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NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 3

1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.

(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)

2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.

3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.

4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.

5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.

6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.

7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.

8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.

9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.

10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.

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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NFL Quick Hits: 10 Observations from Week 1

The Redskins win was a shock but how they won wasn’t.
Outside of the Eagles struggling in Cleveland, the Redskins’ 40-32 shocker over the Saints was easily the biggest surprise of Week 1. But it’s not as if Washington won using smoke and mirrors. Mike Shanahan built Robert Griffin III’s confidence by calling several zero or “bubble” screens to start the game, then mixed in the play-action pass in order to suck the Saints’ LBs up and give his rookie QB clear passing lanes to throw in. These aren’t the same Redskins of the past several years either. This team finally has offensive playmakers and it’s not just RGIII. Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson form a nice receiving duo and Alfed Morris complements RGIII as a downhill runner with quickness and vision. He only gained 3.4 YPC but for those that watched the game, Morris was a factor. Defensively Washington was equally as impressive. Ryan Kerrigan routinely beat left tackle Jermon Bushrod off the edge and Drew Brees had defenders in his face from the first snap of the game. When Jim Haslett called blitzes, they worked. DeAngelo Hall was successful blitzing from his cornerback position, the interior pressure provided by Barry Cofield also disrupted Brees’ timing and Brian Orakpo was effective as well. Whether it was Washington’s pressure or an off day for Brees, the Saints looked completely out of sync offensively. And they were sloppy, too. The offensive line had multiple false start penalties, Brees routinely threw balls at his receivers’ feet or over their heads, and when he was on target his wideouts dropped a few passes as well. It was just an ugly day for an offense that we’re used to seeing fire on all cylinders. Even when things went right and they were knocking on the door of an easy touchdown, Marques Colston had the ball punched out at the goal line, which resulted in a touchback. But credit Haslett and his defense, as the Redskins snuffed out several of Brees’ go-to plays and routinely blanketed receivers. Washington implemented a solid game plan and executed to perfection. The two teams may go in opposite directions from here on out but for 60 minutes on Sunday, the Redskins were flat out better.

It was vintage Vick – and not in a good way.
When he was in Atlanta, there were games the Falcons would play where they were expected to win and Michael Vick almost single-handedly kept the opponent in the game with his sloppy play. That same Vick showed up in Cleveland on Sunday, as the Browns could have, and should have, beaten the Eagles but fell, 17-16. Make no mistake: Vick was awful. He stared down receivers. He threw into double coverage. He telegraphed his throws. He would desperately chuck balls into traffic when he was under pressure. He looked like a rookie and if the Browns weren’t starting a rookie signal caller of their own in Brandon Weeden (who resembled hot garbage himself), the Browns would have pulled away long before the final whistle. People may talk about Vick engineering that final comeback drive but had L.J. Fort hung onto an interception in the end zone on the play before the Eagles game-winning touchdown, Cleveland would have won. Andy Reid blames Vick’s performance on rust after he received just 12 snaps this preseason and hey, maybe it was rust. But the bottom line is that Philly is expected to challenge for not only a playoff berth but also a Super Bowl and their quarterback nearly willed them to a loss against a team that will challenge for the No. 1 pick next April. Good thing for Vick and Philly it was only Week 1.

Typical Giants.
There’s a general rule I have when it comes to the New York Giants. If their backs are against the wall and they’re not expected to win, ride like them hell because they’re going to fight. But if the general perception is that they should win, expect them to scuffle. The Cowboys came out of the gates on Thursday night looking for a 10-round fight and they wound up delivering a four-round knockout instead. Eli Manning was ordinary, the pass protection was poor, and the vaunted pass rush was non-existent outside of what Jason Pierre-Paul did from his right end spot. Justin Tuck did next to nothing from a pass-rush standpoint, which has to frustrate the Giants considering he didn’t wake up until about Week 15 last year, and both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant abused Corey Webster in coverage. For a team that talked about being overlooked in the offseason, it was surprising that the Giants were as flat as they were…

