Week 2 of the NFL preseason brought the continued disintegration of the Colts’ offensive line, the rise of Swag Kelly, and more inexplicable helmet rule penalties. But while the second round of exhibition games gave some young players the chance to declare their roster worthiness, there’s still time before final lineups are set and promising talents and old veterans alike are cast onto the free agent pile.
The preseason’s third week will provide another proving ground, and it’s the last week where the games really matter. The third week of the preseason is the most interesting for fans because the starters, if they’re healthy enough, usually play at least a half of football in their “dress rehearsal” for the season.
There’s still plenty of intrigue bubbling below the surface, too. Drew Brees will face the team that let him leave as a free agent 12 years ago when he makes his first trip to Los Angeles’ smaller stadium. New York’s teams will face off in a competition to figure out whose situation is worse after two forgettable 2017 seasons. Matt Ryan can answer, once again so stop asking, that he doesn’t care what Jalen Ramsey thinks of him when the Falcons face the Jaguars.
So what are the biggest stories worth keeping an eye on for Week 3’s four-day extravaganza of bench players and confusing 15-yard penalties? Here are seven we’re paying attention to this weekend:
1. The Falcons offense vs. the Jaguars defense should be FUN
Two of the best units in the league going against each other is always exciting football. Saturday night, when the Falcons travel to Jacksonville, will give both teams a good idea of where they are as the 2018 season starts.
The Falcons will be sitting Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones again, but Matt Ryan, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley will still play against a ferocious pass defense — one that was legitimately great last year. Ridley got off to a nice start last week against the Chiefs; this is an entirely different animal.
Jalen Ramsey has already called Matt Ryan “overrated” in his interview with GQ, so it’ll be especially worth watching to see how often Ryan targets Ramsey in their first ever matchup. Regardless, this should be an fun preseason game — at least for a half.
2. Josh Allen takes another step toward starting for the Bills
Allen was considered a project after starting for two seasons at the University of Wyoming, then looked like one in a Week 1 performance where he ran 18 yards in the wrong direction before flinging up a fourth-and-goal prayer that, miraculously, wasn’t a pick-six. But his odds of starting for the Bills as a rookie have gone up since then for two reasons:
a) AJ McCarron, who started last week’s game against the Browns, is now dealing with a shoulder injury
b) Allen has looked competent, if not spectacular, for the Bills so far.
Allen completed nine of his 13 passes in a conservative scheme last week, throwing a 2-yard touchdown strike to Rod Streater in the process. That’s a step up from his 9-of-19 Week 1 performance, but he’ll still have to hold off Nathan Peterman for the No. 1 spot. Peterman has been the team’s best passer this preseason after completing 85 percent of his passes and averaging more than 11 yards per attempt through two games, but Allen has the higher ceiling.
The rookie, who has already been named the starter Sunday against the Bengals, could earn the nod for Week 1 with commanding performances as the preseason winds down.
3. Jordy Nelson gets to prove himself against his former team
The Packers were faced with a difficult decision this offseason. Jordy Nelson developed into one of the league’s top deep threats over the course of a decade in Wisconsin, but the 33-year-old receiver was also set to take up more than $12.5 million in cap space after gaining just 482 yards over the course of 15 games in 2017. Cutting Nelson freed up more than $10 million in space for Green Bay — and set up Nelson’s second act with the Raiders.
The former All-Pro was part of head coach Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland after signing a two-year, $14.2 million deal to flank Amari Cooper in the Raiders’ passing offense. He’ll be counted on replace Michael Crabtree as the team’s veteran receiving presence and boost a unit that averaged 20 fewer passing yards per game last fall than it had in 2016.
He’s had a quiet preseason so far, earning two targets and just one catch for 4 yards in one game. Nelson isn’t making a big deal about his brief reunion with the Packers Friday night, though.
Emotionally, it won’t be a problem. It’ll be fun to see those guys, not only the players but the trainers, equipment staff, weight staff, all those guys I was with for ten years.
Those are the guys you miss that you see day-to-day, that you don’t get to talk to as much as you’re used to. It’ll be fun to see them. It’s kind of enjoyable as a preseason game so we can have some fun and get in and get out.
