Reporters' Notebook

Cam Newton playing it safe; Packers' rhythm; Leftwich's rise

With preseason action getting underway,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- The careful post-surgery progression of a star QB.

-- How one rookie RB is impressing his coaches.

-- What the Steelers are doing to address a major weak spot.

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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Lamar Jackson more confident in Year 2.There has been a lot of talk about the new offense the Ravens have created for quarterback Lamar Jackson. The two joint practices against the Jaguars this week marked the first time we've seen it against another team. What we witnessed was a small sample of what will be in place: A lot of pre-snap motion and a system that was designed by Greg Roman to focus on Jackson's unique skill set, but also with a lot of input from Jackson himself during the offseason.

"The fact that he's grown so much and is so confident, they can now do so much with him," Ravens safety Tony Jefferson, who has yet to intercept Jackson this camp, told NFL Network after the first of the two joint practices. "It's great for us. They're giving us so many different looks, so many different personal groups."

Baltimore has the talent to use a lot of two tight end sets or stretch defense with the blazing speed of first round pick Marquise "Hollywood" Brown. But there are certainly those that have their doubts about the success of Jackson as a passer and what this new offense will be able to achieve.

"I think he's using all the criticism as motivation," Jefferson said of Jackson's drive. "You can see it in his swagger. Like I said, all camp he's been on the money and it's quite amazing to see the transformation that he's made."

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BUFFALO BILLS: Pegulas' progeny a rising tennis star. As the owners of the Buffalo Bills and NHL's Buffalo Sabres, Terry and Kim Pegula are perpetually immersed in the inner workings of professional sports, and their emotions often hang in the balance of a game's outcome.

None of that, however, compares to the pressure of being a helpless tennis parent as your daughter competes against the top players in the world.

"I would argue that it might be the hardest sport," Kim Pegula said Monday night at a restaurant in Pittsford, New York, where the Bills would wrap up a short but spirited training camp the following day. "You're going up against the best athletes from every country. It's a grueling schedule. There's no limit to how long a match can take, and you have to be incredibly fit. And if you don't win (a match), you don't get paid."

The previous day, the Pegulas had exulted as their daughter, Jessie, won her first-ever WTA singles championship, defeating Italy's Camila Giorgia, 6-2, 6-2, to capture the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. The triumph is expected to boost the 25-year-old Pegula's world ranking from 79 to 54, making her an intriguing threat to do some damage as the U.S. Open approaches.

And as he sat with his wife and sipped on sublime red wine Monday night, Terry Pegula was a proud -- and revved-up -- papa.

"She's on her way," he said. "She's been through a lot (including hip surgery that forced her to miss a large share of the 2017 season), but she is a tough kid who has kept battling, and we're so proud of her. She plays with an incredible amount of power, and I'm telling you, she's getting ready to do some big things."

Terry is tentatively planning to attend Jessie's next tournament, the Western & Southern Open, in suburban Cincinnati, an event to which the self-described "Road Warrior" will likely drive from Charlotte, where the Bills will play their second preseason game against the Carolina Pantherson Aug. 16. Then comes the U.S. Open in Flushing, New York. "Oh, we'll be there," Kim said. Watching nervously, no doubt.

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CAROLINA PANTHERS: Newton still taking it easy on his arm.Panthers coach Ron Rivera had been waiting to see quarterback Cam Newton cut loose with a deep ball, and that moment arrived last week during the team's Fan Fest scrimmage. Newton, coming off offseason arthroscopic shoulder surgery, dropped back and launched the ball halfway down the field to Curtis Samuel, who carried it into the end zone.

"Even though it only traveled 45 or 50 yards in the air, he let that thing go," Rivera told Tuesday afternoon. "I was thinking that if he wanted to, he could have thrown that thing 60 yards in the air."

But then, a few days later, on a play that tempered everyone's excitement, Newton read the coverage, saw the receiver break open and babied an intermediate throw instead of truly cutting it loose.

"Because of that, the ball was on the receiver's hip instead of over his shoulder," Rivera said. "I'm thinking to myself, there's no way he unleashed that, because the ball I saw him throw Friday night during Fan Fest -- he let that thing go. I just thought, for everything he has, he still hasn't gotten 100 percent confidence in [the shoulder] yet."

