Preseason football is one my absolute favorite times of the year. Why, you may ask? Preseason is the time of year when you can see if that seventh-round draft selection is a diamond in the rough or a wasted pick.
There's something about seeing the blue-chip prospects on the field for the first time; they have this mystique about them.
I'm sure Redskins fans got excited when they saw Robert Griffin III throw his first pass, or New England fans started patting themselves on the back when Chandler Jones was giving Jermon Bushrod a headache.
Whomever it may be, rookie or non-rookie, it's just good to have football back in a full-time capacity. Last Sunday's game was a teaser, but now with a full slate of games heading into the weekend, let's see what we learned from the Thursday night games.
1. Robert Griffin Looked Sharp
A three-and-out and a fumble is not an ideal way to start the game, especially if you're trying to get your rookie quarterback settled in. But on the third Redskins possession, Robert Griffin finally got into a rhythm and the offense looked fluid.
It was a fast-paced, eight-play, 80-yard drive that spanned just over three-and-a-half minutes. Griffin did a nice job hitting Pierre Garçon on a couple longer completions to start the drive, however the touchdown to cap the drive was on a well-executed bubble screen. Finishing the night 4-of-6 passing for 70 yards and a touchdown is not a bad way to start your first unofficial game as a pro.
2. Washington Struggled to Run The Ball
The only running back who gained any traction out of the backfield was Roy Helu. His longest run of the night was only eight yards, but he showed good vision and held onto the ball unlike Evan Royster. Even though Robert Griffin was credited with the fumble, it clearly should have went to Royster.
Helu was the only back to average above four yards a carry. On 32 attempts, Washington averaged a measly 2.7 a pop and only had one run over 10 yards.
3. Buffalo Didn't Struggle to Run The Ball
Even without featured back Fred Jackson, the Bills were able to move the ball up and down the field on the ground. Production came from some unexpected help, as quarterbacks Vince Young and Brad Smith combined for 50 of Buffalo's 100 yards rushing on just eight carries—not to mention second-year player Johnny White rattled off a nice 17-yard run of his own on one of the two scoring drives.
White appears to have some juice under his legs as he showed the ability to make defenders miss on more than one occasion.
4. Penalties and Sacks Kill
It was easy to see that the replacement referees struggled tonight, but don't use that as an excuse as to why your team lacked discipline and focus. Fourteen: the number of penalties that were called on the Bills. Penalty yardage was totaled at around 135, the highest total out of any of last night's games.
As if the penalties weren't enough, the various offensive line groupings gave up four sacks. Some of that blame falls on the shoulders of Vince Young, as he needs to get rid of the ball quicker. Without a doubt the ball comes out a lot quicker when Fitzpatrick is under center.
1. Atlanta Started Fast
Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones started fast and furious. Ryan was perfect on Atlanta's opening drive. He was 5-of-5 for 71 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown pass was a perfectly executed fade route in the back of the end zone.
Jones caught six balls on seven targets for 109 yards, with 58 of those 109 yards coming during the first drive of the game. The Falcons made Baltimore's secondary look vulnerable, as they jumped out to a 14-0 lead right away.
2. Curtis Painter Scores Quickly
After starting a half of a season's worth of games in Indianapolis, Painter decided to come over to Baltimore and back up Joe Flacco. Even though the Ravens got off to a sluggish start, Painter proved all it took was a little third-quarter magic to get them back in the game.
In the third quarter, Atlanta miscues led to two passing touchdowns. The first Painter touchdown pass to Billy Bajema was set up by a John Parker-Wilson fumble inside Atlanta's 10-yard line. The second score was accelerated because of a long pass interference penalty. All three of the Painter-led scoring drives lasted less than three minutes.
3. Poor Third Down Play
As soon as the Falcons' starting offense left the field, their chances of winning went out the window as well. Matt Ryan's group converted three third downs before he exited in the second quarter. After he exited, Atlanta only managed to convert one more third down the rest of the night.
When you convert 4-of-14 on third down, it spells trouble for anyone. Offenses that sustain drives by executing on first and second down have a much higher probability of extending scoring opportunities. One third down conversion in the entire second half is just not going to cut it.
4. Baltimore's Offense Started Slow
Not that I'm overly concerned, because it's only the first preseason game, but I was surprised that the Ravens offense started off so slow. The first three offense series were all three-and-outs. Sacks and errant throws from quarterback Joe Flacco definitely contributed to the slow start.
