NFC East: 2012 NFL preseason Week 2

What to watch for: Eagles-Patriots

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
12:00
PM ET
The Philadelphia Eagles will play their second 2012 preseason game tonight at 8 ET against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN. Here are the things I'll be watching ...

Most closely: Michael Vick's performance. Eagles coach Andy Reid has said he plans to play his starters longer tonight than he does in next week's preseason game against the Browns, since the Eagles open in Cleveland 16 days later and he doesn't want to give the Browns any more help than he has to. That means this will likely be the longest look we get at the Eagles' starters this preseason. And that means a chance for Vick to show us the fruits of all of the hard offseason work he and the Eagles say he's been doing. The Eagles' party line is that this is the first real offseason Vick has had as the starting quarterback since 2006 in Atlanta, and as a result he's worked harder and better on refining his game. Vick says he's watched more film than ever before in his career, and that he's determined to fix the mistakes that led to all of his turnover problems early in 2011. What Eagles fans should want to see from Vick is improved decision-making -- not just with regard to his personal safety, but also in terms of knowing when to give up on a play for the sake of valuing the ball. I'm interested to see whether the offseason classroom work has made him a more proficient reader of the field and the defense, and how it works with him and center Jason Kelce in terms of changing the protection calls at the line. Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFL to perform this year, and while it doesn't matter what he does until Sept. 9 in Cleveland, it'd be encouraging for Eagles fans if they could come out of tonight's game convinced something about their quarterback looks different.

On the other side of the ball: Tackling, especially at the second level. I'm willing to believe that the defensive line will be the strength of the team once everyone's healthy, and I'm eager to watch Brandon Graham again after last week. But the Eagles' preseason opener featured some communication and tackling issues in the linebacker corps and in the secondary that were reminiscent of last season. And while I fervently believe that on-field preseason performance is a poor predictor of regular-season results, it can make fans (and, I assume, coaches) uneasy when a preseason problem reflects a prior-season problem you believed your team had solved. The same way a sharp Vick performance could help Eagles fans' optimism for the season, a sharp performance by the linebackers and the cornerbacks could help everyone feel better about the defense.

If I think of it: The backup running backs remain interesting. Does Dion Lewis look like he could be an effective fill-in for LeSean McCoy? Is Chris Polk or Bryce Brown the leader for that No. 3 spot? Could that come down to something as pedestrian as special-teams work or blitz pickup? ... Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett could stand to show something, as the organization appears to be souring on him, if it hasn't already. ... The left tackle position is also one to watch in this game. Demetress Bell is the player they signed to replace injured star Jason Peters, but he's struggled badly enough to get demoted to the second team, and perennial backup King Dunlap has been starting in his place in practice. The coaches will have their eyes on both of those players, and I'm interested to see if McCoy is going to run more up the middle and to the right this year with Peters gone. ... The Eagles also have a punting competition going on between Chas Henry and Mat McBriar.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Chargers

August, 19, 2012
8/19/12
8:00
AM ET
The Dallas Cowboys' second preseason game was a 28-20 exhibition loss to the San Diego Chargers. Yet it gave Cowboys fans more reason to feel good then did their 3-0 preseason victory over the Raiders on Monday night. Such is life in the preseason, where everything seems much bigger and realer than it actually is.

But what we saw from the Cowboys on Saturday, when the first-teamers were in the game, was pretty good. For instance, Tony Romo had much more time to throw in this game than he did in the first one, and he completed 9 of 13 passes for 75 yards. Nothing too special, but (a) Miles Austin and Jason Witten were out with injuries and (b) the most important thing was that the line held up well enough this time for the Cowboys to actually operate their offense. On the first drive, that meant a lot of running back DeMarco Murray, who was the focal point of five of the first six plays -- three carries and two receptions. The protection and the reliance on Murray might have been the result of the Chargers devoting more of their energy to coverage than to getting into the backfield, but again, the result was that the Cowboys got to run plays this time. And I don't think it's fluky that they went to Murray a lot on that first drive. Even when everyone's healthy, I get the sense they're going to lean hard on Murray as their featured back this year. And the fact that he didn't return after that first drive is most likely because they want to keep him healthy.

