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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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Ten Observations from Week 14 in the NFL

1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.

2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.

3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.

4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.

5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.

6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.

7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)

8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.

9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.

10. Quick-Hits.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.

2012 Senior Bowl: Five players to Watch

You draftniks ready for another year of speculation, frenzy and intrigue leading up to this year’s NFL draft? Here are five players to keep an eye on this Saturday the 2012 Senior Bowl kicks off from Mobile, Alabama.

Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
The consensus ranks Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III as the top two quarterbacks in this year’s draft, but who will be the third signal caller to come off the board? Some like Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill but keep an eye on how Foles plays this weekend. He’s a big kid at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and made strides as a senior this past year despite playing behind two freshman tackles. Arm strength definitely won’t be a problem but his accuracy and decision-making has often been questioned throughout his collegiate career. Once Luck and Griffin come off the board in the top 10 picks, Foles could be selected anywhere between the first and third rounds. Thus, this is one player that could definitely improve his draft stock with a strong showing in Mobile.

Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
Top-rated defensive tackle Devon Still of Penn State will miss the Senior Bowl with a sprained big toe, so here’s Ingram’s chance to steal the spotlight. This isn’t regarded as a very strong draft for pass rushers but Ingram is a raw talent that can get to the quarterback in a variety of ways. He’s a three-technique defensive lineman who proved he could consistently beat blockers on the inside while at South Carolina. That said, 4-3 and 3-4 teams will take a long look at him because he exhibits a fast first step and good burst off the ball. He does a nice job of shedding blockers in the run game as well so again, he’ll intrigue teams that run a 3-4.

Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
USC’s Matt Kalil and Iowa’s Riley Reiff are projected to be the top two tackles taken off the board but Adams is already gaining some attention in Mobile because of his frame. He’s massive at 6-foot-7 and 323 pounds, with an 82 1/2 –inch wingspan and huge 11-inch hands. Despite his size, he’s a good athlete with natural bend and is being viewed as a left tackle at the next level (as opposed to some college prospects that are forced to move to the right side because of limitations in their game). He was suspended the first two games of the 2009 season for violating team rules, was cited in January of ’09 for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia (chargers were eventually dropped) after being stopped for running a stop sign, and was part of the group that was suspended for “Tattoogate.” But he has all of the physical tools to become a top 15 pick in April.

Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
The top receiver in this year’s draft, Justin Blackmon, is a junior, while Kendall Wright, Michael Floyd and Nick Toon have all been declared out of the Senior Bowl with various injuries. Thus, Saturday is a great opportunity for a guy like Adams to impress. He returned a punt for a touchdown in Arkansas’ victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, which was his fourth punt-return TD of the season. He’s a perfect fit in the slot because of his quickness and vertical ability, as well as the fact that he has trouble disengaging defenders at the line. He needs to improve as a route runner but NFL teams will definitely look at him as a returner and a potential No. 3 wideout.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
Jenkins was overshadowed earlier in his college career by former top-10 pick Joe Haden (Browns) at Florida and then was kicked off the team his senior year following his arrest on misdemeanor marijuana charges (his second run in with the law). If he can stay out of trouble this kid has a ton of natural talent and could be a steal in the second or third round. He played a lot of man at North Alabama and has the ability to develop into a very good cover corner at the next level. Because of character concerns he’ll likely fall further in the draft than he should, but he’s got first-round talent.

Nebraska dominates Arizona in Holiday Bowl

When I woke up this morning and read the headline: “Suh, Nebraska stop Arizona in Holiday Bowl,” I couldn’t help but chuckle a little.

Stop? Stop doesn’t even begin to describe what the Cornhuskers did to the Wildcats on Wednesday night. Stop is something you do when you’ve had too much to eat. Completely shutting someone down to the point of feeling sorry for them is what Nebraska accomplished against Arizona in their 33-0 Holiday Bowl victory. The game was over for Arizona after the coin flip.

The Cornhuskers held the Wildcats to 109 total yards of offense and only 46 passing yards. They also limited Arizona to 3-of-15 on third down conversions, picked off Nick Foles on the third play of the game and held the Wildcats to a messily 63 rushing yards. It was by far the most impressive performance any team this bowl season.

I was a little worried that AP College Football Player of the Year and Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh was going to come up short in the expectations that were bestowed upon him coming into the game, but he lived up to the hype. He only had three tackles (one for loss), but he was all over the field and exhibited outstanding size and strength.

The Cornhuskers have a bright future under Bo Pelini and even though Suh is on his way out, Nebraska’s defense is loaded with playmakers. Their offense is still a concern (although they looked good last night), but Pelini feels as though his defense matches that of Alabama and Florida. And after their performance last night, it’s hard to argue with him. I realize they weren’t playing an offensive juggernaut in Arizona, but limiting any team to 109 total yards is unbelievably impressive.

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