1 Thing We've Learned About Each NFL Team During Training Camp
It is just about that time.
Training camps are winding down, and all 32 teams in the NFL now have at least two preseason games under their belts…or helmets.
What have we learned as the first week of September approaches rapidly?
We will put some stock into what we have seen so far. We will also use some of the numbers racked up in the preseason to make our point as fairly as possible.
Wins and losses mean little or nothing during the summer, and in some ways, statistics matter even less. But patterns are established, and the most positive ones carry over into the regular season.
So here are 32 observations on what has been ascertained through this offseason to date. And as we all know, what we see during the summer isn’t necessarily what we are going to get this fall.
We’ve Learned: New Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is not going to allow his quarterback(s) to take a pounding in 2013.
One season after the Cards allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks while totaling a league-low 75.3 yards per game on the ground, the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year is stressing ball control in the desert. In two games this summer, Arians and company have totaled 35 and 31 rushing attempts, respectively, in wins over the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have allowed just three sacks in those two wins. A year ago, this team allowed three sacks or more in nine of their 16 games.
We’ve Learned: The Atlanta Falcons have been to the playoffs four times in five years and been the top seed in the NFC playoffs two of the last three seasons.
But one thing the franchise has never done is lead the NFL in scoring. And for all of the talk of the team improving itself on defense this season, it appears that the emphasis for Mike Smith’s team is on the offensive side of the ball.
A pass rush that produced 29 sacks in 2012 appears to be no better. And the team’s inability to stop the run remains a question mark as well.
All we know is that quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown more touchdown passes each season he has been in the NFL. He will almost certainly improve on that again in 2013. But it is apparently status quo elsewhere for a club that needs to fix its defense.
We’ve Learned: A lot of the names have changed from late last season. But it appears that the Baltimore Ravens hope to implement the same game plan that carried them to a Super Bowl title in 2012.
Lost in last season’s championship run was the play of a defense that took its lumps during the regular season. John Harbaugh’s club was ranked 17th in total defense last season, the club’s worst finish since 2002, and the Ravens allowed the most rushing yards in a season in the team’s brief history.
Joe Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four playoff wins, while Baltimore added 10 takeaways.
In a pair of preseason outings this summer, Harbaugh’s club is again bending and again taking. The Ravens have allowed 347.5 total yards per contest but have also forced five turnovers in two wins.
Welcome to the newer days of the Ravens defense.
We’ve Learned: With all of the focus on the quarterback battle for the Buffalo Bills this summer, lost has been the play to date of a new-look defensive unit.
Veteran quarterback Kevin Kolb appears to be the likely opening-day starter for new head coach Doug Marrone. Rookie EJ Manuel, who has shown flashes during the preseason, is out after recovering from minor knee surgery.
But new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine appears to be what the doctor ordered, at least so far. He takes over a unit that has ranked in the bottom fifth of the league in rushing defense four straight years, including 31st in 2012.
With rookies such as inside linebacker Kiko Alonso and contributions from newcomers like outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, late of the Indianapolis Colts, the Bills defense has been flying around the field this summer.
And if Marrone’s team can cut down on the turnovers this season, perhaps there is some hope in Orchard Park after all.
We’ve Learned: Despite their 7-9 record in 2012, the Carolina Panthers showed that there was at least one team in the NFC South that could be stingy when it came to its opponents.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and could challenge for even higher honors this season. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks last season. Ron Rivera’s club finished 10th in the NFL in yards allowed a year ago.
That looks like it will continue in 2013. Two weeks into the preseason, the Panthers have totaled six takeaways and nine sacks. And Ron Rivera’s club has allowed only three offensive touchdowns and a total of 31 points in those outings.
With rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the lineup, you can also look for Carolina’s 14th-ranked run defense of a year ago to make some serious strides as well.
We’ve Learned: A work in progress?
Hopefully, that is the case for the Chicago Bears' new-look offensive line. But in a pair of preseason outings, new head coach Marc Trestman has seen his quarterbacks sacked a combined 10 times. That includes three sacks of quarterback Jay Cutler, who has completed 10-of-13 passes but also thrown a pair of interceptions compared to one touchdown pass.
