NFL Nation: 2014 NFL Preseason Week 3 Observation Deck

Observation Deck: Washington Redskins

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18

LANDOVER, Md. -- The game received plenty of hype. The game won't receive plenty of praise. Washington and Cleveland combined for many mistakes, from penalties to drops to turnovers. It added up to a difficult game to watch. It ended up a 24-23 Redskins victory -- on a stopped two-point conversion with no time left -- and a second half with more action. The Redskins' first-team offense turned it over twice. The defense continued its impressive summer, though it must be pointed out: The Browns' offense is really bad.

Here are some other thoughts on the Redskins' second preseason game of the year:
  • The Redskins' defense hasn't been fully tested in the first two games. They've done what they should do in this circumstance and that's dominate. In their limited time against New England they fared well against the starting offensive line, but Tom Brady didn't play. Monday, the Browns just didn't show much offensively. And by much I mean nothing. Still, the Redskins' defense continues to build a little momentum, but it will be good for them to face an offense that will provide a stiffer test.
  • Turnovers were an issue last season for the Redskins and they were again Monday in the first half. And both were avoidable. Alfred Morris just took his eyes off a pitch in the first quarter and never caught the ball. On Robert Griffin's interception, he threw under duress to the outside where Joe Haden had DeSean Jackson covered. Griffin couldn't put anything on the throw. He needs to throw that one away.
  • Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo are off to good starts this summer. Kerrigan had two sacks Monday, though one was the result of a snap that caught Cleveland by surprise (quarterback Brian Hoyer was not ready to receive the ball). But Kerrigan's next sack resulted from his beating right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Orakpo had a couple good rushes as well. On Kerrigan's sack, Orakpo did the Johnny Manziel money sign.
  • Washington's quarterbacks, Griffin and Kirk Cousins in particular, both could walk away feeling good about parts of their play -- and knowing they must correct other parts. Cousins also had an interception that stemmed from an overthrow. He delivered some nice passes as well, leading two touchdown drives. Griffin had a couple good throws, including a 49-yard deep ball to Andre Roberts.
  • The Redskins did not run the ball nearly as well as they did in the preseason opener -- Morris carried 11 times for 29 yards and the Redskins failed to score on three runs from the 1-yard line in the second quarter. Just not enough push and perhaps a missed hole. But overall it wasn't the best night for the Redskins' run game -- Cleveland's 3-4 front is a good antidote to the outside zone.

The Kansas City Chiefs finished their scoring drives in the first half with field goals. The Carolina Panthers finished theirs with touchdowns. That was the deciding factor while the teams played their starters. The Panthers led 14-6 at halftime, and the reserves finished off the game in the second half for a 28-16 win over the Chiefs.

Here are some other thoughts on the Chiefs' second preseason game of the year.
  • The starting offensive line, left tackle Eric Fisher in particular, didn't play well. Fisher, who also struggled in last week's game against Cincinnati, consistently had trouble handling Carolina's Greg Hardy. Quarterback Alex Smith played the entire first half and did well, as he completed 14 of 22 passes for 127 yards. But he was under consistent pressure and took far more punishment than the Chiefs would prefer him to take in a practice game.
  • Dwayne Bowe's night was encouraging. He had five catches for 62 yards and looked nothing like he did at training camp. There, he had been dropping more than his share of passes, and coach Andy Reid said Bowe had a finger injury. A productive Bowe becomes even more important to the Chiefs if Junior Hemingway is out of their lineup for a prolonged period. Hemingway left the Carolina game in the first half with what the Chiefs called a hip injury, and he didn't return.
  • The tight ends will easily surpass the 53 catches they had for the Chiefs the past season if Anthony Fasano and Travis Kelce stay healthy. Fasano caught two passes for 29 yards in the first half, and Kelce caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from rookie Aaron Murray a week after scoring on a 69-yard pass play. Kelce's ability to make plays down the field will be valuable to a team that isn't deep at wide receiver.
  • Murray was the first of the developmental quarterbacks to enter the game. He followed his touchdown pass to Kelce with a bad interception when he tried to force a pass to Demetrius Harris.
  • The Chiefs need to use Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper as their starting cornerbacks and make Ron Parker a reserve. Parker picked up a 32-yard pass interference penalty that set up Carolina's first touchdown. Smith and Cooper started the game, but Parker rotated in the lineup with the first team. Parker had a lousy game last week -- that time as the starter.

