Canelo v Saunders: Simmering rivalry to be settled in unification clash

By Sports Desk May 07, 2021

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  • NFL Fantasy Picks: Russ to cook the Titans, Kittle in line to clip Eagles NFL Fantasy Picks: Russ to cook the Titans, Kittle in line to clip Eagles

    Week 1 can be strange. Not everything goes to plan and, for NFL coaches and fantasy owners alike, it's best not to overreact to the weekend just gone.

    However, avoiding falling 0-2 is just as important as keeping your cool. In the high-pressure world of the NFL and amid the considerably lower stakes of fantasy football, nobody wants to fall into a hole early in the season.

    And, in both cases, identifying the players who can be relied on to produce a big performance is the key to victory.

    In this week's edition of Fantasy Picks, Stats Perform looks at the players who should be considered sure things to deliver the goods.

    QB: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks vs. Tennessee Titans

    Wilson could hardly have been more impressive as the Seahawks swept aside the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 1.

    Continuing his remarkable rapport with Tyler Lockett, who had two receiving scores, Wilson threw for 254 yards and four touchdowns as his marriage with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron got off to a spectacular start.

    Second in air yards per attempt (10.43) among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts, Wilson carries substantial upside as one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL and should receive ample opportunity to demonstrate that prowess against an extremely vulnerable Titans defense shredded by the Arizona Cardinals for 280 net yards passing and four touchdowns through the air in their opener.

    RB: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

    Nothing went right for the Packers in their 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, with Jones held to nine yards on five carries on a miserable day for the entire offense.

    Yet a Week 2 clash with the Detroit Lions should prove the perfect tonic. Detroit gave up 131 yards on the ground to the San Francisco 49ers in the opener, with sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell gashing the Lions for 104 yards and a touchdown at a rate of 5.5 yards per carry.

    The Packers operate a zone running game akin to that of the Niners, so Jones should be confident of finding room to rack up similar numbers. Jones has topped 100 yards in two of his past three games against the Lions, including a 168-yard, two-touchdown effort at Lambeau Field last year.

    WR: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Dallas Cowboys

    Justin Herbert's rapport with a receiver who has a case for being the premier route runner in the NFL continues to blossom, with the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year going to Allen time and again as the Chargers edged out the Washington Football Team in their opener.

    Allen was targeted 13 times and caught nine passes for 100 yards in a 20-16 victory. He registered a burn, which is when a player wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted, on 12 of those 13 targets.

    He did that against a Washington defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per pass play (5.33) in the NFL last season. Now he gets to face a Cowboys defense that ranked 21st in that same metric with 6.69 yards and gave up 7.58 per play in their opening loss to the Buccaneers. Book in Allen for another big day.

    TE: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles

    Deebo Samuel overshadowed Kittle in the Niners' win in Detroit, but the top all-round tight end in football still produced with four catches for 78 yards and should be salivating at the prospect of facing the Eagles.

    Last season, in a home loss to the Eagles, Kittle hauled in all 15 of his targets from Nick Mullens for 183 yards and a touchdown.

    He might not see the same level of targets at Lincoln Financial Field this year but, with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo under center, he should see enough of the ball to excel in a matchup with an Eagles defense that has consistently struggled to defend tight ends.

    Defense: New England Patriots @ New York Jets

    The Patriots may have come up short against the Miami Dolphins, but there was much to admire about their performance on defense.

    With the likes of Matthew Judon and Josh Uche excelling at getting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa, New England's front is likely to have great success against the Jets' offensive line, which will be without left tackle Mekhi Becton.

    Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson was sacked six times in their loss to the Carolina Panthers, which saw him throw an interceptable pass on 5.56 per cent of his attempts, according to Stats Perform data.

    Expect New England's defense to create more interception opportunities and make it another long afternoon for Wilson and the Jets.

  • No shame in latest defeat to Bayern but Barca are no longer genuine rivals No shame in latest defeat to Bayern but Barca are no longer genuine rivals

    "It's shameful," a shellshocked Gerard Pique said in the aftermath of Barcelona's 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich. "Shame is the word."

    The sentiment was different on Tuesday, as Barca at least this time battled, but Bayern were comfortable again, 3-0 winners in the Champions League at Camp Nou.

    The Blaugrana's remarkable August 2020 humiliation was so significant because these sides were supposed to be rivals of a similar standard. Thirteen months on to the day, Bayern were backed to win big again. The only surprise was that Barca limited their opponents to three.

    The Catalan club eventually heeded Pique's calls for "changes at all levels" – new president, new coach, new team – but it is tough to sincerely suggest this is a better outfit, even if they have a little more fight.

    While Pique was one of six players in the XI remaining from the line-up in Lisbon, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were among the five to make way. Antoine Griezmann, called off the bench in the quarter-final, has also now departed. Those three outstanding attackers accounted for Barca's seven shots in that tie.

    Instead, Luuk de Jong debuted on Tuesday, with Barca still searching for a post-Messi formula. Griezmann was one of two players to have moved on from Barcelona since starting their previous match at the end of August.

    Perhaps Ronald Koeman deserves credit then for forging some sort of coherent unit in the interim. A three-man defence made Ronald Araujo a star in the opening stages as he battled Leroy Sane, helping Barca reach the 31-minute mark unbreached – the 2019-20 clash brought a record four Bayern goals in the same period.

    But pressure was building and the breakthrough followed three minutes later as Araujo's defensive colleague Eric Garcia turned his back to a long-range Thomas Muller attempt and inadvertently deflected the ball beyond Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

    Koeman, coach of the Netherlands when Barcelona were taking their drubbing last year, told this week of how "several players suffered a lot" in Portugal, possibly explaining a reluctance to come out of their shell after going behind.

