NFL Preseason Week 3: What to Watch for in Saturday's Matchups
There's something in the air.
No, not that. Sorry about that. I should know better than to have Taco Bell as I write.
No, that something is football. This weekend brings with it the third week of the 2014 NFL preseason. That means the "dress rehearsal" for most teams, with the starters playing into the second half in some cases.
With the NFL's biggest stars on the field this week, there's already been no shortage of interesting developments. We've already watched the New York Giants' passing game struggle again against the Jets, while in Green Bay, the Packers appeared to be in midseason form.
There are eight more games on the slate for Saturday, and here's what to watch for during those contests.
Buccaneers at Bills: Batten Down the Hatches
There are a lot of changes underway in Tampa Bay in 2014.
The Buccaneers have a new head coach in Lovie Smith, a new quarterback in Josh McCown, new starters at cornerback and defensive end and a lanky rookie wide receiver in first-round pick Mike Evans.
Those changes have brought substantial optimism for 2014. So much so, in fact, that the Buccaneers are a trendy pick this year as a "dark-horse" playoff contender.
Still, given all the new faces, Smith made it clear to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN that his starters will play at least the entire first half against Buffalo:
The guys that start the game on our team will play into the third quarter. They know that. From there, we’ll kind of see how it all works out. What we want to see as much as anything is we’re trying to hit on all the different situations. Right now, we’ve done it for the most part. But now it’s about players learning to come in at the half, us to make adjustments and then to finish up strong in that third quarter. So this is a big part of the evaluation for us.
If the Buccaneers are going to be the surprise contender many expect in 2014, then they should be able to handle teams like the Bills—even on the road.
In that respect, we'll see if Tampa's improvements on paper show up between the lines.
Titans at Falcons: Cornering the Market
There are also quite a few changes underway in Nashville. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt brought defensive coordinator Ray Horton with him to Tennessee, which means the Titans are making the shift to a 3-4 front in 2014.
However, the loss of cornerback Alterraun Verner left a vacancy open opposite Jason McCourty.
The battle between Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson has been a closely contested one, with neither player standing head and shoulders above the other.
Still, Whisenhunt told Teresa Walker of the Associated Press (via the News and Observer) he isn't concerned about which of the duo starts across from McCourty in Week 1:
I can just tell you this, I'm comfortable with either one of those guys, and both of them are going to be on the field at the same time. I feel very lucky that we've got two young corners that have that skill, that compete the way they do.
Given how much time Horton's defense spends in the nickel, both players will see plenty of playing time on Saturday. Their performances in that game may well be the deciding factor in which player hears his named announced as a starter against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cowboys at Dolphins: A Defensive Disaster
In 2013, no team allowed more yardage per game than the Dallas Cowboys. Twice last season they played a game in which they failed to force their opponent to punt.
Hard though it may be to believe, the 2014 incarnation of the Dallas defense may actually be worse.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and tackle Jason Hatcher left in free agency. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, brought in to help fill that void, broke his foot and is out until October at the earliest.
Top linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL and is lost for the year. Former second-round pick Bruce Carter has performed so poorly in camp that he's lost his starting spot, while youngster Devonte Holloman's career appears over after another neck injury.
As Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News reports, the Cowboys have been forced to turn to rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker.
Hitchens took all the first-team reps in practice Thursday and is expected to start at MIKE when the Cowboys face the Dolphins Saturday. The youngster told George he's willing to do whatever's needed.
“I’ve been moving back and forth,” Hitchens said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they moved me again. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.”
Of course, being willing and being able are two entirely different things, and it's looking less and less like the Dallas defense is going to be able to stop anyone in 2014.
Redskins at Ravens: Hit the Deck, Robert!
Last Monday's preseason tilt with the Cleveland Browns was an up-and-down affair for Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin.
Griffin made some good throws but also tossed a horrible interception. He looked like his old self running with the ball, but unfortunately took a pair of completely unnecessary shots in a game that didn't even count.
