1. I think I had two overriding thoughts as I watched the Buccaneers go through two padded practices and a game against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., this past week, and they revolved around the offense. If the Bucs are going to go anywhere, they need two things to happen: Two players not named Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson are going to have to emerge as weapons, and quarterback Josh Freeman is going to have to be more consistent. On the first point, receiver Mike Williams has been a consistent contributor over his first three seasons—65, 65 and 63 receptions, respectively—but will he be the same player after receiving a big contract this offseason? He was nothing more than average against the Patriots last week. Conversely, free agent pickup Kevin Ogletree (who never had more than 32 catches in a season in four years in Dallas) was outstanding, so that bodes well for receiver rotation. As for Freeman, he looked to be the same player he’s always been—a wildly inconsistent but physically gifted quarterback. Most of his problems seem to stem from his footwork; specifically, his strides appear erratic. If Freeman finally gets it, and the Bucs get constant contributions from Williams and Ogletree, they’ll be dangerous.
2. I think conclusions about how good or bad a team looks in the preseason should be tempered, especially with a team like the Patriots. Unlike other teams, the Patriots have been using the same schemes on both sides of the ball for so long that there isn’t much that isn’t already on film. As a result Bill Belichick isn’t afraid to push the envelope in the passing game and dialing up pressures on defense. The only area where the Patriots usually hold back during the preseason is in pass coverage, where they play a little more loosely than they will, say, in December. Still, the Patriots have not been afraid to show a lot of robber looks (one extra defender is freed up to read the quarterback and jump routes) of the kind they used late last season with safety Steve Gregory. With all that said, New England has looked very good so far. The real test will come when teams gameplan to put the young receivers and the tight end (Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Zach Sudfeld) on the spot.
3. I think Cam Newton is so bad at play-fakes that the Panthers shouldn’t even bother. Smart, veteran inside linebackers are going to easily read Newton and know what’s coming. In the Eagles-Panthers game last Thursday, Philadelphia inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans was dropping into coverage before Newton even finished the fake. It boggles the mind that someone—if Newton is listening—hasn’t told Newton, “You know what separates the best quarterbacks in the game? The little things, like play-fakes. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees—go down the list of elite quarterbacks—are the best play-fakers in the game. Do you sense a trend there?” Newton is tremendously talented, but you have to do everything well to rise in this league. With the Panthers reemphasizing the traditional running game, it becomes even more important for Newton to do his part from under center.
4. I think the thing people will find most neat about Chip Kelly’s offense with the Eagles is the options Philadelphia’s offense has on each play to take what the defense gives it. For example, against the Panthers, Philadelphia often had two different passing plays (bubble screens and traditional down-field routes) on the same play that started as a read-option. But while the wrinkles Kelly (and Kyle Shanahan of the Redskins and Greg Roman of the 49ers) are putting in are cool, they’re extrapolations on the run/pass option some teams, notably the Packers and the Patriots, have been running for years. They might not have the razzle-dazzle of the read-option teams, but it’s the same concept of taking what the defense gives. Also, for all the talk about the Eagles quarterbacks, the player who will reap the benefit the most from Kelly’s offense is running back LeSean McCoy (pictured at the top of this column, scoring against the Panthers). There might not be a better space runner in the league, and that’s the goal of that scheme—to create extra space. One more Eagles note: First-round pick Lane Johnson has been a standout at right tackle so far.
5. I think the Packers have to be extremely happy with the play of three players in particular: tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Eddie Lacy and defensive tackle Johnny Jolly. Finley is immensely talented but has always been his own worst enemy, either by not working on the right things or by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. This year, though, the tight end—who was nearly cut in the offseason—looks to be in terrific shape and, more importantly, focused. Whoever is responsible for the idea and execution of muzzling Finley should get a raise. He looks terrific. Lacy, who has to be gang-tackled, should be a perfect fit for an offense that needed to get more physical. And Jolly looks close to being the player he was before his drug suspensions. He’s strong, active and disengages from blocks well. That’s a good sign for a defense that has questions to answer if the Packers are going to be a Super Bowl contender.
6. I think Browns tight end Jordan Cameron is poised for a huge season once uber-talented receiver Josh Gordon returns from his two-game suspension to open up some coverage. You combine offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s longtime love of tight ends with Cameron’s athletic ability, and things should pop. The Browns have to be sick that running back Dion Lewis (fractured fibula) was lost for perhaps the season when a high pass from backup quarterback Jason Campbell put him in a bad spot against the Lions. Lewis was poised to be a very versatile third-down back for the Browns, especially with Montario Hardesty already out after a knee scope. Former Packers running back Brandon Jackson is a good guy to have around, but Lewis is way more explosive.
7. I think if I’m the Broncos, I start to watch cornerback Champ Bailey a little bit more to see if he’s still the shutdown corner they believe him to be in that system. Bailey, 35, may still be that, but the 33-yard pass that he was beaten on against the Seahawks when Russell Wilson placed a perfect ball for Golden Tate echoed a lot of Bailey’s shortcomings in the playoff loss to the Ravens. Both Tate and Torrey Smith were able to beat Bailey at the line of scrimmage—Smith to the point that Bailey had to start playing off. Bailey still has very good recovery speed, but he doesn’t appear to be quite as good at the line. Even a half-step slower, Bailey is still elite, but if the Broncos believe they can put him on an island and he isn’t capable, they’re in serious trouble in an already questionable secondary.
8. I think I’ve never whiffed on a player like I did with Russell Wilson when he came out of Wisconsin. (Considering that he was drafted in the third round, guess I wasn’t alone). I remember watching him at the Senior Bowl practices and thinking he was OK, that he showed good leadership but was too short. He seemed to be a perfect backup. Oops. Wilson just keeps improving and, just as impressive, looks so darn comfortable. He just never panics, and that must be very reassuring to his teammates. Not to mention his arm strength and deep touch. I’d like to see what he can do with real weapons—namely Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin healthy and together.
9. I think the Bills are in trouble offensively for as long rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel is out following right knee surgery. Backup Kevin Kolb might not be watching the rush like he did at times with the Cardinals and Eagles, but he still doesn’t recognize coverage very well. He could have been intercepted several times against the Vikings in their game last Friday. I really like what I’ve seen so far in Manuel. They’re not giving him overcomplicated reads (usually half-field) or routes to deal with, which is smart by the Bills coaching staff. It’s not about where Manuel is now or for his entire rookie season, it’s about where he will take the Bills down the road. And right now they’re headed in the right direction.
10. I think it was mildly concerning that Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was 5 of 12 for 53 yards and sacked twice against the Bills, but I wouldn’t panic yet. Buffalo, with first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine trying to establish himself, threw a lot at a Vikings offense that obviously hadn’t done much preparation. And everybody knows having No. 28, Adrian Peterson—who hasn’t played yet in the preseason—changes how a defense will play Minnesota. That being said, Ponder must be more accurate—some of the throws he missed weren’t overly difficult. With a good defense and some interesting weapons around him, it’s all going to be on Ponder.