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What we learned from Saturday's preseason games

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  • By Conor Orr, Marc Sessler, Jeremy Bergman NFL.com
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As is tradition, the Dallas Cowboys owned the night with star power in their 24-19 preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. Dak Prescott made his preseason debut, Jaylon Smith made his emotional return to the field and Dez Bryant continued to amaze by simply being Dez Bryant.

Here's what we learned from Colts vs. Cowboys, and a bevy of other games:

1. Dallas' first drive with Prescott this preseason was almost a showcase -- a see, he's not just a one-year wonder series of plays that displayed everything analysts said Prescott needed to work on. A timing slant to Bryant, an intermediate route to Jason Witten and a back shoulder fade to Bryant for the touchdown. The back shoulder fade is the epitome of quarterback-receiver synchronicity and, while it was against a punchless Colts defense, it still kicked off Prescott's 2017 in a favorable way.

2. Smith logged one tackle on his first two series, but his debut wasn't about statistics. His linebackers coach will probably note that Smith looked like a frantic high school freshman, thrust into varsity action unexpectedly. The real takeaway? This was a beautiful moment. Some thought Smith was never going to play football again. Ever. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took him with a second-round pick because, unlike any other general manager in football, he can take risks and not be accountable to anyone. The payoff on Saturday was watching Smith erupt after making his first NFL tackle -- a third-down stop of Jack Doyle. Before that, watching Smith just bob his head, soak in the atmosphere before every play was pure joy.

3. Andrew Luck told reporters a few weeks ago not to freak out about his absence, that he's just one of 11 players on the field at once. It didn't look that simple Saturday against the Cowboys -- the team's second dismal offensive performance in a row to start the preseason. This is an understandable predicament; no one is going to blame coach Chuck Pagano for his current lineup, especially with two offensive linemen injured. However, if Luck's rehab time stretches into the season, they should go cut down day diving for a potential upgrade at No. 2.

-- Conor Orr

Rams 24, Raiders 21


1. Sammy Watkins' impact on the Los Angeles Rams' offense was apparent on the first drive of the game. The former Bills wide receiver, who was acquired in a trade prior to L.A.'s preseason opener, didn't see a target on the Rams' opening drive in Oakland, but his presence opened up opportunities for Robert Woods at the sticks and then Todd Gurley behind the line. For the first time in what feels like forever, Jared Goff successfully set up the run with Gurley, and then executed a gut-punch play-action touchdown pass to a wide-open Cooper Kupp -- who, after his six-catch, 70-yard outing -- is without a doubt Goff's preferred receiver. Maybe we're lending too much credit to Watkins and his two catches for eight yards; many variables, including the strength of the suspect Raiders secondary, factored into the Rams' strong start. Regardless, there's reason for optimism in Rams Land. With Watkins in the lineup, their offense looks and moves like a professional operation -- finally.

2. It was a night for comebacks in Oakland. Derek Carr took the field for the first time since breaking his fibula in Week 16 last season, and he didn't miss a beat in his command of the first-team offense. Save for an interception on a deep crossing route, Carr (7 for 9, 100 yds, 2 TDs) looked the part, even trusting top wideout Amari Cooper to haul in a 23-yard heave in between three Rams defenders during a scoring drive.

Marshawn Lynch's Raiders debut was short and sweet. Playing in front of his hometown crowd for the first time since joining Oakland in the offseason, Lynch played just one series, toting the rock for 10 yards on two carries. His first run was serenaded with cheers and a standing ovation from the Alameda faithful for what we imagine won't be the last time this season.

-- Jeremy Bergman

Bears 24, Cardinals 23


1. Tyrann Mathieu is back. The versatile Cardinals safety buzzed to the ball on a catch by Kevin White, snuffing out the Bears wideout to help short-circuit Chicago's opening series. Two drives later, Mathieu generated the play of the game, jumping the route to pick off Bears starter Mike Glennon at the Arizona 5 before dancing it 47 yards in the opposite direction. It's the second game in a row we've seen Honey Badger flash speed and unrivaled instincts after a down campaign in 2016.

