Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden warms up for his very important day. (Marcio Jose Sanchez)/AP)
It's all well and good to say that preseason games don't mean a lot, but don't tell that to Oakland Raiders rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden. Less than a year after suffering a tear in his inferior vena cava (the primary vein to his heart) in practice and nearly dying as a result, Hayden was on an NFL field for the first time. It was my belief that the Houston product was the best pure cover cornerback in this draft class, and when he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in March, the NFL was ready to believe again. The Raiders took him with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and waited while he underwent surgery in May to deal with scar tissue in his abdomen -- this was related to the emergency heart surgery that had saved his life.
Hayden finally suited up in Oakland's 34-26 loss to the Chicago Bears on Friday night, and all things considered, it was a triumph for him. He looked a bit shaky to start, but he deflected a Jay Cutler pass intended for Brandon Marshall in Chicago's first drive, and showed flashes of the player who was named First-Team Conference USA despite starting just nine games for the Cougars in 2012.
"He's been very good as far as practice has been concerned," Raiders head coach Dennis Allen said this week. "We're having to hold him back. He wants to do more and more. From that standpoint I think he has the right mindset going into this thing. I think it will be a great opportunity for him to go out there and play this week and get his first game action under his belt."
There's no doubt about Hayden's football talent -- the big question is whether he'll be okay taking and delivering hits again. In that regard, Friday's game was an enormous step forward ... actually, "miraculous" isn't too strong a word.
First Down: Vince Young's comeback.
Current Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Vince Young last completed a pass in a regular-season NFL game for the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 1, 2011, in a 34-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. It's been a long, strange trip for Young since then. Cut by the Buffalo Bills before the 2012 season, he was signed by Green Bay on Aug. 6 after an impressive workout. The third overall pick of the 2006 NFL draft had a lot of time to think about how he'd do things differently if he ever got another chance, and in limited action, he proved to be a surprisingly viable reserve option.
It wasn't blow-away impressive, but Young looked like a quarterback in control. He didn't try to do too much -- when he didn't see anything open downfield, he simply tucked the ball and ran, and that allowed him to avoid turnovers and gain 39 rushing yards against Seattle's backup defense. He also led the Pack to their only touchdown of the evening, a one-yard scoring pass to fullback Jonathan Amosa late in the third quarter, and completed six of seven passes overall for 41 yards.
“Vince Young’s dimension of running; that’s something we really wanted to see," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. "I thought he did very well. I think Vince is definitely one of the players that took advantage of his opportunities."
Ostensible backup quarterback Graham Harrell did not. The former Texas Tech standout completed six of 13 passes for 49 yards and frequently looked overwhelmed by pressure. Aaron Rodgers played just one series in the Packers' 17-10 loss, which was a clear move my McCarthy to get a better look as his backups. Judging by Friday's results, Young has the pole position.
Update: ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Saturday afternoon that the Packers will release Harrell, so there you go.
Fourth Down: Matt Flynn's Groundhog Day.
Before the start of the 2012 season, Flynn thought he'd be the Seahawks' starting quarterback. He signed a lucrative contract with Seattle based on a Small Sample Size Theater career as Aaron Rodgers' backup from 2008 through 2011, and it was going to be his big shot. Nobody thought much of Russell Wilson, the third-round rookie who was supposed to learn over the long-term, until Wilson totally outperformed Flynn in training camp and easily won the starting job. The Seahawks traded Flynn to the Raiders in April for a couple of low draft picks, and ... well, here we go again, Mr. Flynn.
It was thought that Flynn would be the Raiders' short-term starter as general manager Reggie McKenzie tried to rebuild the franchise, but based on this preseason, that isn't going to happen. Flynn looked completely and totally out of his element against the Bears' first-team defense -- he threw two pretty ghastly picks, fumbled once, and completed three of six passes for 19 yards and a 17.4 quarterback rating. Meanwhile, backup Terrelle Pryor looked much better, more effective, and far more confident against Chicago's reserves -- he ran around like a champ and completed seven of nine passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Allen has an interesting problem on his hands, and Flynn might find himself ousted by an unexpected contender for the second straight season.
