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NFL Preseason Week 2 Observations

+ There’s no player that excites me more than C.J. Spiller heading into the 2013 season. He’s going to be the focal point of Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s up-tempo, run-heavy offense in Buffalo. He flashed his speed and strength against Minnesota on Saturday, knifing through the defense while displaying quick feet. It’s just too bad that he’ll face 8-man fronts all season.

+ Speaking of the Bills, their pass rush looked good against the Vikings. There were times when Jerry Hughes ran himself out of plays but he has great acceleration off the snap. He, Manny Lawson and Marcell Dareus stood out, but the entire starting front seven for Buffalo had a solid night.

+ The transition from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula in Carolina hasn’t been seamless for Cam Newton. On Thursday night in Philadelphia, Newton struggled with errant passes, throwing receivers open and hitting targets in stride. Most of his completions came with receivers coming back to the ball, which is fine if a quarterback is accurate. But Newton completed 57.7% of his passes a year ago and thus far in preseason he’s 11-for-23 (47%). Shula figured to rely heavily on DeAngelo Williams and the running game, and it’s unlikely that that plan has changed.

+ Nick Foles was 6-for-8 for 53 yards and a rushing touchdown on Thursday night against Carolina, but Michael Vick was clearly the more efficient quarterback. He was poised and confident in the pocket, displayed good mobility while extending plays with his feet, and got the ball out of his hand quickly (a requisite in Chip Kelly’s offense). While Kelly has avoided naming a starter for Week 1, it’s safe to assume Vick is the current frontrunner…

+ …Now, whether or not Kelly can keep Vick healthy is a different subject altogether. Kelly’s offense will be predicated on short-to-intermediate passing out of multiple personnel groupings and formations. The read option also appears to be a key feature, which suits Vick’s skill set but also puts him at risk for injury. Even if Foles doesn’t win the starting job out of camp, history tells us that Vick’s backup needs to be ready at a moment’s notice. It’s only a matter of time before the veteran suffers some sort of aliment.

+ We’ll see what happens when opponents start game planning to beat them on Sundays but thus far the Browns have been intriguing. Brandon Weeden looks comfortable and confident running Norv Turner’s offense and a star is rising in tight end Jordan Cameron, who made an incredible catch for a touchdown versus the Lions on Thursday night (one of his two scoring receptions in the game). Save for guard John Greco (who was manhandled by Nick Fairley on consecutive plays in the first half), the offensive line has also performed well and the defense might turn out to be the most underrated unit in the NFL by seasons end. Usually it takes about 10 games before Ray Horton’s system takes hold but his players in Cleveland have taken to it like a fish to water.

+ Dirk Koetter finally has his power running game to complement his vertical passing attack in Atlanta. The Falcons ran Steven Jackson out of the “11″ and “12″ personnel groupings on Thursday night in Baltimore, trying to match hat-for-hat and allowing him to do what he does best: Run downhill. Thanks to Matt Ryan and his assortment of weapons in the passing game, that offense was already difficult to stop. If they can build a lead and then run clock in the second half of games, they’ll avoid having what happened in the NFC title game when they allowed the 49ers to erase a 17-point deficit.

+ It’s becoming evident that the Ravens will be held back by their lack of weapons in the passing game. Torrey Smith took a simple slant for a touchdown against the Falcons on Thursday but William Moore also took a horrible angle on the play and turned a 7-yard gain into a 77-yard score. Without Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin drawing attention in the short-to-intermediate game, opponents will likely bracket Smith in coverage and force somebody else to beat them. Visanthe Shiancoe won’t be that somebody else.

+ The run-blocking units for San Diego and Chicago had good nights on Thursday. Matt Forte finished with a 9.2 average and Ryan Mathews rushed for 5.0 yards per clip, as both running backs flashed burst and acceleration through open lanes. Rookie Kyle Long stood out for Chicago, as he consistently was stout at the point of attack and finished blocks in the running game. Sadly though, Philip Rivers was often on his back and Jay Cutler had pass rushers around his feet throughout the first quarter. Pass protection will be a major question mark for both teams all season.

