Preseason action always provides a jam-packed current of information to pick through, especially when rosters are still being shaped and tweaked as they are early in August.
What did the second week of NFL exhibition games teach us? An attempt to figure out the significant lessons, one team at a time:
Eagles 17, Steelers 0
Philadelphia: Vinny Curry and (especially) Brandon Graham were among the most active Eagles defenders during Thursday’s shutout victory. Graham had a pair of tackles, including one for loss, while only a blatant if uncalled hold kept Curry from a sack. One thing to monitor: Jim Schwartz’s upfield attack can put a ton of pressure on linebackers and safeties to fill holes, if the linemen get caught. It happened once early against Pittsburgh with Connor Barwin opening up a cutback lane, but for the most part the Eagles were outstanding.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers have to be concerned about their tight end position. Heath Miller retired, Ladarius Green’s status is in limbo and so 2015 draft pick Jesse James has fallen into the starting job. He should be a serviceable option through the air (two catches for seven yards Thursday); his blocking is problematic. He whiffed on a chance early in the game, allowing a Nigel Bradham tackle, then let Steven Means get by him to force a Landry Jones INT. It was easy to take Miller’s blocking for granted, but it will be missed.
Bengals 30, Lions 14
Cincinnati: Rex Burkhead is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and he stands to be an interesting value free agent come next off-season. The 2013 sixth-round pick has just 13 career regular-season carries, but he clearly has some ability with the ball in his hands—he posted 73 total yards on seven touches Thursday. Cincinnati has toyed with playing him as a slot receiver (10 receptions in 2015). It’s possible the Bengals go back to that well given their unsettled options at receiver. Burkhead plays like a poor man’s Theo Riddick, so he’s due additional opportunities.
Detroit: DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead are going to start at linebacker. What happens if Levy can’t stay healthy or when Detroit rolls three LBs out there? Josh Bynes and Kyle Van Noy are the default options but neither is an ideal full-time starter. Van Noy finally has shown improvement this off-season, yet still has plays like this one, on which he inexplicably vacated the middle of the field to track QB Andy Dalton. Whitehead was hit or miss vs. Cincinnati himself—he made a great read on a screen to Jeremy Hill, then on the very next play overpursued to leave Hill a huge backside lane. Levy better hurry back.
Falcons 24, Browns 13
Atlanta: Obviously too soon to make an official call on this, but Brooks Reed looks quite comfortable after shifting from OLB to DE for Dan Quinn. This was the second straight week that he made things happen off the edge, as he racked up four tackles vs. Cleveland. He smoked backup Browns LT Dan France on a play that saw Tyson Jackson draw a hold inside, and he also made a terrific read on a screen to TE Gary Barnidge. Reed’s 2015 season was an injury-plagued waste. He’s on track for a rebound.
Cleveland: The most important moves NFL GMs make often are not big-ticket items. Case in point: Cleveland’s Sashi Brown may have pulled off a minor heist in dealing pick No. 223 in this year’s draft to Miami for CB Jamar Taylor and pick 250 (which Cleveland used on LB Scooby Wright). Taylor, a bust for the Dolphins, now is closing in on a starting nickel job. Thursday, he showed why. He helped break up multiple plays in the first quarter, showing the footwork needed to survive in the slot.
Patriots 23, Bears 22
Chicago: Cody Whitehair is going to be a very good lineman for the Bears. He’s going to hit a few rough patches as a rookie. The Kansas State product covered both ends vs. New England, the latter occurring when Trey Flowers absolutely whupped him for a sack. There were a lot of positives, however, especially in the run game. At one point, Jeremy Langford followed him through a small hole for a solid gain. Later, Whitehair released to the second level and drove outstanding LB Dont’a Hightower a good 10 yards downfield.
New England: Speaking of Flowers, he has been one of the most buzzed-about Patriots during camp and has carried that mojo into the preseason. His sack Thursday, against a guard in Whitehair, came with him lined up inside on a passing down—that versatility is a huge selling point. He was visible while set outside, as well, showing the awareness to maintain his responsibilities even when plays initially moved away from him.
Packers 20, Raiders 12
Oakland: Easy to see why the Raiders have been so high on rookie DT Jihad Ward. Of course, as with the aforementioned Whitehair, there are moments where he looks like ... ya know ... a rookie. He ran into a tough matchup early Thursday, as veteran Packers linemen T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga combined to push him around a bit. Ward responded—an important sign for a young player—by helping stuff a play on the goal line. He flows very well laterally, that effort-based athleticism among his best traits.
Green Bay: If any team and/or fan base would appreciate the work of a fullback, this is it. (Kuuuuuhn!) And Aaron Ripkowski’s presence is why the Packers allowed John Kuhn to leave as a free agent. The 2015 draft pick out of Oklahoma was a beast vs. Oakland, wiping out Oakland LB Ben Heeney on multiple runs and firing through holes as a lead blocker. He also had a 13-yard reception (and a drop). Green Bay has a good one here.
