First Down/Fourth Down: Andrew Luck stumbles, Eddie Lacy shines
As far as preseason stat lines go, Andrew Luck's outing against the Saints -- 10-of-18 for 103 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- hardly registers as a blip on the radar. He found Coby Fleener for that score in the second quarter, then marched the Colts 78 yards for a field goal just prior to halftime.
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano will not exactly have nightmares about Luck's performance.
The honest truth, though: Luck was not good. Which may say more about the New Orleans defense than it does about Luck's prospects for the 2014 season.
The usually unflappable Luck struggled in the face of consistent pressure by the Saints, firing several inaccurate passes like the one Kenny Vaccaro picked off on a sprawling play. Luck also put the ball on the deck twice, only to be bailed on by a teammate recovering on the first mistake and then an offside penalty on the second.
"I'm sure we're all disappointed in our production," Luck said after a 23-17 loss.
Those Luck critics out there (and he has more than he should) will point to this effort as further proof that Luck is too mistake-prone. Everyone else can appreciate one of the first real glimpses we've had of the promising New Orleans defense, buoyed on Saturday by the debut of high-priced safety Jairus Byrd. Luck will not be the last quarterback to feel flustered as Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dials up unique, varied looks.
More of the best (First Down) and worst (Fourth Down) from the third week of preseason action.
First Down: Green Bay's offense
So long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers' passing attack will be lethal. Even on a ho-hum night for Rodgers personally Friday (9-of-20), he still threw for 139 yards and two touchdowns against Oakland -- one on a harder-than-it-looked grab by Jordy Nelson.
The real story of the night was the run game. It may turn out to be a prevailing story for Green Bay's 2014 season, too, if it keeps clicking the way head coach Mike McCarthy believes that it can. He recently said that this offensive line might be the best he has ever had in Green Bay, a tenure that runs back to 2006. That line mauled the Raiders up front in the early going, with Eddie Lacy churning out 36 yards and a TD on six carries.
Lacy's 1,178-yards, 11-touchdown performance as a rookie might be just the beginning. If he and the line take their games to the next level, there might not be a defense out there capable of stopping the Packers' O consistently.
Fourth Down: The Pittsburgh Steelers
What a dreadful 24 hours for the Steelers, spanning from late Wednesday night into Thursday. Before the team took off for its game in Philadelphia, running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were cited for marijuana possession, with Bell also possibly facing a DUI. With Bell and Blount both surprisingly in the lineup the next evening, the Steelers' first-teamers were shredded by Philadelphia.
It was already 24-0 Eagles before the Steelers finally found the scoreboard late in the third quarter, with their starters still on the field -- an attempt by Mike Tomlin to send a message to his underachieving team.
First Down: Allen Hurns
The Jaguars spent a pair of second-round picks on wide receivers (Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson), but it's the undrafted Hurns who's stealing the show there thus far. One of Jacksonville's most impressive players throughout training camp and the preseason, Hurns all but solidified his spot on the final roster Friday in Detroit, thanks to seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown.
The 6-foot-3 Miami (Fla.) product continues to play an aggressive game, showing no hesitancy fighting for contested passes. Robinson has been hampered by a hamstring injury throughout camp and Hurns has taken full advantage of the extra reps left available as a result.
Fourth Down: St. Louis' injury luck
Above all, teams just want to get through the preseason unscathed. The Rams did not make it.
Several key Rams -- QB Sam Bradford, DT Kendall Langford, G Rodger Saffold and CB Trumaine Johnson -- all left Saturday's game vs. Cleveland with injuries, at least a couple potentially serious. Bradford, less than a year removed from an ACL tear, hobbled off with another knee injury after taking a hit in the first quarter, and is out for the year. Johnson later had to be carted off the field with an apparent knee injury of his own. All told, that's four projected starters and critical cogs for the Rams whose statuses are now in doubt moving forward.
First Down: Chandler Jones
One of the most glaring Pro Bowl snubs in 2013, Patriots pass-rusher Chandler Jones might only have scratched the surface with his 11.5 sacks last season. If his work against an in-flux Carolina defensive front Friday night was any indication, Jones could secure that absent Pro Bowl berth and an All-Pro nod all in one fell swoop.
Jones beat OT Byron Bell for two sacks of Cam Newton, plus finished with six total tackles as he stayed active against the run. New England's athletic defense could be a top-five unit this season. Jones will be at the heart of it.
