NFL Nation: Three and out
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Three quick hits on the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1. For the past few seasons, the offensive line has been the biggest question in Pittsburgh and that remains so this year. Statistically, the Steelers’ pass protection has ranked among the league’s worst in allowing sacks. Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding the ball too long has contributed to those numbers, but the offensive line certainly isn’t without blame. The coaching staff feels this unit will improve with another year together, but that remains to be seen. The loss of guard Darnell Stapleton (knee), who was put on injured reserve, hurts the team’s depth.
2. If the preseason is any indication, Pittsburgh’s special teams will be better. Kicker Jeff Reed and the coverage teams were solid a year ago, but the return game and punting were horrible most weeks. A healthy Daniel Sepulveda is a significant upgrade at punter, and after bringing in a host of returners via the draft and free agency, CFL import Stefan Logan proved to be the best of the lot. Logan has been electric returning kicks this preseason and should help Pittsburgh win the field-position battle.
3. The Steelers must figure who their short-yardage and goal-line tailback will be. Running backs Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore and Frank “The Tank” Summers are vying for that role. A case can be made that Pittsburgh’s best short-yardage option might be on the practice squad in Isaac Redman, who was successful in getting tough yards in the preseason. But with Redman inactive, the coaching staff must hope someone emerges.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Three quick hits on the Baltimore Ravens:
1. Although it’s just the preseason, the Ravens allowed an average of just 9.75 points in four preseason games. Not only is that a testament to the starters, but it’s also a statement of the depth the Ravens have on defense this year as backups received a lot of playing time in the preseason. Baltimore lost several key people this offseason such as linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonard and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who all went to the New York Jets. But the Ravens still look solid defensively and appear ready for their season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
2. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco looks like the real deal. He had a great preseason, completing 40 of 61 passes (65.6 percent) for 470 yards and one touchdown in limited playing time. Flacco is looking to avoid the sophomore slump, and it’s so far so good. Even without the team giving him any significant upgrades at receiver, the offense has a good chance to take the next step with Flacco continuing his upward ascension.
3. If you’re looking for a breakout player with the Ravens, look no further than defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. He’s generated a nice buzz in Baltimore for several years. But his name isn’t known nationally on a league-wide scale just yet. Ngata is big enough and strong enough to dominate the point of attack and surprisingly nimble to drop in pass coverage. Many in Baltimore believe Ngata’s fourth season could be a Pro Bowl year.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
It’s the AFC North’s turn for the ongoing "Three and out" series.
Here are some quick hits on the Cleveland Browns:
1. In terms of the preseason evaluation, the long, drawn out quarterback competition between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson is over. But as of Sunday, Browns coach Eric Mangini has yet to name a starter. The competition was very close up until recently when Quinn began to provide separation. Therefore, most observers expect Quinn to be the starter. But with Mangini, you never know as he likes to keep people guessing. He didn't play either quarterback in the preseason finale, further adding to the mystery. Cleveland opens the regular season at home Sept. 13 against the Minnesota Vikings.
2. Can the Browns compete defensively? Outside of Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers, there is not a lot of big-name talent on that side of the football. Cleveland hired new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to spark the defense. Ryan has a good resume with success in past stops such as Oakland. During the preseason the unit looks more aggressive and discipline. The AFC North had three defenses in the top 12 in 2008. There is a chance the division can repeat that feat, which means the Browns need to step up their game defensively or get left behind once again.
3. The Browns desperately need a fast start. Mangini has completely changed the culture from the previous regime of former coach Romeo Crennel and former general manager Phil Savage. There has been some early butting of heads and uncertainty this offseason. But wins and losses ultimately will determine if this team sticks together. If the Browns can win their home opener, which would be a rare feat in Cleveland, that would go a long way. But a 0-2 or 0-3 start could easily snowball into a long season for the Browns.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
Three quick hits on the Minnesota Vikings:
1. The biggest question among the Vikings’ final cuts is which -- if any -- quarterback will be released. There have been arguments made for all three of Brett Favre’s backups to go. Tarvaris Jackson probably needs a fresh start. Sage Rosenfels has been inconsistent during training camp and the preseason. John David Booty hasn’t outplayed either Jackson or Rosenfels this summer. But there are also reasons to argue that each should stay. Jackson is most familiar with the Vikings' scheme and had a good preseason. Rosenfels cost a fourth-round pick and signed a contract extension a few months ago. Booty is still very much in the development phase. But you wonder if the Vikings won’t ultimately try to sneak Booty onto the practice squad.
2. Amazingly, the Vikings are still waiting to find out if they’ll have the services of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams early this season. A federal appeals court has yet to rule on the latest twist in their legal challenge to their four-game suspensions. The court has indicated it will rule before the start of the regular season, but until then the Vikings know a suspension is still a possibility, depending upon the legal ruling. Fred Evans and Letroy Guion would be the likely starters in their absence.
3. The Vikings suddenly have the deepest group of receivers in the NFC North, so much so that their leading receiver from the past two years -- Bobby Wade -- accepted a demotion and pay cut to stay with the team. Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin figure to get most of the playing time this season, if everyone is healthy. Wade will provide insurance for three players who have been limited by injuries at various times in recent years. Youngsters Darius Reynaud and Jaymar Johnson also have playmaking ability.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Three quick hits on the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Jim Caldwell will be a steady leader. Sure, there is still some adjusting for a team led by Tony Dungy for so long. But Caldwell has a similar demeanor, and the first time this team faces a crisis and looks to him, I expect it'll like how he responds. Too much has been made of other changes on the coaching staff. Tom Moore and Howard Mudd are back in place leading the offense and offensive line, respectively, after retirements that helped with their pensions. And new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and special teams coach Ray Rychleski replaced coaches many thought Dungy had been loyal to for too long.
2. The defense is bigger and more physical. Philip Wheeler and Clint Session are more rugged as the outside backers. The interior defensive line is much bigger with Ed Johnson back and rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor in the mix. That should mean the team fares better in run defense, but all these guys can run too, so the team hasn't sacrificed its dedication to speed. Look for more variety on defense, as indications are a Cover-2 team will play more man and do more blitzing. Whatever the new wrinkles to the scheme, the mindset is more aggressive. Safety Bob Sanders many not be ready for opening day but the team has an excellent fill-in with Melvin Bullitt.
3. Marvin Harrison was hardly himself last year, and while not having him makes things different for Peyton Manning, he's got a solid stable of weapons with Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. While protection and run blocking are issues at the start, firepower shouldn't be. Addai looks primed for a rebound after a second-year slow-down and Brown is a more dynamic second option out of the backfield.
1. The defense is loaded and the transition from coordinator Jim Schwartz to Chuck Cecil should be as smooth as the two previous coordinator transitions have been under Jeff Fisher, a coach with a defensive background. They will miss tackle Albert Haynesworth's size and ability to dictate double teams, but when the Titams are healthy they will have waves of defensive linemen who can get pressure without much blitz help. The coverage will help -- three of the four starters were Pro Bowlers last season.
2. Kerry Collins has never put together solid seasons back-to-back, but here's his best chance yet. The Titans have a solid run attack featuring Chris Johnson and LenDale White. The line that paves the way for them also ensures Collins will have time, and he's quite good at throwing the ball away and living for the next play when need be. He's got additional dynamic weapons in Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook. His one issue is slow starts. The Titans need to be better on offense from the opening whistle. The additional firepower on offense should help offset any drop off on defense in the post-Haynesworth era.
3. Fisher has called this the best two-deep roster he's ever had. At some spots, the team has great depth -- like the interior offensive line with Leroy Harris, at tight end and running back with four capable players, and with the deep pool of defensive linemen. But like most teams, the Titans still have a couple of spots where injuries would hurt them badly. There is a completely different vibe if Collins is out and Vince Young is in, the secondary depth is not very good after Eric King and Chris Carr left as free agents and there is no proven third tackle if anything happens to Michael Roos or David Stewart, the Titans' underrated bookends.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
It's time to begin the NFC South portion of the Three and Out series we're running in conjunction with ESPNEWS. In this series, we take a look at three issues facing each team.
We'll start with the Carolina Panthers today and the NFC South portion of the series will continue through Friday with us touching on one team each day.
1. Perhaps the most common question that comes up about the Panthers is, how is quarterback Jake Delhomme going to recover from his disastrous performance in last year's playoff loss to Arizona. This should not even be an issue. Delhomme is a veteran and a total pro. He's shown the ability to bounce back before, and the playoff disaster wasn't entirely Delhomme's fault. With one of the league's best running games, coach John Fox never should have put Delhomme in a position where he had to go out and win a game on a rainy night in Charlotte. Besides, the Panthers showed they still are firmly behind Delhomme when they gave him a contract extension in the offseason.
2. It's natural to wonder if Julius Peppers' heart will be in it after he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get out of Carolina in the offseason. But Peppers doesn't really have any other choice than to give maximum effort. He's collecting over $1 million a game as the franchise player, and no matter how you look at it, he's playing for a new contract next year. Whether that comes in Carolina or elsewhere remains to be seen. But Peppers can drive up his value with a productive season.
