Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
29 Aug 2006
by Michael David Smith, with notes from the rest of the FO staff
The Week 3 schedule is the closest thing the preseason has to meaningful games. The starters often play beyond halftime, and most coaches install game plans that closely mirror the ones they'll use in the regular season. So while we still have the "doesn't" in the headline for our third week of preseason analysis, we're getting an idea of how these teams will look when the games really do count.
The Ravens must be concerned about free-agent running back Mike Anderson. He simply doesn't look like he's running hard enough, and he's averaging less than three yards a carry. Where's the power we saw in Denver?
Fifth-round draft pick Dawan Landry out of Georgia Tech looks like he's going to be a very good safety. He appears to have earned the starting job alongside Ed Reed, and he has some of Reed's playmaking instincts.
It's strange to say this, but J.P. Losman actually played relatively well against Cleveland, with a well-thrown touchdown pass to Peerless Price and better decision-making than he's shown in the past. But the strangest spectacle of the Bills' game was the way the local announcers, Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker, told the story of how Losman bought a place in downtown Buffalo rather than choosing to live in a suburb like most of his teammates. Johnson and Tasker had a laughing fit when they described it, and generally acted as if choosing to live in downtown Buffalo is like choosing to live in Antarctica.
Rookie defensive tackle Domata Peko is exactly the kind of big presence in the middle that Marvin Lewis needs for his defense. Peko, who stuffed Najeh Davenport on a third-and-short attempt, holds his ground in the middle of the field and doesn't move.
The Browns' veteran defensive line of Orpheus Roye, Ted Washington and Alvin McKiney played well early in the game against the Bills, keeping Willis McGahee from finding any room to run. But can a group that averages 33 years old and 325 pounds consistently keep it up for four quarters over the course of a 16-game schedule? It seems unlikely.
Outside linebacker D.J. Williams had an outstanding game against the Texans. He forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, and looked like the fastest player on the field. Williams was a little disappointing in 2005 after a very good rookie year in 2004. He looks like he's getting ready for a great 2006.
Everyone seems to be bashing Mario Williams for not getting many tackles in the preseason, but watching him, you can see that he has a lot of power and quickness coming out of his stance. It's too early to label him a disappointment (similarly, if he had five sacks in the preseason it would be too early to label him a star), but he definitely has the necessary tools to become a very good player.
Terrence Wilkins was a decent third receiver for the Colts a few years ago. He's since bounced around the league and been unable to find a long-term home, but he's now back in Indianapolis and looks like he's earned a roster spot as a return man. He had kickoff returns of 28, 31 and 35 yards and a punt return of 17 yards against the Saints.
Linebacker Jorge Cordova has been with the Jaguars for three years, since they made him their third-round pick in 2004, and has never played in a regular-season game. But he looked good against Tampa Bay, picking up a sack and generally flying around the field.
The Chiefs game story in the Lawrence Journal-World actually contained the words, "Rookie quarterback Brodie Croyle led two scoring drives against the Rams' first-team defense." Yes, Croyle led the drives. On one of those scoring drives, all three of his passes fell incomplete but a pass interference penalty put the Chiefs in field-goal range. On the other drive both of his passes fell incomplete, and the Chiefs actually lost five yards on the drive, but since they took over after a fumble on the Rams' 27-yard-line, they still managed another field goal. As the Lawrence Journal-World story notes, Croyle finished the game 1-for-9. But he led two scoring drives, so I guess he's a good game manager.
His linemates didn't look very good, but center Rex Hadnot is turning into a surprisingly effective blocker. You can just see Hudson Houck's coaching when you watch how fluid his motion is from snapping the ball to engaging his man. When Ronnie Brown got stuffed at the 1-yard line on a fourth-and-goal against Carolina, Hadnot opened a sizeable hole by pushing Kris Jenkins aside. Unfortunately, Brown didn't see the hole and instead ran into a pile of Panthers.
Second-year defensive end Mike Wright, who had two sacks against Washington, should get increased playing time in the line rotation. He's quick off the ball and strong against the run. He also plays kickoff coverage, a rarity for a defensive lineman.
Junior Seau has something left. He certainly has more left than Monty Beisel or Barry Gardner ever had to begin with. He made a nice play to tackle Ladell Betts by leaping over Redskins guard Randy Thomas.
Tight end Ben Watson looked good, but most of his plays were because of bad coverage from the Redskins. He caught a 35-yard seam route in the second quarter right through the middle of zone coverage, and his six-yard touchdown later on that drive came when Washington blitzed, leaving Watson free.
Bill Belichick is already in midseason form. He was wearing the same sweatshirt that he normally wears during autumn games, except with the sleeves cut off halfway. Is the "cut sleeves" version available in the official NFL coaches' gear catalog?
First-round linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold both look like they'll be ready to play from opening day, but Mangold, the less heralded of the two, actually looks more prepared. Ferguson still looks a little jittery at times; he had two false starts in the first quarter against the Giants.
The Raiders could have a very good group of young linebackers. Middle linebacker Kirk Morrison was one of the best defensive rookies in the league last year, and he looked outstanding against the Lions, getting an interception and having some key tackles. Strongside linebacker Sam Williams had a season-ending knee injury last year, but he's back in the starting lineup. And rookie weakside linebacker Thomas Howard is a good athlete with a lot of speed for a 240-pounder.
Backup quarterback Shane Boyd isn't much of a passer, but he's a fast runner who leads the Steelers in preseason rushing yardage. If Boyd makes the active roster for the regular season, you can bet offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will have some trick plays drawn up to take advantage of Boyd's talents.
