Broncos' QB2 battle, Cards' CB questions, McCaffrey's workload

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As the preseason rolls on, NFL.com's network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Who will play cornerback for the Cardinals early in the season?

-- The QB2 battle brewing in Denver.

-- How will Carolina manage Christian McCaffrey's workload?

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NFL: Offensive holding penalties way up. With pass interference challenges getting all the attention this offseason, a much quieter enforcement has taken place in the first two weeks of preseason games: The NFL is cracking down on offensive holding, particularly on the back side of plays. And it has resulted in far more penalties in the preseason.

Offensive holding is a point of emphasis this season. As typically happens, there has been a spike in penalties during the preseason as players and officials adjust to how the league wants the play called. Through the first two weeks of preseason games (plus the Hall of Fame game), offensive holding has been called 281 times -- an average of 8.5 offensive holding penalties per game. Last year, offensive holding was called 881 times in the entire regular season (256 games). That was an average of 3.44 offensive holding calls per game. The hope is that players and teams will adjust their tactics before the games count, and the number of offensive holding infractions will decline in the regular season.

With officials also instructed to enforce the use-of-helmet rule more closely this season, 12 of those penalties have been called in the preseason, a sharp decline from the 70 that were called during the preseason last year, when the rule was new. The NFL essentially stopped flagging all but the most obvious lowering-of-helmet violations during the regular season, after it became clear that there was significant confusion from players, coaches and officials about how the league wanted the rule enforced. The diminished number of calls this preseason suggests the NFL's plan to educate everyone during the offseason about the rule may have worked, and everyone has adjusted.

Coaches continue to experiment with pass interference challenges. In Week 2 of the preseason, there were 19 stoppages for a challenge on pass interference -- 18 of them by coaches and only one by the replay official. Five of those challenges, all by coaches, led to a reversal. That's more than double the number of stoppages for pass inference from Week 1 and the Hall of Fame Game. Coaches, at least, seem to be getting the hang of it. In the first week of games, including the Hall of Fame Game, only one coach got a reversal.

The good news: The concern that replay officials might constantly stop the game in the final two minutes of each half has so far been unfounded. Through the first 33 games of the preseason, replay officials have stopped games to look at pass inference just three times, and only once was a call reversed.

-- Judy Battista

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ARIZONA CARDINALS: Uncertainty at corner. All the attention on Kyler Murray and a Cardinals offense that hopes to rebound from last week's underwhelming preseason showing against the Raiders has distracted from perhaps the biggest question with the roster now: Who is going to play cornerback early in the season?

Eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson is suspended for the season's first six games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Another veteran, former Falcons starter Robert Alford, is expected to miss at least the first half of the season with a tibia fracture.

If the regular-season opener were today, the Cardinals probably would start second-round draft pick Byron Murphy on one side and veteran Tramaine Brock on the other, though Chris Jones -- an undrafted player out of Nebraska last year who spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad -- has been coming on of late.

"I think Chris Jones has had a great camp," Cardinals safety Budda Baker told me recently. "Byron, of course, he's a second-round pick. He's gotta earn that money. I feel like those two guys have really came in and ... got the system. Now it's playing it, so I'm very excited to see what they can do."

The Cardinals also figure to explore the trade market (as will a lot of other teams) and have top waiver-claim priority, so consider the depth chart fluid.

-- Tom Pelissero

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CAROLINA PANTHERS: Mindful of McCaffrey's workload. Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has the ambitious goal of joining the 1K/1K club (1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards) this season, a feat only two running backs in NFL history have accomplished (Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk).

His coaches have a more prudent mission in mind, one that involves not abusing his body too much.

McCaffrey enjoyed a breakout season in his second year, as he amassed 1,965 total yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018. He's sturdier than his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame suggests, but head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are still contemplating how best to minimize the punishment he takes.

"We want him to have his 300 touches," Rivera told me recently, referencing the fact that McCaffrey had 219 carries and 107 receptions last season. "We just don't want him to do all the other stuff. That's the thing we have to do judiciously. We have to figure out the best opportunities to get the ball in his hands and the best opportunity to not have him in the game. When [McCaffrey is in the game], he also could be running a specific route. He could be stepping up for pass pro. He could be blocking for other things. If we can take 100 of those (situations) off him, it would be better. We don't want to take away his touches. We want to take away his excessive load."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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DENVER BRONCOS: Lock's injury forces new QB2 battle. Drew Lock's injury complicates the Broncos' quarterback depth chart behind Joe Flacco, whose preseason may be over as Kevin Hogan and undrafted rookie Brett Rypien battle for the No. 2 spot entering the season.

First-year head coach Vic Fangio told me that Hogan and Rypien "will get the bulk of the play, if not all of it" against the Rams on Saturday and against the Cardinals next Thursday -- a big opportunity while Lock, the second-round draft pick from Missouri, undergoes further evaluation of a sprained thumb on his throwing hand that likely will sideline him for Week 1 and beyond. (UPDATE: Fangio announced on Thursday that Hogan would get the start Saturday.)

