NFC West: 2012 NFL preseason Week 1

Three things: Titans-Seahawks

August, 11, 2012
Three things to watch for Saturday in the Seattle Seahawks' preseason opener at home against the Tennessee Titans at 10 p.m. ET:

1. QB competition. Matt Flynn has benefited from the Seahawks' decision to give him additional reps as the starter for at least this week. He's gotten sharper in practice and has an opportunity to improve his chances at becoming the starter for the regular season. It's a bonus if Flynn gets to work in two-minute situations. That was one area where Seattle struggled with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback in 2011. Jackson had no touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in the final two minutes of halves. Will the offense look better with Flynn in those situations? Rookie Russell Wilson is scheduled to play the second half. That means he'll also have an extended opportunity to prove himself as a potential starter.

2. Three rookie draft choices. Defensive end Bruce Irvin (first round), middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and running back Robert Turbin (fourth round) are the ones I'm most interested in watching. Irvin has been too fast for the offensive linemen trying to block him in practice. He has also shown better strength than might have been anticipated. It's an upset if he doesn't get pressure, based on what he's shown in camp. Wagner is the favorite to start at middle linebacker. Speed and strong hands made him appealing to Seattle in the draft. Fullback Michael Robinson compared Wagner's speed to what he saw from Patrick Willis, his former teammate in San Francisco. On offense, Turbin figures to get chances with the first-team offense while Seattle rests starter Marshawn Lynch. Turbin has made a positive impression in camp. We should watch to see if he runs with power. The Seahawks wanted a backup runner with qualities somewhat similar to those Lynch possesses. They figured that would allow them to run their preferred offense even if Lynch were unavailable.

3. Receiver mix. Terrell Owens, Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin and Ricardo Lockette are not expected to play in this game. That opens the door for Golden Tate, Braylon Edwards, Ben Obomanu and Kris Durham in particular to show the Seahawks can count on them. Durham has struggled to this point in camp. He likely needs to fare better during the exhibition games to secure a roster spot. Tate had drawn high praise from coach Pete Carroll. Will it carry over? Edwards came on strong once Owens' arrival ramped up competition for what figures to be one roster spot between the two of them. Other receivers: Deon Butler, Phil Bates, Lavasier Tuinei, Charly Martin and Jermaine Kearse. Bates has impressed as an undrafted rookie. He is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds.
NFL teams have long sought hard-hitting safeties to deter receivers from making catches over the middle of the field.

Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals has been one such safety for more than a decade.

The rules have changed, however, and players such as Wilson walk a finer line when determining how to serve as a deterrent without inviting penalties and fines.

The hit Wilson delivered Friday night against Kansas City Chiefs receiver Terrance Copper provides another test case. At first glance, Wilson did what every team has wanted its safeties to do for decades. He held the opposing team accountable for lofting a high pass over the middle. Copper leaped for the ball, his body suspended in a jumping-jack position as gravity pulled him back toward the ground, where Wilson was waiting.

Copper never had a chance to defend himself from contact. In a split second, the ball sailed past him by about five yards and Wilson lowered his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame into a crouching position. As Copper landed, Wilson's left shoulder and upper arm struck him in the torso area near the elbow. The impact catapulted Copper into the air and onto his back.

Replacement officials working the game did not penalize Wilson. Copper knelt for a few seconds after the play before going down onto his hands and knees, where he remained for another 70 seconds or so. Three members of the Chiefs' training/medical staff tended to him during that time. Copper eventually walked off the field.

Will the NFL fine Wilson? A few things to consider:
  • Copper was a defenseless player;
  • Rules allow defenders to hit defenseless players as long as the defenders do not initiate contact with their helmets, and as long as defenders do not strike the defenseless players in the head or neck area;
  • Wilson did not use his helmet to deliver the blow;
  • Wilson did not strike Copper in the head or neck area.

By these measures, the hit on Copper was a legal one. The only uncertainty, in my view, involves the timing. The pass from Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn was high and slightly behind Copper. The ball had gone past Copper when Wilson delivered the hit.

As the rulebook states, "It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture."
There are no blockers or play-action fakes to deal with when prospective NFL athletes compete at the scouting combine each February.

That helps explain why Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook could not catch San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a 78-yard touchdown run Friday night.

Officials clocked Cook at 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash during the 2010 combine. Kaepernick ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds the following year, an outstanding time for a quarterback.

Kaepernick was already approaching full stride when Cook disengaged from the man blocking him (Brett Swain) to give chase after the 49ers' backup quarterback fooled the Vikings' defense with a designed run off play-action. That put Cook at a clear disadvantage even though he had perhaps a one-yard head start.

Still, with 70 yards remaining til the end zone, most cornerbacks would like their chances against most quarterbacks in that situation.

Kaepernick is not most quarterbacks, of course. He rushed for more than 4,000 yards at Nevada. He was one of four quarterbacks at the 2011 combine to break 4.6 seconds in the 40. Tyrod Taylor (4.51), Jake Locker (4.59) and Cam Newton (4.59) were the others.

Cook was close to catching Kaepernick near the goal line, but Kaepernick held him off with his arm and made one last cut to ensure safe travel to the end zone.

That is one fast quarterback.

Three things: Vikings-49ers

August, 10, 2012
Three things to watch for Friday in the San Francisco 49ers' preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings at 9 p.m. ET:

1. Pass protection: Alex Smith took a pounding in the 49ers' exhibition opener at New Orleans a year ago. The takeaway, according to comments Smith made to reporters this week: "For sure, wear your mouthpiece in the preseason. That was a bad decision last year. Be ready for anything, it's football. The whistle blows out here at practice and as quarterbacks, you don't get touched. This is real ball and it's been, for all of us, a while since we’ve had that, and it'll be fun." It'll be much funner for Smith if his protection holds up. We should watch for signs of improvement at right guard, where Alex Boone and veteran Leonard Davis represent a fresh start. The Vikings were not a big team for preseason sacks last year. They had seven, tied for 24th in the league.

2. New life at running back: Veteran starter Frank Gore carried only four times in the 2011 preseason opener and eight times overall in four exhibitions. There's no reason to get him extended work at this point. Rookie second-round choice LaMichael James was an exciting talent with breakaway ability at the University of Oregon. He was ill and missed practice recently, but has since returned and should play quite a bit against the Vikings. Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs are also competing for expanded roles in the regular-season rotation. Can Hunter build on a strong camp?

3. Backup QB race: Colin Kaepernick and Josh Johnson are battling for the right to serve in the No. 2 role behind Smith. A year ago, the lockout gave Kaepernick and other rookies very little prep time before the exhibition schedule. Kaepernick has subsequently had a full season to learn the offense. He'll be in better position to succeed. However, Johnson's roots in coach Jim Harbaugh's system run deeper. He played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, then signed with the 49ers in free agency this year.

CANTON, Ohio -- Looking back upon three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener against New Orleans, a 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium on Sunday night:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The first item linked above included two questions for the Cardinals' quarterback. One, can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Two, can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? Unfortunately, "no" and "definitely not" were the respective answers against the Saints. Kolb tossed an interception on his first pass attempt. Kolb, dropping back for his fourth pass attempt, suffered a rib contusion when New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis hit him. Kolb's night was finished, the latest damaging blow to his starting candidacy in Arizona. Injuries have knocked Kolb from preseason and/or regular-season games in four consecutive seasons.

2. Right side of the OL. Rookie right tackle Bobby Massie played extensively. He matched up against third-year Saints defensive end Junior Galette and seemed to do well enough. New Orleans did get pressure against Massie a few times, including once when Massie might have allowed a sack (I did not see the play clearly). Massie cleared out Galette to spring running back William Powell into the clear. Another time, Galette wanted a holding call, but did not get one, when Massie appeared to hook Galette around the collar. Massie disengaged and held up his hands as if to show officials he wasn't holding. Update: Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he thought Massie struggled some while getting needed reps. The team is working with Massie to adjust his setup. The goal is to make Massie less mechanical, Whisenhunt said. That won't happen overnight or after a week of practices, but we should see progress as the preseason continues.

