Reporters' Notebook

Saints' D faces test; Eric Ebron's buddy system; more Eric Berry

As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 16, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Eric Weddle on stopping a familiar foe.

-- Why the Saints' D isn't shying away from JuJu or A.B.

-- Raiders saying goodbye to Oakland?

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Weddle on Rivers' weaknesses -- or lack thereof. Nobody in the Ravens' locker room knows Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers better than star safety Eric Weddle, who was Rivers' teammate for nine years when the team played in San Diego.

That sets up a unique mental matchup between the two in Saturday night's AFC showdown in Los Angeles. So how can the Ravens' top-ranked defense impact Rivers, who has played his way into the MVP conversation?

"He sits in that pocket, man. Waits for routes to develop. He'll wait to the last second to make that big throw," Weddle told me Wednesday. "You've got to make the picture muddy somehow. Can't give him a pre-designation of what we're doing, what we're in -- then you're done. And when you have a chance to get in his face and get him off his spot, that's huge. When he moves around and runs around, he's not nearly as good as when he hits that back foot and gets the ball out.

"And he'll throw it in there. He'll throw it up. And there will be some chances for us to make some plays. You've just got to go make them when he makes those mistakes. But when he gets on fire, man, there's not much you can do."

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Football powers developed on the hardwood -- or ice? When you watch Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes play, it's clear as day that he also played baseball his entire life, and at a high level. It's also obvious that it's made him a better quarterback. You could say the same thing for Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and basketball. Hopkins, who was a member of Clemson's basketball team, uses his body to box out defenders on contested passes. Little wonder that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz compared Hopkins to NBA great Charles Barkley ahead of Houston's matchup with Philadelphia.

In this day and age of specialization in youth sports, I was curious if players feel they benefited from playing other sports growing up. When I was in the Texans locker room Wednesday, I asked a few guys about the impact other sports might have had on them.

Hopkins' teammate, veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, told me his track background has always helped him. And early in his career, when he was used as a jump-ball red-zone threat, his experience as a high school basketball player gave him an edge, because he was a great rebounder.

Basketball is probably the most common sport cited in this capacity across the league, but there are other sports -- maybe ones you hadn't thought of -- that have played a part in the development of NFL players. Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph told me that, without a doubt, being a wrestler when he was growing up has helped him use his body and leverage during his 13-year NFL career. What about Wisconsin native J.J. Watt?

"I've always said that one of the reasons I think I got a chance to become a good athlete was because my parents taught me how to skate at the age of 3," Watt told me Wednesday. "So, I was learning how to balance on a razor-thin blade when I was 3 years old, and my body had to learn how to balance and adjust to that at such a young age. I think that, throughout my youth, helped me to learn how to use my body and carry my weight and things like that."

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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Ebron enjoying life with Hilton. "That's my guy," Colts tight end Eric Ebron said with a huge smile. "I love lining up next to (receiver) T.Y. (Hilton), man. We help each other out so much."

In Ebron's previous four seasons, with the Lions, he totaled 11 touchdown catches. This season, his first with the Colts, he has 12 touchdown receptions. It seems as though the Colts have found a formation with Hilton and Ebron that has become extremely difficult to defend. Bunching the two together has created success for both pass catchers.

"I think it's really complicated to play," Ebron told me of how defenses have to line up against the formation. "The safety has to choose one."

Hilton is having another solid season, having posted 67 catches, 1,071 yards and six touchdowns -- he's on pace to finish with his third NFL campaign of 1,200-plus yards. When the two are bunched close together, it's hard to jam the speedy Hilton at the line of scrimmage.

"You can," Ebron told me of trying to jam Hilton. "But then you lose out on me, and I'm running by you. It's real complicated, and I'm happy me and him are on the same team and we cause that much complication."

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Berry expected to play larger role.Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry should have a bigger impact on this week's game against Seattle. He saw his first action of the season against the Los Angeles Chargers in a 29-28 loss -- after having been sidelined with a heel injury since training camp -- and played solely in the first half. After Berry totaled six tackles, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said the coaches were impressed enough that they'll be more flexible with Berry's playing time this weekend.