2. Speaking of Glennon, it's impossible to see him keeping the job for long. He vaguely surpassed last week's utter implosion, but Saturday won't quiet the doubters. Going 7-of-9 passing at a mere 4.4 yards per lob, Glennon was propped up by a juicy ground game before killing the team with his pick to Mathieu. One drive later, he lobbed an underthrown pass downfield that was nearly stolen away. Glennon ultimately generated a six-play, 44-yard scoring march before the half, but that fleeting success came against a flock of ham-and-eggers.

3. After dazzling the football cognoscenti a week ago, rookie passer Mitchell Trubisky materialized in the third quarter and promptly ran into a buzzsaw, nearly having his helmet ripped off by Olsen Pierre on his first pass attempt. Playing with a pack of reserves, Trubisky strung together a handful of completions and took another vicious sack before his first drive ended with radioactive kicking acquisition Roberto Aguayo missing a 49-yard field-goal attempt. One series later, Trubisky threw a dangerous pass to the sideline that was deflected and nearly picked by Brandon Williams. The rookie passer made good on his final possession, though, gracefully rolling to his right for a 6-yard touchdown lob to Benny Cunningham.

4. Tarik Cohen burned bright as an intriguing asset for the Bears. With Jordan Howard resting, the fourth-round running back wiggled and juked his way for 77 yards off 11 carries with blasts of 25, 16, 16 and 9 yards. He was an early bright spot for the Bears, but we also noticed preseason all-star Robert Nkemdiche providing another highlight-reel play with a diving tackle of the rookie near the line of scrimmage.

Broncos 33, 49ers 14


1. The first sign of trouble from Paxton Lynch came on Denver's opening march. On third-and-6, the second-year Broncos quarterback failed to see a wide-open Demaryius Thomas underneath, choosing instead to fling the ball downfield for Virgil Green. Lynch's off-kilter lob was nearly picked off to end the drive. After whispers over Lynch's promising practice play, I wanted to see more touch on his throws and better field vision, too. He's a tantalizing scrambler, but Lynch has miles to go after throwing for just 39 yards at a godless 3.0 yards per attempt over nearly two full quarters.

2. Hitting the scene with 3:18 left in the first half, Trevor Siemian authored a marvelous two-plus-minute drive capped by his 19-yard touchdown strike to Jordan Taylor. Exuding confidence, Siemian likely won the job tonight with a solid showing that saw him generate 10 points and a gaudy 130.0 passer rating over two drives. Forget the stats: He was simply the better quarterback, the more comfortable field general and the only choice for Denver when it comes to Week 1.

3. We saw a glimpse of what Brian Hoyer can -- and can't -- do in this Kyle Shanahan-led 49ers offense. The physically limited passer made a flurry of workmanlike completions downfield before disaster struck on his second drive in the form of a fumbled pass attempt that fluttered into the hands of Broncos lineman Shelby Harris. On the following march, Hoyer's pass to Marquise Goodwin was wrestled away by Chris Lewis-Harris for a spirit-crushing pick. Equally concerning was a ground game that generated a measly 10 yards over the first 25 minutes of play.

Chiefs 30, Bengals 12


1. After watching Carolina's Christian McCaffrey scorch Tennessee as a pass-catching demigod out of the backfield, I wanted to see if Joe Mixon could match his feats in Cincinnati. The Bengals rookie back started behind Jeremy Hill for the second straight week and made his presence felt on his third touch of the game. Lining out wide as a receiver, Mixon hauled in a screen pass from Andy Dalton and plowed his way through a pile of defenders for a 15-yard gain. Shifting directions, surging to-and-fro and showing natural vision, Mixon was touched four times before the Chiefs pulled him to the ground. The rookie struggled to shine against Kansas City's formidable front seven, picking up just 16 yards off six totes, but his rare athleticism is genuine.

