NFL Nation: 2013 preseason reaction Week 3

Observation deck: Vikings-49ers

August, 26, 2013

If Christian Ponder's preseason is done, at least he saved his best work for his closing act.

Ponder went 7-of-9 for 48 yards on his final drive during the Minnesota Vikings' 34-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, directing a 12-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Joe Webb on a fade route. It was as assertive and accurate as Ponder has looked all preseason, and though most of his completions were underneath the 49ers' coverage, he converted two third downs (one on a 7-yard scramble, the other on his touchdown to Webb), and the scoring pass was Ponder's second of the night. It helped him finish with his best stat line of the preseason -- 17-of-23 for 116 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- but it also dressed things up after another ragged start for Ponder.

On the Vikings' first play, he threw too far out in front of Greg Jennings, who was in single coverage against a safety, on a deep ball off play action. He threw incomplete to John Carlson on second down, and fumbled on third down after Ahmad Brooks beat Phil Loadholt and sacked Ponder. It took the Vikings four series to get a first down, and on their first sustained drive of the night, Ponder floated a couple of high passes -- one caught by Jennings, the other caught by Stephen Burton out of bounds -- instead of driving the ball downfield.

He finished the night with an average of 5 yards per pass, not unlike much of the work he did last season, and while the night again came with a significant caveat -- Adrian Peterson was on the field for just two plays -- Ponder had opportunities to connect on a few big throws that he didn't hit. He'll likely sit out the Vikings' final preseason game Thursday night, which means fans will head into the regular season relying more on faith than concrete evidence that Ponder is progressing.

Here's a rundown of the rest of the night:
  • It wasn't a good night for the Vikings' secondary. Chris Cook left the game with a groin injury (no small thing, considering all the trouble Cook has had staying on the field) and Josh Robinson spent much of the night dealing with the attention 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick paid to him. Kaepernick targeted Robinson four times on a 84-yard touchdown drive, hitting rookie Quinton Patton for a 19-yard gain in the slot against Robinson and connecting with Patton on a 5-yard touchdown after two completions to Marlon Moore against Robinson. If Cook is out for any length of time, the Vikings' big gamble in the secondary could become even riskier with Robinson and rookie Xavier Rhodes starting.
  • Defensive tackle Kevin Williams left the game with a knee injury after a chop block in the second quarter and will have a MRI on Monday. Early indications are that the injury isn't serious, but defensive end Jared Allen was ticked about the low hit; interviewed on TV he called it a dirty play. Sharrif Floyd also is out for the rest of the preseason after a chop block caused him to have a minor knee operation, and Christian Ballard is still away from the team because of personal issues. The Vikings' lack of depth at defensive tackle, at the moment, looks a bit unnerving.
  • The Vikings' offensive line had another uncharacteristically bad night. Loadholt offered little resistance to Brooks on Ponder's fumble, and was later flagged for holding. And left tackle Matt Kalil had a pair of unnecessary-roughness penalties, earning one after he joined a shoving match between Brandon Fusco and a 49ers player. Coach Leslie Frazier had to sit Kalil down for a play to cool him off, and after Kalil sustained a knee injury in a poor performance in the Vikings' second preseason game, tonight wasn't a good follow-up.
  • On Ponder's interception, Burton stopped early on a crossing route and was a step shy of catching the pass. Burton's had a strong preseason, but Ponder's interception might have been a completion had Burton finished his route.
  • Webb, the former quarterback who is competing with Burton for one of the final receiver spots, provided another reminder of why he might fit in as a pass-catcher. He did a nice job on his touchdown, going up for a jump ball and pulling down Ponder's pass in the corner of the end zone. With his size, strength and leaping ability, Webb could be a nice weapon in the red zone.
  • As promised, Desmond Bishop got plenty of work, playing with the Vikings' first-team defense in the first half and remaining in the game with the No. 2 defense in the second half. He gave up a catch to Moore when Kaepernick stepped out of the pocket and drew Bishop toward the line of scrimmage, but Bishop stopped Kendall Hunter for a loss and made a nice open-field tackle of D.J. Harper in the fourth quarter. Though he's still struggling somewhat in pass coverage, Bishop can help the Vikings' run defense, and he looked more assertive Sunday than he did against Buffalo.
  • Before he left with his injury, Cook made an impressive tackle of Chad Hall, coming across the field to drag down the receiver after a four-yard screen pass.
  • Chad Greenway sold the 49ers on the idea that he was rushing before dropping back into coverage on his second-quarter interception of Colt McCoy. The turnover set up the Vikings' first touchdown, when Ponder hit Zach Line -- who turned a screen pass into a 61-yard touchdown in the Vikings' first preseason game -- for a 1-yard score.

Three things revisited: Vikings-49ers

August, 25, 2013
Looking back on three things discussed here before the San Francisco 49ers' third exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 34-14 home victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night:

1. Seneca's debut. Coach Jim Harbaugh had indicated that all five quarterbacks would play in this game. Plans change. Colin Kaepernick, Colt McCoy and rookie B.J. Daniels were the only quarterbacks to play meaningful snaps. Scott Tolzien reportedly had back spasms. He did not play. The newly acquired Seneca Wallace got into the game late and completed both attempts for 27 total yards. McCoy completed 11 of 15 passes for 109 yards with one sack, one interception and a 65.7 passer rating. McCoy struggled at times, but he also played for a bit with 49ers backups against Vikings starters. He was effective leading a nine-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that ended on the first play of the fourth quarter. McCoy reportedly took a pay cut to improve his chances for earning a spot on the 53-man roster. Harbaugh told reporters after the game that he was comfortable with McCoy in the No. 2 role.

2. Kaepernick's reps. Kaepernick rebounded from a slow start to complete his final six attempts during a drive that ended with his 5-yard scoring pass to rookie Quinton Patton. Kaepernick got into a rhythm during that drive, including when he completed a pass to Vernon Davis on his third read. That drive featured a 19-yard pass to Patton, 10- and 11-yarders to Davis, 15- and 8-yarders to Marlon Moore, plus the scoring pass. Kaepernick moved effectively to buy time and threw accurately. Kaepernick had attempted only six passes during the preseason before Sunday. His final numbers from this game: 7 of 13 for 72 yards, the one score, no sacks and a 95.7 rating.

