Preseason Notes - AFC
August 14, 2014
By Tony Mejia
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Earlier this week, we provided notes on all 16 NFC teams for Week 1 of the preseason. After watching all of the games, here are my thoughts on the 16 squads from the AFC.
Buffalo: Sammy Watkins only has three catches for 21 yards through his first two contests, but he's been as advertised in camp, looking every bit like the No. 1 receiver he was drafted to be. Expect him and second-year QB E.J. Manuel to take their shots against a veteran Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is trying to get his own unit up to speed, creating a great opportunity for Doug Marrone to see exactly where his young offense stands in their third preseason game.
Miami: Jimmy Wilson is getting first-team reps since strong safety Rashad Jones was suspended for the regular season's first four games, so look for the first quarter of this short trip to Tampa Bay to be quite telling on the defensive side of the ball. The Buccaneers are working with a new starting QB Josh McCown, so since Matt Ryan took the Falcons right down the field against the first string last week, we're going to see an honest effort from that unit. Missed tackles and poor coverage were issues the Dolphins don't want to see follow them into the regular season.
New England: Tom Brady will see his first game action at home against Philadelphia, a necessity since this week's joint practices have been marred by rainy weather, unlike last week's work against Washington. He's stated that he'd like to play as long as Bill Belichick will let him, so expect him to lead multiple drives against the Eagles. Brady completed his first 11 passes in the second preseason game last year, but won't have Rob Gronkowski to work with since the tight end still hasn't been cleared for contact.
N.Y. Jets: Geno Smith was erratic against Indianapolis. While his line did him no favors, the second-year quarterback failed to show off his improved grasp of the offense that has created separation between him and Michael Vick. Smith has taken over 80 percent of the first-team reps thus far in training camp, so he'll get plenty of rope over the next few weeks to lay claim to the starting job, a foregone conclusion according to Jets observers. Vick created something out of nothing against the Colts and will likely have a few packages installed to take advantage of his unique abilities even if he remains the backup, but it would be interesting to see what transpires if he shines at Cincinnati while Smith again struggles.
Houston: No starting QB fared worse last week than Ryan Fitzpatrick, so while the gospel dictates that you shouldn't read much into preseason, you better believe that internal pressure has ramped up. Tom Savage won't start as a rookie, but Case Keenum does have enough experience to move up to No. 1 on the depth chart if he moves the offense against Atlanta while Fitzpatrick is brutal again and hears boos at home. First-year head coach Bill O'Brien is likely to play the hot hand who gives the Texans their best chance to beat visiting Washington in the opener.
Indianapolis: The Colts dodged an immense bullet when tests on center Khaled Holmes showed that an ankle injury suffered against the Jets wasn't serious. Rookie Jonotthan Harrison, an undrafted free agent from Florida, played the bulk of the meaningful snaps once Holmes went down, which illustrates the lack of depth at a key position snapping balls to Andrew Luck. The best case scenario for Holmes would be to return for Week 1 of the regular season, which means Harrison 's ability to carve out a top backup role is vital. Expect him to play extensively against the Giants.
Jacksonville: While rookie QB Blake Bortles looked sharp in his home debut against the Bucs, the plan to "redshirt" the first offer site player selected in the 2014 draft remains and will likely be in place through at least the regular season's opening month. His college teammate at UCF, running back Storm Johnson may actually wind up seeing more action in 2014, getting second team reps behind Jordan Todman due to Toby Gerhart's early absence. Gerhart returned to practice after missing two weeks with a hip flexor injury and may start against Chicago on Thursday night, but Johnson and former college QB Denard Robinson are likely to get the bulk of the reps, particularly in the second half when the game is decided. Johnson runs hard and has a patient approach to hitting holes that you like to see from young backs.
Tennessee: With Ken Whisenhunt replacing Mike Munchak as head coach, starter Jake Locker gets a clean slate. A new regime means his injury related struggles and inconsistency can be washed away by a strong showing in training camp as the former No. 8 pick seeks to build trust with his new coaches. Wet conditions limited his playing time in Week 1, resulting in 1-for-2 passing for five yards against Green Bay. Word out of Titans camp is that he's looked sharp and impressed. He'll start road games at New Orleans on Friday and at Atlanta next week, so weather won't be a factor as he looks to generate momentum and lead a new-look offense.
