NFL Preseason Week 2: What to Watch for in Sunday's Matchups
We're well into the second week of the 2014 NFL preseason. Already this week we've seen a dominant performance from the Seattle Seahawks and impressive preseason debuts from quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys.
For those of you breathlessly awaiting the next sighting of Johnny Manziel on the gridiron, chill. The Cleveland Browns don't play until Monday night in Washington.
Sunday's slate is low on quantity with only two games. However, not only are both matchups nationally televised affairs, but all four teams in action Sunday advanced to the postseason last year.
From a matchup in Charlotte, North Carolina, between two surprise playoff teams to an exhibition affair between the last two Super Bowl losers, here's what to watch for in Sunday's games.
Broncos at 49ers: The Battle to Be Bowman
Sunday's first game features the losers of the last two battles for the Lombardi Trophy, with the Denver Broncos traveling to face the San Francisco 49ers.
Both teams are facing questions on defense, especially at the linebacker position.
For the 49ers, the torn ACL suffered by inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman in last year's NFC title-game loss most likely means the Pro Bowler will begin the season on the PUP list.
That leaves the 49ers in need of a new batterymate for Patrick Willis to start the season, with third-year pro Michael Wilhoite and third-round rookie Chris Borland vying for the job.
While speaking with Don Banks of Sports Illustrated recently, Willis admitted that Wilhoite's experience in the defense (he started two games in Willis' stead last year) gives the vet an edge, but he also talked up Borland's similarity to Bowman:
He’s a little pit bull. I love watching him play. He reminds me a lot of NaVorro. [He plays] real low and compact. It seems like they never break stride. They’re always moving and they always get to the ball.
They’re both going to take some chances, but they’re going to make some plays from taking those chances. Whereas I’m a little more conservative, a little more read and react, and more of a safety valve, they’re more like, 'I’m going to go for it, and you back me up.' But whatever works. I say as long as you’re gambling and you win more than you lose, I don’t have a problem with that.
As Andrew Pentis of the 49ers' website reported, Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson was effusive in his praise for Borland:
I coached against him in 2012, when I was at Utah State,” said Anderson, who then coached Borland in ‘13 when he took over the Badgers program. “As we got ready to play against Chris, I knew that this was how an inside linebacker plays football. I challenged my own son, who was then a junior in high school, to study Chris if he wanted to be a big-time linebacker, and I didn’t know anything about Chris then except for how he played the game. When you prepare for him, he’s better on gameday than you think he is. When you coach him, he’s a kid that never ceases to amaze you.
With that said, Wilhoite isn't just handing the spot to Borland, especially after posting seven total tackles and a sack in last week's loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
How the duo performs against the Broncos could go a long way in determining the pecking order for the "dress rehearsal" that follows, as well as who lines up next to Willis in Week 1.
Chiefs at Panthers: Can the Chiefs Become Less One-Dimensional in 2014?
The Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs in 2013, powered by the ground game of star running back Jamaal Charles and the pass rush of outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
However, all throughout Kansas City's playoff run, the refrain was the same where the Chiefs were concerned: Kansas City was a good team, but against the league's elite, the team's inability to throw the ball consistently would be its undoing.
Sure enough, the Chiefs were unable to hold a big lead against the Indianapolis Colts in last year's Wild Card Round, although it's worth pointing out that Alex Smith threw for almost 400 yards in that game.
Smith, who is entering the final year of his contract, told The Associated Press (via Fox News) that the Kansas City passing attack has made strides in the offseason: "Our whole receiver crew I think has done an excellent job and had a great offseason. They've kept it going in camp with the pads on. Those guys come out and battle every single day. They get a lot of tough looks; they come out prepared and make a lot of plays."
The Panthers should provide a good test for that "improved" passing game. The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks and ranked second in the NFL in run defense, but the Carolina secondary is the defense's weak spot, especially after the departures of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell.
