AFC South: 2012 NFL preseason Week 2

Thoughts on Steelers 26, Colts 24

August, 20, 2012
Some thoughts out of the Indianapolis Colts’ 26-24 preseason loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night:
  • NBC’s broadcast and in-game interview with Andrew Luck ably summed up his night. The rookie quarterback didn’t start well but kind of fought through it and settled down, and the Colts did well to get to halftime with a 17-14 lead. Luck saw some exotic stuff called by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau -- like just one down lineman pre-snap in the amoeba defense – and didn’t panic. A Luck pass aimed for Reggie Wayne wound up an easy pick-six for cornerback Ike Taylor (which gave Pittsburgh a 14-0 lead) and he absorbed a LaMarr Woodley sack on his very next play. Indy rallied with a drive that produced a short Donald Brown touchdown run and Luck got in himself on a fourth-and-goal to make it 14-all.
  • Austin Collie may have suffered a concussion in the second quarter when Taylor started to tackle him, bending him down into position to catch an arm from Larry Foote in the helmet. The veteran receiver has had concussion issues in the recent past, and a lot of outsiders felt it was their job to tell him to retire to avoid risking any further head trauma. We hope, of course, that it’s not a concussion or that it’s mild as can be -- and that it’s nothing that will affect him for very long. But even a mild concussion would be bad news. From the football perspective, if he’s going to miss time, rookies T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill will continue to get more action, and Donnie Avery becomes more important.
  • We got more of a sense of just what Wayne will be asked to do in Bruce Arians' offense, and it’s far more complex than what he’s done before. He’s motioning all over the place, and on this night he was just the sure weapon the Colts were envisioning when they re-signed him to be a key guy for Luck -- six catches for 74 yards in a half.
  • Rookie running back Vick Ballard got work with the first team and showed some indications of why he could earn a bulk of the team's carries. One 12-yard run to the right sideline featured a nice spin move as he pushed wide and showed both power and speed.
  • Luck’s second interception was completely on Hilton, who bobbled a catchable ball, knocking it up into the air and to cornerback Cortez Allen.
  • First-team run defense was an issue. Young running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey averaged 5.9 yards on their eight carries against the unit.
  • A sack against the second team isn’t cause for major celebration, but outside linebacker Jerry Hughes had one. He’s now got two in two games and sure seems like he’s got a more suitable role coming in this defense than he had in the team’s old 4-3 as an end. He finished with seven tackles, tied for the game high.
  • Two other injuries we will be monitoring: Defensive lineman Cory Redding left with a right knee strain and outside linebacker Robert Mathis with a shoulder strain.

Three things: Colts at Steelers

August, 19, 2012
Three things I’ll be trying to pay close attention to Sunday night in the Colts game at Pittsburgh:

The offensive line: If you had to pick a spot of concern coming out of the Colts opening week romp over St. Louis, it was that the Rams were able to get Andrew Luck off his spot or even flush him out of the pocket some. The offensive line is a patchwork group still jelling, and could be the only thing to throw Luck off track. The Steelers are always a difficult team to block, though working against the Colts new 3-4 will help make the Steelers’ 3-4 less of an adjustment. Seth Olsen will sub for right guard Mike McGlynn, who came out of the Rams game with a high ankle sprain.

Bruce Arians: The offensive coordinator was unceremoniously dumped by the Steelers after the 2011 season. They said he retired, but he re-emerged in no time as Chuck Pagano’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. No team is going to plan a whole lot for a preseason game, but Arians knows the Steelers defense from first-hand experience, so I am expecting at least a few play calls that attack something he perceives as vulnerable. Surely he would like to send a signal or two that he wasn’t actually retirement ready. He’ll probably try to give running back Mewelde Moore, also a former Steeler, a chance to say something with his play to Pittsburgh management as well.

Pinning the QB in the pocket: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is great at shedding players who think they’re going to sack him. If the Colts’ hybrid 3-4 front can get to him, it needs to be sure to get to his right arm to prevent one of those improbable late throws and get him to the ground to prevent any sort of deflating first-down scramble after a should-have-been sack. Charlie Batch is second in line at quarterback and doesn’t bring Big Ben’s size or strength.

Thoughts on Texans 20, 49ers 9

August, 18, 2012
Some brief, quick thoughts on the Texans following their 20-9 preseason win over the 49ers on Saturday night.

