NFL Preseason Week 3: What to Watch for in Friday's Matchups
We've hit the third week of the NFL preseason, and that can mean only one thing:
"Dress rehearsal" time!
Over the next few days, starters across the NFL will see their most extensive action of the exhibition season. Those same starters will play very sparingly (if at all) next week, so this is the last real chance for NFL teams to tighten things up before the games begin to count.
Already this week we've seen a solid performance from a supposedly dinged-up LeSean McCoy against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were shredded by the Philadelphia Eagles' uptempo offense.
McCoy's toe sure looked OK to me. His thumb, on the other hand (so to speak)...
Friday's slate brings with it five more games, including a battle for Empire State supremacy and a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Here's what to look for in that handful of games.
Jaguars at Lions: The Rise of King Blake I
The dominant storyline out of Jacksonville this preseason has no doubt been rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
The Jaguars have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of starting the third overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft this year. Apparently, Bortles didn't get the memo, and after a pair of sterling preseason showings, fans are clamoring for the youngster to get a shot with the starters.
Well, those fans are going to get their wish.
As John Oehser of the team's website reports, Bortles received some first-team reps in practice this week, and head coach Gus Bradley indicated that Bortles will also get some playing time with the ones against the Detroit Lions:
As I was sitting back there I thought it was really good for him to go against the ones like that to get a feel for the speed, to get a feel for the rush. Sitting back there and watching it, I just felt like that was good for him.
Chad Henne will start against Detroit, with Bradley telling reporters that Bortles will probably enter the game in the second quarter.
If the rookie plays as well against the Lions' starters as he has against backups the past two weeks, the notion that Bortles is a lot more NFL-ready than we thought is only going to pick up more steam.
Panthers at Patriots: The Return of Jonathan Stewart
Good news has been in rather short supply for the Carolina Panthers offense this offseason.
Left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Quarterback Cam Newton had ankle surgery. The wide receiver corps had to be completely rebuilt after it was gutted in free agency.
However, it looks like the Panthers may finally have caught a break, at least if last week's game with the Kansas City Chiefs was any indication.
In that game running back Jonathan Stewart looked as good as he has in a very long time, gaining 26 yards and scoring two touchdowns on four carries.
The 27-year-old back, who has missed 17 games over the past two seasons with an assortment of injuries, recently told Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer (via the Miami Herald) that he feels better than he has in a long time.
"My run motion coming out the gate, making cuts, all that stuff, is as fluid as I've been in a while, which is good," Stewart said. "I don't have to second-guess anything."
Center Ryan Kalil saw that in evidence against the Chiefs, according to The Associated Press (via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com):
When he does get back out there you realize why he is so special and why you keep giving him chances to come back. I've played so many games with him and watched so much film, you see a guy that people want to keep fighting and fighting for. I think he is such a huge part of our running game and it's great to have him out there.
Given all the questions facing the passing game in 2014, if the Panthers are going to make it back to the playoffs this year, the team may be forced to lean on its ground game even more than usual.
A healthy Stewart would be a huge boost in that regard, making it important that he keep his positive momentum rolling right along against the New England Patriots.
Giants at Jets: The Book on Eli
The 2013 season was an unmitigated disaster for the New York Giants, especially quarterback Eli Manning. Last year Manning looked nothing like the quarterback who won two Super Bowls, leading the NFL with an eye-popping 27 interceptions.
A new offense under coordinator Ben McAdoo was supposed to help. Instead, as Adam Schein of NFL.com pointed out, things have gotten even worse:
You never overreact to the preseason, but it feels like Big Blue might never gain a first down in 2014. Or something like that.
Eli Manning and the Giants are struggling with the forward pass. The 11th-year pro, coming off of his worst season since his rookie campaign, looks hopeless in new coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense. While I initially loved the appointment of McAdoo -- who was plucked from the Mike McCarthy coaching tree -- right now, he looks like a coach who has never called a play.
The Giants' offensive struggles place a lot of pressure on Manning to show some signs of life in Friday's crosstown dress rehearsal.
Former Giants quarterback (and current NFL analyst) Phil Simms told Bob Glauber of Newsday that the G-Men need to do whatever it takes to get Manning on track:
I know he says all the right things, but I'm sure it's bothering Eli. There's no doubt if I was the quarterback, it would be bothering me, too. ...
... It's really important for [McAdoo] to get Eli in rhythm and get some completions this week. I don't care if they're screens, flea-flickers, whatever. You just gotta do it.
Screens and flea-flickers. Just the sort of talk that fills fans with hope heading into the regular season.
Raiders at Packers: Commitment to Excrement
OK, so that title's mean.
After over a decade of futility, the Oakland Raiders have gone from one of the NFL's proudest franchises to a punch line. The team hasn't made the playoffs since losing Super Bowl XXXVII. The Raiders play their home games in the stadium equivalent of a port-a-john.
