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First Call: NFL considers onside kick replacement; pitching Tee Higgins to Pats; Connor McDavid pushing Mario-esque pace


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In Tuesday’s “First Call,” could Tee Higgins go from one AFC rival of the Pittsburgh Steelers to another? We consider some NFL rules changes. Connor McDavid is on a Mario Lemieux-esque scoring pace. And the Pitt Panthers are enjoying success on the ice as well as the hardwood.

Rules are rules

Monday at “Breakfast With Benz,” we told you about the report from Judy Battista at NFL.com that one NFL team proposed a rule change to make roughing the passer penalties reviewable.

Now Mark Maske of The Washington Post is reporting that the club was the Los Angeles Rams. Maske is also saying that an NFL debate is taking place over instituting a “hip-drop” tackling penalty, but it’s not very far down the track.

I’ll tell you why that penalty isn’t further along to becoming reality yet. Because it’s almost impossible to write and describe cleanly and definitively. So imagine how hard it will be to interpret in real-time for the on-field officials.

Maske also says the notion of reinstituting the “third quarterback” rule and the idea of trying the fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick have been advanced.

I’m fine with bringing back the third QB rule. There is no negative to it. I don’t know why it went away in the first place. What’s wrong with allowing teams to designate a third QB in case of emergencies?

Then again, if it’s such a big deal, maybe the team should dress the third QB without the designated slot instead of a fullback, extra offensive lineman or depth defensive back that barely plays.

And I’ve already railed against the fourth-and-15 onside kick replacement. It’s nothing but a gimmicky, tricked-up way to manufacture closer games that shouldn’t be close. It’s encouraging cheap points in a league that gives up way too many cheap points (through penalties like roughing the passer) as it is.

Tee time in New England?

If the Bengals really do consider trading wide receiver Tee Higgins, there will be no shortage of suitors. The New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers are all franchises that have already been floated out as options.

How about the New England Patriots? Former Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi advanced that idea recently on CLNS, begging Bill Belichick to make that move.

“They need a receiver for Mac Jones, and I say go get Tee Higgins,” Bruschi said. “Mac’s gonna get back on track with Billy O’Brien, get him a receiver to do that. Tee Higgins, to New England. Make the deal, Bill.”

They certainly need receivers. With Bill O’Brien coming back to New England and coordinating for Jones, maybe there’s hope the coaching staff will now be able to figure out how to use such a player if he were to land in Foxborough.

Higgins racked up a combined 3,028 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns across his first three NFL seasons. The 2020 second-rounder out of Clemson is going into the final year of his contract. So he won’t be costly against the salary cap this year, but he will be heading into 2024. Plus, the cost to acquire him will be high.

But Higgins strikes me as being worthy of investigation, especially given his age, and the Patriots lack of depth at the position — which could become even more problematic if Jakobi Meyers leaves in free agency.

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Who is hunting the Panthers?

The 25th-ranked Pitt Panthers (21-8) are all alone atop the ACC standings at 14-5 in conference play. Jeff Capel’s team next plays Wednesday night at Notre Dame (10-19, 2-16).

The 16th-ranked Miami Hurricanes are in second place at 14-5 (23-6 overall). They are off until Saturday when Pitt visits for what could be a pivotal regular-season finale. Pitt handled Miami 71-68 earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, Tuesday night features a matchup of the third- and fourth-place teams in the conference. Both 13th-ranked Virginia (21-6) and Clemson (21-8) are 13-5 in ACC action. The two clubs have yet to play this season.

The Cavaliers are six-point favorites at home according to Caesars, despite having lost two in a row. The Tigers have won three of four.

More of both

The best team in hockey keeps winning, while the best player in hockey keeps scoring.

The Boston Bruins beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 on the road Monday night, improving their NHL-best point total to 97 (through 59 games). Pavel Zacha scored the game-winner on a diving effort with just 30 seconds left in the second period.

The Bruins have now won seven games in a row. Boston has 46 wins, seven better than the Carolina Hurricanes who are next at 39.

In defeat, Oilers superstar Connor McDavid scored both of Edmonton’s goals. His second of the night came 4-on-4. It was his 50th of the season.

As ESPN Stats and info pointed out, McDavid is now on pace to reach 67 goals this season. The last player to score 67 or more goals in a single season was Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 when he scored 69.

H2P on ice

The Pitt men’s basketball team isn’t the only team in Oakland with championship aspirations in March. The Panthers men’s ice hockey team has them too.

With a shootout win (in seven rounds) over Stony Brook on Sunday, the University of Pittsburgh has won the Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League (ESCHL), securing an automatic bid to the 2023 American Collegiate Hockey Association Nationals (ACHA) in Marlborough, Mass.

Pitt is the top seed and will get the winner of Rhode Island and Drexel on Saturday.

The ACHA is the national association for non-NCAA collegiate hockey throughout the United States. The NCAA offers athletic scholarships, whereas institutions do not fund ACHA programs through their athletic budgets. ACHA club programs are funded by student services and player fees each season.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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