- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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NFL officials are making their point. The emphasis on cutting down contact by pass defenders after 5 yards is bringing plenty of preseason penalty flags.
In the first 17 preseason games, there were 53 defensive holdings, 27 illegal contacts and 15 pass interference calls. That's almost six pass-defense penalties a game. The plan is for officials to use the preseason to call these penalties often enough to force defenders to make adjustments.
Naturally, the first week of the preseason isn't conducive to drawing conclusions about the calls' impact on scoring and offense. Starters go maybe a series or two, leaving backups in for more than three quarters. Scoring was at 37.8 points a game, compared to 48 a game last season. Those numbers should pick up slightly next week and will increase more when starters play most of the game in two weeks.
Here are five observations from the first full week of preseason games:
1. The Johnny Football hype is officially underway: Johnny Manziel labeled his debut a good start, but is he good enough to start in the regular season? Some excited people in the Browns' organization apparently think so. He thrilled the crowd with his six runs. He was efficient with his short passing game, completing seven of 11 passes for 63 yards. Basically, he's running the same type of offense Robert Griffin III ran for new Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when they were together with the Washington Redskins. Here are my concerns: Most of Manziel's 25 plays were from the pistol formation. While he is quick enough with his runs to extend possessions and get first downs, I wonder if he can generate enough big pass plays and score points. His longest completion was for 15 yards. He generated only a field goal of scoring, and that was on a drive that started on the Detroit 49-yard line. What became clear is that Manziel will be starting sooner rather than later.
2. Other rookie quarterbacks: The best-looking rookie quarterback was the one who is expected to sit for his rookie season. Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars had the same throwing numbers as Manziel -- 7-for-11 -- but he got the ball downfield better, gaining 117 yards in the air. The Jags have yet to make any philosophical changes. Chad Henne is expected to start while Bortles sits and learns. Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings looked like a rookie with his 6-for-13 performance against the Oakland Raiders. He netted only 33 passing yards, thanks in part to two sacks for 16 yards. Matt Cassel moved the ball smoothly with only one incompletion, solidifying his lead for the Vikings' starting quarterback job. Oakland's Derek Carr didn't successfully get the ball downfield in his debut. Even though Matt Schaub also struggled, he appears to be a lock to start for the Raiders.
3. The good: Picking up Bill Lazor's offense, Ryan Tannehill looked great completing all six of his passes in a 10-play touchdown drive for the Miami Dolphins. ... The 73-yard run by New York Giants halfback Rashad Jennings offers plenty of hope for a running attack that lost former first-round choice David Wilson. ... Carson Palmer was very efficient for the Arizona Cardinals, while rookie wide receiver John Brown continues to look like one of the steals of the draft. He caught five passes for 87 yards while showing great downfield speed. ... Going 7-for-7 in his brief outing, Matt Ryan looks as though he's set to revive the Atlanta Falcons' offense.
4. The bad: The San Francisco 49ers have to be concerned about their defensive line. They were down to only four healthy linemen after two suffered minor injuries in a 23-3 loss to Baltimore. Fortunately, some of their recent draft choices along the line showed some promise. ... Blaine Gabbert looked really bad as a potential backup quarterback for the 49ers. He completed three of 11 passes for 20 yards and was sacked once. ... It was a bad weekend for ACL and Achilles tendon tears. New York Jets cornerback Dexter McDougle became the fifth player since last Wednesday to blow out an ACL when he did it in Sunday's practice. Since the start of camp, nine players have torn ACLs. If you add the four from the OTAs and minicamp, the count is 13. There have been 10 torn Achilles tendons, seven since the opening of training camps.
5. The ugly: The Dallas Cowboys' pass defense could actually be worse than last year. The San Diego Chargers completed 14 of 16 passes for 243 yards, a ridiculous 15.2 yards per attempt. The first incompletion for the Chargers was two plays into the fourth quarter. ... Guard play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was so bad that they might be considering a trade to acquire 49ers holdout Alex Boone. ... As an innocent bystander at a Minneapolis bar, Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph was shot in the calf. Though the injury isn't considered serious, Joseph will miss practice time. He should be ready for the regular season. ... Facing some of the best quarterbacks in football in the first half of the season, the New York Jets' secondary is in for big trouble. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson didn't look great against the Colts, McDougle is done for the season and Dee Milliner suffered a minor leg injury Sunday in practice.
From the inbox
Q: We've seen teams with a great defense run amok in the playoffs. Bears. Bucs. Steelers. Let's ask about the flip side. At this point, the Cowboys' D appears poised on the brink of woefulness, but being optimists, fans still envision playoffs. Historically, what playoff team has fielded the worst defense? Just how bad was that D? And how far did that particular team advance?
