1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.
2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?
3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.
4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.
5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.
6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.
7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.
8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.
9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.
10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.
Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he focuses on topics that emerged from Week 3 of preseason.
1. The gap has widened in the AFC North.
The Steelers have had issues with their offensive line for years but they created hope this offseason by drafting Stanford OG David DeCastro and Ohio State OT Mike Adams. But Adams proved in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game that he isn’t ready to start and DeCastro dislocated his right kneecap, tore his MCL, and suffered damage to his patellar tendon in Saturday night’s game against the Bills. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hasn’t ruled out the possibility that DeCastro could play this year, but it doesn’t look good for the Steelers’ first-round pick. Finding a suitable replacement for running back Rashard Mendenhall continues to be an issue and Mike Wallace remains a holdout. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offensive line, which was a question mark heading into training camp, has started to gel. Joe Flacco also looks comfortable running Baltimore’s no-huddle offense and receiver Torrey Smith is on the verge of a breakout season. The Steelers are going to complete – that’s just what they do. But the gap between them and the Ravens has widened the past three weeks.
2. Bradford is quietly becoming one of the more polarizing players in the NFL.
His defenders point to the fact that he’s now learning his third offense in three years, has never played behind a sturdy offensive line and doesn’t have a bona fide No. 1 to throw to. His critics say that he needs to be less skittish in the pocket, needs to do a better job of going through his reads and needs to throw more downfield. He is Sam Bradford. Which side is correct? As of right now both sides are. In the Rams’ second preseason game last Saturday, Bradford stood tall in the pocket, went through his progressions and delivered the ball downfield when given an opportunity. But on Saturday night in Dallas he reverted back to the quarterback that his critics have grown tired of. At this point it’s not fair to call Bradford a bust when his offensive line continues to get him killed in the pocket. But at some point he needs to raise the level of his play. It’s not fair to compare him to Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, two quarterbacks with three Super Bowl rings between them. But Rodgers and Roethlisberger have both delivered behind suspect offensive lines. It’s true that both QBs have had better weapons around them but the point is that Bradford needs to elevate his teammates. He succeeded as a rookie because Pat Shurmur built an offense that focused on short to intermediate routes that allowed Bradford to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Last season Josh McDaniels nearly got Bradford killed because he continued to call five and seven-step drops even though his receivers couldn’t get open and his offensive line couldn’t protect. This season the focus is back on Steven Jackson and the ground attack, as well as the short passing game. So can Bradford make significant strides in his development or will he give his detractors more fuel? The jury is still out.
3. Luck continues to impress.
Back in April the media fawned over how the Colts drafted two tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen for No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. “Tight end is a young quarterback’s friend,” is what everyone said, which is true. But what’s interesting is that Luck hasn’t even used his tight ends in preseason. Fleener does have four catches for 38 yards but both he and Allen were shut out on Saturday against the Redskins. Even in the face of poor pass protection and having to learn the nuances of the pro game Luck hasn’t been afraid to throw to his receivers. (Donnie Avery finished with six receptions for 38 yards after being targeted seven times on Saturday while Reggie Wayne caught six of his seven targets for 41 yards.) The Colts don’t have enough pieces to be a threat this season but thanks to Luck they will be more competitive. He continues to stand tall in the pocket, step into all of his throws, and display accuracy and touch on his passes. Expectations should be tempered but the Colts have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen thus far.
4. Concerns continue to grow in Chicago.
The problem with the Tampa 2 defense is that if the front four can’t generate pressure then there’s a lot of holes that opposing quarterbacks can exploit. Fortunately for the Bears they’ve had a player in Brian Urlacher who has manned the all-important MIKE linebacker position for the past decade and they’ve been able to drum up consistent pressure under Smith. But Urlacher’s health will likely be a concern all season and the team just placed free safety Brandon Hardin on injured reserve with a neck injury. With Chris Conte (shoulder) questionable for Week 1, Chicago could have a growing issue in the middle of their defense. It’s imperative that pass rusher Julius Peppers not regress because if he does, opposing quarterbacks will have a field day picking on Nick Roach (Urlacher’s backup) and the safeties.