3. Baldwin's impact. Recently acquired receiver Jon Baldwin had receptions for 19 and 4 yards. These were his first receptions as a 49er and first of the preseason. San Francisco acquired him from Kansas City. Baldwin beat second-year undrafted free agent Bobby Felder off the line before making a leaping catch for the 19-yard gain. Baldwin made a nice catch away from his body on a low pass, gathering the ball and falling forward for a first down on the 4-yard reception. Starting corner Josh Robinson had the coverage on that play. There was nothing spectacular about Baldwin's debut, but it was a start.

Observation deck: Texans-Saints

August, 25, 2013

HOUSTON -- Sunday afternoon was the first view most people had of the Houston Texans' shiny new punter Shane Lechler.

Until Sunday, Lechler was sidelined as he recovered from a hamstring injury in his plant leg. He knew there would be a lot of eyes on him, wondering how he'd fare in his first game in Houston, the first of his career not as an Oakland Raider. And so, something happened to the 14-year veteran that hasn't happened to him in a while:

He got nervous for a preseason game.

"I got out there and went through the basics mentally," Lechler said. "You're like, make sure you catch the snap. There's a lot of people looking at you (to) see how you handle your first ball. That ball actually carried a little farther than I wanted it to. Luckily it checked up perfectly. I was nervous and anxious and excited at the same time."

Lechler punted twice, netting 52 yards per punt. One of those was downed at the 2-yard line, giving the Texans field position that led to their first touchdown. The New Orleans Saints never got past their own 6-yard line and went three-and-out on their next drive.

What started to become very clear in the Texans' third preseason game was that their specialists have really improved.

Second-year kicker Randy Bullock, who spent last season on injured reserve, notched touchbacks on all three of his first-half kickoffs. He also made field goals of 21 and 55 yards. It impressed Lechler, who spent most of his career with one of the best kickers of all time in Sebastian Janikowski.

"I think when you talk about Janikowski, that's probably one of the best that's ever done it, in my opinion," Lechler said. "I think at Randy's stage of his career he's probably a little bit more accurate than Janikowski was as a rookie."

Other observations from the Texans' third preseason game:
  • I haven't talked enough about undrafted rookie outside linebacker Willie Jefferson. That will change this week. Jefferson signed with a team that drafted two players at his position (Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams) but quickly surpassed both of them. After Sunday's game, safety Danieal Manning said the most impressive thing about Jefferson is how well he is able to incorporate what he learns in the classroom to the field. "He put pressure on them ever since he got in -- he's definitely holding up," Manning said. "I'm glad he's a part of this team." An important thing to remember about Jefferson is that this is only his third year playing defense. His ceiling is higher than some of the other rookies.
  • T.J. Yates' numbers this week looked similar to his numbers last week. He completed seven of nine passes, though one of his incompletions was a drop. He had the best passer rating of the three quarterbacks at 137.5 and also threw the fewest passes of the three. I'd bet you see more of Case Keenum next week against Dallas, where Kubiak will have to make a final decision on how many quarterbacks to keep. The Texans carried two on the active roster most of last season and had Keenum on the practice squad. But Keenum is making it very hard for Kubiak to cut him.
  • Fullback Greg Jones showed why the Texans signed him on Ben Tate's one-yard touchdown run. "Me and Greg are always talking," Tate said. "He wants to know how I'm thinking, and I'm asking him what he is thinking. ... I was with him on the touchdown run. I was right there with him."
  • The Texans' defense contained the Saints offense until New Orleans got its screen game going. "You know, they resorted to going to screens and stuff like that," Texans defensive end Jared Crick said. "I think that was probably due to the pressure we were putting on." Whatever the cause, it worked. On the Saints' first touchdown drive, Drew Brees threw screen passes to Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Ingram took his catch 29 yards. Thomas nearly got tackled by Texans linebacker Joe Mays, but he escaped Mays' grasp first, then Texans safety Shiloh Keo inadvertently blocked Mays on his second effort to get to Thomas. That resulted in a 51-yard touchdown.
  • Speaking of Crick, he might have made a case for himself to start in place of Antonio Smith in the Texans' regular season opener. Crick had the Texans' only sack of the game, ending a Saints drive, and tied for the team lead with four total tackles.
  • Saints rookie Kenny Stills got the best of the Texans' starting cornerbacks on the same drive. Once with a one-handed catch on the sideline with Kareem Jackson on him. Another time, he got away from Johnathan Joseph for a 14-yard touchdown catch from Saints backup Luke McCown. "It was just a double-move, work on it all the time," Stills said. "Got the corner kinda sitting on the outside and was able to get inside and the ball was there."

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2013

There is reason for concern for the New Orleans Saints’ defense. There also is reason for hope.

Evidence of both was on display in Sunday’s 31-23 preseason victory.

Let’s start with the concern. New Orleans fans know all too well that the Saints had the league’s worst defense last season. The Saints have changed coordinators and schemes, but it looked as if nothing had changed early on.

The Texans gained 164 yards of total offense in the first quarter and the New Orleans defense struggled in all areas. But, even with Houston’s offensive starters remaining in through the end of the first half, some signs of hope emerged.

Cameron Jordan, who I think will excel as a 3-4 defensive end, came up with a sack and a quarterback pressure. Undrafted rookie Glenn Foster came up with his fourth sack of the preseason. Linebacker David Hawthorne, playing in place of the injured Jonathan Vilma, showed signs he can hold up in pass coverage. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who struggled all of last season, had great coverage on a deep pass in the second quarter.

Oh, and one other thing besides all that -- you can bet that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was holding back on a lot of things that the Atlanta Falcons will see in the season opener.

