Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011 Pre-season week 3 (Part 2)

Right, finally time to put all my thoughts together on the weekends pre-season action. First...

Bills @ Jags; Man does Ryan Fitzpatrick look in the groove right now! 11/12 for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns. Back up Tyler Thigpen has a long way to go though, throwing 12/28 for 101 yards, a TD and 2 INT's, one of which was just plain horrible. In general the Bills offense looked good and has done now all throughout the pre-season. I'm not sure if I'm ready to jump on the growing "Bills in the 'Bowl" bandwagon just yet though. The defense still gave up 32 points, to David Garrard and Blaine Gabbert no less.

Talking of which, Gabbert threw his first TD! I'm sure the TV pundits had a great time slapping each other on the back over that one, despite Gabbert finishing 6/13 for 52 yards and also throwing a pick. Garrard wasn't a whole lot better (11/21 for 106 yards). He did manage to put on a great escape, evading three tacklers and then running four yards into the end zone. But while the crowd and the announcers were going crazy with delight, the old instinctive coaching part of me was saying "look at that ball security, it's terrible!". And it was. The only miracle on that play was that the ball wasn't stripped.

Falcons @ Steelers; Fact - Matt Ryan looks like a pro, with clean footwork and a great throwing motion. Fact - he doesn't always play like one. Fact - Throwing the ball 42 times often leads to interceptions, just through sheer numbers. Fact - This style is getting tired now.

So, Matt Ryan. 22/42, 220 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. 22 passes produced just (he says) 220 yards? That's still 10 yards per completion, but factor in the misses and that total drops to just a little over 5 yards per pass. That's not very Matt Ryan-esque, at least not on one of his good days. Conversely Ben Roethlisberger was having a great time (not involving alcohol, motorcycles, hotel rooms or bathrooms for once), going 11/16 for 214 yards and 2 TD's.

The Falcons D wasn't having such a great time. Against an offensive line that has a hard won reputation for being shaky as hell in pass protection, the Falcons defense was only able to produce 2 sacks. Still, that was one more than the Steelers. They made up some ground however with two picks.

The story for me though was centered around two young receivers, one on each side. The first was third year Falcons receiver Harry Douglas, who had a relatively quiet game for a change (3 catches for 31 yards), but hustled back hard after a Kevin Kolb interception to make the tackle on Lawrence Timmons. Kid looks good and could be the perfect foil for Roddy White (8 catches, 101 yards and a TD).

On the Steelers side I'm looking at 2nd year receiver Antonio Brown (4 catches, 137 yards, 2 TDs). We saw last year that the kid has some talent and against the Falcons he looked like he had speed to burn. He played in 9 games last year with no starts. Expect an appearance game one this year, along with a big season ahead.

Dolphins @ Buccaneers; Chad Henne looking... good? What? 10/13 for 175 yards and a TD. Not bad. Certainly an improvement over the struggling pre-season performances we've seen prior to this. A Big part of that success was WR Brandon Marshall, who caught 2 passes (actually three, but he fumbled one) for 90 yards and a TD. Marshall looked strong, driven, and very much back to his best. If he can keep that up for another 16 games the Dolphins might be in with a shout. Well, of not finishing last in the AFC East maybe.

Josh Freeman had a more so-so game for the Buc's. 12/23 for 149 yards. But it's Rudy Carpenter kicking butt this pre-season (did I really just write that?) with 5/8 for 59 yards and a TD! The receiving corps isn't helping much though. Some nice play from rookie tight ends Daniel Hardy and Nathan Overbay, plus a long catch and run by running back LaGarrette Blount, but that's about it.

Luckily for the Buc's that defense is finally starting to live up to some of its potential - 5 sacks between them, including one each for rookies Da'Quan Bowers and George Johnson, and one for 2nd year linebacker Dekoda Watson who was on last years watch list (a 7th round pick no less).

Patriots @ Lions; The story de jour coming out of this game was the deal with Lions Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh throwing a punch at Patriots guard Logan Mankins. At the minute a lot of the big media outlets appear to be trying to string together a narrative that Suh is a dirty player etc, but I'm not really buying it.

