The NFL's preseason is winding down, and yet there are still so many unresolved issues as we approach the pivotal "dress rehearsal" stage of teams' preparations. Just 15 days away from the league’s regular-season opener, here are eight of the most pressing questions ahead of the third full weekend of preseason play, when many teams plan to give their starters extended work for the final time before the season kicks off.
1. Can the Giants starting offense start showing up? Pick your own cliche in regards to Eli Manning: Either it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, or we’re dealing with a square peg in a round hole situation. Something is clearly amiss in Manning’s transition to Ben McAdoo's West Coast offense that demands shorter drops, quick decisions and timely delivery of the football. It’s an up-tempo, timing-based offense, and the Giants’ first team simply does not have it down yet, producing eight punts, one fumble, and just one sustained touchdown drive in its 11 preseason possessions this month.
Is the vertically-minded Manning doomed to fail in an offense that operates largely on underneath and intermediate routes? Or is it too early to pass judgment? Manning is 7-of-16 for 49 yards in the preseason but just 1-of-9 for six yards in his past two starts, with the Giants' offensive execution sounding like a mere theory at this point. Head coach Tom Coughlin is getting restless and wants to see better results this week against the cornerback-needy Jets, or else -- implying that his starters might have to suit up in Week 4 against New England if he deems extra work is required. That means the offense must show some spark against the Giants' MetLife Stadium co-tenants.
2. Jake Matthews slides to the blind side in Atlanta. So much for easing the draft’s sixth overall pick into the Falcons’ starting lineup at the less stressful right tackle slot. That plan got ripped up last weekend in Houston when left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the year to a torn patellar tendon, necessitating the rookie’s move to quarterback Matt Ryan’s blind side. He’ll debut there Saturday night when the Titans visit the Georgia Dome, and third-year veteran Lamar Holmes will move back into the starting right tackle spot.
Losing Baker isn’t exactly a devastating blow, given his history of injuries and ineffectiveness, but it does remove some of the wiggle room Atlanta was playing with in an attempt to upgrade an offensive line that was an abject disaster in 2013, allowing 44 sacks. For Matthews, the future is now, and he’ll be allowed less of a learning curve at a position that he played for only one season at Texas A&M. If he struggles to make the transition and subjects Ryan to too much of a pounding, the Falcons will be starting 2014 with the same critical concern that doomed their season a year ago.
3. How will the Cardinals approach life without Darnell Dockett? Arizona improved as last season wore on, just missing out on the playoffs with a 10-6 record and earning early buzz as a team on the rise in 2014. But not much has gone right on defense this summer, and the Cardinals suffered what could be a back-breaking loss this week with a season-ending ACL injury to Dockett, the team’s ultra-valuable and underrated defensive lineman.
Dockett was the backbone of a tough-minded defense that ranked sixth overall in yards allowed in 2013, and removing him from the lineup means Arizona is now without three of its best five defensive talents from a year ago after Karlos Dansby signed with Cleveland in free agency and Daryl Washington was suspended for the 2014 season after a failed drug test. Even with defensive back Tyrann Mathieu coming off the physically unable to perform list this week following a late-season knee injury, the Cardinals are in trouble as they prepare to face visiting Cincinnati in the Carson Palmer Bowl on Sunday night at home. Arizona is saying all the right things and adopting a "Next Man Up" approach to the defensive losses, but at some point the level of talent drain will take its toll.
4. Will Blake Bortles keep giving Jacksonville reason to reconsider its starting quarterback? The cat may be out of the bag in Jacksonville, and Chad Henne could soon be out of a No. 1 job. The more Bortles plays this preseason, the more the Jaguars' decision-makers struggle to remember why they portrayed 2014 as a virtual redshirt season for the draft’s No. 3 pick in the first place. Bortles has looked way more ready than any other rookie passer this season (hey, maybe that’s why he was the first one drafted), and he’ll get perhaps his best chance yet to further his starting chances when he plays about a quarter with Jacksonville’s starters Friday night in Detroit.
