Most NFL coaches treat the third preseason game as the final dress rehearsal for the regular season. From extensive game planning to extended action for the first stringers, Week 3 provides a glimpse into the potential of teams and players across the league. After taking it all in, here are five observations:
1. Russell Wilson is the real deal.
If there were any doubts about Wilson's ability to be an effective starter, they should've been erased during his sensational performance in the Seattle Seahawks' 44-14 drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs. Wilson was superb with his accuracy, ball placement and touch, while also displaying outstanding athleticism and savvy game management. He guided Seattle to six scores in seven drives (Steven Hauschka missed a 51-yard field goal), and connected on 13 of 19 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson also rushed for 58 yards on two attempts, including a 31-yard scamper in the second quarter that helped set up a Hauschka field goal.
While breaking down Wilson's performance throughout the preseason, his overall leadership and game-management skills stood out in my mind. Wilson never appears rattled or flustered by any circumstances, showing a level of poise that is certainly uncommon for a first-year player. Part of that poise can be attributed to Wilson's extensive experience as a starter at N.C. State and Wisconsin. He entered the NFL with 50 college starts under his belt, and considerable reps prepared him well for the complexities of the pro game. While Wilson will still suffer through some of the growing pains that all first-year starters experience, he will not be overwhelmed.
2. Don't expect a sophomore slump from Cam Newton.
After studying Newton's preseason play, I don't believe the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will take a step back in his second season. The young Carolina Panthers star has shown a tremendous amount of growth as a passer, and these improvements will make him an even more dangerous quarterback to defend in 2012.
Newton has shown better footwork within the pocket, which has led him to make more accurate throws to all areas of the field, particularly the outside. Last season, Newton didn't fully step into throws, resulting in a number of inaccurate tosses that landed in the arms of defenders. However, he tightened up his footwork in the offseason. By incorporating his lower body in his mechanics, Newton has significantly increased his precision as a thrower.
In addition to displaying improved footwork and mechanics, Newton is showing better anticipation and awareness in the pocket. He is getting the ball out of his hand quicker and leading receivers into open areas with fantastic ball placement. For instance, Newton's three-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy against the New York Jets showcased this increased ability to throw receivers open.
In the screengrab below, the Panthers are running a square-in/snag combination route, with tight end Greg Olsen running the square-in at the back of the end zone and Murphy running the snag underneath:
Newton reads the drop of Jets linebacker Bart Scott and throws the ball toward the front corner of the end zone, leading Murphy away from traffic for an easy, three-yard touchdown:
Newton is starting to pick up the nuances of playing the position from the pocket. Defensive coordinators are going to struggle to come up with effective game plans for neutralizing the budding superstar in his second season.
3. Peyton Manning still has game.
After opening the preseason with a pair of nondescript performances, Manning showed he still has the ability to pick apart opponents from the pocket. He was absolutely sensational against the San Francisco 49ers, completing 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, Manning led to the Denver Broncos to three scores in less than a quarter of work, displaying the accuracy and efficiency that has been a hallmark of his game throughout his illustrious career.
From an evaluation standpoint, I was impressed with Manning's accuracy, anticipation and timing. He quickly worked through his reads and got the ball into the hands of his playmakers on the run. Manning's ball placement was excellent; he still has the ability to throw his receivers open with precise tosses.
In the screengrab below, the Broncos are aligned in a trips formation, with a "smash" concept in play on the left:
Manning puts the ball in the back corner of the end zone, where only Decker can make a play on it:
Manning also quelled some of the concerns about his ability to absorb a big hit, taking a shot in the chest while delivering a 38-yard tear-drop pass to Lance Ball along the right sideline. Although Denver's staff certainly doesn't want Manning taking a host of big hits in the pocket, the fact that he was able to bounce back from that solid shot should do wonders for Manning's confidence.
Manning didn't appear to have exceptional velocity or pace on his passes, but he has never had the strongest arm, and his superb anticipation allows him to mask this deficiency. He must show he can make the majority of throws required of elite quarterbacks, but that doesn't appear as if it will be a major stumbling block for the venerable veteran going forward. Manning understands his shortcomings when it comes to arm strength, and he will find a way to stretch defenses horizontally with a variety of short-to-intermediate completions to receivers crossing the field at various depths. He executed these concepts masterfully during his time with the Indianapolis Colts, and he continues to effectively utilize these tactics as a Bronco.
The potent running game provided by Willis McGahee will also help Manning push the ball downfield as a passer, with the threat of the run creating big-play opportunities off play-action fakes. Manning will be able to take shots in favorable situations. He put up big numbers for many years in an offense based heavily on play action with Edgerrin James, so I expect him to be successful with McGahee drawing eight-man fronts in Denver.
4. Terrelle Pryor remains a work in progress, but he flashes exciting potential.
Pryor's still rough around the edges as a quarterback, but you can see why the late Al Davis was smitten with his size, speed and athleticism. During the Oakland Raiders' 31-20 win over the Detroit Lions, Pryor put on an impressive performance, flashing his immense talent and potential as a playmaker. He completed three of five passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, while also amassing 90 rushing yards and an additional score on just five carries.
Pryor struggled some with the timing and precision that the drop-back passing game requires, but he was very comfortable with movement-based concepts. Pryor completed a 76-yard touchdown to Juron Criner on a bootleg to his right, and repeatedly used his athleticism to elude pass rushers in the pocket and pick up positive gains after the pocket collapsed. Pryor displayed speed, quickness and improvisational skills in a game situation. The Raiders have to be encouraged by his development heading into Year 2.
5. Dallas has an important battle taking place out wide.
The competition for the Cowboys' third receiver spot is shaping up to be an intense bout between Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris. Both have enjoyed solid training camps, but each player brings different skills to the table. Ogletree is the classic possession receiver with a solid all-around game. He is smooth and fluid while running routes and shows strong hands catching the ball in traffic. Although he isn't a very dangerous threat with the ball in his hands, he is a chain mover with a knack for getting open. Harris, on the other hand, is an explosive playmaker. He is at his best using his speed and quickness to run away from defenders, and the Cowboys capitalize on his skills by getting him the ball on the move.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.