Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
11 Aug 2008
by Doug Farrar, with notes from the FO staff
Baltimore Ravens: When it comes to evaluating rookie quarterbacks in their first preseason, mechanics are more important than results. You have to know what's there, and what needs work. And you know that some things are going to need work. In the case of Ravens rookie Joe Flacco, there was an 0-for-3 performance, an awkward across-the-body throw, and some caving under pressure against the Patriots. We haven't even seen enough yet to understand how far he is away from where he needs to be.
Buffalo Bills: Vince Verhei notes that "J.P. Losman is playing a lot more like Trent Edwards, patiently hitting the underneath stuff. He also displayed nice touch on a 16-yard touchdown to rookie receiver James Hardy in the corner of the end zone."
Cleveland Browns: Note to Ken Dorsey: It might be time to consider alternate careers. On Cleveland's last drive against the Jets, Dorsey threw 11 passes, and every single one of them was incomplete. His final stat line: eight-of-29 for 138 yards and two interceptions. Not good when it's happening in the fourth quarter against the scrubs, but kudos to the Jets for committing the three penalties that allowed this Festival of Incompetence to continue. Goofy throws into coverage, wormburners, out-of-bounds bailouts -- not pretty.
Denver Broncos: At the 2008 Owner's Meetings, Mike Shanahan said that he does not see team rushing champ Selvin Young as a 25-carry per game back. Touches might be a different story. Young caught two passes in the first quarter against Houston. He caught 35 balls in his rookie year, and he could be used more in that role for two reasons: The Broncos are struggling to find options at receiver, and backs who replace carries with catches tend to override durability concerns.
Second-year right tackle Ryan Harris was flagged for four penalties in the first half -- illegal formation, false start, and two consecutive holds. The holds were legit, as Harris was trying in vain to avoid getting beaten by Texans end N.D. Kalu on both plays at the end of the first half.
Houston Texans: The Texans are looking for complementary targets alongside super-receiver Andre Johnson. David Anderson, a third-year receiver out of Colorado State, made his case against the Broncos with six receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. You may remember Anderson from our original Top 25 Prospects list in PFP 2007.
Indianapolis Colts: Michigan running back Mike Hart dropped as a draft prospect due to injuries, a slow 40 at the Combine (4.69 means a very low Speed Score) and some fumbling issues, but he's looked pretty impressive through two preseason games with the Colts. Hart gained 53 yards on four carries against Washington in the Hall of Fame game, and broke off an 18-yard run against Carolina as well.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Rookie linebacker/defensive end Quentin Groves had an impressive debut. The pass rusher from Auburn amassed three tackles and an assist, picked up half a sack, and showed off his speed when he caught Atlanta's Jason Snelling from behind on a long post-catch run. The Jags are hoping that Groves and fellow rookie Derrick Harvey can make their front four an elite unit.
Kansas City Chiefs: According to various game recaps, there was excitement in Kansas City because Larry Johnson gained 18 yards on eight carries against the Bears. The Curse of 370: Coming to a theater near you!
Miami Dolphins: Rookie quarterback Chad Henne looked solid in his NFL debut. There were rough spots -- he airmailed a couple of (caught) sideline patterns, and he made the mistake of forcing receiver David Kircus to jump for a ball over the middle in traffic, but he also sold play-action exceptionally well, and got the handoff to Ricky Williams for a draw play after a bad snap. On another smooth play-action off the snap, he found his receivers covered to the left and simply threw the ball away without being flagged. Henne does not appear to have the timing issues so common among quarterbacks during their first NFL dance.
New England Patriots: Rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo de-cleated Baltimore running back Ray Rice with one of three tackles, though the hit on Rice probably should have counted as two. The Patriots also seem to be grooming Ray Ventrone, a Villanova prospect who has been bouncing around league practice squads for a while, as a Troy Brown-like combination depth receiver and defensive back.
New York Jets: Second-year receiver David Clowney, a fast, raw project who bounced from the Packers to the Jets, bagged two touchdowns against the Browns, a 70-yarder in the second quarter, and a 71-yarder in the fourth. On the first score, Clowney beat cornerback A.J. Davis and safety Nick Sorenson, and quarterback "The Other Brett" Ratliff hit him in stride with a perfect rainbow. The fourth-quarter touchdown? Second verse, same as the first. Clowney shot by two different defenders, took the pass from Ratliff, and he was gone. Clowney has apparently received raves in training camp, and he didn't hurt himself any in this game.