Griffin confessed to John Keim of ESPN that he realizes he needs to work on the latter:
I'm glad that people care and I've talked to coach [Jay Gruden] about it. He understood what I was doing in all three of those situations. It's a continual process of getting better at everything. That's one of them. I'm aware of that. Fans, don't worry. I understand the concern from the fans, from my teammates, coaches and even the media. Don't worry, I'm taking heed to it. I understand the process of being available.
Gruden agreed that Griffin needs to learn that discretion is the better part of valor:
When he gets out of the pocket, he needs to protect himself. He has a habit in his career of being able to get himself out of predicaments with his speed and athleticism. But ... he has to pick his shots and learn how to get down a little better.
However, while Griffin admitted that sliding is an area in which he needs to improve, the third-year pro also seemed to grow annoyed with persistent questioning on the subject.
"I slid correctly on the third time," Griffin said. "The second time, I got hit back in bounds and on the first try I slid too late. I don't know what else I can say about that. I'll get better."
Gruden, meanwhile, stated that it can be tricky knowing when to hit the deck and when to go for broke:
If it's fourth and 8 and the game's on the line in the fourth quarter, I don't want him sliding for a five-yard gain and lose the game. He'll have to take his risks. He's the quarterback; he'll make those decisions and they're not always going to be right. He's a young kid. He has a lot of energy so we have to deal with it and continue coaching him. It's an issue if he gets injured. It's not an issue if he doesn't.
In other words, Washington fans might as well leave room for disappointment. They're going to be feeling that more than a little bit in 2014.
Saints at Colts: There's a Cool Brees a Blowin'
Saturday will be a day of celebration for the people of New Orleans.
OK, every day is a celebration for the people of New Orleans, but Saturday especially so.
Sure, there was never really any doubt that the oblique injury that has sidelined Saints quarterback Drew Brees the past couple of weeks was anything but minor, or that he was in any danger of missing regular-season time.
Still, this is Drew Brees we're talking about. An ingrown toenail would raise the aggregate blood pressure on the bayou.
Well, everyone can breathe easy. As head coach Sean Payton told Mike Triplett of ESPN, Brees' rehab has progressed to the point that the 35-year-old will make his preseason debut Saturday against the Colts:
I thought he looked pretty sharp tonight. There were a handful of throws that were exceptional. I think we've handled it the right way, and he is pretty smart and he knew where he was at. My only concern was [whether] we had set our mind on a game maybe, and that really shouldn't dictate his healing. Now, it happened to be that he feels ready to go. I'm sure he's going to play, and we'll figure out how many snaps in this game. But he looked pretty sharp tonight.
Brees told Triplett he's glad to be able to get some game action under his belt before the season begins:
It is important, it is important. I want to play well, I want to get out there and feel comfortable. I feel like this week has been great just to get back out and feel like I'm throwing the ball like I should. And now it's just time to take it to the game field and go through this final dress rehearsal before the season.
Payton also indicated that there are no limitations on Brees, who could play into the second half.
Rams at Browns: The Four Horsemen Ride
Much of the preseason hubbub where the St. Louis Rams' defensive front is concerned has centered around seventh-round pick Michael Sam's quest to make the team.
However, a development much more important to the team's odds at success in the NFC West this year will unfold in Cleveland this week.
After missing most of camp and preseason with a high ankle sprain, tackle Michael Brockers is set to make his 2014 debut this week. He told The Associated Press (via KMOV-TV) that he hopes to play a full complement of snaps:
Oh yeah, for sure I'm going to play against Cleveland. Maybe get all the first quarter reps maybe, and try to show what I can do and show that I can push off this ankle and put as much pressure as I can on it and be as dominant as I want to be.
Brockers' return will give us our first glimpse at a Rams front four that could be very formidable in 2014.
In Brockers and ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn (who tallied an NFC-leading 19 sacks in 2013), the Rams' line was already good.
Throw in first-round pick Aaron Donald and it's a line that has a chance to be great.
For all the Browns' issues, their offensive line is solid, so this game should provide a good barometer for just how miserable the quarterbacks in the NFC West can expect to be this season.
Vikings at Chiefs: Bridge(water) to the Future
Granted, there doesn't appear to be any quarterback controversy in Minnesota—at least in the short term. Ten-year veteran Matt Cassel has performed well in training camp and the preseason, so much so that there's little doubt he will open the season as the team's starting quarterback.
However, after leading the Vikings to a wild come-from-behind win over the Arizona Cardinals last week, the Teddy Bridgewater bandwagon has slammed into high gear.
With that said, ESPN's Ben Goessling reported that Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said that one of the things that has impressed him so much about Cassel this summer is how the veteran has handled all the hoopla and uncertainty at the position:
That's what makes Matt so special. Some guys would probably not be as positive about that situation, but Matt understands where he's at in his career. Even when we signed Matt here, we laid everything out. I don't like to sit there and BS people; this is the circumstance they're coming in. Matt understood everything. There was no question he was going to come in here and compete, regardless, to be our No. 1 quarterback. We're very fortunate to have a Matt Cassel, not only from the ability to play, but also, if that role does reverse, the ability to be a mentor and bring that young one along. That's a hard combination to find.
Bridgewater, for his part, told Chris Tomasson of The St. Paul Pioneer Press that he's not letting last week's late heroics get to his head:
There's a lot of room for improvement. Last week was great, but this week I just want to continue to get better whether it's my decision-making or being more accurate with the football ... more decision and just communication all across the board.
Barring something disastrous happening, it's going to be Cassel under center for the Vikings in Week 1. However, every big play Bridgewater makes this preseason shortens the leash Cassel will have once he does get out there.
Texans at Broncos: Let the Stars Shine
It's been a very Jekyll-and-Hyde preseason for the Houston Texans. The team looked very much like a 2-14 club in getting throttled by the Arizona Cardinals, only to bounce back and pummel the Atlanta Falcons.
However, those games were both played without a trio of the team's biggest stars.
Running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson (hamstrings) and Brian Cushing (leg) have all been limited by injuries in camp. But after making a return to the practice field this week, there's a chance they may play Saturday night against the Broncos.
I say "a chance" because new Houston head coach Bill O' Brien appears to be a student of the Bill Belichick school of news dissemination.
I like to get some opinions from our trainers and our coaching staff. ... We’ve gotten a lot of work out here in the three days. In the past, when you didn’t work against a team, you would certainly want to have your first teams go in the third game of the preseason.
Foster, for his part, told McClain he'd like to suit up. “I’m just going to keep on working, man," Foster said. "And however the chips fall, they will.”
Yes, the most important thing for the Texans is to have all three players available for their Week 1 tilt with the Washington Redskins.
However, in a perfect world it would also be nice to give the veterans a chance to knock the rust off before that happens.
Buccaneers at Bills: Why Can't We Be Friends?
Saturday's game can't come soon enough for Bills head coach Doug Marrone.
Apparently he badly needs to get the Bills on the field so they can hit someone. Besides each other, that is.
As ESPN reported, Marrone went ballistic at practice on Thursday, getting into it with a group of players that included defensive end Jerry Hughes:
Following an intense fight near the end of Wednesday's practice, a few small scuffles broke out early in the Bills' morning practice Thursday. Marrone quickly put an end to it.
Marrone lined players up on one sideline and ripped into them for fighting. At one point, defensive end Jerry Hughes talked back to Marrone, leading to more shouting from Marrone in Hughes' direction, questioning him about whether he wanted to stay on the team.
However, by the end of practice, order had been restored to the universe, with Marrone making it a point to specify that he wasn't singling Hughes out:
That's directed at anyone who doesn't want to be part of the team. I told Jerry that I love the way he practices and I love the way he plays special teams and how he goes about it. And we've got to get some other guys who are starters to do that.
Granted, Hughes has had a great camp, and if the Bills come out sharp against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then this will become a non-story very quickly.
With that said, there's a reason why Marrone wanted to nip this in the bud. One man's intensity is another's distraction, and teams with locker rooms like a circus more often than not don't win much.
Titans at Falcons: Paging Mr. Matthews
The last thing the Atlanta Falcons needed coming off last year's 4-12 debacle was for injuries to once again start picking off significant contributors.
So guess what happened?
The team lost arguably its best defensive player, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, to an Achilles tear early in OTAs. He was recently joined on the shelf by starting left tackle Sam Baker, who tore his ACL.
