NFL Preseason Week 1: What to Watch for in Thursday's Matchups
Football season has arrived, at least after a fashion.
With the Hall of Fame Game over and done with, the 2014 NFL preseason is officially underway. Thursday features half a dozen games, including rematches of each of the past two Super Bowls.
Granted, the intensity level in these games probably won't be quite what it was when those teams were fighting for the Lombardi Trophy, but that doesn't mean there won't still be storylines to monitor in Baltimore and Denver.
Here are the games within the games to watch during Thursday's slate.
Colts at Jets: Will the Real Trent Richardson Please Stand Up?
After suffering a pair of significant injuries at the running back position last year, the Indianapolis Colts went "all in" on Trent Richardson, dealing a first-round pick (the Johnny Manziel pick, to be precise) to the Cleveland Browns for the former third overall pick.
The result was a disaster, with Richardson averaging less than three yards per carry in his new home.
Both the Colts and Richardson have blamed Richardson's struggles on having to learn yet another system, and Richardson recently told Mike Wells of ESPN.com that his comfort level in Indy is like night and day compared to a year ago:
The comfort level is so much better now. I know the plays, and I’m not playing so tight. I’m really comfortable with the offense, and the timing with the offensive line is coming. I know all my cuts and reads before the snap.
However, with Vick Ballard already out for the season and Wells himself saying last month that the Colts could have Richardson on a short leash, the pressure is higher on the third-year pro than ever before.
Granted, Richardson won't see more than a handful of carries against the Jets Thursday, and the yardage won't be easy to come by against the NFL's third-ranked run defense from a year ago.
Still, when three yards a pop would be an improvement, it's important Richardson shows some of the burst and power he displayed at Alabama.
Patriots at Redskins: Can James White Keep It Up?
New York Giants running back Andre Williams made quite an impression during his NFL debut in the Hall of Fame Game, gaining 48 yards and scoring a touchdown on seven carries.
Thursday's matchup between the New England Patriots and Washington Redskins affords one of the stars of New England's camp the chance to make a similar splash.
Rookie running back James White has done nothing but impress in OTAs and training camp—to the point that ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss wrote that he was "starting to wonder if White might cut into some of (Stevan) Ridley's early-down workload, as it's been notable how many repetitions he's seeing in practice, especially on the goal line."
Reiss isn't the only scribe who has been singing White's praises of late. Michael Giardi of CSNNE.com wrote on Twitter: "7 camp practices in the book. Some quick thoughts...James White is the rookie who seems likely to contribute rt away."
Shane Vereen is set as the team's passing-down back, but head coach Bill Belichick has hardly been shy about pulling Ridley from early-down work in the past.
A strong performance by White against Washington is only going to accelerate his meteoric rise up the depth chart.
49ers at Ravens: Ravens Getting Younger on Defense
For the better part of the past 15 years, the Baltimore Ravens have been regarded as one of the top defensive teams in the NFL. Players such as linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed helped propel the Ravens to a pair of Super Bowl wins.
Well, of that trio, only Suggs remains, and the Ravens defense that will take the field Thursday night is filled with new faces.
In fact, two of those faces are being counted on as key contributors this season. The Ravens spent their first two draft picks on defense in 2014, and both defensive end Timmy Jernigan and C.J. Mosley could start as rookies.
In fact, as Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reports, Mosley has already claimed a spot atop the depth chart:
Rookie first-round draft pick C.J. Mosley is the starting weak-side inside linebacker ahead of Arthur Brown next to veteran middle linebacker Daryl Smith. Mosley has displayed sound instincts, excellent speed and range and is regarded as the real deal by the Ravens' coaching staff and personnel department.
Most of the focus may be on the Ravens passing game this offseason, but if Baltimore is going to get back to the playoffs in 2014, Jernigan and Mosley are going to have to help turn the Ravens defense back into the feared unit it once was.
Bengals at Chiefs: Rich-Man Dalton's 1st-Time out Post-Contract
In case you've been out of town and missed the news, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hit the mother lode this week, inking a six-year, $115 million contract extension.
The deal is very similar to the recent extension signed by Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers in that it's essentially a "pay as you go" deal. The annual salary is high, but outside of year one there isn't any guaranteed money, allowing the team to extricate itself easily if Dalton fails to progress.
Still, as head coach Marvin Lewis told Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, the structuring of the deal should in no way be construed as a lack of long-term confidence in "The Red Rifle":
Andy's done a fine job for us. We all want to be better. Once he does that, all of that will go away. He's being compared with Drew Brees, he's being compared with [Aaron] Rodgers, guys who didn't get a chance to play right away. They sat and watched. We threw Andy in right away. He's done a really good job.
Mind you, the earth is hardly going to split asunder and swallow Dalton whole if he looks awful in a couple series during the first preseason game.