Oakland Raiders: The concern about Darren McFadden coming out of college is that he would be less inclined to run between the tackles because he was more of a straight-line rusher at Arkansas. Against the 49ers, McFadden repeatedly showed a willingness to run to and past contact, fighting for extra yardage or finding an escape hatch and bouncing outside.
Pittsburgh Steelers: First-round pick Rashard Mendenhall was looking good on his first carry as a pro, running smoothly inside and gaining extra yardage to the right. However, Eagles safety Quintin Mikell had a lesson about pad level for the rookie: Keep 'em low, lest you get 'faced by an oncoming defender. Lesson learned, and Mendenhall finished the day with 34 yards on seven carries.
San Diego Chargers: LSU fullback Jacob Hester was drafted in the third round by the Chargers to, among other things, fulfill the blocking role held by Lorenzo Neal for so many years. San Diego liked Hester so much, they gave up an extra fifth-round pick in 2008 and a second-rounder in 2009 to make sure they got him. Though he was playing more as a halfback in his first preseason game, Hester did not disappoint; he scored two short touchdowns, gained 49 yards on 13 carries, and showed that he can be a physical inside rusher. Hester could provide a neat change of pace with Darren Sproles behind LT2.
Tennessee Titans: Vince Young's been working with new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger on his footwork and other finishing touches, but there were still issues against the Rams. Young takes too long to get back to throwing position after play-action (leading to unnecessary pressure), his short passes are still pretty rickety, and he underthrew a couple of easy out routes. He's still a work in progress.
Should we be impressed that the Titans racked up 340 yards rushing on 43 plays, with runs of 66, 45, and 33 yards? Certainly. Should we be a bit cautious because they did it against a defense that's still learning to play together? You bet.
Arizona Cardinals: Rookie running back Tim Hightower, a fifth-round pick out of Richmond, displayed surprising inside moves and outside burst against the Saints. Most impressive was his ability to bounce outside on a one-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, Hightower's got an interesting skillset. Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com agrees, saying that Hightower "has the size and power to make an immediate impact as a change-of-pace or short-yardage back in the NFL. While his lack of breakaway speed does limit his big-play capabilities, Hightower could surprise as a late-round small school gem in a ball control offense."
Atlanta Falcons: The most impressive thing about the Falcons wasn't what happened on the field, it was the attitude on the sidelines. I spent far too much time watching the Petrino era in preparation for Pro Football Prospectus 2008. The funereal silences and thousand-yard stares were truly depressing. It was nice to see players and coaches talking to each other, and a feeling of camaraderie on the team. It may not seem like much, but the Falcons are years away from contention. They might as well enjoy the ride.
Carolina Panthers: Julius Peppers is back, but you'll have to look for him on the right side now. After a 2.5-sack season in 2007 that left everybody puzzled, Peppers began the new season with a bang. He shot out of right end on the third play of the game against the Colts, blew past left tackle Tony Ugoh, enveloped quarterback Jim Sorgi, and caused a fumble that was recovered by Carolina. Later in the first quarter, his blindside pressure forced Sorgi to hurry a throw that was tipped at the line and intercepted by linebacker Adam Seward. Peppers looked much more like his old dynamic self in this game -- quick off the snap, freakishly athletic, and very powerful. The Panthers desperately need him to have a huge bounceback season with the rest of their defensive line in flux.
Chicago Bears: Chicago's offense could best be described as a pre-existing condition that is degenerating over time, but there have been a couple of encouraging signs. Second-year running back Garrett Wolfe gained 64 yards on only seven carries against the Chiefs. Also, the Bears have not yet re-signed Fred Miller as they shuffle their offensive line after Chris Williams's injury. Sometimes, you take the little victories.
Dallas Cowboys: No Julius Jones? No problem. The Cowboys' two drafted running backs, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, each impressed against the Chargers. Jones is the scatback with speed and change of direction, while Choice bulled off guard for a 19-yard run. It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys use these two players in tandem with Marion Barber.
Detroit Lions: From the NFL.com game notes of Detroit's 13-10 win over the Giants: "Detroit's first-round pick, tackle Gosder Cherilus, had three penalties -- one for holding and two false starts -- and was booed by the crowd." Apparently, Matt Millen doesn't look up priors OR penalties -- Cherilus had seven penalties in his senior year at Boston College, four against Notre Dame alone, after he was moved to left tackle. Why on earth would we think that he'd have trouble adjusting to a more demanding environment like the NFL?
Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota's first touchdown drive against Seattle showed something that's been in evidence ever since Steve Hutchinson poison-pilled his way to the Vikings: When these two teams play, Julian Peterson has no clue what to do against Hutchinson. On the 16-yard completion to Bernard Berrian which put the Vikings at the Seattle six-yard line, Peterson came off the right edge and tried to shoot the gap inside around rookie end Lawrence Jackson. Hutch just walled him off as Tarvaris Jackson rolled out left. Reminded me of the Chester Taylor 95-yard run in 2006, when the NFL's best guard eliminated Peterson as the primary tackler and allowed the franchise's longest running play.
New Orleans Saints: Receiver Robert Meachem, who missed his entire rookie year due to injury, could be a real threat in an explosive New Orleans offense. Bill Barnwell had this to say about his performance against Arizona: "Meacham ran a spacing route, created separation for a first down, and then ran through THE ENTIRE CARDINALS DEFENSE last night. Granted, it was the preseason, and he was up against their third string, but it was incredible."
New York Giants: The good news: Jared Lorenzen threw for two touchdown passes in his first preseason game of 2008. The bad news: He did it for the Colts. J-Load 1, G-Men 0. This will be the centerpiece of his autobiography, Mannings I Have Known, available soon.
Philadelphia Eagles: From the Eagle Eye of Mike Tanier: "Donovan McNabb looks sharp. He looks five times better than he did last year. DeSean Jackson has caught a few balls and made some after-the-catch moves. I like the idea that some 5-yard hitches might become 12-yard gains, if not 60-yarders. In general, the Eagles looked more 'together' than they usually do in a first preseason game. It looks like they realize the Super Bowl run was a few years ago and that they need work again; they cannot just coast through the preseason."
St. Louis Rams: A brief summary of the second Rams drive (their first was a three-and-out), which began at their own 5-yard line after the Titans failed to convert a fourth down. Marc Bulger tried throwing short right to fullback Dan Kreider on first-and-10, only to have Javon Kearse bat the ball down at the line. Second down, a run by Brian Leonard for a loss of three yards. Then, delay of game. Third down, a pass over the middle to Leonard, which was batted and intercepted. Touchdown, Keith Bulluck.
The Rams got some things going offensively when the Titans backed off and went into the preseason prevent, but it was mostly underneath stuff. The offensive line looked atrocious, and the Rams desperately need Steven Jackson ready to go for the regular season -- not just for his rushing abilities, but because he's so good with screens. These quarterbacks are going to need a LOT of outlet throws. Jackson's agent is no doubt observing this game film with a beatific grin.
San Francisco 49ers: I'm not exactly sure who won the first stage of the quarterback battle between Alex Smith, J.T. O'Sullivan, and Shaun Hill, but the fact that I had an overwhelming urge to spin 3-Way Tie for Last by the Minutemen while watching the highlights could be an indicator of something.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks are hoping that Charlie Frye can show enough as a backup quarterback to give Seneca Wallace a shot at receiver, but it was Wallace who showed progression as a quarterback in this game. His play-action moves were seamless, he was more composed while leading drives than he had been before, and his longer throws actually had a little arc to them when necessary. Wallace has the best arm of any quarterback on the team, but everything used to be a frozen rope. He's also gone beyond the need to rely on his athleticism at the first sign of pressure.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One of the most entertaining Week 1 battles was between Miami's defensive line and Tampa Bay's front five. Underrated as a run-blocking unit last year, the Bucs' line was challenged in pass protection by the Miami 3-4/4-3 sets -- Jason Ferguson sacked Luke McCown on the first Tampa Bay offensive play. Ferguson rode center Jeff Faine outside right for the takedown, but Faine looked very good after that in the face of a Miami front seven that is going to give people a few headaches this year. The Bucs allowed three total sacks, but only one in the first half. Chris Simms was sacked twice in the third quarter, but by that time, the trenches were more a mish-mash of backups.
Washington Redskins: Jason Campbell is still adjusting to the timing of Jim Zorn's West Coast offense, which demands instant release after quick dropbacks. Campbell double-clutched a couple of times, resulting in late throws to his receivers. The good news? When Campbell gets it down, he'll be blessed with an offense that's a great fit for the system. Zorn sees Santana Moss as his Deion Branch (the downfield burner on the double move), Antwaan Randle El as his Bobby Engram (the reliable short possession receiver, especially on third down), and he's got to be thanking his deity of choice for Clinton Portis. After several years in Seattle helping to devise an offense around Shaun Alexander's absentee blocking, declining receiving skills, and over-reliance on the offensive line, Zorn will find Portis's versatile talent palette and unselfish play to be a revelation. You have to love a back who sees a good block and a touchdown run as equal cause for celebration.
51 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2008, 1:05pm by jimm