Colts working on solving run game issues during bye week

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich makes his run-first preference clear routinely.

He calls running plays early and often to set the tone. He uses them late to chew up the clock. And in between, he stays on the ground to keep defenses honest. It doesn’t hurt that he also has some proven horses to rely on.

A year ago, the Colts had a top 10 ground game. This bye week, they’re trying to solve the mystery of how they’ve slipped to 26th in yards rushing per game and 31st in yards per carry.

“I don’t think the gap is huge. We’re definitely not where we want to be,” longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “Hopefully, being able to reflect and not having to worry about a game plan, but really being able to focus on the technique-type things is going to make a difference for us.”

There are plenty of explanations for why the Colts (4-2) haven’t been running at full throttle.

Indy lost starting running back Marlon Mack with a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in the first half of the season opener. Castonzo sat out at Cleveland with a rib injury and Indy’s top three tight ends — Jack DoyleTrey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox — all have missed time with injuries.

Indy’s receiving corps has taken some hits, too. Starter Parris Campbell went down with a left knee injury in Week 2 and hasn’t returned. Rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr., the Colts’ top draft pick, hasn’t played since Week 3 after being diagnosed with leg compartment syndrome. Campbell and Pittman both needed surgery.

Still, Reich’s roster is deeper this year than it’s been in either of his previous two seasons in Indy.

And while backup Nyheim Hines has been more proficient out of the backfield as a receiver, running back Jonathan Taylor is among the NFL’s top rookies in total yards (529) even as he gets acclimated to his new role.

“That’s always a part of it, kind of him understanding us and us understanding him,” Castonzo said. “Where does he like to cut on this play? What is he most comfortable with? But at the end of the day, you have to block the guys you’re assigned to block and he has to find the holes he’s assigned to find. If everybody just does their job, the running game works.”

The Colts also struggled to stretch the field most of the first six games because quarterback Philip Rivers has relied primarily on short, quick throws. Opponents, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, responded by frequently stacking nine or 10 players within 5 yards of the line.

Sunday’s game might have provided a blueprint for how to beat those defenses. Rivers rallied the Colts from a 21-point deficit by throwing for 371 yards and three TDs, including nine completions of 20 yards or more.

If Rivers keeps it up, the backs could find more open space in those running lanes.

“It did help,” Reich said. “You make a couple of those plays and it does loosen them up a little bit, not only for the underneath stuff, but for the run game a little bit as well.”

Still, Reich doesn’t believe the numbers tell the whole tale.

He acknowledges there have been times he simply didn’t call enough runs, and when he did the emphasis was on burning clock rather than churning out big gainers. Instead, he believes the Colts have been efficient on the ground and that Taylor has done a good job since becoming the workhorse back.

But everyone knows the Colts must find ways to improve in the red zone and on third-and-short. Indy has struggled in both, and if it wants to make it back to the playoffs, the Colts need their ground game up and running.

“It’s just a little technique thing here and there,” Castonzo said. “We’re going to do a self-scout (this week) where we really look at a lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing throughout the year and what we need to change to make that next step.”

By |2020-10-22T17:39:07-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Stat reduction does not equate with skill regression for Mahomes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The regression was almost inevitable after Patrick Mahomes put up record-setting numbers during his first season as the Kansas City Chiefs‘ starting quarterback, highlighted by nearly 5,100 yards passing and 50 touchdown throws.

At least, a regression in raw statistics.

Much to the chagrin of fantasy football fans, though, games are not won and lost purely on numbers. And there are plenty of reasons to believe that Mahomes has actually progressed since his second year in the league, and taken an especially big jump since last season, when he merely led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl championship in five decades.

He’s making better decisions, throwing just one interception through their first six games. He is trusting his instincts rather than his arm, running for a bunch of first downs when his wide receivers are covered. And he’s shown the maturity needed to check down to secondary targets when the big, downfield throws to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce that had been the early hallmark of his career are taken away by defenses playing well off the line of scrimmage.