However, as we saw Sunday night when Eli Manning of the New York Giants struggled against the Buffalo Bills, a rough outing from Dalton is only going to provide ammo for all the naysayers on social media who are already trashing Dalton's new contract.
Cowboys at Chargers: Defense? What Defense?
The Dallas Cowboys had the worst defense in the NFL last year, allowing well over 400 yards per game.
At the rate things are going, the Cowboys are going to end up looking back at last year nostalgically.
The 2014 Dallas defense is shaping up to be an absolute disaster. The team's two best pass-rushers from last year (end DeMarcus Ware and tackle Jason Hatcher) are gone. Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence, who was brought in to help bolster that pass rush, broke his foot and is out until at least October.
Oh, and linebacker Sean Lee (the team's best defender by a Texas mile) tore his ACL and is out for the year.
Let's put it this way: The Cowboys are so desperate for defensive help that they traded for Rolando McClain.
Still, Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News reports that chief operating officer Stephen Jones expects the Dallas defense to be "much improved" in 2014:
There’s still some question marks that we’ve got to see how it works out. Obviously we don’t have that guy when you break the huddle that you’re trying to find [like] DeMarcus Ware, "Where is he? We got to block him." But I do think that we got a bunch of young guys that are going to play hard and have some skills.
We’ll just see what happens on the injury front with guys like [DeMarcus] Lawrence and [Anthony] Spencer. Those guys are going to get after it and play hard and I got a lot of confidence in them.
We'll see if Jones feels the same way after that defense gets its first live action of the season against the Bolts Thursday.
Seahawks at Broncos: More Than Just a Preseason Game?
On many levels, it's just silly to say that a preseason game could set the tone for a Super Bowl.
However, last year the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos met in Week 2 of the preseason. The Seahawks jumped all over the Broncos in that game, cruising to a 40-10 win.
Sound familiar at all?
Of course, Denver head coach John Fox downplayed the importance of Thursday's game while speaking with Nicki Jhabvala of The Denver Post:
Really, last year's forgotten. Everybody is 0-0. This is the 2014 season. It's no different than any other years. A year ago we lost to Baltimore (in the playoffs). I've said many times if you don't win the last game there's disappointment. That's behind us. We're so far along now, with different players and different schemes that we don't think about (the Super Bowl) much.
If you believe that, Fox also has some great oceanfront property near Tucson for sale cheap.
Yes, NFL players have to have short memories, but they're also human. In the last two matchups against the Seahawks, the Broncos have been outscored 83-18, a fact the talkative Seahawks aren't about to let Denver forget.
It won't be even a little surprising if the intensity level in this game is quite a bit higher than one might usually expect in an exhibition. In fact, the word "chippy" may well get thrown around during the broadcast.
At any rate, this matchup is easily the marquee game of the preseason's first full week of action.
Colts at Jets: Can Michael Vick Create a QB Controversy?
Despite all his protestations to the contrary, the only person who appears to actually believe there's a quarterback competition in New York is head coach Rex Ryan.
Even one of the so-called competitors admits it, with Michael Vick acknowledging to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that he's Geno Smith's backup:
You never envision yourself being in this role (when you’re younger). But as you grow older, you start to (realize) it’s inevitable. You know it’s going to happen. At the same time, I just try to keep myself in shape and keep trying to be the best that I can be, because you never know what can happen.
Oh, there's still plenty that can happen.
For starters, while Geno Smith may be fairly firmly entrenched as the starter for the Jets, we're still talking about a second-year quarterback who had all sorts of problems with turnovers in 2013.
If Smith comes out and struggles against the Colts' first-team defense, that's one thing.
But if Smith struggles and then Vick lights it up against the reserves?
Well, that would give folks in the Big Apple a lot to talk about over the weekend.
Patriots at Redskins: New Washington Offense on Display
After capturing the NFC East two years ago, the Washington Redskins entered the 2013 season with high hopes. Those hopes were dashed in a disastrous 3-13 campaign that ended with quarterback Robert Griffin III on the bench and head coach Mike Shanahan looking for work.
Well, hope springs eternal again in 2014. Griffin is reportedly healthy and drawing rave reviews in camp. New head coach Jay Gruden has installed the offense that ranked 10th in the NFL in Cincinnati last year.
As John Keim of ESPN.com reports, Gruden lauded his quarterback's development while at the same time admitting that Griffin isn't going to become the golden boy overnight:
[Tom Brady] definitely has total control over the offense and that’s one thing we want to get Robert to, where he has absolutely total control over what’s happening on every play, where he doesn’t mess up on a progression, where he knows exactly if he’s covered he’s going here to run or he’s going right to left, whatever it is. Just total command of the game. There will be growing pains, but ideally I want him to have just total understanding of every possible play and every coverage scenario and where to go with the football. It’ll come for him. It’ll take some time but it will come.
