NFC East: 2011 nfl preseason week 4

Observation deck: Giants-Patriots

September, 2, 2011
OK, there are a number of reasons this took all day and you don't want to hear any of them. It suffices to say I am ecstatic to be done watching preseason football for another year and more ready than ever for the real thing.

As for our New York Giants, who finished their preseason by scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter for a meaningless 18-17 victory over the Patriots in New England ... I don't know. I'm trying to be open-minded about what I see, but what I see with the Giants is almost all disheartening. They just do a lot of things wrong. And yes, it was all backups Thursday night, and if David Carr ends up playing significant minutes at quarterback they're cooked anyway. But there were a couple of things that could matter if they leak into the regular season, and I'm 100 percent certain the Giants' coaching staff feels the same way.

For example, when one of your biggest areas of concern is special teams and you get banged for an illegal wedge penalty on the return of the opening kickoff, that's not a good thing. When you're trying to find a No. 3 receiver and one of the candidates (Domenik Hixon, in this case) fumbles on the first play from scrimmage, that's not a good thing. When you're trying to use a rookie punt returner and the kid can't catch the ball, that's not a good thing.

The Giants had holding penalties and illegal-hands-to-the-face penalties that stopped offensive momentum. They had another significant injury, this one a season-ending ACL tear for linebacker Clint Sintim. They fumbled at the Patriots' 1-yard line. They're effectively playing without a useful tight end. Tom Coughlin's challenges aren't even working.

Now, I continue to believe preseason doesn't mean anything -- that it has no predictive value at all in terms of what will happen once the real season starts. The Giants could snap awake nine days from now and start playing well enough to make everyone forget how inept in so many facets of the game they looked in the preseason. But what we have right now to evaluate is what they've done over the past month, and not even the most myopically optimistic Giants fan can credibly say the preseason went well for them.

Some specifics on what I saw in the Giants' (mercifully) final preseason game of this year:

1. Give Jerrel Jernigan credit for toughing it out. And give the Giants credit for sticking with the rookie even as he continues to struggle with the most critical part of punt returns -- actually catching the ball. He ripped off a 42-yard return on his first chance of the night, which showed why they're giving him all of these chances. But then he muffed two in a row, and there's all kinds of footage of Coughlin and Aaron Ross and everybody you can think of working with Jernigan on the correct form to use when catching a punt. I guess I wonder how hard it is to learn something like this and why they believed he'd be a good punt returner if he didn't already know it. But once the ball is in his hands, it's clear Jernigan can do some things with it. So it appears as though they'll keep giving him chances, even if it could cost them early on. The night had a happy ending for Jernigan, as he made a tremendous catch on the two-point conversion pass that sealed the victory. You had to feel good for the guy, after the month he's had.

2. Tyler Sash looks like an athlete. The rookie safety looked quick and nimble and decisive as he came up with two sacks (one of which forced a fumble) and moved well all over the field. There were a couple of times where Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense ran some tricky looks that caught Sash out of position, but that's bound to happen and there are worse things than getting schooled by Brady in a preseason game. You still get the lesson, and it doesn't count against your record.

3. I like Da'Rel Scott better than Andre Brown. It's not personal. I don't even know Andre Brown. I'm just talking about what they look like when they run. Brown looks fine when he has room to run, but he doesn't blow you away as anything special and he doesn't look as though he does much to make it difficult to tackle him. Scott seems to have more speed, keeps his feet moving better and runs with more determination. He earned those 65 yards he got on that fake-punt touchdown, and with cuts looming tomorrow, that's the kind of play that makes it hard for a coaching staff to keep a guy off the roster.

4. I like Devin Thomas, too. Specifically, I like what he does after he catches the ball. He seems to know where his feet are and what he needs to do to find the sideline or the extra yard or two he needs. He seems like he knows how to keep his body between the ball and the defender and protect it while making those moves. He's got the skills in the return game, and the speed, but I was surprised how much I liked him Thursday night as a receiver.

5. The Sintim injury hurts. But there are rookies to take his spot, and it might help someone like Mark Herzlich or Spencer Paysinger make the roster and/or claim more playing time. The Giants liked the way Sintim had been playing, and he was their clear first option off the bench in the case of an injury to one of their starting linebackers. Now it's not as cut-and-dried, and they'll hope somebody from the rookie group can step in when they need to spell a starter.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Dolphins

September, 2, 2011
With the Dallas Cowboys' and New York Giants' games still to go, I picked the Cowboys to watch first because I wanted to see rookie running back DeMarco Murray. So it was nice of the kid to catch a 48-yard screen pass up the left side on the team's first play from scrimmage. We've seen the Cowboys use the screen game a lot this preseason, with Tony Romo throwing to starting running back Felix Jones, and it appears as though the Cowboys would like to use the weapons they have on offense to spread out the defense when possible and trade on their speed.

