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For the past four years, the Shakopee boys basketball team has been building for this season.

This year’s Shakopee’s boys basketball team has high expectations after going 22-6 last year and returning just about everybody from that team.

Many of the seniors on this year’s team have played at the varsity level for the past four seasons.

“We have a very senior heavy group which is exciting as a coach, second-year head coach Jake Dammann said. “You always want as many seniors as you can. They’ve come into the season prepared and competing every day.”

The Sabers return its top three scorers in Charles Katona, Will Cordes and Caleb Druvenga who all averaged more than 10 points per game for the Sabers. They also return seniors Bruce Lockwood, Jr. and Aaron Bosley, who both averaged around six points per game.

“We have a lot of talent and a lot of ability in all of our positions,” Dammann said. “Even our bench, we can go eight, nine, 10 deep and our talent level doesn’t drop. Which is exciting.”

Other players that Dammann expect to get contributions from this season are Nick Katona, Cade McGraw, Jake Schmidt, and Zach Wood.

Katona is the team’s top returning scorer at 16 points per game and will play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth next year.

“(Katona) is our Mr. Everything,” Dammann said. “He leads us in steals, rebounds, and points and he’s really a do it all player. There might be games where we don’t lean on him as much for scoring but we lean on him everyday in practice and everyday in games to be a competitor and be a leader, and set the tone from his leadership and his energy. He knows what it takes to win at a high level, so I will lean on him for his experience and leadership.”

Those seniors give Dammann and the Sabers high hopes that they can accomplish big things this season.

“Expectations are high but we are centered around getting better today and focused on how we can get better today,” Dammann said.

Even with all that talent, winning the South Suburban Conference or the section and qualifying for state won’t be easy as both the conference and section are loaded with the top teams in the state.

Shakopee should be one of those top teams and will probably be ranked in the top-10 in the state when the rankings come out but so will SSC teams like Prior Lake and Eastview.

The section features top ranked teams Eden Prairie and Prior Lake. In addition to solid programs like Edina, Chaska and Minnetonka.

Shakopee will get to see how good they are early on as they open the season with Edina, Wayzata, Hopkins and St. Thomas Academy. Hopkins and Wayzata are expected to be two of the better teams in the state. Edina is always good and St. Thomas will be ranked at Class 3A level.

“It’s exciting. We play tough teams in our non conference, we play tough teams in our conference and we play tough teams in our section and that’s the way I want to have it,” Dammann said. “It challenges our guys to be prepared every single day in practice, to get after it every single day in practice and to improve daily. We want to play the best teams in the state. That helps us measure where we are at. We will really lean on our seniors going into those games and give them the opportunity to be leaders and set the tone for the season.”

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It’s often thought that younger is better in the NFL, with players putting up their best performances before the ravages of injuries and time hit and their peak athleticism begins to fade. But New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead is running against that trend. In fact, he’s having a career-best year in his eleventh NFL season, and at age 33.

To illustrate that point, Morstead saw a punt land in the opposing end zone for a touchback for the first time this season in Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers. It broke a streak of 41 punts without a touchback, which highlights just how accurate he’s been when the Saints are forced to give the ball away. Saints coach Sean Payton hates doing that, but when backed into a corner he can trust Morstead to put the other team in awful starting position.

His career average of 46.8 yards per punt ranks second-best among active players (trailing the Los Angeles Rams’ Johnny Hekker at 47.1) and third-best in NFL history (behind retired great Shane Lechler, at 47.6).

While his per-season average has dropped (see the chart below) to just 45.6, his accuracy has gone up, with 54.8% of his punts being downed inside the 20-yard line. That’s insanely good, even for his standards — Morstead’s previous career-high rate of punts landing inside the 20 was 43.3% in 2017. Expand that scope to the rest of the NFL and it’s the highest rate in the league, outpacing Baltimore Ravens living legend Sam Koch (who has put 12 of his 22 punts, 54.5%, inside the 20).