Despite the sluggish play right away, Flacco finished his brief night with 9-of-12 passing for 88 yards and one score. It seemed as if Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson drew the most targets. Dickson scored the lone touchdown for the first-team offense.
1. Chandler Jones Looks Promising
Whether his hand was in the ground or he was standing up, Chandler Jones was welcoming himself to Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Jones' strong pass-rushing efforts caused Bushrod to hold him twice as he was coming around the corner.
By my count, he registered six pressures and looked to be someone the Patriots could have used last year as they were making their Super Bowl run. His two recorded tackles didn't truly reflect his game, as he was flying around everywhere.
2. The Patriots Offensive Line Underachieved
Between Dan Koppen, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, the Patriots offensive line has some preseason jitters to work out. Solder was whistled for holding twice in the first half, Cannon allowed Brady to get blown up for a sack and fumble, and Koppen had a wobbly exchange that led to him getting pulled in favor of Ryan Wendell.
3. New Orleans Won't Miss Vilma
Before the Saints heard Jonathan Vilma was going to be suspended for the whole season, they went out and picked up two of the top free agents available, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Hawthorne is a solid player who spent time with Seattle early on. Saints fans might not be as familiar with him as they are with Lofton.
Lofton received the starting nod tonight, and he looked like a natural fit in Steve Spagnuolo's defense. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah had this to say about Lofton replacing Vilma:
Lost in the Vilma situation is the fact that Curtis Lofton is an outstanding replacement. He played great tonight.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 10, 2012
4. Saints Run Game Wasn't Cranked Up
Compared to last Sunday night's game against the Cardinals, the Saints run game seemed average. We didn't see Mark Ingram, as he didn't receive one carry. Pierre Thomas had one nice long run and Chris Ivory averaged just a little over two yards a carry.
Travaris Cadet shouldered most of the load considering he was targeted eight times in the pass game and took nine handoffs out of the backfield. Cadet's heavy use is interesting with the limited depth at running back. His impressive play up to this point has taken away the possibility for them to stash him on the practice squad.
5. Vereen and Ridley Were Rollin
New England decided it was time to let BenJarvus Green-Ellis go, and it was time to pass the torch to Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Green-Ellis was always that guy the Pats could count on if they needed a yard, and he never fumbled, so he won't be easy to replace.
But so far it's looking like the right decision, as both Vereen and Ridley averaged five yards a carry or above. They combined for over 100 yards on 19 carries, and Vereen showed his pass-catching ability, as he was targeted three times for two receptions. Neither of them found the end zone, but their time is coming.
1. Nick Foles is Good...In Preseason
Paging the Arizona Cardinals, paging the Arizona Cardinals: Your future starting quarterback is a backup for the Philadelphia Eagles. All jokes aside, Nick Foles showed why the Eagles used a third-round draft selection on him.
His big arm came in handy on Thursday, as he hit Damaris Johnson for 70 yards and Mardy Gilyard for 44. The one aspect that surprised me was the way he moved around. Coming out of Arizona, he was never touted for his mobility, but he moved well in the pocket and did a fine job of escaping pressure—144 yards and two touchdowns on 10 attempts is not a bad way to kick things off.
2. The Steelers Offensive Line Struggled
It's hard to be impressed by any one of the Steelers' offensive line units. I wouldn't say the first unit was the most disappointing, however, I will say rookie left tackle Mike Adams was the biggest letdown in terms of individual performance. It was reported that he allowed 2.5 sacks in the span of nine plays.
Performances like that have to be a little concerning even if it is the first preseason game. The Steelers haven't started two rookie linemen in a regular season opener since the merger, according to @CBSSportsNFLPit. That scenario might not even happen unless Adams' play improves.
3. Todd Haley's Insight On The Offense
Whether tonight was any kind of indicator as to what can be expected out of the offense remains to be seen. Todd Haley called 39 run plays in a losing effort. Did he call the run plays because he didn't like what he saw from Jerrod Johnson and Byron Leftwich? Or was he trying to see which back will back up Isaac Redman with Rashard Mendenhall?
Whatever the case may be, Baron Batch got the most carries. Expect Jonathan Dwyer to receive some extensive work in the upcoming weeks as well.
