The NFL preseason is prime time for overreactions and nitpicky analysis. Yet there is still plenty to be learned from finally seeing teams in game situations, even if the finished products will not be on display until the regular season arrives next month.
Every team now has at least one exhibition game under its belt, with three more weeks to come. We highlight some of the best (First Down) and worst (Fourth Down) from Week 2 of the preseason, but before we do that, it's assumed that we can call Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater the star of the week.
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In Minnesota's 30-28 win over the Cardinals, Bridgewater completed 16 of 20 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including the score that put the Vikings up for good with 22 seconds left. On that last drive, Bridgewater was six of eight for 64 yards, and he handled Arizona's multiple blitzes masterfully, looking like a veteran all the way. When the Vikings traded up to take Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick, the Louisville alum had been picked apart by analysts who dinged him for everything from a bad pro day to "skinny knees" (yeah, whatever). But when it counted (well, when it sort of counted), Bridgewater was accurate, composed and consistent. His ball placement wasn't perfect, but his game was good enough, and head coach Mike Zimmer has an interesting choice to make between Bridgewater and Matt Cassel as his Week 1 regular season starter.
"I told Teddy, I think that drive made him the man of the city," receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said after the game. "I told him I used to be the man, but he just came and took over all my little shine that I had."
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Bridegwater realized the enormity of the situation, but he was more interested in sharing credit.
"It’s great to be able to finish a game that way, but the guys around me made it happen, also. Great communication in the two-minute situation. Us young guys being in and Joe Berger being the veteran center in there with a young group in Adam Thielen and Jarius Wright and those guys making big plays today. Kain Colter making a spectacular catch on the sideline to get out of bounds and help us stop the clock. It was a great overall performance from the entire unit and even from the veterans. Coming to the sidelines they were giving us advice of what to expect on the next series, so it was a great team performance."
Maybe, but everyone knows who the star was on that final drive.
First Down: Jimmy Garoppolo, new Patriots' backup QB.
Well, it may be too early to call that one -- after all, Ryan Mallett is still in the mix. But Garoppolo, the second-round rookie from Eastern Illinois, certainly looked as if he wanted to make it a real contest. Garoppolo finished his day in New England's 42-35 win over the Eagles with six completions in 12 attempts for 72 yards and two touchdowns, which came on his first two drives. In addition, Garoppolo showed an effective mobility to extend plays we haven't often seen from Patriots quarterbacks through the Bill Belichick era. And that may be the difference when Belichick and his staff decide who will be Tom Brady's primary understudy. It's the second straight week in which Garoppolo has looked strong.
Fourth Down: The NFL's new points of emphasis.
The numbers were not good in the first week of the preseason if you liked balanced football. The NFL's new "points of emphasis" (the phrase announcers always use when some sort of egregious call has been made) ran wild, with 53 defensive holding calls, 27 illegal contact penalties, and 15 pass interference flags. The idea here is to obviously put defenses on notice: anything outside the strict boundaries of the rules regarding pass defense was going to get called. Things got even hairier in the second full preseason week. The Saints and Titans combined for 32 penalties, the Patriots and Eagles had 28, and the Seahawks and Chargers had a total of 25.
More troubling than the number of calls (and the inevitably higher percentage of calls that are questionable at best) is the fact that the league isn't doing this to advance player safety or improve the game overall. This is a clear imperative to make the game more wide-open, and balance be damned. If you don't believe that, here's what official John Parry told the Boston Globe before he took the field in that New England-Philly Flagapalooza.
“It’s an offensive game, and we want receivers to be able to run a free route.”
Um... actually, it's supposed to be an offensive and defensive game. That's what makes football great. And right now, it appears the league has taken things too far in one direction. We can but wait and see if they dull the new edges before the regular season begins. As it stands now, this is not professional football, people.
First Down: Jadeveon Clowney's big series.
In his NFL debut against the Cardinals last week, Texans endbacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, looked pretty good on a few plays, getting some hurries, racking up a near-sack and stopping running back Stepfan Taylor in the backfield with frightening speed. In game two against the Falcons on Saturday, Clowney took things to a new level. He dropped Falcons running back Antone Smith for a loss, and then sacked Matt Ryan. Clowney was helped on the run play by the Falcons' odd insistence that they should take their blocking away from him (hello, Mike Tice), but he flat-out beat left tackle Sam Baker for a sack. Clowney is still putting his technique together, but it's clear that his combination of strength and speed make him a special player at times.