In other words, for the first time in his 11-year NFL career, Morstead’s rate of landing punts inside the opposing 20-yard line is higher than his average yards per punt.

The chart embedded below compares those two numbers year-by-year, with the gray line denoting Morstead’s average yards punt and the gold line highlighting the rate at which he put his punts inside the 20. It’s remarkable:

But let’s circle back to the present. Morstead has punted 42 times in New Orleans’ first 11 games, showing rare synergy with his coverage unit. Here’s what happened on each of those 42 punts:

16 fair catches called by opposing team return unit
16 returned by opponents, gaining 122 yards (7.6 yards per return)
5 downed by the Saints punt coverage unit
4 punts ruled out of bounds
1 punt ruled a touchback

That’s impressive any way you look at it. It also speaks to the quiet improvements the Saints have made on special teams after overhauling the staff and personnel this offseason; they hired a new coordinator in longtime Miami Dolphins coach Darren Rizzi, who brought in two new assistants with him in former Penn State coordinator Phil Galiano and returns coverage specialist Michael Wilhoite. The Saints also invested in core special teamers like Craig Robertson (who signed a two-year contract extension) while bringing in free agents such as Stephone Anthony and Johnson Bademosi during the season. Rookie returns specialist Deonte Harris has been outstanding when the Saints special teams have gotten to go on the offensive. Saints kicker Wil Lutz has won two games with last-second field goals after inking his own five-year contract extension.

Hopefully Morstead won’t have to punt many more times this season, but it’s reassuring to know that the ball is in good hands when his number is called. He’s already earned multiple Special Teams Player of the Week and Month awards this season, and he just might pocket a few more.

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The Tennessee Titans were looking to drive down the field late in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

This is when Ryan Tannehill hit Kalif Raymond on what would have been a huge first-down gain in a game that stood at 31-28 in favor of the Saints.

Unfortunately for the Titans, Raymond fumbled after an obviously illegal hit on Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

That’s some horrible stuff right there. How in the world did officials miss this? It was a game-changing missed call.

It could also have wide-ranging implications in both the AFC and NFC Playoff races. Tennessee is trying to edge out the Pittsburgh Steelers for the final wild card spot in the AFC.

Meanwhile, New Orleans is battling with multiple teams for home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs.

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G Larry Warford (Knee) and S Vonn Bell (Knee) are the only Saints who didn’t practice on Thursday.

S C.J. Gardner-Johnson (Concussion), G/T Andrus Peat (Forearm), LB Kiko Alonso (Quadricep), CB Patrick Robinson (Calf), T Ryan Ramczyk (Knee), and T Terron Armstead (Ankle) were all limited.

WR Adam Humphries (Ankle), CB Adoree’ Jackson (Foot), and RB Derrick Henry (Hamstring) missed practice for the Titans. Jackson and Henry were limited on Wednesday.

WR Corey Davis (Ankle) and RB Dion Lewis (Ankle) were limited. Lewis is a new addition to the report.

Everyone else, previously listed as limited was full on Thursday.

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The New Orleans Saints claimed cornerback Janoris Jenkins on waivers from the New York Giants on Monday.

Jenkins was expected to join a playoff-bound team and will do so with the Saints, who enter Monday night’s game against the Colts at 10-3 and in first place in the NFC South.

The Saints are taking a bit of a risk by adding a strong personality such as Jenkins with two weeks remaining in the regular season. But they are banking on getting him at his most motivated.

Although Jenkins has battled some inconsistency, he has been a standout player for much of his eight-year career, starting 111 career games and making the Pro Bowl in 2016.

The Saints will owe Jenkins two weeks of salary at $597,000 per week — just under $1.2 million for the remainder of this season, along with a 2020 contract that is scheduled to pay him $11.25 million.

The Giants waived Jenkins Friday, two days after he made an inappropriate remark to a fan on Twitter. Jenkins called a critical fan a “retard” when taking exception to questioning about why the stats Jenkins was using to showcase his effectiveness weren’t contributing to victories.