Observation Deck: Carolina Panthers

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers for most of the first quarter of Sunday night's 28-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs looked like the team many predict will take a big fall in 2014.

And then they didn't.

With quarterback Cam Newton finally getting into a rhythm in his first preseason game since undergoing left ankle surgery in March, the Panthers went into halftime with a 14-6 lead after both teams played their first string.

Newton didn't do anything spectacular and missed rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin wide open early down the left sideline. But the ankle held up as he scrambled three times, and he completed three of his final four pass attempts for 60 yards.

Overall, it was a positive first step. Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers’ second preseason game of the year:
  • A few more thoughts on Newton, who finished 4-of-9 for 65 yards. It had to be a confidence-builder for him and the coaching staff that he spun out of trouble under a heavy rush before going down. If this was a regular-season game, he might have turned one or two into positive yards. The ankle looks good to go.
  • As much as Newton's return was anticipated, the return of running back Jonathan Stewart also spoke volumes. Stewart has been hampered by ankle injuries the past two seasons, and he entered training camp with a hamstring injury. But he looked stronger and more fluid than ever in rushing for touchdowns of 2 and 3 yards, his first time in the end zone since late in the 2012 season. His presence as an inside threat brings back visions of 2009, when he and DeAngelo Williams became known as "Double Trouble.''
  • Benjamin made two tough catches over the middle, one from Newton and one from backup Derek Anderson, to further he is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. He also made a rookie mistake, head-butting the defender late in the first half after making a spectacular catch out of bounds. That earned him a good talking to from coach Ron Rivera.
  • The defense started off slow for the second straight week, with the secondary looking shaky at best. But the Chiefs were held to two field goals, and the Panthers tightened things up in the second quarter. Cornerbacks Antoine Cason, Melvin White and Josh Norman made big plays.
  • The offensive line still has some question marks. Newton was sacked twice and Anderson once in the first half. Right tackle Nate Chandler struggled some early and was replaced by veteran Garry Williams for a series. Williams gave up a sack. Left tackle Byron Bell, however, held his own.
  • Kenjon Barner looked good on a 32-yard kickoff return, which might seal the fate of wide receiver Keahola Pilares, who did not play. Barner still is scary in pass blocking, allowing the defender to get past him almost untouched to sack Anderson.
  • Brenton Bersin's touchdown catch in the third quarter and an earlier catch in which he went low against good coverage might have solidified his spot as the fourth or fifth receiver.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's a good thing for the Levi's Stadium history books that this doesn't count.

The San Francisco 49ers would hate for all of these "firsts" to actually be documented as history at their beautiful new stadium.

The home team couldn't keep up with their impressive new digs Sunday.

The 49ers were throttled 34-0 by the Denver Broncos in the first NFL game at the new stadium, which is replacing Candlestick Park. The San Francisco stadium was the 49ers' home for 43 years. The 49ers have to hope the "real" first game at Levi's stadium -- Sept. 16 against Chicago -- is a much more joyous occasion.

The 49ers have been outscored 57-3 in two preseason games. Is there reason to be concerned? Probably not. The 49ers are playing without six defensive starters, and the offense is pretty vanilla. So yes, as usual, I don't put much stock in the preseason.

Here are some other thoughts:
  • The first-team offense -- now complete with receiver Michael Crabtree, who returned to practice Friday after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury -- played a couple of series. It moved the ball well at times but stalled out. Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed five of nine passes for 39 yards. Kaepernick looked to be in preseason form -- some nice throws, but he also had some poor throws.
  • Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert continued to look shaky. He was terrible at Baltimore, and he hasn't been very good in practice since. He was 8-of-14 for 40 yards with an interception Sunday. Most of Gabbert's completions were short passes. Still, Gabbert is expected to be the backup to Kaepernick because he is guaranteed $2 million.
  • Kicker Phil Dawson missed field-goal attempts from 55 and 44 yards in the first half. Dawson had a huge season last year. I wouldn't be surprised if he chalks up these misses to getting used to the elements at Levi's Stadium. That's what the preseason is for. I'd start to worry about Dawson if he struggles in the first couple regular-season games here.
  • Rookie cornerback Kenneth Acker continued his strong showing. He had a nice pass break-up at the goal line, and he had an interception nullified by a penalty. The sixth-round pick might have trouble finding his way on a deep 53-man roster, but if he continues to play well, he will give the 49ers a tough decision. His fellow cornerback, fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson, was beaten for a long touchdown. He has been good in camp, though.
  • Rookie receiver Bruce Ellington had a team-high four catches. It is clear the 49ers want to see a lot of this exciting fourth-round pick.