There are plenty of new faces with the free-agent left-side combination of tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson, while rookie right guard Kyle Long has impressed at times.
But the bottom line is if the Bears are going to keep Cutler from the likes of division rivals such as Jared Allen, Clay Matthews and Ndamukong Suh, the work needs to progress a little more quickly.
We’ve Learned: The Cincinnati Bengals have been to the playoffs two straight years and three of the last four seasons.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has accomplished that with a pair of starting quarterbacks in Carson Palmer and now Andy Dalton. And he has mostly pulled this off because of a defensive unit that has emerged as one of the best in the game.
But if the Bengals are not to squander this opportunity, then it is time for Dalton to up his game. The third-year pro was sharp in the 27-19 preseason win over the Tennessee Titans, and the Cincinnati signal-caller figures to build on a 7-1 stretch to end last season, when he threw 13 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
Of course, the playoffs have been a different story for both the Bengals and Dalton. But as the saying kind of goes, all bad things must come to an end.
We’ve Learned: It’s been a dismal stretch for these Cleveland Browns. The current franchise has enjoyed just two winning seasons since returning as an expansion team in 1999.
But it may have been a very good offseason for this team, one that once again starts over with a new head coach in Rob Chudzinski. The changes also include new coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense).
Turner is the focal point here, as well as second-year running back Trent Richardson. The third overall pick in the 2012 draft totaled six carries for 33 yards rushing last week versus the Detroit Lions in his first action of the preseason.
Turner has done wonders with running backs throughout his NFL tenure, and if Richardson stays healthy, he is capable of huge things behind one of the better offensive lines in the league.
Of course, it's unknown if the Browns running back can indeed stay on the field.
We’ve Learned: The third time may finally have been the charm of the Dallas Cowboys.
That’s third time as in third different defensive coordinator in four years for the team. Veteran coach Monte Kiffin takes over in Dallas, and it’s been so far, so good for the Cowboys.
In last season’s regular-season finale versus the Washington Redskins, Jason Garrett’s club surrendered 274 yards on the ground and four offensive touchdowns in a 28-18 loss. So far this summer, Dallas has allowed a total of 332 rushing yards and three offensive touchdowns in three preseason tilts.
Say what you want, but it is hard to ignore those numbers. And Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme may be the right tonic for a team that has disappointed on defense in recent seasons.
We’ve Learned: Do not read too much into the Denver Broncos' 40-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last week.
Then again, do not dismiss the contest either.
If you believe that the Denver defense will be just as good as, or perhaps better than, last season’s second-ranked unit, you may want to think again.
Defensive end Elvis Dumervil is gone. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller is going to miss the early part of the season. That’s a combined 29.5 sacks, more than half of the team’s 52 sacks in 2012. Against the Seahawks, the Denver secondary was once again burned deep, one of the issues in last year’s double-overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
What does it all mean? Perhaps that Broncos defense of 2012 wasn’t as good as advertised. And this year’s edition may be slightly worse.
We’ve Learned: Two games into the 2013 preseason, the Detroit Lions don't seem to have learned too much from their recent past.
Jim Schwartz’s club has totaled only 132 yards rushing in their summer split with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.
What does this mean? Admittedly, we expect to see much more of Reggie Bush, Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell during the regular season. But this is a Lions team that dropped its last eight games last season and was a combined 0-6 within the NFC North.
Perhaps with all the changes on both the offensive and defensive lines, the team hasn’t settled on exactly what kind of attack it will feature.
Then again, perhaps Schwartz and company know something we don’t.
Green Bay Packers
We’ve Learned: Over the past two seasons, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown 84 touchdown passes. He has also been sacked 87 times.
Despite those huge numbers, Rodgers and his team have been eliminated in the divisional playoffs two straight years following a win in Super Bowl XLV. That has certainly been a lesson in itself.
Head coach Mike McCarthy revamped his offensive line this offseason, but those plans took a turn for the worst when left tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Now it is up to fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari to protect Rodgers’ blind side. And hopefully the Green Bay signal-caller doesn’t wind up learning a very painful lesson.
