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The Complete Guide to NFL Preseason Week 4

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterAugust 27, 2014

The Complete Guide to NFL Preseason Week 4

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    Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

    No matter how huge of an NFL fan you are, you may not be hyped for the final round of preseason games.

    They feature backups and bubble players, dead men walking and disconcertingly empty stadiums. The starters play sparingly, if at all, and the cut down to 53 active players will put many of these games' heroes and goats in the unemployment line.

    So why bother watching?

    If you don't—no matter what team you follow—you'll miss out on a critical storyline. Whether it's the development of an exciting rookie, the return of a critical veteran from the PUP list or a fan favorite's last chance to make the roster, all 32 teams have something to watch, something to settle or something to prove.

    Sure, the scores don't count and the results don't matter, but some of the most exciting fourth quarters in football come in these final preseason games.

    You've got sixth-round rookie quarterbacks trying to prove they can run the two-minute drill while zipping passes to undrafted free-agent receivers trying to prove they can catch—against journeyman defenders trying to make an active roster before they have to admit their lifelong dream is dead.

    If you truly love football, you'll find plenty to watch in the final, frenzied night of preseason action. Just follow Bleacher Report's handy guide and you'll know what's worth tuning in to see.

Atlanta Falcons (1-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Where: EverBank Field

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 6 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Blake Bortles, Falcons running backs

     

    No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles has surprised nearly everyone this preseason, showing much more composure, polish and accuracy than he did at Central Florida. Bortles has completed 62.2 percent of his passes, per NFL.com, and gained an impressive average of 9.7 yards with each attempt. With one touchdown pass but no interceptions, Bortles has been aggressive, effective and mistake-free.

    Starter Chad Henne has been careful to avoid mistakes, too, but at just 6.1 yards per attempt, he's not moving the ball nearly as well. Bortles should see plenty of time against a revamped Falcons defense, and he'll be using those reps to make his case for the top job.

    The Falcons, meanwhile, need to continue to sort out their running back depth. Starter Steven Jackson remains out with a hamstring injury, and Jacquizz Rodgers has been running well in his absence. Devonta Freeman, though, has been even better, averaging a team-best 4.6 yards per carry, per NFL.com.

    If he runs wild on the Jaguars, the fourth-round rookie could earn a big spot in the regular-season rotation.

Detroit Lions (2-1) at Buffalo Bills (1-3)

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Bills quarterbacks, Lions defensive line

     

    EJ Manuel, the surprise top quarterback of the 2013 draft class, has not been good this preseason. In fact, after his disastrous showing against the New Orleans Saints, he was booed off the field. Players and coaches don't usually appreciate fans booing the home team.

    "When you play poorly, you should get booed," Bills head coach Doug Marrone said (via John Breech of CBSSports.com). "I don't have any problems with that."

    Ouch.

    Starters usually don't play much in the fourth preseason game, but Marrone might let Manuel try and work himself out of a jam. Barring that, backups Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel and Dennis Dixon will be competing hard not just for roster spots, but also for a chance to be the guy whose number is called if Manuel doesn't improve.

    For Detroit, the No. 13 overall pick of the 2011 draft class is the only member of that class still on its roster—and defensive tackle Nick Fairley doesn't look to be on the Motor City roster for long, either.

    He's struggling with his fluctuating weight, and his level of effort appears to fluctuate, too. The Lions declined their fifth-year option on his contract, and then they demoted him to second string. When he gets on the field against Buffalo, how well he plays and for how long may reveal whether the light has come on.

    Ziggy Ansah, the 2013 No. 5 overall pick, has been recovering from a shoulder injury. After a brief test in the third preseason game, he should see more time in the fourth. Lions fans expecting to see him start the Monday Night Football opener should hope to see a lot of him against Buffalo.

Indianapolis Colts (0-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Where: Paul Brown Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Colts' running game, Geno Atkins

     

    Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson has now had two first-round draft picks spent on him, and he's no closer to fulfilling the incredible potential he showed at Alabama. In fact, he's been downright poor. Averaging a pathetic 2.6 yards per carry this preseason on 20 attempts, per NFL.com, he's running just as tentatively and counter-instinctually as he did in 2013.