5. The Lions are seemingly walking a thin line when it comes to health.
Detroit fans should be excited about the possibility that the Lions will make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the mid-90s. But their players continue to drop like flies this offseason. Matthew Stafford (hand), Kevin Smith (ankle), Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (shoulder) were all injured in the team’s third preseason game on Saturday. Louis Delmas, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best were already dealing with injuries or have just recovered from injuries that occurred before last night’s game. Thus, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Lions will be able to stay healthy enough all season in order to compete with the Packers and Bears in the division. Remember, Detroit would have likely missed the playoffs last season had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not been injured down the stretch. Thanks to Stafford, Calvin Johnson and that outstanding vertical passing game, the Lions remain a threat in the NFC. But this wasn’t a team that steamrolled into the playoffs last year. Questions remain on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary, and the offense is without a reliable running game at the moment. Outside of the 2010 Green Bay Packers (who were the sixth seed that year, don’t forget), teams that are usually riddled with injuries early in the year don’t have what it takes to make a deep run. It’ll be interesting to see if Detroit can get guys healthy and avoid future scares.
6. Can the Titans establish an identity?
The Texans are the class of the AFC South and they might even be the class of the entire conference, with apologies to the Patriots and Ravens. But the Titans have enough talent to make things interesting in the division if Jake Locker can improve on his accuracy. I like that Tennessee has installed Run ‘N Shoot elements in the offense and thanks to Locker’s arm strength, this team will strike for big plays throughout the year. Chris Johnson should also have a bounce back campaign if the offensive line can do a better job run-blocking and the defense is decent despite the losses of Cortland Finnegan and James Jones. But who are the Titans? Locker has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, but Britt is always in trouble or hurt and Wright is still a rookie. So are they a run-first team? The defense doesn’t have a huge weakness but it also doesn’t have a reliable strength either. What is the identity on defense? I could see Tennessee winning eight or nine games this season but at some point they’re going to need to figure out who they are under Munchak or they’ll remain the definition of blasé and questions will pop up throughout the year.
7. The Cardinals should kick the tires on Hasselbeck.
Since John Skelton couldn’t create any separation between himself and Kevin Kolb in the team’s fourth preseason game, it looks like Kolb is going to win Arizona’s starting quarterback job based on his inflated salary. It’s fair to point out that the Cardinals’ offensive line has been a disaster for the past three weeks and that has played into Kolb’s shaky preseason performance. But let’s not make excuses for him: He’s been brutal. Not that Tennessee has any interest in trading its most valuable backup, but if I’m Arizona I’m at least picking up the phone and seeing what the Titans would want for Matt Hasselbeck. No quarterback is going to succeed behind that offensive line but at least Hasselbeck is a savvy veteran that can get the ball out of his hands quickly and be a ball distributor. That’s all the Cardinals really need because they have enough specialty players. I’m sure Hasselbeck will remain in Tennessee but if the Cardinals are interested in a veteran QB (and why wouldn’t they be?), then the former Seahawk would be an interesting fit.
8. The rich have gotten richer.
Three weeks ago it looked like Cedric Benson wasn’t going to play in 2012 because nobody wanted anything to do with him. But then James Starks struggled in camp and preseason, and Alex Green was slow to recover from ACL surgery. Thus, Benson winds up in Green Bay…and he looks good. Against the Bengals on Thursday night, the guy ran like he was angry at the ground. He was quick, he was spry, he was incredibly motivated. He doesn’t need to be Adrian Peterson or Maurice Jones-Drew in that Green Bay offense. The Cedric Benson that rushed for 1,000 yards last year will do. Because of the Packers’ up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Benson will face plenty of soft defensive fronts so as long as he’s consistent from week to week, he’s going to make a larger impact for Green Bay than people think.
9. The Bucs are still a year away.
Thanks in large part to Josh Freeman and an opportunistic defense, Tampa Bay surprised in 2010. Even though Freeman and Co. fell off a cliff last season, optimism began to grow for the Bucs when they hired former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano to replace Raheem Morris. (The front office finally opened their checkbook this offseason too, signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks.) But the defensive front seven remains a weakness and Freeman doesn’t look comfortable in Mike Sullivan’s offense yet. Through three preseason games he’s completed just 52.9-percent of his passes and has relied mostly on checkdowns. There’s no question the Bucs will be more competitive this year than last, because they’ll rely on Schiano’s power run game to eat up the clock and keep games close. But losing OG Davin Joseph to a season-ending injury doesn’t help and the Saints and Falcons simply have more overall depth and talent in the division.
