AFC North: 2014 NFL Preseason Week 4 Observation Deck

Observation Deck: Cincinnati Bengals

August, 24, 2014

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It took the Cincinnati Bengals three tries, but they finally walked away with a preseason win Sunday night when they knocked off the Cardinals 19-13 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

While the preseason primarily is about the players and their ability to impress coaches in order to earn spots on the 53-man roster, it is also about generating some cohesion, confidence, rhythm and momentum for the entire team entering the regular season. That's the main reason why coaches and players alike were desperate this week to claim a win after two fruitless attempts to start the preseason.

Thanks to the win, momentum was generated. Confidence? Perhaps it was instilled, too. Only time will tell. As for cohesion and rhythm, it seems the Bengals still have some work to do in those areas. At times Sunday they seemed very out of sync both offensively and on special teams. The no-huddle offense that was so fluid last week against the Jets was syncopated against the Cardinals. At times the first-team offense hummed smoothly along. At others, it had trouble getting settled into its normally quick tempo because of penalties and apparent issues with communication.

Here are a few more thoughts on the Bengals' preseason game Sunday:
  • We might as well extend the story line of Cincinnati's arrhythmic starting offense a little further. Here are two occasions when quarterback Andy Dalton didn't seem on the same page with his receivers. Once at the end of the first quarter, A.J. Green opened up to his left after running wide open into the flat. Dalton, seeing Green break open, threw over his right shoulder, clearly expecting the wideout to turn a different way. The pass fell incomplete and stalled a drive on third down. In the second quarter, tight end Jermaine Gresham cut off a route that Dalton proceeded to throw 15 yards downfield. The quarterback expected Gresham to extend the route. Some of the miscommunication could be attributed to the Bengals' mixing of lineups. Backups were inserted as early as the second play of the game as they rotated with starters for individual evaluation purposes.
  • In addition to their sporadic issues with rhythm, the Bengals had difficulty figuring out where and how to run the football early. Starter Giovani Bernard began the game dedicated to bouncing the ball to the edge. Those carries largely proved worthless. Of his 10 first-half carries, five went to the left and right edges. They gained just 3 yards. The other carries in the middle of the field resulted in 14-yard gains. Those runs came around the same time late in the second quarter when rookie Jeremy Hill came in as a backup. All four of his first-half carries went between the tackles. They amassed 23 yards. Power-run football is part of what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new offense hinges on, and it's clear the Bengals were better Sunday doing that than when they went away from it.
  • Field position also was an issue for the Bengals who couldn't seem to get out of the shadows of their own end zone. Of the 10 drives they had, seven started at their own 20 or inside it. Of those, four began inside the 10-yard line. With poor field position, the Bengals' starters had trouble moving the football and converting third downs. They were 4-for-15 on third down.
  • As it has for most of the preseason, the Bengals' defense was sound. The starters primarily played through the second quarter, allowing just one Arizona field goal in their time on the field. The base first-team defense has now allowed just four field goals in its three preseason games. Among the defenders of note: defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who saw extended action for the first time this year after returning from an ACL injury from last season.

Observation deck: Cleveland Browns

August, 24, 2014

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns appeared to get out of their preseason home opener with no major injuries. So much for the good news.

Everything else was pretty much a dud for the starters, as the St. Louis Rams dominated en route to a 33-14 victory in FirstEnergy Stadium.

All was not lost, though. The return game had flashes of brilliance and Johnny Manziel excited the crowd of 61,663 by scrambling for a 7-yard score and flashing the money sign.

Other observations of the 0-3 Browns:
  • In his first outing since being named the starter, QB Brian Hoyer improved on his previous two outings, but that amounts to damning with faint praise. With the exception of a touchdown drive against backups to end the first half, Hoyer was largely dismal. He threw an interception on a short crossing route to a linebacker standing ... directly ... in ... front ... of ... him. How he didn’t see Alec Ogletree is one of the great mysteries, since Hoyer basically stared at him the entire route. He came back to throw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Hawkins, but instead of coach Mike Pettine ending his starter’s evening on a high note, he sent Hoyer out to start the second half. And Hoyer promptly was sacked from behind and fumbled away the football. He finished the evening 10 of 16 passing for 84 yards, a touchdown and two turnovers. “I think we’re all just trying to come along together,” said Hoyer, who finished 10 of 16 passing for 84 yards, a touchdown and two turnovers. “As an offense, you have to be on teh same page, and there obviously were some plays out there where we weren’t. It’s going to come. That’s what the preseason is for, to work out those kinks. We will get better. I don’t doubt that.”
  • Manziel, in his first outing as the official backup, came on midway through the third quarter and converted a takeaway into a four-play, 14-yard drive that culminated with him scrambling the final 7 yards for the score. He finished 10-of-15 passing for 85 yards and no turnovers. He was sacked twice by Michael Sam.Asked about the possibility of a two-quarterback system this year -- something Pettine admitted is a possibility -- Manziel said: “I feel like any way I can help contribute to this team, whether it’s looking at a certain coverage, looking at something during the game, or getting in and having a certain package during the game, just anything that I can do to help this offense to win games -- that’s the position I’m in and that’s all I really want to do.”
  • The starting defense -- which was without two potential starting cornerbacks in Joe Haden and Buster Skrine, as well as end Desmond Bryant -- struggled to get off the field on third down, allowing the Rams to convert on 7 of 10 opportunities in the first half alone. Rookie corner Justin Gilbert had a rough night, the lows including chunk gains allowed to Kenny Britt and Brian Quick and a missed tackle on Chris Givens that turned an underneath route into a 75-yard score. “I went for a strip and I didn’t get it,” he said. “I should’ve wrapped up and tackled him instead of trying to strip him.”

    One high was he knocked the ball from Stedman Bailey’s hands on what appeared to be a sure touchdown in the end zone.

    Overall, the defensive performance was disappointing because Pettine had talked during the week about giving the Dawg Pound something to get excited about. But the unit struggled to stop third-string QB Austin Davis, who took over roughly four minutes into the second quarter and played the rest of the way -- after starter Sam Bradford suffered a left knee injury in the opening quarter and backup Shaun Hill was pulled after two series presumably to avoid the risk of injury.

    “Third-and-long, that should be something where a good defense will dominate, and that’s where we took a step backwards tonight,” Pettine said. “I thought in other games we’ve been better on third down and we just couldn’t make a play on third down to get off the field. They did a good job of executing, but we were poor. We weren’t very smart. There were a couple of times where we didn’t play more to the sticks, didn’t play the situation very well, and we let them make a play and we didn’t. It was frustrating.”
  • Standout wideout Josh Gordon was scratched from the starting lineup so the team could work other players in case Gordon loses his appeal of a one-year suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. The plan was to work him in later, but Gordon didn’t take a snap because “he was dealing with something medically,” Pettine said. “As the game went on he probably felt like he was tightening up a little bit, so we decided not to put him out there.”
  • The return game was a bright spot for the Browns, who got a 45-yard kickoff return from Marlon Moore and a 37-yarder from Taylor Gabriel. Both showed good speed, vision and decisiveness.

BALTIMORE -- Wide receiver Steve Smith's best game of the preseason propelled the Baltimore Ravens to a 23-17 win over the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night.

After being quiet in the first two preseason games, Smith caught six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. His diving 24-yard touchdown catch with 25 seconds left in the first half broke a 3-3 tie, and the Ravens (3-0) never relinquished the lead.

Smith's determination was evident on his 30-yard catch in the first quarter. He essentially broke out of four tackles to turn a short pass into a big gain.

"I am getting more comfortable with the offense," Smith said. "Last week I really didn't play well. I didn't line up well, and my assignments were off. Today was a great opportunity to show that I can be an asset instead of the liability I was last week."

