Preseason Week 4 Essentials
By Tony Mejia
No way to sugar coat this — the NFL’s final preseason week isn’t even a necessary evil. The only saving grace is that starters aren’t likely to get hurt since most won’t be out there. With the dress rehearsal in the books for every team, this last game is simply about playing out the string.
Here are a few angles to be aware of if you can’t resist the lure of pro football this week, although there’s no question that the most impactful event will come in a court room when Tom Brady’s fate is decided, not the football field. Here’s how the schedule plays out:
Thursday, Sept. 3
Cincinnati at Indianapolis: The Bengals will ride A.J. McCarron, who has had a solid preseason and got in there earlier than expected against the Bears after Andy Dalton came out with a strained neck. After missing all of last season, McCarron’s emergence thus far has been a welcome sight considering the lack of experience behind Dalton at the position. Head coach Marvin Lewis has won nine of his 12 preseason finales. The Colts backups scored the final 11 points in Saturday night’s win over St. Louis, but with Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck firmly entrenched, rookie Bryan Bennett will get the bulk of the snaps. He’s 5-for-23 for 52 yards and two picks this preseason.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Jets: The Eagles are averaging 38.3 points per game this preseason after Saturday’s 39-26 at Green Bay, but didn’t score after halftime. They took out the Jets 37-7 in last year’s preseason finale and have seen enough from Sam Bradford that they’ll likely not expose him here following a 10-for-10 performance with three touchdowns. Tim Tebow and Matt Barkley will get one final chance to state their case for inclusion on the final roster, although word is Barkley is already being shopped. He’ll start this one. The Jets won the Snoopy Bowl over the Giants but got their best piece of news when rookie Leonard Williams was deemed to have just a muscle strain behind one of his knees, not ligament damage.
Tampa Bay at Miami: The Bucs had a disappointing dress rehearsal against Cleveland, losing 31-7 and struggling to protect top pick Jameis Winston, who has had an up-and-down preseason. It will be interesting to see whether Lovie Smith gives him more reps to try and bounce back from an awful outing (6-for-15, 90 yards), but odds are he’ll be watching backups Mike Glennon and Seth Lobato work behind a porous offensive line to make sure he’s healthy for his regular-season debut. Expect Lobato to see the bulk of the snaps against his former team. Miami won’t expose Ryan Tannehill and saw backup Matt Moore get rocked over the weekend, so if McLeod Bethel-Thompson can’t go (strained oblique), it’s going to be the Josh Freeman show in Tampa again.
New Orleans at Green Bay: Wide receiver Randall Cobb was the latest Packers standout to be injured this preseason, but fortunately, what was feared to be a broken collarbone is nothing more than a sprained shoulder. He obviously won’t play. Neither will Aaron Rodgers or anyone else of significance, which is to be expected given Green Bay’s terrible luck this preseason. Scott Tolzien should have his concussion scare behind him, but Brett Hundley is likely to stay busy after starting against Philadelphia. The Saints have their own rookie QB to bring along in Garrett Gilbert, who should follow veteran Luke McCown. Ryan Gilbert is going to get some work too and will be given every chance to impress other teams since his future lies elsewhere. Head coach Sean Payton is an NFL-worst 1-8 in the fourth preseason game.
Baltimore at Atlanta: To say head coach John Harbaugh is frustrated with the lacking play of his backups would be an understatement. Matt Schaub has mostly been terrible and Bryn Renner has a chance to close the gap and beat him out if he’s able to inspire some confidence. Speaking of bad QB situations, T.J. Yates couldn’t get the Falcons into the end zone in a lengthy stint against Miami and the newly-signed Rex Grossman should be given a shot to show off the goods in his NFL return.
Buffalo at Detroit: The Bills have named Tyrod Taylor their starter, but there will still be opportunities for Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel to show off their attributes in this one. They’ll come after Matt Simms, who will get the start and look to pick up where he left off against Pittsburgh, where he went 5-for-5. Bills QBs went 30-for-33 against the Steelers. The Lions rallied to beat Jacksonville as RB Zach Zenner carried defenders into the end zone on a physical run late Friday. Both he and young back Ameer Abdullah have stood out. The QB situation behind starter Matthew Stafford is still murky, so expect this contest to be more competitive and compelling than most games this week.
N.Y. Giants at New England: With Brady’s status up in the air and he and Jimmy Garoppolo having split halves in the 17-16 win at Carolina, odds are we’re going to see Ryan Lindley play a lot here. The Giants will likely ride Ryan Nassib, who has won the backup job over Ricky Stanzi. He hasn’t thrown a pass since the preseason opener but should get run if not cut before Thursday.
Carolina at Pittsburgh: Overcoming the loss of Kelvin Benjamin was always going to be daunting, but Cam Newton has only led two drives that resulted in TDs this preseason and has had issues with drops all preseason. With Derek Anderson and Joe Webb as backups, the Panthers have an edge here and will probably toss it around to work on their aerial attack some more. The Steelers have been picked apart through the air by the more competent QBs they’ve faced and are playing their fifth preseason game. Michael Vick and Landry Jones are still competing for the No. 2 job vacated by the injury to Bruce Gradkowski.