Observation Deck: Denver Broncos

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17

Sure, it’s preseason, and sure it’s like football base jumping to make too many lasting judgments on what happens in August games, but the Denver Broncos have gone toe-to-toe in back-to-back weeks with NFC powerhouses and fared like a Super Bowl hopeful should.

With starters against starters, the 2s against the 2s and the 3s against the 3s, the Broncos have defeated the Seattle Seahawks and then simply overpowered the San Francisco 49ers 34-0 on Sunday in Levi’s Stadium. The Broncos' top two quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, were a combined 22-for-27 passing for 207 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers.

Here are some other thoughts on the Broncos’ second preseason game:

  • More than the obvious efficiency Manning has shown thus far is the willingness of offensive coordinator Adam Gase to work on a few things without revealing some of the new wrinkles in the playbook. In the Broncos' two preseason games, Gase has run the starters through some power looks to go with their bread-and-butter, three-wide receiver packages. Sunday, Gase flashed some two tight-end looks, including one with Julius Thomas and running back Ronnie Hillman bracketing Manning in the backfield. The Broncos also emptied out the backfield at times and later showed a four-wide receiver set. Late in the third quarter, Gase even put No. 3 quarterback Zac Dysert in a pistol set. They have put a lot out there for defensive coordinators to study without really showing the details of what’s to come.
  • The Broncos starting offensive line has performed well against two of the league’s most physical defenses; both the Seahawks and the 49ers finished in the league’s top five last season. Manning has not been sacked in four possessions and has thrown just five incompletions. Orlando Franklin continues to settle in at left guard, and the Broncos have kept Manning clean in the pocket and carved out some room in the running game.
  • As Hillman has continued to reconstruct his role in the offense after losing the starting job and dropping far enough down the depth chart to be a gameday inactive four times in the regular season and all three playoff games, one of the big items on his to-do list was to be more decisive with the ball in his hands. Sunday, Hillman showed that one-cut quickness on a selection of inside runs. On a 6-yard reception in second quarter, Hillman caught the ball between the hashmarks and turned immediately up the field. Hillman hasn’t yet broken off the big run the Broncos keep hoping to see, but if he continues to maintain that north-south work, he’ll keep getting some carries.
  • The Broncos might have to take a look at adding a linebacker in the coming days. On Tuesday, Danny Trevathan suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia that will keep him out six to eight weeks. On Sunday, rookie Lamin Barrow suffered a lower right leg injury. With Trevathan’s injury, Barrow was already working in one of the linebacker spots in the starting nickel at times and has been Nate Irving’s backup at middle linebacker. Barrow will be evaluated more, including an MRI, on Monday.
  • Odds and ends: The play of the day might have been rookie running back Juwan Thompson catching a ball off of his shoe-tops and then barreling over a 49ers safety to take the ball to the 49ers 1-yard line. … Rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer caught a touchdown pass from Osweiler. … Cornerback Kayvon Webster (ankle) and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (thigh) were held out.

Observation Deck: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

A week after a disastrous preseason opener that created great doubt, the Houston Texans rebounded with a well-rounded effort in a 32-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrific in the Texans' 32-0 loss at Arizona on Aug. 9, but he and plenty of his teammates bounced back in a big way even as defensive lineman J.J. Watt, linebacker Brian Cushing, running back Arian Foster, receiver Andre Johnson, left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers got the night off.