We’ve Learned: The Houston Texans have gotten down pat the “win the AFC South and beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card playoffs” thing.
Gary Kubiak’s team has experienced déjà vu for the last two years when it comes to the division title and the postseason, as the Texans have faded down the stretch. That was in spite of having some of the best players at their positions on offense with running back Arian Foster (who has been a star in the playoffs) and wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Last season, Johnson appeared to be quarterback Matt Schaub’s only wide receiver. Now rookie DeAndre Hopkins figures to change all that.
Johnson can’t do it alone. But is the promising Hopkins about to school us all?
We’ve Learned: Ryan Grigson made quite an impression a year ago in his first season as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts.
Now we’ll eventually find out if the young executive has the same Midas touch with the team’s defense that he did with the offense in the 2012 draft.
By all indications, there’s good news and some bad news. Newcomers such as defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, rookie linebacker Bjoern Werner and cornerback Greg Toler have had their moments. But if the team is to improve on last year’s rankings, some of the give and take has to include a few more takes.
The Colts forced only 15 turnovers in 16 games last season. And from what we have seen so far, they will need to at least double that total in order for this new-look unit to succeed.
We’ve Learned: Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has certainly heard his share of criticism since being a first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.
On Monday, the team announced that the improving signal-caller will be the opening-week starter. It shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise if you take a closer look at the progress Gabbert has made since his rough rookie season.
So what did we learn? It was noticeable last week against the New York Jets' aggressive defensive unit that Gabbert can play, and play well. Now it will be up to him and the rest of the Jaguars to see what that win-loss record will look like in 2013.
Kansas City Chiefs
We’ve Learned: When it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs, the lesson is a loaded question.
Then again, most football pundits are still trying to figure out how this talented team with six Pro Bowl players in 2012 managed only two wins a season ago?
New head coach Andy Reid is trying to push all the right buttons. And with players such as running back Jamaal Charles at his disposal, the Chiefs are certainly capable of reversing their fortunes.
But what of Charles, who is nursing a foot injury these days? If the big-play runner isn’t available consistently, can new quarterback Alex Smith succeed with rookie Knile Davis as the main threat in the backfield?
That’s something the Chiefs probably hope they don’t have to learn in 2013.
We’ve Learned: If the Miami Dolphins are to post their first winning season since 2008, second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill will have to show some improvement, but that won't be easy if he has a repeat of last season, when he was sacked 35 times.
It hasn’t been a good start for Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin, the starter at right tackle a year ago as a rookie. He was an moved to the other side this year as the team watched free agent Jake Long leave for the St. Louis Rams.
Even with additions such as wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, Tannehill and the Miami offense won’t be accomplishing much if Martin doesn’t start making strides at his new home.
We’ve Learned: Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was a bit of a question mark in 2012. And so far this summer, he hasn’t done much to prove himself.
A year ago, the former first-round pick threw for 18 scores and was picked off just a dozen times in leading his team to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. But all of those interceptions came in the final 12 games and Ponder was unavailable for the postseason due to injury.
Has veteran Matt Cassel done enough this summer to be a factor for the starting job down the road? Unfortunately, Ponder is living up to his reputation regardless.
New England Patriots
We’ve Learned: It’s been a few years since the New England Patriots defense has been referred to as fearsome.
It goes without saying that the wait has been long enough.
Buoyed by free-agent additions such as defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and strong safety Adrian Wilson and keyed by the improving play of second-year pros in defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Bill Belichick’s team has opened some eyes this summer. The Patriots swarmed Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman last week.
With all due respect to the Patriots offense and quarterback Tom Brady, let’s not forget the big impact the New England defense had in winning three Super Bowls in four seasons. And perhaps for the first time in a long time, big impact will be attached to this unit once again.
New Orleans Saints
We’ve Learned: With a look up and down the New Orleans Saints depth chart, you could make the case that Sean Payton’s team has as good a stable of running backs as any club in the league.
