NFC South: 2014 NFL Preseason Week 3 Observation Deck

Observation Deck: Atlanta Falcons

August, 16, 2014

HOUSTON -- The return of wide receiver Julio Jones for the first time since last year's season-ending foot fracture was overshadowed by yet another key injury to an Atlanta Falcons starter.

Left tackle Sam Baker went down with a right knee injury in the second quarter of Atlanta's 32-7 preseason loss to the Houston Texans. He had to be carted off the field.

Baker, who missed 12 games last season with a left knee injury, grimaced as he was unable to put any pressure on his leg.

The last thing the Falcons needed was an injury along the offensive line, but guys like Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder might get a chance to prove their value over the next two preseason games.

Jones, however, looked fine in his first action since last October coming off foot surgery. He caught a pass over the middle on the second play of the game for a 6-yard gain. Jones played four series and caught two passes for 20 yards while being targeted four times. He caught a deep ball down the right sideline but couldn't get both feet down in what would have been a long gain.

Matt Ryan completed 3 of 7 passes for 37 yards with a passer rating of 59.8 and a long throw of 17 yards to Roddy White. He was sacked once.

Yes, it's the preseason, but it's never a good thing when you lose to a team that was blown out 32-0 last week against Arizona.

Here are some other thoughts on the Falcons' second preseason game:
  • The defense was horrendous at times, with poor tackling, blown assignments, and a lack of pressure leading to a handful of big plays surrendered. Texans starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, not exactly among the league's top-tier quarterbacks, completed 9 of 12 passes for 97 yards and an 8-yard touchdown to receiver DeVier Posey between Falcons safeties Dwight Lowery and William Moore. Even steady cornerback Desmond Trufant allowed a big play to happen in front of him. Both Trufant and fellow starter Robert Alford got hit with defensive holding penalties in the game.
  • The positives on defense included an opening three-and-out, with nice tackles by Moore, Lowery, and Paul Worrilow, and some solid pressure from Osi Umenyiora on a couple of plays.
  • The first-team offense struggled on third down, and J.J. Watt wasn't even on the field for the Texans. When Ryan was in the game, the Falcons went 0-for-4 in such scenarios, including one in which Ryan was sacked by Texans rookie Jadeveon Clowney after Clowney beat Baker. Twice, Ryan couldn't connect with Jones on third down, although Jones did catch the one ball mentioned above but couldn't get his feet in.
  • Devin Hester showed his value as a receiver when he caught a quick screen pass from backup Sean Renfree in the second quarter and danced his way to a 12-yard touchdown. Remember, Hester did not play on offense as a member of the Chicago Bears last season. He still has his quickness and breakaway speed at the age of 31.
  • Safety Kemal Ishmael continued his strong preseason by picking off a pass near the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter. He was ruled down upon making the nifty pick. If projected starter Lowery continues to miss tackles like he did Saturday, Ishmael could find himself in the lineup because the Falcons definitely like his tackling ability.
  • Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong might have a headache right about now after watching punter Matt Bosher get a punt blocked by Houston's Anthony Denham and returned 17 yards by Jonathan Grimes for a touchdown. Then kicker Matt Bryant got a 51-yard field goal attempt deflected.
  • Rookie Devonta Freeman continues to show flashes of his great potential. He broke tackles and showed great vision on what appeared to be a 23-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the play was called back following a holding penalty on wide receiver Julian Jones. Freeman also showed some tenacity when it came to blocking in pass protection.
  • Quarterback T.J. Yates, the player the Falcons acquired in a trade with the Texans for linebacker Akeem Dent, didn't help his chances of securing a backup role. Yates almost got his first pass picked off. Then, he stared down his receiver and threw a pick-six as Texans cornerback Andre Hal took one back 64 yards for the score. Yates threw yet another interception with just over five minutes remaining in the game. Renfree looks like a much better option behind Ryan.
  • There was a Ra'Shede Hageman sighting as the rookie defensive lineman made a nice play on a tackle for loss in the third quarter. Hageman showed great quickness and fight on the play.

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the week talking about how they wanted to show their home crowd something positive.

They did -- somewhat. They lost, 20-14, to the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. The loss was deceiving because most of Miami's points came after the starters for both teams left the game. But the Bucs held a 7-3 lead before the starters left the game.

The starters turned in a much better performance than they did in their preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The first team showed exactly what a team coached by Lovie Smith is expected to look like. The formula is to play great defense and be opportunistic on offense. That's precisely what the Bucs did at the start of the second quarter.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Michael Johnson. The offense quickly followed that up with a touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Vincent Jackson.

"It was more of what we need to start looking like," McCown said.

The backups didn't play well on either side of the ball. But at least the starters gave fans some hope.

Some other observations:
  • It's not quite what Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles do, but I like the fact the Bucs are using the no-huddle offense. Coaches and players had been talking about an "up-tempo" offense since organized team activities began in the spring. Now, we're starting to see what they were talking about. I don't think the Bucs will use the no-huddle offense all the time, but they'll use it from time to time to shake things up.
  • The starting offensive line took a lot of criticism (every bit of it justified) last week. But the line bounced back with a much better performance. Patrick Omameh and Oniel Cousins were the starting guards, but the Bucs still may continue to rotate guards before deciding on the starters.
  • There's been some question about whether the Bucs will even carry a fullback on their roster. But it's looking more and more like they will. Jorvorskie Lane appears to be playing his way into a roster spot. Lane had a nice block on a run by Doug Martin and also caught a pass for 14 yards.
  • Rookie Mike Evans was well on his way to showing why the Bucs used a first-round pick on him. Evans caught a pass from Mike Glennon in the second quarter and seemed to be headed for a touchdown. But Evans had the ball knocked loose at the 1-yard line. That resulted in a touchback for Miami.
  • I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Luke Stocker got the start at tight end. Stocker has appeared to be behind Brandon Myers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Timothy Wright on the depth chart. I was thinking Stocker might not make the roster, but maybe this was a sign that he's in the Bucs' plans.
  • Linebacker Brandon McGee (ankle), William Gholston (shoulder), cornerback Rashaan Melvin (ankle), running back Mike James (shoulder) and safety Major Wright (back) left the game and did not return.

