Preseason Week 3 Takeaways: Are the Cleveland Browns NFL's Next Elite Defense?
Week 3 of the NFL preseason is often referred to as the "dress rehearsal."
As such, observers can glean what will be seen during the regular season and make projections.
Friday's games featured one of the best up-and-coming defenses as the Cleveland Browns terrorized the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the flip side, the Bucs weren't in the best position to evaluate quarterback Jameis Winston.
Meanwhile, one bad decision and a worse throw by Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen may have destroyed all the goodwill he built earlier this preseason.
Injuries played a role, of course. The Detroit Lions suffered two significant ones, while the Carolina Panthers may have avoided a season-changing affliction.
Browns Defensive Line Woke Up Feeling Dangerous
Unleash the Dawgs. The Cleveland Browns did Friday against quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cleveland sacked Winston five times and harassed him throughout the Browns' 13-12 loss.
Of course, the Browns offense demands attention with Baker Mayfield behind center, Nick Chubb at running back and Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry as the top receiving options. But a special set of skill-position performers is only half the equation.
Expectations aren't being heaped upon the Browns for the first time in decades solely because of their offense.
The defense is built on a talented foundation and has the potential to become one of the NFL's elite units.
Few squads claim a better line, and the group showed why when it took the field as a complete unit for the first time.
Myles Garrett ranks among the league's most physically imposing players. Not many edge-rushers present his combination of first-step quickness, length, flexibility, power and versatility. Last season, Garrett broke through with 13.5 sacks and his first Pro Bowl appearance. He could be far better in Year 3 for two reasons.
First, the Browns' previous defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, limited Garrett to only two pass-rush moves. Second, Cleveland now features a solid bookend in Olivier Vernon. The eighth-year veteran finished Friday's contest with two sacks and three quarterback hits.
But an edge rush isn't effective without an interior push.
Cleveland signed Sheldon Richardson in free agency to fill a major void at 3-technique. Richardson can consistently collapse the pocket. He accounted for a sack and two tackles for loss against the Buccaneers.
Larry Ogunjobi, who starts at 1-technique, is easily forgotten, but he can overwhelm opposing centers.
Even if the line doesn't get to the quarterback, the defense as a whole features an instinctive middle linebacker in Joe Schobert, a Pro Bowl cornerback in Denzel Ward and an opportunistic ballhawk in safety Damarious Randall.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will let his Dawgs run wild this season, and opposing quarterback should be worried.
How Can Buccaneers Evaluate Jameis Winston Without Ample Protection?
The Buccaneers sit at a crossroads.
The organization spent the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft to select quarterback Jameis Winston. The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner is entering the final year of his rookie contract without any clarity about his future.
The Buccaneers will be forced to make a multimillion-dollar decision next offseason. Either they'll invest in Winston long-term because the front office believes he's a franchise quarterback or they'll go in another direction.
Tampa's roster muddies the picture.
Winston's evaluation trumps all. Yet he's playing behind an inferior line, as the Browns showed when they constantly pressured the 25-year-old. As a group, the Browns amassed 12 quarterback hits.
"They got their ass kicked," head coach Bruce Arians said, per Football Outsiders' Thomas Bassinger.
As a result, Winston finished 9-of-19 for 88 yards.
He isn't exactly nimble in the pocket. He needs to stand tall and deliver but can't if he's on his back.
The right side of the line, in particular, struggled. Olivier Vernon got the best of right tackle Demar Dotson, while Sheldon Richardson overwhelmed second-year guard Alex Cappa.
Left tackle Donovan Smith may have gotten paid this offseason, but his three-year, $41.3 million deal derived from his reliability after 64 straight starts more than his performance.
Left guard Ali Marpet is the unit's standout. Center Ryan Jensen is solid. The others remain major question marks, which will make things difficult for Winston.
If the Buccaneers can't protect their quarterback, they won't be any closer to understanding exactly who Winston is.
Josh Allen Takes Slight Step Back
Josh Allen's tools have never been in question. The Buffalo Bills quarterback was the toolsiest of prospects when he entered the professional ranks. Allen is 6'5" and 237 pounds with a howitzer strapped to his right shoulder. Oh, he can run like a gazelle, too.
OK, maybe not a gazelle, but some long and lanky animal.
Decision-making and accuracy were Allen's biggest downfalls. His performance last year as a rookie didn't dissuade detractors. Allen completed only 52.8 percent of his passes and did the most damage by running.
But a light seemed to come on this year. Allen showed the ability to throw with touch and tempo during the preseason. He looked on track to prove all the doubters and haters wrong.
One poor decision and an awful throw Friday made doubt creep in about all the progress Allen seemingly made. He avoided pressure, rolled to his right and kept his eyes downfield. All those things signaled good quarterback play. Everything blew up once Allen decided to throw across his body and into coverage. Forget about the official's decision to call roughing the passer and bail Allen out.
Some of the best decisions a quarterback makes are the throws they don't attempt.
Allen will always attempt to extend plays and let his natural tools take over. But his performance will never reach elite quarterback standards until he consistently makes good decisions. The potential for growth in this area remains significant.
