Who says that the preseason doesn't matter?
While many continue to debate the merits of games in August, it appears that more coaches are approaching these meaningless contests with a newfound urgency and focus.
Coordinators are casting aside their typical conservative approach to attack opponents with aggressive play-calls. Although it's normal to see a host of gadget plays this time of year -- in hopes of causing opposing play-callers a few sleepless nights -- this preseason has seen more defensive coaches unveil exotic blitzes.
The San Francisco 49ers, for instance, attacked quarterback Brett Favre with a double gut blitz that prompted Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress to remove the veteran after after only four snaps. Not to be outdone, the Tennessee Titans attacked Cardinals QB Matt Leinart with an assortment of pressures that would normally be reserved for regular-season play.
Others, like the Detroit Lions, have opened their respective games with an array of formations and personnel packages that put stress on their opponents.
Regardless of their varying approaches, it's evident that staying on the offensive has been the theme for coaches across the league.
While most would dismiss the notion of game planning early in the preseason, the urgency to get off to a fast start once the regular season opens has seemingly prompted the change.
In the past, teams would use the first two preseason games as merely evaluation tools to sort out the bottom third of their respective rosters, but more and more, organizations are using the early part of August to build momentum for the regular season. Though there is seemingly no correlation between preseason success and regular-season accomplishments, there is something to be said for establishing rhythm prior to Week 1.
With the third preseason game treated as the official dress rehearsal for the season due to starters seeing extensive playing, this week could provide an intriguing barometer of contenders vs. pretenders.
Stafford ready for a major step
If you're looking for a young quarterback who is poised to come into his own, you might want to cast your eye towards Detroit.
Matthew Stafford has been sensational throughout training camp, and Lions officials can't stop singing his praises. In speaking with coaches and scouts during my recent visit with the team, it was apparent that they expected the second-year QB to take a major step in his development. They pointed to Stafford's improved decision-making during offseason workouts as an indicator of his budding maturity, and his preseason play has validated the thought.
Stafford, who has completed 72.4 percent of his attempts with a 98.5 passer rating, looked sharp while directing the Lions to four scores in four possessions against the Broncos. He was crisp and efficient with his passes, and is showing the kind of chemistry with Calvin Johnson that should make opponents cringe. The two have connected for a touchdown in each of the team's first two preseason game, including a 20-yard toss against Denver that featured Johnson wrestling the ball away from a smaller defender.
Although Johnson is undoubtedly the centerpiece to the attack, Stafford has shown a willingness to distribute the ball. With teams unable to focus extensively on shutting down Johnson, the offense has moved up and down the field with little resistance.
With Stafford starting to live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival as the top overall pick in 2009, the Lions are on the verge of becoming relevant again.
Leinart's time might have passed
The Cardinals are facing an interesting dilemma at quarterback after watching the offense sputter under the direction of Leinart.
Drama in the desert
The fifth-year pro has yet to guide a drive that led to points in six series, and has recorded four three-and-outs in that stretch. Although a look at the stat sheet wouldn't suggest that he has struggled (Leinart has completed 76.9 percent of his passes with a 90.9 passer rating), the Cardinals high-powered offense has moved at a snail's pace throughout the preseason.
While some of the offensive woes can be tied to their transition to a more conventional two-back offense -- the team operated primarily out of three- and four-receiver sets under Kurt Warner -- the fact that the unit looked listless with Leinart caused concern. Whereas Warner routinely pushed the ball down the field, Leinart has a dink-and-dunk approach. His propensity for taking the check down robbed the offense of its vertical element, and defenses have gradually shrunk the open windows available in the short- and intermediate passing game.
Given the dismal output of what had been one of the league's most explosive offenses, some have viewed Anderson as a more viable option. The former Pro Bowler specializes in the deep ball, which would appear to be a better fit for the Cardinals' vertical passing game. However, he has been plagued by turnovers, 53 in 39 games, and his questionable decision-making was one of the primary reasons he failed to hold onto his job in Cleveland. Though he has provided an occasional spark in Arizona, he still has something to prove to claim the starting job.
Whisenhunt has proven that he has no qualms about pulling the trigger on a quarterback change, and is hoping to see something out of Anderson.
Linebackers leading charge in Oakland
Don't be surprised if the Raiders return to respectability behind a rebuilt linebacker corps that has shown tremendous promise during the preseason.
The trio of Rolando McClain, Kamerion Wimbley and Trevor Scott has been outstanding. They add size, strength and toughness to the second level.
McClain, in particular, has been a force in the middle and his transition from an inside linebacker in a 3-4 at Alabama to the middle linebacker in Oaklnad's 4-3 has been exceptional for a rookie. His instincts, savvy and leadership jump off the tape.
In Scott, the Raiders have successfully converted a defensive end to outside linebacker. He brings a toughness that was lacking, and also has some pass rush ability off the edge. Last season, Scott finished tied for the team lead with seven sacks. Given a full offseason to learn the nuances of coverage, Scott has developed into a versatile playmaker that is worthy of being a three-down player.
The wildcard is Wimbley. The former first-round pick burst on the scene with 11 sacks as rookie. He only amassed 15.5 over the next three seasons, however, and was deemed expendable by the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
The Raiders surrendered a third-round pick for Wimbley, but received an ultra-athletic linebacker with legitimate rush skills. Although Wimbley played primarily as a rush linebacker in Cleveland's 3-4, he has seamlessly made the transition to strong side linebacker in Oakland. He aligns over the tight end in some formations to give the team an extra defensive end against the run. In addition, he joins Scott as an edge rusher in the nickel package. The Raiders have seen immediate dividends, netting 12 sacks in two games, including four from Wimbley against the Bears.
The Raiders are quietly emerging as a dominant defensive force, and their rebuilt linebacker corps is leading the way.
Williams reviving career with Seahawks
He is attempting to go from bust to key contributor under the direction of his former college coach Pete Carroll.
Williams, whom the Lions took 10th overall in 2005 after a highly decorated career at USC, was signed this offseason after spending the last two seasons out of pro football. Prior to that, he had a series of disappointing stints in Detroit, Oakland and Tennessee.
Williams earned his free-agent contract after shining at a tryout during minicamp and continued to impress the Seahawks with his diligent work throughout the offseason program. After battling weight issues during his previous stops, Williams reported to camp at 235 pounds and showed outstanding stamina.
As an athletic freak with exceptional height (6-foot-5) and size, Williams is slated to play a big role in the red zone. He also gives QB Matt Hasselbeck a big target over the middle of the field in three- and four-receiver sets.