As we get deeper into the preseason, it becomes easier to be able to watch film and get an actual handle on what we can expect from each team.
Most stars don’t play a lot in Week 2, but a lot of solid veterans get quality snaps. It all changes this week, as NFL teams use Week 3 of the preseason as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, with starters often playing the first half and at least one series into the third quarter. Here are some interesting things I saw from the Week 2 games.
Tampa Bay is not where it needs to be on offense…yet
At first glance, it looks like Jameis Winston had a solid night versus the Jacksonville defense (21-for-29 – 196 yds), and while he did have some good throws, his up and down decision making is still a real issue. As good as he can be, he has also been a turnover machine the last two years. If it doesn’t improve. we will have a “potentially” dynamic offense that can’t get out of its own way.
Head coach Dirk Koetter said it best after the game.
“Jameis feels like he can save the day, that he can turn it into a big play and he does sometimes,” Koetter said. “Then there are times like last night when he makes it worse.”
We know that he has a little bit of a riverboat gambler mentality, and now he has two vertical wide receivers, DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, who can give him those big plays.
What Winston must learn is that a check down is not always a bad play. Because the Bucs run game is expected to be the major weakness in this offense, defenses can sit back in coverage without crowding the box, and they can take away a lot of those vertical routes.
When you watch Winston on film, he does not look comfortable going to the underneath “safe” pass even when the defense gives it to him. Until that changes, we will likely see our share of big plays to go along with a lot of head-scratching turnovers.
Two veteran quarterbacks could be in real trouble
It seems really early to be pushing the panic button, but two teams, Jacksonville and Buffalo, seem to be in that frame of mind. What makes this situation even more alarming is that neither team has a viable backup who could step into the starter’s role. And yet the coaches appear to be mulling changes.
Blake Bortles has had a bad training camp and two poor preseason games, and he looks more like an inconsistent rookie than a veteran player who should have a much better command of his game. Journeyman Chad Henne is outperforming him, and it is clear that the patience of this veteran coaching staff has worn thin. Will they bite the bullet and stay with Bortles and concentrate on a heavy run game, will they just give the job to Henne or will they explore a trade? None of these options are attractive.
Tyrod Taylor has been inconsistent all summer and now his best target, Sammy Watkins, is gone. He also plays for a new coaching staff that is somewhat “cleaning house” to re-structure this roster in its preferred image and it has not given Taylor anything close to a vote of confidence. But does anybody feel good about backups Nathan Peterman or T.J. Yates being pushed into a starting role?
The Philadelphia defensive line will be a big key to their success
The play of the Eagles’ front four has been a bright spot so far in the preseason. By nature, Philadelphia wants to be in a “wide nine” rush four-drop seven look with limited blitzes, but this defense only excels when it dominates up front. Right now the Eagles defense goes six deep, and it’s a group with varied skill sets. That gives coordinator Jim Schwartz a lot of flexibility.
That is so important on this defense because it gives up so many big plays when its defensive backs are forced to play man schemes on an island because of the blitz (although it looks like newly acquired ex-Buffalo Bill Ronald Darby can really help). If the front four can apply pressure without help and allow Schwartz to drop seven defenders into coverage, this will be the strong defense that we have been waiting to see.
Rookie quarterbacks are being coached well in the preseason
Most of these young signal callers come from spread college offenses and non-pocket quarterback attacks, and their NFL transition is often slower than expected. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Deshaun Watson (Texans) and Mitchell Trubisky (Bears) are all having varying degrees of preseason success, but we are seeing offensive schemes and game plans that have a lot of similarities.
These young guys are given a steady diet of bootlegs and rollouts to get them outside the pocket and away from the rush, which allows them to read only one side of the defense. This eliminates complicated progression reads. When you throw in a liberal use of screen plays when they work from the pocket, it gives us a lot of short and safe passes designed to build their rookies’ confidence and give them early success. But as the season progresses, they will need to adapt to more traditional pro-style offenses.
Is it time for Washington to panic about their struggling run game?
The Redskins “claim” to have confidence in the potential of their run game, but when I watch them on film, I don’t see it. They like Rob Kelley as their starter but he is a guy who averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in the last six games of 2016. Against Green Bay on Saturday night, he had only nine yards on nine carries and showed little ability to generate yards on his own.