Baker's injury means that rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews, who was originally slated to start at right tackle this year, will kick to Matt Ryan's blind side for the Falcons.
Matthews told Vaughn McClure of ESPN that he thinks he's up to the task, telling McClure he feels he's improving as the preseason wears on:
I thought I got better. I thought I did good things. I definitely did better than the first game. I felt more comfortable. I've just got to keep working. I've got to check that tape and keep getting better.
That may be, but Matthews will need to make an even bigger leap forward in preseason Week 3 against the Titans, from the other side of the line no less.
Simply put, given the Falcons' issues at running back and up front, this is an offense that's going to be throwing a lot in 2014.
And it's rather difficult for Ryan to deliver the ball accurately if he's fleeing in terror.
Cowboys at Dolphins: Will Mike Wallace Ever Step Up?
A year ago, the Miami Dolphins invested $60 million in free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace. Over half that money has already been paid out.
So far, the Dolphins haven't gotten much of a return on that investment.
Wallace's 930 receiving yards last year marked the second straight season the 28-year-old failed to reach 1,000 yards. His five touchdown grabs were a career low.
Any number of explanations were offered for Wallace's slow start on South Beach—a poor fit in the Dolphins offense or lack of chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, for example.
Not much appears to have changed this year, but Wallace told Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post there's another reason why he's struggled in Miami.
On Tuesday, Wallace was asked if the NFL’s new emphasis on penalizing illegal contact is helping receivers.
'Not on our team,' he said. 'We don’t get those calls. I don’t know why. That’s not our job to play for calls. We play to play football and make plays. The call, that’s extra.'
Wallace also alluded to fans' frustration that he and Tannehill continue to struggle hitting on the downfield passes that got Wallace that fat deal to begin with.
“I can guarantee you we want to do it more than they want us to hit,” Wallace said. “We definitely want to get in a game and hit a couple.”
The Cowboys' Swiss cheese defense would appear just what the doctor ordered where getting the Miami passing game going is concerned, but if the Dolphins struggle moving the ball again on Saturday, it will be an ominous portent for when the games begin to count.
Redskins at Ravens: Getting Better Up Front
The Baltimore Ravens were one of the biggest disappointments of the 2013 season, failing to make the playoffs one season after winning Super Bowl XLVII.
One of the main reasons for that backslide was an offensive line that struggled much of the year. However, as Ryan Mink of the Ravens' website reports, the script has been flipped so far in 2014:
The Ravens averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. They gave up 48 sacks, tied for fourth most in the NFL.
This preseason, the stats have flipped.
Through two games, the Ravens have averaged a league-leading 194 rushing yards per game and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro leads the league in rushing with 130 yards and Bernard Pierce ranks fifth with 92 rushing yards. Each has a touchdown.
The Ravens’ first-team offensive line has not surrendered a sack on quarterback Joe Flacco yet. And the quarterback has taken notice.
'I feel great behind them right now,' Flacco said.
The Ravens' retooled offensive line hasn't gotten the offseason press of quarterback Joe Flacco, new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak or running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
However, the simple fact is that none of the latter will have any more success than they did last year without improvement from the former.
Saints at Colts: Answering the Bell (or Not)
Since coming over in a trade with the Cleveland Browns last season, running back Trent Richardson has done very little to justify the first-round pick it cost to acquire him.
Throughout the offseason, Richardson and the Colts offered a litany of excuses for his 2013 struggles. He was banged up last year. He wasn't familiar with the Colts offense.
Now, however, with Richardson averaging a whopping 2.4 yards a carry in the preseason, even the excuses appear to be wearing thin with the Colts.
General manager Ryan Grigson, who put together the trade that brought Richardson to Indy, didn't mince words while speaking with Mike Wells of ESPN:
Trent, he needs to answer the bell and do his job to the best of his ability. We’re all accountable here. I will say this, there are a lot of backs last year that wouldn’t have got [2.4] considering the amount of people he had in that box and the amount of bodies that were hitting him before he even seemed to get the ball sometimes. He’s such a hard runner, we know how tough he is, but he’s got to produce just like all these guys do on this final 53.