NEW ORLEANS -- Although the New Orleans Saints beat the Tennessee Titans 31-24, coach Sean Payton will be seething over the stunning amount of penalties his team committed. The Saints finished with 22 of them (14 in the first half) and had at least four others declined. Payton was already upset when the Saints committed 10 penalties a week ago.

Two in particular stood out. Tight end Jimmy Graham drew 15-yard taunting penalties for dunking over the goalpost after both of his touchdown catches in the first half -- a celebration that was outlawed by the NFL this offseason.

Although Graham obviously felt like it was worth the cost during the preseason, Payton appeared to be upset when he chased down Graham to talk to him after the second one.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' second preseason game of the year.
  • With Drew Brees sidelined again by an oblique strain, both of his potential backups played great. Luke McCown completed 12 of 19 passes for 117 yards and both touchdown passes to Graham. He was especially impressive on the opening drive. Griffin, meanwhile, completed 13 of 20 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns (though he was fortunate to have an interception nullified by a penalty). Griffin went big on a few throws, hitting Joe Morgan twice for 40-plus yards and nearly hitting Brandin Cooks for a deep score that Cooks couldn't reel in.
  • The Saints' defense was maddeningly inconsistent, allowing some big plays and long drives early (including a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter). But it finally started to deliver some of those turnovers the Saints have been preaching about all offseason. The Saints finished with five takeaways (forced fumbles by Kenny Vaccaro and Cameron Jordan that were recovered by Rafael Bush and Akiem Hicks; opportunistic fumble recoveries by Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Brandon Deaderick; and an interception by Vinnie Sunseri). Vaccaro also appeared to force another fumble, recovered by Curtis Lofton, but it was overturned by replay.
  • No, Pierre Thomas has not become the odd man out in the Saints' three-way time-share at running back. After sitting out the first preseason game, he was heavily involved Friday -- especially as a pass-catcher and pass-protector on third downs. Thomas caught three passes for 27 yards. As I've been saying, I expected to see him in Darren Sproles' old role tonight. … The Saints' run game wasn't very effective Friday, but Mark Ingram did catch a 23-yard touchdown pass -- showing that he'll have a chance to play a more versatile role this year in the Saints' offense.
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis left the field with trainers during the first half. The Saints didn't offer any specifics on his injury. He would be a huge loss if he's out for any regular-season games -- maybe as hard to replace as anyone outside of Brees. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt also left with an apparent injury.

Observation Deck: Chicago Bears

August, 14, 2014

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears' first-team offense scored points despite limited opportunities, but the No. 1 defense gave up a pair of field goals and a touchdown in three consecutive Jacksonville Jaguars possessions, forcing the home team to rally late to best the Jaguars 20-19 on Senorise Perry's 5-yard run with 51 seconds left to play.

Here are some other thoughts on Chicago's second preseason game:

Chicago's first-team offense played just two series as Jacksonville dominated time of possession in the first quarter (12:30 to 2:30), but Jay Cutler put together another sharp showing, hitting seven of nine passes for 75 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 138.4.

Credit the offensive line for Cutler's performance. With starting right tackle Jordan Mills out, Michael Ola filled in on an offensive line that routinely gave Cutler plenty of time to drop back, read and fire to the open man.

"The offensive line is playing at a really high level," Cutler said. "We want to get the running game [going] a little bit better than we did early on. We went three-and-out. Then, we kind of had to wait around a long time. We came back, converted some third downs. The offensive line gave me a lot of time."

The battle for the No. 2 job at quarterback between Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer might go to the wire. The Bears gave Clausen an extended look, yet he didn't capitalize on the extra snaps. Clausen completed 11 of 15 for 94 yards and an interception with no touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 61.5 after lighting up the Philadelphia Eagles for a rating of 134.6 in the opener with a pair of touchdowns.

The No. 1 defense stumbled to a slow start, but Jacksonville's dominant time of possession in the first quarter played a role. The defense forced the Jaguars to settle for back-to-back field goals on their first two possessions. After Josh Scobee's second field goal of the opening quarter, Eric Weems fumbled the ensuing kick when he was stripped by Will Blackmon. Jacksonville took over at the Chicago 23 and scored in seven plays on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Marqise Lee.

Henne and rookie Blake Bortles completed 19 of 27 for 237 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take repetitions with the first-team defense.

Jon Bostic played poorly in the opener but redeemed himself somewhat against the Jaguars. On a third-and-1 from the Chicago 27, Bostic filled hard on a Toby Gerhart run around left end and took out the offensive tackle to drop the running back for a 4-yard loss. The play forced Jacksonville to settle for a 49-yard field goal.

The Bears want to remain patient with Shea McClellin as he transitions to linebacker, but his play against the Jaguars seemed just about on par with his shoddy showing last week. McClellin did stuff the run once early on but continues to struggle at shedding blocks and making tackles in space.