Still, the best part about the summer is that hope springs anew for all 32 teams in the NFL. A slew of veteran acquisitions brought with it renewed optimism in the Bay Area.
That lasted right up until the Raiders took the field.
Through two preseason games, the Raiders' first-team offense has been as anemic as the defense has been porous. Quarterback Matt Schaub has looked a lot more like last year's rattled old man than the player who led the Houston Texans to two straight AFC South titles.
Schaub admitted to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News that after only one score in seven possessions, the first-team offense needs work:
We need to be more consistent and stay on schedule. You would think the most important down is third down, but it's really first down. You want to put yourself in a manageable situation. To have it second-and-medium or second-and-short really opens up the playbook.
At this point, the Raiders badly need to put together a drive or two and get a few stops against the Green Bay Packers. Something, anything to establish a little momentum before the beginning of what's looking to be another long regular season in Oaktown.
Bears at Seahawks: Sorting Out the Slot
In Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the Chicago Bears have arguably the best one-two punch at the wide receiver position in the NFL.
However, in today's pass-wacky NFL, having a capable slot receiver is also crucial. The Bears suffered a blow in that regard recently when youngster Marquess Wilson suffered a broken clavicle.
The Bears took steps at address the issue earlier this week, agreeing to terms on a free-agent contract with veteran Santonio Holmes.
He obviously knows how to play football. He's been around a long time, been in a few different systems and been successful. It's just a matter of getting him caught up with our verbiage, how we like to do things, the little tweaks we like, and just kind of get in a rapport with him timing wise. It just takes time. He's explosive. He'd probably be honest [and tell you] he's a little bit rusty. He's been out of football. But getting in and out of cuts, [he] catches the ball well, extremely explosive, fast. He's exciting. It's hard coming in where we are offensively and just kind of throwing him into the mix.
With that said, as Cutler mentioned, Holmes has had precious little time to learn the Chicago offense, and head coach Marc Trestman indicated that he's unsure if Holmes will see the field Friday night:
I can't say that right now. I think we're trying to get him to that place. I think I'll know a little bit more after practice tomorrow [Wednesday]. We'll see where he's at. We'll talk to him and we'll see if he's ready to go and get some playing time.
If Holmes does sit, that will give Josh Morgan, who has five catches for 77 yards in the preseason, one more opportunity to stake his claim as the Bears' third wideout.
Jaguars at Lions: Fairley's Fall from Grace
Back in 2011, the Detroit Lions made defensive tackle Nick Fairley the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft after a standout career at Auburn.
Fairley has never quite lived up to that draft slot, with his weight a nearly constant issue throughout his three NFL seasons.
When the Lions declined to pick up Fairley's fifth-year player option earlier this year, it appeared to send a message to the big man, who showed up for OTAs at a slimmed-down 295 pounds.
However, in the break between OTAs and training camp, Fairley put much of the weight right back on, showing up for training camp at 308 pounds. He's continued to pack the pounds back on since and is now up to 315 pounds, according to Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.
It appears the Lions' patience is wearing much thinner than Fairley's waistline. The Lions have demoted Fairley to the second team, a move that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin admits they made to send a message:
That's part of our job. Our job is to try and get our guys to play well no matter what it takes. Not everybody is going to be a guy that's a self-starter, work over the top all the time. There's different ways that you have to motivate guys and get them going and that's part of our job to figure out: "Hey, what makes a guy tick? What's going to help him play well?"
So we're doing whatever we can to try and do that. We feel the guy's super talented. He's a good guy and we just want him to play at an elite level and play great. That's what we're working toward and I think he's on track now.
Unsettling though it may be that a player in a contract year would need to be demoted to get him away from the buffet table, Fairley admitted that "my eating habits got out of the way in the last two weeks," calling his demotion "a wake-up call."
With that said, veteran journeyman C.J. Mosley has impressed in Fairley's spot. Who plays with what unit in this dress rehearsal should go a long way toward showing whether Fairley's demotion is just a motivational technique or a more permanent change.
Panthers at Patriots: The Safety Dance
The New England Patriots won the AFC East for the 42nd straight year (approximately) in 2013, but the Pats were done in in the AFC Championship Game by a defense that was wracked by injuries.
There are some changes afoot in that defense this year. That's especially true in the secondary, where the arrival of free-agent cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner has given the team an enviable amount of depth.
So much depth, in fact, that as Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe reports, cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington both saw time at safety in last week's matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles.
As head coach Bill Belichick told Young, it's all about matching up with today's ever-changing NFL offenses:
It's not really nickel but it's not really your regular defense, it's a little bit of a hybrid to try to match up against the multiple receivers that that offense has on the field. I think they've both done a good job with it. Logan's played some safety for us in the past, so has Kyle. They've both played that position — that fourth defensive back. It's not really anything new to them. It definitely has a lot of carryover for them from when we are in our nickel defense and they play slot.
Where the Eagles are all about spreading teams out, however, the Panthers are a much more "conventional" offense, so it will be intriguing to see how much (if any) the Patriots back end differs against the Panthers.
Whoever lines up at safety, the Patriots can at least take some consolation in the knowledge that they've had some success in making these sorts of transitions in the past.
Fifth-year pro Devin McCourty began his career at cornerback before making the switch to free safety. Last year, McCourty was the NFL's top-ranked player at his position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Giants at Jets: The QB Nontroversy
Only in New York could there be a quarterback controversy that isn't a quarterback controversy at all.
Despite it being obvious to everyone from New York Jets players to the media to Michael Vick himself that Geno Smith is the starting quarterback for the Jets, head coach Rex Ryan has steadfastly refused to name Smith the Week 1 starter.
At least Ryan is now telling reporters he knows who the Week 1 starter is.
However, as Seth Walder of the New York Daily News reports, Ryan isn't telling anyone else:
I never said I never knew who the starter was. I'm just not ready to announce it yet. ... I'm not going to name it right now. No matter how many times you ask it, or whatever. Somebody fire another one at me — I'm going to get it out of him — no you're not. I've given in to you guys before — I'm not giving in on this one.
Jaws will drop all over the Big Apple if it isn't Smith, who will start against the Giants. It's one last opportunity for Smith to polish things up in advance of an early-season schedule that features a who's who of NFL signal-callers.
I think a big thing I looked at is you want to know that physically a quarterback is capable of doing big things, and I definitely saw a lot of that in Geno last year. But even more than that, for me, it's the personality. At this level, that's what separates players, and that's what separates the good from the great.
The adversity that sometimes you face out there, the adversity you face when you lose, the way he carried himself, the way he was confident in his demeanor -- I looked at that [about Smith] and I guess my intuition, my instincts, said, "OK, this guy gets it. This guy wants to be good. He wants to be great." And he's not shying away from the pressure. Or his mistakes. Geno is taking command of the huddle. He's taking command of the room. He's definitely stepping up as the quarterback.
A solid showing against the Giants will only help that confidence to spread, both inside and outside the Jets organization.
Raiders at Packers: Dr. Rodgers Will See You Now
The Green Bay Packers won another NFC North title in 2013, but it was most assuredly not business as usual in Titletown.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed nearly half the season with a broken collarbone, and while Rodgers returned to the team at the end of the year, the nine-year veteran's health has been the dominant offseason storyline for the Packers in 2014.
Well, Rodgers certainly looked healthy last week. The 30-year-old carved up the St. Louis Rams like a Christmas goose, completing 11 of 13 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in limited action.
Green Bay's new uptempo offense looked to be in midseason form against the Rams, scoring on a pair of first-team drives featuring no-huddle play calls.
It was a performance that met with Rodgers' approval, according to Vic Ketchman of the team's website. "We scored and we stayed healthy. That's a perfect preseason game," Rodgers said. "...We got the tempo up. The efficiency was pretty good."
With a loaded receiver corps, a rising young star in the backfield in Eddie Lacy and arguably the NFL's best quarterback in Rodgers, it's shaping up to be a long year for defensive coordinators in the NFC North in 2014.
Bears at Seahawks: It's All Your Fault!
If the second week of the 2014 preseason was any indication, the Seattle Seahawks are as ready for Week 1 as they're going to get.
The Seahawks looked every bit the part of the defending Super Bowl champions in dismantling the San Diego Chargers 41-14, but it isn't that beatdown that has the NFL angry at the Seahawks this week.
Instead, it's all the illegal contact and defensive holding penalties that have been called in the preseason.
Because as Nick Eaton of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports, those are all Seattle's fault:
Now that there has been an increase in penalties this preseason due to the NFL's extra emphasis on illegal contact, players and even owners are starting to blame the Seattle Seahawks.
Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall said Wednesday there are "no ifs, ands or buts about it" that the new emphasis is a reaction to the Seahawks' dominating victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, as reported by D.C.'s NBC4 television.
"(The) Seahawks got their ring, they did it their way," Hall told NBC4's Dianna Marie Russini. "Now we have to pay the consequences."
Meanwhile, the ever-vocal Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, plainly stated Tuesday that the Seahawks are to blame. The new emphasis, by the way, was decided by the NFL's competition committee, a panel composed of eight team coaches and executives, none of whom is from Seattle.
"We were apprised that some of these penalties that we've decided to make a point of emphasis in the league during the preseason are there to let the teams get ready for a real message that we intend to make an issue of defensive back holding," Jones told Dallas' 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday.
"It came about from Seattle, who basically played a style that would risk a holding penalty as opposed to not having an aggressive defender back there," Jones added. "That got a lot of complaints and you're seeing it reflected during the preseason."
There's no denying that the Seahawks play a physical brand of coverage, and if Jones and Hall are right, Friday's preseason game could be a record-setting affair.
If only for the sheer number of flags thrown and the length of the game after all the delays that come with them.