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What separates star defenders Aaron Donald of Rams and Khalil Mack of Bears? Production



Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack were on top of the NFL defensive world as 27-year-olds in 2018.

Donald, the Los Angeles Rams‘ star defensive tackle, won his second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophy thanks to a whopping 20.5 sacks, setting the NFL record for sacks by a defensive tackle. His efforts helped lead the Rams to Super Bowl LIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots.

But as amazing as Donald was, Mack was right alongside him in the defensive hierarchy. The edge rusher, traded to the Chicago Bears from the Oakland Raiders right before that season, was a first-team All-Pro selection, racking up 12.5 sacks and helping lead the Bears to their first playoff berth in eight seasons.

But as the two meet Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, they don’t sit 1-2 atop the NFL defensive hierarchy. Donald, after 12.5 sacks and a fifth straight All-Pro selection last year, has already racked up 7.5 sacks this season and looks to be the favorite for a third DPOY in four seasons (he also won in 2017). Mack, while still a Pro Bowler, wasn’t an All-Pro last year and his status as Donald’s main DPOY competition has been threatened.

Separated by three months in age, is there a bigger separation happening in production? We ask Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson and Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry to break down the defensive stars.

In 2018, both had monster seasons. Since then their paths have diverged somewhat. What has gone right for Donald and wrong for Mack?

Dickerson: There’s nothing “wrong” with Mack. Rather, Mack is a victim of his own success. Most players would be thrilled to finish a season with 47 tackles, 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles — Mack’s numbers in 2019 — but Mack raised the bar astronomically high the year before. He failed to dominate last season the way he did in 2018; Mack’s first year in Chicago after the Raiders traded him prior to Week 1. The good news for the Bears — and bad news for the rest of the NFL — is that Mack is back. He already has 4.5 sacks for one of the league’s best defenses. Mack terrorized Tom Brady in Week 5 and even hip-tossed Tampa’s starting right tackle for good measure. Good luck, Jared Goff.

Thiry: Ask any teammate, coach or even opponent, and they will tell you that Donald’s effort on every play, whether it’s practice or a game, is second to none. He does not take a play off, and he doesn’t take a day off (even after the Super Bowl appearance, Donald rested only a few days before he returned to his grueling workouts). “He never gets complacent,” Rams coach Sean McVay says. “When you watch the way that he works and gives himself a chance to improve because of the consistency and the attention to detail, the focus and concentration that he takes on every single thing that he does, it’s good to be around.” Donald continues to find new ways to get his job done because of unmatched dedication and hard work.

In what kind of defensive scheme does each thrive most? Offer an example of their best game since 2018?

Dickerson: Mack is a pure, 3-4 outside linebacker. He is so talented that he sometimes lines up with his hand on the ground, but he’s most dangerous out of the two-point stance. Mack showed the entire NFL — in case it didn’t already know — how multidimensional he is when he made his Bears debut vs. the Packers in Week 1 of the 2018 season. Mack became the first player since 1982 to record a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, interception and a touchdown in one half.

Thiry: Donald spent three seasons playing in a 4-3 defense, then switched to a 3-4 in 2017 when former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips arrived. New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley kept the base 3-4 in place after he was hired this season. Donald has thrived regardless of scheme, but this season there’s an uptick in how often Donald lines up in different spots along the line. “In certain situations, we definitely want to make sure that he’s not a static target and in the same spot,” McVay says. “It makes it a lot easier to kind of game plan a player of his magnitude when you know where he’s going to be.” So the Rams and Donald have tried to keep opponents guessing. In a Week 5 win over the Washington Football Team, Donald erupted for a season-high four sacks. “I was single-blocked,” Donald said.

How does a team game plan for Donald? For Mack?

Dickerson: Carefully. Block Mack with one guy at your own risk. And if you double-team Mack, that frees up space for defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and pass-rusher Robert Quinn, who roughly played 30-35 snaps per game. Basically, the Bears are really, really tough on defense when Mack is at his best. You better chip the heck out of Mack and get rid of the ball quick. Otherwise, it could get ugly for the opposing quarterback.

Thiry: The 49ers provided a blueprint last Sunday, when they defeated the Rams 24-16. Donald did not have a sack and had only one quarterback hit on Jimmy Garoppolo. “It was a lot of perimeter-type stuff, where you’re seeing a lot of those kind of flip play. … A lot of the toss actions,” McVay said. “A lot of the concepts and different things that they were activating to minimize the impact you can have as an interior player, where they really stretched your edges in your second and third levels.” Watch for other teams to try to emulate what the Niners accomplished; however, it’s likely Donald spent the week figuring out how to beat that scheme.

What has been the Achilles’ heel of their respective games?

Dickerson: The supporting cast. The Bears had a ton of injuries last year, which contributed to Mack’s decline. Without Hicks (elbow injury much of 2019) or a consistent pass-rusher on the other side (former first-round pick Leonard Floyd) teams focused almost all of their attention toward stopping Mack. Through six weeks, the only serious loss the Bears have suffered on defense has been nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out over the summer due to COVID-19 related concerns. Mack is especially dangerous when the rest of the defense is healthy.

Thiry: As an individual, Donald does not have an Achilles’ heel. He is dominant in every fashion. The only issue, like Mack, is that opponents are able to key in on Donald because of a lack of dominant pass-rushers coming from the edge this season. Floyd, whom the Bears released during the offseason, has maintained a persistent presence and has two sacks. However, the position opposite of Floyd has remained in flux as the Rams shuffle several players in attempt to establish a more consistent pass rush.

How will each impact Monday night’s game most?

Dickerson: Mack is such a force that Los Angeles will have to key on him. Unfortunately for the Rams, Hicks is also having a monster year and is borderline unblockable at times. Safety Eddie Jackson is an opportunistic playmaker. Cornerback Kyle Fuller is a former Pro Bowler. Veteran safety Tashaun Gipson already has two interceptions. Roquan Smith is Chicago’s leading tackler. The defense feeds off the attention that is paid to Mack, who impacts games not only by his play but also by his presence.

Thiry: The Bears will have to account for Donald on every snap. Even while facing a double-team on 70.1% of his pass rushes this season, Donald has a league-high 7.5 sacks. And worst news yet for the Bears is that Donald is coming off a down performance against the 49ers that will inspire him to get to quarterback Nick Foles. Donald has not gone two consecutive games without a sack since Week 5 and 6 of 2019. Watch for his pressure to force Foles into some errant throws that the Rams’ secondary, led by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, will be ready to capitalize on.

The Bears will win if Mack … / The Rams will win if Donald …

Dickerson: … plays the way he is capable of playing. The Bears need Mack to sack Goff about one or two times and hit him five to six times. The Bears will need to rely on their defense to win. Maybe Mack can also pitch in on offense. That would be helpful, too.

Thiry: … makes Foles uncomfortable. The Rams’ defense has gotten sacks in bunches — see their eight sacks versus Washington. So if Donald is able to lead the way against an offensive line that has a pass block win rate of 57.3% (16th in the NFL) it could be a long night for Foles and other playmakers on an offense that, at least statistically, is ranked among the least productive in the league.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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