Griffin's progress after last year's injury-marred mess is hardly the only question facing the Washington offense. How will new wide receiver DeSean Jackson fit into the game plan? What effect will Gruden's scheme have on tailback Alfred Morris, who thrived in Shanahan's zone-blocking attack?
Those questions aren't going to be answered in a series or two, but the limited glimpse we're going to get of the Washington starters is probably the biggest storyline of this matchup.
49ers at Ravens: Could the San Francisco Defense Backslide in 2014?
The name of the game in the NFC West is defense.
Of the top six defenses in the NFL last year, fully half hailed from the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers were in the middle of that trio, coming in fifth at 316.9 yards allowed per game.
However, while the 49ers remain a talented defensive squad, gaps are starting to show in the armor.
Veteran defensive end Justin Smith finally started showing signs of age last season. Star linebacker NaVorro Bowman will all but certainly start the season on the physically unable to perform list after tearing his ACL in last year's NFC Championship Game. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey recently tore his biceps muscle and could miss the entire season.
As Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports pointed out, the 49ers also have issues outside:
The 49ers' defense isn't great on the perimeter. The outside cornerbacks are Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, with Cook and Perrish Cox as the likely backups. That group won't excite anyone, and on paper it's the weakest part of a very good defense. An injury or two at cornerback and the 49ers might really be in trouble.
In a division with zero margin for error, there's more than a little pressure on young players like defensive end Cornellius Carradine, linebacker Michael Wilhoite and safety Jimmie Ward to pick up the slack.
If the Ravens come out and move the ball with ease early, then the questions are going to start about just how many pieces an engine can lose before something seizes up.
Bengals at Chiefs: Will Eric Fisher Bounce Back in Year 2?
Coming off a disastrous 2-14 2012 season, the Kansas City Chiefs made Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Chiefs then staged a stunning turnaround, winning 11 games and making the playoffs. However, it had very little to do with Fisher. Playing most of the season at right tackle, Fisher struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out as the seventh-worst tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Now, with Branden Albert in Miami, Fisher will switch back to his familiar spot on the left side. Fisher told Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star he's anxious to wash away the stink of last year's struggles:
It was a lot to deal with as a new player in this league. That’s why I’m looking so forward to this year and to great things happening. It’s a very proud position; there’s a lot riding on that position. Protecting that blind side is something I take huge, huge pride in.
Fisher probably won't play more than a series or two, but they will come against a Bengals front four that's among the league's best, making Thursday an important glimpse into Fisher's year two progress.
Cowboys at Chargers: Bolts Rolling out Revamped Secondary...or Not
The San Diego Chargers surprised many by advancing to the playoffs in 2013. They surprised even more by traveling to Cincinnati and downing the Bengals in the Wild Card Round.
However, it didn't take a genius to see San Diego's weak spot last year: a pass defense that ranked 29th in the NFL.
The Chargers were very aggressive in addressing that deficiency in the offseason. First, they selected TCU's Jason Verrett in the first round of May's NFL draft.
Then the team received a gift of sorts, as their division rivals in Kansas City jettisoned Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers in a cost-cutting move.
Unfortunately, Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego reports that neither defensive back is expected to take the field against the Cowboys. "With Verrett and Flowers limited in some capacity," Gehlken tweeted, "neither of team's top CB additions expected to play Thursday. Doubt Chargers concerned." Verrett is still recovering from a torn labrum in his shoulder.
There isn't reason to be concerned about the pair (yet). However, with a less-than-full-strength Chargers secondary about to face a loaded Dallas passing attack, the importance of Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett to the Chargers' playoff hopes in 2014 may be demonstrated just as aptly by their absence as it would be by their presence.
Seahawks at Broncos: Can Christine Michael Walk the Walk?
Going all the way back to February's NFL Scouting Combine, the Seattle Seahawks have absolutely gushed about second-year running back Christine Michael.
Justin Rogers of MLive.com reported back in February: "Pete Carroll really hyped up RB Christine Michaels. Called him the Seahawks biggest breakout candidate."
We have very high expectations for him. He's going to get a ton of work. He's just a million miles ahead of where he was in terms of understanding what we want scheme-wise, pass protection wise, route wise, and we know he's a natural runner. He's got explosive talent and we just want to get him to fit in.
In fact, when Lynch held out as camp opened, the Seahawks appeared perfectly willing to hand the reins in the ground game over to Michael.
Lynch saw that as well and caved. However, with "Beast Mode" likely to be all about that sideline action (boss) in the preseason opener, Michael will see quite a bit of action for the Seahawks.
Michael didn't play in last year's preseason blowout of the Broncos, but he did have a very nice exhibition season, averaging five yards a pop on 40 carries.
If Michael has similar success against Denver, it's only going to reinforce the notion that Lynch's days in the Emerald City are numbered.
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