The "throw" he was fined for the other week was pathetic and perhaps had that been any other player then nobody would have batted an eye lid. The punch in this game was for good reason (sort of), because Mankins was pulling Suh's team mate to the ground by the facemask. In fact Mankins was flagged for this very reason.

But this is what you have to love, is people taking incidents like that Suh punch completely out of context. He didn't just throw a punch at Mankins for no reason; Mankins was doing something that is widely recognised as a potential source of serious injury, hence why grabbing the face mask is considered a major penalty. But there you go.

Moving on, there was actually a proper game of football played and the Lions won it handily. Matthew Stafford was calm and precise with 12/14 for 200 yards and 2 TD's. If he can actually stay healthy this year then he looks like he's finally got a handle on that offense. Tom Brady on the opposite side looked a little rougher, with 12/22 for 145 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. He also took his fair share of licks as the Lions pass rush started hitting home. Cliff Avril had two sacks and the pressure was certainly there on Brady.

Rookie Ryan Mallett had a better game in some ways finishing 9/14, but for only 65 yards. The Patriots rushing attack was also flat for the most part. Their defense did have some bright spots, notably 3rd year corner Kyle Arrington who had an interception and a sack.

Cowboys @ Vikings; It must be satisfying for the Cowboys every time they beat Donovan McNabb these days. Not least because the Cowboys aren't always that accustomed to winning. Tony Romo looked better than normal, with 15/20 for 141 yards. But it was still defense and special teams that did most of the work for the Cowboys, including three sacks and an interception, plus a blocked field goal attempt that was returned for a TD.

McNabb wasn't bad I guess. 12/18 for 164 yards, a TD and an INT, but you still get that "boom or bust" feeling out of McNabb, like he's either going to haul in a fat catch of yards - or just a few tiny minnows. Under study Joe Webb was perhaps more of the sparkler, with 4/7 for 81 yards, plus 2 scrambles for 46 yards and a TD. Rookie Christian Ponder looked surprisingly shit, with just 3/8 for 60 yards.

Adrian Peterson also saw some significant action, running for 81 yards on 14 carries, and generally looked healthy. On defense for the Vikings their were sacks for rookie linemen Christian Ballard and Cedric McKinley

Texans @ 49ers; Do I really have to cover this? Really? Are you sure? Oh c'mon!! Fuck.

So yeah, the 49ers got beaten, pounded, destroyed. It started so brightly. Matt Schaub dropped back to throw his first pass of the game, but instead of hitting the screen he gifted the ball to Ahmad Brooks who ran it back for six. At precisely this point the wheels dropped off and the 49ers dreams went careening over a cliff into the dark abyss below... shut up. This is my team, my blog, and I'll have a sulk about the 49ers shit forthcoming season if I choose to!

So yeah, the Texans. They were good I suppose. Schaub was 16/24 for 180 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. Jesus even Matt Leinart was 7/10 for 69 yards. Running back Arian Foster managed just 8 carries for 38 yards before he got up off the turf cursing and nursing (see what I did there?) his hamstring. The Texans D had 3 sacks and two interceptions.

As for the '9ers? Well first of all, how fucking lazy do you have to be to shorten "the 49ers" down to "the '9ers"? You're telling me that pronouncing the word "forty" is really that much of a hassle? Anyway, we sucked. It's that simple. Alex Smith was 2/6 for 17 yards and one of the two interceptions. Colin Kaepernick produced the other one on his way to finishing 6/16 for 52 yards.

It was a bad/boring day for the 49ers receivers as well, as not a single one of them caught more than one pass. I'm not even joking now. 8 receivers, each of whom caught one pass, with the tie for the most yards being between tight end Delanie Walker and receiver Kyle Williams - with 15 each! Wanna be careful there San Francisco, we don't want you attracting unwelcome attention as a perceived threat from the big teams now do we?

Much of the blame for the above stems from an offensive line that makes the Bears look almost good. There are some good players, but there are also some fu..freaking awful players too. Literally Mike Person bad. I need coffee.

I hate the Texans.

Bears @ Titans; Speaking of the Bears terrible O-line, look who it is! Having run for his life at times, Jay Cutler finished 13/21 for 170 yards and an interception. Back up Caleb Haine did little better, ending 9/18  for 107 yards and a pick. A bright spot of sorts was running back Matt Forte who carried 17 times for 74 yards and a TD, and receiver Earl Bennett with 6 catches for 89 yards.