    Behind him, recovering Ahmad Bradshaw got just four touches in his preseason debut. The No. 2 back will have to prove he's ready to handle much more against Cincinnati.

    Zurlon Tipton leads the Colts in preseason carries with 24, but he has averaged just one-tenth of a yard more per carry than Richardson. Only former Bengal Dan Herron has impressed, with a 43-yard run against the Saints boosting his per-carry average to a whopping 5.8.

    They'll be competing for regular-season opportunities against a deep, strong Bengals defense that just got stronger.

    In the third preseason game, superstar defensive tackle Geno Atkins registered his first tackle since tearing his ACL in 2013. Against the Colts, it'll be interesting to see how many snaps the Bengals leave Atkins in for. Will they test his knee to make sure it's ready for Week 1, or will they quickly put him back on the shelf?

Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (2-1)

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Where: Lambeau Field

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Chiefs inside linebacker, Packers nose tackle

     

    One of the worst things that can happen to an NFL football team is losing a starter to injury during a preseason game. Both of these teams did just that. Now, they have to audition replacements.

    Once again, the Packers spent much of the offseason bolstering the front seven, and once again they're going into the season with question marks up front. Nose tackle B.J. Raji tore a biceps against the Oakland Raiders and will miss the rest of the season, per Tyler Dunne and Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

    The first choice to replace Raji should be veteran Letroy Guion, signed away from the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. Guion has been rehabbing a hamstring, though, and he just returned to practice this week. How many snaps will he be able to play, and with what unit? We'll have to find out.

    Josh Boyd, a 2013 fifth-round pick, slid over from end to replace Raji during the preseason game. Head coach Mike McCarthy isn't concerned.

    "[H]e can play 3-technique and actually has done well at the nose," he told Fox Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig. "I think he'll be fine in there." Undrafted free agent Mike Pennel should also get an audition.

    At three of the four starting linebacker positions, the Kansas City Chiefs are as strong as any team in football. With inside linebacker Joe Mays out after wrist surgery, per ESPN.com's Adam Caplan, they're scrambling to fill that other spot.

    Nico Johnson, a 2013 fourth-round pick who struggled with weight and injury in his rookie year, has a golden opportunity to show he's improved. Veteran outside linebacker Frank Zombo has slid inside to bolster depth, and the primary backup to Derrick Johnson, James-Michael Johnson, may also see some reps.

St. Louis Rams (1-2) at Miami Dolphins (2-1)

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Where: Sun Life Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Rams quarterbacks, Dolphins offensive line

     

    Rams quarterback Sam Bradford losing a season to a torn ACL for the second time in two years is devastating. In backup Shaun Hill, though, the Rams have a capable veteran. NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted that a couple of NFL general managers say Hill is "better than a few starters" in the NFL.

    The Rams' confidence in Hill showed in the third preseason game. Hill got just one drive in relief of Bradford before turning it over to second-year man Austin Davis and sixth-round rookie pick Gilbert Garrett.

    How many reps Hill, Davis and Garrett get—and what they do with them—will be critical in determining what moves, if any, the Rams make at quarterback.

    On the Dolphins side, watch their offensive line. First-round pick—and presumed starting right tackle—Ja'Wuan James has been playing extensively throughout the preseason. He's worked the right side with the starters and flipped to the left side with the backups. Is he being groomed as Branden Albert's eventual replacement?

    Meanwhile, the Dolphins still haven't nailed down their right guard spot. Dallas Thomas has seen some time there, but they've also flexed him out to right tackle when James flips over to left.

    Veteran Shelley Smith has been moved from guard to center and back to guard across the course of camp, and third-round rookie tackle Billy Turner has been pegged for a move to guard since before the Dolphins drafted him.

    Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald has said the Dolphins "really like" Turner and expect him to blossom into a starter by the end of the season. Will he overcome his turf toe to claim the job even sooner?

New York Jets (2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)

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    Tony Tribble/Associated Press

    Where: Lincoln Financial Field

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: New York Jets cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles kicker

     

    With top cornerback Dee Milliner still battling a high ankle sprain, Antonio Allen suffering a concussion in the third preseason game and third-round rookie Dexter McDougle going on IR with an ACL injury, Jets cornerback Dimitri Patterson picked a really unfortunate time to space out.

    After bizarrely failing to report to the game against the New York Giants—or the following practice—Patterson was suspended indefinitely by general manager John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini.

    Now the Jets are down to three healthy corners: Kyle Wilson, Darrin Walls and Ellis Lankster. Can they make it through the game against the Eagles without suffering any more casualties?

    Chip Kelly and the Eagles are again looking to roll through the NFC East with an even better running game, a new-look passing offense featuring Jeremy Maclin and an improved defense.

    However, there's one spot Kelly forgot to address: kicker. In the fourth week of the preseason, Kelly's still picking between holdover Alex Henery and rookie Cody Parkey—and he's the second rookie Kelly brought in, after Carey "Murderleg" Spear washed out.

    Henery and Parkey will take the another crack at it, but Samuel Sanchez from InsideTheIggles.com isn't the only one suggesting that Philadelphia's kicker for 2014 may not be on the roster.

New England (2-1) at New York Giants (4-0)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Where: MetLife Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Jimmy Garoppolo, Giants left guard

     

    After an up-and-down training camp, New England second-round rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has had a sparkling preseason. He's 24-of-37, throwing for 334 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Per The Sports Xchange, via the Chicago Tribune, Garoppolo will get the start and play much of the preseason finale.

    "I'm excited about it," Garoppolo said. "It's a good opportunity to get out there and get some quality reps. It's going to be fun." With another great showing, Garoppolo could tighten his grip on the quarterback-of-the-future title, relegating veteran backup Ryan Mallett to the spare-parts bin.

    The Giants got great news on August 28 when they found out left guard Geoff Schwartz's toe injury shouldn't keep him out more than a handful of games, per ESPNNewYork.com's Dan Graziano. In his stead, second-round pick Weston Richburg should get a prime opportunity to showcase his talent.

Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Where: Heinz Field

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Panthers quarterbacks, Steelers running backs

     

    Starter Cam Newton is out with a hairline fracture in his ribs, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer, and backup Derek Anderson's wife may give birth to their first child at any moment. Fourth-stringer Matt Blanchard is recovering from a concussion, too, so third-string quarterback Joe Webb could be the only Panthers quarterback in Pennsylvania Thursday night.

    Ron Rivera hinted to Person that there are some players on the roster who could come off the bench and chuck it around a little, but he kept their names close to his vest.

    When the Steelers' top two running backs, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, were slapped with drug charges following a traffic stop, it was only a matter of time before some form of punishment came down. "Everything's on the table," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told Scott Brown of ESPN.com, including suspension.

    Backs such as third-round rookie Dri Archer and undrafted free agent Stephen Houston should have plenty of reps against the Panthers defense to make their case for relief carries.

Washington (2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2)

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Where: Raymond James Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Kirk Cousins, Logan Mankins

     

    Kirk Cousins was very clear: "I'm the backup quarterback," he told The Washington Post's Liz Clarke and many other members of the media on Monday, August 25. 

    That may be so, but commentator (and legendary Washington quarterback) Joe Theismann wasn't the only one to note Cousins has outplayed starter Robert Griffin III over the course of the preseason. With Gruden still waffling on how much time the starters will see, Cousins could get an extended opportunity to show his stuff.

    If he excels against Tampa Bay, those whispers are only going to get louder.

    In Tampa, general manager Jason Licht has finally found the replacement for retired guard Carl Nicks: Logan Mankins, the six-time Pro Bowler who's spent his entire career in New England.

