There's no need to get too high or too low during the preseason, but there are always a few reasons for teams to be encouraged or a little concerned during this time of year. I've come up with five signs of trouble and five positive takeaways from the first week of preseason action.
The Steelers and Patriots have Super Bowl aspirations, but to reach the promised land, both will need their young left tackles to play better than they did in Week 1 of the preseason. Pittsburgh rookie Mike Adams had a very rough outing in his NFL debut against the Philadelphia Eagles. Adams didn't have to face starting defensive ends Trent Cole or Jason Babin, both of whom sat out, but he still gave up 2.5 sacks in limited action. Backup Eagles defensive end Phillip Hunt was able to beat Adams with both speed and power.
Meanwhile, I was at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night and saw, first-hand, the difficulty Nate Solder had blocking the New Orleans Saints' edge rushers. Solder's shoulders were turned repeatedly, and he was forced to hold or watch quarterback Tom Brady take big hits. His pad level was consistently too high and he played with very weak hands. He is a very good athlete, but he needs to prove he can handle power rushers. Otherwise, the Patriots will have to start sending help to his side of the line to keep Brady from taking too much punishment.
The Cardinals are stocked with top-tier young talent, but the team isn't going anywhere until it gets better quarterback play. Kevin Kolb has had a miserable start to the preseason. He threw a horrible pick on his very first pass attempt against the Saints in the Hall of Fame Game and left with a chest injury shortly thereafter. Kolb put together another shaky outing against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night. He has developed a bad habit of lowering his eyes to peek at his protection and looks completely uncomfortable in the pocket.
John Skelton made a few nice throws against the Saints, but had a very spotty outing against the Chiefs, tossing an interception on a very ill-advised throw. Skelton has good size and a strong arm, but he needs to show significantly better touch and decision-making skills before he can be a reliable starting quarterback in the NFL.
The Rams allowed more points (38) and yards (430) than any other defense in Week 1 of the preseason. The Colts trotted out an offensive line featuring the likes of Winston Justice and Mike McGlynn, but the Rams mustered just one sack on 30 passing attempts. Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins showed exciting potential, but the unit's overall performance should be cause for concern.
One play. That's all it took. Less than two minutes into the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers, the San Diego Chargers' young running back left the field with a broken collarbone. The Chargers have been anxiously waiting to see what the talented Mathews can accomplish over a 16-game season. It looks like the wait could continue, considering Mathews is already in serious jeopardy of missing the regular-season opener.
Mathews showed some impressive flashes during the 2011 campaign, notching four 100-yard games and finishing with more than 1,000 rushing yards despite missing two games. San Diego needs him to return as quickly as possible. Last season's backup, Mike Tolbert, left for the Carolina Panthers via free agency, and current backup Ronnie Brown doesn't have much explosiveness left in his veteran legs.
So far, 30 NFL teams have taken the field in the preseason (the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys square off Monday evening) and all but three of them have recorded at least one sack. I understand it's just the preseason, and I know most teams are using their starters sparingly, but this statistical deficiency has to be at least a little eye-opening for the Bills, Bucs and Dolphins.
The Bills ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks last season. They attempted to address this issue very aggressively through free agency, bringing in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The Bucs, who finished dead last in the NFL in sacks, are hoping their young defensive linemen will blossom in 2012. The Dolphins, meanwhile, were much more successful at rushing the quarterback than either Buffalo or Tampa Bay during the 2011 season, finishing 10th in sacks.
All three of these teams have players capable of generating quarterback pressure. After one preseason game, there's no reason for Buffalo, Tampa Bay or Miami to panic, but their respective pass-rush situations are worth monitoring for the rest of the month.
The Luck era kicked off in grand fashion for the Colts. His very first pass, a four-yard screen to running back Donald Brown, went for a 63-yard touchdown. Luck was nearly flawless, completing 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Three of his six incompletions were dropped and two were thrown away so he could avoid being sacked.
I can't recall ever seeing a rookie signal caller show Luck's combination of poise, precision and play-making ability in his first NFL action. His ability to go quickly through progressions and find his third and fourth options is very rare for a young quarterback. He was moving safeties with his eyes and squeezing balls into tight windows. He also showed he can feel and avoid the free pass rusher on his backside. Critics might try to minimize his performance, but that would be silly. Yes, this is just the preseason, but Luck proved he's both mentally and physically prepared to be successful at this level.
2. Several rookie QBs played solid football.
While Luck was the star rookie performer of the weekend, several others made impressive debuts.
Robert Griffin III had a very solid game for the Washington Redskins against the Bills, completing four of six passes for 70 yards and one touchdown. He was very calm in the pocket and made quick decisions with the ball. He didn't dazzle with any of his trademark "wow" plays, but RG3 threw the ball very well.
Sessler: QB race opens in Miami
The Seattle Seahawks had to be pleased with Russell Wilson. The third-round draft pick made several impressive plays during their win over the Tennessee Titans. Wilson completed 12 of his 16 passes for 124 yards, with one touchdown through the air and another on the ground. One poorly thrown ball was intercepted in the red zone, but Wilson was otherwise outstanding. He will have a tough time beating out Matt Flynn for the starting job, but Wilson is making the decision more difficult than most anticipated.
3. Numerous rookie pass rushers made an immediate impact.
Last year's rookie class featured several dynamic pass rushers, led by the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and Denver Broncos' Von Miller. This year's crop got off to a fast start. First-round picks Whitney Mercilus (1.5 sacks for the Houston Texans), Quinton Coples (one sack for the New York Jets), Shea McClellin (one sack for the Chicago Bears) and Nick Perry (one sack for the Green Bay Packers) all had productive debuts, though none topped Derek Wolfe. The Broncos' second-round pick recorded two sacks in his first NFL action. First-round picks Chandler Jones (New England Patriots) and Melvin Ingram (San Diego Chargers), meanwhile, didn't record any sacks but were extremely disruptive, creating several pressures in their respective games.
Reports I've heard about Jones dropping jaws in training camp must be accurate, because the second-year receiver put on a show against the Ravens, nabbing six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown
The Ravens' talented secondary didn't have an answer for Jones' combination of strength, speed and ball skills. Jones, who torched both Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb on skinny posts and go-routes, is special because he is strong enough to work the middle of the field and explosive enough to get over the top of outside coverage. If he stays healthy, he is going to put up monster numbers this season.
The 49ers have added several high-profile weapons to their passing attack, but their running game was once again the headliner in a preseason win over the Minnesota Vikings. San Francisco piled up more yards on the ground (260) than any other team in Week 1, with seven different runners averaging more than four yards per carry. Backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the way, rumbling for 92 yards on only three carries, including the highlight of the game. After keeping the ball on a zone-read play, Kaepernick split the Vikings defense and scampered, untouched, 78 yards to the end zone.
Free-agent addition Brandon Jacobs looked fresh and showed more burst than he had in recent seasons with the New York Giants. The slimmed-down Jacobs (he's lost 15 pounds since last season) gained 31 yards on four carries, an impressive 7.8 yards per rush. Kendall Hunter reeled off a couple of impressive runs, while rookie LaMichael James was solid. The scary thing for opposing teams is that the 49ers did all that damage without No. 1 running back Frank Gore, who was given the night off. San Francisco has an incredibly deep and talented backfield and one of the NFL's most physical offensive lines. The passing attack should be improved this season, but the 49ers are still all about the "ground and pound."