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Changes to the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff continue, with the team expected to hire Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator and Mike Solari as offensive line coach, sources told ESPN on Monday.

Norton would replace Kris Richard, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Richard has served on the team’s coaching staff for the past eight seasons, including the past three as defensive coordinator. Earlier reports indicated Richard wasn’t expected to return.

The San Francisco 49ers hired Norton as their assistant head coach/defense and inside linebackers coach last week, but the team released a statement on Monday, saying it was allowing him to leave for an unspecified coordinator job elsewhere.
“Last week, Ken was presented with an opportunity to once again coordinate a defense,” the statement read. “Because of how we feel about Ken as a coach, we understand and respect his desire to pursue the position.”

Norton, 51, is the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton Sr. The younger Norton was a linebacker for 13 seasons in the NFL and remains the only player in the Super Bowl era to play on three consecutive Super Bowl champions, winning two titles with the Dallas Cowboys and then one with the 49ers.

Richard’s expected departure comes after Seattle’s defense regressed statistically in 2017, a season in which they lost three Pro Bowl starters on that side of the ball — Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril — to season-ending injuries. The Seahawks finished 11th in total defense and tied for 13th in points allowed. They were second and fifth in total defense in Richard’s first two seasons as coordinator. They were first and third in points allowed, leading the league in scoring defense for the fourth straight season in 2015.

The 38-year-old Richard played cornerback for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC for one season and played in the NFL for four seasons, including his first three with Seattle. He got his start in coaching on Carroll’s USC staff as a graduate assistant in 2008.

KING TV in Seattle first reported that Norton is joining the Seahawks. NFL Network was the first to report Solari’s hiring, which was later confirmed by ESPN’s Jordan Raanan.

Those moves come amid expectations that Seattle is hiring Brian Schottenheimer to be its offensive coordinator, a source told Schefter. Schottenheimer would replace Darrell Bevell, with Solari replacing Tom Cable. Bevell and Cable were fired last week after seven seasons apiece with the Seahawks.

With the hiring of Norton and Solari, the Seahawks are reaching into their past to remake their coaching staff. Norton was the team’s linebackers coach from 2010-14, having followed Carroll to Seattle from USC. He left to become the Oakland Raiders’ defensive coordinator in 2015 when he was essentially passed up for the same job in Seattle in favor of Richard, who took over the role when Dan Quinn became head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Norton was fired in November with the Raiders defense ranked 26th in the NFL. At the time, they were also tied for 21st in points allow.

Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright posted a photo on Instagram of him and Norton from his first Seattle stint, saying: “Time to finish what we started! Welcome back coach.”
Solari was Seattle’s offensive line coach in 2008 under Mike Holmgren, and in 2009 under Jim Mora. Solari left the team in 2010 when Carroll replaced Mora, and coached the 49ers’ offensive line from 2010-14. He served in that role for the past two seasons with the New York Giants after a stint as the Green Bay Packers’ assistant offensive line coach in 2015.

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PITTSBURGH — Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is expected to play in Sunday’s AFC divisional game against the Jaguars, coach Mike Tomlin said Friday.
Brown is almost one month removed from a partially torn left calf muscle that occurred against the Patriots on Dec. 17. He did not play in the final two games of the regular season and returned to practice just this week.

Brown did not practice on Friday because of illness and was sent home for the day, according to Tomlin. However, he was a full participant in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. His teammates have maintained for several weeks that they believed Brown would be back for the playoffs, and Tomlin said he had seen enough out of Brown’s two practices. “I think we’ve all seen Antonio play enough that we know what he’s capable of,” Tomlin said.

Brown led the NFL with 1,533 receiving yards despite playing in only 14 games and ranked fourth in the NFL with nine receiving touchdowns in 2017. He was the league’s only unanimous All-Pro this season.

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown sustained a partially torn calf in Week 15 against the Patriots.

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown sustained a partially torn calf in Week 15 against the Patriots.

Brown described the calf injury that sent him to the hospital during the game as a scary one.
“As soon as the incident happened, with an MRI, and we’re in a police car right to the hospital — I’m pretty grateful,” he told reporters on Monday. “[I] can grow from this experience. No man playing this game has never had adversity. I’m glad I’m able to be on my feet today talking to you guys.”

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs promoted from within for their new offensive coordinator. They hired running backs coach Eric Bieniemy to replace Matt Nagy, who was hired Monday as the head coach of the Chicago Bears.

Bieniemy, 48, has been with the Chiefs as their running backs coach since 2013, when Andy Reid arrived as head coach.

“I’ve known Eric a long time, both as a player and a coach,” Reid said. “He’s done a phenomenal job with our running backs and has been involved in every aspect of our offense over the last five years. He’s a great teacher and has earned this opportunity. I know he will do a good job.”
Bieniemy has experience as a coordinator. He served in that role in 2011 and 2012 at the University of Colorado.

Bieniemy played nine seasons as an NFL running back for three teams. His final NFL season in 1999 was with the Philadelphia Eagles, who at the time were coached by Reid.

Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have had breakout seasons at running back for the Chiefs the last three seasons. Each led the Chiefs in rushing once over the past three seasons, and Hunt, a third-round draft pick, led the league in rushing this season as a rookie.

The Chiefs’ season ended Saturday with a 22-21 AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

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METAIRIE, La. — There might not be a single NFL statistic this year that makes less sense than the New Orleans Saints’ third-down numbers.

The Saints rank 19th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (37.6 percent). And they rank a stunning 31st when it comes to converting third downs of 3-5 yards (34.8 percent). The Saints led the NFL in both of those categories throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era from 2006 to 2016.

And it’s not as if the Saints’ offense has suddenly become less efficient. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Saints led the NFL in both yards per pass attempt (7.5) and yards per rush (4.7) while ranking second in the league in total yards per game (391.2).

Brees set the NFL record for completion percentage in a single season (72.0 percent). Sure-handed receiver Michael Thomas set a franchise record with 104 catches. And running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first duo in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“It’s kind of tough, really. Our offense is known for being one of the top offenses, and you look at our third-down numbers and we’re in the bottom third of the league,” said offensive tackle Terron Armstead, who was explaining that the key is getting into more favorable third-and-short situations by avoiding penalties and negative plays on first and second downs.

But then when it was pointed out how bad the Saints have been on third-and-3 through third-and-5, Armstead was flummoxed.

“Oh. … Really? Yeah that is [crazy]. That doesn’t make any sense,” Armstead said. “We look for those.”

Regardless of whether it makes any sense, Armstead and everyone on the Saints’ offense and coaching staff is well-aware of how important it is to turn things around in that area. It has been a huge point of emphasis for months.

“We’ve focused on it. We’ve put a conscious effort to improve those third-down numbers. And we’ll have to in these playoffs in order to make a legitimate run,” Armstead said.

Brees is confident that the Saints aren’t that far off. He said that, looking at every third-down play, there might be one or two in each game that “we should’ve made” — plus the times in field-goal range or victory formations when the Saints didn’t need to force anything.

“And if we make those, tack on the percentage points and we would be the No. 1 third-down offense in the league, which is what we’re used to being,” Brees said. “But the bottom line is I’ll focus on the ones that I know from game to game — hey, there was one or two that we should’ve had there.

“And obviously when you talk about attention to detail and room for error, when you get into the playoffs, you want to be as efficient as possible in those areas because that can be the difference between winning and losing.”

One obvious difference from years past is that receiver Willie Snead has had a down season and become a very minor part of the offense after leading the team with exactly 25 catches on third down in both 2015 and 2016.

Thomas (a team-high 28 catches on third downs this year), Kamara (21) and new receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (14) have helped pick up some of the slack. But defenses swarm Thomas in those situations, so Brees could use as many go-to options as possible.
That’s not the only issue, though, because Brees’ numbers aren’t actually that bad on third downs. He ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Info (94.2) with a completion percentage of 67.8, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

“We’ve got to do a better job of emphasizing it at practice and putting the right plan together,” Payton said. “When you look at the cut-up of the whole season, it’ll be a number of reasons. It might be a route error, it might be protection, it might be throw. Whatever it is, though, we’ve got to look closely at it and look to get to the things that we think [will succeed].

“One week you might get more man [coverage], and one week you might get more zone coverage. So there’s a handful of things teams will play in that down and distance. It might be more pressure. So being able to have a plan that handles all the above, and then executing it, is the priority.”

