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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
The “dress rehearsals” are underway, but Thursday was quite simply a weird night as 10 teams launched the oft-hyped third week of the NFL preseason.
Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders backups played on an 80-yard field in front of about six dozen Canadians in Winnipeg, a former MVP suffered a terribly timed injury in New England, and a rookie top-10 pick delivered another fantastic performance which was marred by the fact we all know he won’t see any action early this season.
It often felt as though some of these teams had no desire to be on the field, which will only give more momentum to the anti-preseason movement that has seemingly gained ground of late.
Here’s a rundown of the buzz generated on a strange summer night of exhibition NFL football.
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There was a time—not long ago—when basically every NFL team played basically every starter well into the second half of their third preseason game. Now, teams are warier than ever of potential injuries and are reconsidering their priorities in preparation for the regular season. More and more squads are less willing to risk using key players in August exhibition games that promise limited reward.
New-school head coaches Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts and Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears have already stated they’ll buck tradition by resting their starters when their teams meet Saturday in what would normally be an unofficial dress rehearsal.
You get the feeling more coaches will soon follow suit, especially considering some of Thursday night’s key developments.
The wildest story took place north of the 49th parallel as a special Canadian preseason game between the Packers and Raiders was spoiled by the fact that the field in Winnipeg was problematic where CFL goalposts had been removed.
Not wanting to take a slight chance even after officials shortened the field to exclude the bad patches in either end zone, the Packers decided to sit 33 players at the last minute, including superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
This was an extraordinary situation, but it highlights how these games just aren’t worth it.
Will sitting Rodgers, Davante Adams and the rest of their top players Thursday in Manitoba have any impact on how many games the Packers win this season in the United States? No way, which is why they didn’t want to chance it based on even a small complication.
It’s entirely possible Rodgers would have been injured under regular circumstances, and that Winnipeg just saved the Packers’ season. Every live snap against a hostile opponent increases one’s chances of suffering an injury.
That’s why teams are beginning to realize they’re better off focusing their preseason preparations on the practice field, whether in joint practices or team workouts during which you’re free to run anything you’d like without fear of showing your hand.
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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Exhibit B: Thursday night’s game between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots, during which Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton played 11 snaps. On the final one, he suffered a foot injury that required medical attention.
Even if it’s not serious, it came as Newton was trying to scramble in the pocket to make something happen on a meaningless play in a meaningless game. It was unnecessary, especially for a player coming back from major surgery, and the reward associated with that playing time didn’t come close to matching the risk.
Per Max Henson of the team’s official website, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the 2015 MVP is in a walking boot, which isn’t ideal 17 days before the start of their regular season.
Newton was sacked twice and pressured often in three series by a swarming Patriots defense. On the earlier sack, he was taken down pretty hard by New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who also got hurt on that play.
In the same game, Panthers rookie offensive tackle Greg Little was carted off the field due to an apparent concussion. Back up in Canada, highly touted rookie Packers defender Rashan Gary was also removed via the dreaded cart. And elsewhere, concussions might have also sidelined key pass-catchers D.J. Chark Jr. of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Jordan Reed of the Washington Redskins.
Injuries happen in football, but it’s fair to wonder if it’s worth playing with fire in August.
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In parts of three preseason games, New York Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones has completed 25 of 30 passes for 369 yards. None of his five incomplete passes have been intercepted, he’s posted a 140.1 passer rating this month, and he again looked outstanding during a 9-of-11, 141-yard night against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday.
Trash the team’s decision to select Jones with the No. 6 overall pick all you want, but the Duke product has looked damn good.
He might even already be better than veteran Eli Manning, who completed just four of eight passes against the Bengals and, coming off three consecutive mediocre seasons, is far beyond his prime at age 38.
The Giants have made it clear Manning’s job isn’t in peril. Jones was drafted to be his heir apparent, but the organization remains in love with the two-time Super Bowl MVP. They aren’t paying him $23.2 million to hold a tablet this year, and you get the feeling they’d at least like to give him a complete swan song.
And while it’s not fair to conclude based on three preseason appearances against backup defenders that Jones is definitely the better option right now, his performances have ensured that the moment Manning struggles in September, fans and the media will apply max pressure to expedite the transition from one David Cutcliffe disciple to the next.