“You look at the quarterback rating and that, it’s always high for him. He’s doing a great job there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said this week, “and I’m really proud of the progress he’s made in so many areas. I don’t think he worries about all that. He is OK if the run game works. I’m sure he’ll end up with numbers — that takes place — and it helps us win games.

“I would just tell you if he just keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be fine. He has a great attitude about it.”

That was never more evident than Monday night in Buffalo, when the Chiefs ran the ball 46 times, the most since Reid arrived in Kansas City prior to the 2013 season. Naturally, that limited Mahomes to just 26 pass attempts and 225 yards, yet he was perhaps the most ebullient player in the locker room when the Chiefs finished off their 26-17 victory.

“It seems like every year we’re getting a new scheme or a new way defenses are going about playing us,” Mahomes said. “I think for us, it’s about being patient. Be patient with the run game. Be patient with the short pass game. If we do these 10- or 12-play drives and we’re still scoring touchdowns, that’s OK with us.”

Indeed, one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL has at times looked like a modern version of three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust. The run game has been complemented by screen passes and underneath routes that have taken advantage of defenses that are unwilling to allow Mahomes and his vast array of pass-catchers to beat them deep.

The Chiefs have just one touchdown of at least 50 yards through six games this season; they had six on offense last season, when Mahomes also finished with 11 touchdown passes of at least 40 yards.

“It kind of goes in different phases,” Mahomes explained. “At the beginning of my career there was a lot of zone coverage, then it became a lot of pressure to get the ball out of my hands and see if I could get it off. Then last year, it was a lot of press-man coverage. This year it’s a lot of deeper zone. But our team does a great job making adjustments.”

Or rather, Mahomes does a great job of making adjustments. That may be the biggest area of his progress — his ability to read defenses, change plays on the fly and eventually find a soft spot in a defense.

“The definition of a great quarterback to me — one of the definitions — is that there’s no way to play them,” said Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who nevertheless gets the unenviable task Sunday. “You can’t go pressure-heavy. You can’t just void yourself of pressure. You can’t play all man. You can’t play all zone. You’ve got to mix it up because the great quarterbacks are too good, and this quarterback is definitely great.”

NOTES: DE Alex Okafor (hamstring), RT Mitch Schwartz (back), WR Sammy Watkins (hamstring) and DT Taco Charlton (knee) remained out of practice Thursday. … RB Le’Veon Bell practiced for the second time and should be available for the Broncos. “He’s had an opportunity to sit in on some Zoom meetings (while going through COVID-19 testing),” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “Le’Veon is a sharp kid. He picks up football well. The thing we don’t want to do is overwhelm him. We want to play it out and see what he can adapt to and fit in with.”

By |2020-10-22T17:19:23-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

NHL cancels 2021 Blues-Wild Winter Classic, All-Star Weekend

The NHL won’t take it outside and open 2021 with the Winter Classic in Minnesota but still hopes to get the hockey season going around the start of the new year.

The league on Thursday canceled the Winter Classic scheduled for Jan. 1 at Target Field in Minneapolis between the host Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues. The league also announced cancellation of All-Star Weekend that was set for late January in Sunrise, Florida.

It said those moves don’t change the league and players’ target date to begin on or around Jan. 1 in the hopes of each team playing a full 82-game season.

No guarantee of being able to host fans led to the cancellation of the two signature events. The league hopes to bring them back to those cities in future years.

“Because of the uncertainty as to when we will be able to welcome our fans back to our games, we felt that the prudent decision at this time was to postpone these celebrations until 2022, when our fans should be able to enjoy and celebrate these tentpole events in-person, as they were always intended,” NHL senior executive vice president and chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “We are also considering several new and creative events that will allow our fans to engage with our games and teams during this upcoming season.”