So is this the year we find out if any of them are capable of being the team’s feature back in 2013? The club obviously felt good enough about its depth at the position that it dealt Chris Ivory to the New York Jets this spring.
But will there be a main man in the backfield among Pierre Thomas and/or Mark Ingram? Will Darren Sproles see more carries in 2013?
We've learned that the team is very comfortable with its numerous options. In any case, the running game needs to be a much bigger factor this season if Payton is going to protect that new-look defense.
New York Giants
We’ve Learned: A year ago, the then-defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants were a big disappointment on the defensive side of the ball.
Only the New Orleans Saints gave up more total yards. Tom Coughlin’s team finished 25th in the league in rushing defense and saw their sack total dip from 48 in 2011 to 33 sacks a year ago.
So what can you do to cure what ails you on defense? Make sure second-year running back David Wilson is on the field as much as possible.
In two preseason games, the team’s first-round pick from 2012 (Virginia Tech) totaled 17 touches. But you can see that the Giants intend on putting the work into this potential workhorse.
And as we all know, the best defense for any team is one that remains off the field.
New York Jets
We’ve Learned: Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the New York Jets had arguably the best offensive line in the NFL.
A unit that included multiple Pro Bowlers in recent seasons such as left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, center Nick Mangold and guards Alan Faneca and Brandon Moore hasn’t been its usual self the last few seasons.
Faneca is long gone, and so is Moore, who retired this offseason. Right tackle has featured a few different faces in recent years, and Ferguson and Mangold, the cornerstones of the team’s 2006 draft, obviously can’t do it alone.
But Colon always makes things smell a little better (sorry), and the new guard combo of Willie Colon and Stephen Peterman gives the Jets a pair of veteran offensive linemen that have fit in very well in the early going. And whether it is Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith behind center, this is a group that could really dictate the Jets’ fortunes in 2013.
We’ve Learned: It could be a long and frustrating year for the Oakland Raiders defense.
One quarter of a preseason game versus the New Orleans Saints does not make for an entire season. But watching Dennis Allen’s club give up 17 points and 158 total yards in the first 15 minutes of the game last Friday had to be painful indeed.
As has been well-documented, general manager Reggie McKenzie has rebuilt the Silver and Black defense almost exclusively through free agency. There will be nine new starters on that side of the ball in 2013.
And despite big names such as linebacker Nick Roach, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter and safety Charles Woodson, that much change takes a little time to settle in. Unfortunately, the Raiders don't have the patience to wait.
We’ve Learned: It seems we’ve learned just as much about head coach Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles offense as when he first arrived in the City of Brotherly Love earlier this year.
Michael Vick has been named the starting quarterback, but how much of the Oregon Ducks offense will we see with these Birds?
No doubt Kelly has ruffled a few feathers when it comes to all of the mystery. But it is intriguing to contemplate how his attack translates into the NFL. We have seen Red Guns and Wildcats come and go.
So what have we learned about the Philadelphia attack this offseason? Probably about as much as the teams that will be facing it this season.
We’ve Learned: While Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley took his share of heat in his first year with the organization, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was getting plenty of heat on the field.
Welcome to the current state of the Pittsburgh offensive line. It’s a star-studded unit that features a pair of former first-round picks (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro) and a pair of former second-round selections (left tackle Mike Adams and right tackle Marcus Gilbert). Ramon Foster rounds out the starting five.
But the starting five has yet to round into form. And in two preseason games, this unit has piled up more holding calls than touchdowns.
If the Steelers are to have a bounce-back season in 2013, they need to do something about their quarterback getting continuously pushed around.
St. Louis Rams
We’ve Learned: Many people have already awarded the NFC West to either the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks. But it would be foolish to sleep on Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams in 2013.
Fisher’s group was king when it came to getting to the quarterback last season, tying for the league lead with 52 sacks in 2012. And very quietly, quarterback Sam Bradford threw 21 touchdown passes (13 interceptions) a year ago for the 7-8-1 club.
With Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson gone, the Rams need their young receiving corps to perform, and they’ve done just that so far. Chris Givens has put the long ball back in the St. Louis offense, and he and rookie Tavon Austin, the expected starters at wide receiver, have each totaled four receptions this preseason.
Amazingly, the Rams haven’t had a season in which they’ve averaged at least 20 points per game since 2006. Look for that to change in 2013.
San Diego Chargers
We’ve Learned: Bad luck has been the San Diego Chargers' biggest opponent in 2013 to date.
Knee injuries have sidelined linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jonas Mouton and wide receiver Danario Alexander. The latter two players have already been placed on injured reserve.
San Diego’s new-look offensive line hasn’t looked much better than the unit that helped allow quarterback Philip Rivers to be sacked 49 times a year ago.
And speaking of the Chargers signal-caller, he committed a pair of turnovers in the first quarter of Thursday night’s preseason tilt with the Chicago Bears. Over the past two seasons, Rivers has been guilty of 47 of the team’s 54 turnovers.
So what can we take from all of this? Remember the old phrase in regard to when you can’t say something nice.
San Francisco 49ers
We’ve Learned: The San Francisco 49ers are the defending NFC champions. And they appear to be getting a little defensive about who is going to catch the football this season.
And who is? Fortunately, the team wound up trading for wideout Anquan Boldin this offseason. Over the last few months, leading pass catcher Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles injury and now veteran Mario Manningham won’t be available for the first six games of the season.
On Monday, the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs swapped former first-round wide receivers, as Jonathan Baldwin replaces A.J. Jenkins in San Francisco.
And with veteran tight end Delanie Walker now in Tennessee, Boldin, tight end Vernon Davis and promising rookie wideout Quinton Patton figure to be very busy in 2013.
We’ve Learned: Despite the play of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson last season, the Seattle Seahawks remain a running team and have enough depth in the backfield to lead the league in rushing.
A year ago, Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch finished third in the NFL with 1,590 yards rushing. And if you include the playoffs, the workhorse runner totaled 100 or more yards in 11 of 18 games in 2012. Last season, then-rookie Robert Turbin chipped in with 354 yards rushing on 80 carries.
This summer, draft choices Christine Michael and Spencer Ware have each carried the ball 16 times for 89 and 86 yards, respectively.
In 2012, Wilson tied the NFL rookie record with 26 touchdown passes. He may or may not reach or even surpass that total this season, but don’t be surprised if a Seattle team that ranked third in the league in rushing yards a year ago reaches the top spot in 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We’ve Learned: If Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman doesn't pick up where he left off late last season, the team needs to do a better job of protecting the five-year veteran.
Last season, the Bucs signal-caller threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions in his final three outings. This was after he served up more than three times as many scores (25) as interceptions (eight) in his first 13 games last season.
Freeman was also sacked seven times in those final three contests. In last week’s loss to the New England Patriots, the young quarterback saw limited action, but was sacked three times on six total dropbacks.
We haven’t seen much from the Buccaneers regulars on the offensive front this preseason. But if the Tampa offense is to approach its play of a year ago, this area may need a little fine-tuning.
We’ve Learned: If the rest of the AFC South believes that the Tennessee Titans will be pushed around like they were in 2012, look out.
A year ago, Mike Munchak’s club allowed a league-high 471 points, the highest total in the 53-year history of the franchise.
But insert strong safety Bernard Pollard into the lineup, and you know that this will be a defensive unit with a different kind of attitude.
So far this summer, the numbers haven’t indicated much improvement on defense. But these Titans are also stressing the run even more this year. And when you combine that kind of physical play on both sides of the ball, the results will soon speak for themselves.
We’ve Learned: Season-ending injuries to defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo were devastating to the Washington Redskins defense in 2012.
The team did manage to win its first NFC East title since 1999 a year ago. But Mike Shanahan’s club also allowed 388 points, the highest total among the 12 playoff teams last season.
With Orakpo back and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan already in midseason form, this already looks like a much-improved defensive unit in 2013.
And if the Redskins hope to repeat as division champions, they may have to rely on this side of the football a little bit more as everyone awaits the return of quarterback Robert Griffin III.