Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in Week 3 of the NFL's preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do. ...
• WINNER -- If there's anybody playing at the level of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Baltimore's Joe Flacco this preseason, it is not yet apparent to me. Rodgers and Flacco are the two biggest reasons I made the Packers and Ravens my Super Bowl XLV prediction even before camps opened, and what they've done this month has only reinforced my belief.
Fairly impressive Week 3 for both QBs, wouldn't you say? All Rodgers did was complete 21 of 29 for 195 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of Green Bay's 59-24 dismantling of the shellshocked Colts on Thursday. Rodgers still hasn't been sacked or turned the ball over this preseason. Against Indy he led a Packers offense that amassed 19 first downs and 236 yards en route to taking a 28-17 lead in the opening 30 minutes. Rodgers, in three preseason games, has completed a staggering 77.4 percent of his passes for 470 yards and six scores.
Not to be outdone, Flacco shredded the Giants defense in the first half of Baltimore's 24-10 win at home Saturday night, completing 20 of 32 for 220 yards, leading a pair of long touchdown drives. The once-predictable Ravens threw the ball on 37 of 46 plays in the first half, and not even the loss of receivers Donte' Stallworth (broken foot) and Mark Clayton (concussion) could take the luster off Baltimore's dominance through the air. Four Ravens caught at least four passes in Baltimore's balanced first-half passing clinic.
The Packers and Ravens both have issues in their secondary to figure out, and neither team has a pass rush as consistent as it needs to be. But tell me who exactly is going to stop those passing games? Rodgers and Flacco are going to make up for a few defensive deficiencies this season, and that's going to translate into a plenty of points and wins in Green Bay and Baltimore.
• LOSER -- If Kyle Orton were still in Chicago (and sorry, it's too late for that, Bears fans), Lovie Smith's sputtering team would have itself a well-deserved quarterback controversy by now. Jay Cutler and the Chicago offense have been brutal in the preseason, and you have to hope that Saturday night's four-sack, two-pick performance by J.C. in a loss to Arizona represents rock bottom.
Clearly the 0-3 Bears are not yet who we thought they were (then again, maybe they are). There's plenty of blame to go around in Chicago and it's certainly not all Cutler's fault. The Bears rebuilt offensive line has been a sieve (16 sacks allowed in three games, including 10 of Cutler), coordinator Mike Martz's magic sounds like a cruel joke to this point (12 points per game), and no Bears receiver has produced more than six catches for 126 yards (both totals belonging to second-year man Johnny Knox).
Even if Chicago's Julius Peppers-fortified defense pulls its weight, it's becoming harder all the time to imagine the Bears scoring enough to keep themselves in the NFC North race with the likes of Green Bay and Minnesota.
• WINNER -- Kansas City remains winless this preseason, but you can see the makings of a fairly dominant Chiefs running game coming together week by week, and that might portend a return to relevancy in the AFC West. K.C.'s Matt Cassel-led passing attack is still a work in progress, but the Chiefs are averaging an impressive 150 yards per game on the ground this month (No. 2 in the league behind the Steelers) and no one in the NFL has more than their 30 first downs via rushing.
And this isn't an all-on-Larry Johnson's-shoulders type of ground game. Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster all can move the chains in different ways, and the team's leading rusher this preseason is third-year power back Jackie Battle, a 238-pounder who knows how to lower his head but who has also ripped off a pair of 21-yard gallops. Kansas City ran the ball 36 times for 168 yards against Philadelphia on Friday night, throwing only 28 passes for 128 yards.
For now, it sounds like the offensive emphasis in Kansas City is clear. The Chiefs are committed to the ground, and starting to develop an identity.
• LOSER -- The Patriots have made a sizable investment in their secondary in recent drafts, and from early indications, young talents such as Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather cannot be considered anything but solid picks. But it's hard to remain perfectly calm regarding the state of the New England pass defense when you see St. Louis quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Thaddeus Lewis and Keith Null shred it for 334 yards and three touchdowns on 29 of 41 passing, as they did Thursday night in that 36-35 shootout of a Rams win at Gillette Stadium.
And did we mention that Bradford and Lewis are rookies and had no business picking apart the secondary of a team that believes it is once again playoff material in the AFC East? They're not known for panic in New England, but it's at least time to stress play-making in Foxboro. Patriots defensive backs against the Rams played back on their heels, and no one stepped up with a big hit or an interception to stop the bleeding once it started. With Cincinnati and the Bengals' rejuvenated passing game looming in the season opener on Sept. 12, the learning curve in New England's young secondary needs to immediately intensify.
• WINNER -- Between the underachievement of Buffalo's cushy-soft 2002 top-five offensive tackle and the draft bust label that was slapped on Detroit's 2005 top-10 receiver, the name "Mike Williams'' was once mud in NFL circles. But the moniker is making a heck of a comeback this preseason. For starters, the "new'' Mike Williams, Tampa Bay's rookie receiver, has been a revelation of sorts for the Bucs. The fourth-round pick out of Syracuse leads Tampa Bay with seven catches for 157 yards (22.4), winning a starting job and dazzling the team most days in practice.