"I thought his reactions were pretty good," Sutton said of Berry's performance. "There's going to be an upgrade on that the more he plays. I thought he did a really good job. He got in 30 snaps or something, and that is as many as we hoped for. He came out of it pretty good, and hopefully he can just keep going."

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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: CBs embracing the challenge of facing dynamic duo.Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown figure to present double trouble for the New Orleans Saintsin Week 16.

Smith-Schuster did suffer a groin injury in practice on Thursday, but if he plays Sunday, New Orleans will undoubtedly have its hands full. Smith-Schuster has 95 catches for 1,274 yards and six touchdowns in his second NFL season, while Brown has 90 catches for 1,112 yards and a league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns. Their combined production obviously makes them one of the top tandems in the NFL -- they are one of just three pairs of teammates (including the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and the Rams' Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods) to rank among the top 15 receivers by yardage.

"They're up there, definitely," Saints cornerback Eli Apple told NFL.com on Wednesday. "I'd say them, the Falcons, as well, have some great receivers. I'd say they're quite similar to them. They're one of the best, for sure."

Pittsburgh's third-ranked passing offense facing the Saints' 28th-ranked pass defense suggests an advantage belongs with the Steelers. The members of New Orleans' secondary, however, won't back down from the challenge of defending the explosive receivers.

"They're great," cornerback Marshon Lattimore told NFL.com. "We got to go out there and show them like we're some of the best corners in the league, too, just like they're showing they're some of the best receivers."

New Orleans has faced its share of troublesome duos this season, with matchups against the Falcons' Julio Jones and rookie Calvin Ridley, the Buccaneers' Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and the Vikings' Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. While gaudy offensive statistics might favor the Steelers, the Saints are battle-tested and have more than rebounded from early-season struggles, when the defense ranked at or near the bottom of league in numerous statistical categories.

Now, the defense enters Sunday ranked first in the league against the run, tied for eighth in takeaway differential (plus-8) and 11th overall in total defense. Making the turnaround more impressive is what the Saints have done over the past six games, allowing 12.3 points per game and notching 14 turnovers and 28 sacks.

Opposing wide receivers can produce eye-popping individual numbers, but the Saints come out ahead where it matters the most: in the win-loss column, with an improved defense.

"I think we go into every game with the same mindset to dominate," free safety Marcus Williams told NFL.com. "I don't think we look at, 'Oh, man, we can't cover these guys.' OK, they make plays; we make plays, too. We're ballers. Everyone is here for a reason."

Lattimore agreed emphatically.

"That's all about confidence," Lattimore said. "We can't go out there scared. We're in the NFL, too."

Ginn eager to provide a 'spark.' The Saints are getting healthier at wide receiver at the right time, with the playoffs on the horizon. Ted Ginn Jr., who landed on injured reserve in Week 7 with a knee injury, returned to practice Wednesday, and the Saints designated him for return.

Ginn, who was the Saints' clear No. 2 receiver behind Michael Thomas before suffering the injury, said he's been running "for a while" and is in shape to contribute.

"I believe I'm up to speed," Ginn said Wednesday. "It's an organization, and you got to play a role. I just go out and do as they tell me to. Work me in however they have to, and it's no biggie for me. I just try to be that team player and that leader, and just come back out and give a little spark to my team."

So far, so good -- head coach Sean Payton said Thursday he likes what he's seen.

"He's moving pretty well," Payton said. "He's a guy that runs, and I know he's been working hard with the trainers and doing everything that he can to get prepared for this opportunity to come back. So, we'll see how he progresses."

Quarterback Drew Brees echoed the head coach following Ginn's first day of work with the team following a long layoff.

"He looked good," Brees said Wednesday. "I look forward to getting him back (in practice) this week."

The Saints now have a 21-day window to activate Ginn from injured reserve to the active roster, and his potential return would boost an offense that has soured in the past three games.