+ Alex Smith completed 7-of-8 passes last week against a Saints team that played a soft zone, but he struggled against a more aggressive 49er defense on Saturday. He’ll be able to dink and dunk past lesser opponents but what happens when the Chiefs are trailing and he has to beat opponents vertically in the fourth quarter? There’s no question he’s an upgrade over Matt Cassel and Kansas City is going to win a few contests on Andy Reid’s game-planning alone. But Smith remains limited as a passer and thus, it’s hard envisioning the Chiefs beating teams like Denver or New England if they’re able to make it to the postseason.

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: 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.

Quick-Hits: Observations about Week 1 in preseason of the NFL

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford throws a pass to Laurent Robinson for a touchdown during the second half of their NFL football game in St. Louis, Missouri, December 26, 2010. Bradford set an NFL record for completions in a rookie season. REUTERS/Sarah Conard (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

There’s still one game left on the Week 1 preseason schedule (Jets vs. Texans tonight), but I’ve let these thoughts marinate for long enough. Here are some quick-hit observations from Week 1’s NFL preseason games.

- Jake Locker turned in the best performance of any rookie quarterback in Week 1. Locker was solid in the Titans’ preseason win over the Vikings on Saturday, completing 7-of-10 passes for 89 yards and a 45-yard touchdown to Yamon Figurs. Granted, he did fumble once and took a sack, but the key is that he looked poised and confident in the pocket. The Titans aren’t paying Matt Hasselbeck $7 million to sit the bench, so don’t count on Locker unseating the veteran this season. But the rook looks good early.

- Speaking of rookies, Julio Jones looks like the real deal. It’s way too early to know if the Falcons will receive a good return on their big investment from the 2011 draft, but Jones looks fantastic thus far. In his preseason debut against the Dolphins, both of his receptions went for 20-plus yards and he added one rush for 12 yards on an end-around. He basically affirmed what everyone has been saying: that he doesn’t look like a rookie. Again, it’s early, but the Falcons have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen.

- The Bears still have issues on their offensive line. Simply put, GM Jerry Angelo has not done a good enough job building his offensive line over the years. He has missed in the draft (Chris Williams), he has missed in free agency (Orlando Pace), and now he better hope that guys like J’Marcus Webb and Greg Carimi can settle in to their respective positions before quarterback Jay Cutler gets killed. The Bears gave up nine sacks in their win over the Bills on Saturday night, including four by the first-team unit. Granted, Caleb Hanie held onto the ball too long on multi occasions, which contributed to a couple of the sacks. But the bottom line is that Chicago’s offensive line looks poised to hold the Bears back in 2011.

- Shawne Merriman could be ready to resurrect his career in Buffalo. Of the nine sacks that the Bills recorded against the Bears on Saturday night, three of them came from Merriman. He absolutely abused J’Marcus Webb on a consistent basis, using the combination of speed, power and technique that made him popular in San Diego early in his career. He has always been a motivated player, so if he’s completely healthy he could be one of the few stars in Buffalo this season.

- The Panthers clearly want Cam Newton to start. Jimmy Clausen started Saturday night against the Giants, but Newton entered the game in the second quarter and played into the fourth. Ron Rivera hasn’t made the announcement yet, but Newton figures to start the Panthers’ second preseason game. As long as he looks respectable and isn’t a complete disaster, I think we’ll be seeing Newton as the starter come Week 1 against the Cardinals.

- Colt McCoy looks like a perfect fit for Pat Shurmur’s offense. Because they have an entirely new coaching staff and there’s so little time for the players to get up to speed before the regular season starts, the Browns could be one of those teams that is drastically affected by the lockout. Then again, if McCoy plays as well in the regular season as he did in his first preseason game, the Browns may actually be more competitive than people think. McCoy completed 9-of-10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown versus Green Bay and while the game was meaningless in the standings, it was hard not to be impressed with the second-year QB’s play. He looked like he had been running Shurmur’s offense for two years – not two months. He’s a perfect fit for the West Coast scheme and thus far, Cleveland fans have to be cautiously excited about his development.

- It looks like Ted Thompson has struck draft gold again. Rookie Randall Cobb caught three passes for 60 yards in the Packers’ preseason opener on Saturday. He also racked up 58 yards on two kick returns, impressing the team with his speed and quickness. Aaron Rodgers could have yet another weapon in his passing arsenal this season.