And so goes the road to recovery. Newton admitted recently that his return to full health is a process that involves the mind as much as the body. He played much of the second half of last season with a shoulder injury so painful that during a four- or five-week stretch, he did not throw the football in practice on Wednesdays or Thursdays and sometimes Friday.

"Part of the reason was that we got a lot of rain on Fridays last year, and we didn't want him throwing a heavy ball," Rivera said. "It rained on 12 of our 17 Fridays, and we didn't have an indoor facility. He couldn't throw because of it. That was our way of trying to protect his shoulder as much as we could."

Now entering his ninth season -- and coming off his second shoulder surgery since March of 2017 -- Newton is listening to his body and the training staff. He is uncharacteristically taking off team drills to lessen the strain on his shoulder -- he has done so in at least three practices -- and on deep throws, he is throttling down the intensity. No one knows when he will regain full trust in the health of his shoulder, but Rivera believes he could be close.

"It's one of those things where he's going to unleash a pass where he says, 'Shoot, I'm fine. I'm back. Let's roll,' " the coach said. "But for now, in his mind, he still thinks it's a process."

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CHICAGO BEARS: Montgomery ready to make waves? Don't be surprised if rookie running back David Montgomery has a big impact on the Bears' offense this coming season. He was the team's first selection in this year's draft -- Chicago didn't have a pick until the third round, thanks to previous trades for Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller, and traded up in Round 3 to nab Montgomery -- and his blend of power and versatility will be invaluable for a team that traded former Pro Bowl back Jordan Howard to Philadelphia during the offseason.

At 5-foot-10 and 222 pounds, Montgomery is currently among the biggest backs on the team's roster. He's also listed behind Tarik Cohen and Mike Davison the depth chart, but that could change as he gets more opportunities. Montgomery actually impressed the coaches during the team's first practice in full pads, when he broke through a crowd of tacklers and exploded for a long run in a team drill.

"He's been begging me to get us into pads so he could show what he can do," said head coach Matt Nagy. "And he looks good so far. We definitely thought he was underrated coming out of college (Montgomery played at Iowa State), and that's mainly because he didn't have great speed. But we think he's going to be pretty good."

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GREEN BAY PACKERS: Working on rhythm in LaFleur's offense. New Packers coach Matt LaFleur's offensive scheme is all about timing, which will only come with the continued repetition Aaron Rodgers and Co. are getting as they ramp up to the Sept. 5 opener at Chicago.

"You saw it today: (Backup QB) DeShone (Kizer) throws a pick on a dagger route when he two-hitches it," LaFleur told me after Monday's joint practice with the Texans. "That's a one-hitch throw. If he lets it go on 1, it doesn't get picked. If you get to a second hitch and you miss something, that's OK -- get the checkdown, you get a positive play.

"That's what we're trying to ingrain in these guys. It takes time, it takes some muscle memory, and we've obviously got room for improvement in that area."

It's not just an adjustment for the quarterbacks, either.

"Davante (Adams) -- who is an incredible receiver, he is so talented and he can run anything -- but just the choice routes, making sure that he's getting the proper depth so it's within the timing of the quarterback's drop," LaFleur said. "And I think that's hard for receivers, to be honest with you, is that timing element. We're repping plays that these guys may have never repped before, because they get this internal clock in their head, and they've got to feel that timing in order for it to get to where you want it to get to."

Rodgers is getting enough reps in practice that he probably doesn't need to play in the preseason, LaFleur told me, but Rodgers will see action to make sure they can work out any kinks with the operation -- calling the play, breaking the huddle, getting lined up in a timely fashion, etc. -- before Week 1.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS: Flores digs into past for motivational tactic. The Dolphins' first-year head coach, Brian Flores, borrowed a tool he first learned from his own high school coach, Dino Mangiero of Brooklyn's Poly Prep. He had the letters T.N.T. painted on a wall beside the Dolphins' practice field. That stands for "Takes No Talent," and players -- and occasionally Flores himself -- are forced to run to the wall in the middle of practice after mental mistakes.

The point of the wall is to remind everyone that part of success requires no talent, but it does require discipline and focus. It is perhaps not surprising that the Dolphins are still prone to plenty of mistakes -- during last Saturday's scrimmage, the offense was particularly ragged, with more than a dozen penalties -- so the wall has had plenty of visits in the first days of training camp.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Howard hyped for 2019. Since 2016, only Ezekiel Elliott (4,048) and Todd Gurley (3,441) have accumulated more rushing yards than Jordan Howard (3,370), who spent the previous three years with the Chicago Bears. Howard was traded to the Eagles this offseason, and now he finds himself in a position to maybe find the greatest success of his NFL career.

