Preseason Week 1 Takeaways: Vikings Tease Explosive Offense Led by Kirk Cousins
The NFL preseason is a chance for teams to identify and/or address questionable areas. Every organization has issues within its roster. Exhibition games can provide answers. But not always.
Twenty-two teams met in the first day of preseason action with varying results as everyone tried to get out of those contests relatively unscathed. Four teams—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints—took the field for the first time Friday night for the second slate of games.
Three of the four were looking for answers and found some. The Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns, on the other hand, enter the weekend with significant questions marks at key positions.
Kirk Cousins' Perfect Showing Increases Confidence in Kevin Stefanski Offense
The Kirk Cousins-Kevin Stefanski partnership couldn't have asked for a better start.
Cousins posted career highs last season with a 70.1 percent completion rate and 30 touchdown passes, yet the Vikings ranked 20th in total offense.
Head coach Mike Zimmer demanded a different approach. Changes began during the 2018 regular season when Zimmer fired John DeFilippo and Stefanski took over as coordinator. He didn't have time to implement his approach, though. Instead, he cobbled together makeshift game plans during Minnesota's final three contests.
Friday's meeting with the Saints at the Superdome was the first real showing of Stefanski's offense, and Cousins looked stellar.
Stefanski, along with offensive adviser Gary Kubiak, implemented a more aggressive passing approach to complement a heavy zone-run/play-action attack. The 30-year-old signal-caller looked like an ideal fit in the system by completing all four of his passes for 65 yards and a touchdown. The drive included a 34-yard Adam Thielen reception.
The approach is a throwback to what Cousins does best. The scheme is built around the same principles from Mike Shanahan that his son Kyle implemented when the quarterback entered the league with the Washington Redskins in 2012.
Cousins may not be the type of player who can shoulder an entire offense, but he's in the right scheme to maximize his effectiveness.
Devin Bush Gives Steelers Defense Exactly What It Needs
Ryan Shazier's absence after he suffered a spinal injury created a massive void in the Steelers defense. The organization couldn't find an inside linebacker capable of replicating his multipurpose skill set last season. In order to find a linebacker with similar speed, athleticism and aggressiveness, general manager Kevin Colbert traded up to draft Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick.
Bush's performance Friday against the Buccaneers showed a linebacker capable of not only replacing Shazier but also becoming the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Yes, no one should get overexcited after one preseason game. However, the traits Bush displayed in an already talent-laden unit portends a standout rookie campaign. His instincts are outstanding. He registered six tackles in his first quarter of play, including a fourth-down run stop. He finished with 10 total tackles.
His performance goes beyond statistics, though. Bush showed he's a complete linebacker.
In the Buccaneers' first drive, the 5'11', 234-pound defender destroyed a guard to clog a running lane. His level of physicality can't be questioned. Later, Bush dropped into space, undercut a pass and nearly grabbed an interception.
He is exactly what the Steelers needed in the middle of their defense.
James Washington Shows Promise as 2nd WR in Steelers Offense
The Steelers placed plenty of pressure on James Washington to develop in his second season. By trading Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, the front office created a massive opportunity for the Round 2 draft pick.
But Washington struggled as a rookie, and the organization didn't know what to expect.
Ben Roethlisberger didn't play Friday, but the veteran quarterback discussed his growing confidence in the wide receiver corps.
"James Washington has shown improvement," Roethlisberger told Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk (h/t PFT's Mike Florio). "He's lost weight, gotten faster, and [is] making plays."
Washington looked like a different receiver Friday against the Buccaneers. The 23-year-old led the team with four receptions for 84 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown catch.
The vertical threat is no longer a one-trick pony. He is better conditioned and has improved as a route-runner. While he still has the burst to take the top off any defense—and he did with a 43-yard reception on an underthrown pass by Joshua Dobbs during the Steelers' opening drive—the development of his game places Washington in a position to be Roethlisberger's No. 2 target behind JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Rookie Erik McCoy Secure as Saints' Starting Center
A logjam existed at center for the Saints when training camp began. At this point, rookie Erik McCoy is like the log jammer ride at an amusement park because he made quite a splash.
Originally, three linemen—McCoy, Cameron Tom and Nick Easton—had a chance to secure the job. McCoy eventually worked his way into the most first-team reps and started Friday's contest against the Vikings.
The Saints traded up in the second round to acquire the 21-year-old rookie pivot. Of course, they will give him every opportunity to secure the job. But it's still a work in progress. McCoy continued to work with the second-team offensive line when the other four starters left the game.
"I'm pretty close to being where I need to be," McCoy said, per Cox Sports TV. "The calls aren't complicated, but of course, there's still things versus different defenses that our team runs that I have to get better at."
McCoy's ascent helps the Saints on multiple fronts.
First, the starting group gains invaluable time together. Second, the lack of an ongoing competition allows the other options to concentrate on other roles. Third, the Saints now have quality depth throughout the offensive interior. For example, Easton started at left guard Friday because incumbent Andrus Peat didn't suit up.
Vita Vea's Absence Softens Buccaneers' Defensive Interior
Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea will again miss valuable snaps during the preseason.
Last year, Vea missed the first three games of the regular season and didn't start until Week 7 because of a calf injury. Now, he has a sprained LCL in his left knee, which he suffered Tuesday, according to ESPN's Jenna Laine.
"Typically, it would take six to eight weeks' recovery, but [his] injury is so that he could be back [in] four to five weeks," a source told Laine.
That means the 347-pounder could be ready for the start of the regular season when the Bucs host the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 8.
But last year's calf injury lingered. The same could happen this year. If Vea's recovery takes five weeks or more, he may not play until at least Week 3 since Tampa Bay's Week 2 contest at the Carolina Panthers falls on a Thursday.
If Friday's defensive performance is any indication, the Buccaneers can't afford an extended absence. Pittsburgh's starting offensive line easily handled Tampa Bay's defensive front. Granted, Ndamukong Suh didn't play, but Vea's size and power can be overwhelming for opposing centers.
Tampa Bay wants to be bigger and more physical up front, but that's difficult when a projected starter isn't healthy.
Antonio Callaway Suspension Creates Opportunities for Other Young Browns WRs
The Browns drafted Antonio Callaway with the 105th pick in the 2018 draft even though he missed the 2017 campaign while he was suspended from the Florida Gators. A year ago, police cited Callaway for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license, though the former charge was dropped and he was given probation for the latter.
The second-year target reported to training camp out of shape, according to head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, but Callaway played well in Thursday's 30-10 victory over the Washington Redskins with three catches for 42 yards. Earlier in the day, though, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the 22-year-old was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Callaway's absence won't be a huge blow since the Browns still have Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins. However, the fourth, fifth and sixth receiver spots are available on the 53-man roster.
Derrick Willies and Jaelen Strong are the most likely candidates to claim those jobs since they received first-team reps throughout training camp. Plus, they're bigger and more physical options compared to the Browns' top three options.
Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi could be the biggest beneficiary of Callaway's suspension. The 24-year-old rookie, who pretended to know vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith to get a tryout, scored on an 86-yard punt-return touchdown in his first professional action. If Sheehy-Guiseppi continues to contribute on special teams, he can make the squad.
"It is good to see good people, hard-working good people succeed," Kitchens said of Sheehy-Guiseppi, per Scott Patsko of Cleveland.com (via MSN.com). "He definitely fits the bill with being that. ... He is always at the office. He is a good kid."