Some other quick observations on the Saints:
  • The Saints already have had some injury problems at linebacker and, now, they may have another one. Will Smith limped off the field in the second quarter and didn’t return. Trainers appeared to be looking at his right knee.
  • If rookie Kenny Stills hadn’t already won the third receiver job, I think he might have accomplished that Sunday. Stills had a great catch despite strong coverage on a deep sideline route. He followed that up with a touchdown catch.
  • Backup quarterback Luke McCown had another strong performance. McCown completed 10 of 14 for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Reserve running back Travaris Cadet, who had some problems with fumbles earlier in the preseason, made a couple of nice catches out of the backfield. Cadet is in a competition with rookie Khiry Robinson for what is likely to be the final running back spot on the roster.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner stayed in the competition for a roster spot by making two touchdown catches.
MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins completed their fourth game of the preseason in a 17-16 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was the important "dress rehearsal" game for Miami, which will now begin to turn most of its attention toward preparation for the regular season.

Before the game I highlighted three keys to watch for the Dolphins. Here is a recap of how the team fared in those areas:

1. Who emerges at tight end? With starting tight end Dustin Keller (knee) out for the season, the Dolphins didn’t gain any clarity Saturday night at the tight end position. Charles Clay got the start and had a shaky game. He struggled to get open and had just one reception for 5 yards. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill targeted Clay six times in the game without much success. Dion Sims also had one reception for 18 yards in the second half. This position remains a work in progress with the regular season right around the corner.

2. Lamar Miller’s workload: Miller entered with just nine carries in the first three preseason games. Miller got his biggest workload of the preseason Saturday against a good run defense with the Buccaneers. Miller rushed for 35 yards on eight carries. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but much of it was gained on a 20-yard run. With Daniel Thomas (seven carries, 3 yards) struggling, Miller secured the starting job for the Dolphins to start the regular season.

3. John Jerry’s progress: Jerry, Miami’s projected starting guard, made his preseason debut for the Dolphins on Saturday. Jerry is returning from a knee injury he suffered in the first week of training camp. He only played in the first quarter and had mixed results. The Dolphins didn’t want to put too much on Jerry’s plate right away. But he has plenty of strides to make before the start of the regular season.

Observation deck: Titans-Falcons

August, 25, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you’re going to post two duds and a stellar game in the preseason, it’s best if the stellar game comes in Week 3, the traditional dress-rehearsal week.

That’s what the Tennessee Titans got Saturday night at LP Field in a 27-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The defense gave up too much on the Falcons’ first three drives but held strong in the red zone and surrendered a total of six points. The run defense still has room to improve, allowing 4.5 yards per carry to Steven Jackson in the first half.

But things got better overall as the game went on, with five sacks of Matt Ryan and much better shedding of blocks, hitting and tackling.

The headline, however, was provided by young quarterback Jake Locker.

He finished up the first half plus one series with a very solid line: 11-for-13 for 133 yards and a touchdown with a 134.9 passer rating. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble. He threw the ball well and had people catching the ball better for him but for a drive-killing Taylor Thompson drop of a pass thrown a touch behind the tight end.

The mandatory preseason disclaimer: It was a meaningless game against a team that went deep into the playoffs last season but was only 24th in overall defense and 23rd against the pass. Now, two of the Falcons’ top three cornerbacks are rookies -- Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

Locker’s bad moments came on the move or under pressure.

On a third-and-7 from the Titans' 35, he didn’t seem quite aware enough and should have been sacked but shrugged out of a blitz. He rolled right and turned to run for a pretty easy first down. But linebacker Joplo Bartu hit him -- and the ball -- as he went down and jarred it loose; safety Thomas DeCoud recovered it.

Beside the fumble, Locker was helpless on two sacks -- one that came from super-quick pressure past right tackle David Stewart, one on which he was pinned in on both sides and taken down as the middle closed in.

In the third quarter, the first-team offense’s lone drive stalled when Locker saw pressure and put his head down rather than feeling the pressure and trying to do something against it.

The positive far outweighed the fumble and the sacks, however.

“This is the first week that we’ve actually put in a game plan. We’d been running base stuff the first two weeks,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “So I think that probably helped a little bit. It helped open up the play-action a little bit and helped Jake.

“I was probably too conservative early on, and once I let him go, he played really well.”

It was a very encouraging night for the quarterback. If the Titans could freeze him right here and put him in practice on Wednesday, Sept. 4, in preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh, I think they might.

I’ve done some reporting and I’ve learned, exclusively, that such freezing is not an available option.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/John RussellTitans QB Jake Locker ran three times for 22 yards in addition to his 133 yards through the air.
Some other thoughts:

Run defense still an issue: Jackson took 10 first-half carries 45 yards.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who’s healthy and playing very well, didn’t like learning those numbers.

“We want to hold guys to 2 yards a carry. One or 2 yards a carry,” Casey said. “We don’t want to give up nothing more than that because then it makes it too hard, a game where they can just pound it down your throat. In order to get to the quarterback, you’ve got to stop them on the run on first and second downs.”

See more about the run defense in this video.

Even having allowed more rushing yards than they’d like, the Titans' pass rush was excellent, with five sacks of Ryan and six overall. Casey had 1½; Derrick Morgan, Mike Martin and Kadarron Anderson had one each. Moise Fokou, Karl Klug and Kamerion Wimbley each had half a sack. Nice distribution.

Double barrel: Chris Johnson looked solid in gaining 65 yards on 11 carries with a nice 20-yard sprint to the right sideline on the Titans' first touchdown drive.

Earlier, on the Titans' second possession, Johnson got the ball on first and second down, gaining 7 yards and then 2. Tennessee sent Shonn Greene on to replace Johnson, and Greene did just what the Titans brought him in to do: find 3 yards to convert the third-and-1.

I asked Johnson if he envisioned that being the way things are going to work.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Another not-smart hit by Bernard Pollard: In the Titans’ first preseason game, Pollard put his head down and hit a Redskin heading out of bounds. That got him a $10,000 fine. In the Titans' second preseason game, he twice got beat on third-and-long, failing to make tackles in situations when he should have. Against Atlanta, on the Falcons' very first drive, he unnecessarily jumped in late on a tackle of Julio Jones and drew another personal foul penalty.