Rookie Samaje Perine has more explosive skills, but right now, he looks like an inexperienced rookie. Right now there is no run game chemistry between a good offensive line (which is struggling with defensive line movement) and backs who just don’t explode through the hole. A lot of Kirk Cousins’ big passing plays come off play action, and if the run game continues to be this lethargic, it will really hold back the offense. This problem could be difficult to solve.
Pass catching rookie backs are being used well
We have some really exciting young guys coming into the league and early indications are that they can really help their teams in the short passing game. When I look at Christian McCaffrey (Carolina), Kareem Hunt (Kansas City) and Joe Mixon (Cincinnati) there is something that looks similar about all three: a simple screen pass.
These are guys who can certainly run out of the backfield, but when you get them in space and let them work against the second level of the defense, you get to see their big play capabilities. Look for their coaches to continue to use them with these safe, but potentially explosive, passes as they ease into their playbooks.
Coverage trumps pass rush for the Pats
We seem to talk about the concern of a marginal New England pass rush every week, but when you watch them on film, it is easier to not feel sorry for them. They are so deep in their secondary that they can play combo coverages and a variety of unique sub packages. They’re also terrifc at matching up with opponents one-on-one.
Against Houston on Saturday, it seemed like quarterback Tom Savage had enough time to read all of his progressions because of the Pats’ meager pass rush. But, time after time, Savage had no open receiver and was forced to go to harmless underneath routes and check downs.
What we may be looking at in 2017 is a concentration on coverage that either ties up the receiver long enough to let the pass rush get there, or forces the offense into mostly short throws. If the latter happens it is a huge advantage for New England in its bend-but-don’t-break scheme that led the league in scoring defense a year ago.
Are these the same old Cincinnati Bengals?
It may only be Week 2 of the preseason but the lethargic way the Bengals played vs. Kansas City should send up some red flags. They were awful in the trenches on both sides of the ball, which were issues a year ago. There is little flow to this West Coast offense that should be in better sync, the line blocking is up and down and, if Andy Dalton doesn’t have a clean pocket, he is in real trouble.
Defensively, their tackling left a lot to be desired vs. the Chiefs and they just didn’t seem to play with any sense of urgency. They need to play much better in the all-important Week 3 or real panic will emerge.
There is no quarterback battle in Denver
After their easy victory over San Francisco on Saturday, it’s time for the Broncos to get ready for the regular season, and that means give Trevor Siemian the bulk of the remaining preseason snaps. It’s hard to say whether he has been that good in the preseason or if Paxton Lynch has been that bad (probably a little bit of both) but this is clearly Siemian’s team, whether we like it or not.
Usually, when you break down his film, Siemian drives you crazy with his tendency to go for the safe pass and check down. He rarely takes chances, but against the 49ers he attacked the defense with more aggressive shots and it seemed to give him and his entire offense a boost of confidence.
Ironically, Lynch appears to have regressed with little confidence. He is supposed to be the big arm “riverboat gambler” guy, but right now that seems like a distant memory. He just is not playing with a lot of aggressiveness. This offense is still a work in progress, but at least it looks like Denver may have the quarterback thing figured out.
The Falcons’ offense is just fine with Sark
Much has been made of the offseason coordinator change from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian, but so far Atlanta has not missed a beat. Against Pittsburgh on Sunday, this offense easily moved the ball vs. a decent Pittsburgh pass defense for 211 yards in the first half, including a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive by Matt Ryan.
Shanahan got a lot of credit for creative game plans and play calling, but he limited the amount of audibles that Ryan could call at the line of scrimmage. Sarkisian seems to be giving Ryan a lot of freedom before the snap to get into or out of the play, which is something that he can and wants to do.
Sarkisian is also an aggressive play caller who loves to establish the run,and we know that Atlanta can do that and then attack with play action off the run to find favorable matchups. When 10 players can catch a pass in the first half vs. Pittsburgh, you know the offense is spreading the ball around and making good decisions. This Ryan attack won’t miss a beat in 2017.
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