1. The Ravens are playing uninspiring football.
While the Ravens did leave Cleveland with a 25-15 victory over the Browns, they haven’t played a complete game since their 31-30 win over the Patriots in Week 3. Their offense went three-and-out on six straight drives versus on Sunday and didn’t wake up until Cleveland took a 15-14 lead in the second half. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns shot themselves in the foot with an illegal formation penalty that negated an 18-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon that would have given Cleveland a 19-14 lead. Brandon Weeden also threw in a late pick to seal the win for Baltimore, which received yet another inconsistent performance from Joe Flacco. Simply put, John Harbaugh couldn’t have been too thrilled with his team’s performance. Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. But the Ravens had two weeks to prepare for the Browns and to erase the taste of that 43-13 beatdown that Houston gave them in Week 7. Despite winning 25-15, it was about as uninspiring 25-15 victory that you’ll find.
2. Throw out the records – the Steelers look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
A handful of Giants players were forced from their homes this week because of Hurricane Sandy. Eli Manning had to leave his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and tight end Martellus Bennett reportedly had to shack up with Kevin Boothe at the offensive tackle’s house. Even though players like Justin Tuck wanted to provide the patrons of New York and New Jersey with a victory on Sunday, nobody will blame the Giants for losing to the Steelers in what was a trying week. But regardless of how emotionally drained the Giants were, Pittsburgh nevertheless picked up a huge road win and have now won three in a row. The Steelers remain one game back of the Ravens in the standings but those are two teams heading in opposite directions. Both AFC North inhabitants have offensive line issues but only one team has a quarterback that can overcome shaky pass protection. (That would be Ben Roethlisberger.) The Steelers are getting healthier on defense while the Ravens have clearly been affected by the losses of Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Pittsburgh has weapons on offense (although they might be down one after Antonio Brown suffered an ankle injury on Sunday) and its running game has come alive. Joe Flacco is the epitome of inconsistency and his receivers have had issues beating press coverage. Forget the records – the Steelers are currently the most dangerous team in the AFC North.
3. Falcons remain a very quiet 8-0.
The Falcons have to be the least intimidating 8-0 team in league history. Their average margin of victory this year is less than 10 points, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, they don’t run the ball effectively and they’re susceptible to being gashed on the ground defensively. But if you think this is still the same Atlanta team that is 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith, then you haven’t been paying attention. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey often failed to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. On Sunday night versus Dallas, that’s essentially how Atlanta won the game. On multiple occasions Dirk Koetter freed up Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers to get one-on-one with a defender and often times, the Falcons won those matchups. Last season guys like Rodgers and Jones were novelties in Mularkey’s offense, and granted, they were rookies. But this year they’re featured players. Matt Ryan, who must be considered the MVP to this point, is playing with more confidence than at any point in his career and he finally doesn’t look over-coached. Defensively, Atlanta ranked 20th in pass coverage last season. This year, they rank 8th. Thanks to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have finally figured how to stop the pass. And that’s without their best defensive back Brent Grimes (knee/out for the year) manning one side of the field. With Mularkey and former DC Brian Van Gorder at the controls, the Falcons weren’t equipped to beat other playoff teams. They simply lacked the creativity to do so, and they were terribly predictable on both sides of the ball. But this year is a different story. This year, Koetter and Nolan have taken this team to a level they have yet to experience under Mike Smith. And thus far, the results have been perfect.
4. The Cowboys beat quality opponents?
The Cowboys dominated the Falcons in the first half on Sunday night. They harassed Matt Ryan, they torched Dunta Robinson, and they forced Atlanta’s offense to be one-dimensional by shutting down the run. But heading into halftime the score was tied at 6-6 and the Cowboys were lucky they weren’t trailing considering Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter. By the end of the game the final scored read Atlanta 19, Dallas 13, and the Cowboys were once again left searching for answers. Why hasn’t Jason Garrett allowed Tony Romo to run the hurry up like he did on a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter? Why can’t Rob Ryan’s defense make a play with the game on the line? Once again, where did Dez Bryant run off to? The reality is that this Dallas team can’t beat quality opponents. The combined record of the teams they lost to this season is 32-10, which includes the 8-0 Falcons. The Cowboys have simply failed to make plays with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Or they commit stupid penalties. Or they turn the ball over. Or Dan Bailey misses a field goal versus Baltimore. Or Dez Bryant’s pinkie doesn’t come down in bounds versus New York. Something always happens that leaves the Cowboys thisclose of winning but at the end of the day, they’re 3-5. And at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.
5. It won’t be long before Andrew Luck is considered “elite.”
Nobody knows better than Cam Newton how a player can be on top of the NFL world one year only to be crushed by its weight the next. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from gushing over Andrew Luck. He broke Newton’s single-game rookie passing record by completing 30-of-48 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 23-20 victory over a Miami team with a very good defense. He took just one sack while showing exceptional movement within the pocket and he continues to perform under immense pressure (both from his offensive line and from a fan base that grew accustomed to watching Peyton Manning take the team to the playoffs every year). He’s tough, he’s intelligent, and he’s winning games in what many believed to be a rebuilding year in Indy. He’s already tied Manning for the most 300-yard games (four) by a rookie quarterback and he’s done so with little help from his offensive line or an average receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne. A year from now we may criticize Luck the way we’ve done Newton this year. But for now, this exceptional rookie is at the controls of a Colts team that leads the AFC wild card hunt. The same Colts team, mind you, that didn’t win a game until Week 15 last year.
