NFL

NFL AM: Friday Night Football Observations From Preseason Week 3

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We’re inching closer to the start of the 2016 regular season as nearly half the league has now completed three weeks of the preseason.

On Friday night, 10 more teams completed their preseason Week 3 dress rehearsal games, with varying degrees of success. There were some studs, and of course some duds. Here’s a look at a few that stood out in each category.

STUD: Pittsburgh Steelers Offense 

When they have all hands on deck, the Pittsburgh Steelers have what looks to be the best offense in football. That was on full display on Friday night in their dress rehearsal with the New Orleans Saints.

Ben Roethlisberger played almost the entire first quarter and led Pittsburgh on two long touchdown drives where everything was clicking against an overmatched New Orleans defense. The first drive lasted 15 plays and included completions to six different targets by Big Ben. It also saw Le’veon Bell get his first and only action of the preseason and show that he’ll be ready to go once his suspension ends. The running back, who saw his 2015 season end early due to a knee injury, was the recipient of Roethlisberger’s first completion and took the short pass for 13 yards and a first down. He also had a nice 12-yard run off right guard during the long drive, one of three carries for him on the evening.

After that long first drive ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to second-year tight end Jesse James, who Roethlisberger targeted often on Friday night, the Steelers showed the other way they can hurt you on offense: with quick strike scoring drives. A three-and-out gave the ball back to Pittsburgh and on the fourth play of the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger lofted a pass to Antonio Brown, who hauled it in through pass interference and took it 57 yards to the house with ease.

That was the end of the night for the Steelers starters, but Pittsburgh kept on scoring in the second, highlighted by a few big plays from Sammie Coates, who the team is counting on to help fill the void left by the suspension of Martavis Bryant. The Steelers will be without Bryant all season, saw Heath Miller retire and will miss Bell for three games, but it doesn’t appear that their offense will skip a beat, as they still possess loads of talent and one of the best quarterback-wide receiver combos in the league. This is a team that will be a force to be reckoned with in 2016, and if they can get that defense going, look out.

STUD: Tom Brady
DUD: Cam Newton

It’s hard to put any weight on the preseason performance of some of the league’s biggest stars, guys who’ve done it before again and again under the brightest lights when the games actually count. You assume that the games are just kind of boring for them and they’re not taking it seriously. But then you look at the contrast between the play of two quarterbacks last night in Carolina and you start to wonder.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made his only preseason cameo of 2016 on Friday night and was excellent as usual, leading the Pats on two scoring drives. Playing in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo, who will start the first four games of the regular season for New England while Brady serves a suspension, the future Hall-of-Game signal caller got his night started with a bullet, throwing a strike deep down the middle of the field to Aaron Dobson for a gain of 37 yards. That drive resulted in a field goal. Later, Brady finished off a drive created by an interception with a picture perfect deep pass up the right sideline for Chris Hogan, who caught it in stride and jogged into the end zone for six. Brady’s night was brief and otherwise uneventful, but in just a few plays he showed why he’s the best there is.

On the other side, there was Cam Newton, another one of the league’s best at quarterback, a guy whose preseason performance really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. But there’s no way around it, Newton was flat awful on Friday night in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for the season. The Carolina quarterback played a quarter and a half and threw 29 passes, only 13 of which were completed. He totaled 100 yards through the air, an average of 3.4 yards per completion and he was picked off twice on two just terribly ill-advised passes.

The first one he threw deep down the left sideline off his back foot, trying to force the ball to Kelvin Benjamin, who was blanketed in coverage. The second came after a pump fake and saw Newton throw over the middle into a crowd of mostly dark jerseys, one of which got a hand up to tip the ball to another for an easy pick down the field. It’s not clear what Newton was thinking on either throw, and maybe he wasn’t thinking much at all because it is the preseason, but bad throws from him were the norm on Friday night and he made mistakes he simply can’t as the leader of that football team.

Newton will almost certainly be fine. He looked sharp last week against the Titans, so it’s not as though this is a trend, and he’s proven he’ll show up when the lights come on. But he’s yet to establish much of a rapport with the returning Benjamin, who is supposed to be his go-to guy, which is a bit alarming. Moreover, the contrast between his performance and Brady’s on Friday was stark and left him open to questions he shouldn’t have to answer. Such is the life of Cam.

