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NFL AM: Observation From Preseason Week 2 Openers

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While the NFL preseason is often treated like a long drag toward real football — for good reason, that’s exactly what it is — for the players, coaches and staff of each team, it serves a meaningful purpose.

This is particularly the second and third games of the preseason. The first game is often about shaking off the rust and features few star players and the fourth game is wasted on reserves unlikely to make the team because no one wants their starters injured a week before the season. But those middle two weeks matter a little more. This is the time when coaching staffs start to sort out their depth charts while also making decisions on who to trim off their roster when it’s time to make cuts next week.

The kickoff to Week 2 of the preseason saw 12 teams in action over six games on Thursday night and gave us plenty to like from yesterday’s list of players to watch. Here are some stray observations from those contests.

JIMMY GAROPPOLO LOOKS READY TO LEAD THE PATS

With Tom Brady a late scratch due to a scissor-related injury, Jimmy Garoppolo again got the start for the New England Patriots on Thursday night and after two more quarters of action, the third-year quarterback continues to look more and more comfortable as New England’s quarterback.

After a slow start on Thursday, Garoppolo found a rhythm and was completing pass after pass despite a supporting cast that did not feature receiving corps mainstays Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Instead Garoppolo was left targeting Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and A.J. Derby, but he made the most of it, completing 16-of-21 passes for 181 yards with a touchdown. That scoring pass came with 17 seconds left in the half on a great throw into a tight window to Derby.

“Finishing with a touchdown is obviously what we want to come away with,” Garoppolo said. “Taking the last shot is always what we try to do. We don’t want to give them another opportunity to score. It was executed pretty well. It was something good to build off of.”

Moreover, Garoppolo showed poise and presence in the pocket, especially in the tw0-minute drill, standing tall and delivering strong and accurate throws while leading New England on four scoring drives — two touchdowns and two field goals — before giving way to Jacoby Brissett. Sure it’s only the preseason, but Garoppolo continues to give us reason to believe that the Pats will be in good hands while Brady is serving his four-game suspension.

JEREMY LANGFORD APPEARS UNCHALLENGED

After the Bears let Matt Forte walk this offseason, it seemed obvious they were turning over a new leaf and handing the reins to the running attack to Jeremy Langford, who impressed as a rookie. However in the months since, there’s been talk of a running back committee in Chicago. That talk appears to have been just that.

Langford looked the part of lead back and workhorse for the Bears on Thursday night, getting the start and eight carries, which he parlayed into 55 yards and a touchdown. The stat-line for the 2015 fourth round pick out of Michigan State would’ve been even more gaudy if not for a few longer runs that were called back due to unnecessary penalties.

The second-year standout was the go-to-guy for Chicago on their first two drives of the night, and starred on the second one, breaking out for an impressive 34-yard-run on 2nd-and-10 from the New England 39. He stayed in the game to finish the drive with a five-yard touchdown run on the very next play, to end to his evening on a high note.

“He made a step forward,” Bears coach John Fox said. “He had a good week of preparation, a good week of practice. I thought he had a heckuva season a year ago as a rookie, and he continues to impress and get better.”

On a Bears roster that includes few legitimate options at running back, with Ka’Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers unlikely to take many carries away from anybody, Langford looks like a good bet for a big year.

THE EAGLES DEFENSE CONTINUES TO CAUSE HAVOC

In the first week of the preseason, the Philadelphia Eagles got by on big early plays on special teams and defense that set up their first and second team offenses on short field for easy touchdown drives. In Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Philly defense took it a step further.

On the first play of the second Steelers drive of the game, Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll broke perfectly on a screen pass from Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones and took it 38 yards to the house to open the scoring. It was the first of four interceptions of Jones by the Philadelphia defense, all in the first half of the contest. Granted, Landry Jones isn’t very good, but four interceptions is impressive in any event.

That gives the Eagles seven in their first two preseason games, and they also forced a pair of fumbles last week against the Buccaneers. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was on the receiving end of one off those interceptions against the Steelers said that the Philly defense takes pride in leading the way for the team.

“I’m probably biased, but I think that this defense and special-teams unit will probably, if we win, will probably be the reason we win more oftentimes than not,” Jenkins said. “That’s our mentality. That’s what we work for. And I think we have the guys to do it. We have the scheme to do it. We have the coaches to do it. We’re working toward that, though.”

Despite always having a strong front seven, Philadelphia’s defense ranked among the worst in the league last year, thanks to their poor play on the backend. But with some no personnel in the secondary and a new scheme, based around creating turnovers, cultivated by defensive mastermind Jim Schwartz, there’s reason to believe the Eagles defense is set for a big season. And based on the way the Philadelphia offense looks early on, they might need that group to carry them for a while.