Here are some other thoughts on the Texans' second preseason game of the year:
  • No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney had a remarkable sequence of back-to-back plays in the first quarter. First, he flew past guard Justin Blalock to level running back Antone Smith just a beat after Smith took a handoff from Matt Ryan. It was reminiscent of Clowney's hit for South Carolina against Michigan's Vincent Smith, though this Smith held on to the ball. On the very next play, Clowney raced past left tackle Sam Baker and quickly sacked Ryan. While Clowney's explosiveness was impressive, the plays were just as remarkable for Atlanta's nonchalance in attempting to block him. On both plays, Atlanta made weak efforts to get in his way. If opponents "block" him like that going forward, they will get skill people hurt.
  • Fitzpatrick left the game for rookie Tom Savage in the second quarter. But coach Bill O'Brien reinserted his starting quarterback with 1:32 remaining in the first half to allow him to engineer Houston's two-minute offense. Fitzpatrick led the team on a second touchdown drive, and finished 9-of-12 for 97 yards with an 8-yard touchdown pass to DeVier Posey and two scrambles for 25 more yards, compiling a 126.0 passer rating. Savage also returned for a second stint after he left the game for Case Keenum.
  • Safety D.J. Swearinger put a big hit on Julio Jones, and was compelled to stand over him afterward. The second-year safety also jumped tight end Levine Toilolo to break up a pass he nearly picked. But Swearinger's celebration with corner Josh Victorian earned them an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
  • Special teams produced several highlights: A solid kickoff return from Keshawn Martin to open the game, a punt deflected by Anthony Denham that was returned for a touchdown by Jonathan Grimes and a Matt Bryant field goal attempt blocked by Jawanza Starling. Coverage teams were sound all around. But rookie kicker Chris Boswell pushed two 33-yard extra points wide right, denting his attempt to unseat Randy Bullock. Boswell did hit a 33-yard field goal near the end of the game.
  • The Falcons' one scoring drive was strongly aided by Texans penalties. Victorian was flagged for illegal contact and two more defensive backs, Eddie Pleasant and Brandon Harris, were called for holds in addition to the unsportsmanlike conduct call against Swearinger and Victorian. In all, Houston committed 15 accepted penalties worth 117 yards and six first downs.
  • Seventh-round rookie corner Andre Hal had a 64-yard interception return of former Texans quarterback T.J. Yates for a touchdown and linebacker Max Bullough also contributed with a late pick against Yates.

Evaluating the running game was clearly the priority Saturday night for the Arizona Cardinals in a 30-28 preseason loss against the Minnesota Vikings.

Andre Ellington, who's locked in as the starter, had two carries for 5 yards and a reception for 16 yards. But Saturday wasn't about him.

It was about seeing how Jonathan Dwyer, Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes can fill in behind Ellington as a running back corps with defined roles rather than a defined ranking.

Here are some other thoughts on the Cardinals' second preseason game of the year:
  • Kicker Jay Feely knew what coach Bruce Arians wanted -- kickoffs that are deep and high. He kicked off five times and three of them -- including his first two -- were kicked into the end zone. His first two were 4 yards deep and returned for 26 and 31 yards. Feely's third kick was fielded at the goal line and returned 44 yards, while his fourth went to the 3 and was returned 15 yards. His fifth kickoff was his best, going about 8 yards deep, and was returned 25 yards.
  • The running game produced the majority of Arizona's points Saturday. Dwyer scored on a 1-yard run, bouncing outside as Hughes opened the edge with a block as fullback. Dwyer finished with 10 yards on five carries. Hughes added a touchdown on a 2-yard score in the third quarter on a dive up the middle.
  • A few Cardinals strengthened their hold on a roster spot. It'll be hard for Jaron Brown to lose the fourth receiver spot after catching two passes for 86 yards. While Darren Fells was the fourth tight end heading into the game, his 1-yard jump-ball touchdown was a flash of why the Cardinals took a risk on him last year. He used his size to out-jump Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway and his sure hands secured the pass.
  • Special teams had a rough day and it wasn't all Feely's fault. Poor coverage marred Feely's kicks, especially on the 44-yard return by Minnesota's Joe Banyard. After Banyard broke free, Feely ended up bringing him down. On one kickoff return, Brittan Golden received the kick a few yards deep in the end zone and began to return it, but at the last second he had second thoughts. It was too late, because he had already stepped out of the end zone, giving the Cards' position at their 5.
  • Saturday was Ryan Lindley's chance to make Arians consider him as the third quarterback, but the third-year signal caller didn't make a strong enough case. He was 7-for-13 for 53 yards and looked out of sync in the fourth quarter, missing a gimme touchdown pass to Fells then missing on his next two passes, to Golden and Dan Buckner.
  • The Cardinals' final touchdown came on as an odd of a play as there is. Lindley fumbled the snap and in the scrum to recover it, offensive lineman John Estes knocked the ball away. It was picked up by rookie running back Zach Bauman who scored. The play was reviewed and upheld as a backward pass that was recovered as a fumble.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Much of his work came against the Arizona Cardinals' second-team defense Saturday night, so it's wise to use some measure of restraint when talking about Matt Cassel's performance in the Minnesota Vikings' second preseason game. But it's getting harder and harder to see anyone but Cassel beginning the season as the team's starting quarterback.