The day belonged to the Titans though. Sort of. Matt Hasselbeck was 12/22 for 135 yards, but at least looked a lot quicker with his drops, reads and getting the ball out of his hands, all good signs that he's starting to get more comfortable in the Titans offense. Jake Lockers spell produced all of 2/4 for 13 yards. The Titans running game was still a little anaemic without Chris Johnson, but oddly did just enough to help the team. This time at least. Receiver Nate Washington had 4 catches for 66 yards.

The Titans D threw up a sack and two interceptions, but the hero of the day had to be rookie Titans punter Chad Cunningham. Imagine the situation; it's 4th down and 3. Your a punter and a rookie no less, who doesn't even know if they'll make it to the final roster. The ball is snapped, you catch it and do your thing. Except here comes the pressure up the middle, someone has got an arm free and your punt is blocked. Disaster!

So naturally you do the only thing that a rookie punter who is desperate to make that 53 man roster can do - you run after that thing, pick it up on the bounce, and then run it down the sideline, outflanking most of the Bears return team, before cutting back inside bravely and diving home for the first down! We'll leave out the part where you get hit before reaching the ground and promptly fumble the ball out of bounds. Because it doesn't matter! Chad Cunningham, you sir are a hero!

Seahawks @ Broncos; They've done it! The Seahawks finally have an offensive touchdown this season! Tavaris Jackson floating the ball to the back of the end zone for tight end Dominique Byrd. But that's about where the Seahawks success ended, at least on offense. Jackson finished 13/22 for 93 yards. That's right, 22 passes that snagged a whole 93 yards. And that's before we start counting sacks.

Of which the Broncos D had 5, having been revitalised somewhat since John Fox arrived (as hard as that may be to believe). Two went to rookie Von Miller, who is beginning to look like he's every bit worthy of that second overall pick. "But Chris, didn't you say he'd be terrible?" I hear you cry. "No," says I, "...alright sort of. What I said - if you actually read the post on linebackers for the 2011 draft - was that his physical talents were pretty evident, but his technique was terrible. Which it truly was. But if he could be coached out of it then he might shine. Which he has. And now he is," which I'm going to class as a draw. Sorry, 'tie'.

The Seahawks defense wasn't to be outdone, except for the fact that they were, recording four sacks between them including two for rookie defensive end Lazarius Levingston.

On offense for the Broncos it was the Kyle Orton show again, with Orton throwing 16/23 for 1 TD and 1 INT. Then it was the Tebow show! Which... lead to a sack-fumble. And then another fumble. Still, he made some nice throws, finished 6/11 for 93 yards and lead two scoring drives to win the game. So there!

Chargers @ Cardinals; Life can be cruel sometimes. Like making the Cardinals third stringers think they had the win, only to have it snatched away. I like it when life is cruel to the Cardinals. It just seems right somehow. Kevin Kolb was 11/20 for 205 yards and a TD, including hooking up with Larry Fitzgerald for an 80 yards score. And man, Fitzgerald has just signed a big new deal and in this game he showed why. Just pure, raw, talent. Just a great individual player. Back up QB Richard Bartel also had his moment in the spotlight with 8/10 for 76 yards and a TD..

Standing opposite them was Phillip Rivers who finished 18/28 for 198 yards, 2 touchdowns and a pick. In fact not just a pick, but a pick six, as Cardinals 1st round rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson finally managed to do something. The only down side was the high stepping through the end zone, which just smells like all kinds of diva. Chargers back up Billy Volek smoothed it all over though, going 9/17 for 123 yards and a TD to win the game.

Saints @ Raiders; When Chase Daniel is out throwing your starting quarterback, something is amiss. I like Chase Daniel, I think he's a great back up, and frankly given the choice of Alex Smith or Chase Daniel I'd take Daniel. But Drew Brees, 15/23 for 189 yards, while Daniel was 9/18 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns. Something about that just looks wrong.

Oh wait I've spotted it! It's the Raiders defense giving up nearly 400 yards through the air. Plus over 100 yards on the ground. Throw in 3 sacks for the Saints defense, including two for rookie defensive tackle Swanson Miller (who?) and you have a 40-20 rout on your hands.