3. Cornerback competition. William Gay started opposite left cornerback Patrick Peterson, as expected. Michael Adams was the nickel corner with the starting group. Tackling was a problem for the defense overall, including at corner. Gay missed one tackle on running back Mark Ingram early. Adams was the left corner and A.J. Jefferson the right corner with the second unit. Greg Toler also worked with the second unit. He missed a tackle in the third quarter. Teams aren't getting as much contact work in training camps under the current labor deal. That makes it tougher to simulate timing and work on the fundamentals of tackling. Saints quarterback Drew Brees played little, so the Cardinals' secondary didn't get an extended look against top competition. Update: Whisenhunt liked the way his corners played the ball. He thought they were physical. He thought the Cardinals needed to do a better job tackling on check-down plays.
CANTON, Ohio -- The rib contusion Kevin Kolb suffered in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday night was the latest injury setback for the Arizona Cardinals' potential starting quarterback.

It's not yet clear if Kolb will miss an extended period. The injury did knock him from the game against New Orleans, inviting a quick review of the oft-injured quarterback's medical file.

Kolb missed four starts last season after suffering a toe injury against Baltimore in Week 8. He missed the final three games of the season after suffering a concussion against San Francisco in Week 14.

With Philadelphia in 2010, Kolb suffered a concussion in Week 1 against Green Bay, missing two-plus games.

In 2009, also with the Eagles, a knee injury sidelined Kolb for the first two exhibition games.

Some injuries are unavoidable or close to it. Others can be avoided if a quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly.

It's tough to know initially if Kolb held the ball too long Sunday night. Kolb was running away from New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis when he threw a hurried pass to fullback Anthony Sherman for a 4-yard gain. Ellis caught Kolb and landed on him.

Kolb completed 1 of 4 passes for 4 yards and an interception.
CANTON, Ohio -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb couldn't have scripted his 2012 exhibition opener much worse than this:
  • Kolb
    First pass, interception.
  • Second pass, well behind receiver Andre Roberts.
  • Third pass, thrown away while Kolb was on the run from pressure.
  • Fourth pass, completed under duress to fullback Anthony Sherman, but with a price. New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis tackled Kolb and landed on him, driving Kolb's throwing shoulder into the ground. Kolb left the game with what the team called a rib contusion.

Overall, Kolb completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for 4 yards. He was ineffective while playing and unable to break the streak of injuries that have marked his Arizona career to this point.

John Skelton has taken over for Kolb. His chances for winning the job have obviously improved, pending an injury update on Kolb from the Cardinals.

Rib injuries tend to be extremely painful. Players can often play through them, but only if they're willing to endure the excruciating pain. Some take pain injections, which themselves can be extremely painful when applied to the rib cage.
CANTON, Ohio -- The Hanover Township website representing Bartlett, Ill., describes highway commissioner Craig Ochoa as, among other things, "a 26-year veteran professional football and basketball referee working mostly in the Big 10 Football Conference and the Arena League."

This normally wouldn't interest visitors to the NFC West blog, and it still might not, but with the NFL's regular officials battling the league for a new contract, Ochoa will head up a replacement crew in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints.

The crew also features umpire Tim Morris, head linesman Kevin Akin, line judge Esteban Garza, field judge Rusty Spindel, side judge Dwayne Strozier and back judge Mark Wetzel.

NFL athletes play much faster than those at the college level. Adjusting to that speed can be a challenge. The field here at Fawcette Stadium could present some challenges, too. It has six sets of hash marks and a giant Hall of Fame commemorative logo painted between the 40-yard lines, extending to the outside hashes.

A few players from each team are warming up. I haven't seen the game officials yet.