Preseason Takeaways, Take 3
1. I think Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is poised for a big season. If he can continue to get the solid protection the line provided against a good Chiefs front seven, Pittsburgh is going to do some things offensively. With Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and impressive rookie Markus Wheaton, the group might be better overall than they were with Mike Wallace. They’re all playing with a high level of confidence. And it’s obvious Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, in their second year working together, are much more on the same page. Haley appears to have found a better balance between what he likes to do (short timing passes), and Roethlisberger’s greatest strength (making plays off a deep dropback). Roethlisberger just looks a lot more comfortable this preseason.
2. I think the criticism of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith is a little over the top. Yes, he threw three interceptions in the first 23 minutes against the Giants, but they were growing pains, and nothing more. On the first two interceptions, Smith had unblocked rushers right in his face. The first interception was thrown behind receiver Ryan Spadola just a hair. On the second, Smith was blasted by Mathias Kiwanuka and threw a poor pass high. The final interception, Smith was fooled on a zone blitz when veteran end Justin Tuck dropped into coverage—something that has tripped up plenty of better quarterbacks. It’s a look Smith wouldn’t have seen much of in college, but welcome to the pros.
3. In viewing some of his college tape in comparison, Smith now looks unsure of just about everything he’s doing. He’s not performing any functions with confidence—except when he finds himself on the move and freelancing instead of thinking. Part of it has to do with West Virginia’s offense having given Smith very easy half-field reads. Most of his targets were pre-determined. The Jets offense, under long-time West Coast offense disciple Marty Mornhinweg, won’t be that easy, and Smith is obviously thinking his way through it. Nobody can be successful playing like that. Even when he throws, it’s not with near the velocity he threw at West Virginia. And unlike successful athletic rookie quarterbacks before him, like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, Smith is being asked to perform in a regimented scheme that isn’t a great fit for his talents. Those three had schemes tailored to their strengths so they could play with confidence. Smith may indeed get there—his decision-making is solid overall—but it’s going to take more time. The only question is, would Smith be better served by sitting or playing while learning a new style?
4. I don’t think the Colts are going to get the impact they hoped for from first-round pick Bjoern Werner this season. The end-turned-outside linebacker missed the first preseason game due to a knee issue, but he’s looked extremely ordinary in the past two. He made a couple of plays against the Giants, but they were against right tackle David Diehl, who is a warrior but whose physical skills have eroded. And it’s not even in Werner’s new techniques where he’s struggling (although he needs development vs. the run). He actually plays in space well for a first-time performer. It’s as a sub-package end, the same position he played at Florida State, where Werner has been lacking. He has average burst at the snap, and hasn’t shown many pass-rush moves. With Dwight Freeney and Jerry Hughes elsewhere, the Colts desperately need more pop in the pass rush. If Werner doesn’t develop, it's hard to see how the Colts get better in that area.
5. I think everyone knows the Jaguars are going to be challenged to win games until they get consistent quarterback play, but they’ll be more competitive than people think this season. Franchise running back Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t show much rust in his first game action since Oct. 21 (Lisfranc surgery). The Jaguars also have offensive building blocks in bookend tackles Eugene Monroe and first-round pick Luke Joeckel, and receiver Cecil Shorts. The defense is young, but coach Gus Bradley has them playing extremely active, so they’re a handful up front. And special teams should steal some plays. If anybody thinks the Jaguars will be an easy W on the schedule this season, they might be in for a shock.
6. I think the Broncos might need to change their audible for the regular season. Denver was going with the no-huddle offense with 7:26 left in the first quarter when quarterback Peyton Manning called the play at the line, which sounded like "Go" or "Gold" and "Montana." Wouldn’t you know it, the Broncos scored on a play similar to the 49ers’ famous Sprint Right Option, which they used to beat the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. Or, as it’s otherwise known, as "The Catch," Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. Instead of Clark on the outside running a post and then a corner route to the pylon, and Freddie Solomon running a quick out, it was Demaryius Thomas running a slant and then corner, with Eric Decker running a quick out.
7. I think if you want to see a collision, watch the Saints-Texans game with about 5:06 left in the first quarter. The Saints run a basic inside lead with fullback Austin Johnson, an undrafted rookie who was a linebacker at Tennessee, one-on-one against Texans inside linebacker Joe Mays. Mays sent Johnson flying about three yards onto his backside. I think Saints coach Sean Payton was smart to get quarterback Drew Brees out after a little more than a quarter of action. New Orleans just couldn’t protect against the swarming Texans.
8. Somebody needs to remind me when the Lions earned the right to talk, because I must have blacked out. Their complete lack of discipline against the Patriots Thursday night showed that the Lions didn’t learn anything from last season’s 4-12 mess, which should have served them an Ndamukong Suh-sized piece of humble pie. I don’t even care if they beat the Patriots 40-9 or 140-9. To behave like that in a preseason game was embarrassing. Nick Fairley had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Willie Young (who?) got in Tom Brady’s face twice, once earning a taunting penalty. That gave the Patriots a first down when it would have been 3rd-and-10 at the New England 10-yard line. C.J. Mosley took the Lions from the Patriots’ 4-yard line back to 19-yard line (which led to field goal) with a personal foul after a fumble recovery. All of the penalties were cheap and immature, which basically describes the Lions. They haven’t achieved anything—10-6 and getting whupped by the Saints in the playoffs two years is the extent of it—yet they think they’re something to be feared. Maybe they should shut up and wait to talk until they, you know, win a playoff game, which they haven’t done since 1991—when I was a junior in high school.
9. I think Lions backup quarterback Kellen Moore is going to play for a long time in the league. When Moore entered the draft in 2011 out of Boise State, he was hammered for being too short (6-0) and not possessing enough arm strength. So despite being the first FBS quarterback to win 50 games in his career, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and throwing 142 touchdowns against 28 interceptions, Moore went undrafted. Fortunately, he landed with the Lions, where offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing have done a great job developing Moore’s talents. He’s never going to wow anybody with his physical skills, but Moore is so good at the mental side and anticipates plays so well that his arm strength is not an issue. In that way, he reminds me of former Jets starter Chad Pennington. Moore was terrific against the Patriots, who kept some veteran defensive players on the field in the second half, going 9 of 12 for 150 yards and leading three scoring drives.
10. I think you can throw the Vikings decidedly in the crowded category of "talented team whose ceiling will be decided by their quarterback," along with the Texans, Bengals, Dolphins, Titans, Chiefs, Buccaneers and, possibly, the Browns. Christian Ponder is such a roller-coaster ride. He’ll make a few plays that make you say, "Hey, that guy has something." Then he has a half dozen where he doesn’t see the field correctly, and throws late, high or both. On some of his throws against the 49ers, Ponder was lucky he didn’t get somebody injured. You can tell former Packers receiver Greg Jennings isn’t sure what to expect down to down and is a little gunshy for his own well-being. Little different than catching passes from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, huh Greg?