…that said, let’s not understate what the Cowboys accomplished. Romo was surgical in the passing game and if DeMarco Murray can stay healthy the ‘Boys have an explosive backfield to complement their stable of receivers. Jason Garrett also deserves credit for going for the jugular on that third down play at the end of the game. How in the world the Giants didn’t account for Kevin Ogletree on that play is inexcusable (he had killed them all game), but Garrett deserves praise for keeping the ball out of Eli’s hands. He could have very easily ran the ball, punted, and took the chance that his defense would hold the Giants one more time. But in going for it and picking up the first down, he eliminated even the possibility of a comeback. Finally a Jason Garrett that Dallas fans can get behind.

A tale of two defenses in Green Bay.
One thing teams don’t do enough of when playing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ explosive passing attack is be physical with Green Bay’s receivers. Teams are so worried about giving up a big play (and rightfully so) that they play off the ball on every snap and allow Rodgers to have huge passing lanes to fit the ball into. But in their impressive 30-22 win on Sunday, the Niners aligned their corners and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. The defensive backs were physical not just at the line of scrimmage but through the entire route, and San Fran consistently generated an interior pass rush. On the other side, the Packers were able to bring pressure from the edge but Alex Smith was able to step up in the pocket and find open receivers the entire game. Green Bay played too soft in coverage, which was a problem last year as well. I understand what the Packers’ game plan was: Pressure Smith and force him to beat you throwing the ball. But the 49ers’ receivers were able to sit down in open areas and Smith was simply taking what the defense gave him. When the Packers were physical with the Niners’ receivers, Jarrett Bush was flagged for pass interference, or Clay Matthews for roughing the passer, or San Francisco’s wideouts just made plays. The other problem, of course, was that the Packers couldn’t slow down Frank Gore and the San Francisco running game. That opened up the middle of the field and the intermediate passing game. The 49ers had a better game plan, executed that game plan better than Green Bay, and made more plays. I don’t know if you can say it was a statement win for the 49ers but they certainly sent a message for those that thought they weren’t as good as their record indicated last year. (On a side note, if the regular officials wanted to make a case that the NFL needs them, they could use this game as Exhibit A. The replacement officials missed multiple false start penalties, often called infractions late, and made several questionable calls. Just a brutal day by that specific crew.)

Johnson already off to a horrendous start.
I went back and watched the Patriots’ 34-13 victory over the Titans to see if Tennessee’s offensive line failed Chris Johnson or if Johnson failed himself. While the run blocking didn’t to generate much push on interior runs, Johnson was slow to the hole, tried to bounce everything outside, and didn’t trust what he saw. When he wasn’t smashing into the backs of his linemen he was trying to make too many cuts and New England would bottle him up. Last year he wasn’t in shape and it showed. This year, at least after four quarters, he looks like he’s trying to hit a home run on every play. While Tennessee’s run blocking needs to improve, Johnson could do himself a favor by hitting the hole harder and trusting his instincts. He was a one-cut-and-go back just two seasons ago. Now he’s trying to break a 70-yard run on every play.

Luck is already ahead of the game.
The Colts’ shaky offensive line didn’t do Andrew Luck any favors on Sunday in Chicago but the rookie still completed 23-of-45 passes for 309 yards with one touchdown. He also threw three interceptions but all things considered, it was an impressive first performance. (Consider how poorly Matt Ryan performed last year Week 1 against the Bears in Chicago.) From a pocket presence standpoint Luck is already playing like a seasoned veteran and keep in mind he doesn’t have a ton of playmakers around him. Reggie Wayne is still a better option than most but his best days are behind him and Austin Collie wasn’t in the lineup. This won’t be the last time I say this in 2012 but as soon as the Colts give Luck a better supporting cast he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