Murray looks like a guy who can help with that. He looked excellent when they got him on the outside, in space, around the edge, able to pick up big chunks of yardage in those spots. That speaks to his athletic ability, which surely showed up on pre-draft tape, and wasn't really a surprise. What the Cowboys and their fans wanted to see from Murray on Thursday night was how Murray looked running between the tackles. With a little more than a minute to go in the first quarter, after picking up 9 yards on first down on a run to the outside, Murray drove hard through the middle to pick up the first down on second-and-1.

A few plays later, on a first-and-15, he showed good patience and made a critical cut at the line to pick up 3 yards when it looked as if he wouldn't get any. So he showed speed, power and judgment. Maybe a little more of a straight-line guy than you'd like him to be, but he clearly brings a lot to the table and should be a more than adequate replacement for Marion Barber as a changeup guy who can give Jones a breather here and there. I was impressed, and if the Cowboys decide to commit to the run game this year, it looks as though they'll have good options.

Some other stuff I saw in the Cowboys' final preseason game, a meaningless 17-3 loss to the Dolphins in Miami:

1. Speaking of running backs ... Phillip Tanner! This guy has been one of my favorite breakout preseason studs, and it was nice to hear Jerry Jones say on the broadcast that Tanner had made the team. I don't know what it means for Tashard Choice, and it sounds as though the Cowboys have yet to sort all of that out, but Tanner has played well enough to earn his spot. I just really like the way he runs -- strong, determined, feet constantly moving. He already has down some technique aspects of the running back position that coaches have to work to teach more talented guys. Interesting deep bench option for them, and he's good enough to make Choice wonder where he stands in terms of playing time, if not roster spot.

2. Rookie offensive linemen. Right tackle Tyron Smith didn't have his best game, getting beaten around the edge early in the game and picking up a false-start penalty later in the first half. But there are times -- more often than not, actually -- when he looks like an unstoppable mauler on that right side. I believe he'll be fine. Left guard Bill Nagy had a couple of tough moments as well (I believe the sack of Stephen McGee with 5:00 left in the half was on Nagy), but it says a lot to me that he seemed to be the one on the left side making the line calls with the starters (specifically Kyle Kosier) not in the game. The Cowboys consider Nagy a relatively seasoned rookie who knows a lot about how to play the position -- and a lot about the responsibilities of the other linemen as well. It wasn't surprising to see him with extra responsibility in a game full of backups, but I wonder if it affected his own play. Still looks like he could stand to get stronger. And finally, rookie center Kevin Kowalski, who I guess is now Phil Costa's backup at center, lost his helmet on a play early in the second quarter and kept mixing it up. Which isn't super-smart, but if you're looking for tough, crazy offensive linemen it's the kind of thing you like to see.

3. Montrae Holland surprised. He's been reduced to a backup role, but it's going to be an important one given the relative uncertainty with the starters on the offensive line. Holland came to camp overweight and had some injury issues that kept him out of action, so the Cowboys didn't know how much he'd be able to play Thursday night. But he played the whole first half and looked good, and that helps Dallas feel better about the depth it has on the line.

4. Defense? I don't know. Again, backups all over the field. Bryan McCann got beat by Brian Hartline when he tried to jump a route. Guys like Alan Ball and Barry Church missed tackles on Larry Johnson on Johnson's 22-yard touchdown run. Church made a couple of nice plays otherwise. I was a little more locked in on the offense in this one. Not sure there's much about the defense that bears serious analysis.

5. Receivers. Kevin Ogletree made a nifty after-catch move to pick up a first down near the goal line on a third-down play in the first quarter. Dwayne Harris showed some shiftiness on punt returns. And Michael Irvin, who was once a receiver, was pretty impressive in the broadcast booth! I thought he did a nice job of focusing on serious analysis even when the guys in the booth with him (including Jerry Jones) seemed more interested in trying to talk about Irvin and his career. Felt like he was trying to educate, which good color analysts who played the game at a high level should be doing.

Anyway, next game counts. See ya.

Observation deck: Eagles-Jets

September, 2, 2011
The Philadelphia Eagles used only one offensive starter in their final preseason game, a meaningless 24-14 victory over the New York Jets, and so I thought I'd focus on him. He was Danny Watkins, the first-round pick out of Baylor and the Eagles' starting right guard. He played about 20 snaps against backup Jets defenders, looked good on some, looked lost on others, and I came away with no idea how prepared he is to help protect Michael Vick once the real games begin.

