Commentary

Rehearsal for the regular season

Week 3 of the preseason is every team's most important test

Originally Published: August 21, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The third week of preseason games is considered the dress rehearsal for the regular season.

Coaches keep their starters in the game past halftime because in Week 4 most of the starters are rested in an attempt to protect key players from injuries that would carry into the season. Also, position battles need to be resolved over the next week, and offenses and defenses have to work on their timing in Week 3.

Here are the 10 things that need to be figured out in Week 3:

1. Which rookie quarterback is ahead: Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III? Saturday's Indianapolis Colts-Washington Redskins game features the top two picks in this year's draft. The Redskins have the better team. Luck has had the better preseason. He has completed 63.4 percent of his passes and moved the ball effectively Sunday after he started to figure out some of the Steelers' zone blitzes. Luck has worked effectively from the pocket.

RG3 has run around outside the pocket but hasn't thrown many passes. In two games, he's 9-of-14 for 119 yards and has been sacked three times. Luck will be facing a decent defense, while the Colts are trying to settle into the first year of a 3-4 scheme, which may give Griffin some openings.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bush
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCan the Bears' offensive line continue to protect Jay Cutler and open holes for Michael Bush?

2. Settling on an offensive line in Chicago: The key to the Bears' season will be how well the offensive line protects Jay Cutler. The line struggled in the opener and showed some improvement in Week 2. Still, the Bears must decide whether they will use J'Marcus Webb at left tackle or Chris Williams. They also have to pick up their game for run blocking. As a team, the Bears are averaging 2.7 yards per carry, but it should be noted that Matt Forte has had only four carries.

3. Find pass-catchers for Ryan Tannehill: Now that Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has named Tannehill the starting quarterback, Tannehill needs to find out if he has enough receivers to make him successful.

General manager Jeff Ireland said the Dolphins aren't sure if they have any No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 receivers on the roster during last week's version of HBO's "Hard Knocks."

What Tannehill will find is he's in a similar situation to Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars was in last year. As a rookie, Gabbert eventually got the starting job only to find out Mike Thomas was the Jaguars' only good wide receiver. Gabbert floundered in that environment. Slot receiver Davone Bess is Tannehill's best option, but the Dolphins need to find some answers on the outside.

4. Figuring out the linebacker situation in New Orleans: Overnight, interim Saints coach Joe Vitt lost his linebacking corps: Chris Chamberlain blew out a knee and was placed on injured reserve, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton suffered a high ankle sprain, and David Hawthorne had surgery to repair a meniscus tear in a knee. Oh, and Jonathan Vilma is suspended for the season.

The Saints were so desperate for help that they traded for Seahawks linebacker Barrett Ruud, who has been fighting injuries himself. The Saints hope Lofton and Hawthorne will be ready for the opener, but the Saints have to see if they have enough talent to fill in if Lofton and Hawthorne aren't ready.

To make matters worse, Vitt, who works with the linebackers, starts his six-game suspension once the season begins.

5. T.O. or no: Terrell Owens' debut with the Seahawks didn't go well. Matt Flynn was 0-for-5 when he targeted Owens, one of which was a dropped touchdown pass. Flynn and Owens weren't on the same page on a couple of throws. Owens' body language wasn't good when the plays didn't go his way. Owens isn't battling for a starting job, he's fighting for a roster spot. Another bad game could lead to his release.

6. Seeing if youth is served well on the Packers' defense: Coordinator Dom Capers is working six rookie draft choices into his defense.

Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, a second-round pick, needs to get better against the run. Casey Hayward, Green Bay's other second-round pick, may not be ready to start at cornerback but needs to show if he's a third or fourth corner. Fourth-round pick Mike Daniels needs to show if he's good enough to be active as a member of the defensive line. The Packers' other fourth-round pick, Jerron McMillian, needs to show if he's good enough to start at safety. And 2011 sixth-round pick D.J. Smith has to see if he's able to fill in for injured Desmond Bishop at inside linebacker.

The Packers are 0-2 and are giving up 28 points a game and 12.9 yards a completion. Capers has to tighten things up against the Bengals.

7. The Broncos working out the final bugs: Peyton Manning wasn't pleased with his performance against the Seahawks last Saturday. On Sunday, he faces a 49ers defense that is one of the best in the league. Despite completing 66.7 percent of his passes, Manning has a 48.8 quarterback rating because of three interceptions.

He has made some progress throwing short, accurate passes to his right, but he needs to improve his mechanics on longer throws down the right side. Playing against a good 49ers 3-4 defense is a good preview for the season opener against the Steelers.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireMark Sanchez and the Jets offense has yet to get on track this preseason.

8. Finding an offense for the Jets: No offense needs more work than the Jets'. They haven't produced a touchdown drive in 24 possessions. The Jets have been working without their three best receivers, but quarterback Mark Sanchez is averaging only 4.71 yards an attempt, mostly throwing short passes out of three- and five-step drops.

Rex Ryan also has to decide if right tackle Wayne Hunter is a major liability. Hunter is coming off a game in which he allowed three sacks. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano must also decide if he wants to try a few Wildcat plays with backup quarterback Tim Tebow. The Jets play an improving Panthers team Sunday night.

9. Building on a "Skelton" of an offense in Arizona: Ken Whisenhunt has to find out for sure if John Skelton is a better option at quarterback than Kevin Kolb, who apparently has played himself out of a starting job.

Whisenhunt also has to see if he can replace left tackle Levi Brown, who had surgery for a torn triceps muscle and is probably out of the season. D.J. Young, an undrafted free agent who spent most of last season on the Cardinals' practice squad, gets the first crack. If that doesn't work, Whisenhunt might try veteran D'Anthony Batiste or search other teams' rosters for a solution.

10. Can Tony Romo get a fair dress rehearsal for Dallas? Tight end Jason Witten is recovering from a lacerated spleen. Miles Austin has a sore hamstring. Dez Bryant has knee tendinitis. Kevin Ogletree is probably the best third receiver option, but is he good enough? The interior of the offensive line is banged up.

Jason Garrett's biggest decision is whether it's worth risking Romo to injury or to try to work the offense with a bunch of backups. Garrett had to notice the Patriots making 27 players, including Tom Brady, inactive for Monday's game against the Eagles, a game in which Michael Vick suffered a rib injury.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer