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?
18 Aug 2008
by Doug Farrar, with commentary from the FO staff
After a rough start against the Patriots, Ravens rookie running back Ray Rice sorted things out against the Vikings, gaining 77 yards on eight carries and displaying solid inside power and an excellent outside burst on Baltimore's first touchdown drive.
Bobby April's special teams just received another bolt of lightning. Roscoe Parrish set team punt return records in 2007, and now the addition of cornerback Leodis McKelvin promises to set up a return unit that opponents will have trouble solving. McKelvin, Buffalo's first-round pick, scored on a 95-yard kickoff return in the third quarter.
It's got to be worrisome for the Bengals that Chad Johnson's shoulder injury puts him on the shelf along with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson, both of whom have missed the preseason with hamstring injuries. It doesn't help that Carson Palmer was getting hit like crazy by Detroit's aggressive defense.
The Broncos were happy to see Jay Cutler complete his first 12 passes against the Cowboys, but they were just as happy to see rookie Eddie Royal catch two passes for 67 yards. He looked especially good on a jump ball, beating Anthony Henry for the catch. Denver will need Royal to step up early in the season as Brandon Marshall serves a three-game suspension.
Matt Schaub's 14-of-16 performance said a little something about him, and just as much about the Alleged New Orleans Pass Defense. On the first Houston scoring drive, receiver Kevin Walter beat Jason David twice, including the touchdown. Hole-in-Zone was unavailable for comment.
19-of-37 for 207 net yards, two sacks, no touchdowns and one interception. That was the box score for Indy's three-headed backup (Quinn Gray, Jim Sorgi, and J-Load) against Atlanta's vanilla preseason defensive sets. The Colts scored on three field goals and Kelvin Hayden's interception return for a touchdown.
All together now, Indianapolis: "How's the knee, Peyton?!?!?!?"
If the Jaguars are going to live up to everyone's positive preseason expectations, they'd better get first halves like the one against the Dolphins out of their system. Between the Maurice Jones-Drew fumble at the Miami 1-yard line that went out of the end zone for a touchback, and several overthrows by David Garrard, it's safe to say that Jack Del Rio won't be short on "teaching points" this week.
Kansas City Chiefs
Score another one for Kansas City's 2008 draft. Second-round cornerback Brandon Flowers showed great speed and timing on the breakup of a long pass to Anquan Boldin of the Cardinals halfway through the first quarter. Flowers will take his lumps if he's asked to start right away as is projected (especially against receivers this good), but you can see the potential on certain plays.
Chad Pennington and Ricky Williams were the lead stories for the Dolphins in their win over the Jaguars, but rookie Chad Henne is making his mark, as well. Henne went 17-of-26 for 133 yards in this game â€“- not flashy, but the former Michigan quarterback, whose pro scouting reports were all over the place, needs to prove that he can fire the ball with consistency.
New England Patriots
Russell Levine notes that Tom Brady didn't make the trip, and it's just the second preseason game, but New England looked positively awful. They looked very much like a team with a bad case of Super Bowl loser's hangover. The NFL Network crew spent much of the evening harping on Matt Cassel, and I think they were correct. It appeared the play calls were tailored to try and get him some confidence, but it didn't work. I would not be surprised if he is cut before the season.
On defense, the Pats looked old and slow. The line got pushed around and couldn't get off blocks, the linebackers and secondary missed lots of tackles. Tampa Bay backs were consistently able to get positive yardage after contact. One bright spot was Jerod Mayo, who looks like a player. He a did a great job attacking the fullback in the hole, shedding him, and getting to the ball carrier, while also showing the ability to drop back in coverage.
New York Jets
Sean McCormick observed that while Brett Favre looked excellent in limited action, Kellen Clemens had a tough night. He got tripped up by an offensive lineman while dropping back two separate times, he had a ball batted down at the line of scrimmage and he threw three bullet passes on third down that traveled 10-plus yards and hit the receivers in the hands, only to be dropped. Oh, he also ran for a first down and had it called back due to a holding penalty. His stats were incredibly awful, but he really had some bad luck. The Jets offensive line played reasonably well when the starters were out, but as soon as the backups came in, they stopped being able to get so much as a yard on the ground.
The Jets defensive line continued to have problems stopping the run along the edges. Washington broke two big runs by taking advantage of Vernon Gholston -- each time the runner took the run straight at Gholston and then cut it upfield right in front of him for big yardage (we're talking around 70 yards worth of big). On the pass rush, Adrian Murrell's younger brother has gotten significantly more pressure than Gholston.
Cornerback Dwight Lowery, a fourth-round draft pick from San Jose State, has been a star of training camp. He built on that with a nice play on a ball thrown to Redskins receiver Devin Thomas, and he could get a lot of time in nickel sets.
It's been a rough time for receiver Javon Walker. Is he suffering long-term effects from the June robbery in Las Vegas that left him unconscious? It's a serious question that needs answering. Whatever the problem, Walker's walking in a netherworld right now. There have been retirement rumors, and Walker was horrible against the Titans. He dropped a little slant on third-and-2 and clearly jumped late for another throw. Raiders coach Lane Kiffin has been criticizing Walker ever since the former Broncos receiver signed a six-year, $55 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in March.