Ankle sprains: The Titans announced that both receiver Nate Washington and running back Greene didn’t finish with the first team because of ankle sprains. Washington said his was actually a right foot injury that wouldn’t cost him time unless the Titans were super cautious; Greene said his was really existing ankle soreness and not serious.

Good red zone defense after allowing the Falcons to get there too easily: The Falcons marched into the red zone on their first three drives but wound up with three field goal attempts and only six points.

“They got down there way too easy,” Casey said. “We let them get explosive plays -- big passes, things like that. We can’t allow that. When they got down there, we did our job by not letting them get in the end zone. That was one of our goals this week -- stopping them in the red zone, and we did that.”

Making a case: Receiver Michael Preston is not going to outrank any of the five receivers ahead of him, but he could be making himself a guy the Titans have to keep as a sixth, and I am hard-pressed to believe he is not one of the team’s 53 best football players.

Preston had three catches for 68 yards from Ryan Fitzpatrick, with a 56-yard bomb setting up Justin Hunter's short TD catch before he hauled in a 6-yard touchdown catch of his own later on.

I wrote about Preston at work on Friday.

“He’s a really good player. He’s been doing that day in, day out at practice,” Loggains said. “He made a big statement for his case to be on this football team again tonight.”

Verner and Turner: Cornerback Alterraun Verner and center Rob Turner started and did nothing that should dent them as the favorites to be named the starters at their respective spots.

Verner was flagged for two penalties against Jones -- a pass interference on a short pass into the middle and an illegal contact on a longer throw. I thought the first one was a good play on a ball Ryan threw a bit behind Jones. Later, Jones beat Verner, who didn’t touch him near the line, on a 42-yard play up the right side. Jones is going to make plays against a lot of corners.

And while Tommie Campbell came in early enough to have a couple chances against Jones and wasn’t victimized in a similar way, he didn’t do anything that should change the Titans' leanings.

Battle vs. Parmele: I thought Jackie Battle was getting a bit too much hype heading into the game. He was running better than Jalen Parmele, but special teams will be a huge factor in one of them winning the No. 3 running back job. I was told before the game, however, that he's close to Parmele on special teams. Battle got a game-high 13 carries for 41 yards. Parmele didn’t get one. Advantage Battle.

Referee change: Ed Hochuli was the ref in the first half, but by design, the game turned over to Wayne Mackie in the second half. He’s typically a field judge. The league is looking for opportunities to get people experience. Mackie communicated well when he had to use his microphone.

But Mackie was buzzed to review Alford’s interception of Fitzpatrick on a throw intended for Hunter. There was absolutely no reason for replay assistant Roger Ruth to buzz Mackie to review that play except to give him practice at it.

And whether the league needs to get a guy game experience or not, two teams, a crowd and a TV audience should not be subject to an unneeded challenge for such purposes.

Pending cuts? The first round of cuts come Tuesday, when the Titans have to get from 90 to 75. Healthy guys who don’t play in the third preseason game are typically being kept from getting hurt, because a team can’t cut an injured player.

Healthy Titans who didn’t play in this game were receiver Justin Hilton, defensive end Nigel Nicholas, guard Oscar Johnson, tackle Barry Richardson, tight end Martell Webb and receiver Rashad Ross. It'll be a surprise if any of them are on the roster Tuesday evening.

Looking back on three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' third exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 24-7 defeat at home against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday night:

1. Whisenhunt homecoming. Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt returned to University of Phoenix Stadium as the Chargers' offensive coordinator. His quarterback, Philip Rivers, averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt and threw one interception with no touchdown passes. However, the Chargers' first-team offense put together a 92-yard touchdown drive and generally outperformed the Cardinals' starting offense on this night. Both teams' running games were effective early. That provided some consolation for the Cardinals until the team lost running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) and rookie first-round guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) to injuries of unknown severity. Cooper rode a cart off the field and wasn't putting any weight on his left leg after the injury. Another player flew into his left leg from the side and behind, causing Cooper's left ankle to roll inside out. A serious injury to Cooper would undermine the team's efforts to upgrade the line. That seemed particularly true on this night, when the Chargers' Dwight Freeney dominated against Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown.

2. Williams at running back.Third-year running back Ryan Williams returned to practice late in the week and made his 2013 preseason debut late in the third quarter. Williams, troubled by knee issues lingering from a 2011 injury, gained 5 yards on his first play. He was the fourth running back to get carries in this game, after Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith and Stepfan Taylor. Rookie Andre Ellington was shaken up returning a kick right before Williams went into the game. Ellington then went back into the game on offense, replacing Williams. Williams returned when Ryan Lindley took over at quarterback in the final five minutes. He carried one more time and gained 5 yards. He ran well on his two carries. Time could be running out for Williams. Three other recent high draft choices for Arizona -- Cooper, tight end Rob Housler (ankle) and nose tackle Dan Williams (knee) -- left this game with injuries. Rookie seventh-round tight end D.C. Jefferson also left with an injury. This was a brutal night for Arizona.

3. Red-zone offense. The Cardinals wanted to focus on this area after settling for four field goals and a 12-7 victory in their most recent preseason game. They scored one touchdown in two red-zone possessions against San Diego. Housler dropped an accurate pass from Carson Palmer in the end zone, killing the first opportunity. Receiver Michael Floyd made an impressive leaping grab in the back of the end zone to score on the other red-zone possession. This was progress, in a way, but the shaky pass protection and injuries likely prevented Arizona from enjoying it.

Observation deck: Steelers-Chiefs

August, 25, 2013

The Pittsburgh Steelers easily played their best game of the preseason in a 26-20 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday night at Heinz Field, but it was hardly a Picasso.

  • The Steelers committed nine penalties for 98 yards, allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown as well as a blocked field goal and let the Chiefs go right down the field at the end of the first half and score a game-tying touchdown. Strong safety Troy Polamalu was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on Kansas City’s 72-yard drive at the end of the first half for launching himself at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. “We were penalized on drives that they scored on, and if we remain penalty-free defensively we’re a tough team to drive the ball on,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve got to be cleaner.”
  • The Steelers’ biggest scare of the evening came late in the fourth quarter when rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones stayed down after returning an interception 22 yards. (The pick was negated by a pass-interference call.) Jones, who made his presence felt at outside linebacker and on special teams against the Chiefs, sustained what Tomlin called an upper-body injury. But, as the coach pointed out, Jones trotted off the field under his own power, so the injury doesn’t appear to be serious. Jones is seriously pushing Jason Worilds for the starting job at right outside linebacker.
  • Worilds started against the Chiefs but Jones replaced him for the Chiefs’ second possession of the game. Worilds returned to the game for Kansas City’s third offensive series, but to spell left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley as Jones stayed in the game.
  • Tomlin wasn’t pleased with some of the penalties called against his team, including a chop block on running back Jonathan Dwyer, Dwyer said after the game that the Steelers' coaches told him it was a clean play. With Isaac Redman (stinger) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (knee) sidelined, Dwyer started Saturday night and rarely came off the field in the first half. He rushed for 25 yards on eight carries. Felix Jones actually led the Steelers in rushing as he gained 29 yards on eight carries despite joining the team Friday via a trade with the Eagles. The Steelers have a week to take a good look at Jones and see if he can help them, particularly with depth an issue at running back.
  • If I am Tomlin there is no way I let Ben Roethlisberger do anything but hand off in the Steelers’ final preseason game Thursday at Carolina. Roethlisberger is ready for the regular season. Against the Chiefs he completed 13 of 19 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown before giving way to Bruce Gradkowski after halftime. Roethlisberger’s best throw of the night actually came on one of his six incompletions. He showed exquisite touch on a pass down the right sideline to Emmanuel Sanders. The play would have gone for a 34-yard touchdown but the ball squirted out of Sanders’ arms after he landed in the end zone. With the final preseason game a throwaway for starters anyway, there is no use in risking anything when it comes to Roethlisberger at Carolina.
  • The same goes for Polamalu. The oft-injured safety is healthy and has been active as ever this preseason. There is no need to allow him anywhere near the field on Thursday night. Polamalu was all over the field against the Chiefs, making four tackles and recovering a fumble in two-plus quarters of work. Polamalu disrupted a fourth-and-1 run by Jamaal Charles in the first quarter after perfectly timing the snap, and the Chiefs' Pro Bowl running back was stuffed for no gain. Even on the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, Polamalu showed impressive closing speed in nearly chasing down Smith. He appeared to hit Smith above the shoulders before the latter threw a pass, and Polamalu said he understood why the play drew a flag. “Obviously if Ben was in that position I’d want them to make that same call,” Polamalu said.
  • Starting cornerback Cortez Allen missed an open-field tackle on the second play of the game and was later penalized for a late hit out of bounds. (Another penalty against him, for illegal contact, was declined.) He still played a terrific game, especially since Allen has practiced sparingly this preseason after having knee surgery at the beginning of August. The Chiefs threw at Allen early and often, and the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder more than stood his ground. Allen led the Steelers with six tackles and was also credited with one pass defended. Barring a setback with his knee Allen looks ready to build on the season he had in 2012, when he showed immense promise after injuries thrust the Citadel product into the starting lineup.
  • A handful of cornerbacks are vying for roster spots and at least one of them didn’t help himself against the Chiefs. Journeyman Josh Victorian missed an open-field tackle that allowed Knile Davis to return a kickoff 109 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. A pass-interference call against Victorian in the fourth quarter wiped out the interception by Jones. Victorian played well enough last season when injuries decimated the Steelers’ secondary, but missing a tackle he was in position to make on special teams isn’t something that Tomlin easily forgets. “Obviously we can’t give up kickoff returns for touchdowns,” Tomlin said.

Video: Titans' run defense still a concern

August, 25, 2013

The Tennessee Titans' defense played a lot better on Saturday night in a 27-16 preseason victory over visiting Atlanta. But Paul Kuharsky says run defense remains a concern.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With a chance to claim the starting job, rookie QB Geno Smith suffered a three-interception implosion in the New York Jets' 24-21 overtime win over the Giants on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium. The Jets were dreadful, committing five turnovers. A bad night turned worse when Sanchez hurt his right shoulder in the fourth quarter on a vicious hit by defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Sanchez shouldn't have been in the game. No one can mess up the quarterback position better than the Jets.

What it means: The Jets, especially upper management, wanted Smith to seize his opportunity, but they have no choice but to name Sanchez the opening-day starter -- if he's healthy. It would be a setback for GM John Idzik, who drafted Smith in the second round with the hope that he'd unseat the turnover-prone Sanchez. It may happen eventually, but not now. Unless ...

Uh, oh, Geno: Smith, in his first extended action, threw three interceptions in a span of 12 attempts. In each case, he made a different mistake. The first interception (Prince Amukamara) was an inaccurate pass; he threw behind Ryan Spadola on a crossing route. The second interception (Stevie Brown) was a poor decision, an under-pressure overthrow to Kellen Winslow. The third interception (Justin Tuck) was a bad read. Smith failed to read a zone blitz by Tuck, who dropped into coverage on Jeff Cumberland. Smith never saw him and forced the ball to his tight end. His night ended with a terrible mental mistake, as he took a safety by stepping out of the back of the end zone while trying to avoid pressure.

Smith (16-for-30, 199 yards) showed his lack of experience at every turn, but this was to be expected. After all, he entered the game having played only 14 snaps in the preseason. The Jets forced the issue, hoping to anoint Smith, but the strategy backfired. Instead of using the third preseason game to build chemistry with the starting unit, still learning Marty Mornhinweg's offense, they wasted prime reps on a quarterback not ready for the bright lights.