3. There's a sudden surge of talk that DeAngelo Williams is one of the best running backs in the league. His production last year showed he's already there. But I think Williams will only enhance things this year. He won over the coaching staff with his play and the fact he's not a fumbler. That means a lot in Fox's eyes. Yes, Williams may be splitting carries with Jonathan Stewart, but Stewart's been banged up much of the preseason. Even if Stewart is healthy for the regular season, Williams still will get the bulk of the carries.
Three quick takes on the New York Jets:
1. Mark Sanchez can end the quarterback debate after two games. Sanchez sent Jets fans' hearts atwitter in his preseason debut last week. He trotted off the sideline in relief of Kellen Clemens, completed his first pass for 48 yards and orchestrated a 93-yard touchdown drive. Sanchez will make his first NFL start Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. If Sanchez can hold his own against the Ravens' first-string defense, then Jets coach Rex Ryan -- the former Ravens defensive coordinator who holds his old unit in high regard -- will need no more convincing on who his quarterback should be.
2. The Jets' secondary has the personnel to be sublime. All four starters in the base defense have shown they can be playmakers, and Ryan's defense unleashes them to do their thing. Left cornerback Darrelle Revis, entering only his third season, already is among the league's best pass defenders. Right cornerback Lito Sheppard doesn't have the best coverage skills, but if quarterbacks test the two-time Pro Bowler too much, he can burn them. With safety Kerry Rhodes on the prowl, opponents have to worry about him blitzing and in coverage. New safety Jim Leonhard showed last year in Baltimore he always will be around the ball.
3. The Jets will regret not landing a receiver. Jets fans have pined for every notable receiver who has been said to be available -- Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards, et al. Draft analysts were sure they'd pick up a receiver, maybe Percy Harvin. They could've had Terrell Owens. The Jets didn't get any of them, but they reportedly still are trying to find help with opening day just three weeks away. The Jets needed to upgrade their receiving corps before they let Laveranues Coles walk. In addition to Jerricho Cotchery, they hoped they could make do with Chansi Stuckey, David Clowney, Brad Smith and Wallace Wright. But the front office apparently isn't comfortable with that crew and keeps looking to swing a trade.
Next up in ESPN.com's team-by-team series, here are three quick takes on the New England Patriots:
1. Tom Brady's performances should be easing Patriot Nation's anxiety.
So a couple of his passes sailed late in Thursday night's appearance against the Cincinnati Bengals. Not to worry. Perhaps shots delivered by Bengals pass-rushers Keith Rivers and Robert Geathers made Brady a little jumpy, but those are the types of mental hurdles Brady must encounter in his recovery from left knee reconstruction. Brady needed to get walloped. As he needed to find his footwork again after surgery, he must retrain his mind to block out all the disruptions that can remind a quarterback he's vulnerable. Brady's well on his way back to regaining that fantastic pocket poise.
2. Don't count out Laurence Maroney.
The Patriots were deep at running back before they signed accomplished free agent Fred Taylor, who has rushed for 11,271 yards. That acquisition led many to believe Maroney, often injured and even more frequently criticized, was about to fade on the depth chart. But Maroney could return to his 2007 role as the featured back. As long as the Patriots boast a variety of skilled runners in their backfield, nobody will qualify as a workhorse. Maroney, however, has enough talent to become the back of choice over Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
3. Tedy Bruschi could have trouble making the team.
The sands in Bruschi's hour glass are down to their last few granules. Reports out of Foxborough seem to be subtly preparing Patriots fans that their beloved inside linebacker is nearing the end of his career. He might not make the 53-man roster unless there's an injury. Bruschi is 36 and can't contribute much on special teams. He has been working with the second-teamers lately in practice and did not start Thursday night's preseason game, stepping aside for Gary Guyton.
Three quick hits on the Miami Dolphins:
We haven't heard the last from Jason Taylor.
Many observers figured last year's uninspiring season with the Washington Redskins signaled the beginning of Taylor's decline. He missed three games because of a freaky calf injury, started only eight games and recorded a measly 3.5 sacks. He generated interest from the New England Patriots, so maybe that should have been a sign he had something left. But when he signed with the Dolphins he wasn't expected to be an every-down player. He would have to share snaps with incumbent strong-side outside linebacker Matt Roth and CFL import Cameron Wake. But Taylor has looked more like a six-time Pro Bowler than washed up. He and Joey Porter seem to be engaging each other as spiritual leaders of a defense with a chip on its shoulder. Roth's mysterious unavailability (injured? ill? contract?) has eased Taylor's return.
Sean Smith is better than even the Dolphins thought.