Here's what else I noticed:

1. Brandon Carr looked big-time. The Cowboys' prized free-agent acquisition had two interceptions, and he flat-out worked it. On the first one, he let the receiver get past him and baited Philip Rivers into throwing the ball, then closed quickly and made the leaping interception. His play on the second one was also smart and athletic, and he showed good skills staying with the ball in spite of bobbling it a few times before securing it in his hands. Carr has been a star in offseason workouts and in training camp, and so far has done nothing to make the Cowboys question their investment.

2. Kevin Ogletree is staking his claim to the No. 3 receiver spot. Again, you can't assume that a guy will play well in the regular season because he does so in the preseason. So there's no way to know what Ogletree would do if given the role. But what we see is a guy on the verge of winning the role. He's also looked good in practice, and the performance in Saturday's game only underlines what the coaches already like about him. He caught four passes for 60 yards, including a very tough one from Kyle Orton in double coverage, and seems to be a guy to whom Romo isn't afraid to throw the ball. Cole Beasley was also a standout in this game, and he caught one from Romo as well. Most of his damage was done late, against backup defenders, but Beasley ended with 104 yards on seven catches, was targeted a team-high nine times and left it all out on the field. Literally. Worked so hard, cameras caught him throwing up on the sideline just before the end of the game. I also thought Dwayne Harris looked good as a receiver and a punt returner, and rookie James Hanna looks like a very strong pass-catching tight end. Assuming Austin comes back soon and Witten doesn't have to miss too much time, Romo should have plenty of guys to whom to throw. We haven't even mentioned Dez Bryant, who had a quiet night but still dazzled with an athletic near-catch just out of the back of the end zone. I believe he should emerge as Romo's red-zone favorite.

3. The line did play better, but David Arkin continues to have a tough preseason. Kept getting caught downfield illegally, and he's committed too many penalties in these first couple of games. The team wants Arkin to develop as a backup center, at least, but he's struggling.

4. Morris Claiborne's debut was fine, but uneventful. The rookie first-round pick made a couple of tackles and looked fine in coverage. For some reason, the Chargers seemed to want to throw in Carr's direction more than they did in Claiborne's. If Carr keeps picking off two passes a game, I have to imagine that will change. But it was good for Claiborne to get his feet wet against NFL competition.

5. Sean Lee looked like a playmaking monster, again, but I would think Bruce Carter is currently ahead of Dan Connor in the competition at the other inside linebacker spot. Connor had trouble in coverage on tight end Randy McMichael, and Carter seems like the more athletic option at this point. This is a Cowboys defense that wants to prioritize an ability to make plays on the ball, and an inside linebacker who can't cover a tight end is not likely to find himself with much of a role in that kind of a defense.

6. The Butlers did it. Linebacker Victor Butler and defensive back Mario Butler both showed good things. Victor had an early sack and pressured Rivers a couple of times. Mario looked good in coverage but missed a big tackle that led to a touchdown. Victor Butler is a guy who should be able to emerge as a helpful pass-rusher if the coaches can find snaps for him.

Observation deck: Redskins-Bears

August, 19, 2012
8/19/12
12:48
AM ET
As much as everybody tries to read meaning into the on-field results of preseason games, the only thing that truly matters to the teams is getting through them healthy. For that reason, the Washington Redskins' 33-31 exhibition loss to the Bears in Chicago on Saturday night was a painful one. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and strong safety Brandon Meriweather both left the game in the first quarter with injuries -- Meriweather to his knee, Orakpo to the same pectoral muscle he tore last year. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said after the game that both would have MRIs on Sunday, and obviously when you lose two defensive starters you have to be concerned. Inside linebacker London Fletcher also was a late scratch from the starting lineup Saturday, and Shanahan didn't say much about Fletcher when asked postgame.

So it was a troubling night for the Redskins because of what was happening on the trainer's table, not so much because of what was happening on the field. Remember, we absolutely cannot make long-term predictions based on these games. We don't know what we're watching. Some teams game-plan for opponents in preseason, other teams don't. Much of the decisive action comes against third-teamers that won't see the field all year. All we can do is evaluate one night's performance for what it is, and to that end ...

1. Robert Griffin III is still learning. And this is fine, of course. It is to be expected. The hype around the Redskins' rookie quarterback has been intense and exciting, but on occasion it can seem to ignore the important fact that Griffin is a rookie who must learn and get used to the challenges of the NFL game. In the preseason opener last week in Buffalo, the Redskins worked hard to protect Griffin, limiting his throws and his reads to the quickest possible, and he looked very good. He makes smart decisions and displays the kind of poise and leadership you want to see from your franchise quarterback. But the Bears' Cover 2 made things more challenging for Griffin on Saturday, as did Chicago's Julius Peppers-led pass rush, and Griffin looked shakier in Game 2. He was 5-for-8 for 49 yards, was sacked three times and fumbled on one of those sacks. Fred Davis missed a block on the fumble snap, and rookie running back Alfred Morris admitted to reporters after the game that he'd failed to pick up the blitz, but Griffin also needed to protect the ball better while running from the pressure. In general, he looked like a rookie who needs to show more composure against the rush. And again, at this stage in his career, there's nothing wrong with that at all.

2. The secondary looked like a mess. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had a field day from the start. He found big Brandon Marshall up the right sideline for 41 yards after Marshall blew past Cedric Griffin. It looked as though cornerback DeAngelo Hall was playing free safety on that play, perhaps as part of this weird plan to convince Hall he can be used the way Green Bay uses Charles Woodson. It didn't work. Later, Marshall caught a 20-yarder on Josh Wilson. This time, Meriweather was providing the safety help but overshot the tackle. Orakpo got hurt in coverage on Devin Hester, and I still can't figure out what he was doing so deep. Alshon Jeffery had a big catch a little bit later on, and it looked like he had linebackers in coverage as well. I understand the safeties are new and they're moving the cornerbacks around a lot, but the Redskins' coverages Saturday did not look cohesive while the first-teamers were on the field. I thought Madieu Williams showed some good things, including an open-field tackle of Earl Bennett.

3. Brandon Banks showed something as a returner, with a 91-yard punt return, and Aldrick Robinson flashed his incredible speed as a receiver, bursting into another gear on his 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Weird thing is, Robinson doesn't show much as a returner and Banks hasn't shown enough as a receiver. If you could combine them, you'd have something. But the Redskins might not be able to keep both.

4. Morris got the start at running back over Evan Royster with Tim Hightower and Roy Helu hurt. Early on, Morris showed why Shanahan likes him. He makes one cut and then gets upfield quickly, which is essential for success in Shanahan's zone-blocking run game. He also has that good forward body lean, which helps him pick up yards after contact. The sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic had 34 yards on 10 carries. Royster was the third-down back even when Morris was in the game, and he had 20 yards on two carries. Tristan Davis had 10 carries late but did little with them and isn't likely to be a factor when this running back mess gets sorted out. Morris is a factor, right now.

5. Kirk Cousins. Yes, he looked great. He was a stunning 18-for-23 for 264 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including one to newly converted tight end Niles Paul, the one to Robinson and one to Dezmon Briscoe. The Redskins like Cousins a lot. But no, as anyone who's really paying attention knows, there's no quarterback controversy in Washington and there's not about to be one. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to get Griffin. They did not do that for Cousins. Their plan for Cousins is to develop him as a backup and, ideally, trade him for something of value down the road the way Andy Reid and the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb. Preseason performances like this one can only help with that latter goal. But remember, the performance was against backup defensive players. Cousins never saw Peppers.

Observation deck: Giants-Jets

August, 18, 2012
8/18/12
11:17
PM ET
 

The good postgame news for the New York Giants following their 26-3 preseason victory over the Jets is that starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw's hand seems OK. The Giants took X-rays that came back negative, and Bradshaw told reporters after the game that he had a cyst on his hand that burst when he hit it on someone's helmet. I do not know why a cyst bursting would require an X-ray, but I am not a doctor. Upshot appears to be that Bradshaw will be fine, which is significant for a Giants team whose running game still needs work.

The Giants finished 32nd in the league in rush offense in the regular season last year, mainly because of a line that couldn't get any push forward in the run game. That was on display again Saturday night, as neither Bradshaw nor D.J. Ware nor Andre Brown nor David Wilson could find a hole all night. The Giants finished with 58 yards on 32 carries, which is dreadful. Now, rush defense appears to be one of the few things the Jets do well, so that might have had something to do with it. But the concern with the Giants when they struggle is that they get physically handled in the trenches. The offensive line struggled with that last year and has so far in this preseason.