10. The Davis trade is good for both sides.
Earlier this week Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that a trade was coming and as it turns out, he was telling the truth. Indy acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins in exchange for a second-round and conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2013. Chuck Pagano brought Baltimore’s defense to Indianapolis when he was hired by the Colts earlier this year. And for his defense to ultimately succeed, Pagano knew he had to acquire a corner that could play press-man. Last week the Colts traded for Josh Gordy of the Rams, but Indy still lacked a defensive back that can be physical at the line of scrimmage and compete on an island. Davis can be that player, although he’s far from justifying his first-round talent. On the other side, the Dolphins weakened their secondary but Davis had already lost his starting job to Richard Marshall and wasn’t a fit in Kevin Coyle’s system. Considering they’re not going to compete this season, the Dolphins got good value in exchange for a player that they no longer viewed as a starter.
RGIII impresses in preseason debut.
What teams essentially look for out of a rookie quarterback making his NFL debut (preseason or otherwise), isn’t that he completes most of his passes or leads his team on a touchdown-scoring drive. Those things are nice, of course, but what is most important is that the young signal caller has command of the huddle, displays composure, and is calm throughout. Robert Griffin did all three of those things as well as completing 4-of-6 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut on Thursday night. He also showed rapport with Pierre Garcon and took what the defense gave him when dropping back to pass. Granted, the Skins relied on a run-based offense and kept Griffin’s passes in the short-to-intermediate range. But it nevertheless was a promising debut performance by a player that has high expectations to succeed right away.
Ryan looks like a different quarterback.
It’s expected that Matt Ryan look comfortable in preseason. He’s entering his fifth season in the pros so if he looked uncomfortable running a vanilla offense against a Baltimore defense that didn’t have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in uniform, then there’s a problem. That said, he had to learn a new offense for the first time since his rookie season and he’s working with a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter. And if Thursday night was any indication of how Ryan will perform during the regular season, then the Falcons have to be ecstatic. “Matty Ice” has never lacked confidence in his abilities but on Thursday night in the Georgia Dome he looked like a quarterback that knew he was going to score on every drive. He didn’t hesitate when finding open receivers, even when two defenders were draped over Julio Jones (who, by the way, is in store for a monster season himself). Granted, Ryan did make a rookie mistake when he locked onto Roddy White in the red zone and was picked off by a linebacker dropping into coverage, but that was the only error he made on the night. If the Falcons are to finally win a playoff game under coach Mike Smith, Ryan has to be more gunslinger and less game manager. He’s off to a great start.
Steelers still have O-line issues.
On paper the Steelers have one of the more talented offensive lines in the NFL. David DeCastro was touted as a pro-ready prospect and while Mike Adams slipped into the second round, that had more to do with his off-field history at Ohio State than his talent. That said, Ben Roethlisberger was constantly under duress during Pittsburgh’s preseason debut on Thursday and it was a reminder that talent doesn’t always equate to performance. Adams also suffered a knee injury during the game and hasn’t practice since, leaving Marcus Gilbert and Trai Essex as the team’s next-best options at left tackle. It’s early, but the days of Big Ben scrambling for his life don’t appear to be behind the Steelers.
The Eagles will have to hold their breath all season.
The swelling on Michael Vick’s injured throwing thumb has gone down and he’ll be fine after leaving the Eagles’ preseason opener on Thursday. But it was yet another painful reminder that Vick is highly injury prone and questions remain about whether or not he can stay healthy for an entire season. Even if he plays 15 or 16 games, will he be healthy enough to lead the Eagles deep into the playoffs? Andy Reid has a Super Bowl-caliber roster on his hands but regardless of whether they win double-digit games and streak into the postseason, Vick will always be one play away from suffering an injury and derailing Philly’s title hopes.
Packers’ defense suffers huge blow.
There’s little chance that Dom Capers’ defense will rank 32nd again in the NFL but he and the Packers were dealt a huge blow on Thursday night when linebacker Desmond Bishop suffered a hamstring injury. Bishop is scheduled to undergo surgery and will likely miss the entire season, which thrusts D.J. Smith into a starting role. The addition of Nick Perry will greatly help Clay Matthews and the Green Bay pass rush but Bishop was a physical defender that consistently made big plays. He will be missed.
All things considered, Manning looked good for Denver.
Considering he didn’t take a snap last season, is coming off several surgeries and was playing for a completely different team in a completely different offense, Peyton Manning was solid in Denver’s preseason opener. Many of his throws wobbled in the Chicago air and he did throw the one interception in the red zone, but that was hardly his fault as the pass skipped off his receiver’s hands. The key was that he moved around well inside the pocket, he surveyed the field in typical Peyton Manning fashion and he seemingly has great rapport with Eric Decker. The question of whether or not he can absorb a hit and get right back up remains but all-in-all, it was a positive first-showing for Manning the Bronco.
Shocker: Tim Tebow has a very Tim Tebow-like performance.
