NFL Preseason Week 3: What to Watch for in Sunday's Matchups
We are nearly all the way through the third full week of the preseason, the week most teams use as a dress rehearsal for the upcoming season.
There are some contests yet to be played, however. Two of them will come Sunday when the San Diego Chargers take on the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium and the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Arizona to battle the Cardinals.
Here are some things to watch for as you munch on game-time nachos and sip adult beverages.
Bengals at Cardinals: Hangin' with Mr. Cooper?
The Arizona Cardinals selected an offensive guard in the top 10 of the 2013 draft, and they have yet to reap the potential benefits.
Jonathan Cooper was supposed to be one of the safest picks of last year's class, but he has been anything but that this far in the NFL. He suffered an unfortunate injury before he could get anything going as a rookie, breaking his leg and missing the entire 2013 season as a result.
He recently made it all the way back from the injury only to suffer turf toe after his first action of this preseason.
It's possible Earl Watford or Ted Larsen might win the starting job at left guard, per Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com, which would be a major disappointment both for last year's No. 7 pick and the team that took him.
Cooper is a game-time decision against the Bengals, and it seems like common sense that he must play to hold off his competition for that starting job.
Chargers at 49ers: Code Name Verrett
The San Diego Chargers sorely needed help in the secondary this year, hence their selection of cornerback Jason Verrett.
Unfortunately, the TCU product hasn't been able to make any sort of impact with his new team, as he was sidelined early with injury. Verrett tore his labrum back in March, which has precluded him from contact in practice until recently.
The rookie cornerback has been impressive in practice despite his non-contact status, per Chargers.com's Ricky Henne. But his injury recovery precluded him from participating in San Diego's first two preseason matchups.
He finally gets to strut his stuff for us all against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Bengals at Cardinals: The Atkins Diet
It wasn't too long ago that Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins was arguably the most dominant defensive force in the league. A slow start gave way to a season-ending injury for the big lineman last year, though, and he has been recovering and rehabbing ever since.
Atkins finally gets to step onto the field again against the Cardinals on Sunday, his first step toward regaining the dominance the Bengals missed last year. He will make his preseason debut in Arizona, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey:
According to Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Atkins will play "a couple series" Sunday night when the team visits the Arizona Cardinals for its third preseason game. The Pro Bowl lineman, who tore his ACL at Miami on Oct. 31 of last season, will be making his preseason debut. Guenther added that Atkins would be playing with the first-team defense.
"Having him back's a huge deal for us," Guenther said. "It's good to see him back. It definitely means a big deal to us. ... I'm sure he's ready to get back and get his confidence up. I'm sure he's anxious to get back in there and play with the guys."
Hopefully his game action will be setback-free, and Atkins will be on his way back to chewing up the interior of opposing offensive lines soon enough.
Chargers at 49ers: The Sodding Truth
The San Francisco 49ers unveiled their shiny new stadium last week, a technological marvel that was a success by many standards.
Unfortunately, things weren't nearly as successful on the pitch itself.
After San Francisco's anemic showing against the Denver Broncos, The Associated Press reported that the sod on the field was in awful shape. The 49ers cut short a team practice because of the poor conditions, and they have re-sod the field in advance of their upcoming game.
Hopefully the ground crew has gotten things under control since last week, lest the 49ers and San Diego Chargers play on a dangerous surface in a meaningless preseason game. San Francisco has sent assurances the field will be in good shape, so hopefully there is nothing to worry about.
Bengals at Cardinals: Shaking the Rust
Michael Floyd is set for a breakout season, at least according to expectations. He is entering his third season having closed out 2013 with a strong second half.
He drew praise earlier this offseason, particularly from his quarterback. Carson Palmer said he was impressed with the third-year receiver out of Notre Dame during offseason workouts, per Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website (h/t NFL.com's Kevin Patra).
Unfortunately, we have yet to see Floyd in action this preseason due to an early injury.
That will no longer be the case Sunday when the Cardinals face the Cincinnati Bengals, however. We'll finally get to see Floyd fly alongside Larry Fitzgerald as intended.
Chargers at 49ers: Manti Te'o's Backup
Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o was starting to look worthy of that second-round selection a year ago. Then he had to go the way of Lennay Kekua.
Te'o sprained a foot, giving second-string middle linebackers Reggie Walker and Kavell Conner a chance to show what they can do with the starters against the 49ers, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams.
It's unlikely Te'o will miss time to start the season, but at least the Chargers will know exactly what they have should their starter get knocked out again at some point this year.
Bengals at Cardinals: Climbing the Hill
The Cincinnati Bengals selected a running back in the second round of the NFL draft for a second year in a row when they took Jeremy Hill out of LSU this past May.
The big back figured to take over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the thunder to Giovani Bernard's lightning. That hasn't quite been the case thus far for Hill, who has been dinged up and somewhat underwhelming for the Bengals this preseason.
Green-Ellis recently got a vote of confidence of sorts from his running back coach, Kyle Caskey, who said the 29-year-old plodder would continue to get his typical workload, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey.
All that hasn't stopped offensive coordinator Hue Jackson from declaring that Hill is worthy of taking snaps with the first team this week, per Richard Skinner of Cincinnati.com. Jackson mentioned the probability Hill would see time with the starters, which could finally get him over the hump against The Law Firm.
Green-Ellis may not even play this week to boot, which could be the beginning of the end for the veteran.
Chargers at 49ers: West Coast Offensive
Things haven't exactly been smooth for the 49ers this preseason. In addition to the aforementioned issues at their new stadium, the 49ers haven't exactly looked like the perennial powerhouse they have been in recent years.
The offense has been particularly brutal, scoring a shockingly meager three points in the first two preseason games combined. They have been outscored by a whopping 54 points in the two tilts against the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.
It might be the preseason, but the offensive ineptitude hasn't escaped the eagle eye of head coach Jim Harbaugh, per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones:
"We're off," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's the thing about football. It punishes mistakes and rewards precision. … We're not a precise team, and we're being punished for our mistakes."
The Niners right now look like a team badly in need of some rest, and that will come now that the team has broken camp. But Harbaugh made it clear Sunday evening that this next week won't be easy for his team.
The struggles are a bit alarming given San Francisco's offensive malaise during long stretches last season. While the panic button should still be behind its glass case, San Francisco would certainly like to see a bit of zip in the offense this week.