Four Preseason Takeaways
Six days. That's right—six days until the NFL regular season kicks off with a marquee matchup between the Steelers and Patriots. Clearly, we're well past the point where the preseason is still generating a lot of buzz (teams don't even play their starters in week four) and football fans want nothing more than a fast-forward button to get through this excruciating week of anticipation.
Aha, not so fast! Believe it or not, the preseason does matter. Or rather, some of the preseason matters. Of course most box scores will have no bearing on the regular season. The Steelers' Landry Jones was the preseason's leading passer in terms of total yards through the first three weeks. Wow, sounds great, right? Well, the Steelers clearly weren't all that impressed, as they went out and signed Michael Vick. Yawn.
But before the regular season gets underway, there's actually a lot of useful information that can be gleaned from the preseason results—it's just a matter of looking in the right places. So, in an effort to separate the preseason "news" from ordinary preseason "noise," here are the top four preseason takeaways to actually pay attention to.
1. Eagles Offense Poised to Dominate
If you watched any of their first three games, you saw just how easy it looked for the Philadelphia Eagles to both move the ball down the field and to score. They managed 1,331 yards of total offense, including 488 rushing yards, and dropped 115 points...in three games.
I know, I know...box scores don't usually matter. But the Eagles' success is a product of head coach Chip Kelly's system, so in this case the box scores are relevant. This is an offense which averaged 22.8 seconds between plays last season (the next closest was Cleveland at 25.8). That tempo is virtually impossible for opposing defenses to keep up with, and it's a huge part of why Philly's ground game has been so successful since Kelly came in 2012 (first in team rushing yards in 2013, ninth in 2014).
It also doesn't hurt that Philadelphia has one of the best offensive lines in the league. According to Pro Football Focus Premium Statistics, the Eagles' offensive line was tops in the NFL in run blocking and second in pass blocking last season. This success came without Pro-Bowl center Jason Kelce and the young future Pro-Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson for multiple games. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Eagles graded first in PFF's run blocking for 2013 as well—Philly's o-line just flat-out mauls people.
It's too early to say a whole lot about the defense, which has held them back the past two seasons. But it's hard to imagine this offense being stopped very often this year. Sam Bradford is an ideal fit for Kelly's system—a decently mobile quarterback with an accurate arm—and he's been basically perfect in the time he's gotten (10/10 with 121 yards and three touchdowns in week three).
DeMarco Murray proved he can handle a heavy workload in Dallas last season, and health willing he will continue the charge in 2015. Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles also ensure the Eagles will have no shortage of running back depth.
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Again, preseason box scores don't normally mean much, but Kelly's system is getting it done from the first team to the fourth string Tim Tebow team. When defenses look helpless against the likes of Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, and even Tebow, that's a good sign the offense is doing something right. The Eagles went 10-6 in each of the first two years of Chip Kelly's tenure, and frankly, 11-5 this season looks like a conservative estimate at this point.
2. Steelers' Defense Will Hold Them Back
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has generated plenty of hype this offseason, for good reason, but little attention is being paid to their defense, which looks bad enough to seriously hamper their chances of contending in 2015.
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In the dress rehearsal game (week three), Pittsburgh made the Buffalo Bills' passing platoon of Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, and Matt Simms look like a collective Aaron Rodgers. Buffalo's quarterbacks completed 30-33 passes for 386 yards, including three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Obviously Pittsburgh's first string defense can't be entirely blamed for those stats, considering they didn't play the whole game. But still, they were really, really bad. Polamalu's replacement at strong safety, Shamarko Thomas, actually earned a -2.7 grade from PFF's premium statistics for that game, the worst on the team.
Sure, one game is a small sample size, I agree. Well luckily PFF tracks the entire preseason, and guess what? Thomas was the worst-graded safety in the entire NFL for the first three weeks. Get this: the QB rating for passes thrown into his coverage for the first three games was 158.3 (that's a perfect rating, FYI)!
Nothing against Shamarko, but if he's the best option the Steelers have at strong safety they are going to get burned a lot this season. It's not difficult to imagine the likes of division rivals Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, and even Josh McCown/Johnny Manziel faring at least as well as the Bills quarterbacks did.