Vikings 18, Seahawks 11
Minnesota: The two catches Cordarrelle Patterson made matched his 2015 regular-season total. Thursday, they both came on screen plays designed specifically for him. So, now what? He averaged 8.5 yards on those attempts in Seattle, briefly flashing his usual shiftiness. But we also know what he can do with the ball in his hands. The problem always has been getting said ball into said hands. With better weapons outside and more of a vertical threat from Teddy Bridgewater, a lot of room would be available underneath for Patterson. Was this a sign of things to come? Or just the Vikings getting him some work?
Seattle: So far, so good for new starting left guard Mark Glowinski. He, center Justin Britt and rookie right guard Germain Ifedi did their part to push the Christine Michael hype train this week, and Glowinski was arguably the best of the trio. A backup last year, Glowinski really moved defenders in the run game early Thursday, save for a miss that allowed Audie Cole to make a tackle at the line. He has the quickness to be a critical piece up front for Seattle, provided he can carry over these preseason performances to September.
Redskins 22, Jets 18
New York: You want the good or bad on rookie Jarvis Jenkins? The plus side is that the Jets’ aggressive defensive approach turned him loose several times in the backfield, including twice on Washington’s first three plays. The bad is that those free runs produced no sacks, just a couple of QB hits and one swing-and-a-miss on a 360-ing Colt McCoy. Jenkins also has to be better holding his spot against the run. The Jets drafted him so he would create pressure, though, and through two games he has done that repeatedly.
Washington: Back during 2015 Senior Bowl practices, Martrell Spaight played like a second- or third-round pick. The Redskins landed him in Round 5. A concussion ended his rookie season in mid-September, but he’s healthy now and looked great Friday night. Spaight finished with four tackles, plus forced a Kellen Davis fumble with a solid wrap-up tackle after a catch. He finds and flows to the ball well.
Cowboys 41, Dolphins 14
Miami: Even though Tony Lippett appears to be penciled in as a starter right now, his transition from college receiver to NFL CB never was going to be a one-year project. All the reasons to think it could work still show up: Lippett is long and quick, with an advanced sense of how to find the football. Friday, the rough patches also showed. He was called for pass interference early, got caught several steps behind Cole Beasley on a route over the middle and crashed down too hard on a run that Alfred Morris bounced out his way for a solid gain. It’s coming along—he might even be able to handle that starting gig—but it will be up and down in 2016.
Dallas: A little more on Morris ... man, was he impressive. He rushed for 85 yards on 13 carries with a touchdown. And while some of that was created by Dallas’s offensive line steamrolling Miami’s sluggish front seven, Morris on several occasions managed to turn small gains into sizable chunks by spotting an alternative hole. On his touchdown run, he was stalemated at the line, only to pinball his way outside into space. A bonus: On a Dak Prescott-to-Brice Butler TD that was called back by pass interference (with Lippett in coverage), Morris made an outstanding blitz pickup on Spencer Paysinger.
Chargers 19, Cardinals 3
Arizona: After his team’s preseason loss Friday, Arizona coach Bruce Arians said that Jaron Brown is the best receiver on the roster right now. Which is a scary thought for regular-season foes, considering Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown are there. Jaron Brown flashed why he earned such praise vs. San Diego, making a pair of leaping catches to total 40 yards. Brown has not shown a ton in three seasons (44 catches for 513 yards combined), but he has the physical gifts to be a success. As he showed vs. the Chargers, he does not need much space to make plays.
San Diego: It was just one preseason game, but second-year linebacker Denzel Perryman sure looked a lot quicker and more comfortable Friday than he did for much of 2015. He was flying to the ball, vs. both run and pass, as part of a Chargers’s D that stuffed Arizona’s run game (21 carries for 63 yards). In fact, the entire linebacking corps stood out. Backup Nick Dzubnar was all over the place en route to a game-high seven tackles and even oft-forgotten man Manti Te’o showed up with a nice play, filling a lane to bury Chris Johnson.
Panthers 26, Titans 16
Carolina: There never were valid enough explanations to explain how Jeremy Cash slid out of the 2016 draft entirely. Far too early to pencil him in as a perennial All-Pro or anything, but the Duke product is playing linebacker about as well as the Panthers could hope right now, considering he just transitioned to that position from safety. He always was comfortable up near the line. Cash notched five tackles, including one for loss, against the Titans.
Tennessee: Don’t have to dig too deep into the game tape for this one. The Panthers’s first play from scrimmage was a completion against CB Antwon Blake (Cam Newton to Kelvin Benjamin). Their first score came when Blake whiffed on a tackle, allowing Ted Ginn to turn a seven-yard completion into a 61-yard TD. If Blake isn’t big enough to win in the air against WRs like Benjamin, isn’t physical enough at the line and isn’t consistent enough in his tackling, what’s left?
Bills 21, Giants 0
New York: Curious to see how the linebacking situation shakes out in the coming weeks, because there doesn’t appear to be much set in stone. Jonathan Casillas was the best of the bunch Saturday—he blew up an end around and later tracked down Tyrod Taylor on a scramble near the goal line—but LeSean McCoy also smoked him in coverage. Could rookie B.J. Goodson be an answer? He saw a ton of run vs. the Bills and shows a nose for the ball.
Buffalo: Two guys who appear to be taking advantage of holes along Buffalo’s front seven are veterans Jerel Worthy and Lorenzo Alexander. Both were around the ball on a repeated basis Saturday—Alexander recorded a sack; Worthy finished with five tackles and was in the thick of it on a number of run plays. Alexander also offers some versatility as a linebacker who can drop on occasion. Neither is a star, but the Bills just need reliable bodies.
Ravens 19, Colts 18
Baltimore: Zach Orr did not make a start during his first two NFL seasons. He is giving the Baltimore coaches ample reason for that to change come September. While Orr was credited with just one tackle during Saturday’s game, he was in the mix more than that. He also made plays that didn’t show up on the stat sheet, like blanketing Dwayne Allen on third-and-goal, helping to force a field goal.
Indianapolis: If this was a sign of things to come for the Andrew Luck/Ryan Kelly pairing, the Colts will be thrilled. The QB paired with his rookie center for the first time in game action and Kelly was every bit as advertised. In one impressive sequence early, Kelly helped moved the pile on a five-yard run play, then locked 340-pound DT Brandon Williams in place so Luck could get a pass away. The Colts’s O-line in general protected Luck well, and it should not be assumed that Kelly’s arrival is coincidence.
Buccaneers 27, Jaguars 21
Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers’s starting offense was out of whack—no Doug Martin and an off night from Jameis Winston will do that. More troublesome than the lack of points, though, was how much Donovan Smith struggled against a handful of different edge players. Jared Odrick (see below) blew up a play off Smith’s side of the line, as did Sen’Derrick Marks later—and was already past Smith’s inside shoulder when Smith reacted to a the snap.
Jacksonville: Odrick is a $42 million player who didn’t record a single tackle or sack Saturday. So, why does he warrant a mention here? Because Jacksonville’s first-team defense clearly was more dangerous when he was on the field. Odrick flipped between the left and right edge, helping to close off the edge on each side against various run plays. He also flushed Winston from the pocket on a key third-and-goal by diving underneath a Smith block attempt.
Texans 16, Saints 9
New Orleans: It’s safe to say that Andrus Peat was expected to be further along at this point—headed into his second season—than he seems to be. He has been bouncing from left tackle to right guard because of Terron Armstead’s injury, which is a tough mix of assignments in the preseason. He has been overmatched regardless. Jadeveon Clowney scored a highlight against him while he was at left tackle, clobbering him for a sack of Brees. But Peat also was partially at fault on a Brees interception. Lined up at right guard, Peat allowed Devon Still to get inside him and hurry New Orleans’ QB into a bad throw.
Houston: The numbers just out for a preseason game: four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Big night for rookie Will Fuller. The bad news, if there is any, is that it took eight targets to get those four receptions. The good news is that Fuller worked his way open on a variety of routes, including a sharp comeback several minutes after his TD. There was some belief he would be a one-trick pony, good for deep balls only. He’s quickly showing that may not be the case.
49ers 31, Broncos 24
San Francisco: The hype on TE Vance McDonald as a potential star of Chip Kelly’s offense is legit. McDonald set career highs in catches (30) and receiving yards (326) last season and he should cruise past those totals this year. As he showed on a three-catch, 38-yard night Saturday, he not only has size to be a red-zone target, he can pull away from linebackers on crossing routes.
Denver: The Broncos ripped off two big first-quarter gains on the ground: a 19-yard TD by C.J. Anderson and a 13-yard effort from rookie Devontae Booker. The link? Both came on plays set up behind right tackle Donald Stephenson—Michael Schofield was at right guard for the first, Darrion Weems there for the second. Stephenson has been shaky in pass protection in the past, but he’ll give the run game a lift.
Rams 21, Chiefs 20
Kansas City: Chris Conley was outstanding Saturday night, a fact that has to have Kansas City’s coaching staff and QB Alex Smith excited. The best of Conley’s three catches, totaling 66 yards, came when he blew past Trumaine Johnson on a third-and-short to track down a 37-yard reception. That Smith had the confidence to throw a deep ball in that situation is a noteworthy development, especially since it appeared to be an audible.
Los Angeles: A little love for the center. Tim Barnes was brilliant during the early portions of Saturday’s game, when most of the big names were still out there. He didn’t have an easy assignment either, often left in one-on-one matchups with Dontari Poe. When the Rams ran the ball, Barnes made a habit of getting to the second level. He cleared out LB Justin March on one such play; on another, he drove Derrick Johnson back about 10 yards. Todd Gurley’s TD? Right behind Barnes into the end zone.