"I feel like this is one of the best O-lines in the league, if not the best O-line in the NFL," Howard told me in the end zone of Lincoln Financial Field. "You know those guys are rock solid, and they're going to get it done every play."

Philadelphia's offensive line is ranked No. 1 in the NFL heading into the 2019 season by Pro Football Focus. What makes the unit even more of a threat is that the group is extremely deep, with first-rounder Andre Dillard and established veterans Stefen Wisniewski and Halapoulivaati Vaitai behind a set of expected starters that includes four multi-time Pro Bowlers (Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson, though Brooks is recovering from an Achilles tear suffered in the playoffs). Doing some digging during my time with the Eagles this week, it came up repeatedly how deep the team is at offensive line and running back.

"I just think it's not just me," Howard said. "We have a lot of different guys with a lot of different skill sets and a lot of different talents. It creates a lot of challenges for a defense, and I'm not even talking about our receivers and tight ends."

First, there's Howard, who has impressed a coaching staff that knew a lot about him and which has been very pleased now, seeing him day in and day out at camp. Now keep an eye out for Miles Sanders, drafted in the second round out of Penn State. He is turning heads on a consistent basis in camp, and his name is one I'm told to watch for this season. Throw in the ageless Darren Sproles and one of the stars of Super Bowl LII, Corey Clement, and you have a backfield that is loaded.

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: DBs want more INTs. That's not just JuJu Smith-Schusterworking on the JUGS machine after Pittsburgh Steelers practices. The members of the secondary are catching balls every day, too -- a habit instituted by new defensive backs coach Teryl Austin.

The reason is obvious: Pittsburgh's defense was abysmal at forcing turnovers last year, and generating more -- a lot more -- is a mandate for a defense that the Steelers believe will be vastly improved. They forced just 15 turnovers overall last season and only three in the final six games, when they went 2-4 and slid out of the playoff race. More astounding: They had just eight interceptions in the entire season, historically low for the franchise, which was especially odd because they had an effective pass rush, generating 52 sacks. All that pressure on opposing quarterbacks, though, didn't translate to interceptions, in part because the Steelers sometimes batted the ball down rather than catching it.

The Steelers believe they will be better at cornerback and safety. They signed free agent Steven Nelson, who had four interceptions for the Chiefs last year, while safety Terrell Edmunds, a former first-round pick, is now in his second year and should improve.

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TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Arians has faith in Leftwich. Bucs coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will be the play-caller during the season. Arians, who spent years after Leftwich retired from playing quarterback in the NFL (the former first-round pick last played for the Steelers in 2012; Arians was his offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2010) trying to convince him to become a coach, was especially impressed by Leftwich's work as the quarterbacks coach in Arizona last year. Leftwich took over play-calling and worked with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen after Mike McCoy was fired midseason as offensive coordinator.

Arians admits he might have to bite his tongue during games, and he will offer suggestions.

But, Arians said, "It's his. He runs the meetings. I get out of the room. The worst thing he can do is call plays to please me."

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TENNESSEE TITANS: Humphries, Mariota building chemistry. The Titans need their wide receivers to have a big year in 2019. Last year, the group managed just seven receiving touchdowns -- the fewest in the NFL. A Titans receiver hasn't caught over 75 passes in a season since Kendall Wright did it in 2013.

Maybe bringing in Adam Humphries in free agency, who caught 76 passes last season with the Bucs, could be the addition that Marcus Mariota has been looking for.

Humphries has quickly developed a relationship with Mariota since heading out to Oregon to train with his new quarterback during the offseason. After practice, Humphries told me that the biggest part of their relationship early on has been getting to know one another personally. As Humphries put it, the more you know about the man, the more you understand the right way to communicate with him during practice, and more importantly during games about where you are on the field and when you're open.

The plan is for Humphries to be a safety blanket for the fifth-year quarterback -- a consistent target in the middle of the field that works well in tight spaces. I saw it first hand at Tuesday's practice during a red-zone period. Back to back passing attempts went incomplete. Tennessee was rotating several receivers in with the first team, and on the third rep, Humphries took the field. Touchdown.

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