    Jay Glazer of Fox Sports tweeted on Tuesday, August 26 the Bucs agreed to deal tight end Tim Wright and a draft pick for Mankins, who, if he makes the trip in time, should see plenty of getting-his-feet-wet action against Washington.

Chicago Bears (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-3)

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Where: FirstEnergy Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Bears safeties, Johnny Manziel

     

    One of the biggest problem areas for the Chicago Bears in 2013 was the safety position. 2011 third-round pick Chris Conte was part of that problem, and a bounce-back in 2014 was supposed to be part of the solution—but he suffered a concussion against the Seattle Seahawks while making his post-shoulder-surgery debut.

    Per Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com, Conte's status remains up in the air, reducing the chances he'll be able to push transplanted Packer M.D. Jennings and fourth-round rookie Brock Vereen for playing time.

    On the other side of the field, there's Johnny Football.

    If you're reading this, you already know that the most charismatic rookie of 2014 was just relegated to the bench—but you also know the more of his signature electrifying plays he makes, the more quickly he'll be out on the field.

Denver Broncos (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-3)

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    Where: AT&T Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Von Miller, Cowboys' defensive line

     

    Von Miller made his triumphant return from last season's ACL tear against Houston, but he played just one series before getting pulled. He may not play many more snaps against the Cowboys—but it's hard to imagine the defensive cornerstone of a team dead set on a Super Bowl championship will enter the season with just one warm-up drive.

    How many reps Miller gets, and what he does with them, will be interesting indeed.

    Questions about the pass rush must weigh on the minds of the Cowboys, too. After losing DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency and second-round rookie Demarcus Lawrence to a broken foot, the defensive line depth chart isn't very deep.

    Talented end Anthony Spencer is set to be activated off the PUP list, per Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com, but he won't play against the Denver Broncos—and he may even miss a week or two of regular-season action.

    George Selvie left the third preseason game with a shoulder injury, too, so players such as Anthony Mincey, Tyrone Crawford and Ben Gardner will all get plenty of chances to make an impact against Denver.

San Francisco 49ers (1-2) at Houston Texans (2-1)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Where: Reliant Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: 49ers offensive line, Texans quarterbacks

     

    Unfortunately, the two biggest areas of interest in this game are more about finding out the extent of bad news than hoping for something good.

    The 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers in the third preseason game, 21-7, but the first-team offense struggled miserably, as it has all preseason. Expected starting center Daniel Kilgore, fill-in right guard Joe Looney and Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati all looked equally helpless against the Chargers defensive line.

    Promising rookie center Marcus Martin was carted off the field in that game, meaning it's Kilgore or bust for the near future. Eric Branch of SFGate.com reports there's a chance Martin won't miss much time, but he won't be starting Week 1.

    The 49ers have to be hoping for a vastly improved performance from Kilgore and, later in the game, a decent effort from a stopgap like guard Ryan Seymour.

    Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, as they say, is what he is.

    What the Texans have in sixth-round rookie project Tom Savage, though, is an unknown quantity. Savage rallied the Texans to a come-from-behind win in the third preseason game against the talented Denver Broncos and should get plenty of reps against the similarly deep 49ers. How he fares could impact the Texans' search for a new quarterback, or lack thereof, in 2015.

Baltimore Ravens (3-0) at New Orleans Saints (3-0)

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Tyrod Taylor, Saints secondary

     

    One of the best-kept secrets of the 2014 preseason has been the great performance of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Looking as sharp as he ever has, Flacco has torched opposing secondaries in his limited reps.

    Backup Tyrod Taylor, though, might be on course for a reckoning.

    John Eisenberg, a columnist for the team's official site, opined that Taylor is an effective enough backup to pitch in for a few games if need be. That may be true, but the four-year veteran doesn't look like he'll be the Ravens' quarterback of the future—or anyone else's.

    When it comes to the quarterback position, NFL teams don't like to hang on to youngsters who don't show eventual starting potential. Backups whose tools and game differ wildly from the starter's, as Taylor's does in comparison to Flacco's, aren't ideal for the rest of the offense.