Jenkins, 31, said Thursday that the usage of the word was “slang” that is “just part of my culture.”

Giants coach Pat Shurmur met with Jenkins on Wednesday and said in a statement Friday that Jenkins’ refusal to admit that what he did was wrong led to his release.

This is now the second straight year the Saints have added a cornerback from the Giants in the middle of the season after they traded fourth- and seventh-round picks for Eli Apple last year. And now Jenkins and Apple could wind up competing for the Saints’ No. 2 cornerback job alongside Marshon Lattimore.

Jenkins started all 13 games for the Giants before his release — primarily as an outside corner. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder did move inside to the slot last week, however, and played well in that role. So the Saints could also consider using him inside.

Apple, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, has played well for much of his tenure in New Orleans. However, he has struggled over the last two weeks against Atlanta and San Francisco. The Saints allowed 354 passing yards in their 48-46 loss to the 49ers last week, the most they had allowed since a Week 3 win at Seattle.

New Orleans’ defense has taken several significant hits due to injury in the past week. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and defensive end Marcus Davenport were placed on injured reserve. And in the secondary, safety Vonn Bell and cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Johnson Bademosi were previously ruled out for Monday night’s game.

Since New Orleans has yet to play its Week 15 game, the Jenkins claim won’t be made official until Tuesday.

The Saints also put in a claim for longtime Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was released by the Arizona Cardinals on Friday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported.

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The New Orleans Saints have numerous players with expiring contracts, and they cannot pay them all. But, to keep their secondary in tack, it should be safety Vonn Bell seeing a payday not cornerback Eli Apple.

The Saints will have several debates in their front office. Players like A.J. Klein, Drew Brees, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, and others need to be paid. They must also realize that they are without a second-round pick to fill a potential void that’s created.

Who will they re-sign and who will they let go? On a franchise of their caliber, they’ll have the benefit of the doubt with these quality veterans, but their money is still limited. Let’s assume the battle for the secondary is between Bell and Apple.

You sign Vonn Bell; he’s been an improved and dominant safety this season.

The 5-foot-11, fourth-year pro will have career highs across the board with even a mediocre performance on Sunday.

Bell has taken a step forward this season. He has 86 tackles, 63 solo. What’s been most impactful is the two forced fumbles and five fumble recovers the former Ohio State star has been able to secure.

Apple, on the other hand, has been far from dominant this season. On the side opposite of Marshon Lattimore, Apple has been lit up multiple times. It seemed right from the get-go in Week 1 he was the target of opposing offensive coordinators.

In an important Week 14 loss, Apple posted Pro Football Focus’ worst rating among Saints.

Apple had to be better, but he was getting absolutely shredded by players like Deebo Samuel. The arrival of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, although he had two game-changing third-and-long flags last week, should also take down the value of Apple.

Outside of four snaps, Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell have played every defensive snap for the Saints. They are the crux of this defense, and the front office should feel the same way.

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With the NFL season drawing near its close, the New Orleans Saints have the No. 1 or 2 seeds in the NFC in their sights. To earn that first round bye, however, they must first take care of their own business. That means beating the Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers in back-to-back weeks, while also hoping for the Packers to stumble against either the Vikings or Lions.

The Saints face an unexpected test on the road in Tennessee, as Ryan Tannehill has led the Titans to a 6-2 record since taking over in October, including a four-game winning streak that was just snapped last week by the AFC South-leading Texans. Tannehill has completed 71.5 percent of his passes this season for 2,272 yards, and he’s thrown for 17 touchdowns this year versus just six interceptions.

Key to Tannehill’s success has been offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Titans’ tight end coach turned OC upon the departure of Matt LaFleur to take over the Packers’ head coaching job after last season. In recent weeks, Smith has incorporated former Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown. Brown has 110-plus yards in three of his last four games, four of his seven touchdowns have come in that span, and Brown’s ability to take the top off a defense makes him a deep threat and a big component of the Titans’ bend-then-break the defense mentality.

The Titans are not unique in how they want to start a game. They want to run the ball early and often in order to open things up later on. Derrick Henry, who is questionable for Sunday with a hamstring injury, has really come into his own in his fourth year. Henry had rushed for 100-plus yards in four straight games before last week’s contest against the Texans, but he still picked up 86 yards on 21 carries. Henry is a workhorse for the Titans, and he’s been putting up career-best numbers this year.

The Titans’ offensive style is predicated upon staying ahead of the chains. With Henry’s 4.9 yards per carry this year, they’ve been able to do just that. The Saints are fourth in the league against the run, giving up 90.8 yards per game. They’ll need to continue that trend and let the Titans try to beat them through the air, as the best way to beat Drew Brees and the offense is to keep them off the field.

The Titans’ offense is by far at its most dangerous when it’s able to establish the play action. Smith runs a balanced offense, but not balanced in the traditional sense. The Titans want to run as many passing plays out of play action as they do dropbacks. In his past four games, Tannehill is 29 for 36 out of the play action and 44 of 65 while dropping back. In last week’s loss against the Texans, the Titans ran just seven play action passes, versus 29 dropbacks. In the previous three weeks, they ran 29 play action passes against 36 dropbacks.

What is it that makes the Titans so dangerous in play action? Simply put, Tannehill is very effective at freezing defenses and moving the pocket, and his arm is big enough that he can make throws other quarterbacks wouldn’t dare make.

This play doesn’t look like much. A busted rollout off of a play action that turned into a dangerous incompletion. But it illustrates two things:

1.) Even as a rookie, Brown feels comfortable enough breaking off his route and going downfield once he sees the high safety break towards Tannehill.

2.) Tannehill feels perfectly comfortable throwing the ball across the field to Brown if he sees him in single coverage.

Smith clearly takes note of this, and he capitalized on it in the very same game.

It’s worth taking a look at the design of this play.

It’s nothing mind-blowing from Smith, just a little play-action bootleg. However, where it works is by isolating tight end Jonnu Smith against linebacker Tahir Whitehead. The Raiders only have one high safety who, naturally, is going to follow Tannehill on the bootleg. While Smith dekes blocking down low, the safety is drawn towards Corey Davis at the top of the formation. The result of the play ends up being a touchdown, as Tannehill drops it to Smith over Whitehead, who was a step behind the entire play.

Whitehead (and the entire Raider linebacker corps) freezes down low and Smith ends up behind him. However, no matter how open Smith was at the end of the play, this is a ridiculous throw from Tannehill over the top of the defense and he deserves a lot of credit for it. Arthur Smith, meanwhile, deserves credit for recognizing he has a quarterback who can make that throw. All good offensive coordinators know that one play needs to set up another. The incompletion to Brown before this play did just that.

So what does all of this mean for the Saints? Put simply, it means that they need to stay disciplined on defense and keep the Titans behind the sticks. With Kiko Alonso and Vonn Bell ruled out — not to mention C.J. Gardner-Johnson being questionable with an injury — they need immediate contributions from new signees Janoris Jenkins and D.J. Swearinger. Even if Marshon Lattimore ends up shadowing Brown, which he likely won’t, Jenkins may have to cover the likes of Corey Davis (who is also questionable with an ankle injury.

The Saints’ three worst games against the run have been against the Texans (180 yards allowed), 49ers (162 yards allowed), and Falcons (143 yards allowed). They lost the latter two games, and they’re 3-3 when giving up 100 or more yards on the ground. Alonso being out means linebacking duties will likely fall on Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o again. Davis and Klein are strong in coverage, whereas Robertson and Te’o are at their best when they’re able to play downhill.

For the Titans, the triumvirate to look out for will be Tannehill-Henry-Brown. If Henry gets going early, that means Brown is going to get going later.