4. Teddy Bridgewater’s audition continues
Bridgewater is proving to be the Jets’ most shrewd offseason signing — not because he’s going to be New York’s starting quarterback, but because the club can likely turn his one-year, $6 million contract into a major trading chip. The former Viking has looked like his old self through two preseason games in green and white, completing 17 of his 23 passes for 212 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
While he’s been sacked more often than interested teams would like — his 8 percent sack rate in a very small sample size would have been ninth-worst among starters last season — he’s still doing a better job of avoiding the rush than teammate Josh McCown did with the team in 2017 (8.9 percent). He’ll have to use the rest of the preseason to prove that while his mobility isn’t all the way back yet, he’s agile enough to make throws from the pocket and extend plays when his protection breaks down. He’ll have that chance Friday night against New York’s other team.
Rich Cimini reports the Jets “won’t accept ‘backup’ compensation” for Bridgewater in a trade. In order to pull that off, New York needs the young veteran to keep up the pace he’s set. A game against the Giants’ passing defense could be just the showcase he needs to convince a rival team like the Texans or Dolphins to pay up, even if it’s in a backup role.
5. The Colts’ OL gets the chance to prove it’s not complete garbage
Indianapolis found out last year it cannot afford to lose Andrew Luck for long stretches. Unfortunately, a suspect offensive line will make it difficult for the strong-armed veteran to feel too comfortable in the pocket. Last week, the Colts gave up six tackles for loss and four sacks against an opportunistic Ravens defense, including one even Luck had to appreciate:
Terrell Suggs sacks Andrew Luck to end the Colts drive. Luck tells him that it was a good hit. pic.twitter.com/i0Wdut7F9S— Football Dungeon (@DuaneLively) August 21, 2018
This week, they’ll get the chance to rebound against a San Francisco front seven that struggled to produce pressure in 2017. The 49ers ranked 26th in the league in overall sack percentage and were well below the NFL averages in success rate and sack rate on blitz downs like the one that got Luck smushed into the turf above. If Indianapolis’ blockers are going to begin to come together as a unit this fall, Saturday will be their best opportunity.
Last year, the Colts allowed Jacoby Brissett to be sacked on a league-high 10.31 percent of his dropbacks. Subjecting Luck to a similar onslaught will effectively extinguish Indianapolis’ postseason hopes. Week 3 is where we’ll get an idea of whether Indy’s offensive line can handle even a meager challenge in 2018.
6. Richard Sherman’s first game as a non-Seahawk
Sherman went from overlooked fifth-round draft pick to a four-time Pro Bowler in his seven seasons with the Seahawks, developing into one of the league’s most fearsome cover corners in the process. But he was an expensive luxury for Seattle and a legitimate injury concern after tearing his Achilles tendon last fall. Rather than commit more than $13 million in salary cap money to keep the 30-year-old, Pete Carroll cut Sherman and saved $11 million in the process.
But Sherman didn’t go far. The 49ers snapped him up on a three-year, $27 million deal to be the veteran face of a rebuilding defense. On Saturday, they’ll get the first clues as to whether or not that gamble will pay off.
Sherman hasn’t played a game since last November thanks to a combination of his injury rehab and a hamstring strain that has limited him this preseason. He clued reporters in on his intention to play against the Colts, setting the stage for a grand return against Luck and his patchwork offensive line.
And speaking of Seattle departures ...
7. The ongoing intrigue of the Seahawks’ rebuild
The Legion of Boom era is over in Seattle; Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril have retired. Michael Bennett is an Eagle. Richard Sherman is a 49er. Earl Thomas is holding out until he either gets a contract extension or a trade out of Washington state.
As such, the new Seahawks secondary looks something like Shaquill Griffin, Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson, and the desiccated corpse of Byron Maxwell. The results so far have been ... underwhelming. Seattle has faced seven quarterbacks this preseason: Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Geno Smith, Cardale Jones, Brad Kaaya, and Phillip Walker. That group — of which Luck and Rivers have only thrown 16 passes — has combined for a 72.9 percent completion rate, two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 105.8 passer rating.
That’s bad! While it’s tough to pin all those struggles on the unheralded unit that will take the majority of the snaps during the regular season, it’s endemic of the issues that will plague Seattle in 2018. Pete Carroll isn’t due for a rebuilding year just yet — he’s going to have to oversee a teardown first unless a roster full of young players can step up.
They’ll be tested by a steady dose of Kirk Cousins, who is likely to get his longest outing of the preseason after throwing just 12 passes over the previous two weeks. If the Seahawks are going to field a competitive defense this fall, they’ll have to show they’re capable of getting stops Friday night in Minneapolis.