Philip Rivers still hasn't answered the question of whether or not he's ready to be an NFL starter. He looked fairly accurate against Seattle, but he also lost three fumbles. Rivers had better be ready because the Chargers don't have much behind him. A.J. Feeley, the No. 2 quarterback, who never showed that he could play effectively in the NFL, was released. And rookie Charlie Whitehurst, the No. 3 quarterback, who was generally recognized as one of the more NFL-ready passers in this year's draft class, hasn't looked ready so far in the preseason. He's averaging just 4.4 yards a pass and has two interceptions.
The problem with LenDale White isn't that he spat in the face of a teammate in practice. The problem is that he looks slow and out of shape. He did pick up three first downs in short-yardage situations, but he hasn't shown any burst to get beyond the first line of defenders.
Matt Leinart is throwing mostly short, safe passes, but he's doing it with pinpoint accuracy. He's also showing better mobility than he showed at USC: On a third-and-4, Leinart outran two Bears linebackers for seven yards.
The next hole Edgerrin James runs through will be his first in a Cardinals uniform. He has seven carries for one yard so far in the preseason. The Cardinals' offensive line is a joke.
The T.J. Duckett trade means running 240-pound running back Marlion Jackson, who has bounced around training camps for years but never played in a regular-season game, could finally make an NFL roster. Jackson would be, at best, third on the depth chart behind Warrick Dunn and rookie Jerious Norwood, but he has the kind of power that made Duckett valuable in short-yardage situations.
When DeAngelo Williams ran around the right end for a nine-yard gain in the second quarter against Miami, commentator Tony Siragusa said â€œthat's all him,â€? and Moose Johnston called it a â€œgreat individual effort,â€? but neither announcer noticed that Mike Wahle, the best pulling guard in the league, was leading the play. Williams flashed his talent, both on offense and when he scored a touchdown on a kickoff return. His straight-line speed is very impressive. Now he needs to show he can contribute consistently and not get bottled up behind the line of scrimmage.
If the officials keep calling taunting penalties the way they have during the preseason, some players are going to have to make a major adjustment. One of those players is Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Harris, who got called for taunting against the Cardinals, looks like he has something to say at the end of every other play.
If Lovie Smith gives Rex Grossman the starting job at quarterback over Brian Griese, he's essentially saying he doesn't care how well his players play in the preseason. Griese hasn't been a little better than Grossman, he's been a lot better.
Research shows that preseason games are particularly useful in evaluating teams that were in the middle of the pack last year. That's a very good sign for the Cowboys, who are 3-0 and have outscored their preseason opponents 60-17. Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn have played well, but perhaps the most impressive player on the roster has been third-string running back Tyson Thompson, who has looked more impressive than the running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Julius Jones and Marion Barber.
Eddie Drummond was a full-time kick returner in his first four years in the league, but he looks like a great fit as a receiver in Mike Martz's offense. He has eight catches for 118 yards in the preseason. Receivers Mike Furrey and Corey Bradford also played well against Oakland while former top 10 picks Mike Williams and Charles Rogers warmed the bench. It's hard to imagine Rogers making the roster, and Williams could be in jeopardy as well.
Center Scott Wells struggled against Cincinnati and generally doesn't look like he's the right fit for the Packers' new zone blocking scheme. On a few plays he tried to get up to the next level to block the middle linebacker and simply whiffed on him.
Undrafted rookie receiver Jason Carter deserves a roster spot. He has touchdown catches of 77 and 42 yards and has shown some nice moves on punt returns. The dismissal of Koren Robinson might have made room for Carter to make the team.
Reggie Bush caught five passes, but they were all short dump-offs. The Saints would be better off having Bush run some deeper routes and using his speed to stretch the defense. The Saints' other rookie running back, Jamal Branch, has looked very impressive. He's currently leading the team in both rushing and receiving yards. On a roster that includes Bush and Deuce McAllister, Branch, an undrafted player from Colgate, is no sure thing. But he's opened some eyes.
The bad news for the Giants is that they had to punt eight times against the Jets. The good news is that they look like they have two good punters on their roster: Jeff Feagles, who has 19 years of NFL experience, and Travis Dorsch, who has one game of NFL experience. Both punters showed good hang time and placement, as five of their eight punts landed inside the 20-yard line and the Jets didn't get a single punt return all night. And yes, this is the same Travis Dorsch who was a 2002 fourth-round pick by Cincinnati and had one of the worst punting games ever in his only NFL regular-season appearance, as documented in the Giants chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2006.
Donovan McNabb is playing really, really well so far in the preseason. He's completed almost 75 percent of his passes, has thrown some good-looking deep balls, and generally looks like he wants to do everything he can to keep last season's problems from defining him.
Scott Linehan is doing everything he can to get him involved in the offense, but Steven Jackson looks awfully tentative. He got the ball five times on the Rams' first drive, and the five touches consisted of a loss of three, a loss of two, no gain, a gain of two on second-and-13, and a gain of eight on third-and-26.
If you're a Seattle fan, do yourself a favor and don't read the next sentence. Tom Rouen averaged 54.3 yards on his three punts last week and landed all three of them inside the 20-yard line.
Lofa Tatupu was all over the field against the Chargers. He had four tackles for either a loss or no gain. He might be the early favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who had looked phenomenal in Tampa Bay's first two preseason games, looked like a rookie quarterback against Jacksonville. Gradkowski had two interceptions and two fumbles in half a game.
Joe Gibbs is right to be worried about his team. Mark Brunell is looking tentative and inaccurate, and the Redskins have 17 points in three games. It won't be long before fans are calling for Jason Campbell, but he doesn't look ready. And the offensive line, which played very well last year, hasn't opened many holes for the running game.
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