Fourth Down: Brandon Meriweather
Is there a more dangerous tackler in football? Washington's safety was suspended one game (reduced down from two) last season for a series of helmet-to-helmet hits, and he struck again Saturday. Meriweather threw a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore WR Torrey Smith early in the second quarter, a play which drew a 15-yard flag. Given Meriweather's history he almost certainly will have a fine -- and possibly a suspension -- tacked on top of that penalty.
For the record, it is far harder to find fault with Meriweather's earlier hit on Bernard Pierce, which left Pierce in need of a concussion test. Meriweather stood Pierce up after a handoff, any helmet-to-helmet contact there being legal and incidental.
The NFC South may disagree, but here's hoping that Jones can stay on the field after missing 11 games with a foot injury in 2013. Few skill-position players in the league are more electrifying to watch.
Case in point: Jones' 52-yard touchdown catch-and-run vs. Tennessee on Saturday. On a 3rd-and-5, Jones caught a slant just past the marker, shook off a defender, spun away from two more and then raced another 40 or so yards to the house. It's that type of breakaway skill that earned Jones a Pro Bowl trip in 2012 and could put him among the favorites for Comeback Player of the Year in 2014. Matt Ryan knows and trusts what he has in Jones, as he should.
Both Jones and Ryan could benefit from the presence of Devin Hester, too, should his preseason Week 3 outing be a hint of what's to come. Hester, who was taken out of Chicago's offensive game plan entirely last season in favor of his return skills, hauled in four receptions for 56 yards and turned on the jets on a 31-yard score. The days of Hester leaving scorched turf in his wake may be gone, yet he's still able to pick 'em up and put 'em down in open space. The Falcons would be wise to find him some.
Fourth Down: Dallas' lines
The MMQB's own Robert Klemko wrote in early August that the Dallas offensive line "looks, on paper, to be the best in football with Tyron Smith and Doug Free as bookend tackles and center Travis Frederick emerging as a top-tier road grader." While such praise may yet be warranted, the Cowboys' front was a complete wreck against the Dolphins' pass rush on Saturday night. QB Tony Romo, who has been eased back into action following offseason back surgery, was dropped for three sacks and hit on a few other occasions before the first-team offense exited the game.
Both Smith and Free had significant issues against a quick Miami line -- Free coughed up two; Smith was hit with a holding penalty and only fared slightly better on Romo's blindside.
If this Dallas team is to go anywhere this season, the offense will have to carry it. The defense has enough headaches itself. Speaking of which ...
First Down: Knowshon Moreno
The Cowboys have not been able to stop the run during the preseason and they likely will not improve much come September. Still, even with that caveat in mind, Moreno deserves props for his Miami debut. The ex-Bronco rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries in his first Dolphins game action, and he earned every one of those yards by running with authority.
It sounds as if the Dolphins will split time between Moreno and Lamar Miller, at least out of the gate. A few more outings like this one from Moreno could narrow down the two-back system.
Fourth Down: EJ Manuel
With the first half winding down Saturday, the Bills' offense huddled on the sidelines and running back Fred Jackson proceeded to let fly with a frustrated rant. His feelings mimicked those of the Buffalo fans, who booed their dormant first-team offense.
Finally, against Tampa Bay's second- and third-stringers, Manuel hit Mike Williams for a 19-yard TD -- per News10NBC's Justin Granit, that snapped an 18-possession drought for Buffalo's offensive starters this preseason. Fred Jackson added another score on the team's next drive, thereby at least generating some positive momentum moving forward. (Head coach Doug Marrone said after his team's 27-14 loss that the starters may play in next week's preseason finale, far from a given league-wide.)
Manuel should not take all the blame, but he will be the lightning rod for it indefinitely. The Bills' opening drive ended when Manuel, hurried by some pressure, threw an egregious pick over the middle. Then in the second quarter, he showed no pocket presence at all in taking a sack and coughing up the football -- Tampa Bay's Clinton McDonald ran the fumble back for a score.
If the Bills' coaching staff is hoping to see marked improvement from Manuel over his rookie season, the wait continues. Tampa Bay's defensive front played its part by harassing Manuel repeatedly, a sure sign that Buffalo's offensive line is a work in progress, too. The ceiling on the 2014 campaign will be limited, however, if Manuel does not find some sort of comfort zone playing at this level. It was certainly nowhere to be found Saturday.