"Right now, we have two other guys here (and) every rep matters," offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello told me. "It's a competition and we'll see how they play. They'll get a lot of time."

Hogan appeared in eight games (one start) in 2016 and '17 with the Browns and received a $300,000 bonus in March to re-sign with the Broncos, who had claimed him off waivers from Washington last year. Rypien -- the nephew of Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien -- is intriguing because Denver gave him $146,000 guaranteed, indicating the Broncos believe he'll at minimum stick on a practice squad, and he was highly productive at Boise State, throwing for 13,581 yards and 90 touchdowns in 50 games (49 starts).

"I'm a big fan of quarterbacks that are multi-year starters in college that can lead their program for more than 30 starts," Scangarello said. "I have an appreciation for that trait, and it usually translates to some success in the NFL. Just the amount of snaps allows him to play earlier and you can really evaluate who they are. [Rypien's] toughness, the fact that he won the job over a really talented quarterback (Bengals fourth-round pick Ryan Finley, who transferred to N.C. State) that was there when he got there says a lot about his competitive nature. And I think all those things translate to him in the NFL having a chance."

-- Tom Pelissero

OC Scangarello receiving high praise early. So much talk in Denver surrounds the offensive system that has been put in place and its perfect fit for veteran quarterback Joe Flacco. Its success not only falls on Flacco's shoulders, though, but those of first-time offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who was the 49ers quarterback coach last year and the offensive coordinator at Wagner University the year before. Head coach Vic Fangio told me his respect for Scangarello doesn't come from the titles he's held in the past, but the choices he's made.

"I think Rich has done a good job during his coaching career developing himself as a coach because when he came to a crossroads in his career, he made decisions on where to go and coach based on where he would become a better coach, rather than what's the best job that people are looking at from a level standpoint."

Now that he has his shot, what also will help Scangarello is the fact he can continuously pick the brain of the man who created the offense he runs. Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Broncos, lives right down the street in Denver. The two developed a close relationship when Scangarello worked under Shanahan's son Kyle in San Francisco, and the elder Shanahan was a regular at practice and around the building.

The reviews so far are that Scangarello has been in complete control since Day 1. As one source said, "either he has all of us fooled, or this has a good chance of working."

-- James Palmer

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Big Ben explains why preseason's essential. This preseason seems to be a tipping point, with more and more coaches holding starters out of much, if not all, of the preseason to keep players healthy for the regular season. This week, the Colts' Frank Reich said he had consulted with other coaches and decided that most of his starters would not play this week. Last week, the Bears' starters were absent in their game against the Giants.

Other coaches have been more selective. The Jets' Le'Veon Bell won't participate in the preseason, even though he missed all of last season. The moves seem likely to accelerate the conversation about how the NFL can change the preseason. There were already complaints from fans about paying full price for games in which starters made only brief appearances. But coaches and players don't seem to favor playing fewer games and replacing them with joint practices.

The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger still likes to play in the preseason. On Thursday, Roethlisberger said that, unlike in other sports, because the NFL's regular season is so short, teams -- and quarterbacks in particular -- cannot afford the slow start that might come with no preseason action. Balancing that against injury risk, he said, is a fine line a coach has to walk.

"To get out there and get game speed has value," Roethlisberger said. "I think for a quarterback, you want to feel the first hit."

-- Judy Battista

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WASHINGTON REDKSINS: Quarterback battle settled? Unless there is a radical turn of events -- like another unfortunate injury at the position -- or a decision coming from the top office in the organization (something I was told isn't going to happen), Washington's quarterback situation is all but settled.

It will be Case Keenum.

Veteran Colt McCoy is still suffering from issues following a broken tibia sustained last season and first-round pick Dwayne Haskins simply isn't ready.

"It wouldn't be fair to put him out there now," a team source, regarding Haskins, told me this week.

Coach Jay Gruden's offense is complicated, from its verbiage to reads to several other elements. Haskins, while growing, is still well behind Keenum when it comes to understanding the nuances of his own scheme, let alone running it against defenses he's not yet adept at deciphering.

"Talent-wise, [Haskins] is there," the team source said. "You see the arm, the throws. He's getting a lot better. You see it. He's just not there yet. Case is more familiar with a lot of things."

Gruden will make the call on his starter, the source said. Team owner Daniel Snyder will be informed of Gruden's decision, but he won't be the one making the decision.

There's also the fact that the offensive line isn't at optimal efficiency with perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams still yet to report over medical and financial conflicts with the club. Free-agent acquisition Donald Penn could open the season in Williams' spot.

There has been no contact with Williams as of Tuesday of this week, the source said, and neither the organization nor the star player seem poised to blink any time soon.

-- Steve Wyche

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