First Down/Fourth Down: Bills QBs, Khalil Mack shine in preseason Week 1
A quiet start to the preseason? Hardly. From Geno Smith being TKO'd by a teammate to Tim Tebow's setting the Twitterverse afire Sunday, the NFL yet again delivered a flood of talking points. The real games are still weeks away, but there was much to dissect from Week 1 of the exhibition slate.
Our winners (First Down) and losers (Fourth Down) from the first full weekend of preseason action:
First Down: The Bills' quarterback race
If a team lacks a true front-line starting quarterback, the best it can ask is for one of the guys it does have to go win the job. Settling on a subpar option is a recipe for disaster.
The Bills have to feel good about the preseason Week 1 developments to their quarterback race, even if they lost to Carolina on Friday. (Temporary) starter Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor each stated his case, while EJ Manuel overcame a series of dropped passes and botched snaps to throw a beautiful 51-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Thompson.
Coach Rex Ryan will hand Taylor the reins next week, when Buffalo visits Cleveland for the second of four preseason tilts. What happens the following game vs. Pittsburgh will be more telling—the third exhibition game tends to be when teams come closest to setting their regular-season rotations; Week 4 generally is reserved for those guys scrapping to secure roster spots.
Cassel finished 7-of-8 for 45 yards in his action vs. Carolina. Taylor, who never made a start while serving as Joe Flacco's backup in Baltimore the past four seasons, showed off the dual-threat capabilities that has him in the mix; he threw for 49 yards on 5-of-8 passing and rushed for 47 more yards.
Fourth Down: Injuries
Those in favor of shortening the preseason found additional ammunition, as several players suffered significant, season-ending injuries. Among the notable names now out for all of 2015: Buffalo's Jarius Wynn (torn ACL), Washington's Niles Paul (dislocated ankle) and Silas Redd (torn ACL and MCL) and Minnesota's Phil Loadholt (torn Achilles).
Unrelated to the opening set of games, Bears WR Kevin White revealed that he will require surgery on a stress fracture of his shin, which could cost him the entirety of his rookie season. St. Louis's E.J. Gaines (Lisfranc injury) reportedly has been lost for the year, too, after exiting practice earlier this month.
The counterargument stemming from Gaines's and White's situations may be that these injuries are bound to occur whether or not there is preseason action. To that end, several college teams find themselves scrambling to replace key guys after a rash of camp injuries hit that level in the past week or two.
But if the NFL wants going to continue promoting its player safety agenda, the month-long preseason schedule has to be red flagged.
First Down: Khalil Mack (and more of the NFL's young pass-rushers)
Not that anyone was waiting for the Raiders' Mack to slip into a sophomore slump, but he served notice in an 18-3 win over St. Louis that his rise to stardom is on course. Despite recording just one tackle on 13 snaps, Mack wreaked havoc off the edge, dominating Rams tackle Greg Robinson in their head-to-head matchups.
Not credited in the stat book: On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, Mack set up sacks of Nick Foles by driving Robinson into the pocket. Robinson took a holding penalty on the first (that sack was negated by offsetting penalties), then Shelby Harris cleaned up for a 14-yard sack on the next play.
Honorable mention here to Jacksonville's Nordly Capi. Undrafted out of Akron, Capi was impossible to ignore in a 23–21 win over Pittsburgh, notching two sacks, three quarterback hits and creating repeated pressure. He still has ground to cover if he's going to make the roster, but another game like that will earn him a chance somewhere.
Also shining over the weekend was Seattle rookie Frank Clark. The Seahawks came under a lot of heat this off-season for drafting Clark, who was dismissed off Michigan's roster following a domestic-violence incident. But on the field he was phenomenal in his first NFL action, posting a team-high nine tackles vs. Denver.
Garoppolo's stats when throwing to anyone other than Boyce in Thursday night's 22–11 loss to Green Bay: 18-of-21 for 140 yards. On attempts targeting Boyce: 2-of-9 for 19 yards and an interception. Boyce also came up empty on two looks from Tom Brady during New England's opening series. The fault was not his alone for all those incompletions, but the Patriots' passing attack was noticeably less coherent whenever it pointed Boyce's direction.
Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman all sat out Thursday's game, leaving the door open for Boyce to see extra reps. He failed to take advantage, and the lack of rapport with Garoppolo could leave him out of the receiver rotation.
First Down: Ameer Abdullah
All you really need to know here is that Jets coach Todd Bowles said Abdullah is "about as quick as Barry Sanders." Perhaps that is hyperbole (hyper-Bowl-e?) but the Lions' rookie running back definitely made an impression in his first NFL outing. Abdullah broke off a Sanders-like 45-yard run to pace his 67-yard rushing day in Detroit's win.
The Lions did not target Abdullah on any passes, but he may be most dangerous this season as a receiver—the footwork and ability to hit the hole that Abdullah showed throughout his college career is still present. If projected starting RB Joique Bell does not get back in action soon, his job is going to be gone.
Fourth Down: Tennessee's supporting cast
Rookie QB Marcus Mariota endured a nightmare start against Atlanta before settling in a bit (more on his outing here). Likely of greater concern to the Titans' coaching staff is how overmatched its first-team offense and defense looked as a whole. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones shredded Tennessee's D on a game-opening touchdown drive, and the Falcons' defense followed suit. Mariota's protection was nonexistent on several plays, including an 11-yard sack that preceded his ugly interception.
Reading too deeply into any preseason results is a mistake. Still, this is a Tennessee team trying to rebuild from a 2–14 campaign. The first glimpse at its 2015 roster revealed a group still likely to be overmatched once the regular season begins.
Fellow QB Jameis Winston might face similar conditions in Tampa Bay, at least when it comes to his offensive line. That unit is a work in progress, so his flaws could be exposed behind a lack of protection.
First Down: Bennie Logan
No player this week produced a better showing than Logan did on his handful of snaps against the run. The Eagles' bulky nose tackle manhandled Indianapolis's interior blocking when the Colts tried to establish their run game. On its first three possessions, Indianapolis mustered just 15 yards on nine rushing attempts. The usual preseason caveats apply—the Colts kept their play calling extremely vanilla—but Logan was a man amongst boys.
Fourth Down: Chicago's first-team defense
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio knew he had his work cut out for him this season trying to transition the Bears' 4–3 scheme pieces to his 3–4 attack. Just how much of a climb Fangio has left was on display early in a 27–10 win over Miami. (Chicago trailed 10–3 at halftime, then rallied behind its reserves.)
The Dolphins' opening drive spanned 14 plays, 85 yards and eight minutes. The biggest gash came courtesy of RB Lamar Miller, who cut back against the grain for a 27-yard pickup, exposing an out-of-position Pernell McPhee. The Bears' ability to set an edge vs. the run will be critical, but guys like McPhee, Jared Allen and Willie Young are learning how to do that as stand-up defenders. McPhee spoke to SI.com just a few days ago about the struggle of adding coverage responsibilities to his game.
GM Ryan Pace may need another year or two of tweaking the roster to find what Fangio needs.
Bonus First Down: Eric Kendricks
Kendricks played well enough against Tampa Bay to warrant a mention, even though this throws off our First Down/Fourth Down balance.
He had to wait his turn again, with Audie Cole continuing to start at MLB for Minnesota's first-team defense. The second half was the Kendricks Show, however—he posted six tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and batted down a pass.
We had Kendricks ranked as the No. 29 player in this year's draft class. Minnesota took him at No. 45, and he is on an early pace to become a steal.