4. Everyone Honored Andy Reid Admirably
Everyone from the fans to the players did such a great job of honoring Andy Reid in the best way possible. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson showed his support by telling everyone how appreciative he was of the fans and everyone's support:
That's honestly a blessing for coach Reid and the fans to support him after the loss he just had; the tragic loss. We'll do anything we need to do to support coach, and I want to tell the fans and everybody else that we appreciate them and their support.
Late in the first quarter the Eagles showed a message on their video board of Andy Reid thanking the fans who have reached out to him and the organization. After the video aired, coach Reid received a standing ovation from everyone in the crowd.
1. Melvin Ingram Gets After It
While he didn't come up with a sack against the Packers, Melvin Ingram did force Aaron Rodgers into throwing an interception. Additionally, he was credited with a quarterback hit on the play. In limited snaps he showed why he should have been selected earlier in the draft.
Ingram is an impact player, without a doubt. His pursuit of the quarterback is relentless and fierce. Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel echoed those same words as he watched the game:
I just watched Melvin Ingram make back-to-back impact plays. Always go with your gut on a draft prospect.
— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) August 10, 2012
2. Vincent Brown Just Gets Open
Brown was looked at as a player who could have made an impact right away last year as a rookie, but wasn't ultimately featured in the offense. So, maybe it's safe to say that this year is the year, as he put on an impressive display tonight.
He led the Chargers in targets, receptions and yards. His lone touchdown grab was a 27-yard pass from Jarrett Lee, and his longest grab of the night spanned 36 yards. Currently, he's scheduled to play the slot once the regular season kicks off.
3. The Packers Talent at WR Runs Deep
As if they didn't already have enough talent at wide receiver, the Packers proved they picked up a couple undrafted free agents who will be lookers. Dale Moss and Jarrett Boykin are players who come from totally different school settings.
Moss is a small school guy who played at South Dakota State, and Boykin comes from Virginia Tech, an obvious powerhouse. Regardless, both guys showed the ability to get open and run pretty decent routes. They both tied for six targets and each had three catches; I feel like the last wide receiver spot will come down to these two guys battling it out.
4. Ryan Mathews is Injured...Again
First Mathews gets in a car accident and hurts himself, and now he proves to us that he is paper thin. One carry equals one broken clavicle, if you're in his shoes. Plain and simple, the guy just can't stay healthy, and I'm not sure he will ever be able to.
Norv Turner's offense focuses around a power back, but it's pretty hard to utilize your power back when he is always nicked up. Chargers fans, it sure would be nice to have Mike Tolbert back, wouldn't it? He always helped out in a big way when Mathews was on the shelf.
1. Manning Returns
Watching Peyton Manning throw the ball around Thursday left me with two things: He still can make all the throws he could before, but he doesn't seem to have the same zip on the ball. A couple of his balls floated a bit, but in time I'm sure it will all come back as he heals more and more.
The one pass that I picked out as not the same was the comeback route to Eric Decker in the first quarter. The throw was a little late getting there, and I actually thought it was maybe going to be picked off because it was so late. However, he did make some nice throws, and at times he looked like the old Manning. Broncos fans are in good hands.
2. Same Old Story For the Bears OL
No matter what unit they fielded, the Bears just couldn't get the protection schemes down. It seemed like Groundhog Day with another six sacks given up by the the unit.
Rookie Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos ate up the interior of Chicago's line. He recorded two sacks, two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss. The Bears' run-blocking wasn't any better, as they averaged a measly 1.7 yards per carry. It might not have been a bad idea to address the area of concern in the offseason, huh?
3. Third Down Conversions Matter
In Thursday's game, both teams finished on two totally opposite ends of the spectrum. The Broncos had the highest third down conversion rate out of any team that played Thursday night, and the Bears had the lowest third down conversion rate out of any of the teams.
Denver finished an incredible 8-16, while Chicago finished 0-11. The Bears just didn't look like a team that was ready to play. Their first defensive series against Manning looked good when they intercepted his pass, but after that it was all downhill.
Not to mention, only gaining eight first downs and running 49 offensive plays is a definite area of concern. They need to execute and pick up more yards on first and second down.
4. Alshon Jeffery Will Be a Nice Complement
The lone bright spot for the Bears offense was the way it got Alshon Jeffery involved as soon as he came in the game. He was constantly targeted and led the team in targets, receptions and yards. His numbers weren't spectacular overall, but he showed he didn't have problems in separation—an area fans were worried about pre-draft.