Now, that intro breaks my general rule about trying to open with a positive in these preseason game reviews. But I thought Bradshaw was the biggest news of the night, and in fairness it is a positive that his hand is not broken. And there are a ton of Giants positives in the remainder of my review of what I saw Saturday night:

1. The defensive line looks as though it will be just fine. Even with Justin Tuck leaving early with a neck injury (he also said he was fine), the Giants' pass rush completely abused Wayne Hunter and an overmatched Jets offensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul and reserve defensive end Adewale Ojomo each had two sacks and the Giants had seven as a team to go with their nine quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss. But what I thought was most impressive while the first-team defense was in there was the performance of starting defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard, who forced the issue in the middle of the line and limited the Jets on the ground as well. The Giants are banged up at defensive tackle with Chris Canty and Marvin Austin on the shelf, but Bernard and Joseph played as though they didn't want anyone to worry.

2. Eli Manning likes throwing to Victor Cruz. Manning didn't do a lot to help the Giants find their No. 3 wide receiver. Five of his seven completions were caught by Cruz, and while that was fun for Giants fans to watch, everybody already knew that hookup worked. Ramses Barden did drop one Manning pass early on, which didn't help his case. Overall, Manning had a poor night, completing 7 of 14 for 62 yards and an ugly overthrow interception. But he's obviously the least of their worries.

3. As for those No. 3 receiver candidates ... Rookie Rueben Randle made the best catch of the night, a leaping 49-yarder from David Carr. But it was his only catch of the game. Jerrel Jernigan caught two passes for 26 yards, Domenik Hixon one for four yards and Barden was shut out. The buzz during the week was about a Manning quote that said they could rotate guys into that role and into situations that maximize their different strengths, and that's a reasonable way to handle the situation. But I still think Barden's going to have to grab that role if he wants to make the team. The other guys help on special teams.

4. Chase Blackburn's probably safe for a while. Blackburn and Kenny Phillips combined to fill a gap and make a nice stop on Shonn Greene on a second-down run. Later in the game, Mark Herzlich suffered a hip pointer. Blackburn's the starting middle linebacker for now, and Herzlich's going to have to come and take the job from him. Blackburn hasn't done anything to lose it, and now Herzlich's hurt. Keith Rivers, by the way, looked active on the outside, starting in place of an injured Michael Boley.

5. Got to like Jayron Hosley. The rookie cornerback was a star of the game on defense and on special teams, where he returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown. Reports from the postgame locker room say Hosley had his foot in a walking boot, so it seems as though he got injured, too. Would be a shame if he had to miss time. It looks as though the Giants want to use him a lot, and other than last week's muffed punt, everything he's done on the field has made him look like a very useful guy.

6. Wilson does show something. The rookie running back out of Virginia Tech was a first-round pick for a reason. You can see, when he gets room to run, what he brings in terms of explosiveness. I believe he'll be a good player for the Giants. He even looked good in blitz pickup once he got into the game. But this national perception that he's the sure-thing backup or some sort of threat to take carries away from Bradshaw has gotten out of hand. He's clearly fourth on the running-back depth chart right now, and Ware has earned that No. 2 spot. Wilson will develop, maybe quickly, and likely be an asset for the Giants down the road. But he has developing to do, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's kind of how the Giants roll.

7. Will Hill. He's getting to be a fun story, playing well at safety and coming up with a sack of Tim Tebow. Could be a nice latent-talent find by the Giants' front office, a la Herzlich and of course Cruz.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 26, Jets 3

August, 18, 2012
8/18/12
10:11
PM ET
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- The Jets have made all the preseason noise in New York, but the Giants reminded Rex Ryan who the defending champs are with a 26-3 victory on Saturday night.

What it means: It’s just the preseason, but Victor Cruz and the Giants' pass rush look like they are in midseason form. Cruz repeatedly got open, and Jason Pierre-Paul looked awesome with two sacks. The Giants took advantage of Wayne Hunter, and Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck each added half a sack to JPP’s total.

The Giants had to settle for four field goals from Lawrence Tynes, so Tom Coughlin will want to see his offense execute better going forward. But the defending champs are just fine-tuning things right now and trying to stay healthy.

Bradshaw injured: Ahmad Bradshaw left the game in the first quarter to undergo an X-ray on his right hand -- the result was negative.

Bradshaw played for one offensive series and gained 2 yards on three carries. He had his hand iced on the sideline upon returning from the locker room and did not return to the game.

The running game: With Bradshaw out, D.J. Ware got more work but was able to gain only 15 yards on 11 carries. The blocking wasn’t that great, as often there was no room to run.

Andre Brown started the third quarter and had 5 yards on two carries. Rookie David Wilson came in and then gave way to Da'Rel Scott before coming back into the game in the fourth quarter. Wilson finished with 26 yards on eight carries. Rookie RB/FB Joe Martinek caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Perrilloux in the fourth quarter.