The Falcons’ passing game was on point but “The Burner” looks finished.
It cannot be overstated that the Chiefs were banged up defensively on Sunday. They were without their best pass rusher in Tamba Hali (suspended one game) and their top corner in Brandon Flowers (heel). Derrick Johnson was also battling an ankle injury and while Justin Houston is developing nicely, he’s not a player that’s going to take over a game. That said, the Falcons’ passing game looked good. Really good. Matt Ryan routinely found open receivers and exploited one-on-one matchups in the secondary. Even though he’s a second-year player, Julio Jones already uses his body well to shed defenders and gives Ryan a clear target to throw to. Roddy White also made several excellent catches in the Falcons’ 40-24 win, including a snag along the sideline in which he had to drag his right foot in order to compete the play. But I point out the passing game and not the entire offense because Michael Turner did nothing on the ground. He looked like he had cement blocks for feet and constantly banged into the backs of his offensive linemen instead of cutting back and finding extra running room. Not only is he slowing down but he lacks vision as well. Everyone knew he was declining but there’s reason to believe he’s already done and if OC Dirk Koetter were smart, he’d get second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved immediately.

The demise of the Jets may have been a tad exaggerated.
The Jets couldn’t score a touchdown in preseason against thin air so hey, why wouldn’t they hang 58 points on the Bills in Week 1? Fourteen of those 58 points were split between New York’s special teams and defense but still, it was quite a performance by the Jets’ seemingly lackluster offense. Despite adding the likes of Mario Williams, Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson in preseason, the Bills’ defense did not look sharp in preseason. So it’s not overly surprisingly that they struggled in Week 1 but this was a New York offense that was positively putrid in exhibition play. The key was that Mark Sanchez never got rattled, although it’s hard not to play with confidence with a 20-point halftime lead. Despite sharing reps with Tim Tebow, Sanchez remained unfazed and often burned Buffalo’s defense with pump fakes and double moves. Even the staunchest Sanchez critics, and I count myself as one of them, had to be impressed by his 2012 debut performance (and I was). There’s a lot of season left for both of these teams but it’s safe to say that the offseason projections for the Jets were grossly exaggerated.

Rams prevent Fisher’s first win in St. Louis era.
It’s rare when a team forces three turnovers and loses a game but that stat tells the tale for the Rams in Detroit on Sunday. They intercepted Matthew Stafford three times but still found a way to lose, 27-23. On one hand the St. Louis faithful has to be thrilled that their team had an opportunity to win a game in the end. That didn’t happen much last year. But there are no moral victories for Jeff Fisher and he can’t be happy that his young team allowed a win to slip through its grasp. St. Louis’ defense made Stafford look ordinary for three quarters but the offense never put the game out of reach. And when the defense had an opportunity to shut the door following Brandon Gibson’s spectacular 23-yard touchdown reception with just under 10 minutes to play in the fourth, it wilted. Fisher and his staff went to a prevent defense, and the results were predictable as the Lions snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. Thanks to the worst offensive line in football (a line that lost Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold to injuries on Sunday), the Rams won’t have many opportunities to win games this season. That’s why they can’t let victories like yesterdays slip through their fingertips.

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.

Sunday Morning NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.

+ Hell would have frozen over before the Vikings traded Percy Harvin. While Adrian Peterson is reportedly recovering nicely after tearing his ACL and MCL last season, the Vikings can ill-afford to trade one of their key weapons – especially at receiver. No offense to Michael Jenkins, who is an underrated run blocker and a decent red zone threat because of his height, but the Vikings don’t have many playmakers at receiver. The idea is to give Christian Ponder more weapons – not take them away.

+ It’s hard to fault Matt Forte for being a little irked at Jay Cutler after the quarterback told the media a few weeks ago that he didn’t think Forte would hold out during training camp. After suffering a season-ending knee injury last year and watching the Bears sign Michael Bush this offseason, Forte has little leverage as it is when it comes to trying to coax a long-term deal out of the team. A holdout is the running back’s lone ace so when Cutler comes out and essentially says that Forte won’t even use his best card, the Bears continue to hold all of the power.

+ It’s going to be fun watching Julio Jones in 2012. He caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns last season when he didn’t know what he was doing. Imagine how he’ll perform now that he’s comfortable and has a full offseason to prepare? That said, the Falcons have to build Dirk Koetter’s offense around Matt Ryan, who had met his ceiling under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. For the past four years the Falcons’ offense has been centered on Michael Turner but for the passing game to mature Ryan has to be the focal point from here on out.