First Down: Green Bay's plans against mobile quarterbacks.
Friday marked the first time Green Bay's starting defense was able to face a mobile quarterback since the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs, when Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers shredded them for 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Packers' coaching staff went back to school in the offseason, reaching out to the coaches at several different college programs to get a better idea how to stop signal-callers who were befuddling them with all manner of read-option and Pistol schemes.
Against Seattle's Russell Wilson, things were different. Wilson started off hot, but the Packers persisted, and he started to get fenced in. He threw two interceptions -- one from a tipped pass at the line by linebacker Nick Perry -- and took three sacks, rushing just once for 13 yards.
“Obviously, that was a big emphasis for us last year and even more so this year, is limiting his ability to create plays by running out of the pocket," linebacker Clay Matthews said at halftime. "He’s going to make his plays, but I felt for the most part, not only myself, but as a rushing unit, we did a good job of keeping him bottled up in the pocket, forcing some errant throws and getting after him.”
Fourth Down: Oakland's first-team defense.
The 34-26 final score in the Bears-Raiders game was misleading at best -- it was a 27-3 laugher for Chicago at halftime, and Oakland's first-team defense put forth an embarrassing effort when trying to deal with Chicago's rushing game. Matt Forte gained 76 yards on just six carries, and Michael Bush bulled in for two touchdowns in the game's first 30 minutes. Forte also had a 32-yard touchdown pass, and all one could see when Chicago's backs were heading downfield was an array of broken tackles and poor technique. Credit the backs and Chicago's offensive line -- especially rookie right guard Kyle Long, who continues to impress -- but this was on the Raiders, and their inability to match up when the Bears went smashmouth.
First Down: Christine Michael's step forward.
If you talk to people around the league about the Seahawks, you'll hear one thing over and over: "Those guys are deep." Not deep in the philosophical sense (though Pete Carroll seems to be), but deep in the roster sense. Certainly, few NFL teams have more quality options at running back, where the Seahawks boast Marshawn Lynch, Michael Robinson, second-year man Robert Turbin, and rookies Christine Michael and Spencer Ware. More and more, it's Michael, the second-round pick from Texas A&M, who's setting himself apart in the battle to back up Lynch. Michael missed last week's game against Denver due to back spasms, but he built on his excellent preseason performance against the Chargers two weeks ago by rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Michael is a slashing, powerful runner with an extra gear in space, and he reminds me at times of Ricky Watters.
Fourth Down: Seattle's guards ... and penalty-prone play.
There's no doubt that Ron Winter's crew was flag-happy in the Seattle-Green Bay game, but the Seahawks in particular need to take a strong look at their lack of discipline on the field. This is a young team to be sure, but 14 penalties for 182 yards? That's a problem, and Seattle's first-teamers were often involved in extracurricular activity after the play. Right guard J.R. Sweezy was a particularly guilty party -- he had three penalties (two holding, one unnecessary roughness) wipe out productive plays. And in a blocking sense, neither Sweezy nor left guard Paul McQuistan looked like world-beaters last night. The Packers were especially tough to deal with on delayed blitzes.
Carroll reinforced the idea by ordering Sweezy from the field at one point and earholing him on the sideline.
“We’re over-trying,” Carroll said after the game. “We’re trying too hard to make plays. That’s the situation, whether it’s the late hit, or whether it’s trying to reach out and grab a guy so he doesn’t tackle our returner. We’re trying too hard. And we have to trust that we’re okay doing the regular techniques.
The Seahawks have enough talent to roll deep into the playoffs. They are also young and inexperienced enough at several key positions to run into themselves along the way. We saw a lot of both types of phenomena on Friday night.