2. It was a terrible afternoon for Bengals starting safety Shawn Williams, who was carted off the field after tumbling gruesomely on his right elbow during a tackle of Chiefs rookie back Kareem Hunt. We're still waiting for official word on the defender's status. Speaking of Hunt, the rookie is set to play a major role for Kansas City and looked sensational blazing through flanks of Bengals defenders for a 25-yard blast.

3. After Alex Smith put together another crisp performance -- going 8 of 9 for 83 yards with a touchdown -- rookie Patrick Mahomes hit the scene with Kansas City's reserves. The first-round passer was nearly picked by Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil on a telegraphed floater to Anthony Sherman along the sideline, but took off from there. Mahomes moved the chains with an array of dump offs and bubble screens, used Tyreek Hill on a reverse and set up his 1-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Harris with a surging 16-yard scramble through Cincy's defense.

Hitting 10 of 14 throws for 88 yards and two touchdowns on the night, Mahomes looked comfortable in his second pro game. Amid moments of raw play-processing, the rookie effectively cycled away from would-be tacklers, looked off his first option, spotted targets downfield, threw well on the run, displayed accuracy on the move and refused to shy away from the big play. There's no reason to rush him into the lineup, but Chiefs fans have reason for hope under center.

Packers 21, Redskins 17


1. After flopping wildly against the Ravens last week, Washington's starting offense generated waves of fresh suspicion. Quarterback Kirk Cousins -- celebrating his 29th birthday -- spent most of the first half floating on a different wavelength than his pass-catchers. Opening the game with an ugly three and out, the Redskins were handed new life after recovering a botched Packers punt return at the Green Bay 16. Cousins proceeded to lob the ball short of Rob Kelley, miss on a defensed pass to Vernon Davis in the end zone and whiff on a quick strike aimed at Terrelle Pryor. Washington's next three drives triggered two more punts and a squelched march on downs before Cousins finally patched together a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive against a rash of green-and-yellow-clad deep reserves. Coach Jay Gruden spent much of the first half sporting a beguiled, thousand-yard stare into the ugly night.

2. It was a different story for Green Bay's offense, which looked like a unit flushed through a time-travel portal from mid-November. Aaron Rodgers methodically sliced up Washington's defense on a 15-play, 75-yard jaunt that chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock. Green Bay leaned on rookie runner Jamaal Williams on the ground, while Rodgers spread the ball to four different targets before capping the series with a three-yard scoring strike to newly added tight end Martellus Bennett. It won't be the last time those two waltz together. One more Packers note: After dazzling fans last preseason, backup passer Brett Hundley was an efficient force once again for Green Bay.

-- Marc Sessler

Titans 34, Panthers 27


1. Marcus Mariota warmed the hearts of Titans fans with a seamlessly executed bootleg, sprinting behind tight end Delanie Walker for nine yards on the second play of their opening drive. The leg he broke last season looks just fine. From a mechanical standpoint, there's something about Mariota's delivery that looks far sturdier than it did a year ago. Not that his passes didn't have touch in the past, but he looks to have taken strides as a passer this offseason as well. "That was a blueprint for how we can be successful this year," Mariota said about the win.

2. I enjoyed the Titans using this preseason game as a proving ground for Derrick Henry. The 2016 second-round pick was used in extremely specific situations last year but could be on deck to absorb a larger responsibility in 2017. Coach Mike Mularkey kept feeding him at the goal line, essentially daring him to take ownership over the role. "Derrick ran the ball effectively," Mularkey said after the game. "I thought he did well. He did well in protection -- better than last week -- and that's important." Henry, who played an entire half and rushed 36 yards and two touchdowns, is looking a little bit more comfortable in that hammerhead role. His patience and ability to read are unique for his size.

3. An interesting stat via Pro Football Focus: The Panthers' defense line put almost no pressure on Mariota throughout his two drives. While vanilla defenses are standard and Carolina isn't going to chuck out its exotic stuff for a game with not much at stake, it does give a sense of how they'll fare man to man against one of the better lines in football. If Carolina cannot create organic pressure with their front four this year, it'll need to depend on an offense to outscore opponents.