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Let there be no confusion. The San Francisco 49ers want Jimmy Garoppolo to be their franchise quarterback now and well into the future.

That’s a point that San Francisco general manager John Lynch drove home in Tuesday’s season-ending news conference, after Garoppolo’s five starts helped the Niners finish with a flourish.

“Look, we want Jimmy to be a Niner for a long, long time, and that process is going to take place here and we’re eager to get that done, to have the opportunity,” Lynch said.

Garoppolo is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. But Lynch made it clear that the 49ers have no intention of letting Garoppolo test what would surely be a feeding frenzy were the quarterback to hit the open market.
While Lynch indicated that the 49ers don’t intend to negotiate with Garoppolo publicly, he did give his word to the Niners’ fan base that the goal is to keep Garoppolo for the long haul.

“I think one thing that we really believe is that those things should take place between us and his representatives, not occur and transpire in the public,” Lynch said. “That’s the way we’re going to treat that. But you have our assurances and the fans do that we’d like nothing more than to make him a Niner for a long, long time.”

While the 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan have talked openly in the past about potentially using the franchise tag to keep Garoppolo, his strong finish to the season, during which he led San Francisco to a 5-0 record, has bolstered the team’s already strong belief that Garoppolo has what they want in a franchise signal-caller.

The 49ers acquired Garoppolo on Oct. 31 from the New England Patriots for a 2018 second-round draft pick. Garoppolo, who got his first start on Dec. 3 against the Bears, set a franchise record for passing yards in his first five starts with the team (1,542), doing so despite having minimal time to absorb Shanahan’s offense.

That performance undoubtedly raised Garoppolo’s price tag, though Lynch said that both sides agreed right after the trade to put off contract talks until after Garoppolo had a chance to settle in to his new surroundings.

Garoppolo seemed to want to bet on himself in hopes of a bigger deal after increasing his sample size. That’s a gamble that appears to have paid off.

Jimmy Garoppolo has been everything the 49ers could've hoped for when they acquired him in trade earlier this season. Is he the NFL's next great passer?

Jimmy Garoppolo has been everything the 49ers could’ve hoped for when they acquired him in trade earlier this season. Is he the NFL’s next great passer?

Asked whether he is willing to pay Garoppolo the type of money usually awarded to more established starting quarterbacks, Lynch seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t be a problem.

“We’re going to work hard to try to keep him as a 49er for a long, long time,” Lynch said. “We’re really happy with the way he played. We think he’s got some abilities that are unique, and we want him here.”

When he spoke to the media on Monday as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers, Garoppolo played a bit coy when asked about his forthcoming contract negotiations. He also referred to next season’s Niners in an inclusive way on multiple occasions and one day earlier discussed how he felt he and the 49ers were a good match.

Garoppolo plans to spend a chunk of the next month at home with his family near Chicago before returning to the West Coast. He has traditionally trained in Los Angeles and said he plans to do so again, though he will split time between there and the Bay Area. He also intends to have a conversation with his agent, Don Yee, sometime soon about his contract.

“I like being here,” Garoppolo said. “We had a good thing going at the end of this year. You know, we’ll see what happens.”

While Garoppolo has publicly maintained a poker face on his contract status, Lynch said he feels good about the situation based on what’s taken place behind closed doors.

“I think we’ve had conversations with him and we know where he stands, and we’re comfortable with that,” Lynch said.

If the 49ers are unable to work out a long-term contract with Garoppolo soon, they can use the franchise tag to create a bigger negotiating window with him. The first day the Niners can use the tag is Feb. 20 and they have until March 6 to use it.
In the event the Niners decide to use the tag, they could declare Garoppolo their “exclusive” franchise player, thus eliminating any chance he’d have to negotiate with other teams and offering him a one-year deal worth around $25 million.

Financially, the 49ers don’t have any obstacles when it comes to signing or tagging Garoppolo as they project to have well over $100 million in salary cap space after they roll over what’s left on this year’s ledger.

Still, the Niners’ preference is to find a common ground and strike a deal with Garoppolo soon so they can begin using what’s left of their cap space on building up the roster around him.

“Obviously, Jimmy came in and he was fabulous,” Lynch said. “He was great for us and he made people around him better and I think that’s the mark of a player who has an opportunity to be special is, do you make people around you better? He did that.”