5 Under-Reported Stories of the Preseason
by Jared Smola and Kevin English
The Redskins have a dominant ground game
If you've been paying attention, you know just how good the Redskins' running game has been this preseason. But it's still not getting the mainstream recognition it deserves. We still hear more about the team's QB problems than its dominant ground game. RB Tim Hightower has been leading the charge. Few players have been better this preseason. In 3 games, he racked up 170 yards on 25 carries -- good for a tasty 6.8 yards-per-carry average. Hightower has been consistently getting into the 2nd-level, and has hit paydirt from 37 and 58 yards out. Not to sell him short, but it's been pretty easy for him. Washington's much-maligned offensive line has been opening some gaping holes. And HC Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme is firing on all cylinders. That's confirmed by the fact that RB Roy Helu is averaging 4.9 yards-per-rush, and RB Evan Royster is sitting at 4.4 per-pop. As a team, the 'Skins have compiled an NFL-best 457 rushing yards through Week 3 of the preseason. Their 5.0 per-rush average ranks 3rd in the league. Pretty impressive for a team that ranked 30th in rushing last season. It may have taken a year, but it looks like Shanahan finally has his system working in DC. He's produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 11 of 16 seasons as a HC. If the preseason is any indication, Hightower could make that 12 of 17.
It's a timeshare in the Giants' backfield
RB Ahmad Bradshaw enjoyed a breakout season last year. He set career-highs across the board -- 276 carries, 1,235 rushing yards, 8 TDs, plus 47 catches for 314 yards. He finished as a top-15 RB in all scoring formats. But lost in all that was RB Brandon Jacobs' most efficient season as a pro. His carries dipped to 147 -- his fewest since 2006. But Jacobs averaged a personal-best 5.6 yards per carry. Among RBs with at least 100 carries, only Jamaal Charles was better. Throw in his 9 TDs, and Jacobs quietly finished 22nd among RBs in standard-scoring leagues. Back in February, HC Tom Coughlin bluntly stated that Jacobs needs more carries in 2011. “Well, you look at the end of the year numbers, you’d want him to have a few more carries," Coughlin said. "Brandon was fresher than he’s ever been, healthier than he’s ever been and probably needs to carry the ball a little bit more. He's got a lot of gas in the tank." But comments made in the doldrums of February and March tend to be forgotten in the hustle-and-bustle of July and August. And that seems to be the case here. Jacobs is going as the 38th RB off the board in average drafts. Again, he finished 22nd last year. And if the preseason is any indication, the Giants fully intend on following through on Coughlin's desire to get him more carries. Jacobs and Bradshaw have been splitting 1st-team snaps right down the middle. And Jacobs has actually been better, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, compared to Bradshaw's 3.2. Listen -- we're not saying Jacobs will finish as the more productive fantasy back this season. Bradshaw is younger, more explosive, and more active in the passing game. But the difference in production won't be as wide as the massive 5-round gap in ADP. With the Giants employing a committee attack, Jacobs in the 8th-round is more valuable than Bradshaw in the 3rd.
Improved chemistry between Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall
Marshall’s off-field issues, on-field attitude, and injury problems have been well-documented. And there’s no doubt those factors affected his first season in Miami. But they’re quickly becoming a thing of the past, as heading into year 2 with the Fins, we’re seeing some encouraging signs. This preseason, Marshall has looked fully healthy, and fully in sync with QB Chad Henne. Over the last 2 preseason showings, B-Marsh has racked up 7 grabs for 136 yards and a score. Henne’s beginning to show improved decision-making. And we think it’s partly because of new OC Brian Daboll. Since Henne’s arrived in South Beach, he’s been handicapped by former OC Dan Henning’s ultra-conservative game plans. Now with Daboll calling the shots, we’ll really see the playbook opened up. A more aggressive approach – plus the addition of dangerous pass catcher Reggie Bush – will help the Henne-Marshall connection improve in 2011. Still just 27 years old, Marshall has the look of a rock-solid WR2 that’s a bargain in the 4th round of drafts.
Tom Moore could spark the Jets' passing game
Moore, a widely-respected offensive genius known for his tutelage of Peyton Manning, was brought aboard to act as an offensive consultant for the Jets. He won’t be calling the plays from the sideline. That’ll still be Brian Schottenheimer’s job. But Moore will act as a scout, helping put together the weekly game plan. He’s also made a cameo at Jets training camp, getting some 1-on-1 time with the offense playmakers like Mark Sanchez and Dustin Keller. His addition to the staff might sound insignificant. But make no mistake about it – the Jets will be all ears when it comes to Moore’s input. In camp, he’s worked on improving Sanchez’s efficiency in the red zone. As a team, the Jets finished 28th in red zone offense last season. Sanchez didn’t help himself, completing just 48% of his passes. With Moore imparting his knowledge not only on him, but Keller – he’s been mentoring him on how to morph into Dallas Clark v2.0 – we believe there will be visible improvement. New York’s addition of one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds of all time can’t be overstated. Look for a much more fluid offense in the Meadowlands this season.
Major changes on the Cowboys' offensive line
Out with the old, in with the new. That was the motto for Dallas’ offensive line this offseason, as 3 newbies will grace the starting lineup. The highest profile move came in April’s draft, when the Cowboys added elite tackle prospect Tyron Smith. Just 20 years old, Smith has yet to fill out physically. But he’s an extremely athletic guy with the footwork to step in and anchor the right side of the line immediately. He’s shown a ton of promise both in camp and in preseason action. 2010 undrafted free-agent Phil Costa will take the place of recently released Andre Gurode at center. Costa has just one career start – at guard – although the Cowboys love his high motor and mean-streak. He’s currently sidelined with a minor knee sprain, but it won’t keep him from starting Week 1. Finally, Dallas will fill the void at LG by thrusting 2011 7th-rounder Bill Nagy into a starting role. Nagy has been another standout in camp, and possesses ideal size at 6’3 320. With major changes all along this line, it admittedly could be a disaster. But we like the talent, energy, and mobility of the new starters, we're thinking the line play will be better this year than it was last.