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NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 3 of Preseason

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.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2011 NFL Week 8 Primer

Dallas Cowboys DeMarco Murray cuts upfield as St. Louis Rams Quintin Mikell defends during the first quarter at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas on October 23, 2011. UPI/Ian Halpeirn

Patriots @ Steelers, 4:15PM ET
This is an intriguing matchup not only because of the two teams but also due to the individual matches within the game. The Patriots arguably have the most efficient passing attack in the league, but they’ve struggled defending the pass for much of the season. Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger and the big-play ability of Pittsburgh’s receivers, the Steelers could strike for a long score at any point. I think this one will live up to the hype and with a whole slew of garbage matchups on the Week 8 schedule, I hope it does.

Cowboys @ Eagles, 8:20PM ET
It’s time to see how many of the Eagles’ problems Andy Reid was able to iron out over the bye week. Philadelphia looked great against Washington the week before its bye, but Dallas will provide a more difficult challenge than the Redskins did. DeMarco Murray is coming off a breakout game and the Eagles haven’t been able to stop the run all season. If Murray can get going again, the Cowboys have a chance to potentially put the nail in the coffin of their bitter rivals.

Lions @ Broncos, 4:05PM ET
The Lions have more pressing issues to worry about than whether or not Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player. Matthew Stafford (ankle) is hobbled, Jahvid Best (concussion) is out for another week and the defense can’t stop the run. The Broncos might not be the better overall team in this matchup but Tim Tebow has breathed new life into Denver and will be fired up to play at home. This will not be an easy road trip this weekend for the Lions.

Vikings @ Panthers, 1:00PM ET
Rookie quarterbacks will be on display this Sunday in Carolina when the Panthers host the Vikings. Outside of the two interceptions he threw to Charles Woodson in the third quarter last week, the Vikings had to be pleased with Christian Ponder’s first professional start. If Minnesota wants to give Ponder an opportunity to notch his first win, then the Vikes better get Adrian Peterson revved up. Carolina’s run defense has been bad all year and it would be wise to keep Cam Newton on the bench considering how bad Minnesota’s pass defense is.

Chargers @ Chiefs, 8:30PM ET Monday
This matchup certainly got more interesting over the past few weeks. After starting the year 0-3 the Chiefs have rattled off three-straight and who can forget the beating they gave the Chargers on Monday night last season? Of course, they won’t have Jamaal Charles this time around but Jackie Battle is starting to come on as KC’s leading rusher. The Chargers’ offense was blanked in the second half last Sunday against the Jets, leading to speculation about whether or not Philip Rivers may be hurt. If he’s not, then it’s time for him to step up on Monday night in what has turned out to be a pretty big divisional game.

Jaguars @ Texans, 1:00PM ET
Blaine Gabbert has received most of the attention this year in Jacksonville, but it’s been the Jaguar defense that has stolen the show. They absolutely dominated the Ravens on Monday night and thanks to strong play out of linebackers Daryl Smith and Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville ranks sixth in yards allowed this season. The Jags’ defense will certainly be tested this weekend, especially if Andre Johnson returns from the hamstring injury that has held him out for nearly a month.

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Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher says he wasn’t yelling at Lance Briggs on sidelines

Chicago Bears linebackers Brian Urlacher (R) and Lance Briggs sit on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field on September 11, 2011 in Chicago. The Bears won 30-12. UPI/Brian Kersey

For those wondering, no, Brian Urlacher wasn’t yelling at teammate Lance Briggs on the sidelines during the Chicago Bears’ Week 5 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday night.

“Everyone asked me what happened after the game: ‘Was I yelling at Lance on the sideline?’ I said: ‘I wasn’t yelling at Lance on the sideline. He didn’t do anything wrong,” Urlacher said. “We were both mad because we aren’t used to this. As long as (Briggs) and I have been here, we haven’t played like this.”

It’s been a frustrating year for the 2-3 Bears, who rank 29th in yards allowed per game (419.6) and 17th in points allowed (24.4). Chicago’s play has been down all season, from a poor pass rush to a suspect run defense that allowed Detroit’s Jahvid Best to rush for 163 yards on just 12 carries. In four games prior to his performance on Monday, Best had yet to total more than 72 yards in a single game, which came back in Week 1 against Tampa Bay.