Rookie game plan: The coaching staff gave Smith every opportunity to succeed, drawing up a relatively conservative game plan. He threw mostly underneath, including a few screen passes. The plan was for him to throw quickly, but that backfired on the first series, when two balls were deflected at the line of scrimmage. Smith regrouped, leading an eight-play, 86-yard touchdown drive. He was 4-for-5 for 41 yards on the drive, including a 22-yard scoring pass to Ben Obomanu. Smith played better in the second half when given a chance to throw off play-action. He led a 57-yard touchdown drive, but it came against the Giants' backups.

Classic Sanchez: He replaced Smith in the fourth quarter and -- shocker! -- fumbled a shotgun snap. He was booed by the crowd. After the injury, Sanchez was replaced by Matt Simms, who rallied the Jets to a touchdown with two minutes left.

Sanchez fans?: Smith didn't get much help from his receivers. He was victimized by three drops -- Bilal Powell, Jeremy Kerley and Obomanu. Hill contributed to the ugliness with a fumble, which came shortly after an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Hill needs to mature, quickly. The drop-fest was reminiscent of minicamp, when Rex Ryan was infuriated by the number of dropped passes. The only highlight was a 32-yard grab by Stephen Hill. The good news? Santonio Holmes, activated Friday to the active roster, looks ready to return. In the pregame warmups, Holmes ran full speed, cutting hard on his surgically repaired foot as he ran routes for QB Greg McElroy.

Injury concerns: Several players left with undisclosed injuries, including CB Antonio Cromartie, DT Sheldon Richardson, LG Vladimir Ducasse and WR Clyde Gates. Cromartie may have suffered from leg cramps, which plagued him last week in practice.

Big night for big fellas: It was a nice performance for the Jets' defensive line, namely Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Richardson. They got good pressure on Eli Manning, exploiting the Giants' patchwork offensive line. This was Richardson's best game by far, as he showed his athleticism on quick penetrations. The Jets could be a line-reliant defense this season because the secondary, a strength in recent years, struggled again. CB Kyle Wilson, who started for injured rookie Dee Milliner, was called for three pass-interference penalties. S Antonio Allen took a bad angle on the first play from scrimmage, springing David Wilson for an 84-yard TD run.

What's ahead: The Jets close the preseason Thursday night against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium.

Observation deck: Rams-Broncos

August, 25, 2013

By his own admission, St. Louis Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree struggled to gain traction in his first two preseason appearances. Missed tackles, blown assignments and poor reads plagued Ogletree in those first two games, and again Saturday night in the first quarter against Denver.

But when Ogletree stripped Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman, scooped up the fumble and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown, the light seemed to go on.

Ogletree went on to breakup two passes and come up with an interception in the process of showing why Rams coach Jeff Fisher wanted him so much in the first round of April’s NFL draft.

By no means is Ogletree a finished product, and he did have those hiccups in the first quarter, but the Rams have been looking for progress and got plenty of it against the Broncos.

Other observations from the Rams' 27-26 loss:
  • Before the game, Fisher made it clear he wanted to get a look at rookie Tavon Austin returning punts. He got two glimpses and had to like what he saw. Austin had two returns for 104 yards, including an 81-yarder to set up the team’s first touchdown.
  • Austin probably should have scored on the return but ran into Ogletree and slowed down a bit. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as the Rams got to work their red-zone offense again. Quarterback Sam Bradford hit tight end Jared Cook for a 3-yard touchdown on the first play.
  • The first-team offense attempted just five running plays against a loaded run box and didn’t go anywhere with those tries. The Rams have seen loaded run boxes two weeks in a row and have generated almost no running threat to speak of. They’ll need to be better in that regard come the regular season but if the preseason is an indication, teams are going to make the Rams prove they can beat them in the pass game before they back off.
  • The Rams were the league’s leader in penalties last season, and already look to be in midseason form in that regard. They continue to struggle with pre-snap infractions and racked up 11 penalties for 74 yards against the Broncos.
  • Both teams played the first half at a breakneck pace, especially the Broncos. Denver ran 49 plays in the opening 30 minutes, picking up 290 yards. Because the Rams forced two turnovers, Denver managed just 10 points. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning attempted 34 passes.
  • Bradford had his worst outing of the preseason but still looked sharp. He finished 9-of-16 for 110 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a rating of 98.4. Bradford continues to look comfortable in his second year in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense.
  • Tackling was much improved for the Rams’ first-team defense after a series of whiffs in their two previous preseason outings. There was only one glaring missed tackle from that group. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was particularly active, posting eight tackles in unofficial press-box statistics.
  • It was a strong night for the Rams' top unit on special teams as they got Austin’s two punt returns, a blocked field goal from safety T.J. McDonald, a pair of field goals (including a 58-yarder) from Greg Zuerlein and outstanding punting from Johnny Hekker. Noticeable, universal improvement for a group that surrendered a long punt return for a touchdown in the opener against Cleveland.
  • Undrafted rookie linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong showed up again, coming up with a sack and a pair of tackles in relief work. He’s put together a strong preseason and has positioned himself to make the 53-man roster.
  • Perhaps most important, the Rams made it out of the game relatively injury-free. Tight end Cory Harkey limped off in the second half and guard Ryan Lee was shaken up, but, at least at first glance, the Rams made it out of another one without any serious injuries of note.

Observation deck: Giants-Jets

August, 25, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It sure looked as though it would be David Wilson's night when the explosive second-year back ran 84 yards for a touchdown on the New York Giants' first play from scrimmage. And there's no denying Wilson's rare ability as a runner. He can make things happen that most other running backs can't when he has his hands on the ball.


Wilson got only four more carries in the rest of the Giants' 24-21 preseason overtime loss to the New York Jets, while Andre Brown got seven. And I'm interested to see the snap-count numbers, because I believe Brown was on the field considerably more in the first half than Wilson was (neither played in the second). Of the eight third-down plays the Giants ran in the first half, Brown was the lone halfback on six of them, Wilson on one and both were in on one. Brown was also on the field (and Wilson on the sideline) for all four of the plays the Giants ran inside the Jets' 10-yard line. And in the second quarter, he got the bulk of the first-down and second-down work as well.