ESPN should be embarrassed with the non-stop reports from Jets camp the past two weeks. It’s covering everything and anything just hoping to justify being stationed outside of Jets camp when there isn’t a storyline to be followed. This much was confirmed when Tim Tebow turned in a very Tim Tebow-like performance against the Bengals on Friday. He dazzled people with his runs and threw at least one pass where he resembled a NFL quarterback, but he also locked onto a receiver and was intercepted by a dropping linebacker. Hey, what else is new? Nothing has changed, even if ESPN wants you to believe otherwise.
Weeden off to an inconsistent start.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter that Colt McCoy was 6-of-8 for 88 yards and Brandon Weeden was 3-0f-9 for 62 yards with a pick in the Browns’ preseason opener on Friday. Weeden is going to be the Week 1 starter if he completes all of his passes from here on out or throws eight interceptions and insults Pat Shurmur’s wife. That said, the Browns couldn’t have been thrilled with Weeden’s uneven performance against the Lions. The night started off well, as Weeden connected on his first two passes but everything unraveled from there. Lions’ rookie Bill Bentley disrupted several of Weeden’s throws and wrestled the ball out of Greg Little’s hands for an interception. Weeden’s performance under pressure was also inconsistent, but it’s important to note that this was his just first game. Plus, while McCoy has fewer tools he’s been in the league for a couple of years so he should look more comfortable than Weeden. Still, Browns fans will hope to see some progression from their rookie QB over these next few weeks.
Kolb may force the Cardinals to start Skelton.
Without saying the words “the job is yours” the Cardinals have handed Kevin Kolb the starting job. They’ve practically begged him to take it, in fact. But thus far Kolb has been brutal in preseason and he’s created zero separation between himself and John Skelton, who has played somewhat well. Even though Kolb has the big contract, Ken Whisenhunt may not have a choice but to start Skelton Week 1. If Kolb isn’t going to put a stranglehold on a job that was placed in his lap, then he doesn’t deserve to start.
Don’t assume Locker has lead in Tennessee.
If you just looked at the numbers from the Titans’ preseason opener on Saturday, who would surmise that Jake Locker is now the favorite to start at quarterback in Tennessee. He completed 7-of-13 passes for 80 yards while Matt Hasselbeck was 5-of-9 for 45 yards and two interceptions. But one of Hasselbeck’s picks came on a fluke bounce and the other was on a deep pass when he was just trying to make something happen down field. Locker was more mobile, more athletic and made more things happen, which is something he already had over Hasselbeck coming into the contest. Locker also played against Seattle’s twos and threes, where Hasselbeck started. The point is, Locker will likely have an opportunity to start next week and then we’ll see if he can create some separation. The key will be who starts at that third game, which is essentially a dress rehearsal for Week 1. As of right now, it would appear Locker has a slight lead but this is going to be one of the better camp battles for the next two weeks.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin argues a call with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the background in the AFC Wild Card round at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver. Pittsburgh lost in overtime 29-23 to Denver. UPI/Gary C. Caskey
As a Browns fan, it’s annoying to watch the rock-solid organization in Pittsburgh that produces consistent winners for the Steelers. The Rooney family knows how to run a football team. They find great coaches and stick with them. Continuity is one of their greatest advantages over teams like the Browns who change regimes every couple of years.
With that backdrop, it’s a little surprising to see Art Rooney II interject himself so directly into team affairs with the decision to not bring back offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t happy.
“When I get back, I’m going to go up to Mr. Rooney’s office and ask him what he wants from me, what he wants from this offense, because I think that’s a viable question for him,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s our owner and our boss, so I really would like to know kind of what he wants and where he sees our offense going because I’d like to tell him where I see us going.”
Roethlisberger said he thinks Arians was building one of the NFL’s best offenses, and he’s surprised that Arians won’t get to continue doing that.
“We feel like we are really close to being an elite offense,” Roethlisberger said. “For your leader to be gone is kind of a shocker, but you’ve got to be ready for whatever the Rooneys and coach [Mike] Tomlin decide it our next step.”
The Steelers have had some problems, mostly with keeping Big Ben healthy. There’s a feeling in the organization that they need to get back to running the football. But this team had a lot of success with Arians, who basically unleashed Roethlisberger and let him become an elite quarterback with his improvisation skills.
We’ll see how this plays out. The Steelers will have quite a bit of turnover, particularly on defense, as the team is getting older. Now we’ll be seeing some changes on offense as well.