If the Dolphins knew the 6-foot-3 cornerback from Utah would emerge so quickly as starter material, they might not have drafted Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis with the 25th overall pick. The Dolphins' scouting department obviously had an idea Smith would be good. They selected him with their second pick of the second round. They loved his size for covering big receivers such as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens -- someday. But he might be pulling that duty sooner than projected as the right-side starter. Smith quickly surpassed Davis on the depth chart and has looked remarkable enough that the Dolphins cut veteran cornerback Eric Green, who they'd brought in as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals.
Can Ted Ginn play like a lottery pick?
I realize that the NFL doesn't have a lottery draft, but if Ginn were a $5 scratch-off ticket he'd be a $3 winner. The ninth overall selection of the 2007 draft hasn't been lousy, but he hasn't been worth the investment either. The front office -- not the one that drafted him -- hopes he will blossom into something more than he has been. He was an electrifying return man at Ohio State but hasn't been able to convince the Dolphins to let him do it for them. He's listed at 5-foot-11. He avoids contact and runs out of bounds too quickly to ever be considered physical. But he does possess stunning speed they don't have elsewhere. If their first preseason game is any indication, the Dolphins would love to feed Ginn the ball. If he doesn't produce anything substantial in his third NFL season, he will go down as one of the biggest busts in Miami history.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Three quick hits on the Washington Redskins:
1. Who will win the No. 2 receiver opposite Santana Moss?
I think second-year wide receiver Devin Thomas has the edge at this point, but Malcolm Kelly impressed both Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell with his performance against the Ravens last Thursday. Zorn has been pulling for one of his young players to win the job and it appears that Antwaan Randle El is handling that news pretty well. Thomas needs to continue to show more maturity on and off the field. He has the size and breakaway speed to be a difference-maker in '09, but he still makes some careless mistakes. Fortunately, Kelly and Thomas have an excellent mentor in Moss. He's spent a lot of time with the receivers, and he's hoping they will take some heat off him.
2. The offensive line is once again the key
Left tackle Chris Samuels appears to be all the way back from injuries that derailed his '08 season. When healthy, he's still one of the most athletic tackles in the game. Bringing in guard Derrick Dockery is a huge upgrade, but the Skins still face questions at right tackle. Stephon Heyer was having a superb camp before he got banged up. Campbell says he has a lot of faith in Heyer. As we've discussed many times, there's no way Mike Williams is prepared to make it through a season. Maybe he can get you through a game or two, but he's still more of reclamation project at this point. I think Jeremy Bridges will prove to be an important pickup. He can back up several spots along the line, and he could be a nice stopgap at right tackle if something happens to Heyer. I have no clue what Chad Rinehart's going to end up doing. He's shown some flashes in camp, but I don't see him as a future starter.
3. Can Albert Haynesworth live up to the huge expectations?
Haynesworth's going to play in the second preseason. I don't think he needs a lot of downs, but he does need to see some game action. Haynesworth's been very impressed with rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo, who will line up at defensive end in passing situations. The two have been working on some stunts together. Haynesworth said that Skins defensive coordinator Greg Blache will try to create a lot of confusion with guys moving just before the snap. I think Haynesworth can lead this defense to the next level. He'll be very disruptive, which should lead to more turnovers. I don't know if he can lead the Skins to the playoffs, but he'll cause a lot of trouble for opposing offensive coordinators.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Three quick hits on the Philadelphia Eagles:
1. Continuity on the offensive line could be an issue: Left tackle Jason Peters may be an elite player, but he struggled in his first preseason game. He's playing next to left guard Nick Cole right now, but at some point Todd Herremans (foot) will return to the starting lineup. Herremans has told reporters he'll be ready to go for the regular season. This offensive line has been in a state of flux throughout training camp. And if Shawn Andrews (back) can't get things figured out, he'll be replaced by former second-round pick Winston Justice at right tackle. Fortunately, the Eagles have decent depth along the line with players such as Cole and Max Jean-Gilles.
2. Who will be the backup quarterback once Michael Vick is fully reinstated? No matter what Andy Reid's saying right now, Vick will eventually be the No. 2 quarterback. And I think it will happen sooner than later. Vick will require some time to get into football shape, but I think his arm strength and speed are still there. Kevin Kolb will be the third-string quarterback by midseason.
