All the young dudes.
Very good young-quarterback weekend—albeit against lesser defenses after the starters were out—for Minnesota rookie Teddy Bridgewater (16-20, 177 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, 136.9 rating) against Arizona, and for Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles (11-17, 160 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions, 95.2 rating) against the Bears. Bridgewater was a little shaky in his first preseason game, and the Vikings seem likely to start the efficient Matt Cassel to begin the season. Likely, but not certain. And Monday night’s preseason game in Washington will determine if Johnny Manziel unseats Brian Hoyer as the starter for the Browns.
The most fascinating situation is in Jacksonville. With two promising performances in a row for Bortles, the draft-day plan to sit this year’s third overall draft pick for most if not all of his freshman autumn now has to be up in the air. I’m told the Jags are still likely to play Chad Henne early in the season, but the plan always was to wait until Bortles was fully ready to take over, having nothing to do with how good or bad Henne played. And judging by Bortles’ ease Thursday at Chicago—he doesn’t have happy feet, he sees his progression clearly, and he throws with an easy and unforced arm motion—he’s not far from being ready.
It’s totally different than what happened with Blaine Gabbert three years ago, when Jacksonville played him before he was ready. Bortles has used the off-season and camp so far to improve his mechanics; he’s not an arm-thrower the way he was at Central Florida.
“This fan base saw a quarterback get thrown to the wolves,” offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch told me, referring to Gabbert. “We don’t need to force it. We never thought when we drafted [Bortles] we were taking him to play now. But nothing is set in stone. We’re giving Blake every chance to make the decision super-hard for us.”
Much of this is about the mental aspect of the game. My recent 45-minute talk with Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley revealed much of what’s going into Bortles’ head—and into the heads of every Jaguar. “As a coach,” Bradley said, “why do I want to apply anxiety? Why do I want to apply stress? I am trying to slow Blake’s world down, so he can learn everything he needs to learn to be a successful player. The plan is all about getting Blake ready to play. We’ll apply pressure, because you have to deal with pressure to succeed. But we’ll stay away from stress. We’ll stay away from anxiety.”
Guess what the third and fourth sentences of my conversation with Bortles were, when I asked him how he feels about the Jaguars’ slow-motion plan to make him a franchise quarterback? They were as follows:
“This is such a good plan, I feel. There’s no anxiety, there’s no stress.”
You know the message is getting through to players when they’re repeating what the coach is saying and seeming to buy it.
“I just go out there every day and try to get better,” said Bortles, who will work with the first team at Monday’s practice. “You know, Chad’s the starter, you’re the backup. But the thing is, you’ve got to have a level of balance there. I understand the situation. But there’s no complacency, like I’m the steady backup. I go out there every day and prepare my butt off and compete like I’m the starter. That’s what I’m doing. And this has been an unbelievable environment to do it in.”
It’s hard to be around the Jaguars and not think they’re going to be a good team in 2015.
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Eight quick thoughts from Week 2.
1. Comeback player of the preseason: Mark Sanchez. I saw Sanchez light up the Bears’ second unit 10 days ago at Chicago, and it was more of the same against the Patriots on Friday night. Sanchez is comfortable in two ways—being out of the New York pressure-cooker, and running Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense. I think he was made to play fast. He looks more at ease in a frenetic state, more in command, and certainly comfortable with the offense. This is impressive because he’s coming off shoulder surgery and learning an entirely new scheme.
It says much about him as a player that he’s come into a radically new world and mastered it as quickly as he has. Playing almost all no-huddle, Sanchez is 18 of 22 (81.8 percent) for 196 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Ever think Sanchez would have a 115.1 rating, Jets fans—against any level of competition? Against the Patriots he came off the bench inside the two-minute warning of the first half, went five for five for 61 yards and finished the drive with a touchdown pass. His best throw was a soft 20-yard ball placed perfectly up the left seam for Zach Ertz, the emerging tight end. The Eagles don’t have a quarterback competition, but they do appear to have a competent backup making the most of his second chance.
“Mark’s a real quick thinker, and he makes decisive decisions and is very athletic,’’ Kelly said. “When you watch him drop, he’s got some pop in his feet when he gets on top of his drop and goes through his progressions and he gets the ball out quickly because he’s got a real quick release. We were excited when we had a chance to get him. I just think the one thing you’re starting to see is he’s healthy. If anybody has any questions about his arm rehabbing, the throw he made at the end of the first half [in Chicago should answer them]. I think it was 68 yards in the air. We’re really glad we got him.”
2. The Steelers may have found a perfect Dick LeBeau linebacker. To be a complete linebacker in the Steelers’ defense, it’s vital to be able to drop and cover. Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, showed that skill Saturday night against Buffalo. He dropped with tight end Scott Chandler, ran with him, and turned to catch an interception from quarterback E.J. Manuel in the first half. Instinctive play. Shazier was the best Steelers defender on the field Saturday night overall, recording nine tackles and two more special-teams stops.
The Steelers have four highly drafted linebackers 28 or younger slated to start—from left to right, Jason Worilds, Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones—and Shazier gives them hope it can be the kind of complete group the Steelers have been lacking.
3. Paging Mr. Fairley. Nick Fairley. Nick Fairley is behind C.J. Mosley on the Detroit Lions depth chart at defensive tackle. Deservedly so, from what I heard on my trip to Detroit nine days ago and what Fairley and Mosley showed Friday night in Oakland. Dogging it is no way to earn your spot back, Nick.