What's it mean? Well, I think the reason Brown was getting the third-down work Sunday night and again Saturday was because the Giants trust him more in pass protection right now than they trust Wilson. And I wonder if he started getting the early-down work for the same reason, because Eli Manning looked uncharacteristically uneasy in the first quarter behind a revamped offensive line that lost starters David Baas and David Diehl to injury in the Colts game Sunday. It's possible the Giants put Brown in because they're worried the depleted line can't protect Manning sufficiently right now, and if that concern were to linger into the regular season, Brown could end up getting first-down and second-down carries even then.

It's a real conundrum, because the Giants can't ignore what Wilson offers them as a runner, but their No. 1 priority is absolutely the protection of Manning. It's possible they do trust Wilson in pass protection more than it appears and they're giving Brown all the extra work in an effort to preserve Wilson for the season. But they weren't preserving any of their other starters in the first half Saturday night, and I know they like the way Brown has run the ball this summer. So this remains a situation worth watching closely when the regular season begins.

Anyway, here are some other things I took away from an unnecessarily late night at the Meadowlands:
  • The knee injury to starting safety Stevie Brown could be pretty serious. Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he didn't have any new information after the game, but he also said, "I feel bad for Stevie. He's been a tremendous addition to our team, and the guy has another interception and then that happens." Brown, who had eight interceptions last season and is one of the Giants' projected starting safeties this season as a result, appeared to go down without being hit while returning an interception in the first quarter. He'll surely have an MRI on Monday, and the Giants will hope the news isn't as bad as they fear.
  • Cornerback Jayron Hosley also left the game in the first quarter with an injury the team called an ankle sprain. He'll surely find his way into an MRI tube on Monday as well.
  • I'm not sure how Coughlin could watch the Jets and think he has problems, but he was sure upset about the way his offense performed in this game. Manning was 8-for-20 for 83 yards. The ground game averaged 2.5 yards per carry if you take out Wilson's first run (though, on the plus side, it was 6.0 yards per carry if you don't!). They were 3-for-18 on third downs. They allowed four sacks. They couldn't get in on four tries at the goal line. "It's very obvious that, in all three areas, we're not doing what we need to do on the offensive end," Coughlin said. "We've got work to do."
  • Jim Cordle played center in place of the injured Baas and got run over a couple of times, most notably by Sheldon Richardson on a play that resulted in a sack of Manning. Cordle said he struggled with the twists and other wrinkles the Jets front was throwing at the Giants. "Some of it was stuff I hadn't seen, but most of it was stuff we had seen and you've just got to reach a little bit faster," Cordle said. First-round pick Justin Pugh looked passable at right tackle, but there were communication issues along the line all night, as you'd expect with so much change in a short period of time.
  • Terrell Thomas got "20-plus plays," mostly as the nickel cornerback, in his first game action in two years. Thomas, who's recovering from two surgeries on the anterior cruciate ligament his right knee in the past two years, said he felt great playing again and will continue to build strength and confidence. Still no way to be sure what role, if any, he has on this season's team. The injuries to Brown and Hosley could conceivably create opportunities for him, though, if he shows he can play at a high enough level.
  • Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks wasn't on the same page with Manning all night, but he did make a one-handed circus catch along the sideline while being blatantly interfered with by Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson. And he delivered a key block on the edge to help spring Wilson on his big run. Nicks is the total package at wide receiver, and the most important thing for the Giants about him Saturday night was that he said he felt healthy.
  • Ryan Torain was the running back getting all of the carries once the second half started. The Giants like him as a pass protector as well.
  • Former Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson, who had brain surgery a year and a half ago after collapsing on the field during an Eagles training camp practice in 2011, looked impressive for the second game in a row. The defensive tackle play in general was a bright spot, and Patterson looks like a guy who deserves a spot in the rotation.
  • Finally, a word on the concept of overtime in the preseason: seriously? What a farce. In this era of supposed emphasis on player safety, the Giants and the Jets played half of an extra period to decide a winner in a game that doesn't count. Giants cornerback Laron Scott even got injured on a play in the overtime. I'd say the NFL needs to make a new rule that says preseason games can't go to overtime, but I'm astounded to learn that wasn't a rule already. It's preposterous that they'd even consider playing overtime in the preseason. Overtime is a mechanism for determining a winner in a game that ends in a tie. Preseason games do not require winners. Therefore, they do not require overtime. Pretty simple. Preseason overtime is one of the stupidest NFL things I've ever heard of. And you know, if you read me regularly, that I have a long list.

Anyway, I'll check in with you next week. Hope you enjoyed this game more than I did.

Observation deck: Colts-Browns

August, 24, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s not often that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will take a backseat, especially on a night when he once again proved he’s ready for the start of the regular season, to anybody on the roster.

Luck did his part in leading the Colts to 17 points during his seven series on the field Saturday, but he turned out to be just a footnote because of how the defense looked against the Cleveland Browns.

Yes, the Colts defense, in particular the starters, was the dominating force. That’s the same unit that finished in the bottom third of the league in all of the major statistical categories last season.

With their starting unit together for the first time in the preseason, the Colts defense held Cleveland’s starters to four first downs, 109 yards and zero points.

Those stats aren’t from a quarter of play or even a half. The Colts did it while playing into the third quarter.

“The defense was outstanding,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said after the 27-6 preseason victory.

It wasn’t only the starters who played well for the Colts. Their success continued after the first unit called it a night early in the third quarter.

The Colts finished with three sacks, two forced fumbles -- recovering one of them -- and they returned an interception for a touchdown. They had six sacks and an interception in their game against the New York Giants on Aug. 18.

“They’ve been opportunistic,” Luck said. “Interceptions, guys getting hands on balls, sacks, you name it. They’re playing their butts off.”