The only real consolation for the Raiders were that their back up quarterbacks didn't throw any interceptions to compound the problem, as well as the running of rookie back Taiwan Jones, who looked quick and read his blocks well to scamper home with 13 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown. If the Raiders can keep him, Darren McFadden and Michael Bush healthy all year then they have the makings of a good run game.

Jets @ Giants; And finally we have the traditional pre-season showdown between the New York rivals, delayed till Monday due to Hurricane Irene. Now while the storm may have passed by this point, you can always expect a storm on the field, which is exactly what we got, with Brandon Jacobs trading words with the Jets defense, then eventually trading punches with Jets rookie defensive tackle Muhammed Wilkerson.

I'm not sure which makes me laugh the most - the fact that Jacobs got into trouble again and was ejected from the game, or the fact that players persist in throwing punches at each other, despite the fact they're both wearing helmets!! Ah well, stupid is as stupid does.

Talking of which, Eli Manning; 15/30 for 200 yards and 2 interceptions. Nice going kid, you keep slugging it out. Mind you, Mark Sanchez wasn't exactly blazing on the opposite side, finishing 8/16 for 64 yards and a TD.

The Jets D produced two sacks, one for rookie linebacker Nick Bellore who really impressed me at the combine (but I saw no film of pre-draft) and one for second year corner and first round pick Kyle Wilson who was on last years watch list. About damn time he did something useful. The Jets also had two interceptions, one for the old hand Jim Leonhard and one for linebacker David Harris.

The Giants D produced... a forced fumble by rookie safety David Sims. And yeah, that was the highlight. To be fair, they kept the Jets offense down to 17 points. I also have to tip my hat to rookie receiver Jerrel Jernigan who was returning punts for the Giants. Congratulations sir, I don't think I've never known someone to fumble the ball four times in one game. What is it with the Giants and fumbles?

Anyway, that's your week 3 round up done and dusted, which means we only have one more week of the pre-season and then ahhhhhh, real football.

But before I go I just want to touch on this week 4. A lot of people hate the pre-season and I get that. Maybe it's the aspect of looking at it from a coaching angle that interests me but I actually find week 4 the most interesting, because this is when the rookies and back ups are really competing. And I mean competing, for jobs. No gentleman's agreements. As far as pre-season goes, this is just about as intense as it gets.

Which leads me to wonder; why doesn't the NFL tap this resource more often? This league and the media frenzy that covers it is all about narratives, about weaving stories around a teams season and using the games to tell fans interesting tales about individual players or plucky underdogs. So instead of joking about the final pre-season games, why isn't the NFL making a big deal out of what is at stake.

Because there is a lot at stake.

Starting jobs for some. Back up jobs for others. Whole careers for others. By this time next week each team will be down to a roster of just 53 men heading into the season. That means some people are about to lose their job security and end up on the practice squad. Some people are about to outright lose their jobs and disappear from the NFL all together. In fact today is now Wednesday, which means teams have already begun the mandatory process of shaving down their rosters.

This - from my perspective - is serious business. One minute you're getting paid to do something you love and your full dream job is within touching distance. The next? Gone. Taken away from you without you having a real say in the matter. I just don't understand why the NFL and the networks don't hit this kind of thing up more?

I'm also really interested to see how some of the younger players get on. I'm assuming for the Broncos we'll see Tebow vs Quinn (round 3), we should get a good Blaine Gabbert vs Luke McCown fight in Jacksonville (McCown wins by utter, complete knockout). There's Christian Ponder in Minnesota. Jake Locker in Tennessee. Ryan Mallett could get a full game for New England. Two I'm really interested in are Ricky Stanzi leading the Chiefs, and Nathan Enderle leading the Bears. And that's just the quarterbacks.

There are lots of exciting young players who should get to show off their stuff in a few days time (all the games are being played on Thursday with the exception of Raiders @ Seahawks which is on Friday), along with all the desperate fringe kids and back ups fighting for jobs.

That to me makes pre-season week 4 almost as exciting as week one of the regular season. But then I'm sad like that. I'll see you guys again maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday, depending on when I have the time to recap all that action and then pick out the best of the roster cut cast offs.

Till then, enjoy the rest of your week.

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