4. Quarterback Leadership 101. The quarterback is not allowed tardiness, Johnny Manziel.
5. On Blaine Gabbert. Very hard to imagine Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke not having sincere doubts about their backup quarterback this morning. The second straight shaky performance by Blaine Gabbert—he threw a bad interception, short up the right seam and having it easily picked off by Tony Carter of the Broncos, and put zero points on the board in over two quarters of play—has to have the Niners thinking about elevating current No. 3 Josh Johnson over Gabbert. With Colin Kaepernick exposing himself to getting hit in the open field the way he does, the backup quarterback slot for San Francisco is one of the more important backup passer jobs among any contender.
6. Jadeveon Clowney looks terrific. Not quite unblockable, but with two more big plays behind the line of scrimmage against the Falcons on Saturday—an impressive hit on Atlanta running back Antoine Smith, and a sack of Matt Ryan on successive plays—he’s going to enter Week 1 for the Texans as an impact player, the kind offensive coordinators are going to have to game-plan for, in addition to J.J. Watt.
7. Storm clouds over East Rutherford. The Giants really looked out of sync on offense, for the second straight week under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Not sure how you have faith that the Giants will be a serious contender to overtake Philadelphia in the NFC East at this point. One bright spot: fourth-round running back Andre Williams, a keeper for New York. On a mid-second-quarter, first-down-conversion run, he hit the hole fast and steamrolled Colts safety Colt Anderson.
8. A tale of two Mannings. Peyton was in midseason form over the weekend, 12 of 14 in a classic take-what-they-give-you bludgeoning of the Niners on Sunday. But Eli continued a troubling August in the new Giants offense. Eli in his last two games: seven series, 1-for-9, six yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. Victor Cruz in three games: zero catches (one was wiped off by a penalty Saturday). That’s not good.
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The NFL says it won’t compromise on officiating.
“Points of emphasis” are the three dirty words for defensive players around the league after two weeks of preseason games. But don’t expect the crackdown on defensive clutching and grabbing by the league’s 17 crews to soften once the real games begin in 17 days, league vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Sunday afternoon.
“We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts,’’ Blandino told The MMQB.
That despite the epidemic of flags over the weekend, the second straight preseason weekend with heavy-handedness by the officials. Comparing accepted penalties in last season’s average game with the first two weeks of 2014 preseason football (not including Monday night’s Cleveland-Washington game):
|Penalties Per Game||Penalty Yardage Per Game|
|Average game, 2013 season||12.2||105.6|
|2014 Preseason Week 1||17.7||145.3|
|2014 Preseason Week 2||20.8||174.4|
“The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins,” Blandino said from his office in New York. “We have to remain consistent. I knew we’d see a spike in calls when we put out these points of emphasis. But coaches adjust, and players adjust. They have to, and they know it. And we’ll correct our officials when we feel they’re being over-zealous with certain calls.
“Plus, I would say that between 70 and 75 percent of the calls I’ve gotten from teams after their games this preseason are asking the question, Why weren’t there more calls? I had a call today from a team with seven questions, and six were, Why wasn’t a foul called on this play?”
Some background: The NFL’s Competition Committee felt after last season there was too much grabbing and hand-fighting between defenders and receivers beyond the five-yard bump zone past the line of scrimmage. So the committee told the officiating department to emphasize two defensive penalties—defensive holding (grabbing jerseys and arms to throw receivers off course) and illegal contact more than five yards beyond the line—the kind of purposeful bumping beyond incidental contact that’s become a regular part of pass defense. (In addition, the committee ordered more attention paid to illegal hands to the face, which most often occurs between offensive and defensive linemen. In the past, if a tackle was sparring with a defensive end and his hand scraped the helmet of the defender, the officials would let it go; officials would flag only prolonged contact to the face. Now officials have been told to call any contact of a hand to the face.)
The league is determined to cut down the amount of sparring beyond the five-yard bump zone. “The jersey-grabbing and holding downfield, especially,” cornerback Joe Haden of the Browns told me the other day. “That’s what they’ve emphasized to us.”
“He’s dead on,” said Blandino. “You can’t grab the jersey of a receiver anymore.”
Interesting upshot of this: One assistant coach said recently that if he were advising the receivers on his team, he’d tell them to wear loose, Triple-XL jerseys, to make it easier for defenders to grab. His theory was, why not try to attract penalties if the officials are going to be looking so hard to find the jersey-grabs?
The one team that’s hammered the point home effectively through two weeks of games is St. Louis. The Rams have their defensive backs practicing in pass coverage while holding two tennis balls, to limit the temptation to hold receivers’ jerseys and to grab their arms beyond the five-yard bump zone. In two games the Rams have zero defensive pass interference penalties, zero illegal-contact penalties, and two defensive holding penalties on defensive backs—both by rookie nickel back LaMarcus Joyner.
I asked Blandino if the league could take games with nine more flags, on the average, over last season—if this weekend’s pace held. Of course, there’s no guarantee it will. Blandino said last year’s numbers are a bit misleading, because they were relatively low compared to previous years. Thus, the theory goes, defenders were getting away with too many infractions that should have been called but weren’t, because officials were letting too much contact go. “I believe that once you see the players adjust, you won’t see this exorbitant number of calls,” he said. “Downfield contact was underofficiated last year.”
Coaches know they have to bang it into their players’ heads in the next two weeks. “It’s been a point of emphasis coming into the season,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “We’ve been harping on it in the whole offseason program, OTAs, minicamp, and all through training camp. You can kind of see where the weekend’s going, including our game, as far as the emphasis on illegal contact, offensive pass interference, defensive pass interference, holding, all those things in the back end. You’re allowed five yards, and then after five yards you’ve got to get off guys and you can’t have contact. We’ve got to do a better job coaching it.”
Agreed, but however it’s coached, the game’s not going to be as good if, as we just saw this weekend, there are nine more flags, and nine more stoppages of play, in the average NFL game once the real games start.