What to watch on NFL's opening preseason weekend
Right on cue, after months of stifling summer heat, the temperature dropped dramatically almost coast to coast on Thursday morning, if only for a bit. It seems that even Mother Nature knows it's football season again.
After what felt like a never-ending offseason, filled with legal documents and player arrests, the NFL heads full steam back onto the field starting Thursday, as six games kick off Week 1 of the preseason.
The games don't count, but there is still plenty to watch as the 2012 exhibition schedule kicks off. And here's what we will have our eyes on this weekend ...
Washington at Buffalo: A recurring theme for the first set of preseason games is the much-anticipated debuts of rookie quarterbacks. Such is the case here, as we get our first glimpse of Robert Griffin III as a Washington Redskin. He'll have to contend with Buffalo's revamped defensive line, which now includes Mario Williams. Also, keep an eye on that Tyler Thigpen-Vince Young battle for Buffalo's No. 2 QB spot.
Baltimore at Atlanta: Because of how methodically consistent these two teams have been recently, this one doesn't have the major excitement factor. However, Baltimore would love to see Paul Kruger come flying out of the gate as Terrell Suggs' replacement outside in the 3-4. The Ravens also have interior offensive line questions that need answering. Atlanta, meanwhile, debuts Asante Samuel in its defensive backfield.
Pittsburgh at Philadelphia: We get our first glimpse of the Steelers sans Hines Ward, James Farrior and some other familiar faces. The real issues for them, though, are on offense, where they need to establish some RB depth in Rashard Mendenhall's absence and figure out who's going to catch passes with Mike Wallace playing keep-away. Ben Roethlisberger could have his hands full (in limited action) against Philadelphia's defense, which now features DeMeco Ryans in the middle and rookie Mychal Kendricks outside.
New Orleans at New England: The Saints already have a game under their belts, so there won't be many surprises there. But New England has some areas of concern -- mainly up front on offense, where Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are dealing with injuries and Brian Waters is absent. Don't think that Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski would hesitate to one-up the other, either.
Green Bay at San Diego: For better or worse, the big storyline here will be the debut of Shannon Eastin, the first female official in NFL history. It's hard to imagine either first-team offense seeing much time, so the attention can turn to Green Bay's backup QB competition. Will Graham Harrell or B.J. Coleman get a leg up in the Matt Flynn replacement race?
Denver at Chicago: Given the Bears' aggressive pass rush, Peyton Manning's first Denver game appearance should be a short one. Still, it's an important step for Manning to get back on the field and face live competition. His counterpart, Jay Cutler, gets to unleash his new weapon at receiver (Brandon Marshall) for the first time.
Tampa Bay at Miami: I promised that rookie QBs would be at the heart of the matter on Week 1 of the preseason, and Ryan Tannehill's presence in Miami makes that hold true here. Tannehill is just one of three quarterbacks, along with David Garrard and Matt Moore, fighting for the starting job. Greg Schiano makes his coaching debut for the Bucs. He's taken a hard-line stance toward changing the culture in Tampa Bay, but will the results follow?
Cleveland at Detroit: Rookie Brandon Weeden will start under center for the Browns, and goal No. 1 is to not get killed by Detroit's ferocious pass rush. A lingering knee injury will hold Trent Richardson out of this one, unfortunately, and the Lions are pretty banged-up already, too. Detroit's big question: Who will stand out at cornerback?
New York Giants at Jacksonville: Close to a dozen Giants regulars won't suit up for this one, though rookies David Wilson and Rueben Randle ought to see the field plenty. Justin Blackmon's recently-ended holdout will keep him from suiting up Friday; the Jaguars would love nothing more than to see Blaine Gabbert and Laurent Robinson display some cohesion in the meantime.
New York Jets at Cincinnati: Mark Sanchez! Tim Tebow! The Jets take their circus act on the road to kick things off -- how much will they open up the playbook in early August? Cincinnati needs to find out what it has in young receivers Mohamed Sanu, Armon Binns and Marvin Jones.
Arizona at Kansas City: John Skelton gets his shot with the first-team offense, replacing Kevin Kolb, who was injured in the Hall of Fame game. The Chiefs should be flying high since they'll welcome back Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki from injury. Kansas City would be happy just to get through this one without losing any other players.
Minnesota at San Francisco: Lucky Christian Ponder. He gets the first taste of Aldon Smith as an every-down linebacker, and he'll do so without Adrian Peterson to hand off to. Randy Moss' San Francisco debut is the unquestioned headline for this game, and the 49ers double-down on the WR situation with Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins making their 49ers debuts as well.
Houston at Carolina: Cam Newton is always entertaining, even if the Panthers themselves will be focused on how a few rookies -- LB Luke Kuechly, G Amini Silatolu and CB Josh Norman (if he can play thanks to a hamstring injury) -- acclimate themselves to the NFL. Houston welcomes back its own No. 1 QB, Matt Schaub, who missed the latter stages of last season with an injury. He might throw a few times in the direction of rookie WR Keshawn Martin, who has been one of the stars of the Texans' early workouts.
Tennessee at Seattle: Two quarterback controversies for the price of one! Tennessee has the Matt Hasselbeck-Jake Locker conundrum; Seattle is deciding between Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson. No matter who winds up throwing the ball for the Titans, Chris Johnson has to be much more productive than he was following a holdout last season. Saturday will give a little hint as to where the ceiling may be for him in 2012.
St. Louis at Indianapolis: RGIII gets the rookie QB spotlight first on Thursday, but Luck will enjoy it all to himself on Sunday afternoon. The Colts' franchise savior should have the home fans worked up pretty good in the preseason opener. He'll be matched up against the Jeff Fisher-led Rams, and Fisher has plenty of new faces to tinker with, including first-round pick Michael Brockers at DT and second-rounder Janoris Jenkins at CB.
Dallas at Oakland: The Raiders retooled their secondary, with Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer taking over at corner. Tony Romo will provide a nice first test, even if the Cowboys play it safe with their oft-injured skill position guys. Will Matt Leinart put any heat on Carson Palmer early in the preseason? The Raiders need a vintage Palmer performance in 2012, but they may not hesitate to switch things up if he stumbles early.