    Taylor needs to make a case that he can run the offense well enough to keep general manager Ozzie Newsome from fishing around the waiver wire for competition as the other 31 teams make their cuts.

    On the all-systems-go Saints, there isn't much to worry about in the fourth preseason game. However, star safety Jairus Byrd and veteran defensive back Champ Bailey, both free-agent acquisitions, only made their Saints debuts in the third preseason game. Both could get significant reps as they work their way back to health, and both figure to play key roles in the Saints' run for another Super Bowl appearance.

Minnesota Vikings (3-0) at Tennessee Titans (2-1)

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Where: LP Field

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Teddy Bridgewater, Titans quarterbacks

     

    Matt Cassel is the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback, head coach Mike Zimmer told Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.

    Uh-huh. Sure.

    As well as the journeyman has played this preseason (better than usual, but not amazing), the Vikings are rookie Teddy Bridgewater's team as soon as Zimmer lets him claim it. A fourth preseason game where Cassel figures to play sparingly, if at all, is exactly the kind of opportunity Bridgewater needs to put serious heat on the veteran.

    For what it's worth, Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on Twitter that Bridgewater may not start the game; Cassel could yet see action against Tennessee.

    On the other side of the field, the Titans are trying to sort out their quarterback depth chart. According to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, sixth-round rookie Zach Mettenberger is still the third-stringer behind journeyman Charlie Whitehurst—this, despite an impressive preseason performance.

    Mettenberger has completed 68.6 percent of his 51 pass attempts, per NFL.com, throwing for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Those stats are marred a bit by two lost fumbles, but he's earned a shot at the backup job. He'll get even more reps to show his stuff against Minnesota.

Seattle Seahawks (2-1) at Oakland Raiders (1-2)

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Where: O.co Coliseum

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Terrelle Pryor, Raiders quarterbacks

     

    Not quite a year ago, it looked like the Raiders had found a possible answer to their quarterback woes: the surprising Terrelle Pryor. Now, Pryor figures to get extensive time for the Seahawks against his old team, in his old stadium—and the Raiders are still looking for that answer.

    "I told them I wanted to be traded. It took a while for them to trade me," Pryor told Terry Blount of ESPN.com. "Now I have an opportunity to go play against some [former] teammates and friends and some good players. That's what I look forward to."

    Pryor hasn't made the most of the opportunities he's gotten to lock down the backup job in Seattle, but he has every motivation to do so Thursday night.

    On the other side of the field, starter Matt Schaub has looked nothing like the competent, capable quarterback who led the Houston Texans to multiple double-digit-win seasons and everything like the human interception factory that plummeted Houston to the bottom of the league.

    Levi Damien of SilverandBlackPride.com reports Raiders head coach Dennis Allen has pulled Schaub from the fourth preseason game due to elbow soreness, and second-round rookie Derek Carr will get to state his case as starter.

    Oddly, as Damien pointed out, the exact same scenario played out with last year's nominal starter, Matt Flynn and Pryor himself, before Pryor won the job. Is this a pretense for Carr taking over?

Arizona Cardinals (1-2) at San Diego Chargers (1-2)

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Where: Qualcomm Stadium

    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. ET

    What to Watch: Logan Thomas, Chargers pass defense

     

    When the Arizona Cardinals drafted Logan Thomas, Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey wrote that Thomas is a perfect fit for Arizona. The 6'6", 250-pound fourth-round pick lit up the Houston Texans in his first NFL action, going 11-of-12 for 113 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 133.7 passer efficiency rating, per NFL.com.

    His second outing, against the Cincinnati Bengals in the third preseason game, didn't go nearly as well.

    Now, Thomas will start against the Chargers, whose stiff first-string defense gave the San Francisco 49ers all sorts of trouble. Thomas should see plenty of action.

    The Chargers' run defense looked tremendously improved against the 49ers' run game. Whether their young back seven, featuring first-round rookie cornerback Jason Verrett and second-round rookie linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, can shut down Thomas and surprise Cardinals rookie receiver John Brown is an open question.

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