Rookie report: While Wilson looked speedy and shifty again, fellow Virginia Tech product Jayron Hosley stole the show with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown off Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez was looking for Patrick Turner, and Hosley stepped in front and had a clear path down the left sideline for the touchdown. Hosley has impressed Coughlin in the preseason. The third-round pick, who also was the main punt returner, looks more and more like a playmaker.

Second-round pick Rueben Randle also made an impressive catch when he snatched a deep pass over the middle from David Carr. Randle timed his leap perfectly and displayed great hands on the 49-yard gain.

Cruz control: Cruz didn’t have a 99-yard touchdown catch this time, but he just missed out on catching a bomb on Darrelle Revis on the Giants’ first offensive play of the game. It was one of the few times Eli Manning wasn’t able to connect with Cruz.

Cruz, who also took a big shot from LaRon Landry but held on for the catch and got right up to signal first down, was targeted often and had five receptions for 51 yards.

Manning and Cruz’s chemistry continues to get better, and the time the two had with Hakeem Nicks on the sideline during camp has definitely helped. Nicks is expected to resume practicing this coming week.

Other injuries: Backup middle linebacker Mark Herzlich was in the game for only a few snaps before suffering a hip pointer. He left the game in the third quarter.

Backup defensive end Adrian Tracy also had to leave the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury. Both players have looked good in the preseason.

Giants bits: Tuck had his neck/shoulder area checked out on the sideline but came back in and had a sack that was nullified by penalty. ... Steve Weatherford was able to draw a roughing the kicker penalty when Joe McKnight ran into him on the Giants’ first punt of the game. But Weatherford had a punt blocked when Aaron Maybin got a piece of the ball for a partial block in the second quarter. ... Manning threw an interception when he tried to throw the ball away but was picked by Landry.

What’s next: The Giants play the Bears next Friday night at home in their third preseason game.

What to watch for: Cowboys-Raiders

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
10:20
AM ET
The Dallas Cowboys open their preseason schedule against the Oakland Raiders on Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. Here are a couple of things to look for as the 2012 Cowboys take the field against a hostile opponent for the first time:

1. The offensive line: It looks as though David Arkin will start at center in place of injured Phil Costa. Center and guard are two positions of great concern for the Cowboys. Even healthy, Costa wasn't very good last year, and Arkin has no experience at the position outside of the practice reps he's been taking in Oxnard for the past two weeks. You'll see some of Harland Gunn (also learning the position), and if free-agent signee Mackenzy Bernadeau is healthy and active for the game, he could get some center snaps as well. The Cowboys also need to find answers at guard, where Bernadeau and Nate Livings were brought in to help, but Livings has been hurt and isn't likely to play. Keep an eye on undrafted Ronald Leary, who's been getting a lot of first-team snaps at guard and is someone the coaches like. Also watch left tackle Tyron Smith, a great talent who's making the switch from right tackle in his second NFL season. See if he's got that footwork down yet.

2. The wide receivers. With starters Miles Austin (out) and Dez Bryant (game-time decision) beset by hamstring injuries, Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley, Danny Coale and a host of others will get significant reps. The No. 3 receiver position is open, and the coaches will be watching to see who stands out as a route-runner, a blocker and a pass-catcher from that group. They'll probably have starting quarterback Tony Romo for only one or two series, but backup Kyle Orton is good enough that coaches will be able to evaluate receivers with him throwing them the ball as well.

3. The defensive line. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff is also out with an injury, so all three line spots are offering auditions tonight. Jason Hatcher seems set as a starting end, but the other end spot could go to anyone from the group of Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears, Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers. And with Ratliff out, Josh Brent has a chance to show what he can do with significant playing time inside. With third-round pick Tyrone Crawford a sure thing to stick as a pass-rush specialist and projected future starter, not everyone from this group is going to make the roster.

4. The rest of the defense. Sean Lee looks as though he's ready to pick up where he left off as an emerging star, but there's a good fight going on between Dan Connor and Bruce Carter for the other inside linebacker spot. Barry Church has won himself a job as a starting safety with a big camp, so this is a chance for him to show everyone he's taken a big step if indeed he has. And while Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins are out with injuries, this will be the first look for a lot of Cowboys fans at free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr, who's so far been everything the Cowboys expected.

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