The good: Watkins generally looks strong enough to hold his blocks once he gets his hands on his man. He got good second-level push on one of Dion Lewis' runs on the second offensive series of the game. And he did an excellent job getting down field to make a block on a defensive back on the screen pass to Lewis on the play right before the Eagles' first touchdown. (Oddly, he appeared to be beaten on the touchdown play, but it didn't matter since Vince Young made the throw before the pressure got there.)

The not-so-good: There was a three-play sequence on the first offensive series where he looked very much like a rookie. On the first, his man beat him to the outside and got into the backfield. On the next play, he made some progress into the second level, as Howard Mudd is trying to teach his linemen to do, but got knocked to the ground quickly. And then on the next, he was kind of swimming around in the crowd, blocking no one and looking as though he didn't know where he was supposed to be. Two plays later, he failed to pick up a blitzing Aaron Maybin, who got to Young but was unable to sack him because he's Aaron Maybin and so Young completed the pass anyway.

Watkins is a rookie who didn't have an offseason, and as such he's a work in progress. He'll almost certainly be better by Week 4 and Week 9 and Week 17 than he will be in Week 1. The key is that he has to be good enough, consistently, from play to play, to keep Vick from getting crushed and help the Eagles' offense put points on the board early in the season. Because the Eagles are one of these teams, due to the offseason they had, that can't afford to get off to a slow start unless they're happy with the whole world jumping on their backs about it.

Anyway, some more stuff I saw in the Eagles' final preseason game:

1. Dion Lewis! Oh, I don't have any idea how much he can expect to play -- if at all -- in an Eagles offense that features as many dynamic options as it does. He's the No. 3 running back behind LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown in an offense that passes more than it runs. So we might not hear much more from him the rest of the year unless they're going to use him on kick returns as they did Thursday. But if we do, man, is he fun to watch. Good burst at the line. Doesn't need much of a hole to squeeze himself through. Fast. Shifty. Patient. Balanced. Tough to bring down. Yeah, against second-teamers. But he's got some obvious skills, and should be a nice option for the Eagles if they suffer an injury or two at that position.

2. Vince Young is the backup quarterback, and a very good one. The idea that Mike Kafka could beat out Young for the backup quarterback spot was rooted in the idea that Young would take a long time to learn the West Coast offense. And Young may not have it all down yet. But he looks more advanced by leaps and bounds than he did in the first preseason game and in the early training camp practices. And his pure athletic ability and experience as a quarterback making throws in the NFL puts him well ahead of Kafka in terms of being a guy the Eagles can put in, should Vick get hurt, and ask him to win them a game. Young did end up leaving this game with a hamstring injury (on a play that wouldn't have happened but for a botched field goal snap on the play before, incidentally), and Kafka with a rib injury, so there's no way to know what the depth chart looks like at quarterback for the opener. But if everyone's healthy, what Andy Reid said after the game about Young being the backup sounds obvious at this point.

3. Defensive backups. Linebacker Brian Rolle looked good, and defensive lineman Trevor Laws had some nice moments after missing the bulk of the preseason due to injury. Defensive end Phillip Hunt also had a sack, and he's an interesting guy as cuts loom, because he made a big-time name for himself in the CFL and is someone who obviously knows how to play the game and the position. But he's so small for his position that you wonder if he can have any impact at all in a real game against first-team offensive linemen. Hunt has been very good this preseason, but nothing is assured for him yet. The Eagles have to decide if his playmaking ability outweighs his measurables.

4. Alex Henery doesn't look great. And hasn't all month. And you do wonder if going with a rookie kicker is the wisest move in the world for a team with expectations as high as the Eagles' expectations are. Henery missed his first field goal attempt of the night -- a 43-yarder -- very badly. He made a 49-yarder late in the game, which is fine. But there's no doubt he can make a kick from almost any distance. What the Eagles would like to know about him is whether he's reliable enough to make every kick they need him to make. And the first-quarter miss is the kind of thing that makes you wonder. On the plus side, rookie punter Chas Henry looks excellent.

Anyway, four games, none of which mattered, and now the Eagles have a week and a couple of days before they need to beat the Rams in St. Louis or everybody starts yelling that the sky is falling. The spotlight -- and the bulls-eye -- will be on this team all year, and fun time is over.

Observation deck: Redskins-Buccaneers

September, 1, 2011
So, when you guys helped convince me to watch the Washington Redskins' game live and the other three on delay, you neglected to tell me the Redskins' game would be the longest one by a half-hour. Sheesh.