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' third preseason game:
  • Joe Flacco showed his resiliency once again. After being under fire for most of the first half, he calmly orchestrated a two-minute drive to end the half, completing 6-of-8 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown. He was not sharp early for a second straight week, throwing behind and late to his receivers. It didn't help that he was hit more than a handful of times. Flacco finished 16-of-23 for 180 yards.
  • Ravens cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown held up well against the Redskins' playmaking receivers. With the Ravens' top three cornerbacks (Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson) all sidelined with injuries, Franks and Brown limited DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to a combined two catches for four yards. Franks showed good anticipation except for a pass interference penalty on the opening drive.
  • The Redskins did a lot of blitzing (on runs and passes) for a preseason game, and the Ravens' offensive line struggled against it. Right tackle Rick Wagner got roughed up by Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, and left guard Kelechi Osemele got beat as well. Flacco was sacked twice in the first half after not getting sacked in the first two preseason games.
  • How thin are the Ravens at cornerback? The Ravens used safety Anthony Levine at cornerback for the first time. On one third-down play, the Ravens had four safeties on the field: Levine at cornerback, Terrence Brooks at nickelback, Matt Elam at strong safety and Darian Stewart at free safety.
  • The Ravens' athleticism on the defensive line shined in containing Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. Nose tackle Brandon Williams got into the backfield to drill Griffin and force an incompletion. Rookie Timmy Jernigan ran Griffin down to push him out of bounds for a sack.
  • It was an impressive first series for Brooks. He made an interception that was negated by penalty and then sacked Griffin on third down in the red zone. On that sack, Brooks showcased his speed by covering a lot of ground. Brooks is capitalizing on his time with the first-team defense.

Observation Deck: Pittsburgh Steelers

August, 21, 2014

PHILADELPHA -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin suddenly has a lot more to worry about than his top two running backs facing citations for marijuana possession.

The Steelers' third preseason game turned out about as well as the infamous car ride that landed Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in trouble and in unflattering headlines a day earlier.

The Steelers struggled in every aspect Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field, and they were dominated when it mattered most in a 31-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles, crisper and more physical than their in-state rivals, raced to a 17-0 halftime lead when starters from both teams were in the game, and it could have been worse for the Steelers.

Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles just missed on a few throws that would have netted big gains, but he still completed 19 of 29 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown before calling it a night.

Ben Roethlisberger played two series in the second half, and he salvaged something from an otherwise forgettable night by leading a six-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter.

Roethlisberger, who struggled with his accuracy and threw a bad interception in the first half, capped the drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller.

That march wasn't nearly enough to offset the ineptitude that the Steelers showed at times in all three phases of the game.

Some other thoughts from the Steelers' third preseason game:
  • Blount's play, ironically enough, was among the few positives that the Steelers could take away from the thorough beating they received from the Eagles. Blount, who alternated with Bell, rushed for 32 yards on seven carries and showed the nifty footwork that is unique for such a big back. Bell started the game and Blount also played on the first series.
  • If the preseason is any indication, the Steelers still haven't fixed a run defense that yielded 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. The Eagles repeatedly gashed the Steelers in the running game even though LeSean McCoy played just two series because of a thumb injury. The Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but Tomlin won't be happy with how they pushed around the Steelers. Defensive end Brett Keisel, who re-signed with the Steelers on Wednesday but didn't play against the Eagles, should help the defensive line. Improvement must be made across the board.
  • Wide receiver Justin Brown has faded and his hold on a roster spot should be tenuous after he failed to catch a pass despite getting extended work with the first-team offense as the No. 3 wide receiver. Brown, playing in place of Lance Moore, drew Roethlisberger's ire early when he ran a comeback route and had a pass sail over his head. The 2013 sixth-round pick was later flagged for offensive holding. In three preseason games Brown has three catches for 15 yards. Darrius Heyward-Bey, meanwhile, caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
  • The Steelers didn't sustain a lot of injuries, but the two that were announced are worth watching. Linebacker Sean Spence left the game in the third quarter with a right knee injury and outside linebacker Jason Worilds didn't play again after hurting his right knee in the same quarter. Worilds may have been the Steelers' best defensive player before getting hurt. Of course that's not saying much considering that the Steelers gave up just under 500 yards of total offense.
  • There has to be some concern over Shaun Suisham, who has already missed two field goals in the preseason, the same number he missed all of last season. The 10th-year veteran has also missed a 33-yard extra point in preseason play.