Ginn totaled 135 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches through the first four games before knee soreness ultimately shelved him. Rookie wide receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood have come up big at times during Ginn's absence, but the production hasn't been consistent enough on a weekly basis. Identifying a need at the No. 2 receiver spot, the Saints signed veterans Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall. Bryant, however, tore an Achilles tendon a day after joining the team, and Marshall, who was signed to replace Bryant, was recently released without appearing in a game.

Ginn's familiarity with the scheme and rapport with Brees ensures he can hit the ground running as a complementary piece to Thomas, whose 109 catches for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns lead the team by a wide margin.

Still, the veteran wide receiver didn't want to put a timetable on when he'll officially be back to regular action, preferring to leave that decision to the coaching and training staff. He just knows he'll be ready to help out immediately when the moment arrives.

"I'm happy to be back," Ginn said. "I'm happy to start this journey and help my team win."

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Getting ready to say goodbye? The Raiders are preparing for what could be the final game for the franchise at the Oakland Coliseum when they face the Denver Broncos on Christmas Eve. Their planned 2020 move to Las Vegas led to a lawsuit being filed by the city of Oakland, and the team still hasn't secured a home venue for the 2019 campaign. So the fans, staff, coaches and players are trying to come to grips with the idea that this could be the Raiders' last stand in Oakland. The Raiders have been based in Oakland for 46 of their 59 seasons (with the exception being a stretch from 1982 to 1994, when they were in Los Angeles).

Raiders QB Derek Carr said on Thursday that he couldn't quite wrap his mind around the "Monday Night Football" matchup being the last game at the stadium he's called home for years. "This is weird. This is home," said Carr. He went through some of his favorite memories, including being drafted in 2014, as well as some of the tougher times. "I've broken some bones here," Carr said with a smile. Despite the squad's 3-11 record, Raider Nation continues to show up for this team. Carr said he expects a good atmosphere on Christmas Eve, one that will add to his already-full chest of memories at the Oakland Coliseum.

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Balance will be key in crucial showdown with Saints. One glaring takeaway from the Steelers' victory over the Patriots last Sunday: Pittsburgh's offense works best when it has balance, even when running back James Conner is not on the field. Against the Patriots, the Steelers rushed for 158 yards, nearly 100 more rushing yards than they averaged during their three-game losing streak heading into Week 15. And that was with rookie Jaylen Samuels rushing for 142 yards in Conner's absence in the win.

There is still some question as to whether Conner, who has missed two games with an ankle injury, will return against the Saints. Whoever's taking handoffs on Sunday, will the Steelers try to run against the Saints' top-ranked run defense? Pittsburgh has to win to keep control of its chances for a playoff berth as either the AFC North winner or a wild-card team, and it will likely be sorely tempted to throw and throw some more. The Steelers enter the game with the league's third-ranked passing offense, and the Saints have the 28th-ranked passing defense. The Saints' recent propensity for blitzing may be too hard for Ben Roethlisberger to resist. Since Week 13, the Saints have blitzed on 36 percent of dropbacks, the seventh-highest rate in that span. Nobody has gotten rid of the ball faster against the blitz this season than Roethlisberger (2.33 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats), and he has enjoyed good success against the blitz, too. He's completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns (at a robust 9.3 yards per pass) against the blitz, with just three interceptions.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Shanahan stumps for a snubbed player. Two 49ers -- Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle -- made the 2019 Pro Bowl, but head coach Kyle Shanahan said there were several guys he felt had a good chance. Shanahan said he was surprised that defensive lineman DeForest Buckner was merely selected as an alternate, rather than making the team outright: "The DeForest [snub] shocked me.

"I thought that was done," Shanahan added during a news conference Wednesday, referring to his confidence that Buckner would make the team. "So, that was the [snubbed player] I felt for the most."

The 2016 first-rounder has recorded 60 tackles and 11 sacks this season. Snubbed or not, Buckner is focused on the team's goal of finishing the season strong in the win column.

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