Aaaaanyway, this was clearly not John Beck's best work. The Redskins' 29-24 exhibition victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their final game of the 2011 NFL preseason was the worst of the three preseason performances Beck has turned in during his audition to be the Redskins' starting quarterback. He looked much better in each of the previous two games than he did Thursday night, when he was 10-for-21 for 108 yards and an interception.

The question, of course, is what it all means.

Certainly, if Beck's chances of being the starter were riding on his performance in this game, he didn't help himself. But I don't think he necessarily had to play well Thursday in order to win the job. As we have discussed many times on this blog, the competition between Beck and Rex Grossman is not as simple as a straight-up contest based on preseason performance. Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan do not view Beck and Grossman as equal quantities. They like Grossman and feel certain he can operate their offense. But they believe Beck offers more upside, and they wanted to use the preseason to help them gauge how he would handle the pressure of his opportunity.

Beck surely did that in the Redskins' second and third preseason games (after missing the first with a groin injury). And he showed a couple of things Thursday night, too. There was the 2nd-and-9 play where he dodged pressure up the middle and completed the pass for a first down. He hit a big third-down completion to Donte' Stallworth while taking a hit. He showed his obviously quick release and made a couple of smart decisions, including not throwing to Stallworth a couple of plays later when he saw that Stallworth was in double coverage.

But he also did some bad things, including a couple of bad-decision throws into crowds and the interception in the end zone. He looked as though he could have had a touchdown pass to Niles Paul, but he threw the ball to Paul's back shoulder while Paul was going up expecting the throw to be high. Not sure whose fault that was, but it didn't look good.

Now, Beck did play behind the Redskins' starting offensive line. But he didn't have starting wide receivers Santana Moss or Jabar Gaffney, who got the night off. And he had rookie running back Evan Royster, who's not the same factor in the passing game (as a blocker or receiver) as Tim Hightower is. It's hard for me to believe the Redskins' coaches would have sent Beck out there thinking he had to play well in this game to get the job and then not give him Moss or Gaffney to throw to.

Some time in the next nine days, Mike Shananan will name his starting quarterback for the Sept. 11 season opener against the Giants. I still believe, based on the conversations I had when I was at Redskins training camp and what I've seen in the preseason, that it'll be Beck because it's been Beck all along. But if it's not Beck, I don't think he lost the job Thursday night. And I seriously doubt it means he won't be the starter at any point (or even for the majority of the games) in 2011.

Some other observations from the Redskins' final preseason game:

1. Ryan Torain is a good running back. Hightower is sure to open the season as the Redskins' starting running back. But Torain, who missed the bulk of this preseason with a broken hand, will remain a threat to steal carries and maybe the job itself. Torain entered the game late in the first half after Royster started the game, and he ran with obvious power. Torain's issues have been health-related, and if he stays healthy and continues to show something in limited action, don't be surprised to see him get a turn as the starter at some point this season.

2. Josh Wilson got an interception on a nice leaping catch, and it had to feel good. Wilson was brought in to be a starting cornerback, but he's had injury issues this preseason and hasn't looked great when he's been in there. As good as the Redskins' defense has looked overall, Wilson must have enjoyed being a productive part of it going into the season. Still think the secondary as a whole will improve once the starting safeties are in there.

3. Oh yeah, Brandon Banks. After an injury-plagued preseason of his own, Banks got into Thursday's game and showed what he can do on returns, running one back 95 yards for a touchdown. He's so fast and such a sharp runner when he's got a head of steam, and as he crossed the goal line you couldn't help thinking, "Yeah, that gets the guy on the team." Then you saw the replays they were reviewing and that Banks hot-dogged it across the goal line and very nearly dropped the ball before crossing that goal line because of his hot-dogging. And even though the call wasn't overturned and he did get credited with the touchdown, you couldn't help thinking, "Yeah, that's why there's a chance a guy with that kind of speed and talent might not make the team." Good lesson for Banks. Would have been a better one if they'd taken away his touchdown.

4. Second-team defense. Guys like Keyaron Fox and Rob Jackson looked very fired-up and very effective, making you think the Redskins have some interesting depth on defense. But then you remember they're playing against backups on the Tampa Bay defense and that there's no way to know what you're really watching in preseason, and we'll just leave it at that.

The Redskins had a nice preseason. Stallworth's fingertip catch for the touchdown that sealed this meaningless win was a fun way to end it. The way they played this month should help their confidence. No idea if it means they'll have a good regular season. Right now they need to be thinking about how to beat the Giants. And yeah, settling on a quarterback.