Broncos at 49ers: Life After Danny Trevathan
The San Francisco 49ers aren't the only team in Sunday afternoon's matchup with issues at the linebacker position.
However, whereas the 49ers have known about theirs since January, Denver's didn't crop up until earlier this week.
As Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com reports, weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the Broncos in tackles last year with 129, will miss six to eight weeks after fracturing his kneecap in practice Tuesday.
Head coach John Fox admitted to Mike Klis of The Denver Post that the injury is a significant one while downplaying it at the same time: "He's a vital part of our defense, but not too many people heard of Danny a couple years ago, and you never know what might happen. We'll just shuffle the next guy in, and he's expected to perform well, and I'm sure they will."
Rookie Lamin Barrow has some experience on the weak side from his time at LSU, but after an up-and-down camp, the youngster has some work to do before he's ready for the starting lineup.
Not only did this bad news come late in the game for the Broncos, but the team won't have much margin for error as it navigates the season's early going without Trevathan.
The Broncos' first three opponents (Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle) all made the playoffs in 2013, and the AFC West isn't a division where the Broncos can afford to dig an early hole.
Chiefs at Panthers: Can Benjamin Keep It Up?
The positive momentum from the Carolina Panthers' 12-win 2013 season lasted right up until free agency got underway.
By the time the dust had settled, the Panthers had lost their top four wideouts from last year, including a messy divorce from longtime stalwart Steve Smith.
Salary-cap issues prevented the team from adding any big names in free agency, so it was hardly a surprise when the Panthers went the wide receiver route in the first round of May's NFL draft.
What has surprised many is just how quickly Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin has acclimated to the NFL. The reports regarding him have been universally positive since the moment Benjamin set foot on the practice field.
As ESPN.com's David Newton reports, Benjamin hasn't slowed down since:
Benjamin opened camp with a spectacular leaping catch, stole the show in the preseason opener against Buffalo with an awkward-but-acrobatic diving 29-yard touchdown catch and ended camp with a leaping touchdown catch over the middle with two defenders draped on him.
Outside of who would start at left tackle, which appears settled with Byron Bell, who would replace the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, was the biggest question entering camp.
It's not a question leaving camp.
Benjamin reeled in a 29-yard scoring pass in the preseason opener, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep the good times rolling against a Kansas City secondary that lost Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers in the offseason.
Broncos at 49ers: Hyde and Seek
Among the many rookies making their NFL debuts last week was former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, whom the 49ers selected in the second round of May's draft.
Hyde's debut was an auspicious one. The 6'0", 230-pound bruiser showed power and burst in gaining 39 yards on five carries, including a 19-yard scamper off left tackle where Hyde showed surprising speed in reaching the edge.
It was a performance that drew the praise of head coach Jim Harbaugh, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I thought he really ran the ball well,” Harbaugh said. “Had good vision. Really lowered his pads...He’s light on his feet.”
Meanwhile, Hyde's only regret was that he didn't play more:
I’m a big competitor, man, so I never want to get out of the game. I just always want to be in there competing and scratching and fighting for extra yards...I thought I would play a little more than what I did, but that’s not the case. We’re down running backs right now, so we have to be cautious.
It was also notable that the 49ers left Hyde in the game in the shotgun, which would seem to indicate that he has been at least moderately successful in blitz pickups in camp.
Make no mistake: Frank Gore remains the lead back in San Francisco. However, Gore is also a 31-year-old back with nearly 2,200 career carries. That's a lot of banging around over the past decade.
If Hyde continues to impress against the Broncos, then we may see the "passing of the torch" in the San Francisco backfield a lot earlier than many think.
Chiefs at Panthers: The Ealy Bird Gets the Worm
This storyline may not have much of an impact on the Carolina Panthers in 2014, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant.
In fact, if defensive end Kony Ealy continues to play like he did in the Panthers' preseason opener, that impact may be coming sooner than most believe.