6. The NFC North is the best division in football.
This really isn’t much of a debate. The Bears are having one of those Bear-like seasons in which their defense is averaging 19 turnovers and three touchdowns per game, and the addition of Brandon Marshall has paid major dividends for Jay Cutler and the offense. The Packers are once again one of the most banged up teams in the NFL but they’re 6-3 thanks in large part to Aaron Rodgers being undefensivable. Fans in Detroit shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Lions making a playoff run (good luck finding six wins from the remainder of their schedule), but they’re a dangerous team coming off their most complete game of the season, and while the Vikings have lost two in a row they employ the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. The majority of divisions this year don’t have two competitive teams, nevertheless four. If the Vikings can rediscover the magic they had earlier in the year, don’t be shocked if three teams from the North make the postseason this year in the NFC.
Side Note: The Vikings shouldn’t bench Christian Ponder. They invested a top 15 pick in him last year and while his numbers over the last three weeks haven’t been pretty (38-of-74 passing, 372 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs), they need to show confidence in him through thick and thin. If over the next year it becomes increasingly clear that he isn’t the answer, then they can think about making a significant move. But this is the price teams pay when a quarterback is in his second year as a starter. It does Ponder nor the Vikings’ future any good to play Joe Webb.
7. This just in: Greg Schiano’s offense works in the NFL.
Say what you want about Greg Schiano’s philosophies when it comes to defending the “Victory Formation” – his offense plays in the NFL. Doug Martin’s effort in the Bucs’ 42-32 win over the Raiders was epic, as he rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. For those scoring at home, that’s over 10 yards per carry. Perhaps what was most impressive is that Martin accomplished the feat without running behind All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (toe), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday. Tampa Bay racked up 515 yards in the win and while Oakland’s defense contributed to the effort with horrendous tackling, the Bucs have now scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in their last four games. In fact, they haven’t scored fewer than 22 points since a 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. College coaches like Bobby Petrino fail to convert their offenses at the pro level. But because Schiano is such a big believer in running the ball and taking shots downfield in the passing game, his offense has flourished. They need to add more playmakers on defense before they’re considered a legit playoff contender. But thanks to Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have a solid offense core to build around for years to come.
8. How much more can the Saints take?
There are so many questions stemming from the news that Sean Payton’s contract extension has been voided. First, why did it take so long for the NFL to decide/announce that the contract was voided? And did the Saints ultimately decide that following the bounty scandal they wanted a clean break from Payton (who was also involved in a situation where he was stealing vicodin from the team’s facility in May of 2010). If they still view him as their head coach, then one would assume he would stay to try to make right on what has transpired over the past two years. But we have yet to hear from the Saints, which makes you wonder if they’re ready to wash their hands of the situation. If they are, darker days could be ahead. Drew Brees will keep this team competitive as long as he remains as productive as he has been. But without Payton calling the plays, we’ve seen New Orleans struggle this season. Brees may still be running Payton’s offense but not having Payton the playcaller is holding the Saints’ offense back. It’ll be interesting to see not only where Payton winds up next year (Dallas makes all the sense in the world), but also who New Orleans hires to replace the only coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.
9. Don’t underestimate the Broncos’ win in Cincinnati.
Many pundits viewed Denver’s matchup with Cincinnati as a game the Broncos should win. The Bengals had lost three straight games coming into Week 9 and looked like a team that was ready to fall apart. But Cincinnati also had two weeks to prepare for Denver, which was 1-2 on the road before Sunday and the one win was the epic come-from-behind victory in San Diego in Week 6. The Bengals were well rested, at home, and desperate for a win. And despite watching a 17-3 lead evaporate in the second half, it was impressive that the Broncos left Cincinnati with a 31-23 win. Peyton Manning snapped a five-game streak of throwing for 300-plus yards and threw interceptions on back-to-back series in the second half. But he was magnificent otherwise while completing 27-of-35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. I’m still waiting for Denver’s defense to string together dominating performances but that will come. They have too much talent on that side of the ball not to. But while the Bengals watch their playoff hopes fade away, the Broncos have sole possession of first place in the AFC West and have positioned themselves to make a strong second-half run.
10. It’s time to pump the breaks on the Miami playoff talk.
There was talk all week about how Miami was a legitimate playoff contender after rattling off three straight wins. But the Dolphins put themselves behind the 8-ball with their 23-20 loss to the Colts. That’s because they’re now staring up at Indianapolis in the AFC wild card standings. The Dolphins do have winnable games against the Titans, Bills (twice), Seahawks (in Miami) and Jaguars in upcoming weeks, but this loss could come back to bite them. The good news is that Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable in the pocket and when rolling out after suffering what was believed to be a hyperextended knee last Sunday. But Miami’s offense did nothing after scoring 17 points on its first three possessions and for as good as the defense has been this season, Andrew Luck torched the Dolphins for 433 yards through the air. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way but this was a winnable game that Miami dropped. Thus, checking off wins against opponents like Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville is premature.
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.