In easily the biggest Wildcard Weekend upset since the Seahawks knocked off the Saints all the way back in 2011, the Broncos shocked the NFL world on Sunday with a 29-23 upset of the Steelers in Denver. Here are some quick-hit thoughts from today’s game.
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates after throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers during overtime in the AFC Wild Card round at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver. The Broncos advance beating the Steelers 29-23 in overtime. UPI/Gary C. Caskey
- Let me tell you a tale of two teams on Wildcard Weekend. We’ll call one team “Team Ass-Kicked” and the other team, “Team Tebowhorse.” Team Ass-Kicked tiptoed into their game against a good, but beatable opponent on Sunday and was predictable, unimaginative, and uncreative. Even though it was the playoffs, Team Ass-Kicked didn’t raise the level of their play and predictably, they got their ass kicked. (Hence the name – see what I did there?) Team Tebowhorse, on the other hand, opened things up, kept their opponent off balance, kept attacking and in they end, they pulled off the biggest upset of the weekend. I did enough bashing of the Falcons in my recap of their game against the Giants, but let this Denver victory be a lesson for Mike Smith and his coaching staff. When you try to do predictable things, you get a predictable outcome. When you open things up and actually attack defenses, you’re more likely to keep them off-balance. Good things come to those that go after what they want.
- To expand on my first point, the Steelers didn’t expect the Broncos to throw the football today and why would they? With the playoffs on the line last week, Denver only mustered one measly field goal against an underrated, but slightly above average Kansas City defense. There were even rumors that Tim Tebow would be benched for Brady Quinn if he didn’t play well. But instead of playing into Pittsburgh’s hands and just hoping for the best, John Fox and his staff put together a game plan that actually attacked Pittsburgh’s weakness: its secondary. With the Steelers playing run defense and leaving their corners in one-on-one coverage, the Broncos threw the ball vertically and guess what? It worked. This wasn’t a genius game plan by Denver and it could have easily backfired. But it was the best game plan because it was one that kept pushing the Steelers’ defense. It’s not wise to poke a sleeping bear but if you find yourself face to face with one in an enclosed area, you might as well go on the offensive. Because you’re not going to win by letting him do all the attacking.
- Tebow only completed 10 passes but that’s not the stat that matters. The stat that matters is 15.0. That’s how long his average pass went for today, which is why the Broncos scored 29 points instead of 3 like everyone thought they would. Tebow will never be an elite quarterback in the conventional sense. He’s always going to lack the presence to stand in the pocket and beat teams like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. But even his strongest detractors have to give him credit for taking shots down field and some of his passes were right on the money. Granted, he got a ton of help from his receivers but this wasn’t one of his typical wins where he played like crap for three quarters only to run his way towards a victory. His arm and his legs helped the Broncos win that game.
- Ike Taylor is going to see Demaryius Thomas in his nightmares for the next eight months. This was simply a day for Taylor to forget and one for Thomas to cherish because it was his coming out party. The Broncos drafted him in the first round in 2010 because they needed a deep threat to replace Brandon Marshall. And while it has taken him some time to develop, Thomas is finally starting to perform like that big-play wideout that Denver envisioned he’d be two Aprils ago. It’s crazy that two receivers this weekend broke out with 200 yards. (Thomas and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.)
- Not to pile on Taylor but he really was at the root of Pittsburgh’s problems defensively. Granted, the Steelers were at a disadvantage because of injuries but Dick LeBeau did his job today. As a defensive coordinator you want to force Tebow to throw and that’s what LeBeau did. It’s just that defenders like Taylor repeatedly got beat, which was about the only thing they couldn’t do. Just a bad, bad day for the Steelers’ top corner.
- It all went for naught but that was another gutsy performance by Ben Roethlisberger. His ankle was clearly bothering him but he hung in there and delivered some big plays on the Steelers’ game-tying touchdown drive. (His receivers also made some spectacular catches.) But it makes you wonder whether or not Pittsburgh was destined to repeat as AFC champions this year. Big Ben’s injury wasn’t likely to get any better if he kept playing on it and the Steelers’ suffered one too many injuries. It just wasn’t the year for the “Terrible Towel.”
- I’m sorry, but John Elway still bugs the crap out of me. Denver fans can twist it however they want but Elway was never fully on the Tebow bandwagon. You know it, he knows, Jesus knows it. Then there he was, jumping around like a 7-year-old girl after Tebow won the game in overtime. I know, I know – what is he going to do, not celebrate his team’s huge victory? But there’s just something very wrong with a guy who gets what he wants after being a prick. You should have played in Indianapolis like a man, John!