  • While we always do our best to emphasize how little we should read into what plays out in the preseason, the Texans hosted a talented team and had to like what they did. Houston looked like we now expect Houston to look. The Texans swarmed the quarterback, hitting Alex Smith far more than the 49ers would have liked. They stuffed a Kendall Hunter run on a fourth-and-1 that might have got the 49ers going. And the offense provided more than enough to make it feel like the result was never going to be in question. The three key players on offense all made nice contributions, as Matt Schaub hit on 11 of 14 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, Andre Johnson caught a 43-yard pass from Schaub and Arian Foster made a very nice 24-yard run that showed his vision and skill.
  • We’re all going to start to run out of new ways to describe the Texans' pass rush, which was very good again while the top players on defense were in the game. They had first-half sacks by Tim Jamison and a Connor Barwin/Antonio Smith combo deal. But they did far more than that in terms of making Alex Smith aware of their presence and uncomfortable. One example: Antonio Smith beat quality guard Mike Iupati with a super-quick swim move inside and was up the middle on Alex Smith in no time. Antonio Smith was flagged for roughing -- and appeared to hit the quarterback in the head. Antonio Smith will surely seek to do the same thing in the future, just with a lower target.
  • The 49ers, meanwhile, were without two of their best pass-rushers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. And a share of Schaub’s good play came with San Francisco’s backups in the game.
  • Johnson made a nice play on his deep reception. Schaub rolled right and threw back to the left where Johnson was with defenders Tramaine Brock and Trenton Robinson. Brock wasn’t badly positioned, but Johnson had a far better feel for what was unfolding, and crossed under the cornerback to haul in the reception.
  • Fullback James Casey did well on a short pass from Schaub on a third down. Casey had to come back to the ball and go to the ground. But no defender was in range, and he got up and scrambled for a conversion.
  • I wrote last week about Lestar Jean practice drops that concerned me. But he showed why the Texans remain high on him with a team-high four catches for 42 yards including a 9-yard TD on a shallow crossing route where he was granted far too much space by the defense.
  • Trindon Holliday didn’t have to do much but get to the right sideline and go for his 87-yard punt return touchdown. And it came against low-ranking 49ers who might not be in the league come opening day. But it’s the second return TD for Holliday in two weeks and certainly adds to his chances to make the team as a blazing return specialist.

Some thoughts on the Jaguars’ 27-24 win over the Saints Friday night in New Orleans:

Justin Blackmon looked the part: I saw a physical, confident receiver who made himself available for Blaine Gabbert. On an early catch, he stopped and went backwards to allow a tackler to miss and gain some extra yards. And he pulled in a dart from Gabbert on a third-and-7, skipped a defender who tried for the ball and bolted into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown. He wound up with four catches for 48 yards and the score. I thought it was a strong start that showed us a bit about who he can be.

Gabbert: A smooth and efficient night for the second-year quarterback. If he plays like this, the Jaguars are going to be a competitive team that surprises a lot of people making the too-easy prediction the Jags will struggle. He connected on 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and a 135.4 passer rating. Those numbers were enhanced a bit by replacement officials who were too quick with pass interference flags. But Gabbert was not sacked and he looked confident and in command, stepping up to deliver the ball with minimal concern about what might have been closing in on him. He fired one pass to Mike Thomas even as he was getting hit by Junior Galette. Take it all as a major cause for encouragement with him as he built on last week’s good showing.

Rashad Jennings and the run game: The Saints were not in a tackling mood, and the Jaguars took advantage. Jacksonville averaged 5.5 yards on the ground, with Jennings turning 11 touches into 62 yards. He continues to look like a starting-caliber back to me in the absence of Maurice Jones-Drew.

The rush: Defensive end Jeremy Mincey is not Jared Allen or Julius Peppers. But he’s not “just” a high effort guy, either. He was a real pain in this game, hounding Drew Brees as a consistent presence in the backfield. He can really be a tone setter. We also saw some flashes of just how dangerous Andre Branch’s speed can be coming off the other edge.

Coverage: The Jaguars got picked apart by Brees at times -- particularly on the nine-play, 85 yard drive that cut the Jags lead to 17-10 -- but that’s what the Saints can do. Jacksonville was without Derek Cox (hamstring) and Rashean Mathis (resting knee on turf) so the corner depth got work. William Middleton was draped on Devery Henderson when he made a strong, one-handed catch of a perfect 8-yard touchdown throw.

Winning it: Preseason results don’t mean much, of course. But you’d rather have the late drive to win a game than not, and Jordan Palmer provided it -- a 12-play, 74-yard march that ended with an 11-yard TD pass to undrafted rookie Kevin Elliott with 13 seconds left to provide the winning margin.
Brief thoughts on what we saw from the Titans in their 30-7 win at Tampa Bay:

Quarterback play: Jake Locker hardly seized the starting job in a big chance as the starting quarterback. On an early third-and-long he slid right, stepped up, pump-faked and threw a bad ball back toward the middle. It was over Kendall Wright, an easy pick for Ahmad Black who nearly took it back to the end zone. Damian Williams was open on one side and Chris Johnson may have been open on the other when Locker looked for Wright.

Locker made another bad choice in the second quarter, throwing for Wright in the end zone from the Buccaneers’ 14-yard line. Two defenders were in front of the rookie receiver, and the Titans were fortunate it wasn’t picked.

