The 2014 NFL preseason heads into Week 2 with a couple of prime-time games serving as excellent bookends to the schedule, along with a battle between two conference finalists from the most recent playoffs.
Most of the league's 32 teams opened preseason play this last week. Veterans coming off of injuries and jittery rookies have thus been initiated to live game situations. With that, the quality of play on both sides of the ball should be enhanced in Week 2, and an increased number of plays will be installed and implemented.
But Janus-faced tactics will still be deployed by all teams involved so as not to reveal the more intricate strategies that will be deployed during the regular season. That makes evaluating how players are progressing difficult for most fans and even expert analysts to figure out.
That doesn't take away from the excitement of pro football's return, though, so let's examine the top games approaching and the primary developments to watch for.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Chicago Bears
No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles looked the part in his NFL debut, completing seven of 11 passes for 117 yards. What stood out about Bortles were his improved mechanics, particularly with regard to his delivery and footwork.
Those fundamentals are part of the questions outsiders, including yours truly, had when the Jaguars made the bold move to take Bortles so early. Mechanics are innate and take a good deal of discipline to correct, which contributes to Jacksonville's insistence that Bortles won't start in 2014.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley was fickle in discussing his plans for Bortles for the rest of training camp, per NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport:
#Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, on if Bortles’ll get 1st-team reps eventually: “For me to say he’s not going to would probably be inaccurate.”— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 12, 2014
Bradley added some rookies have gotten 1st-team reps. Bortles will too at some point. “But the team has really rallied around Chad (Henne).”— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 12, 2014
NFL Network's Albert Breer was among those impressed with Bortles' undeniable look of belonging on an NFL field in his first taste of action in facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
A little behind on Red Zone ... But man, Blake Bortles looks the part. Fundamentally better, too Good, quick work by coaches.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 9, 2014
When the sizable Bortles has his feet set the right way and has the proper release point, his arm talent has a better chance to shine through. It didn't appear as though he possessed elite arm strength coming out of UCF, but he did throw multiple darts up the seam that were accurate, on time and fit into the NFL's tighter throwing windows.
Tampa Bay's new head coach, Lovie Smith, was Marc Trestman's predecessor in the Windy City. After years of playing stout defense, this new era in Chicago will likely be defined by Trestman's West Coast style of offense, featuring cannon-armed QB Jay Cutler and perhaps the best receiver duo in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Fox Sports' Jay Glazer believes these Bears have the look of a strong all-around team:
Out here at Bears camp, love this roster and attitude on both sides of the trenches. Very balanced team— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) August 12, 2014
Bradley was Seattle's defensive coordinator before getting his shot at the helm. Bradley will need his defense to be in top form to stymie the Bears' first team, which also features all-purpose ball-carrier Matt Forte.
All eyes will be on Bortles to see how he handles the limelight on Thursday. Chad Henne may be insisted upon as the starter, but another strong outing by Bortles may change the Jags' thinking; their future may be now.
Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers
Small vengeance was had for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in facing the Niners' division rival and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the first preseason contest.
Manning orchestrated a 14-play, 61-yard touchdown drive against Seattle's vaunted defense. A similar, daunting test lies ahead for "The Sheriff" and his explosive Broncos offense when Denver takes a road trip to San Francisco on Sunday, marking the NFL debut of Levi's Stadium.
The reigning NFL MVP acknowledged that the Niners won't be overlooked, even though this matchup doesn't ultimately count for anything in the grand scheme.
"It's not like a huge preparation when you're playing against these guys, but it's a good test when you play the 49ers," said Manning, per 49ers.com's Taylor Price. "It's a physical game. It's a team that we’ll play again in the regular season, a 3-4 defense, and so (there are) lots of things we can get out of this."
Dynamic but troubled pass-rusher Aldon Smith will be available for this contest, but it will be again in the shadow of his impending suspension, which Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reported on recently:
Source: 49ers do not know verdict of potential NFL discipline for Aldon Smith, but they're bracing for 6 to 8 games.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 8, 2014
Thus, it will be interesting to see who steps up in Smith's absence. The Niners are also without NaVorro Bowman in the linebacker corps, since he is still recovering from a torn ACL and MCL suffered against the Seahawks in the NFC title game.
Part of what hurt the Broncos so much in their Super Bowl loss led to the move to acquire cornerback Aqib Talib in the offseason during free agency.
Denver also used its first-round pick on Ohio State corner Bradley Roby, who had his moments in defending the run but struggled in coverage against Seattle rookie Paul Richardson, per DenverBroncos.com's Andrew Mason:
Bradley Roby credited with the forced fumble. Goes back to what I've talked about in his run D. But was beaten by Richardson for receptions.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 8, 2014
San Francisco's cornerback position is a question mark, with the losses of both Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to the Oakland Raiders. Veteran Antoine Bethea forms a solid safety duo with young, rising star Eric Reid, but Manning may be able to pick apart the Niners underneath.
The lack of usual personnel at linebacker will see Manning playing chess with Niners defensive leader Patrick Willis, making for some serious entertainment for a preseason game.
Cleveland Browns vs. Washington Redskins
Speaking of entertainment, it doesn't get much juicer than this. Monday Night Football pits host Washington against its previous offensive play-caller, Kyle Shanahan, and the most talked-about NFL first-round pick in Browns QB Johnny Manziel.
Career backup Brian Hoyer is attempting to beat out the playmaking Manziel for Cleveland's starting gig under center, and the competition is in quite the dead heat at the moment.
Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan documented what Browns coach Mike Pettine had to say about his intentions for Hoyer and Manziel in the nation's capital:
Pettine said 1st team reps vs Skins will be split bt Hoyer/Manziel; doesn't really matter who starts— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) August 12, 2014
The 2013 campaign was a lost season for Washington QB Robert Griffin III after an electric rookie year under Shanahan's guidance. Now operating a new system under Jay Gruden, Griffin was reportedly struggling in practice against the New England Patriots to the point that his backup, Kirk Cousins, is outplaying him.
Check out what Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com reported last Sunday:
One of my biggest takeaways from Patriots-Redskins joint practices was surprise that Robert Griffin III didn’t look like the best quarterback on his own team. In fact, I thought Kirk Cousins was better than him, from the perspective of running the offense, fine-tuned mechanics and how decisively the ball came out of his hand. I wondered if I was alone, and then heard the same sentiment echoed by some others in the Patriots organization.
Which young quarterback has the best chance for sustainable success as an NFL starter?
In any event, the line between success and failure in the NFL is primarily determined by quarterback play. There is a reason every picture in this article is of a QB. Both Washington and Cleveland have experienced perpetual turbulence at the position and have thus suffered in recent years as a result.
There isn't any sort of controversy in Washington as to who will start, because it will be Griffin over Cousins. However, it just goes to show how vital the preseason is in terms of scouting. The Browns have a far more unenviable decision to make, because if Manziel seizes the job from Hoyer, the Johnny Football era is nigh, and there will be no turning back.
Going all-in on an exciting, athletic—but vulnerable—quarterback is something Washington can relate to. There are many layers and links involved between these two teams, so the Week 2 preseason finale stands to be the most compelling to watch of any upcoming game.