Fourth Down: Trent Richardson.
You'll hear some say that Richardson showed a bit more against the Giants when it came to burst and explosion. But the former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns and the player Colts inexplicably gave up a first-rounder of their own to acquire last September, ran for just 21 yards on nine carries, with a long carry of eight yards in Indy's 27-26 loss to the Giants on Saturday. For the most part, Richardson exhibited the same issues he'd shown all of last season. He was slow to the hole, and less than powerful when asked to break contact. The Colts have a major issue this season if they expect Richardson to break through his low ceiling and star in this offense.
First Down: St. Louis' two Sams.
The St. Louis Rams are hoping for a lot from quarterback Sam Bradford this season. Against the Packers on Saturday, Bradford certainly appeared to be the player the team needs at that position. He completed nine of 12 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, and more importantly, came up just fine after a couple of hits against Green Bay's defense. The Rams lost the game, 21-7. But Bradford, who saw his first action since last November's season-ending knee injury, looked pretty sharp overall.
“It felt good,” Bradford said afterward. “I think for everyone else it’s probably a bigger deal for me to get back out on the field. But it was nice to get out there in a live game, feel the pass rush, get the ball out of my hand, and go out there and execute the way we did.”
Bradford was on his way to his best overall season in 2013, and if he can stay on that track (and stay upright), the Rams have a decent shot of making the NFC West even more competitive.
Defensive end Michael Sam, the seventh-round rookie who's obviously been more famous for his status as the NFL's first openly gay player than anything else to date, got his first NFL sack against the Pack when he got to backup Matt Flynn in the fourth quarter. Sam showed estimable speed and turn to get that quarterback takedown, but the problem is, he's in a roster crunch as a backup right now. Undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks has also played well, and the Rams have perhaps the deepest defensive line rotation in the NFL.
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Fourth Down: Oakland's pass defense.
Well, when you're the Raiders, denial is a pleasant state. When head coach Dennis Allen was talking about a pass defense that had been shredded by Minnesota's Matt Cassel and Detroit's Matthew Stafford in the 2014 preseason, his answer may have said more than he wanted it to. In the offseason, the team let its two best players (left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston) go via free agency despite a huge amount of cap space, and then went about signing seemingly every aging defensive player on the market to contracts. It's not going to be a pleasant year for the Oakland team, no matter how Allen tries to throw sunshine on things.
First Down: Seattle's running back backups.
When Marshawn Lynch held out part of this preseason, the Seahawks used the opportunity to give more reps to Robert Turbin and Christine Michael, their two backup running backs with great potential. Both players showed that potential in Friday night's 41-14 whitewash of the San Diego Chargers. Turbin, the third-year man currently seen as the second-stringer, got the most reps and gained 81 yards on 12 carries, including a 47-yard run in which Turbin showed a Beast Mode-style stiff-arm. Michael, the second-year man with perhaps even more overall upside, gained 45 yards on eight carries, often bursting through tackles for extra yardage and displaying tantalizing quickness. Quarterback Russell Wilson led the day with two rushing touchdowns, but don't let that stat fool you. When it's time for the Seahawks to move past Lynch, they're in very good hands with the new kids.
Fourth Down: Eli Manning.
In 2013, Manning set career highs in interceptions (27) and sacks (39), and the belief was that new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo would take the Giants' quarterback out of the malaise brought about by too many years with Kevin Gilbride, and everything would be all right. McAdoo even caused a few titters when he suggested that Manning could come close to a 70 percent completion rate this season, pretty bold talk about a player who's completed 53.5 percent of his throws through 10 seasons.
Based on three preseason games (yes, it's a small sample size, but bear with us), Manning might be lucky if he completes 70 passes all year, never mind the percentage. Throughout the preseason, and especially against the Colts, Manning looked simply horrible. He was unsure in the pocket, hesitant to hit his receivers in stride (he double-clutched more than once when it appeared that he should have pulled the trigger) and overall, he just looked lost. Manning completed one of seven passes for six yards, and at least two of those incompletions should have been interceptions.
At the end of Manning's final drive of the day, in the second quarter, the Giants ran an inside draw on third-and-7, down 13-0. I don't care if it is the preseason. That's a sign that your quarterback situation is no bueno, and you know all about it.