Later, Black clobbered Javon Ringer near the left sideline and was flagged for a personal foul. Locker’s ball for Ringer was uncatchable -- though perhaps Ringer wasn’t where he should have been. Jared Cook had a drop and Cook and Nate Washington were on top of each other for a pass in their direction.

Playing all but the last series of the first half, Locker finished 4-of-11 for 21 yards, the pick and a passer rating of 7.0.

Matt Hasselbeck didn’t play long, but hit on 4 of 5 passes for 29 yards and a 90.8 rating.

But it wasn’t a night that gave the Titans a lot of new information in sorting out what to do at quarterback.

Johnson: The running back was more explosive, more decisive and more effective than a week ago in Seattle.

He carried 10 times for 46 yards and scored twice, showing more purpose. CJ got some yards inside and looked like his old self showing the necessary patience and then getting outside and around the corner.

It’s the sort of stuff I needed to see in order to feel like he’s in position to get back on track once the games count. The Titans didn’t throw to him, so the level of his focus as part of the pass game remains unresolved.

Everybody who got carries produced for Tennessee. They amassed 216 yards, led by another nice night for Darius Reynaud (10 carries for 75 yards).

The defense: The Titans showed a solid pass rush, and while there was some blitz mixed in, a good deal of the pressure came from the defensive line, including three of four sacks. That’s encouraging.

Sen'Derrick Marks knifed through for a quick sack that also forced a fumble. Jurrell Casey was disruptive inside as well. And it wasn’t only the tackles. The ends were part of the action.

Linebacker Akeem Ayers did well to deflect a pass that was intercepted by Alterraun Verner for another turnover that set up points.

Tampa Bay was not at all threatening and doesn’t look like much of an offensive team.

On this night, the Titans ensured Tampa Bay never found much life. The Bucs managed just six first downs, 81 net yards and a long drive of 33 yards -- on their last possession of the game.

Three things: Titans at Buccaneers

August, 17, 2012
Three things to watch, which all happen to be guys on offense, in tonight’s Titans game at Tampa Bay:

Jake Locker: This is his biggest chance yet. If the second-year quarterback can lead Tennessee’s offense effectively, he could seize the lead in the team’s quarterback battle. Among key areas under the microscope are his accuracy, red zone play and two-minute drill performance. If he’s in command and comfortable he will come out of the game ranking no worse than even with Matt Hasselbeck. If he’s no worse than even, he should get the nod considering he's the young guy with more upside. Ideally, a team settles position battles in time for the starters to be in place for the third preseason game. That would mean making and revealing a decision early next week.

Chris Johnson: Yes, it’s only preseason. Still, the way he can shrug off production failures is getting old. His poor effort was part of the run-game issues last year and he showed us nothing in the preseason opener a week ago in Seattle. He talked of focus issues and seemed close to dismissing whatever is or isn’t unfolding now. He can keep going in that direction if he wants the same questions to hover over him. Or he can show maximum effort and focus, take a couple carries and grab a couple passes, and show people why he shouldn’t be on the list of concerns as the season opener draws near.

Darius Reynaud: He may get some reps with the first team as a running back, and he needs to continue to show he can contribute as a situational or change-up back to have a chance to make the roster. But he has to create a niche for himself beyond that. Marc Mariani looks safe as the returner, so watch closely how Reynaud’s used on special teams and how effective he is as a gunner or a kickoff cover guy. Jamie Harper, who ranks as the No. 3 back, can make is difficult for Reynaud to win the No. 3 back spot. But maybe there could be a case for keeping a fourth.

Three things: Jaguars at Saints

August, 17, 2012
Three things to pay attention to tonight as the Jaguars take on the Saints in New Orleans:

Blaine Gabbert under fire: Poor pass protection has been blamed for a good degree of Gabbert’s problems. Although Eugene Monroe reportedly made the trip, the left tackle may not play after getting hit in the head in practice this week. It’s an injury-weakened line with him, and a super-weak line without him. Maybe the group will do better than we’d expect. If it doesn’t, then instead of seeing how Gabbert works with better protection, we’ll see if he’s gotten better playing with poor protection. It’s a less-than ideal scenario.

Justin Blackmon: The rookie receiver is a strong and physical player. Will he show that off in his preseason debut? An offseason DUI arrest and a lengthy contract dispute meant negative storylines for Blackmon this offseason. Against the Saints, he'll get the chance to change things. A solid showing can energize the offense, the team and the fan base. It would be awfully helpful. An average night would be fine and is what we should probably expect. A dud would obviously hurt.

The pass rush: The Jaguars dragged down Giants quarterbacks five times last week. It was an encouraging sign for a defense that can be really good if the pass pressure is consistent. But four of those sacks came after halftime. When the Saints have front-line players in the game tonight, can the Jaguars' top rushers be disruptive and get their hands on Drew Brees? Ideally, tackles Tyson Alualu, C.J. Mosley and Terrance Knighton get some push up the middle and move Brees off his spot, aiding ends Jeremy Mincey and rookie Andre Branch as they pursue.