Jacksonville may stay true to its plan and open the season with Henne as the starter even if Bortles continues to dazzle this month, with the veteran having done nothing to lose his grip on the job. But Henne had better stay sharp and healthy, because you can tell the Jaguars are somewhat surprised by the fast track Bortles has taken and remain open to the idea of going against their own instincts in terms of the rookie’s timetable. One more strong outing by Bortles could strike a deciding blow against the conventional wisdom in Jacksonville.
5. The 49ers offense has nowhere to go but up ... right? Wow, who knew Alex Boone was this pivotal to San Francisco’s success on offense? If this keeps up, the 49ers' holdout guard will have enough leverage to fill in the blanks on that new contract he wants. Speaking of blanks, that’s pretty much what San Francisco’s offense has been shooting these past two weeks, but it’s not because Boone is missing. In reality, the 49ers' total of three points scored against the Ravens and Broncos has plenty to do with the minimal playing time allotted to quarterback Colin Kaepernick (three possessions), running back Frank Gore, receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
The 49ers have also disappointed on defense, but they sat out their entire starting line, inside linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Tramaine Brock against Denver. San Francisco’s struggles could wind up being mirages on both sides of the ball come the regular season. The 49ers still would like to have something to build on coming out of Sunday afternoon’s home game against visiting San Diego, even if it’s just stepping foot in those pristine end zones at Levi’s Stadium for the first time. San Francisco can’t really show off its new state-of-the-art digs in style with a touchdown-less preseason.
6. Now that he’s a starting quarterback, can Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer begin to play like one? Maybe that’s what Johnny Manziel was communicating with that upraised finger the other night against Washington. Perhaps he knew he had played his way out of contention for the Browns' starting job and was all but signaling that Hoyer was No. 1. Whatever the intent, Cleveland’s training camp quarterback competition was not one for the ages, or for the squeamish.
As hold-your-nose ugly as this race has been to watch unfold on the field these past two weeks, there’s still time for Hoyer to assert himself in the role and at least repay head coach Mike Pettine for his lukewarm vote of confidence. Maybe with the pressure somewhat off, Hoyer can take a breath and wipe the slate clean, coming up with a strong half or so of work at home against the Rams on Saturday night. If so, things might look considerably more hopeful for Cleveland’s offense by Sunday morning. If not, and Hoyer struggles again, the Browns' quarterback situation could be murkier than ever.
7. How will Jairus Byrd look in his delayed Saints debut? The Saints’ centerpiece offseason acquisition on offense, rookie first-round receiver Brandin Cooks, has been turning heads since the moment he put on a New Orleans uniform. Now it’s finally time to see what kind of impact the team’s centerpiece offseason acquisition on defense can create. Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl safety with Buffalo, signed a six-year, $54 million contract with the Saints on the first day of free agency but has been largely idled after undergoing back surgery to correct a so-called "minor" disk issue in May.
Byrd will take the field as a Saint for the first time on Saturday night in Indianapolis, and his presence should immediately upgrade a Rob Ryan defense that could be Super Bowl-caliber if it can increase its takeaway total. In the past five years with the Bills, Byrd’s 22 interceptions rank second-most in the league, and he also forced 11 fumbles. If Byrd can quickly return to his Buffalo form, the Saints have every right to dream big in 2014.
8. Can EJ Manuel and the Bills offense fight through their red zone problems? The Bills will likely be pleased with the numbers they see when the dust settles on their ownership bidding process, but the math on the field has not been as promising for Buffalo this summer. Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel continues to move the ball into position to score, but as the Bills enter their fourth game of the preseason, the first-team offense is still looking for its first touchdown. That doesn’t add up to success by anyone’s estimation.
Bills head coach Doug Marrone changed his mind last week in Pittsburgh and left Manuel in the game for the entire first half, trying to get his young passer to end his appearance on a high note. It never came, even though Marrone twice had the Bills go for it on fourth down in the red zone. That makes Saturday afternoon’s game against Tampa Bay a vital one if Manuel is to carry any sense of confidence into the regular season. Manuel is again looking too hesitant and careful at times, willing to take the checkdown or throw the ball away rather than make a mistake. No risk, no reward has been the story of the summer thus far for Buffalo’s offense.