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AP Photo/David Dermer
The NFL preseason is a like a good movie (or television) trailer. Its entire purpose is to get everyone excited for the actual event. For professional football, the precursor to the regular season leaves fans wanting more, as it should.
Eventually, all the starters will be on the field. Some still played during the Week 3 of the preseason and left quite the impression.
Justin Fields was on fire against the Cleveland Browns. Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill, meanwhile, already proved they’re on the same page.
Others were given room to breathe and plenty of live reps to earn their roster spots.
Young quarterbacks in Atlanta and Indianapolis are champing at the bit to gain expanded roles with their respective squads.
Ultimately, franchises must trim their roster to an initial 53 for the start of the 2022 regular season by 4 p.m. Tuesday, Saturday’s action provided a few noteworthy tidbits that will continue to play out over the next few days, weeks and even months.
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It’s hard to find anyone within the Atlanta Falcons organization who doesn’t rave about rookie quarterback Desmond Ridders.
During Saturday’s 28-12 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, general manager Terry Fontenot and center Drew Dalman were interviewed during the telecast. Both talked about the quarterback’s work ethic and going about his business the right way.
His performance during the Falcons’ preseason game helped create more momentum for this year’s 74th overall pick to start at some point this season.
It didn’t look that way initially, though. Ridder threw an interception during Atlanta’s first offensive play. Pressure up the middle caused the rookie to fade to his left, and the quarterback left it short and late over the middle.
Instead of dwelling on the mistake, the first-year signal-caller responded with a excellent touchdown drive on the very next series. Ridder completed all five passes he attempted during the sequence, including an impressive throw on a deep out to convert a 3rd-and-8.
Ridder knew coming into the contest he needed to show more despite an exemplary preseason performance. He identified his presnap process and getting the offense ready for the play and snap sooner when he spoke with reporters.
“I’ve got a couple of things to clean up myself, play calls, getting the operations run,” Ridder said after Monday’s 24-16 loss to the New York Jets. “Just really executing.”
The maturity the 22-year-old exhibits allows the Falcons to dig in deeper and harder to get him ready if/when he’s called upon during the regular season.
“I don’t treat him like a rookie,” Smith told reporters Wednesday. “The worst thing you can do is sit there and lower the expectations for somebody. We’re trying to get him ready to play real Sunday NFL football, and if you make it too easy on him, you’re not doing him a favor.”
In doing so, the Falcons are simultaneously preparing for the inevitable moment when they look toward the future by seeing what they have in Ridder now.
The coaching staff sees their young quarterback taking shots, zipping in a perfect slant route so his receiver can create after the catch, threading a pass between the second and third levels and finding wide receivers down the field. He’s consistently making high-level NFL-caliber throws. Ridder played well into the fourth quarter Saturday and threw for 185 yards and a score. A second interception did occur but that was nothing more than a heave during the last play of the first half.
Marcus Mariota is a consummate professional. He’s still expected to be Atlanta’s Week 1 starter, according to NFL Network’s Cameron Wolfe. Yet he’s nothing more than a bridge.
The eventual transition to Ridder just may happen sooner rather than later based on what everyone has seen throughout the preseason. The Falcons must find out what they have in the young man, and early returns are quite promising.
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AP Photo/David Dermer
Maybe the Chicago Bears offense won’t be as bad as it looks on paper.
The organization, specifically new general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus, received their fair share of ridicule this year for what looked like an improper plan to build around quarterback Justin Fields.
When stacking rosters from around the league, the Bears looked to have one of the game’s worst offensive lines and wide receiver crops. They still could once the regular season kicks into gear. But Bears faithful must feel a bit of a relief based on how Fields performed during the preseason.
The sophomore signal-caller shredded the Cleveland Browns defense Saturday. He completed 81.3 percent of his passes for 156 yards and three scores.
Some may argue that the Browns didn’t have their starting defense on the field and Chicago didn’t have to account for a Myles Garrett or Jadeveon Clowney. While true, Fields and the Bears’ first-team offense did what it’s supposed to do by overwhelming a group of backups and taking full advantage of the unit’s breakdown. The operation was clean and effective, which is a promising sign.
