First Down/Fourth Down: Manziel frustrates, Bortles dominates
One day after they were informed that receiver Josh Gordon's year-long suspension would be upheld, the Cleveland Browns took the field against the Chicago Bears and tried to roll past the fact their best skill player would not be with them in 2014. The primary focus of Thursday's game, therefore, became the development of quarterback Johnny Manziel, who came into the game after regular-season starter Brian Hoyer got a few reps of his own.
On his first play, Manziel rolled right and tried to hit tight end Gary Barnidge, throwing downfield with great anticipation, but Barnidge dropped a ball that hit him right between the numbers. On the next play, Terrance West fumbled the ball on a pitch, and the Bears got it back. On the second drive, Manziel got lost in the pocket on third-and-5 and fumbled after running around a while. The Browns recovered the ball, but drive over. Manziel's third drive was an underthrown semi-bomb to Travis Benjamin, but there was a flag on Bears cornerback Demontre Hurst, and the drive was extended. On the next play, Manziel threw high and over the middle for Charles Johnson, who got de-cleated for his trouble, and that was all on the quarterback.
Then, Manziel ran all over the place and threw an absolute dart to Nate Burleson, who ran it down to the one-yard line. And on the next play, he threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jim Dray on a rollout left. Manziel was, at turns thrilling and exasperating on that five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, and that's par for the course. Manziel finished with six completions in 17 attempts for 83 yards and that touchdown, adding 55 yards on the ground, but there's still too much randomness in his game.
"It falls into the category of Johnny being Johnny," Browns head coach Mike Pettine said at the half. Some of his plays were, 'No-no-no-yes,' but that's what he does. That's what he brings to the table. He needs to be more comfortable with his reads, take the easy throws that are there, but he's showing why he has the reputation that he does."
Right now, Manziel's most worrisome trait is that he's missing some fairly easy throws pretty wildly -- some of that is a product of his not taking easier targets, but he's also playing too frenetically and rushing his mechanics. He's not a consistent pocket passer, he struggles to throw with anticipation, and his footwork is all over the place at times. Brian Hoyer is no great shakes -- he misses too many throws on third down and in the red zone -- but he is a more developed passer than Manziel to date. Sadly for the Browns and their fans, that's a pretty low bar. Unless you want to build a specific offense around this kid and go whole hog -- which the Browns are not -- you're going to have to wait until he learns a lot of the little things.
If we're going to talk about a rookie quarterback who's torn the roof off, let's discuss Mr. Bortles, who was supposed to be destined for the bench in his rookie season after the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him third overall. The thought was that Bortles needed that much seasoning before he was ready for the NFL, but after a preseason in which he completed 32 of 51 passes for 521 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, Bortles has done everything possible to force his team's hand. Against the Falcons on Thursday, Bortles started the second quarter off with a gorgeous 57-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Marqise Lee, and finished his day early going 4 of 6 for 86 yards. The Jags have a plan for veteran Chad Henne in the short term, but if Henne struggles at all, you can expect the calls for the rookie. With his mobility, strong arm, and ability to deal with pressure, Bortles has earned at least a fighter's chance to find out if he's truly ready for prime time.
“As a competitor, you want to play," Bortles said after the game. "You want to go play, obviously, but you’ve got to understand your role and I understand mine. Chad is our starter and I’m the back-up. So now my role kind of shifts and I’ve got to go try get work and get better at practice doing stuff for the defense on the scout team and improving in those areas.”
Fourth down: Sammy Watkins' ribs, and E.J. Manuel's arm.
For the second time this preseason, the Bills' first-round receiver had to leave a game because of a rib injury -- this time, in Buffalo's 23-0 loss to the Lions. Watkins was trying to bring in a slant overthrown by E.J. Manuel, whose completely dismal preseason has been just as worrisome as Watkins' ribs -- if not more so. Through the preseason, Watkins' immense talents have been wasted as Manuel and his backups fling the ball around with little consistency or accuracy. The Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick to move up and take Watkins in this draft, but they don't have the assets to protect him.
The Rams have the best and deepest defensive line in the NFL. Most people will agree with that. What we're not sure about -- and won't be until final cuts -- is whether Michael Sam or Ethan Westbrooks will be part of it. Sam has been the bigger story for obvious reasons, but Westbrooks, the undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, has done quite a bit to forward his own case. Westbrooks played a lot of five-tech in this game, either in straight three-man fronts or with pass-rushing help from outside linebackers. Either way, he was frequently double-teamed and still provided pressure with dynamic hand movement and a spin move that is a work in progress. He could be a very good strong-side end for any 4-3 team; we can but wait and see if that team is the Rams. Though Sam has shown some good quickness around the edge at times and finished the 14-13 loss to the Dolphins with his tackles, the eye test tends to favor Westbrooks, who had a sack, especially in a Jeff Fisher/Gregg Williams defense requiring ends to be stout against the run.
Fourth down: The New York Giants' offense (continued)
The G-Men finished their preseason undefeated with a 16-13 win over the Patriots, but it's safe to say that Eli Manning isn't on the same page with the system new offensive coordinator Den McAdoo is putting out there. Manning finished a dismal preseason with one completion in four attempts for no yards. He's looked rushed and out of rhythm all the way through in an offense that was supposed to simplify his reads and make things easier for him to see. Coming off a 2013 season in which he saw a career-high in sacks and a career low in efficiency, and one wonders -- are we seeing the downside of Eli sooner than we may have expected?
"Well, we’re still just… I think everybody knows what to do, but just the pace it needs to be done," Manning said this week. "You want everything done precisely, so we’re still, every day we’re trying to get better at that. We need to be corrected on some things and do things more efficiently, so we’re getting there, we’re making smalls steps, but we’re probably not all the way where we need to be. I think there will always be things that we can improve on. It’s not something you’re going to master in four weeks. As the season goes on, we’ll know what we do well, we’ll progress, we’ll put new plays in, different things in, to attack certain defenses."
So far, despite the 5-0 preseason record, the Giants' offense hasn't really attacked anyone. We'll see if it's more than growing pains.
First down: Derek Carr, and a much easier quarterback decision
There may be a quarterback controversy in Jacksonville, but there shouldn't be in Oakland, where rookie Derek Carr turned the Super Bowl champion Seahawks out through a quarter and a bit of football. Playing at times against Seattle's defensive starters, Carr threw bullet after bullet, making underrated receiver Denarius Moore look particularly good. Before he was replaced by Matt McGloin, Carr completed 11 of 13 passes for 143 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Moore caught two of those touchdowns, and the McGloin-led offense looked dragged-down from the start. The Raiders acquired veteran Matt Schaub to run their offense, but letting Carr run the show while Schaub recovers from elbow soreness may be the answer to what this offense needs for the next several seasons.