The NFL preseason is for the birds. Anyone with even a modicum of football knowledge couches their mid-August opinions with "I know it's only preseason, but..." before making a proclamation that looks utterly insane within two months.
We put infinitely more stock into the NFL's preseason than any other sport. No one scours Spring Training results looking for sleepers, nor does the NBA's preseason tell us anything we don't already know. But because it's football—and because there is literally nothing else interesting going on in the sports world in August—we decide to plan our entire nights around seeing Johnny Manziel throw the ball 10 times.
Good news: We're only two weeks away from real football. Pretty decent news: This week will be the closest thing we get to real football until it actually arrives.
Week 3 of the preseason is typically where starters see their most extensive action. Most will play through at least the first half, and some rebuilding teams may even stretch their first unit a series of two past the halftime break to get them second-half reps.
This is also an important set of games for players currently sitting on the cut line. The NFL requires teams cut their roster to a maximum of 75 players by Aug. 26. They are then subject to a second set of cuts—down to the 53-man limit—a few days later on Aug. 30. More than a third of players who currently have NFL jobs will lose their livelihood within the next 10 days, though the expansion of practice squads should help a bit.
This might actually become a semi-enjoyable four days of football! With that in mind, let's check in on a few of the games this weekend and highlight their more intriguing subplots.
New York Giants at New York Jets (Friday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m. ET)
The Jets and Giants head into Week 3 with some pretty glaring issues. For the Giants, the refrain is similar to last season: The offense cannot stop making befuddling errors. Where last season Eli Manning passes were the gift that kept on giving to opposing defenses to the point they felt gluttonous and had to go to confession, this preseason has been a more plain, general strain of awful.
Manning has managed to rack up only 49 yards passing in three games. He hasn't thrown an interception, but he's been sacked three times and was pummeled by Buffalo in the Hall of Fame game. The Giants' first-team offense as a whole has struggled to pick up offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's new system.
"We know that first group, we've got to get better," Manning told reporters. "We've got to perform and start doing our jobs. It's not the system; it's just the execution. There are opportunities there. We've got to make some plays, and we've got to do some other things to give us the opportunity to make some more plays."
The Giants backups have been much more responsive to McAdoo's system, which emphasizes tempo and making play calls at the line. Ryan Nassib has accumulated 378 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing better than 62 percent of his passes.
The Giants' lack of offensive progress through the air is a nice juxtaposition to the Jets, who have not had much success piecing together a competent secondary. Top cornerback Dee Milliner has an ankle injury, leaving Rex Ryan forced to start Kyle Wilson and Dimitri Patterson on Friday.
That doesn't exactly sound appealing.
Wilson has been a disappointment since being drafted in the first round four years ago. Patterson, who came over from Miami this offseason, has not performed well at all in camp. He's given up three receptions for 59 yards on as many targets during the first two preseason games. Safety Antonio Allen has even been switched over to corner in an effort to combat the combination of injuries and ineffectiveness.
“It’s OK,” Patterson told reporters of the criticism. “At the end of the day, and it’s the good thing about professional sports, you’ve got the opportunity to go out and shut people up.”
The Jets' leaky secondary versus the Giants' broken dam of a passing game. Something has to give, right?
Minnesota Vikings at Kansas City Chiefs (Saturday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. ET)
While his two first-round contemporaries have already had their hopes of starting Week 1 dashed, the same cannot be said for Teddy Bridgewater. The Louisville product has been stellar in his time with the second unit, throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. For all the talk about Blake Bortles' performance in the second week of the preseason, Bridgewater was every bit as excellent.
The issue: Matt Cassel has been pretty good himself. In fact, he's been borderline perfect. Cassel has completed better than three quarters of his passes, needing only 22 attempts to rack up 215 yards and a touchdown. We know who Cassel is at this juncture—a steady, completely unspectacular caretaker—but he hasn't done anything to lose the lead he had coming into camp.
Coach Mike Zimmer has already named Cassel the starting quarterback for Saturday's game in Kansas City.
"Matt is doing great," Zimmer told reporters. "Honestly, he takes charge of the football team. I still like to have them compete and we still have to keep competing. I think Matt has a great command of the offense. He is getting better at it all the time, he is making the correct throws and you know what he is taking care of the football."
Bridgewater may get work with the first-team offense, though that hasn't been confirmed. Given that most coaches like to have their positional battles mostly settled by the third week, it'll take an exceptional performance from Bridgewater to unseat Cassel early on.
For the Chiefs, Saturday will be about trying to regain defensive rhythm. They've allowed 67 points in two games, and not all of it can be blamed on the camp bodies sitting on the third team. Cincinnati and Carolina have combined to score 38 first-half points, with a mostly even split from the second to the first teams.
Kansas City is replacing starters on both sides of the ball, and the lack of chemistry shows. There have been penalties, missed assignments and generally just bad football on the defensive side. The secondary in particular has been hit hard by the rash of penalty flags being thrown this preseason. With Dontari Poe and Co. on the defensive line struggling to get good penetration, it's been an uphill battle all month.
If the winner of Cassell vs. Bridgwater is still actually undetermined, it'll be interesting to see how both look against a scuffling Chiefs defense.
St. Louis Rams at Cleveland Browns (Saturday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m. ET)
Manziel should just have his own network at this point. Every last one of his actions is dissected ad nauseam by media, fans and even your great aunt who knows roughly six NFL players. He might be the only person on the planet whose middle finger can draw such a mixture of amusement and sanctimony.
From a football perspective, Manziel will be at his most interesting Saturday night. For the first time in his young career, he's had a major setback. Since winning Texas A&M's starting job as a redshirt freshman, Manziel's on-field life has been a series of affirmations. Losing the starting gig to Brian Hoyer, a career backup whose claim to fame is one pretty good game last season, has to be a bit of a blow.
"I need to earn everything for me to get in," Maziel told reporters. "Nothing should be given to me, I completely understand that. I need to continue to come in here every day and get better and be around these guys and let them know who I am and how I am."
Hoyer will likely get a majority (if not all) of the first-team reps against a stellar St. Louis front seven. He'll need every one. For all of the discussion about Manziel's struggles last week, Hoyer has not exactly been setting the world ablaze.
The Ohio native has completed only eight of his 20 passes thus far, accumulating 108 yards without a touchdown or interception. Of the two, Manziel has actually gotten more opportunities and been better in game settings. Hoyer won the job basically by not losing it. He's the type of steady veteran hand who gains support from veterans—specifically on the defensive side—who just want a guy who won't screw everything up.
We've seen this program before.
How Manziel reacts to this setback will be far more interesting. He was a bit of a mess against Washington, completing only seven of 17 passes for 65 yards, though he did throw a touchdown. What most were reacting to in deriding the performance was a lack of explosive plays. He took three sacks and only carried the ball once. When Connor Shaw makes you look abysmal by comparison, something has gone wrong.
Assuming he gets an extensive look with the second team, be on the lookout for Manziel's body language and performance level.
The Rams mainly want to get out of this game healthy. Sam Bradford looked stellar last week against Green Bay after sitting out the preseason opener, and Jeff Fisher has done a nice job of limiting his first team's snaps overall. Bradford, lord of the checkdown kingdom, even torched the Packers secondary for a 41-yard completion to Brian Quick.
Fisher is hoping his starters are close to full strength. Jake Long, Rodger Saffold, Michael Brockers and James Laurinaitis all could be back in the lineup after missing time with injury. With this being the last time the Rams will have their starters on the field extensively, it'll be nice to see them getting back into a rhythm of playing together.
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