Julius Peppers’ knee injury that he suffered against the Lions only compounds the Bears’ issues on that side of the ball. Peppers has yet to be ruled out for this Sunday’s game against the Vikings, but a sprained MCL usually takes weeks to heal. Briggs also requested a trade at the beginning of the year, so things aren’t going the way the Bears expected they would, especially considering they hosted the NFC Championship Game a year ago.

Looking ahead to the 2011 fantasy season

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 23: Jonathan Stewart  of the Carolina Panthers runs with the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

I know, I know, with championship games still hanging in the balance, it may be a little early to start looking forward to next season, but there were a few late-season performances that got me thinking about 2011. After all, it’s never too early to find a few sleepers.

Jonathan Stewart
All right, he doesn’t qualify as a sleeper, but with DeAngelo Williams’ future in Carolina in doubt — he’s a free agent and the Panthers may not want to pony up to keep him — Jonathan Stewart could emerge as a first- or second-round fantasy RB next season. “The Daily Show” was handed the keys in Week 8 and really disappointed fantasy owners with just 30 yards on 14 carries against the Rams. He looked pretty good on just five carries (for 30 yards) against the Saints before being knocked out for two games with a concussion. But after returning in Week 12 against the Browns, he rattled off five quality rushing performances, averaging 106 rushing yards and an eye-popping 5.5 yards per carry over the last five games. Granted, the Seahawks, Browns and Cardinals were all in the bottom third against the run, but the Falcons were 13th and the Steelers were 1st, and Stewart averaged 7.4 and 3.9 ypc, respectively. (The Steelers only gave up 3.0 ypc on the season, so 3.9 is actually impressive.) The fact that Stewart was able to run like this despite zero threat of a passing attack is also encouraging. If the Panthers can find a QB (or the light goes on for Jimmy Clausen), and Williams is elsewhere next season, Stewart could be in for a big 2011.

Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham
There’s a lot of talk about the Bengals cleaning house this summer, and that includes Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Both guys can still play, but the spend-a-lot-of-money-on-receivers strategy hasn’t worked in recent years and the franchise might do well to start fresh with Simpson, Caldwell and Shipley, who have all performed well in stints during their short careers. Simpson and Caldwell are both third-year players, while Shipley is a rookie. After getting the start against a good Chargers pass defense, Simpson caught six passes for 124 yards and two TDs. He has great size and could be a solid starter if given the opportunity. Caldwell had a good sophomore season (51-432-3) as the de facto WR2 in 2009, when Laveranues Coles’ production was less than expected. His targets fell off a cliff when Owens came to town. Shipley seems destined for a long career in the slot a la Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. As for Gresham, the rookie has quietly put together a really solid first season. His 52 receptions mark just the seventh time in league history that a rookie TE has caught 50+ passes. The Bengals can save $2.5 million if they cut ties with Ochocinco and T.O. is a free agent, so the Cincinnati receiving corps could look very different next season. Of course, these wideouts aren’t going to have much success if there isn’t a good QB throwing the ball The franchise has to decide what it wants to do with Carson Palmer, who has had his ups and downs this season (but looked awfully good throwing to this crew against the Chargers on Sunday).

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NFL Week 10 ROY power rankings

This is turning out to be a fine rookie class, isn’t it? There are game-changers on both sides of the ball:

1. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys—On pace for 73 catches, 958 yards, and 9 TDs; but also he’s averaging a ridiculous 14.4 yards on punt returns with 2 scores. Absolutely electrifying.

2. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions—A monster in the middle, and something Detroit has not had in a long, long time.

3. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams—It’s not like he’s throwing to Roddy White or Hakeem Nicks or Antonio Gates. In fact, I don’t know who this kid is throwing to.

4. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks—47 tackles and 4 picks through 9 games. That’s a full season for many safeties.

5. Colt McCoy, Cleveland Browns—If the Browns had beaten the Jets, and they almost did, we’d be talking potentially squeaking into the playoffs. And this kid is a huge reason the Browns are playing with confidence.

6. Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Bucs—DUI might hurt his chances for the top spot, but still no denying his numbers (40, 627, 5).

7. Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals—Give it a year or two, and this dude will be fawned over the way Jermichael Finley was this year.

8. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs—He’s going to make life miserable for whoever is quarterbacking the Cardinals these days.

9. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions—Slowed after a fast start and injury, but finally Megatron has defenses paying attention to someone else.

10, Dexter McCluster, Kansas City Chiefs—If he hadn’t hurt his ankle, this Ole Miss product might be higher on this list.

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