The NFL preseason is nearing an end, thankfully. Week 3 got under way Thursday night with a trio of games that included the NFC favorite Packers, a Ravens team that suddenly looks like the AFC favorite, an upstart Bengals team and a Cardinals team that appears in serious decline.
At times preseason football can leave you feeling a bit like the blue-suited hipster pitching the NFL to whatever audience will listen. Maybe the NFL's ad agency sent along this red-bearded stranger to give the world something worse than preseason football. What other reason would explain his existence?
So what did Thursday's games tell us about the season ahead?
(Almost) Nothing To Worry About In Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers burning cornerbacks is nothing new. Watching him do it with his legs was a little unusual. Rodgers ran the ball six times for 52 yards and two touchdowns. He picked up more rushing yardage than anyone else in that game, including Cedric Benson who returned to Cincinnati in a Packers uniform.
Pass protection could have been better for the Packers quarterback. A few of his scrambles happened because the Bengals' front four obliterated the pocket while he was standing in it. This was still his best game of the preseason, completing 12-of-22 passes with one pick and his scrambling totals.
Yep, still got the belt.
Mediocre preseason numbers aside, the Packers have nothing to worry about with Rodgers, unless he gets hurt and they have to turn to Graham Harrell. On Thursday, Harrell was 5-for-12 and 26 yards. It was at least a better outing than last week's, but Green Bay needs to find a better option behind Rodgers.
Arizona Is In Trouble
Pick your poison in Arizona. John Skelton entered Thursday's game against the Titans as the top quarterback, a nose ahead of Kevin Kolb in the ugliest position battle in the NFL. Both signal callers were, as the scouts might say, terrible.
Kolb and Skelton combined for three interceptions on throws that defied logic. Skelton finished early with a woeful 4-for-10 line with 41 yards and a pick. Kolb did a little better thanks to a switch on the offensive line that allowed him to finally make a connection with Larry Fitzgerald. Still, Kolb's two picks were head scratchers, and neither did anything to lay a claim to the starting job.
Part of the problem is Arizona's offensive line, an offensive line in name only. Both Kolb and Skelton were sacked on their first plays of the game. The Cardinals gave up a total of four sacks, which seems remarkably low. There was a brief respite in the second quarter when the Cardinals moved D'Anthony Batiste to the left side, replacing D.J. Young who started in place of Levi Brown. That's when Kolb had enough time to link up with Fitzgerald.
Word on the street is that Arizona will try to find another stopgap quarterback to replace their stopgap quarterbacks as teams start trimming rosters. It may not matter. No quarterback should be asked to work under those conditions. Considering that the Cardinals play the 49ers and Seahawks twice this season, and a capable Rams pass rush, they look like the early favorites for the top pick in the draft.
A Good Day For Receivers
Kendall Wright, the Titans' first-round pick this year, impressed me with his play last night. He led his team with 44 yards on four catches, beating Patrick Peterson on a quick slant for a 10-yard touchdown. The Baylor product and Jake Locker, who was also solid on Thursday night, ought to combine for plenty of highlight-reel plays this season.
Baltimore needs Torrey Smith to emerge as a top receiver, and Thursday's results would suggest that the second-year player is well on his way. Smith caught eight passes for 103 yards, as the Ravens used the first half to practice their passing section of their playbook. The Ravens will obviously lean heavily on Ray Rice when the season starts, but with Smith and Flacco synced up, they can finally stretch the field and give their offense another dimension for teams to contend with. It's hard not to pick the Ravens for the AFC favorites this season.
Another first-round pick continued his run of strong preseason play. Jaguars rookie Justin Blackmon finished the night with four catches for 72 yards. He is quickly becoming Blaine Gabbert's top target, and could be the key to a better Jaguars team this year.
The Bengals' success last season left everyone wondering whether they could take a step forward in 2012 after a very good haul of prospects in the draft and another year of experience for top-tier players like Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. We took a look at that question Thursday morning.
Dalton and Green never established a connection against the Packers. The quarterback threw the ball six times to his top receiver, but Green caught just one pass. Dalton's throws struggled to find their target, as Cincy Jungle noted:
They subsequently fell apart. Andy Dalton floated a pass to Green into the end zone that should have been picked off with Williams having superior position. Cedric Peerman lost two yards on the following play and the drive ended on a quarterback sack. They were forced to kick a field goal in the second quarter.
It is the preseason, so it could just be a matter of Jay Gruden dialing his troops in rather than trying to sort out position battles and get players in game shape. With Brian Leonard as their top running back, the Bengals offense was a one-dimensional group anyway.
Maurice Jones Who?
Jim Irsay's tweeting sent the media scrambling to asses trade rumors, which naturally left some wondering about holdout Maurice Jones-Drew. Last year's rushing leader is still not on the train, and he might miss it given how well Rashad Jennings is playing this month.
Jennings carried the ball 13 times for 57 yards on Thursday, an average of almost 4.4 yards per carry. Through three preseason games working in MJD's spot, Jennings has 4.86 yards per carry with 175 yards on 36 carries. Jacksonville probably needs MJD this season more than they need an extra draft pick in 2013, but if the situation does not get resolved the combination of Jennings and an improved passing game could still keep the Jaguars on the path back to respectability.
Who else caught your eye on Thursday, for good or bad reasons?