Grigson's sentiments were echoed by head coach Chuck Pagano:
I think everybody wants this guy to get going and that guy to get going, but there’s some tough sledding right now and we’re working at it. I think having the capability to do the other thing is going to open things up in the run game for us.
The "other thing" Pagano referred to is reverting to a more spread-out, pass-happy offense in an effort to open things up inside.
Never mind that it runs contrary to offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's power-running philosophy, or that it flies in the face of the reason for spending a high pick on Richardson in the first place.
To say that some signs of life from Richardson Saturday would be welcome is a huge understatement, but frankly, there's been absolutely nothing to indicate that's going to happen.
Rams at Browns: Getting the Offense on Track
After weeks of speculation, the quarterback battle in Cleveland has been resolved, even if it ended with a whimper instead of a bang.
As Jim Trotter of ESPN reports, when the Cleveland Browns play the Rams Saturday, Brian Hoyer will start the game under center. The same will hold true when the Browns open the regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to Trotter, it isn't a decision that should have fans jumping for joy:
The image of Hoyer behind center shouldn't be comforting for Browns fans. Coach Mike Pettine said he put the job up for grabs and rotated the quarterbacks with the first team [last week against Washington] because he wanted to see how they performed in pressure situations. Hoyer completed only 40 percent of his passes and failed to lead a touchdown drive.
We can debate the merits of the selection, but there's no denying the process was handled awkwardly, at best. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising considering it involved a rookie coach, a first-year general manager and a relatively new owner.
Still, what's done is done, and Pettine told ESPN's Pat McManamon part of the reason he made the call now was so that Hoyer and the first-team offense could get some work in against the Rams:
I think it's especially good, as an offensive unit, to go out and play and gain cohesion and chemistry. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go ahead and make the decision before this third preseason game so that [Hoyer and the rest of the starting offense] could play as a unit for a good chunk of it.
If last week's dismal showing against the Rams is any indication, that offense needs all the reps they can get. If the Browns don't show marked improvement against the Rams, Hoyer may soon find himself wishing he'd lost the battle after all.
Vikings at Chiefs: Big-Time Line Problems for Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were a surprise playoff team last year, but as the Chiefs try to build on last year's success, the team is running into a major snag along the offensive line.
Actually, snags. As in plural.
The latest occurred at right tackle. As Adam Teicher of ESPN reports, right tackle Donald Stephenson will miss the first four games of the 2014 season after testing positive for a banned substance.
The third-year pro released a statement:
I'm extremely sorry that I failed to check with the NFL, NFLPA, or Chiefs medical team before I took a medication that requires a therapeutic use exemption. The rules are strict, and without a TUE, the consequence is a four-game suspension.
It's just the latest blow for a Chiefs front that has absorbed plenty of them in 2014.
The Chiefs lost tackle Branden Albert and guard Jon Asamoah to free agency. Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, isn't faring any better this year at left tackle than he did last year at right tackle.
An offensive line that was a strength of the team a year ago now looks like a weakness, one made all the more glaring by Stephenson's suspension.
The Chiefs don't have much time to get things together, either, making Saturday's dress rehearsal a very big deal for the Chiefs' big uglies.
Texans at Broncos: Just Be One with Your Bad Selves
It's hard to find much to criticize about the Denver Broncos so far in the preseason.
In Week 1, they avenged their Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Well, OK, not really, but they did win the game.
In Week 2, they spoiled the opening of Levi's Stadium, throttling the San Francisco 49ers 34-0.
Still, the Broncos' success in the preseason didn't stop Peyton Manning from taking his team to task earlier this week after a joint practice with the Texans. He didn't beat around the bush while speaking with ESPN's Jeff Legwold.
"I thought our offense stunk today," Manning said. "Their defense totally kicked our butt."
Manning's motivational techniques aside, about the only thing the Broncos need from this game is to escape without any more injuries.
The defense played well against San Francisco, especially given the loss of outside linebacker Danny Trevathan.
The offense, meanwhile, has picked up right where it left off during a record-setting 2013.
In short, the Broncos have looked like the class of the AFC. And then some.