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How can the Miami Dolphins stick with Ryan Fitzpatrick now? The rebuilding team already had little reason to roll with a 36-year-old journeyman instead of the 22-year-old top-10 pick whom it just acquired. But Fitzpatrick’s hold on the job appears to be getting more tenuous as the summer progresses.
Rosen has experienced an up-and-down summer, but he’s clearly outperforming Fitzpatrick, and that was again the case in Thursday’s preseason game against the Jaguars.
Miami’s offense went three-and-out on Fitzpatrick’s first three series, and it only gained a first down as a result of a Jacksonville penalty on the fourth possession. The Dolphins scored just six points with Fitzpatrick under center in the first half.
The 14-year veteran did pick it up with a long touchdown drive early in the third quarter, but Rosen then came in and trumped that by taking the Phins on a 99-yard touchdown drive of his own. That involved a pair of double-digit-yard scrambles (one for a first down on 3rd-and-14) and a beautiful throw on a roll-out after escaping pressure artfully.
Rosen’s problem is he’s yet to deliver this preseason against a first-team defense (he started last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but played poorly). However, Fitzpatrick hasn’t either. Maybe the jolt the UCLA product gave to the offense in the second half Thursday will convince Dolphins head coach Brian Flores to at least consider extending this competition another week.
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Thursday’s preseason tilt between the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons probably represented Dwayne Haskins’ final chance to wrestle the starting quarterback job away from Case Keenum in Washington, but the rookie first-round pick didn’t do enough.
Haskins had some nice moments in Atlanta, even leading three second-half scoring drives. But he “led” the Redskins to the end zone just once against Falcons reserves, and “led” is in quotation marks because that was a 17-yard drive in which the Ohio State product handed off three times.
He went 7-of-13 with a 5.7 yards-per-attempt average against backups, while Keenum completed a higher percentage of his throws for a higher average against stiffer competition.
That essentially locks up the job for the journeyman. And although there’s little doubt Haskins will eventually take over, it doesn’t appear as though he’s on the brink of doing so.
Based on the shape of his supporting cast sans standout left tackle Trent Williams, that might be a blessing in disguise.
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The Redskins did, however, get an encouraging performance from another young offensive weapon Thursday, as second-year running back Derrius Guice looked strong and comfortable in his return from a torn ACL.
Guice was widely expected to take the reins in the Washington backfield as a rookie second-round pick and the subject of plenty of hype last offseason. But he suffered that significant knee injury in the team’s first preseason game of 2018, and we’ve yet to see him in live action since.
The young running back was extremely active in Atlanta, running with gusto and no trepidation on a night in which he gained 44 yards on 11 carries and added a four-yard reception.
It wasn’t a special performance, but it was a positive one for a player trying to get his career back on track. Now fantasy football owners can sweat over where to draft him and fellow Redskins backs Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson.
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You’re allowed to wonder how the Patriots will replace retired tight end Ron Gronkowski, or if 42-year-old quarterback Tom Brady can continue to flip the bird to Father Time and get away with it. But even with edge defender Trey Flowers gone, there’s little doubt that the New England defense will again be a force in 2019.
That constantly underrated unit has surrendered fewer points than any defense in football the last three years, and this preseason they’ve given up just 23 points in three games.
Their best performance yet might have happened Thursday against the Panthers, with New England forcing punts on eight of Carolina’s nine drives. They were all over Newton and the Panthers offense early, with Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy all impressing. But the reserves didn’t let up, and they held Carolina to just 99 total yards and seven first downs. In four quarters of football.
The beauty of the New England defense is it is greater than the sum of its parts. It helps that Bill Belichick is a freakin’ genius, but the personnel is almost invincible because they have so many quality players in such a wide variety of roles.
You get the feeling they’re in for a huge season on that side of the ball.
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It isn’t hard to find online content suggesting Baltimore Ravens rookie offensive weapon Trace McSorley could be the next Taysom Hill. The former Penn State quarterback certainly possesses the skill set to make an impact under center as both a passer and a runner while also contributing on special teams and as a return man.
There’s no doubt Lamar Jackson is the man at quarterback for the Ravens. But that’s also the case with Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Hill has still emerged as a key player there. McSorley could play a similar role right away, and he flashed his enticing ability in the team’s third preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday.
The sixth-round pick completed 19 of 28 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for a score. And although he had a pair of less-than-stellar passing performances earlier this month, he’s now got a strong chance to make the Baltimore roster.