4. Christian McCaffrey did some Christian McCaffrey things. Looking like a bigger bodied Darren Sproles, McCaffrey surfed through a beautifully blocked front seven on a 17-yard touchdown run. He also turned up field on a 38-yard screen pass, providing a glimpse of exactly what the Panthers are hoping he can do. Carolina played its starting offensive line for a half, so outside of Cam Newton it got a fine glimpse of how everything will work in theory. While the relentless hype and fawning can crush a prospect before he hits the field, it's time to think about the possibility of the first-round pick putting up 2,000 yards of offense by himself this year.

Texans 27, Patriots 23


1. Give credit where credit is due: Tom Savage is never going to be the sexy choice to lead the Texans, but staring down numerous coverage sacks against New England, he moved the football. On multiple occasions, especially on Houston's second drive, Savage exhausted all of his primary reads only to come back, scramble and fire a completion to a receiver not named DeAndre Hopkins. Their second drive of the night, a touchdown, would be impressive even by regular-season standards. Savage threw a dart to Jaelen Strong, who was working off Malcolm Butler, in the back of the end zone. Quarterback depth can't be a bad thing, right?

2. The Patriots trotted out nearly their entire armada against the Texans. Tom Brady started. Rob Gronkowski, according to ESPN, played his first preseason game since 2012 and lasted 10 snaps (no targets). They looked like the New England Patriots. Outside of one errant Brady throw that resulted in a called-back interception, their offense is still a dizzying assault of receivers and running backs wheeling into the secondary, preying on mismatches. Rex Burkhead might end up being the most practical offseason addition for this offense -- a useful tool in just about every formation.

3. As for rookie Deshaun Watson, it looked like there was a more concentrated effort to throw from the pocket. The result? Like last week, a few missed throws that, at least to me, look like pent up energy. Watson had Dres Anderson open in the end zone though it was a difficult completion even for a seasoned veteran. I don't think Watson is used to being a pinch hitter. Savage faced a tougher defense but also had a more traditionally scripted first drive. Watson also is doing some of the little things, like throwing balls into contested coverage in a place where only an embattled receiver can catch it. Unlike a prospect in the Blake Bortles mold, whose mechanics needed to be stripped down and remade, this feels like an experiment very close to paying off.

-- Conor Orr

Lions 16, Jets 6


1. The Jets' first-half offense looked as anemic as it gets in Motown on Saturday. With Josh McCown in a baseball cap, Christian Hackenberg started Gang Green's second preseason game against the Lions and failed to lead a drive that didn't end in a punt. Hackenberg struggled out of the gate, fumbling on his first pass attempt, taking two sacks and losing control of the ball on a third-down pass. The only skill players to earn touches in the first half were Bilal Powell, who just returned from injury to record nine rushes and two catches, and backup Elijah McGuire (one carry).

Despite rolling up negative-3 passing yards in five drives, it wasn't all Hackenberg's fault. Two of his passes were dropped and he was playing behind a discombobulated makeshift offensive line on his first three drives before New York's starting left tackle, center and right tackle entered in the second frame. Still, it's looking more likely by the dropback that McCown starts the Jets' opener, Hackenberg is relegated to QB purgatory and tri-state fanatics bunker down for a sad, endless autumn.

2. Detroit's offense is a powder keg when Matthew Stafford is upright. The Lions had no problems splicing and dicing New York's green secondary when their signal-caller had a clean pocket -- Stafford's timing with Golden Tate and Marvin Jones was in midseason form -- but Detroit's pass protection also allowed two drive-killing sacks. New left tackle Greg Robinson was the culprit on a strip sack of Jake Rudock. With potential questions are tackle and T.J. Lang finally back in the fold following a hip ailment, the Lions' O-line cohesion will be something to monitor as the season nears.

-- Jeremy Bergman

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