Storylines to follow as preseason concludes
The fourth week of the NFL preseason usually falls in line with the latest "Bring It On" sequel and whatever's on the CW in terms of its Must-See TV appeal.
The lockout's changed things a bit this year -- because of the limited time teams have had to get the kinks worked out, we may see starting lineups on the field longer during Thursday and Friday's action.
And even in games where the stars will sit, there's enough to keep us entertained. Here's a look at the key storylines from each of this week's 16 preseason games:
• Lions at Bills: How will Shawne Merriman look?
The Bills would love Merriman to be a starter at outside linebacker, but he never suited up for Buffalo in 2010 because of injury and has missed the past two preseason games for the same reason. Bills coach Chan Gailey says that Merriman is healthy and will play against Detroit. How much? At least enough for Buffalo to figure out if it can count on him come Week 1.
• Colts at Bengals: Hello, Kerry Collins.
Peyton Manning is back at practice, so this may all be moot next Sunday. But if the Colts' franchise QB isn't ready for the opener against Houston, Collins will get the nod. And heading into Thursday night, he's taken exactly zero snaps in an Indianapolis uniform.
That will change against the Bengals, with Collins expected to start and see a decent amount of time. The Colts may even risk keeping their first-string offense on the field longer than normal so Collins can get familiar with it.
• Ravens at Falcons: Baltimore's O-line debut.
Ten days before playing the Steelers in a crucial Week 1 showdown, the Ravens will trot out their expected starting offensive line for the first time. That unit will include Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and Michael Oher back on the right. Pittsburgh will be a stiffer test than what figures to be a mix-and-match Atlanta front, but Baltimore needs to see what it has.
• Rams at Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew sighting.
Whether Jacksonville ultimately puts its fate in the hands of David Garrard or Blaine Gabbert at QB, the winner of that battle figures to have a much easier time if Jones-Drew is healthy. About eight months removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, MJD will finally hit the field Thursday night for a few snaps.
• Cowboys at Dolphins: Dallas' kicking situation.
I know, I know, it's not that exciting. It's Week 4 of the preseason, cut me some slack.
The Cowboys head into Thursday night with a whopping four kickers on their roster: David Buehler, Dan Bailey, Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner. The first three in that group were doing such a bang-up job that Dallas signed Rayner almost immediately after Detroit cut him. Somehow, the Cowboys will try to get all four work Thursday so they can figure this thing out.
• Giants at Patriots: The battle to be Tom Brady's backup.
When Brady fell in Week 1 of the 2008 season, it opened the door for Matt Cassel to establish himself as an NFL quarterback. While the Patriots would prefer to not go down the injury road again, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett have been locked in a fierce competition this preseason to be Brady's No. 2. Hoyer's held the job for the last two years, but Mallett could claim ownership with a strong finish to the preseason.
• Eagles at Jets: Vince Young starts.
Michael Vick missed three-plus games last season after injuring his ribs against Washington in Week 4. Because of his style of play, Vick's always just one scramble away from taking a huge hit. Last year, Philadelphia had the luxury of sliding Kevin Kolb into the lineup as Vick's replacement. This year, the onus would fall on Young. He's been decent this preseason, but a solid start Thursday could help ease Philadelphia's fears.
• Buccaneers at Redskins: Grossman vs. Beck.
Washington's quarterback controversy still hasn't been settled, with John Beck and Rex Grossman fighting tooth and nail for the starting gig. The Redskins have not explicitly said how much either guy will play Thursday -- or even who will start. If Mike Shanahan's mind is not made up yet, the results against Tampa Bay Thursday night may still loom large.
• Browns at Bears: Who will replace Eric Steinbach?
As if Cleveland needed any more obstacles headed into 2011, the Browns lost Steinbach, their starting left guard, for the season with a back injury. That forced rookie Jason Pinkston into the starting lineup -- at least on paper -- with John Greco and possibly recent waiver-claim Oniel Cousins in the mix. Who is on the starting line in Week 1 might come down to who plays best Thursday.
• Steelers at Panthers: Cam Newton's last chance.
Based solely on the fact that Newton has started Carolina's past two preseason games, the rookie appears to have jumped Jimmy Clausen on the QB depth chart. Can Newton hold on to the job with the regular season approaching? He'll get another opportunity to prove himself against a Steelers defense that will put the pressure on, no matter how many starters are on the sideline.
• Chiefs at Packers: Matt Cassel and company want in.
The Chiefs have been outscored 70-23 in their three preseason games, with Cassel completing just 12 of 27 passes in his two appearances. K.C.'s QB apparently wanted to play more last week, with one report stating Cassel "seemed irked" that he only got to attempt 13 passes before coming out.
Will coach Todd Haley acquiesce to the first-team offense's desire to see more work in a meaningless fourth preseason game?
• Texans at Vikings: Everson Griffen on the move.
Minnesota is facing some depth issues at linebacker, especially after losing Jasper Brinkley for an extended period of time due to a hip injury. So, the Vikings are going to try and utilize Everson Griffen -- who's never played linebacker, mind you -- split between DE and OLB. Griffen will see time at both positions Thursday. A poor showing at linebacker could prompt Minnesota to consider its Plan B.
• Titans at Saints: The Jamie Harper show.
Chris Johnson's holdout ended Thursday, which means that the Titans will have their star running back for Week 1 at Jacksonville. But in his absence (and with Javon Ringer out because of a hip injury), the Titans may have discovered another backfield stud in Harper. The 2011 fourth-round pick gained 146 rushing yards on 32 carries so far this preseason and has scored a touchdown in each game. He'll get one last chance to start Thursday before CJ2K returns.
• Broncos at Cardinals: Tim Tebow, one more time.
Sorry if you're sick of Tebow. He just refuses to go away as a storyline in Denver. This time around, Broncos head coach John Fox won't tell us who will start this game with Kyle Orton likely sitting out. If it's Tebow, consider it the Heisman Trophy winner's last real shot to impress the Denver staff. If it's Quinn, that gives us a pretty good indication that Tebow will be the No. 3 QB heading into the regular season.
• 49ers at Chargers: Can Frank Gore save the offense?
San Francisco certainly paid Gore like he can, dropping a $21 million extension in his lap this week. Gore didn't play last week, and the 49ers were demolished, 30-7 by Houston. Gore and starting quarterback Alex Smith are both expected to be in the lineup Thursday night, at least for a series or two. Putting together a couple of solid drives and scoring some points would do wonders for San Francisco's confidence.
• Raiders at Seahawks: Introducing Terrelle Pryor. Pryor has to serve a five-game suspension once the regular season begins, so he won't be able to practice or play for the Raiders until Week 6. He will see some playing time in this one, though, the lone Friday game of the final preseason week. Given his late arrival to Oakland and the fact that he'll probably be playing with second-, third- and fourth-teamers, there will be better chances to examine Pryor's NFL worthiness. Still, it will be interesting to see how his first pro appearance goes.