NFL Preseason Week 1: Takeaways from Thursday's Action
The NFL was back with exhibition football on Thursday night, which opened the first full week of the 2015 preseason. The action definitely didn't disappoint.
Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah shined in his pro debut, while Melvin Gordon of the San Diego Chargers did not. Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel showed he has made some growth since the 2014 season. New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo showed that he still needs some experience.
Unfortunately, the night also brought some troubling injuries.
All told, there was plenty to watch around the league on Thursday, even if much of it will have little bearing on the upcoming regular season.
In total, 12 teams were in action. Let's take a look at the biggest takeaways from Thursday night.
Marc Trestman and the Ravens Look Like a Good Match
Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman does things a little differently than his predecessor, Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak's offenses feature a balanced attack and a zone-blocking scheme. Trestman is known as a pass-first offensive coach and he might seem a little out of place with the physical Ravens offense.
"It was fair to wonder: What is he doing with a franchise that runs the ball as frequently as the Ravens?" Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com recently wrote of Trestman. "And how will this offense change, if at all, with a pass-first playcaller?"
If Thursday's performance is an indication of things to come, the Baltimore offense is going to be as dangerous as ever under Trestman.
Against the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens produced 20 first half points. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco was 5-of-6 for 33 yards and led a touchdown drive while backup Matt Schaub went 11-of-18 for 134 yards and a score with one interception.
For those worried that Baltimore might become last year's Chicago Bears, it's worth noting the ground game was still an emphasis on Thursday. The Ravens rushed for 89 yards in the first half and 105 net rushing yards overall.
Johnny Manziel Looks Like a More Mature Quarterback
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was a complete embarrassment as a rookie in 2014. He finished the season with a lowly passer rating of 42.0 and his brash, high-profile personality rubbed plenty of people the wrong way.
Manziel has a long way to go before proving he can be a legitimate NFL starter, but he looked like an improved quarterback on Thursday against the Washington Redskins.
The former Texas A&M star completed seven of 11 passes for 42 yards and rushed twice for 14 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, Manziel appeared more comfortable operating in the pocket and seemed to move through his progressions with confidence.
He didn't even flash his once-signature money sign when he scored, opting instead for an understated fist pump.
All in all, Manziel's performance synced up with what we've heard all summer," Marc Sessler of NFL.com wrote after the game. "He showed more control of the offense and made better decisions, but he still looks like a player in need of more reps and more experience on the field."
If Manziel can take more snaps and can keep improving, he might avoid being a bust, after all.
The Browns Run Defense Is Still Awful
It appears that Johnny Manziel has made some strides since last season. The Browns run defense? Not so much.
The Browns were ranked dead last in the league in run defense a season ago while allowing an average of 141.6 yards per game on the ground.
"We were horrible at it last year," Browns linebacker Donte Whitner said of defending the run, per Dan Labbe of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.
This is why the Browns drafted nose tackle Danny Shelton and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper and why the team brought in veteran defensive tackle Randy Starks during the offseason.
"Cleveland was No. 32 against the run last season," NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock said shortly after the Browns selected Shelton with the 12th overall pick in the draft. "That stops now. The Browns are better right now."
Well, Shelton and Cooper both looked good in their NFL debuts, but the Browns run defense overall was as bad as we remember. The team allowed the Washington to rush for 94 yards in the first half alone.
Washington racked up 154 net rushing yards overall.
Ameer Abdullah Appears to Be the Real Deal
Detroit Lions rookie running back Ameer Abdullah wasn't the first back selected in this year's draft, but he certainly looks like he can be a future star in this league.
Abdullah, selected 54th overall out of Nebraska, found multiple way to shine in his NFL debut on Thursday. He finished the game with 67 yards on seven carries. One long run went for 45 yards. He showed his physicality, quickness and incredible change-of-direction ability virtually every time he touched the ball against the New York Jets.
Of course, the Lions have been getting a close look at these skills throughout training camp.
“We can’t even tackle that guy,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Abdullah earlier this month, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “We can’t even touch him. He’s like grasping at air.”
Football fans—and the Jets defense—got a personal look at exactly what Abdullah can do on Thursday night.
Injury Bug Takes a Chunk out of Washington
Unfortunately, injuries are often as much a part of the preseason as the action. For the Washington Redskins, Thursday's preseason game may have been particularly costly.
The rough night started in the first quarter, when starting tight end Niles Paul was carted off the field in an air cast. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Paul suffered a dislocated ankle and will undergo an MRI to check for ligament damage. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com is already reporting that Paul is out for the season, just days after being named a starter.
In the third quarter, running back Silas Redd Jr. was carted off the field with a leg injury of his own. According to Rich Tandler of CSN Washington, the Redskins are calling Redd's injury a knee sprain.
Of the two injuries, Paul's is likely the more severe and the one that will likely impact Washington the most. Redd only logged 16 carries in 2014. Paul caught 39 passes for 507 yards last season.
"A huge loss for us," head coach Jay Gruden said, per Wesseling. "He's a great player and a great leader."
Injuries Also Hit the Saints
Every NFL team wants to make it out of the preseason healthy. Unfortunately for the New Orleans Saints, Thursday night brought a few injuries to the table.
The most significant injury came on the Saints' first defensive series, when cornerback Brandon Browner was carted to the locker room with a lower leg injury. Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com confirmed what viewers suspected, that Browner was indeed holding his right knee after the play.
Tough the extent of Browner's injury is unknown, it would undoubtedly be a serious blow if he misses an extended period of time.
The Saints signed Browner to a three-year, $15 million deal during the offseason to help bolster a pass defense that ranked 28th in the NFL (251.2 yards per game allowed) in 2014.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Delvin Breaux also left the game early with injuries.
Ryan Tannehill Appears Ready to Take the Next Step
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been solid in his three pro seasons (career passer rating of 84.0), but he has yet to crack the top tier of signal-callers. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the league's 11th-best quarterback last season.
Though he only saw limited action against the Chicago Bears on Thursday, Tannehill certainly looked like a quarterback ready to be a top-10 or even top-five passer.
"The Dolphins couldn’t have scripted a better start to the season," Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com wrote. "The franchise quarterback led a touchdown drive the first time he touched the ball, and their high-priced defense forced a three-and-out against the Bears."
Tannehill led a 14-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to open the game. He completed six of eight passes on the drive, including a two-yard scoring strike to Jarvis Landry.
It is worth noting that the Bears had the league's 31st-ranked pass defense (264.4 yards per game allowed) last season. However, it is also worth noting that the Chicago defense shut down the Miami offense after Tannehill left the game.
The Dolphins only scored three points after the opening series and the game ended with a Josh Freeman interception.
The Patriots Could Have a Dynamic Backfield This Season
The New England Patriots lost running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen during the offseason, but this year's group may be even better than last season's.
With LeGarrette Blount still sidelined with an MCL injury, most of Thursday's backfield work went to Jonas Gray and James White in the 22-11 loss to Green Bay.
Gray exploded onto the NFL scene last November when he rushed for 201 yards in a game against the Indianapolis Colts. However, he has been relatively quiet since (just 84 yards in the regular season and playoffs after the Colts game) and many fans may have forgotten he was even on the Patriots roster.
Well, against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday, Gray made sure to remind everyone that he hasn't gone anywhere. He finished the game with 74 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. The highlight of his night was a 55-yard scamper to the end zone.
White also impressed, though he had more impact as a pass-catcher than a runner. He totaled just 12 yards on eight carries, but he also hauled in four passes for 52 yards.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a history of utilizing his running backs in unique ways, and it's going to be fun to see what he can do with this year's group.
Mixed Results for Jimmy Garoppolo
We usually don't pay much attention to the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots this time of year. Since we still don't know if starting quarterback Tom Brady will be allowed to play at the beginning of the season, however, backup Jimmy Garoppolo was a point of focus Thursday.
The former Eastern Illinois star saw plenty of playing time against the Packers and produced mixed results.
For the most part, Garoppolo appeared poised in the pocket and comfortable operating the Patriots offense. He was also fairly accurate, finishing the game 20-of-30 for 159 yards. However, he tossed an interception and led the offense to just 11 points in three quarters.
If any of Brady's pending four-game suspension is upheld, Garoppolo is going to be the guy filling in under center. The Patriots have to make sure he is prepared.
"It's a difficult situation for Bill Belichick and Co.," Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels recently wrote. "They don't want to completely destroy Brady's rhythm heading into the new season and find out late in the process that he's going to play Week 1. But they can't enter the season with an unprepared Garoppolo, either."
Garoppolo wasn't terrible in his 2015 debut, but the Patriots are going to want to see progress over the next three weeks.
Melvin Gordon Has a Lot of Talent in Front of Him
The NFL debut of San Diego Chargers rookie running back Melvin Gordon (six carries for 11 yards) was quite underwhelming. However, the bigger story might be just how much talent resides at the top of the Chargers' running back depth chart.
Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver each scored rushing touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys in a 17-7 win Thursday and showed why Gordon is going to have to fight to earn opportunities in the regular season.
Woodhead scored on an eight-yard carry, his first since suffering a broken leg early in the 2014 season. Oliver carried the ball 10 times for 53 yards.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy has said all offseason that multiple backs will see work in 2015.
“There’s a reason why we selected Melvin with the first pick of where we picked him…but they’re all going to play,” McCoy said, per Hayley Elwood of team's official website. “The running backs are going to play by committee. We’ve done that the last couple years and that’s the way the offensive staff wants the offense to be run.”
Running the ball was a struggle for San Diego in 2014. The team averaged just 85.4 yards per game on the ground (30th in the NFL). This year it could well be a strength, even if the highly-touted Gordon has to wait for his turn in the backfield.