+ Reggie Bush says his role in the Dolphins’ offense will be “a little different from last year,” which is a good thing. The old coaching regime surprisingly used Bush as an inside runner last season and he did rush for 1,086 yards on a career-high 216 attempts. But Bush never was, and never will be an inside runner. He isn’t the type of back that you can send into the meat grinder 25 times a game and expect positive results. Why increase the chances that he’ll either fumble or get hurt? He’s a mismatch on linebackers and safeties so it’s good to hear Joe Philbin plans on using Bush in a variety of ways, including splitting him out wide.

+ It was interesting to read that LaDainian Tomlinson says he spoke with the Broncos before opting to retire. Granted, he and Peyton Manning share the same agent so maybe the discussions were just a courtesy of some sort. Nevertheless, it would have been fun to watch two of the greatest players of their decade try to win a Super Bowl before hanging ‘em up for good.

+ Chris Johnson believes that “a lot of people are going to be back on the bandwagon” this season after he felt that “a lot of people have written me off.” But people haven’t written him off as much as they were turned off by his holdout situation last season. He held the Titans hostage last season and then reported to team headquarters out of shape after they gave him the contract he wanted. He did manage to rush for over 1,000 yards (barely), but the entire situation left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. If he gets back to the Chris Johnson he was two years ago then it’ll be as if 2011 never happened.

+ Nate Burelson said that Matthew Stafford’s arm could be even stronger this season than it was a year ago. Considering Stafford had a laser attached to his right shoulder last season, that’s quite a statement by Burelson. That said, I’m more interested in seeing Stafford string together another 16-game season. We all know about his arm strength but the thing that has held him back up to this point is the fact that he can’t stay healthy. But he played a full schedule last year and if he can do it again while posting another 63.5-percent competition percentage, then he’ll be considering a bona fide top seven or eight quarterback.

+ Randy Moss might be the most intriguing player heading into 2012. I say that because he’s drawn nothing but rave reviews coming out of San Francisco thus far. He’s already being viewed as a starter and some of his teammates say he looks like the Moss of old. And I buy that. Moss has proven time and time again that when he wants to play, he can dominate and it doesn’t matter how old he is. When he gets caught up in everything else (i.e. how much money he’s making, how many looks he’s getting, etc.) he has the innate ability to completely shut down. He did it in Oakland, he did it in New England before he wound up getting traded, and he did it in Minnesota and Tennessee two years ago. But when he’s motivated by being the best receiver in the game, he can be unstoppable at times. He’s one of the few players that can turn the switch on and off.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Lions vs. Saints

Despite trailing at halftime, the Saints rolled to a 45-28 victory over the Lions on Saturday night to advance to the Divisional round of the 2012 NFL Playoffs. Here are quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard shootout.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (C) dives for a first down against the Detroit Lions during the third quarter of their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 7, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- What Drew Brees does is almost surgical. If he has time to survey the field, he always goes vertical. I’m talking 9, 20, 40-yard strikes down the field. If he feels pressure, he has a trio of backs at his disposal that are elusive, powerful, and can create yards after contact when they slip out of the backfield. If he sees that a blitz is coming, he knows exactly where to go with the ball at all times. (Although it makes it easier when the defense leaves your 6’6” tight end wide open at the goal line. I mean, he’s 6’6” – the Lions couldn’t find him?) Granted, Brees has a ton of help. Marques Colston made a huge mistake in the first quarter when he fumbled the ball to kill a potential New Orleans scoring drive, but he’s as good as them come. Pierre Thomas ran tonight like he did back in the ’09 postseason and somewhere Chargers GM A.J. Smith is kicking himself for letting Darren Sproles leave San Diego. Jimmy Graham is a freak of nature and when all of those weapons aren’t available, Brees still has Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem (when he’s not dropping wide-open passes) and Lance Moore (when healthy) in his back pocket. This is a well-oiled machine New Orleans has here, and Brees is the absolute perfect captain to be at the controls.