The Wild were supposed to host their first Winter Classic next season at the home of Major League Baseball’s Twins against the 2019 Stanley Cup champion Blues. That will have to wait until at least 2022.

“The NHL has given us every indication that the Winter Classic is coming to the State of Hockey and Target Field when it is safe to do so and our fans can fully embrace it,” Wild president Matt Majka said. “We look forward to that day.”

Canceling All-Star festivities hosted by the Florida Panthers was anticipated, along with forgoing the five-day “bye” week each team had gotten in recent years on either side of that break. The schedule is expected to be condensed in order to get in as many games as possible and stage a full 16-team playoff without going too deep into the summer.

By |2020-10-22T16:59:41-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Something old, something new: Gordon, Lopez are Gold Glove finalists

Alex Gordon’s playing days are over, but that doesn’t mean his trophy case is full.

Gordon, who retired after the 2020 season, was announced Thursday as one of three finalists for the American League Gold Glove Award in left field. The others are Toronto’s Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Houston’s Kyle Tucker.

If Gordon wins gold, it will be the eighth of his career. He won previously in 2011-14 and 2017-19.

Nicky Lopez also is a finalist, though his competition at second base comprises three other finalists — Cleveland’s Cesar Hernandez, Chicago’s Danny Mendick and Detroit’s Jonathan Schoop.

Lopez is a finalist for the first time.

By |2020-10-22T16:44:08-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Packers fantasy football outlook: Davante Adams to feast vs. Texans

The Green Bay Packers will be licking their wounds a bit as they head into Houston on Sunday.

Last week, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were humbled on the field (and in regards to fantasy football points, as well) in a 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay.

Will the Packers bounce back against the Texans? And who should you start? Who should you bench? We are here to help.

Players are graded on a 1-5 scale of football emojis, from “don’t even think about starting him” (🏈) to “you’re a fool if you bench this guy”(🏈🏈🏈🏈🏈).

Here’s how Week 7 shakes out:

GREEN BAY PACKERS

QB Aaron Rodgers: 🏈🏈🏈🏈

Coming off perhaps one of the worst performances of his career, Rodgers will try to rebound against Houston. And the numbers say he will. The Texans have allowed the fourth-most touchdown passes this year, as four of six quarterbacks to line up against Houston have thrown for multiple scores. And with a healthy Davante Adams back on the field, Rodgers should be primed for a big box score.

More Packers coverage

RB Aaron Jones: 🏈🏈🏈🏈🏈

We like to use the word “juicy” in our fantasy previews. This, indeed, is a juicy matchup for Jones, as the Texans have yielded the third-most fantasy points to running backs. Last week, Derrick Henry rushed 22 times for 212 yards and two scores against Houston. Granted, Henry is a much different running back than Jones. But Kansas City’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire (138 yards), Pittsburgh’s James Conner (109) and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (130) all tallied 100+ rushing yards vs. the Texans. And it doesn’t hurt that Jones has scored in seven straight games.

WR Davante Adams: 🏈🏈🏈🏈🏈

We didn’t get the vintage Adams game we were hoping for in when Adams returned in Week 6. We shouldn’t have to wait much longer. Houston has surrendered seven scores to receivers over its last five games, including a pair of touchdowns to Tennessee’s A.J. Brown last week.

WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling: 🏈🏈

With a healthy Adams back on the field, Valdes-Scantling’s role will continue to decline, even with Allen Lazard on injured reserve. Valdes-Scantling hasn’t logged more than 45 receiving yards since Week 2, and he’s caught just 50% of the targets this year, anyway. Valdes-Scantling is a boom-or-bust player. If you have a safer option, stay away from MVS.

TE Robert Tonyan: 🏈🏈

All five of Tonyan’s touchdowns in 2020 (so far) came with Adams on the sidelines. Still, it’s a positive matchup for Tonyan against Houston, which has coughed up the sixth-most receiving yards to tight ends. You can start him, but do so with caution.