Then there's the very unexpected return to form of the "old'' Mike Williams, the former Lions, Raiders and Titans receiver who hasn't even played in the league since 2007. Williams has been reunited with Pete Carroll, his former collegiate coach, in Seattle, and looks like he might just make an NFL career of it yet. Williams has shed about 35 pounds from his roly-poly high of 270, and his eight catches for 149 yards and a touchdown pace all Seahawk receivers. Williams is still only 26 and could provide Seattle with another inviting big target to pair with T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Actually, the "Mike Williams'' comeback trend began last year, when the former Bills offensive left tackle shed a bunch of weight and returned to the NFL after a two-year absence, earning a starting guard slot with the Redskins. But that Mike Williams, the 30-year-old ex-Texas Longhorn, is out for the 2010 season after being placed on the reserved-non-football injury list by Washington in late July. Doctors found blood clots near his heart and he's on blood thinners, hoping to resume his career in 2011.
• LOSER -- Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati passing game clearly has been upgraded thanks to the Bengals' personnel moves this year, but that doesn't mean that Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis and the team's scouts and medical staff gets a pass for letting the Antonio Bryant signing happen. Any way you look at it, someone gets the blame for awarding Bryant a $7.85 million signing bonus this spring, paying the free-agent receiver for what they hoped he was rather than what the facts should have spelled out regarding his problematic knee.
The Bengals have been pushing-the-envelope aggressive in their bid to upgrade the roster this year (see Jones, Pacman; Jones, Matt; and Owens, Terrell). But the Bryant debacle is a bitter lesson learned. Not every risk is worth taking, and sometimes the rush to fill a need position can leave a team in a position that winds up being impossible to defend.
• WINNER -- Depending on one's perspective, this item could belong in the winner or the loser column, but what's wrong in viewing the NFL's new alignment of the umpire as the first rule change in many years to actually benefit the defense over the offense? Not that the league set out to do any such thing last offseason when it decided for safety reasons to shift the umpire from the defensive side of the ball to the offensive backfield.
The Colts have already protested the mechanics of the new rule, because the umpire is primarily responsible for spotting the ball after every play, and Indy's Peyton Manning-led no-huddle offense can't operate as quickly as it once did with the umpire needing more time to get into position behind and off to one side of the quarterback. The Colts incurred a couple illegal snap penalties in Thursday night's blowout loss at Green Bay, and that pushed the issue to front-burner status within the NFL. And when P. Manning isn't happy, you can be sure folks in the league office sit up and take notice.
But good for the defense, which finally got thrown the smallest of bones by the league's rule-makers -- even unintentionally. Like offenses don't have enough things going for them in the NFL, what with defenders barely being allowed to touch receivers during coverage, hit the quarterback too high, too low, or too late, or being barred from contact with anyone in the vicinity of the helmet. If the defense gets an extra second or two to catch its breath while offenses are forced to await the resetting of the ball, consider it just a small step toward balancing a playing field that has tipped decidedly toward offense.
• LOSER -- The notion that Pittsburgh had sufficient quarterback depth to ride out the Ben Roethlisberger suspension took a significant body blow in the disarray of that 34-17 Steelers loss at Denver Sunday night. Playing with the first team for the first time this month, Dennis Dixon was shaky at best, completing nine of 16 passes for 94 yards, but with a couple of those throws winding up to the guys wearing Broncos jerseys. Byron Leftwich couldn't get anything accomplished in his third-quarter stint either, but then nobody looked particularly sharp behind the Steelers offensive line in this one.
Pittsburgh can get away with allowing some pass rush when Roethlisberger is in there, because he still improvises well and makes plays on the run, or with a tackler hanging onto him. But not so with Dixon or Leftwich under center. Dixon at least has the athleticism to avoid the pass pressure, but he doesn't have the game experience to always know when to run and when to hang tight in the pocket. I happen to believe he still gives the Steelers their best chance to win while Roethlisberger sits during the season's first month, but Dixon's expected comfort level in year three of running the Pittsburgh offense is not where it was hoped to be.
• WINNER -- Don't feel too bad for Houston in losing rookie rusher Ben Tate for the season. The Texans have themselves a legit No. 1 running back in Arian Foster, the undrafted ex-Tennessee Vol who continues to show he's for real. The 229-pound Foster ran 18 times for 110 yards (6.1 avg.) and a touchdown in Houston's humbling of Dallas Saturday night, becoming the first Texan back to ever crack triple digits in a preseason game.
Foster is no August mirage, either. In the last two games of his rookie season in 2009, he ran for 216 yards and three touchdowns in a pair of Texan wins against Miami and New England. Foster runs with an attitude and a downhill style, and he still can't believe that no one saw fit to draft him last year. Even though they love to throw it, look for the Texans to feed Foster the ball early and often, then use former starter Steve Slaton in a complementary change-of-pace role.
• LOSER -- Everybody knows the formula for success in Carolina this season calls for stout defense, a top-notch running game, and the hope that the offense proves opportunistic and avoids turning the ball over. But the reality so far is that the Panthers offense hasn't done anything with the ball. And we mean anything. Three games and 42 possessions into the preseason, Carolina's offense is still searching for its first touchdown.
Granted, receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart, two major offensive cogs, have yet to play in August. But in the NFL, even your backups are supposed to be playmakers at some point. Just not in Carolina. The Panthers beat Tennessee 15-7 at home Saturday night, but the real highlights were a third consecutive week of great defense and a 91-yard Mike Goodson kickoff return touchdown. The offense was again less-than-innocent bystanders.
Other than rookie receiver Brandon LaFell, no one has flashed for Carolina's offense in August. Quarterback Matt Moore hasn't been dreadful, but he's missed some big-play chances and isn't giving anyone reason to get excited this summer. DeAngelo Williams might be fine in time, but his nine-carry, 13-yard night against the Titans had to be a bit sobering. The Panthers defense may keep them in games this season, but at some point the offense will have to stand and be heard from. All of Carolina still awaits that development.