Given the team's other needs, it turned some heads when the Panthers took Ealy in the second round back in May. After all, in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, the Panthers have one of the NFL's best one-two punches at the defensive end position.
Well, as Rick Drummond of Pro Football Focus pointed out, those heads were turning again last week:
Logging the highest snap total of the Panthers’ defensive ends, second-rounder Kony Ealy notched a +2.2 run defense grade in his first night wearing Carolina Blue. Seeing time across all four quarters, Ealy matched up against a variety of Bills blockers, getting the better of fellow rookies Cyrus Kouandjio and Cyril Richardson along the way. With Greg Hardy playing on the franchise tag, thoughts rightfully turn to the future of the position for the Panthers there’s no doubt the team hopes Ealy proves himself worthy of a spot in the rotation sooner than later. If his initial performance is an indication, carving out a role as an early-down option shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Not only is Hardy making more than $13 million this season under the franchise tag, but Johnson carries a cap hit of more than $16 million this year.
That's a staggering amount of cap space tied up in one position, especially with Hardy facing an uncertain future thanks to a pending assault trial and Johnson's tackle numbers being down significantly since he signed a $72 million extension back in 2011.
The better Ealy plays in the preseason, the larger a role he's apt to carve out once the games count.
The better he plays once the games count, the easier it's going to be for the Panthers to cut costs by dumping one of their high-priced ends come next spring.
Broncos at 49ers: Ronnie Hillman's Second Chance
The 2013 season didn't go according to plan for Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman.
Granted, it started well enough with Hillman drawing raves in camp. However, he fumbled three times in the preseason (losing two), and that was enough to land the young back squarely in Fox's doghouse.
Hillman went on to carry the ball only 55 times last year, and he was inactive seven times during the regular season.
With that said, though, 2014 has brought with it an opportunity for redemption.
Knowshon Moreno, who led the team in rushing last year, is now in Miami. Montee Ball, who is set to assume lead back duties this year, is out indefinitely after undergoing an appendectomy. C.J. Anderson may miss this week's game after suffering a concussion against the Seattle Seahawks last week.
That sets the stage for a big workload for Hillman and an opportunity to show off the improvement that running backs coach Eric Studesville told Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post he's seen from Hillman in 2014:
I think what we're seeing is we're seeing him much closer to what we thought his potential was. The growth always happens as they experience more and they see more, but I think we're seeing him now getting really close, edging up to what we really thought his potential was when we drafted him three years ago.
Hillman will need to do better than the six carries for 15 yards he had against the Seahawks, but if he can put together a solid outing against a stout San Francisco defense, it will go a long way toward cementing him as Ball's primary understudy in the Denver backfield this year.
Chiefs at Panthers: Will Eric Fisher Step Up?
Speaking of 2013 seasons that didn't go according to plan...
Offensive tackle Eric Fisher was the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He was supposed to anchor the Chiefs' offensive front for years to come.
Instead, playing out of position at right tackle most of the year, Fisher struggled. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the third-worst player at his position in the NFL in 2013.
This year, with Branden Albert now in Miami, Fisher has kicked back to Smith's blind side. The former Central Michigan star packed on an extra 20 pounds in the offseason, and while shoulder surgery caused Fisher to miss much of camp, the youngster told Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star he's glad to be back at left tackle and ready for bigger and better things in 2014: "Oh, I think I saw a whole lot. Rookie year is going to be a blessing to me because I learned everything you could last year. I’m glad to be back in my home position. It’s like riding a bike. It’s a lot more natural for me. I’m really excited about it.”
Simply put, if the Chiefs are going to make it back to the postseason in 2014, they're going to need a second-year leap from last year's No. 1 pick.
Unfortunately, that leap wasn't in evidence in the preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite playing only 11 snaps in the game, Fisher allowed a sack.
This week's matchup provides another stiff test. In Johnson and Hardy, the Panthers have one of the NFL's most formidable duos at defensive end, and no team in the NFL racked up more sacks last year than Carolina (60).