3. The Eagles should be fine at middle linebacker: Losing Stewart Bradley (knee) for the season was tough news, but the late Jim Johnson did a great job of preparing some of the other linebackers. Last year's seventh-round draft choice, Joe Mays, is a high-motor player who's looked really good in coverage during camp. The Eagles also have the luxury of bringing in Omar Gaither to play in the nickel package. And the fact that Gaither has been a starter in the past gives the Eagles some comfort.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Three quick hits on the New York Giants:
1. Major competition at receiver: This hasn't gone exactly as planned -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Because of a knee injury to third-year receiver Steve Smith, other wideouts have received more reps. Rookie Hakeem Nicks also missed time with a hamstring issue, and that has really set him back. Mario Manningham has had an excellent camp, according to quarterback Eli Manning. But the biggest surprise has been Ramses Barden out of Cal Poly. Sometimes players from small schools are a little wide-eyed early. That's not the case with Barden. He could be an immediate weapon in the red zone. One member of the organization told me Barden was going to be a "star someday." And don't rule out Sinorice Moss. He provides some big-play ability and I watched him catch everything during practice.
2. What does the revamped defense look like? The rotation at defensive end with Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora is pretty scary. I think these three players will be even stronger than the Michael Strahan-Umenyiora-Tuck rotation of two years ago. The Giants need for Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard to get past injuries and start working together. I know Tom Coughlin's annoyed with all the injuries, because he complained to me about it last Wednesday.
3. Not enough people are talking about this secondary: Everyone wants to talk about the defensive line, but this team has quietly put together one of the best secondaries in the game. Corey Webster and Aaron Ross have been banged up lately, but they'll both be ready to go for the regular season. Their absence has given players such as Terrell Thomas and Stoney Woodson a chance to shine. Can Kevin Dockery hold off Thomas at the nickel corner? Well, we're about to find out. Dockery's a scrappy little player, but Thomas is smoother in his approach. I think he'll make a lot more plays than Dockery in the long term. At safety, Kenny Phillips is on the verge of having a breakout season. Everything seems to come easy for Phillips, and I think he'll end up in the Pro Bowl this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Three quick hits on the St. Louis Rams:
In the interest of continuity: The Rams have shuffled their offensive linemen too many times for quarterback Marc Bulger to count. The idea this season is to settle on five guys, build continuity and improve over the course of the season. Signing center Jason Brown from the Ravens in free agency gave the Rams badly needed stability in the middle. First-round choice Jason Smith will presumably replace Adam Goldberg at right tackle sometime soon. "There is just something about the line when they are together and working together that makes everyone look good," Bulger said.
Insurance behind Jackson: The Rams know they're in trouble if something happens to franchise running back Steven Jackson. They need all the insurance they can get from his backups. Samkon Gado and Antonio Pittman made a positive first impression in the exhibition opener. Kenneth Darby, the favorite heading into training camp, needs to show improvement after a rough performance in the opener. Gado's 77-yard touchdown run was impressive even though it came against the Jets' backups. Pittman also helped his cause. It's too early to know whether any of the Rams' backup runners can provide quality depth at the position.
Delegating responsibilities: The Rams hired coach Steve Spagnuolo based largely on his record coordinating the Giants' and Eagles' defenses. Spagnuolo suggested Saturday that he mostly stood back while defensive coordinator Ken Flajole called plays in the exhibition opener. I had assumed Spagnuolo would probably call the defense this season. "I am going to try not to step on toes," Spagnuolo told reporters. "You hire people to do their jobs and I thought they both did a good job of it." Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will obviously call the offense. Spagnuolo is ultimately responsible for how the defense performs. For him to trust defensive calls to a first-time coordinator shows great faith in Flajole.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Three quick hits on the Seattle Seahawks:
Sizing up Curry: The Seahawks have big plans for first-round choice Aaron Curry during the exhibition season. They know he'll start immediately at strongside linebacker. They will try him as a pass-rusher lining up at right defensive end. This means the Seahawks weren't exaggerating during minicamps when they expressed glee at the pass-rush potential Curry seemed to possess. They really think he can do more than dabble in that area. Expect Curry to get that opportunity when the Seahawks open their exhibition season Saturday night at San Diego.
Hasselbeck in harm's way: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck made it through what he described as an unusually arduous training camp. The back injury that sidelined him last season has not limited him all offseason. That is great news for the Seahawks, but the team still doesn't know how Hasselbeck's back will fare in a collision.
On the receiving end: Receivers Deion Branch and Nate Burleson are both coming off reconstructive knee surgeries. Branch suffered his injury in January 2008. Burleson suffered his eight months later. And yet Burleson seems to be closer to clearing the psychological hurdles associated with serious knee surgery. "You will never be back to normal once you have this type of procedure done," Branch said in June. Burleson has powered through training camp to this point, insisting he has not lost a step. For Branch, knee soreness led him to sit out three consecutive days earlier in camp.