- Want to know how the Saints score 40-plus points at home every week? Try 7-of-11 on third down and 3-of-4 on fourth down. When an offense constantly picks up third downs, it absolutely deflates a defense and that leads to points. Detroit clearly didn’t believe it could stop Brees tonight and it didn’t.

- That said, it’ll be interesting to see how the Saints fare now that they have to go on the road for one, and possibly two games over these next couple of weeks. There’s no question they’re a different team away from the Superdome, as Sean Payton has a tendency to get less aggressive and the defense doesn’t perform as well. San Francisco owns the best defense in the NFC playoff pool this year, so we’re about to find out how good this New Orleans offense is on the road. What a great matchup next weekend in San Fran.

- Lions fans will note that several calls didn’t go their way tonight, and they have every right to. But it’s hard to win when your defense can’t get off the field on third and fourth down, when your players don’t wrap up, when you turn two first-half turnovers into zero points, and when two of your defensive backs drop sure interceptions. There’s no question that Detroit got the short end of the stick when it came to penalties. No question. There were several missed holding calls on the Saints’ Pro Bowl linemen throughout the night, a bad spot on third-and-11 in the third quarter that gave New Orleans a first down (which led to a score), and of course, a blown whistle that most likely would have led to a Lions’ touchdown on Brees’ fumble in the first half. But the Lions failed to do the basics tonight and it cost them. Bad officiating or not, when you can’t tackle and take advantage of potential turnovers then you’re not going to win most games.

- One thing the Lions did do a great job of in the first half was get pressure on Brees with just their front four. Outside of the two Saints’ turnovers, that’s the main reason they held a lead heading into halftime. But about midway through the third quarter that pass rush dropped off and Detroit’s overmatched secondary was exposed. It’s unfair to play the defensive line for how things unraveled in the second half, because the bottom line is that the Lions’ defensive backfield made zero plays tonight. But the difference between the two quarters is that Brees was under duress in the first, and had time to find open receivers int he second. (And I mean wide open receivers.)

- As long as Matthew Stafford stays healthy Detroit fans won’t have to go another 11 years before they see their Lions play in another postseason game. That dude is for real. That 42-yard rainbow that he dropped perfectly into the hands of Calvin Johnson in the third quarter was beautiful and he had a handful of other passes that were right on the money. It’s not that he has a big arm: he has a big, accurate arm. He’s going to be an elite quarterback one day. (Again, if he can stay healthy.)

- I don’t know how defenses are supposed to cover Calvin Johnson. He’s obviously going to make plays when he’s open but there were several times when two New Orleans defenders were draped all over him and he still came down with the football. And if you make a mistake in coverage like the Saints’ corner did while playing Cover 2 on Johnson’s corner route in the second quarter, it’s almost a guaranteed touchdown (which it was). It’s amazing to think that one of the knocks on him coming out of college was that he sometimes lost focus. The guy has transformed into one of the best players in the game – focus on that.

- I thought Scott Linehan called a very good game until things got out of hand in the fourth quarter. He stayed aggressive throughout, which is something that most opponents won’t do when facing the Saints because they’re petrified to give the ball back to Brees and that offense, and constantly had New Orleans’ defense guessing. But at some point the Lions will need to find more offensive balance. Granted, they did lose starting running back Jahvid Best earlier this season due to a concussion, but 32 rushing yards on 10 carries isn’t going to cut it. Not against the Saints, not against anyone. When a defense doesn’t have to worry about stopping the run, they can drop extra defenders back or blitz effectively off the edge. New Orleans had to worry about one thing tonight: Stopping Calvin Johnson. (Uh, which they didn’t, but at least their offense scored 45 points to make up for it.)

- There’s no doubt that fans will be disappointed after this game. But the Lions made the playoffs this season. That’s fantastic. You won’t find a more loyal fan base than the one up in Detroit, so hats off to you Lions fans – your team finally made the top 12 again. Hopefully it’ll be a regular occurrence moving forward…

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