Do the Steelers have another Slash? Dennis Dixon, the former Oregon quarterback whose 2007 ACL injury affected the national championship chase, took a fourth-quarter bootleg 47 yards for a touchdown. The journey to the NFL for any spread offense quarterback is basically a trip to the moon, but Dixon has the speed to make other things happen. Also seen under center for Pittsburgh: Byron Leftwich, who completed five of 11 passes with his Eephus delivery intact.
San Diego Chargers
With LT2 out of the preseason picture as usual, and Darren Sproles leaving the field with a knee injury, it was rookie Jacob Hester's chance to shine â€“- and the LSU alum did so for the second straight week. Hester currently ranks seventh in the NFL in preseason rushing with 108 yards, and it's easy to see why the Chargers were so high on him in this year's draft.
VY? Oh, my. Vince Young displayed serious regression against the Raiders. The hitches in his delivery alter the timing of patterns and leave the offense lagging. In the broadcast booth, Moose Johnston was talking about how Young progressed in his first two seasons, which would have been nice had Young progressed at all in his second year. Chris Johnson has been a real find at running back, but this team won't go too far in the brutal AFC South with a quarterback who looks like this.
If Matt Leinart loses the quarterback battle to Kurt Warner, he can't say he didn't get a fair chance. After watching Leinart throw two near-interceptions in the first half, coach Ken Whisenhunt sent Leinart back onto the field with another shot to prove himself at the start of the second half -- with the entire starting offensive line. Leinart led the Cards downfield on an 11-play drive in which he went five-for-five. Impressive, but Mr. Quarterback should think about a nice dinner on him for that front five in the near future.
It was nice to see rookie back Thomas Brown get some reps against the Colts. Brown was a talented waterbug for the Georgia Bulldogs, though he couldn't stay away from the trainers; there were college injuries to his left shoulder, right knee, and collarbone. Brown also flashed ability as a return man, which is where he could find a spot behind Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood.
The Panthers were without three-fourths of last year's starting secondary due to injury (Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble, Chris Harris), but cornerback Richard Marshall made what might go down as the play of Carolina's preseason when he intercepted a shovel pass on a fake field goal attempt by the Eagles and returned the ball 87 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first quarter.
Their receiving corps have been dicey for a long time, but the Bears may have a sleeper in third-round rookie Earl Bennett. Against the Seahawks, Bennett took a punt 75 yards for a touchdown and had cornerback Josh Wilson beat for what would have been a touchdown had Wilson not recovered to bat the ball away at the last second. Bennett caught the most passes in SEC history despite leaving for the NFL after his junior year, and he surprised those who had his pegged as a possession receiver with his straight-line speed at the Combine.
Matt Forte rushed only seven times for 17 yards, but Vince Verhei liked what he saw. "He got little help from his blockers (the Bears O-line was just manhandled by the Hawks' front seven), but the time or two his teammates held up their end of the bargain, I thought he showed nice vision and running instincts. And his tackle on Leroy Hill's interception may have been the best defensive play of the game. Hill looked like he had an easy touchdown, but Forte came swooping in out of nowhere and dragged him down. Not that it matters much who Chicago's running back is; with those quarterbacks, those receivers and that line, it's going to be an ugly year in Soldier Field, even by Bears standards."
Receiver Miles Austin looked really good on the Cowboys' second-quarter scoring drive. He grabbed a Brad Johnson deep ball away from Domonique Foxworth, and then out-jumped Foxworth on a fade in the end zone.
Calvin Johnson looked great against the Bengals, His ability to adjust to balls thrown to him and time his jumps confounded Cincinnati cornerbacks. Can the Lions extend the productivity of the Mike Martz offense without Martz? Jon Kitna thinks so (well, of course he does). Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Martz may be concluding that it's got to be about the players to a point.
Green Bay Packers
If Aaron Rodgers doesn't let go of the need to make things happen under siege, he won't last half the season. In his sole performance of note last year against the Cowboys, Rodgers had good instincts about pressure around him, and he knew when to get rid of the ball. But his four-sack day against the 49ers, exacerbated as it was by the efforts of guard Jason Spitz, has to have the Packers worried. This is not a great pass-blocking line, and Rodgers will have to learn to adjust sooner than later.
Who's the NFL leader in receptions after two preseason weeks? DeSean Jackson (12), the rookie who's proven to be a nice escape hatch for Donovan McNabb.