- It wasn’t surprising to see the Vikings’ offense struggle as much as it did in Week 1. Minnesota fans seem eager about the potential that this unit has, which is understandable. With guys like Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and now Donovan McNabb on that side of the ball, the Vikes’ O has the chance to be explosive this season. But it will take some time before everyone is on the same page with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Plus, while McNabb may be familiar with the West Coast Offense, it’ll take time before he gels with his receivers in this offense. Both of his series on Saturday ended in punts and his average pass didn’t travel past four yards. Fans might see more of that this preseason as McNabb and the rest of the Vikings’ offense gets acquainted with Musgrave’s system.

- It’ll take time before Sam Bradford is comfortable in Josh McDaniels’ system. Bradford was a little shaky in the Rams’ preseason opener on Saturday, completing 7-of-12 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. He had great chemistry with tight end Lance Kendricks, but it was clear that Bradford will need a couple of games to play with confidence in McDaniels’ system.

Kevin Kolb impresses in preseason opener

PHILADELPHIA - AUGUST 13: Kevin Kolb  of the Philadelphia Eagles stands on the sideline against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 13, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As Donovan McNabb made headlines in Washington last night for throwing his first touchdown pass as a Redskin, the Kevin Kolb era also started in Philadelphia against Jacksonville.

And it started off well.

On his first pass attempt of the preseason, Kolb threw a short pass to receiver DeSean Jackson, who promptly took it 21 yards for a first down. Kolb then engineered a 9-play, 65-yard drive that took 3:41 off the clock and ended with a 29-yard David Akers field goal.

An offense stalling in the red zone will never be considered a positive outcome, but considering it was Kolb’s first chance to impress in what will be a critical year for the youngster, I’m sure the Philly faithful will take the three points. The Eagles eventually went on to beat the Jaguars, 28-27.

Relatively speaking, Kolb was sharp. He completed 6-of-11 passes for 95 yards and also rushed for 15 yards, which included a nice first down pickup. He would have had a touchdown pass had Brent Celek made the catch on a red zone play in the first half, but a Jaguar defender knocked the ball out of his hands before the tight end could secure it.

On a whole, Kolb was satisfied with his performance (from the Philadelphia Daily News):

“With the talent that we have, we feel like we can execute and be consistent, and I’m not even saying I was consistent,” Kolb said. “We feel like we can put up a lot of points. Like I said, there were some mistakes, but I thought it was a good start overall.”

Michael Vick’s performance in this game was also note-worthy, as he completed 11-of-17 passes for 118 yards and no interceptions. He also rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown on five carries, showing some of the speed that made him so popular earlier in his career.

Of course, he also showed some of that trademark carelessness by fumbling twice and coughing the ball up once.

Daily Six-Pack: NFL preseason rewind

Here are six quick-hit thoughts on some of Week 1’s preseason NFL action.

1. Stafford was impressive.
While it was only the first preseason game of his young career, Matthew Stafford was awfully impressive Saturday against the Falcons. In his debut, Stafford completed 7 of 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. And if Keary Colbert didn’t have hands made of concrete, Stafford’s numbers would have been more impressive. Granted, he was playing against Atlanta’s backups, Detroit kept their starting offensive line largely intact and he did throw an interception that was returned 41 yards for a touchdown. But the key was that Stafford looked comfortable in the pocket, showed confidence in his throws and for a rookie, displayed great footwork and overall mechanics. He still has much to prove, but if he continues to play this well throughout the preseason, it might be hard for the Lions to keep the rookie off the field in his first year.

2. The Bears secondary looked shaky.
If Saturday’s preseason loss to the Bills was any indication of how Chicago’s secondary will play in the regular season, then the Bears are in trouble. Lee Evans abused cornerback Nathan Vasher repeatedly, while Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick completed over 88 percent of their passes. Granted, it was only one preseason game and rookie sixth round pick Al Afalava was impressive against the run. But the Bears look awfully thin in the secondary and if the starters perform as poorly as they did last night for the remainder of the preseason, then trouble could be on the horizon.

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