Not that Ike Taylor was anything special last season, but his replacement Cortez Allen isn't going to change things, either. Allen earned a below league average grade from PFF for the preseason and he's not the kind of corner that carries a defense by any means.
As formidable as the Steelers offense may be on paper, they may be forced to play from behind quite often this season, thanks to their less-than-formidable defense. Expect Pittsburgh to be in many shootouts this season and don't be surprised if the defense drags them down to an 8-8 record.
3. Broncos' Defense Will be the Focal Point
For an offense that features talent the likes of Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders, among others, it might sound surprising to say that Denver's biggest strength this season will be its defense. But the philosophical shift in coaching staffs has materialized nicely in the preseason, and if the limited first-team reps are any indication, the Broncos defense could produce gaudy numbers this season.
The defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has shifted back to a 3-4, a scheme that better fits Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and rookie Shane Ray, who are all natural 3-4 outside linebackers. Miller, in particular, will be able to rush the passer a lot more often in the new scheme.
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Phillips has a reputation for being an aggressive play-caller and the defense has lived up to the billing so far. Through the first three weeks of the preseason the Broncos tallied fifteen total sacks, most in the NFL (the second most being twelve). That's five sacks a game, which if somehow continued into the regular season would be far and away a new record.
Denver's success in the pass rush isn't at all a fluke, either. Their defense earned the highest overall grade over the first three weeks from PFF premium statistics, including the second-highest grade in pass rush, run defense, AND pass coverage. Simply put, the Broncos' defense is performing at an extremely high level across the board and there's no indication of a glaring weakness.
Russell Wilson surely noticed a different team than he saw in the Super Bowl two years ago when he was sacked twice on his first two drives week one, including a strip sack from Miller.
With the Broncos expected to shift to a more conservative, run-heavy offense under head coach Gary Kubiak, the defense will be relied on more heavily as well. So far, Miller and Co. appear more than ready to step up as needed. Even though Denver will likely score fewer points this season, 50-plus total sacks en route to an 11-5 record is well within the realm of possibilities.
4. Chiefs Wide Receivers Will Catch a Touchdown Pass
Crazy, I know. But if you followed football at all last year, you surely heard more and more of this ridiculous storyline as weeks went by. Amazingly, the Kansas City Chiefs managed to go all sixteen games last season without throwing a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver....
No, that's not a typo.
Well, Chiefs fans can rest easy, because not only should a Chiefs wide receiver score one touchdown this season, but the connection between new addition Jeremy Maclin and Alex Smith thus far in the preseason bodes well for their chances of numerous wide receiver touchdowns.
Kansas City's addition of Maclin this offseason made a ton of sense. They were without any great talent at wide receiver in 2014, so Maclin filled a glaring need. Maclin also has history with head coach Andy Reid from back in Philadelphia, so Reid knows how to utilize Maclin's skill set.
Reid made it abundantly clear in the third preseason game that the Chiefs offense will feature Maclin this season. In their dress rehearsal, Maclin was targeted eight times (the next highest for any receiver was five), resulting in seven catches for sixty-five yards, including a twenty-nine yard touchdown...all in the first quarter.
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Straight-line speed and raw athleticism make Maclin a constant threat in space and Reid is crafty enough to manufacture him touches in the open field, even given Smith's difficulties with the deep ball. The ridiculous streak of no touchdowns isn't going to last long at all with Maclin around. In fact, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Chiefs' wide receiving corps eclipse fifteen touchdowns this season.
For all the media's focus on the ugly stories so often surrounding the NFL, here's an attempt at a few noteworthy feel-good stories from the preseason action thus far.
There's no shortage of great stories from the Chiefs-Cardinals week one matchup. First and foremost, a ton of respect goes out to Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who returned for the first time after his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. That's awesome—what else is there to say?
From the same game, shoutout to both the NFL and the Arizona Cardinals. Sarah Thomas was the first female official to ever work an NFL game, and Jen Welter, who worked with Cardinals inside linebackers, was the NFL's first female coach. Also awesome.
Lastly, check this guy out:
That's former Australian rugby star, now San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne. He's not a lock to make the roster, but his athletic ability is obvious, and he's fun to watch. He belted a fifty-three yard run week one against the Texans.