As a whole, Fields distributed the ball to multiple weapons, even without Darnell Mooney’s help. The quarterback’s performance is a result of multiple factors. Everything starts with what he’s done to improve.
“I see more progress in practice,” Eberflus told reporters last week. “His footwork’s getting better, his delivery when he’s feeling pressure, how he slides in the pocket and delivers the ball, that’s getting a lot better too. He’s improving every single day.”
The team also bolstered the offensive line late this summer after not spending much to improve the unit early in free agency or during the draft. The signings of veteran Riley Reiff and Michael Schofield provided veteran help. Teven Jenkins also made the transition to right guard became a pleasant surprise as well.
Chicago’s tight ends can be a big part of the offense this year, too. Cole Kmet and Ryan Griffin combined to snag four catches for 58 yards and two scores against the Browns.
Wide receiver Dante Pettis emerged as a possible complementary piece opposite Darnell Mooney, who’s also fully healthy for the first time in almost a year.
Fields will still struggle at points this season, and the Bears offense has its flaws. But the setup may not be quite a dire as originally thought. The franchise needs Fields to show progress in his second season so it can improve his surrounding cast next offseason and maximize his capabilities.
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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Despite Tyreek Hill serving as Tua Tagovailoa’s hype man since being traded from the Kansas City Chiefs, the two hadn’t done anything together during the first two weeks of the preseason.
Hill hadn’t played during the first two games, and the Miami Dolphins coaching staff felt it was important to build some on-field chemistry with their franchise quarterback and star wide receiver before the regular season commenced.
It didn’t take long for the two to connect.
On the very first offensive snap against the Philadelphia Eagles, Tagovailoa completed a 51-yard bomb to Hill. If one were to nitpick, the pass was slightly off and didn’t hit the wide receiver in stride. But the play proved to be a great start. On the very next play, the duo connected again for 13 yards. The opening drive lasted four plays and resulted in a touchdown. Hill’s night was done.
But Tagovailoa’s wasn’t. The quarterback stayed in for two more series and the Dolphins scored 10 more points. The second-year signal-caller finished the contest 6-of-7 passing for 121 yards and a perfect passer rating (158.3).
The 24-year-old is now playing in a quarterback-friendly offense, and his confidence is clearly growing.
“The offense is different. The confidence that the guys have coming out to practice is different. The confidence that the guys have coming into the building is different. The way we do things around the building is different. Just everything,” Tagovailoa said Friday when asked about what’s different this year.
Growing confidence for a top-five quarterback draft pick coupled with outstanding offensive weapons and a proven scheme make the Dolphins a very dangerous offense to face this season.
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AP Photo/Jeff Dean
The evolution of the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line is vital to the franchise’s continued growth. The Bengals couldn’t go into another year where Joe Burrow faced constant pressure and endured far too many hits. The front five now appears to be set, if this year’s third preseason game is any indication.
Apparently, rookie Cordell Volson won the starting left guard job. Sometimes individuals who don’t play in preseason games say as much as those who do. Volson didn’t take the field during Saturday’s 16-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Instead, Jackson Carman stepped in at left guard with the rest of the second-string offensive line.
According to ESPN’s Ben Baby, the Bengals coaching staff didn’t rotate their options during this week’s joint practices with the Los Angeles Rams. The group is now settled.
The organization concentrated on improving its front five this offseason. First, they signed right guard Alex Cappa and center Ted Karras at the start of free agency. La’el Collins joined after being released by the Dallas Cowboys. The team also drafted Volson in this year’s fourth round. Though the selection almost served as an afterthought and depth acquisition.
But last year’s second-round pick, Jackson Carman, didn’t secure left guard with his play. The 24-year-old Volson, meanwhile, showed how strong he can be at the point of attack and immediately settled into the spot.
“He’s hungry, and he’s the right type of guy,” Collins told the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Charlie Goldsmith. “He’s made up of all the right stuff. He’s physical, and he’s tough. He shows all the great qualities. He wants to learn. He’s definitely one of the great rookies I’ve been around. I knew since Day 1.”