Packers D/ST: 🏈

Since Houston fired general manager and head coach Bill O’Brien on Oct. 4, the Texans have scored 30 and 36 points in their last two outings. Green Bay has surrendered 30+ points in two of its last three games. Let’s keep the Packers on the bench for now.

HOUSTON TEXANS

QB Deshaun Watson: 🏈🏈🏈

Did the firing of O’Brien unleash Watson? After never throwing for more than two scores over the first four weeks, Watson is averaging 347 yards and 3.5 touchdowns over his last two games. When it comes to facing fantasy football quarterbacks, the Packers rank in the middle of the road, as they yield 248.4 yards and 1.8 touchdowns per contest. Green Bay coughed up 34 rushing yards to the slow Kirk Cousins in Week 1, so the running lanes could be open for Watson.

RB David Johnson: 🏈🏈🏈🏈

No team allows more fantasy points to running backs than the Packers. Three halfbacks – Cook, Atlanta’s Todd Gurley and Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones III – all scored two touchdowns apiece against the Packers. Although Johnson isn’t too involved in the Texans’ passing game — as he’s caught more than two passes in just one of six contests – he’s averaging 14.5 carries per game, which should be more than enough chances to get into the end zone against Green Bay.

WR Will Fuller: 🏈🏈🏈🏈

Fuller is red-hot. He’s scored in four straight games and has posted 108+ yards in three of six contests. However, the Packers have been stellar against receivers this year, yielding the seventh-fewest fantasy points. Fuller will likely be covered by cornerback Jaire Alexander for much of the game, who has been a tough matchup for top wideouts. Adam Thielen (six catches for 110 yards) is the only No. 1 receiver to top 56 yards against Green Bay.

 

TE Jordan Akins: 🏈🏈🏈

In the dry, barren world of 2020 fantasy football tight ends, Akins might be a glimmer of hope against Green Bay. Akins, who missed the past two contests with an ankle injury and concussion, has hauled in 14 of 15 targets from Watson and is averaging 11.2 yards per target. Former WWE star Rob Gronkowski tagged the Packers for five catches and 78 receiving yards last week.

By |2020-10-22T16:32:37-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Goldschmidt, Wong, O'Neill are Gold Glove finalists

The St. Louis Cardinals had a solid season in the field in 2020, and three of their best defenders could win gold.

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, second baseman Kolten Wong and left fielder Tyler O’Neill were announced Thursday as finalists for National League Gold Glove Awards.

Goldschmidt won Gold Gloves with Arizona three times, while Wong became a first-time winner last season with the Cardinals. O’Neill is a finalist for the first time.

Goldschmidt’s competition at first base is San Francisco’s Brandon Belt and Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo. Wong will contend with Pittsburgh’s Adam Frazier and Chicago’s Nico Hoerner. Finalists in left field along with O’Neill are Cincinnati’s Shogo Akiyama and Arizona’s David Peralta.

The Cardinals led the major leagues with a .731 defensive efficiency rating (balls in play converted to outs) and were sixth in runs allowed per game (3.95).

Winners will be announced Nov. 3.

By |2020-10-22T16:09:20-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Twins’ Buxton, Maeda named 2020 Gold Glove award finalists

A pair of Minnesota Twins teammates could be in line to collect some hardware this offseason.

More Twins Coverage

Rawlings announced Thursday that Twins center fielder Byron Buxton and right-handed pitcher Kenta Maeda were both named 2020 Gold Glove award finalists at their positions.

Buxton, who won the Gold Glove award in 2017, will go up against Oakland’s Ramon Laureano and Chicago rookie Luis Robert. Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier won the Gold Glove in center field last year, and Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. won it in 2018.

Along with Maeda, the other two AL candidates at pitcher are Los Angeles’ Griffin Canning and Cleveland’s Zach Plesac.

The winners at each position will be officially announced Nov. 3.

By |2020-10-22T15:37:05-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Twins' Cruz named 2020 Marvin Miller Man of the Year

At age 40, Nelson Cruz continues to excel — on and off the field.

The Minnesota Twins slugger was selected as the recipient of the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award, part of the 2020 Players Choice Awards. The honor is voted by fellow big-leaguers on the player they “most respect based on his leadership on the field and in the community.”

More Twins Coverage

Cruz is the third Twins player to win the award since it was established in 1997, joining Paul Molitor (1998) and Torii Hunter (2007).

As the award winner, Cruz will receive a $10,000 grant from the Major League Baseball Players Trust to support his numerous charitable efforts.

In June, Cruz was given the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award at the ESPYs for the charitable work in is native Dominican Republic, elsewhere in Latin America and in the communities in which he has played during his 16-year major league career. Earlier this year, he led the delivery of a $400,000 donation from Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and the MLBPA Players Trust Returning Home program to the Dominican Republic, providing medical equipment and helping to battle food insecurity in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Cruz was also the Twins’ nominee for the 2020 Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who best represents the sport of baseball on and off the field.

In 2020, Cruz appeared in 53 games for Minnesota and registered a .303/.397/.595 slash line with six doubles, 16 homers and 33 RBI. After spending the last two seasons with the Twins, Cruz is an unrestricted free agent and will hit the open market this offseason.

By |2020-10-22T14:55:52-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Preview: 14th-ranked Badgers aim to avoid another Illinois upset

Illinois believes its upset of Wisconsin last year showed how far the program has come. The oddsmakers are reminding the Illini how far they still have to go.

Even after beating a Wisconsin team that was favored by 30 ½ points last year, Illinois heads into Madison as a 19 ½-point underdog as the two West Division rivals prepare to open the pandemic-delayed Big Ten season Friday night.

“I guess we’re going to have to go prove them wrong again,” Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said.

More Badgers coverage

Illinois took a big step forward last year in coach Lovie Smith’s fourth season by earning its first bowl bid since 2014, but the Illini are still searching for their first winning season since a 7-6 finish in 2011.

Beating Wisconsin for a second straight year would be a major move in the right direction. The 14th-ranked Badgers want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Illinois definitely deserves a butt-whooping from last year,” Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson said earlier this month.

Watson’s comments notwithstanding, Wisconsin’s players generally have downplayed the revenge motive.

“Obviously last year didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we try not to dwell too much on the past,” Wisconsin wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “Obviously they’re not the same team as last year and we’re not the same team as last year.”

Wisconsin’s offense definitely isn’t the same as it was last year.

The Badgers lost two-time Doak Walker Award-winning running back and Indianapolis Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor as well as All-America center Tyler Biadasz and leading receiver Quintez Cephus from last year’s team. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz will make his first career start for Wisconsin after preseason foot surgery left returning starter Jack Coan out indefinitely.

Yet the Badgers still have enough talent in place to believe they can win the division for a fourth time in five seasons, whereas Illinois is still attempting to move its way up the standings.

Illinois stunned Wisconsin last year by showing the ball-hawking mentality that the Illini have adopted under Smith, a former NFL head coach and longtime NFL defensive assistant. Illinois had a Big Ten-leading 28 takeaways last season, including an interception against Wisconsin that led to James McCourt’s game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.

Now they want to take the next step.

“Last year we were a six win-team,” Smith said. “And I think we’re a strong football team right now. We lost a few guys, but for the most part, our best players are back, and we’ve added quite a few players. So we’re excited about seeing exactly how we fit into the landscape in 2020.”

PLAYING WITHOUT FANS

There won’t be any spectators for the first Big Ten game of the season as part of the protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

STRONG ON THE LINE

Illinois returns four starters on the offensive line. Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski have 125 combined starts.

Wisconsin must replace three of its starting offensive linemen from last season, but the Badgers return Associated Press preseason All-America second-team tackle Cole Van Lanen. Wisconsin also got a boost from the return of Jon Dietzen, who has made 32 career starts but stepped away from the football program in 2019 due to injuries.