Cassel connected on 12 of his 16 throws, throwing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings' 30-28 win over the Cardinals. Cassel also scrambled three times for 30 yards and threw a strike to Kyle Rudolph over the middle for 51 yards.

It was the kind of commanding, decisive performance Cassel had hoped to deliver in two quarters of work, and while Teddy Bridgewater had an impressive night of his own, it seems like a matter of time before coach Mike Zimmer declares Cassel the starter.

Here are some other thoughts on the Vikings' second preseason game of the year:
  • It seems unlikely Zimmer will be happy with the Vikings' performance on a couple of long Cardinals drives, particularly on Arizona's first of the game. The Vikings allowed the Cardinals to march 93 yards in nine plays to start the game, giving up a 51-yard pass when Xavier Rhodes missed a tackle on Jaron Brown, and conceded a touchdown on a 19-play, 80-yard drive to begin the second half. That march took 10:06 off the clock, and featured two third-down and two fourth-down conversions.
  • Bridgewater, who admitted he'd been overthinking things this week, has to be feeling much better after an impressive second half that included a last-minute touchdown drive. He went 16-of-20 for 177 yards and two touchdown, directing an 11-play scoring drive that put the Vikings ahead in the fourth quarter and throwing a perfect fade route to Rodney Smith for the game-winning touchdown. On that drive, Bridgewater evaded a sack and found Allen Reisner while rolling to his right. He also threw a corner route that Adam Thielen should have caught for a touchdown.
  • Zimmer wasn't happy with the pass rush after the team's first game, and while the Vikings only had one sack (from Anthony Barr on the final play of the first half), they got more consistent pressure than they did against the Oakland Raiders. Defensive end Everson Griffen was particularly active, lining up at both left and right end as the Vikings tried a new nickel rush package that put Barr at right end and moved Brian Robison inside.
  • After allowing six sacks last week, the Vikings' offensive line surrendered only one Saturday. Bridgewater, who fumbled last week after holding the ball too long, did a better job of getting the ball out and moving in the pocket this week, and Cassel also evaded pressure on several occasions, particularly when the Cardinals' first-team defense was in the game. But it was definitely a step in the right direction for the Vikings' offensive line.
  • Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who was hit in the left calf by a stray bullet at a Minneapolis nightclub last Saturday morning, was on the field before the game, wishing teammates good luck as he wore a sleeve on his calf. Joseph hadn't been seen with the Vikings in practice all week.
  • The Cardinals' long opening drive in the third quarter meant the Vikings had limited time to work on offense in the second half, and it also meant third-string quarterback Christian Ponder didn't see a snap. Though stranger things have certainly happened, Ponder -- who was the Vikings' unquestioned starting quarterback at this time last year -- might have seen his final action in a Vikings home game; he'd be the third-string quarterback if he's on the roster this season, and he'll be a free agent after the season.

Observation Deck: Atlanta Falcons

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

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.

Observation Deck: Indianapolis Colts

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts were without four offensive starters against the New York Giants Saturday. That didn’t matter because quarterback Andrew Luck was still on the field for the Colts.

Luck led the Colts on scoring drives on three of the four series the first unit was on the field in their 27-26 loss to the Giants. New York trailed 26-0 in the fourth quarter before coming back to win. Punter Pat McAfee missed a 64-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Colts in the final seconds.

Receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, guard Jack Mewhort and center Khaled Holmes all sat out. All Luck did was go 12-of-18 for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Here are some other thoughts on the Colts’ second preseason game:
  • Receiver Hakeem Nicks made it no secret that was he was looking forward to facing the Giants, who he spent his first five seasons with. He didn’t disappoint, even though it was only a preseason game. Nicks, who was in the role as the Colts’ lead receiver without Wayne and Hilton, caught five passes for 53 yards. Four of Nicks’ five receptions were for first downs, including two on third down. Nicks gives the Colts what they didn’t have last season -- a reliable third receiver to go with Hilton and Wayne. Not everything Nicks did was good, though. He hauled in a pass from Luck and turned it into what looked like a 36-yard gain. But right before going out of bounds along the Giants’ sideline, Nicks started waving at cornerback Trumaine McBride. Nicks was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play. Coach Chuck Pagano had a talk with Nicks the next time he went off the field.
  • Nicks wasn’t the only receiver to play well for the Colts. Rookie Donte Moncrief started opposite Nicks and had a catch for nine yards. The real battle at receiver is between Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen for the fifth and sixth spots. The Colts could end up keeping only five receivers. Both players made their case against the Giants. Whalen, lined up in the slot, caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Luck and finished with five receptions for 32 yards. Rogers, who has been outplayed by Whalen and Moncrief so far in training camp, made up for getting called for offensive pass interference by catching a 14-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the corner of the end zone.
  • The NFL wasn’t kidding when it said it was going to call illegal contact a lot closer. Colts linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, starting in place of the injured Jerrell Freeman, was called for illegal contact not once but twice in the game. The first one took away an interception by cornerback Darius Butler. The second illegal contact call on Sheppard erased a play where linebacker Bjoern Werner chased Giants running back Rashad Jennings down from behind and held him to no gain. The enforced illegal contact rule, which doesn’t allow defenders to touch the offensive player after five yards, is tough on linebackers because they like to bump tight ends off their route when they go downfield.
  • So much is rightfully talked about the expectations the Colts have on offense this season. But their defense continues to show it should be an improved unit this season. The unit is faster and pursues the ball aggressively. The Colts’ starting defense held New York’s starting offense to only 53 yards on 20 plays in four series. The Giants didn’t pick up a first down until their third series. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson got the starting unit’s only sack. There was also Butler’s interception and Greg Toler's strip of Victor Cruz that were negated because of penalties.
  • Safety Delano Howell, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, linebacker Josh McNary and defensive lineman Montori Hughes also didn’t did not play for the Colts.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' first-team offense needed less than five minutes to score two touchdowns, and one of those came on a 67-yard catch-and-run by Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Yet the story of the night at Heinz Field was the Steelers’ defense -- and specifically a prized rookie who is on his way to becoming one of the faces of a unit that is in transition.

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier starred in his NFL debut, recording six tackles, two stops on special teams and an interception.

And that was just in the first quarter of the Steelers’ 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills .

“I thought he did an awesome job,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “I’m looking forward to playing with him.”

Shazier finished with 11 tackles despite playing a little less than a half. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound speedster answered several questions about how much a bruised knee that cost him two weeks of training camp set back the first-round pick.

The short answer: It didn’t.

Shazier was all over the field, and his interception of an EJ Manuel pass in the second quarter set up the second of Ben Roethlisberger’s two touchdown passes.

Roethlisberger played into the second quarter and looked sharp, completing 8 of 11 passes for 128 yards. The Steelers won their first preseason game since 2012 despite squandering an early 10-point lead.

Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ second preseason game:

  • The starting offense line didn’t punch many holes in one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, as the Steelers rushed for just 10 yards in the first half. It did keep Roethlisberger clean and gave the 11-year veteran enough time to stand in the pocket and deliver a 16-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton for the Steelers’ second score.
  • The starting defense, which played more than a quarter and was missing only outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (groin), didn’t allow a touchdown. But it’s hard to tell how much of a test it received. Ballyhooed wide receiver Sammy Watkins left the game early with a rib injury and did not return. Manuel, meanwhile, is nothing more than a dink-and-dunk quarterback. The Bills have 6-10 written all over them unless Manuel makes dramatic improvement in his second season.
  • Mike Mitchell might want to tone it down a little bit. The Steelers’ free safety drew a taunting penalty after jawing at Bills running back C.J. Spiller following a stop that he wasn’t even in on. Yo, Mike, you’re still the new guy in town. Better to be seen than heard for now.
  • Landry Jones, the second quarterback in for the Steelers, is lucky he didn’t get yanked after throwing an interception and later losing a fumble that the Bills turned into a game-tying touchdown. Jones took a step back; 40 of his 53 passing yards came on a catch-and-run by Dri Archer, and he was sacked twice.
  • A pair of undrafted rookies, defensive end Josh Mauro and outside linebacker Howard Jones, played with the second-team defense. Mauro appears to have moved past Brian Arnfelt, who played in a couple of games at the end of last season after spending most of 2013 on the Steelers’ practice squad. Mauro notched a sack in the fourth quarter after Jones helped flush Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel out of the pocket. Jones also recovered the fumble that set up Shaun Suisham's game-winning field goal.

Observation Deck: Buffalo Bills

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

PITTSBURGH -- The Buffalo Bills' 19-16 preseason loss Saturday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers was overshadowed by an injury to Sammy Watkins, the Bills' prized acquisition from May's draft.

Watkins was hit in the ribs on a third-down pass early in the first quarter and quickly grabbed at the area in pain. He was taken to the locker room for evaluation and did not return.

Here are some other thoughts on the Bills' preseason loss:
  • Quarterback EJ Manuel and the Bills' first-team offense played the entire first half, although that wasn't the plan entering the game. The Bills failed to get into the end zone on their first three trips into Steelers territory, so Doug Marrone wanted his offense to try a fourth time. It failed, as the Bills reached the Steelers' 3-yard line before two consecutive incompletions led to a turnover on downs. The Bills' red zone offense struggled last season and it's a problem that hasn't gone away. Manuel has yet to throw a touchdown pass this preseason.
  • As for Manuel's overall performance, there were ups and downs. His best throw of the night came on a 16-yard completion to Robert Woods that moved the chains in the second quarter. Overall, the Bills' first-team offense was 5-for-9 on third downs, which was a brighter spot. However, Manuel's night was marred by an interception by Ryan Shazier on a pass that was thrown slightly behind tight end Scott Chandler. Manuel's final stat line was 17-for-27 for 148 yards. There was not marked improvement over his outing on Aug. 8.
  • Watkins and Mike Williams received the start at receiver, with Chris Hogan entering on the first drive as a slot receiver. When Watkins was injured, he was replaced by Woods, who finished the first half with three catches for 49 yards. The Bills' leading receiver? Running back Fred Jackson, who caught seven passes for 28 yards. It was more of a dink-and-dunk night from Manuel, especially without Watkins.
  • The Steelers' offense got off to a quick start when Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 76-yard catch-and-run on the Steelers' second play from scrimmage. On the play, safety Duke Williams collided with cornerback Corey Graham, allowing Brown to run free over the middle. Williams received the start in place of Aaron Williams, who came on with the second-team defense in the third quarter. Marrone previously said not to read into Aaron Williams' playing time as an indication of his performance in the preseason.

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.

Observation Deck: Miami Dolphins

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

The Miami Dolphins knew they were in for a tough test offensively Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Miami's first-team offense was nearly perfect in one touchdown drive against the mediocre Atlanta Flacons’ defense last week. But Tampa Bay has defensive talent at a lot of positions, and the Dolphins’ offense would be on the field longer.

The result was a mixed bag for Miami's starting offense during a 20-14 win over Tampa Bay. The first-team offense produced three points in three drives. The other two resulted in a punt and a lost fumble by starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The good news is Tannehill threw the football well. He was 9-of-14 passing for 110 yards.

Tampa Bay’s defense was able to expose some things needed to improve in Miami's new offense under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Here are some other thoughts on the Dolphins' second preseason game:
  • Dolphins starting right guard Dallas Thomas struggled mightily. Thomas had the tough task of Tampa Bay Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Thomas gave up a sack and fumble to McCoy in the first half, another hit on Tannehill and a tackle for loss. Thomas also had a false start in the second quarter when McCoy was not in the game. Questions will certainly arise whether Thomas can handle the starting job for 16 games. Miami has other options to explore if Thomas continues to struggle. Rookie third-round pick Billy Turner and veteran free-agent signing Shelley Smith could get another look next week in practice.
  • Miami’s running game also remains a cause for concern. Starting running back Lamar Miller rushed for just 3 yards on three carries. He had just 11 yards on four carries last week against Atlanta. Miami is getting little push from its offensive line in the running game. In the first half when starters and key backups played, the Dolphins rushed for minus-5 yards on nine carries.
  • It is only the preseason, but Dolphins starting cornerback Brent Grimes produced one of the best plays of the exhibition season. Tampa Bay rookie receiver Mike Evans made a strong catch over the middle and broke through a tackle attempt by Miami safety Jimmy Wilson. Evans appeared on his way to a touchdown, but Grimes hustled from the opposite sideline to force a fumble before Evans reached the end zone. After review, the Dolphins were awarded the football via a touchback. For a Pro Bowl cornerback to hustle that much in a preseason game says a lot about Grimes.
  • The Dolphins showed off their depth at receiver. Backups Brandon Gibson, Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews and Damian Williams all made their presence felt against Tampa Bay. This foursome combined for nine receptions and one touchdown catch. Miami might want to consider trading one of its lower-level receivers in order to gain depth at another position.
  • Miami backup quarterback Matt Moore virtually locked up the No. 2 quarterback job Saturday night. Moore was 13-of-19 passing for 158 yards and a touchdown. He threw a nice touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone to Matthews before halftime. The Dolphins signed veteran quarterback Brady Quinn this week to push Moore. Quinn was the third quarterback Saturday and was 4-of-4 passing for 22 yards.

The Baltimore Ravens scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in a sloppy 37-30 preseason win at the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night.

The Ravens held a 14-7 lead in the first quarter before quarterback Joe Flacco even touched the ball. Touchdowns by outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (26-yard fumble return) and kickoff returner Deonte Thompson (108-yard return) staked the Ravens to an early advantage.

After shaking off a slow start (1 of 5 for four yards), Flacco finished strong by completing eight of his final 10 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown as the Ravens improved their record to 2-0. His 19-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith put the Ravens ahead 24-10.

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' second preseason game.
  • Injuries continue to give the Ravens reason to worry. Cornerback Jimmy Smith (chest)) and running back Ray Rice (shoulder) both left in the first half and didn't return. X-rays to both players were negative. Without Smith, Lardarius Webb (back) and Asa Jackson (ankle) at cornerback, the Ravens went with Chykie Brown and Dominque Franks (who was beaten by Dez Bryant on a touchdown) on their first-team defense. That's not reason to worry. That's reason to panic.
  • This was the worst tackling effort from the Ravens in recent memory, especially in the defensive backfield. The first-team defense once again struggled to contain the outside runs and failed to get consistent pressure on the quarterback beyond Pernell McPhee. The Ravens believe they can be a top-five defense. In two preseason games, they don't look like a top-20 one. The defense did get two turnovers: a fumble recovery by Upshaw (on a gift from Tony Romo) and an interception by Brynden Trawick.
  • Deonte Thompson made his strongest statement of the summer to make the team. He's been awful in training camp, and he's the unofficial leader in dropped passes. But he showed off his speed in Dallas, returning kickoffs for 108 and 50 yards. If Thompson doesn't make the Ravens' final roster, another team will look at him for his return ability.
  • The Ravens once again put together a powerful and explosive running game. Bernard Pierce, who started in place of Rice (who is suspended for the first two games), averaged 7.8 yards per carry. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro gained 58 yards on tough running in between the tackles and scored a 3-yard touchdown. The biggest concern is holding onto the ball. The Ravens' running backs fumbled twice for a second straight game. In total, three backs (Pierce, Taliaferro and Justin Forsett twice) have coughed up the ball this preseason.
  • Tyrod Taylor is a great athlete but continues to be a below-average backup quarterback. He finished 6 of 8 for 59 yards, but he missed two big plays. Taylor threw a laser pass high to a wide-open Kamar Aiken in the end zone instead of making an easy lob to him. He also ran out of the pocket when he had tight end Nathan Overbay open downfield. Third-string quarterback Keith Wenning had a rough start, fumbling and getting sacked on his first two drop backs. He completed 2 of 4 passes for 23 yards.


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