    Revenge had been on the Barca boss's mind as he discussed looking "for our style to hurt the opposition", but that felt optimistic here. Before and after the opener on Tuesday, Dayot Upamecano dominated De Jong and Memphis Depay, winning nine of 15 duels, making four tackles and four interceptions.

    Bayern have now won eight of 12 games against Barca but rarely can they have been so clearly superior, not tallying an eye-catching score but controlling proceedings with a conviction that the five-time European champions lacked the attacking talent to trouble them. The hosts did not muster a shot on target in a Champions League game for the first time since at least 2003-04, Opta said.

    That gulf should not have come as news to Koeman, even if he wore a concerned expression when Robert Lewandowski stabbed in a simple second, Alphonso Davies' shot having been blocked and Jamal Musiala's follow-up striking the post. Offering some of his more sobering thoughts earlier this week, Koeman had pondered: "Can you get back to the level where you will really win Champions Leagues and be the best in Spain for years in a row? That is not the case at the moment. Let's hope that it will come again."

    The crowd appear to have come to terms with the same realism. Having been absent when Barca's oldest Champions League XI played out the previous meeting, they stuck with a team that featured four teenagers by full-time. The veteran Pique was still on the pitch, too, to hopelessly fall at the feet of Lewandowski following another rebound five minutes from the end, giving the forward time to find the net once more.

    Pique led the applause in a show of appreciation for those supporters at the final whistle, as attention now turns to simply getting out of the group. It is a modest ambition, but this is the first time Barca have lost a Champions League opener since 1997-98.

    Beyond that, the financial rewards surely provide more achievable aims than the prizes on offer for Bayern and Co. Revenge in this fixture will have to wait. For how long, who knows?

  • Chase, Waddle & Smith dispel concerns with strong Week 1 for rookie receiver trio Chase, Waddle & Smith dispel concerns with strong Week 1 for rookie receiver trio

    Each of the top three wide receivers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft entered Week 1 of the season facing pertinent questions. Could Ja'Marr Chase shake off his drop-laden preseason and revive his rapport with Joe Burrow? Can DeVonta Smith excel despite his slender frame? Will Jaylen Waddle be able to mesh with Tua Tagovailoa again amid concerns over his college quarterback's arm strength?

    It is important not to be a prisoner of the Week 1 moment. With the opening slate of games notorious for enticing observers into mistaken conclusions.

    However, after all three played major roles in wins for the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, respectively, the answer to each of those queries is, for now, a confident yes.

    The trio all found the endzone in their NFL debuts, making league history in the process.

    Indeed, the 2021 season is the first in common-draft era in which three rookie wideouts that were each selected in the first round scored on a touchdown reception in Week 1.

    And their performances provided plenty of encouragement they will each vindicate their lofty draft statuses.

    Chase the ace

    The highlight of Chase's 101-yard showing in Cincinnati's win over the Minnesota Vikings was a 50-yard touchdown catch from college team-mate Burrow on a perfectly thrown ball on which the fifth overall pick took advantage of soft coverage from Bashaud Breeland.

    But a receiver whose ability to separate was questioned prior to the draft also excelled at getting free from coverage on third down. Registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on four of his seven targets, Chase finished the game with 14.43 burn yards per target -- ninth among receivers who were thrown to at least five times -- with an average depth of target of 15.7 yards.

    His debut effort and the numbers he produced should raise hopes he can rely more on his route-running to beat defenders rather than the physical approach that defined his success at LSU.

    Crimson Tide connection returns

    Separating from defenders was never an issue for Waddle at the college level, with preseason concerns aimed more at his quarterback than the former Alabama star.

    As a rookie, Tagovailoa did not produce much to suggest he would gel with a speedster who won his matchup with a defender on 78.1 per cent of his 2020 targets and averaged 19.96 burn yards per target to lead the Power 5 in his final year with the Crimson Tide.

    Yet this pair of college team-mates also had their connection from 2019 cooking again as the Dolphins knocked off the New England Patriots in Foxborough.

    They did so largely through intelligently adapting Waddle's traits to the short passing game, giving him chances to run after the catch and using him in motion to stretch and deceive the Patriots' defense, as they did on his touchdown that eventually proved the game-winner.

    There was also a play that could have been plucked straight from Waddle's Alabama tape as he got a step on a defender while running vertically and worked his way back to the ball, leaping over the covering cornerback for a 36-yard reception.

    With a burn on four of his six targets and 13.09 burn yards per target, Waddle's numbers did not quite match up to those of Chase but, if he continues to stress defenses working horizontally and vertically, he will be a substantial asset to the Miami passing game. 

    Smith shreds Falcons

    Waddle will have hot competition for the title of best Alabama receiver from this draft, though, at least if Smith continues on his early trajectory from the Eagles' 32-6 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons.

    Open on six of his eight targets, Smith's six-catch, 71-yard showing was not one in which he relied on his excellent route-running ability, instead finding holes in the Falcons' zone coverage in a game where he was a favoured receiver for Jalen Hurts, who was second among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 87.5.

    Yet his 19-yard touchdown offered a snapshot of what he can do in that regard as he patiently released to the outside against man coverage, sending his defender into a pick play from tight end Zach Ertz. With open space now at his disposal, Smith accelerated before expertly tracking the ball into his grasp in the corner of the endzone.

    For both Smith and Waddle, their early success was a continuation of how they performed in college, while Chase demonstrated encouraging progress in an area of the game considered to be a weakness.

    Selecting a wide receiver in the top 10 is considered a gamble by many but the early payout from this trio suggests they may prove worth the risk.

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