REPLACING TAYLOR

Watson and fifth-year senior Garrett Groshek figure to get the bulk of the carries Friday as Wisconsin attempts to replace Taylor, though sophomore Isaac Guerendo also should have a role.

Groshek rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns and also had 29 catches for 289 yards last season. Watson ran for 331 yards and two touchdowns.

ILLINOIS’ TRANSFERS

Illinois will be counting on big contributions from plenty of transfers this season.

Some transfers to watch, with former schools in parentheses, include running back Chase Brown (Western Michigan), tight end Luke Ford (Georgia), wide receiver Brian Hightower (Miami), tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (Southern California), defensive tackle Roderick Perry (South Carolina State) and defensive back Derrick Smith (Miami).

SHOWCASE FOR MERTZ

Coan’s injury provides a showcase opportunity for Mertz, one of the most hyped recruits in recent Wisconsin history.

When Mertz signed with Wisconsin, it marked the first time since 2007 that the Badgers had signed a 247Sports Composite top-100 recruit who wasn’t an offensive lineman. Mertz went 9 of 10 for 73 yards last season while playing in blowout victories over Central Michigan and Kent State.

Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin, Friday at 8 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network).

Line: Wisconsin by 19 1/2.

Series record: Wisconsin 42-37-7

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Wisconsin seeks to avenge a 24-23 loss at Illinois from last year in one of the season’s biggest upsets. The Badgers were favored in that game by 30 ½ points. Wisconsin also wants to take the first step toward winning its fourth Big Ten West Division title in the last five years. A second straight upset of Wisconsin would show that Illinois is showing progress under Lovie Smith, who enters his fifth season with a 15-34 record after helping the Illini go 6-7 and earn their first bowl bid since 2014 last year.

KEY MATCHUP

Wisconsin RBs Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo vs. Illinois run defense: Groshek, Watson and Guerendo figure to get the bulk of the carries early on as the Badgers attempt to replace two-time Doak Walker Award winner and Indianapolis Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor. They’ll be running against an Illinois defense that lost most of its top linemen from last season. Illinois is counting on a big season from defensive tackle and South Carolina State graduate transfer Roderick Perry, who had 14 1/2 tackles for loss last season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH,

Illinois: QB Brandon Peters: The Michigan transfer is back after throwing for 1,884 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first season at Illinois. Peters was 9 of 21 for 174 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions against Wisconsin last year.

Wisconsin: QB Graham Mertz: This heralded redshirt freshman will make his first career start Friday after foot surgery left returning starter Jack Coan out indefinitely. According to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports, Mertz is Wisconsin’s first top-100 signee who didn’t play on the offensive line since 2007.

FACTS & FIGURES

This game won’t have any fans due to the coronavirus pandemic. … Wisconsin had beaten Illinois nine straight times before losing to the Illini last season. … Wisconsin’s defense returns eight players who made at least six starts last season. … Illinois returns four starters on the offensive line. … Wisconsin has won at least 10 games five of the last six seasons. … Illinois is seeking its first winning season since recording consecutive 7-6 finishes in 2010 and 2011.

By |2020-10-22T14:05:12-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|

Lions put Julian Okwara on IR, sign Chris Jones

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Lions put rookie defensive end Julian Okwara on injured reserve Wednesday and signed free agent cornerback Chris Jones.

Okwara limped off the field with a leg injury in Sunday’s victory at Jacksonville.

The Lions also announced Wednesday that defensive end Austin Bryant, currently on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, was returning to practice.

Detroit signed tackle Dan Skipper and tight end Matt Sokol to the practice squad and released punter Arryn Siposs from the practice squad.

The Lions play at Atlanta on Sunday.

By |2020-10-22T12:14:11-04:00October 22nd, 2020|News|
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