Here are other observations from the game:
  • Who needs the preseason? Not Luck. Luck completed eight of his first nine passes and finished 16-of-25 for 164 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Saturday brought the second-year quarterback’s three-game preseason total to 29-of-44 for 322 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Luck has taken his fair share of hits, but he’s been sacked only twice. That’s a step in the right direction for the Colts in their attempt to cut his 41 sacks from last season in half.
  • The Colts were right when they said they planned to use the fullback this season. Fullback Stanley Havili started his night off with a nice block to help spring running back Vick Ballard free for a 15-yard gain on the right side on the Colts’ first series. Havili was on the receiving end of Luck’s first touchdown pass -- from 3 yards out -- in the second quarter. The Colts have only three touchdown passes -- regular season or playoffs -- to a fullback since 2003. Havili was also responsible for Luck’s first interception of the preseason. Havili was open deep in Cleveland territory, but the ball went right through his hands and into the hands of Browns defensive back Tashaun Gipson at the Browns’ 2-yard line. Havili finished with two catches for 18 yards.
  • It was bad enough that Luck was sacked on the Colts’ opening drive. It was even worse that they lost their starting left tackle on the same play. Anthony Castonzo left the game with a right knee injury. Joe Reitz stepped in and played tackle in Castonzo’s place. Pagano said Castonzo has a mild sprain of the medial collateral ligament. He and receiver Nathan Palmer, who also injured his knee in the second half, are both scheduled to undergo MRIs on Sunday. The Colts can’t afford to be without Castonzo for an extended period of time because the offensive line is already a question mark with him in the lineup.
  • Receiver Griff Whalen was back on the field after missing the previous game with a groin injury. He came back at the right time, since rosters have to be trimmed down to 75 players by Tuesday. Whalen, the media darling during the first two weeks of training camp, made his case to be the fifth receiver -- fourth when LaVon Brazill is serving his four-game suspension at the start of the season -- by catching four passes for 57 yards from backup Matt Hasselbeck. Lack of depth at receiver has been a major concern for Colts in the preseason. Whalen helped his cause with the way he played Saturday.
  • Linebacker Caesar Rayford picked up his team-high fourth and fifth sacks of the preseason. Rayford has a unique story because he’s a 27-year-old rookie whose playing career has consisted of playing in the Canadian Football League and Arena Football League. Rayford missed out on his sixth sack of the preseason when the play was nullified by offsetting penalties.

Video: Rex Ryan -- 'I don't have to answer'

August, 24, 2013

Jets coach Rex Ryan addressed the media about when the team will decide on a starting quarterback.
A look at how the Rams fared in five key areas of Saturday night’s 27-26 loss to the Broncos.

Safety First: As expected, Rodney McLeod got the start in place of injured starter Darian Stewart, who was a pregame scratch because of a hamstring injury.

McLeod didn’t get a ton of opportunities but was solid in the chances he did get, making four tackles. He didn’t appear to have any glaring missed tackles and provided good coverage on tight end Jacob Tamme to keep the Broncos out of the end zone in the first quarter.

It’s unlikely McLeod did enough to win the starting job alongside T.J. McDonald, but he certainly didn’t do anything to take himself out of the running, either.

Saffold’s Return?: Rodger Saffold pushed to play all week as he returned to practice from a dislocated left shoulder. When Joe Barksdale, Saffold’s replacement, didn’t make the trip to Denver because of an infected cut on his hand, it became a necessity to have Saffold back in the lineup.

For the most part, Saffold held up well in his return. Making just his second start at right tackle, he had a couple of shaky moments but kept Denver pass-rusher Von Miller at bay for the most part.

Miller did beat Saffold once but quarterback Sam Bradford stepped up in the pocket and Miller missed the sack opportunity. Of more concern, Saffold earned flags for a false start and illegal formation in the second quarter.

All told, Saffold played 24 offensive snaps with the first group and seemed to have no issues with the shoulder.

Rookie Test: In some ways, it was another rough start for linebacker Alec Ogletree in the first quarter, but he more than atoned for it in the second.

Ogletree put on a show in the second quarter, providing ample evidence why the Rams coveted him in April’s NFL draft. Ogletree stripped Denver running back Ronnie Hillman, scooped up the ball and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.

The light seemed to go on from there as Ogletree dropped deep in coverage for a pass breakup he nearly intercepted and a tackle for a 3-yard loss on the ensuing drive. He followed with a similar drop that he actually hauled in for an interception on Denver’s following possession.

Safety T.J. McDonald got in on the act as well, coming up with a first-quarter blocked field goal. Ogletree had six tackles, two for loss, two passes defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and a touchdown and McDonald had three tackles and a blocked field goal.

It wasn’t a perfect night for the pair despite those gaudy statistics, but it was certainly a big step in the right direction.

Finding a finish: The Rams have had some trouble finishing drives with touchdowns instead of field goals or missed fourth-down conversion attempts.

They wasted no time getting a red zone chance Saturday night as Tavon Austin’s 81-yard punt return gave them possession at Denver’s 3. Bradford wasted no time cashing in that field position, hitting tight end Jared Cook for a touchdown on the first play.

That would do it for offensive touchdowns as the first-team offense played the entire first half. The Rams did reach the red zone again, but Bradford and receiver Austin Pettis just missed on a connection for a touchdown and settled for a field goal. They settled for a pair of field goals from kicker Greg Zuerlein.

Behind Bradford: The Rams continued their game of musical backups with Austin Davis getting the first crack to work with the second-team offense. Once again, Davis did nothing to separate himself from Kellen Clemens in the competition for the No. 2 job.

Davis played the third quarter and, as all backup signal-callers have in this preseason, came under heavy pressure most of the night. He finished 5-of-9 for 40 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a rating of 66.9.

Clemens entered with 3:37 to go and fared a little better. He finished 2-of-5 for 18 yards and threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Potter to give the Rams a chance to win on a two-point conversion.

Neither Davis nor Clemens has been able to do enough to take a lead and the decision on Bradford’s backup will have to wait for at least another week.