Baltimore: A 23-3 whipping of kid brother Jim's 49ers produced a satisfying opening preseason result, but these next two weeks are going to be critical for John Harbaugh's Ravens, who open the regular season against three straight AFC North opponents. Home games against the Bengals and Steelers will be played without Ray Rice due to his well-documented suspension, so getting Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro up to speed while keeping them healthy takes priority at Dallas and home against Washington the next two Saturdays.
Cincinnati: Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for 53 yards on the opening drive at Arrowhead, but it definitely wasn't business as usual for the Bengals. Starting linemen Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith and Clint Boling all sat and will likely again be unavailable against the Jets this week. Given New York's impressive defense site front and the varied looks they offer, it's unlikely Dalton will be exposed much, especially with top backup Jason Campbell banged up and No. 2 receiver Marvin Jones out with foot injury. Undrafted rookie Matt Scott, Nick Foles' former backup at Arizona, is likely to get a ton of reps this week.
Cleveland: Johnny Manziel was average in his debut against Detroit, missing early reads in his progression and trusting his legs more than his arm, but there's no question he's got the strength to make throws against professional defenses. The expectation is that the NFL's most popular rookie will start Monday night's game at Washington, which means we'll probably see more of read option packages and wrinkles that OC Kyle Shanahan will have in place for Manziel against his former employer. Brian Hoyer should also get time with the starters, so this second game may actually be more important to the Browns than the traditional third-game dress rehearsal. Rex Grossman arrives after being signed this week to upgrade the No. 3 spot since he's so familiar with Shanahan's system, so the offense should produce more than just managed last Saturday.
Pittsburgh: Ohio State product Ryan Shazier should be on everyone's short list for top defensive rookie, right there with Houston's Jadeveon Clowney and Oakland's Khalil Mack. Expected to start at weakside linebacker, Shazier sat out the preseason opener with a knee injury but looks likely to participate this weekend against Buffalo. We'll hopefully all get to see why he created such a buzz before suffering a slight setback, but anyone who saw him with the Buckeyes can already tell you. He's blessed with speed and plays with a ferocity that can't be taught.
Denver: Danny Trevathan isn't Peyton Manning, Wes Welker or Demariyus Thomas. He's not even as recognizable as high-profile acquisitions DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Still, the outside linebacker is probably the most irreplaceable piece on the defense due to his versatility. He played on most downs, led the Broncos in tackles and was clearly on the rise before a tibial impact fracture of his left leg suffered Tuesday sidelined him for 6-8 weeks. Former fifth-round picks Brandon Marshall and Lamin Barrow, a rookie from LSU, will be under the microscope the next few weeks as likely replacements if the team doesn't acquire additional help.
Kansas City: The Chiefs went three and-out in their opening drive against Cincinnati, so even though they piled up 41 points in their preseason-opening home win, there was plenty for Andy Reid and his staff to dissect. After all, roughly half their points came as a result of two interception TD returns in addition to a punt return for a score, so the huge scoring output is misleading. Of the team's quarterbacks, only Chase Daniel stood out and threw for a score, so look for Reid to see where his first-stringers stand against a typically stingy Carolina defense on Sunday night, especially since Alex Smith's final play after sputtering on that first drive saw him sacked and stripped.
Oakland: If we're talking about Matt McGloin leading the Raiders to their only points again, something has gone horribly wrong. Friday's home game vs. Detroit is bound to be one where Oakland head coach Dennis Allen looks to impressed, especially since Bay area media pointed out that owner Mark Davis was visibly disgusted watching from his box in Minneapolis. Matt Schaub went 3-for-7 and will see plenty more action against the Lions, while rookie second-round pick Derek Carr should be given every opportunity to become an instant fan favorite in order to generate some hope after a woeful Week 1 loss to the Vikings. Scoring only six points provided an immediate buzz kill in what is expected to be an improved season for a franchise coming off consecutive 4-12 records that hasn't topped .500 since 2002.
San Diego: Frank Reich was promoted from QB coach to offensive coordinator when Whisenhunt left for Tennessee, so he's seeing his first action calling plays. Although he got a chance to do it sporadically last year, he's starting to develop his style this preseason, developing developing a rapport with Philip Rivers, who always prefers to be aggressive. With road games at the Seahawks and 49ers on tap the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see whether the Chargers use these games as an opportunity to generate confidence by pulling no punches against Super Bowl contenders. The offense is by far the team's healthiest segment, missing only WR Vincent Brown and guard Jeromey Clary.
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