Erik Harris, who had a brief stint with the Saints, learned the hard way what Brown getting going looks like. Early in the second quarter of Titans-Raiders, the Titans lined up with one running back. A play action froze Harris in the high safety spot, and Brown was able to get behind him after toasting cornerback Daryl Worley for a relatively easy 91-yard touchdown.

Marcus Williams will hopefully be a bit more disciplined back deep, but it isn’t easy against a team like Tennessee. At the end of the day, the Texans were able to beat the Titans by jumping out in front early and forcing the Titans to play from behind, a style they’re clearly not built to play. For the Saints, that may well end up being the best solution to avoid what has the potential to be a very long day defensively.

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The New Orleans Saints re-signed linebacker Manti Te’o on Tuesday, following injuries to starters Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein. Te’o started most of the 2017 season for the Saints before improved health in the linebacker corps (and the addition of Demario Davis) sidelined him in 2018, and he’s been a free agent since then.

According to a report from Katherine Terrell of The Athletic, Alonso’s status with a thigh injury isn’t considered a long-term concern. Terrell reported that Alonso is day-to-day at this point and the team isn’t sure whether he will be cleared to play on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. That could change in the next three days after team trainers get the opportunity to administer treatment and reevaluate Alonso’s condition, but in the meantime Te’o gives the Saints an experienced option to add to the depth chart.

Special teamers Craig Robertson and Stephone Anthony were each forced into last week’s game with the Atlanta Falcons after Alonso and Klein went out with injuries; it took a combined 11 snaps from them for the Saints to decide Te’o was needed. Whether Te’o plays on Sunday after being signed on the previous Tuesday is unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out if Alonso misses this 49ers game. Klein’s condition is less clear, and no information is coming out of New Orleans just yet on what’s ailing him. We should learn something when the week’s first injury report is published Wednesday afternoon.

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints have ruled out two of their starting linebackers before Sunday’s critical NFC showdown vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

Strongside linebacker A.J Klein (knee) and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso (thigh) were both injured during last Thursday’s win at Atlanta. The timing is especially unfortunate because the 49ers have the NFL’s No. 2-ranked rushing offense at 148.0 yards per game.

And because both teams are 10-2, Sunday’s game could wind up determining the NFC’s top seed and home-field advantage.

The Saints’ run defense, meanwhile, ranks No. 3 in the league, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. They will likely count on veteran backup Craig Robertson as one replacement starter. Backups Stephone Anthony and newly signed Manti Te’o could also help fill the void.

On a positive injury note, the Saints’ standout left tackle Terron Armstead is listed as questionable after he returned to practice on a limited basis all week with his ankle injury. Even if he is not ready to return yet Sunday, it’s a good sign that he will be back soon.

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The Saints had a longer than usual injury report this week and have five players that are out for Monday night’s contest against the Colts.

LB Kiko Alonso, S Vonn Bell, G Andrus Peat along with CBs Patrick Robinson and Johnson Bademosi will not play. Bademosi is a new addition to the injury report. He mainly contributes on special teams and was listed with a foot injury for the first time on Saturday.

Meanwhile, LT Terron Armstead, DE Cam Jordan, TE Jared Cook, LB A.J. Klein, FB Zach Line and C/G Will Clapp all have no injury designation, which signals they are all good to go. Having Line’s blocking ability back is a big boost for the run game. He’s missed the past 3 games due to an issue with his knee.

Drew Brees remained a full participant at practice. There was some concern after the QB’s name showed up with a right elbow issue on Friday.

“We had to list it, because he has a band on his elbow,” explained head coach Sean Payton. “But, I think he’ll be fine.”

Brees got dinged up on the Saints final scoring drive against the 49ers. He looks to take over another one of Payton Manning’s records as he is 2 TD passes away from tying him for most in league history. New England’s Tom Brady is also in the mix.

Corner Kenny Moore II is the only players out for Indianapolis. CB Pierre Desir and WR T.Y. Hilton are questionable.