The Bengals are exponentially better up front now than they were last season when Burrow took more sacks than any other quarterback. Names like Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji aren’t starting at guard. The latter is now a reserve. A combination of Jonah Williams, Volson, Karras, Cappa and Collins should turn a weakness into a strength.
With all of the talent Cincinnati has at the skill positions, the entire offense will be even more dynamic with a much stronger foundation.
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Tom Brady is probably starting to wonder if he angered the football gods with the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive interior has been thrown into upheaval.
An injury to Robert Hainsey is the latest occurrence. According to The Athletic’s Greg Auman, the second-year blocker suffered an ankle injury Saturday and didn’t return to the game.
“We’re optimistic it’s not a major injury,” general manager Jason Licht said during the telecast (h/t 620 WDAE’s Tom Krasniqi).
Any missed time will be problematic.
Hainsey is already taking over Ryan Jensen, who suffered a season-ending on July 28. The offensive tackle convert and Brady worked together throughout training camp, though the quarterback did recently return from a personal matter.
“He missed 11 days, but he wasn’t playing in the first two (games),” head coach Todd Bowles explained. “If you count his days off, plus the days off naturally, he would only practice about three times. He’s fine with everything. We know his conditioning is fine.”
Beyond Hainsey, John Molchon is next in line. Molchon signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2020. A team down to its third center is one thing. The fact Tampa Bay has rebuilt its entire interior is something altogether different.
After Alex Cappa signed a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, the team traded for Shaq Mason to fill right guard. The left side is a little more tenuous.
With Ali Marpet’s retirement, Tampa Bay planned a competition for the open spot. Unfortunately, Aaron Stinnie suffered a torn ACL on Monday. Second-round rookie Luke Goedeke struggled against the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive tackles and may be seeing Grover Stewart in his nightmares for a few weeks.
Brady is still Brady. But the 45-year-old quarterback may have to deal with soft pockets all season as opponents attack a weakened offensive interior.
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AP Photo/Doug McSchooler
The Indianapolis Colts went from having a revolving door behind center to an embarrassment of riches at quarterback.
The offseason acquisitions of veterans Matt Ryan and Nick Foles speak for themselves. Ryan is a proven starter capable of leading an entire franchise, while Foles should be considered one of the game’s premier backup options.
Sam Ehlinger worked himself into the wild card spot.
Typically, NFL teams keep two quarterbacks on the active roster. Indianapolis has a serious decision to make with Ehlinger after he lit up the preseason.
The 2021 sixth-round draft pick’s stats through three games border on absurd. Ehlinger completed 24 of 29 passes for 289 yards and four touchdowns. The mobile quarterback added 71 yards on the ground, including a 45-yard touchdown scamper Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
His accuracy and increased arm strength this preseason are eye-popping after entering the league with what many perceived as limited physical tools. What’s different? His body mechanics and thought processes.
Ehlinger went to noted throwing guru Tom House this offseason, and the twosome rebuilt the quarterback’s motion from the ground up. The second-year quarterback explained the process to The Athletic’s Zak Keefer:
“I’ve been restructuring the shoulders. It’s not just muscles, it’s nerves. I have to rewire my neurological wiring, the pathways in my brain. When I say throw, what triggers? Because my pathway, it’s been so consistent for so long, if I want to change that, if I want to change my mechanical signature, I have to rep it over and over because I’m not just training the muscles. I’m training the nerves. I’m training the nerves so that when my body says throw, there is a kinetic sequence from the ground up to maximize all of that and have optimal velocity.”
The immense improvement in just a matter of months has been staggering, which places the Colts in a conundrum. Will they keep all three quarterbacks? Will they try to slip Ehlinger through to the practice squad and protect him? Will the team consider a trade for the third-stringer’s services?
At bare minimum, Ehlinger can be a quality long-term backup. In the right situation, the 23-year-old may even emerge as a starting option. Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks still have significant question marks at quarterback. The Colts could recoup their previous draft pick with added interest by gauging the trade market.