Alan in Lubbock, Texas
A: One of the great stats from 1983 to 2005 is that the Super Bowl winner each year was a team that had a top 10 scoring defense. That changed in 2006 when the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl. Since then, defenses haven't had to be as fearsome. That Colts team ranked No. 23 for scoring and No. 21 in yards allowed. The 2011 champion Giants' defense ranked No. 25 for points allowed and No. 27 for yards. The 2009 champion New Orleans Saints were No. 20 and No. 25 in those categories. You get the idea. The Seattle Seahawks reminded everyone the value of defense. And what happened? The NFL put a point of emphasis on limiting contact by defensive backs. Teams with great defenses have decent chances of winning a Super Bowl, but a great quarterback can do it with a substandard defense.
Q: How does the NFL determine bye weeks? Having byes in Week 4 (or 5 or 6, for that matter) puts teams at a huge disadvantage. Why doesn't the league use the middle four weeks, 7-10 or 8-11, and put two divisions, one from each conference on byes each week. Rotate it through, so say the AFC North and NFC North are on byes in Week 8 in 2014 and then are on byes in Week 9 in 2015. Most teams would benefit from a midseason break. Getting all teams healthy again in the midseason would help for better late-season games, especially with division games and playoff pushes at season's end.
Rick in Boise, Idaho
A: If you do that, you deplete the Sunday afternoon schedule too much. CBS and Fox would suffer a ratings dip if you took eight teams and four games out of the inventory. In the weeks in which six teams have bye weeks, you have some weak Sunday schedules. There are 16 games a week, and three are taken away by night games. If you take away eight teams, you leave Fox and CBS with only nine games to put over two time slots -- 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. ET. The networks didn't each pay more than $1 billion a year for that.
Q: I know that the Ray Rice controversy has been discussed from seemingly every angle, but all that most of us can do is complain about things outside of our control. It may seem a trivial or insignificant response, but the owners in my fantasy football league have all agreed that Ray Rice will be effectively suspended from our league this year. We all understand that this accomplishes next to nothing in the real world and still isn't the appropriate punishment that this situation warrants, but at the very least we can all unite and show our mutual disdain and lessened respect toward both Rice and the reaction from the NFL. Imagine the statement it would make if thousands of fantasy leagues and owners all decided that Ray Rice is not welcome on their rosters this year. At least we'd all be standing together for something.
Jacob in Southington, Connecticut
A: That would be an interesting statement, but I don't know what it accomplishes. To mix political correctness with fantasy football would seem to be too much. This is fantasy football. Enjoy. Don't worry about making statements. Find the best players to fit your teams and try to win your league. I have no problem with everyone criticizing the NFL for giving Rice only a two-game suspension. Let's not extend the protest too far.
Lucas in Las Vegas
A: That answer is pretty simple. Lattimore hasn't shown that he is over the knee injury. He's not practicing and when he was working in the OTAs, he seemed to be tentative. Hyde outperformed him. The 49ers were at least five-deep for quality running backs. They have to be cautious, and they shouldn't play Gore in the preseason. Hunter is gone, LaMichael James is out a month and Lattimore is a question mark. They need Hyde to be the backup until Lattimore gets better.
Q: The problem with the Ray Rice suspension isn't the duration, it is that (a) there is no language in the CBA about this type of crime, and (b) Roger Goodell passed on a prime opportunity to show that the NFLPA is willing to defend a player who acts in this manner. I read somewhere that Goodell chose two games because the NFLPA would appeal anything longer. Let them appeal an eight-game ban! That way the NFL shows that this type of behavior is unacceptable and Goodell has everyone behind him to get the CBA changed.
Demitri in Seattle
A: I don't think the commissioner was afraid of the NFLPA. Plus, you can't specify every crime or offense in a CBA. This was a hard deal between the NFL and the players when they put it together during the summer of 2011. Both sides can't get the HGH program going. They aren't in agreement on a lot of things. With a commissioner making the judgments on penalties, there are always going to be differences of opinion. The only way to fix it is work out an agreement with the union. Unfortunately, that won't happen soon.
Q: Could you please explain to me why former Seahawks [and now Browns] offensive lineman Michael Bowie had to be placed on waivers when he was considered lost for the season due to injury as opposed to other players with season-ending injuries simply being placed on IR? And what is the rationale for that rule?
Tom in West Richland, Washington
A: There are two reasons. First, he was 20 pounds overweight. Second, he has a shoulder injury that the team believes is going to need a surgery that could sideline him a couple of months. After Bowie played more than 50 percent of the snaps last year, he must have disappointed management. With those two things going against him, the team decided to move on, which surprised everyone.
John Clayton's mailbag: The officials' emphasis on pass-defense penalties was clear during the first wave of preseason games.