Injuries Wreck Detroit Lions Lineup
Preseason injuries are the worst, but they're also inevitable. All a franchise can do is hope they're not significant and that they don't happen to its star players.
The Detroit Lions weren't so fortunate Friday night.
Third-year linebacker Jarrad Davis suffered a foot injury after minimal contact. At first, Davis tried to limp off the field, but he needed help from medical personnel. The staff then carted Davis to the locker room.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Davis injured his ankle and will undergo an MRI on Saturday.
The seriousness of the injury has yet to be determined, but Davis' potential absence for any period of time looms large. The 2017 first-round pick led the team last season with 100 tackle and 10 tackles for loss. With Davis out of the lineup, second-round rookie Jahlani Tavai will be thrown into the mix. Tavai primarily played as an edge-rusher and "Sam" backer at Hawaii. He'll now be asked to take on a much larger role as the "Mike" backer.
Like Davis, center Frank Ragnow, whom the Lions selected during last year's first round, didn't walk off the field under his own power. He couldn't put any weight on his right leg, and the staff also carted him to the locker room.
Detroit has an alternative and can move Graham Glasgow back over the ball with either Joe Dahl or Oday Aboushi taking over at right guard.
NFL Upholds Taylor Lewan Suspension; Marcus Mariota's Blind Side Is in Danger
The Tennessee Titans will open the 2019 campaign without arguably their best player. The NFL upheld its decision to suspend left tackle Taylor Lewan for four games after he failed a drug test, even though Lewan sought and passed a polygraph test in which he said he unknowingly took a banned substance.
"I never meant any ill intention by this, and I am taking full responsibility for the suspension," Lewan said, per Jim Wyatt of the team's official website. " ... I am not running from anything. But it is going to absolutely kill me to know that I won’t be out there to help the boys out. If there is a loss, you're always going to wonder, 'Is there something I could have done?' That's a heartbreaking thing."
Lewan's suspension delivers a significant blow to the Titans lineup. Dennis Kelly is expected to be the opening-day starter at left tackle. He will have his hands full during the first quarter of the regular season.
Tennessee opens against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 8, and Myles Garrett is one of the league's best young pass-rushers. Even when Garrett doesn't line up at right defensive end, Kelly will contend with veteran Olivier Vernon.
In Week 2, Kelly will see four-time Pro Bowler Justin Houston, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. Week 3 doesn't get any easier against the Jacksonville Jaguars and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Kelly might get a slight reprieve against the Atlanta Falcons the week before Lewan returns, unless Vic Beasley Jr. is back to form after dealing with injury in 2018.
Keeping Marcus Mariota's (or Ryan Tannehill's) blind side protected won't be easy.
Cam Newton Update: Where Will Panthers Go If Starting QB Isn't Ready?
The same applies to the organization because it expects Cam Newton back for the start of the regular season. The 2015 MVP, who was already dealing with his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, injured his foot Thursday against the New England Patriots.
The injury isn't as bad as originally feared.
"Cam Newton has a mid-foot sprain in his left foot, and we are cautiously optimistic he will be ready for Week 1," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney told reporters Friday.
If Newton isn't ready for the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 8, the coaching staff must decide which struggling backup will start. Kyle Allen and 2019 third-round pick Will Grier combined for 7-of-14 passing Thursday with an average of 4.29 yards per attempt.
"I was looking for a little more consistency out of the two of them," head coach Ron Rivera said, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "You know, I thought Will got a little something going at one point, but then we shoot ourselves in the foot with the holding call and then illegal procedure."
The Panthers don't have much to worry about as long as Newton's foot doesn't give him any problems in the next 16 days. If his recovery takes longer than expected, Carolina doesn't have a viable alternative based on Allen's and Grier's recent play.
New York Giants Head Coach Pat Shurmur Squashes the Legend of Danny Dimes
Eli Manning is the New York Giants' starting quarterback no matter how well rookie Daniel Jones plays this preseason.
"Eli's our starter, and we're getting Daniel ready to play," head coach Pat Shurmur said Friday, per Newsday's Bob Glauber. "[Jones] has done a good job in the preseason. He's getting better, and he's going to do continue to do that, so that at whatever time we need him to play, he'll be ready."
The last part of the statement may be more pertinent.
The excitement around Jones continues to grow with each week. Granted, preseason performances don't count for much, but the man now dubbed Danny Dimes continues to show why the Giants were right to take a chance on him with the sixth overall pick.
The previously maligned first-year quarterback has completed 83.3 percent of his passes, which ranks first among signal-callers with 30 or more preseason throws. More importantly, Jones effectively drives the ball downfield.
Manning looks better so far than he has during previous preseasons. The 15-year veteran has been efficient with more velocity on his throws. But the Giants will likely reach a point where they fall behind others in the NFC East. Or, they could use a spark Manning doesn't provide.
Either way, Jones might see the field sooner rather than later. As Shurmur said, the rookie will be "ready" when the team needs him. His first official appearance won't come Week 1, though.