THE SEAHAWKS WILL BE FINE WITHOUT BEAST MODE

The retirement of Marshawn Lynch was supposed to be a significant setback for the Seattle Seahawks offense, which relied heavily on the run during their Super Bowl runs. Instead, they’re thriving in his absence, thanks in large part to the play of one of his former backups.

Running back Christine Michael continued to show a reinvigorated running style on Thursday night, carrying 10 times for 55 yards as the first team running back. Michael has now starred in two straight games for the Seattle first team offense while also drawing rave reviews about his play in training camp. It’s been a strange journey to this point from Michael, who was on the outs with the Seahawks at this time last year and ended up getting traded to Dallas, then cut, the signed by Washington, then cut again, before ending up back in Seattle where he finished the season strong.

He’s picked up in 2016 right where he left off when he returned to Seattle.

“His game has definitely stepped up,” Seahawks wideout Doug Baldwin commented on his long-time teammate. “It’s just growth. Everybody goes through a process. Nobody comes in as polished as everybody wants them to be. It takes different people different paths. But C-Mike has worked extremely hard to be where he’s at right now, and all the credit to him because he could have stayed the same.”

What’s most notable about Michael’s growth is that it’s come in areas it’s not necessarily easy to do so in as a NFL running back, things like vision and patience. The 2013 second round pick has always been a strong runner, but didn’t necessarily get all he could out of the opportunities presented by his blocking. That has changed in his second tour of duty with Seattle and it was on full display on a handful of his runs on Thursday night, as he utilized vision and exercised patience to get through some creases he formerly would have missed.

“You’ve just got to trust the system,” Michael said. “You’ve just got to trust those guys up front, just like they trust us, and sometimes you’ll come out of those dark-crease runs.”

With Thomas Rawls due back soon and Michael getting into a groove, the Seahawks running games appears ready to get back to full form even with Beast Mode out of the picture.

ONES TO WATCH: FRIDAY

Friday’s preseason slate features a light schedule with just six teams in action over three games, but there’s still plenty to keep an eye on in those contests. Here are some guys to keep an eye on.

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys – It’s unclear just how much action the Cowboys’ star quarterback will see on Friday night, but any action for Romo is worth watching for Dallas fans, as he is easily the most important piece to the puzzle in Big D. The results are important, Romo looking and staying healthy is.

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys – The hype machine went into overdrive last week after Prescott’s debut against the Rams. The rookie looked solid and showed poise against Rams first and second team players with a little assistance from some Cowboys first teams in the receiving corps and up front. He might to reap the same benefits this week, so it will be key to see hoe he adjusts and what he can do for an encore.

Jakeem Grant, WR/KR, Miami Dolphins – Standing at just 5-7, this diminutive Dolphin has been impressing at camp and carried it over into the preseason as Miami’s leading receiver and return man last week. The Dolphins are deep at wideout, but Grant is a firecracker and the sixth rounder has a chance to not only make the team but make an impact in Miami.

Bryce Petty and Geno Smith, QBs, New York Jets – One of these two is sure to be the odd man out on the Jets’ quarterback depth chart and it’s still unclear which way that’s leaning. Who sees more action in Friday’s game might be a good indicator and backup needy teams like the Packers, who just lost Brett Hundley to injury, will be watching intently as they compete.

Trent Murphy, OLB, Washington Redskins – The 2014 second round pick out of Stanford has been yanked around by the Redskins this summer, first asked to transform into a 3-4 defensive end before being move back to outside linebacker when Junior Gallette got hurt. Either way, Washington needs more guys who get after the passer and Murphy is out to prove he can be one of them.

Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers – After a disappointing rookie season, Gordon flashed big in his 2016 preseason debut, with a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown. That was Gordon’s first touchdown in any kind of NFL game, proof of how bad last year was. With that in mind, it’s an important sophomore season for the 2015 first rounder out of Wisconsin. The Chargers selected him expecting big things and it’s time he delivers.

Brandon Williams, CB, Arizona Cardinals – With great power comes great responsibility and that’s what the Cardinals have given rookie cornerback Brandon Williams, setting him up opposite Patrick Peterson on the first team of one of the league’s most elite defenses. It’s a big challenge for a rookie third round pick, one he’ll have to prove he can live up to as teams try to pick on him and Philip Rivers is a good bet to test him early and often on Friday night.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys