopefully we can build off it.”
More importantly, the Saints clearly have a young kicker they feel they can build on after trying in vain to find stability at the position for more than a decade: from John Carney to Billy Cundiff to Olindo Mare to Martin Gramatica to Taylor Mehlhaff to Garrett Hartley to Carney again to Hartley again to John Kasay to Hartley again to Shayne Graham to Zach Hocker to Kai Forbath to Lutz.

Payton put his faith in Lutz during Week 1 of the 2016 season, after Lutz was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and came to New Orleans for what Payton called “probably the best kicking workout I’ve ever seen.”

Lutz hit a few bumps in the road early in his rookie season, including a few low kicks. He eventually settled in and ran virtually unchallenged to keep the job the past offseason.

It’s hard to imagine anything that will keep Lutz from being locked in as the kicker again next season — with hopes of another “step up” and even bigger kicks to come.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Andy Reid was looking for a new offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs two years ago, he found much to like in his quarterbacks coach, Matt Nagy. “Matt’s got a nice feel for the game,” Reid said then in promoting Nagy. “He was a player, obviously, in the Arena League. And then we brought him on board. Some guys have a knack for it and he’s one of those guys. I’ve noticed with his participation that he’s got a pretty good grasp of the offense and defenses in this league. I think that presents a nice addition to that position.” Nagy worked out well enough in his two seasons as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator that others around the league started to notice. He was hired on Monday by the Chicago Bears as their new head coach. Matt Nagy’s work with quarterback Alex Smith helped earn him a promotion to Chiefs offensive coordinator in 2016. Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports Though just 39, Nagy has a lot of football on his résumé. He was a quarterback in college at Delaware and for six seasons in the Arena Football League. He worked his way up Reid’s staff, starting as a coaching intern with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 and later moving with him to the Chiefs as quarterbacks coach in 2013. But his work with Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ other quarterbacks is what earned Nagy the promotion to offensive coordinator in 2016. The Bears were looking for a coach to work with their young quarterback, Mitch Trubisky. “You have to be able to teach the offense to the quarterback after coach installs the plays,” Nagy said of his role in teaching QBs. “You need to be able to take that play that they’re installing and you become a teacher in your classroom. When we’re in here, I need to be my best at giving them another set of eyes to see the field, another perspective. I was fortunate enough to play the quarterback position really all my life.” Matt Nagy’s Coaching History A look at Matt Nagy’s career in the NFL: YEARS TEAM, POSITION 2008-09 Eagles coaching intern 2010 Eagles coach’s assistant 2011-12 Eagles quality control coach 2013-15 Chiefs QBs coach 2016 Chiefs co-offensive coordinator (with Brad Childress) 2017 Chiefs offensive coordinator Source: ESPN Stats & Information Smith, 33, had the best season of his career in 2017, setting personal records for touchdown passes (26) and yards (4,042). He was the NFL’s highest-rated passer (104.7). The Chiefs, meanwhile, went from 20th in total offense in 2016 to fifth this season. With the Chiefs struggling on offense during this season, Reid made Nagy the primary offensive playcaller. The Chiefs, who had scored 19 points total in the two previous weeks, scored 31 in Nagy’s first game, against the Jets, and at least 26 in each of the four remaining regular-season games. Running back Kareem Hunt had his busiest three-game stretch of the season late in the year with Nagy calling plays. Hunt rushed 78 times for 362 yards and three touchdowns in victories over the Raiders, Chargers and Dolphins. But the Chiefs were shut out in the second half of their most important game of the season, Saturday’s playoff loss to the Titans. Any kind of score would have won the game for the Chiefs, who instead lost by one point. Given his background, Nagy will presumably call the offensive plays as head coach for the Bears. That’s a big ask for a guy who 10 years ago was still a quarterback in the Arena League. Nagy will handle it well if he develops as a head coach as well as he did as a quarterbacks teacher and offensive coordinator.