Tarvaris Jackson has not learned to avoid contact with defenders. When scrambling, he reacts to the opposition as a running back would. This has been a longstanding problem -â€“ I remember at least one discussion about it in Audibles at the Line last season -â€“ and it's put him on the sidelines with a sprained MCL. Not good for a player who needs a breakout season against all odds, nor for a team that requires at least a league-average signal caller to get to the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
Marques Colston's one-handed touchdown grab in the end zone against the Texans was a great play, but it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who watches the Saints on a regular basis. Under Drew Brees, New Orleans has created a cottage industry out of Alley-Oop fades to either end zone sideline. Colston is the best at it because he has great jumping ability and wonderful hands.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have been looking all over for an answer at receiver, and Josh Morgan may be it. Morgan has deep speed and the ability to break free from press coverage. The knock on Morgan at Virginia Tech was that his inconsistency (dropped passes) would frustrate more than his potential would excite, but only David Clowney of the Jets has more receiving yards than Morgan's 182 this preseason. San Francisco may have a sixth-round steal.
The star of the game in Vince Verhei's mind was Justin Forsett, he of the 15 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown. He electrified the crowd with several long runs in the second half. Some of his big plays came on sweeps to the sideline, aided by great blocking by wide receivers and pulling blocks by the playside guards. Seattle hasn't run many plays like that in recent years, largely because Shaun Alexander was simply too slow to get to the edge. (Even at his peak, blazing speed was never Alexander's strength.) Forsett also added a 37-yard kick return and a 40-yard punt return, and had a third long return called back on a penalty. He currently leads the NFL in total yards. I know it was only one game, and only one preseason game at that, but I'm having a hard time not getting excited about this kid.
If nothing else, it looks like he'll be Seattle's official THIRST back (TM Mike Tanier). And his contributions on special teams could also free up Nate Burleson to focus on being a wide receiver, which is where the Seahawks need the most help right now.
Charlie Frye had a remarkable game -- when was the last time one quarterback took all his team's snaps in a preseason game? He was more athletic than I realized, scrambling for a few first downs, but he threw three absolutely unforgivable interceptions. The worst came when Frye, scrambling in his own end zone trying to avoid a safety, lobbed the ball right into the hands of Corey Graham, who waltzed into the end zone. Remember when Frye started for Cleveland in Week 1 last year? That was funny.
St. Louis Rams
It was hard to find bright spots in a 7-6 Rams win over the Chargers. Marc Bulger threw interceptions on the team's first two offensive possessions, offensive linemen Mark Setterstrom and Brandon Gorin were placed in IR after this game (continuing a truly mind-boggling trend of line injuries for this franchise), and the Rams' starting offense still hasn't scored a preseason touchdown in the Scott Linehan era. On the plus side, the defense did register four sacks ... against a San Diego team that decided against playing many of its offensive starters.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Russell Levine wrote about his favorite team: "This is the second straight week that Tampa Bay has played it's 'Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts' offense to supreme effectiveness. There was a 17-play, 9:38 touchdown drive to open the game. Brian Griese was 8-for-8 ... for 39 yards. Last week, Tampa Bay had two 17-plus-play drives, all at 4 yards a clip, it seems. They haven't turned the ball over in two weeks and have had very few penalties. The offense doesn't have any stars, but it has a lot of depth. Earnest Graham will start at running back, but I expect Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett are also going to get touches. Cadillac looks to be headed to the PUP list, but it sounds like they do expect him back at some point this season. At wide receiver, Antonio Bryant made a statement in this game that he could earn some playing time behind Galloway and Mr. 9 YPC, Ike Hilliard. Michael Clayton again looks to be fighting for his job."
"The Bucs offense is the only one that really looks like a West Coast Offense to me anymore," says Mike Tanier. "Well, them and the Seahawks. They are the one team that I see throwing a slant almost every drive, a hitch or smash almost every drive, where the back leaks out into a route and he actually looks like one of the early options in the progression. It's modernized, with a lot of new formations, including a little Full House. But I watch it and find it intricate, fussy, and a little dull. But effective on Sunday, when you realized that most of the time the best receiver on the field was Ike friggin' Hilliard."
"A 'little' dull?" asked Russell, "You're being charitable. It's exceedingly dull. It defines dull. It makes a Tori Spelling movie-thon on Lifetime look thrilling by comparison. It's an offense only a fan of the team could love. The personnel doesn't seem to matter. If the Bucs are on the schedule, the score is going to be 20-13.
"One of the most fun things in the preseason is that the cameramen are still getting into shape too," Aaron Schatz said. "Tampa Bay ran an end around early on where Brian Griese's play-fake to Earnest Graham going up the middle completely faked both the Patriots and the cameraman ... the picture was focused entirely on the pile in the middle before the cameraman noticed that Antonio Bryant seemed to be running around the left side.
Washington was sluggish in the passing game until Todd Collins directed a nice two-minute drive. It's clear that Jason Campbell is finding the new offense to be an adjustment from a speed standpoint. The hope is that Jim Zorn will be around long enough to give Campbell some stability. Receiver Billy McMullen might be auditioning for another team after the Redskins went top-heavy at the position in this year's draft, but he's pulled in 10 passes for 142 yards in Washington's three preseason games. Signed by Washington in January of 2008 as a free agent after last playing with the Vikings in 2006, McMullen should be able to parlay this preseason into a bit of playing time somewhere.
32 comments, Last at 22 Aug 2008, 2:46pm by Rich Conley