Jacksonville at Washington: All eyes will be on whether Robert Griffin III is here or not, which is fitting since he’s dominated headlines since being drafted whether he was great, terrible, starter or backup. We’ll see if he’s released or at the very least, spared the indignity of participating in this last preseason game. Expect Colt McCoy to play most if not all of this one. Even though they were caught at the end by the Lions, it’s been a successful preseason for the Jaguars simply because Blake Bortles has been mighty effective, flourishing despite the prolonged absence of projected top target Julius Thomas. Stephen Morris beat out Jeff Tuel for the No. 3 job and is likely to play the bulk of this one.
Minnesota at Tennessee: The Vikings are the other team stuck with five preseason games, but Mike Zimmer has won them all so far. He went 4-0 last year as a rookie head coach and has gotten great play out of Teddy Bridgewater to set the tone. Taylor Heinicke is likely to get most of the work here with Mike Kafka dealing with a hamstring strain. Heinicke was 11-for-11 against Dallas. Meanwhile, Tennessee may actually play Marcus Mariota some after a dreadful 34-10 loss last Friday in Kansas City where they had to deal with rough conditions like a short week and a torrential downpour. Clearly, those are excuses, but Ken Whisenhunt was hinted that those circumstances may have an impact on his decisions regarding personnel this week.
Kansas City at St. Louis: The Chiefs handled the nasty weather just fine against the Titans as Alex Smith and Aaron Murray combined to throw for over 300 yards and four TDs. Chase Daniel should get another opportunity to continue a strong preseason that has piqued the interest of teams. The Rams got what they wanted to see from Nick Foles last week as he completed 10-of-11 at home against Indy, but they lost RB Tre Mason to a hamstring injury that will keep him out here. Jeff Fisher has won more preseason games than any active head coach, winning 12 of 17. Some regulars should actually play here, potentially making for a very competitive game.
Houston at Dallas: Veteran Brian Hoyer won the QB competition with Ryan Mallett, while Tom Savage has been one of the most prolific third-stringers this preseason, so the Texans actually have some depth at a position that appeared littered with question marks. The Cowboys have lost all three of their games by double-digits, but aren’t worried considering they haven’t exposed Tony Romo much and he did lead them to a 14-13 lead after a half against Minnesota. Brandon Weeden was cleared after going through the NFL’s concussion protocol and expects to see action. Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers will handle the bulk of mop-up duty here, putting the Cowboys at a disadvantage.Key DB Morris Claiborne and LB Sean Lee returned on Saturday from lengthy injury absences and may make a cameo for more seasoning.
Cleveland at Chicago: Devisive QB Johnny Manziel didn’t play in Week 3 and might be shut down the rest of the way due to nagging elbow trouble and arm soreness. With Josh McCown looking sharp in having nailed down the job, expect a heavy dose of Thad Lewis and Pat Devlin against the Bears. Chicago lost for the first time under new coach John Fox in Cincinnati, struggling offensively. With Jimmy Clausen out with a concussion, it looks like David Fales and undrafted rookie Shane Carden to get most of the work.
Arizona at Denver: The Broncos defense has looked impressive in helping the team open 3-0 despite Peyton Manning barely participating, so Gary Kubiak’s first preseason has been a great success. The Cardinals backups looked impressive in stealing a 30-23 result over Oakland despite managing just three points with their starters out there. They’ve been understandably cautious with QBs Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both coming back off ACL tears and the offensive line play appearing shoddy. Palmer threw a pair of picks and was under constant duress, so don’t expect him to even make a cameo in this one. Phillip Sims and Logan Thomas are going to split duties.
San Diego at San Francisco: The Chargers certainly didn’t appreciate Frank Clark punching Philip Rivers, who hurt a finger on a helmet smack and didn’t return. We won’t see him here. The 49ers haven’t exposed Colin Kaepernick much and aren’t letting their QBs audible, so it’s hard to gather much from their sputtering offense. He was sacked twice and taken down for a safety, so the offensive line certainly didn’t impress in a loss to Denver filled with mental miscues. Rookie QB Dylan Thompson should play the bulk of this one after Blaine Gabbert departs.
Oakland at Seattle: The Seahawks won their first game after a pair of tight losses on Steven Hauschka’s 60-yard field goal and Pete Carroll felt his team did their best work and is where it needs to be to try and defend their NFC crown. Rookie returner Tyler Lockett continues to flash Devin Hester-like potential. The Raiders lost a tight one to Arizona on Sunday night but could be the smart play here. They won last year’s preseason finale over Seattle 41-31 and Jack Del Rio has a lot of young players capable of breakout efforts. They also have to find a capable replacement for starting tackle Menelik Watson, who ruptured his Achilles tendon. Del Rio has the best winning percentage in the fourth preseason game of any active coach that’s participated for more than one game.