DUD: 49ers Quarterbacks

The San Francisco 49ers are going to be bad this year. Really really bad. And with now just one week left in the preseason it’s still anybody’s guess who is going to lead them out of the tunnel against the Rams on Monday night in the final game of Week 1 of the regular season.

Blaine Gabbert got the start on Friday night and looked like, well Blaine Gabbert is known to look, like a guy who is at best a career backup. He led two drives and threw three passes, completing two for all of 14 yards. He lucked out that the second drive was on a short field and after those two passes got the Niners into field goal range, Carlos Hyde did the bulk of the work on a 27-yard run and then Gabbert almost fudged the finish on a screen pass to Quinton Patton, who had to reach back and snag a “pass” that was thrown behind him and would’ve been a fumble had he not grabbed it, before sprinting into the end zone. That was it for Gabbert, on an uneventful night that somehow still may have established him as San Francisco’s clear No. 1 quarterback.

That’s because Gabbert was followed by Colin Kaepernick and in his first appearance of the preseason, Kap seemed more concerned with making a political statement than doing his job and earning the starting quarterback job that has been left for the taking.

Kaepernick started his night with a few short completions, but then seemed to be trying to force the ball to his tight end Vance McDonald and when three straight attempts to do so fell incomplete, San Francisco had to punt. The next drive was even shorter, and featured two runs by Kaepernick, one for a loss of three and one for a gain of 10 on 3rd & 13, sandwiched around an incomplete pass. His next and final drive was another three-and-out, with two more runs by Kaepernick with a Carlos Hyde run mixed in. That was the 49ers’ final drive of the first half and after halftime Jeff Driskel took over.

Driskel, a rookie sixth round pick who was supposed to be the next Tim Tebow at the University of Florida before flopping there and transferring to Louisana Tech where he excelled, is an intriguing long-term prospect and actually played the best game out of any 49ers quarterback on Friday night. But that’s not saying much, especially since it came against the Packers’ cleanup crew. He still has a long way to go in his development, but all that said, given the play of Kaepernick and Gabbert that we’ve seen so far, it’s possible, probable even, that Driskel gets a chance to see what he can do.

Right now it seems likely that Gabbert starts the year. Kaepernick might not even make the team based on his performance Friday, though his political protest before the game might complicate any plans the 49ers had to release him. But there doesn’t seem to be anything left there quarterback talent-wise. Still, San Francisco would be wise to watch the waiver wire in the coming weeks and perhaps swoop in for someone new to backup Gabbert while cutting Kaepernick loose and giving Driskel time to develop.

STUD: Josh Gordon

In his first NFL action since 2014, Josh Gordon showed he hasn’t forgotten how to play the game at a high level.

The 25-year-old wide receiver, who missed all of last season and will miss the first four games of this coming season due to suspension was outstanding on Friday night, hauling in two passes from Robert Griffin III totaling 87 yards including a phenomenal touchdown grab. On the first one, Gordon burned his defender and presented himself wide open to Griffin down the sideline for what could’ve been an even bigger play had Griffin’s throw been better. Instead, Gordon had to adjust to catch a ball that was coming down over the wrong shoulder and his momentum in doing so carried him out of bounds.

But that was just the appetizer for the play of the night as, a few drives later Griffin heaved a ball down the right sideline for Gordon, in one-on-one coverage and the former supplemental draft pick made an incredible play to get inside Brent Grimes and make the leaping catch for a touchdown. It was the type of play that only the most elite wide receivers can make and Gordon made it look easy.

Gordon was on his way to being considered one of those back in 2013 before his poor decision-making got in the way. But he’s back now and quickly showed he still has the skills. If he can simply stay out of trouble, he’s young and fresh enough to still be one of the league’s best at the position. Rumors swirled this week about the Browns shopping Gordon, but after his performance on Friday night, it’s hard to imagine them getting good value for a guy who hasn’t played in almost two years but whose ceiling is still sky high. The better bet is that they keep him and let him go to work from Week 5 on.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys