Winners and losers (cont.)
WINNER -- Between the underachievement of Buffalo's cushy-soft 2002 top-five offensive tackle and the draft bust label that was slapped on Detroit's 2005 top-10 receiver, the name "Mike Williams'' was once mud in NFL circles. But the moniker is making a heck of a comeback this preseason. For starters, the "new'' Mike Williams, Tampa Bay's rookie receiver, has been a revelation of sorts for the Bucs. The fourth-round pick out of Syracuse leads Tampa Bay with seven catches for 157 yards (22.4), winning a starting job and dazzling the team most days in practice.
Then there's the very unexpected return to form of the "old'' Mike Williams, the former Lions, Raiders and Titans receiver who hasn't even played in the league since 2007. Williams has been reunited with Pete Carroll, his former collegiate coach, in Seattle, and looks like he might just make an NFL career of it yet. Williams has shed about 35 pounds from his roly-poly high of 270, and his eight catches for 149 yards and a touchdown pace all Seahawk receivers. Williams is still only 26 and could provide Seattle with another inviting big target to pair with T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Actually, the "Mike Williams'' comeback trend began last year, when the former Bills offensive left tackle shed a bunch of weight and returned to the NFL after a two-year absence, earning a starting guard slot with the Redskins. But that Mike Williams, the 30-year-old ex-Texas Longhorn, is out for the 2010 season after being placed on the reserved-non-football injury list by Washington in late July. Doctors found blood clots near his heart and he's on blood thinners, hoping to resume his career in 2011.
LOSER -- Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati passing game clearly has been upgraded thanks to the Bengals' personnel moves this year, but that doesn't mean that Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis and the team's scouts and medical staff gets a pass for letting the Antonio Bryant signing happen. Any way you look at it, someone gets the blame for awarding Bryant a $7.85 million signing bonus this spring, paying the free-agent receiver for what they hoped he was rather than what the facts should have spelled out regarding his problematic knee.
The Bengals have been pushing-the-envelope aggressive in their bid to upgrade the roster this year (see Jones, Pacman; Jones, Matt; and Owens, Terrell). But the Bryant debacle is a bitter lesson learned. Not every risk is worth taking, and sometimes the rush to fill a need position can leave a team in a position that winds up being impossible to defend.
WINNER -- Depending on one's perspective, this item could belong in the winner or the loser column, but what's wrong in viewing the NFL's new alignment of the umpire as the first rule change in many years to actually benefit the defense over the offense? Not that the league set out to do any such thing last offseason when it decided for safety reasons to shift the umpire from the defensive side of the ball to the offensive backfield.
The Colts have already protested the mechanics of the new rule, because the umpire is primarily responsible for spotting the ball after every play, and Indy's Peyton Manning-led no-huddle offense can't operate as quickly as it once did with the umpire needing more time to get into position behind and off to one side of the quarterback. The Colts incurred a couple illegal snap penalties in Thursday night's blowout loss at Green Bay, and that pushed the issue to front-burner status within the NFL. And when P. Manning isn't happy, you can be sure folks in the league office sit up and take notice.
But good for the defense, which finally got thrown the smallest of bones by the league's rule-makers -- even unintentionally. Like offenses don't have enough things going for them in the NFL, what with defenders barely being allowed to touch receivers during coverage, hit the quarterback too high, too low, or too late, or being barred from contact with anyone in the vicinity of the helmet. If the defense gets an extra second or two to catch its breath while offenses are forced to await the resetting of the ball, consider it just a small step toward balancing a playing field that has tipped decidedly toward offense.
LOSER -- The notion that Pittsburgh had sufficient quarterback depth to ride out the Ben Roethlisberger suspension took a significant body blow in the disarray of that 34-17 Steelers loss at Denver Sunday night. Playing with the first team for the first time this month, Dennis Dixon was shaky at best, completing nine of 16 passes for 94 yards, but with a couple of those throws winding up to the guys wearing Broncos jerseys. Byron Leftwich couldn't get anything accomplished in his third-quarter stint either, but then nobody looked particularly sharp behind the Steelers offensive line in this one.
Pittsburgh can get away with allowing some pass rush when Roethlisberger is in there, because he still improvises well and makes plays on the run, or with a tackler hanging onto him. But not so with Dixon or Leftwich under center. Dixon at least has the athleticism to avoid the pass pressure, but he doesn't have the game experience to always know when to run and when to hang tight in the pocket. I happen to believe he still gives the Steelers their best chance to win while Roethlisberger sits during the season's first month, but Dixon's expected comfort level in year three of running the Pittsburgh offense is not where it was hoped to be.
WINNER -- Don't feel too bad for Houston in losing rookie rusher Ben Tate for the season. The Texans have themselves a legit No. 1 running back in Arian Foster, the undrafted ex-Tennessee Vol who continues to show he's for real. The 229-pound Foster ran 18 times for 110 yards (6.1 avg.) and a touchdown in Houston's humbling of Dallas Saturday night, becoming the first Texan back to ever crack triple digits in a preseason game.
Foster is no August mirage, either. In the last two games of his rookie season in 2009, he ran for 216 yards and three touchdowns in a pair of Texan wins against Miami and New England. Foster runs with an attitude and a downhill style, and he still can't believe that no one saw fit to draft him last year. Even though they love to throw it, look for the Texans to feed Foster the ball early and often, then use former starter Steve Slaton in a complementary change-of-pace role.
LOSER -- Everybody knows the formula for success in Carolina this season calls for stout defense, a top-notch running game, and the hope that the offense proves opportunistic and avoids turning the ball over. But the reality so far is that the Panthers offense hasn't done anything with the ball. And we mean anything. Three games and 42 possessions into the preseason, Carolina's offense is still searching for its first touchdown.
Granted, receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart, two major offensive cogs, have yet to play in August. But in the NFL, even your backups are supposed to be playmakers at some point. Just not in Carolina. The Panthers beat Tennessee 15-7 at home Saturday night, but the real highlights were a third consecutive week of great defense and a 91-yard Mike Goodson kickoff return touchdown. The offense was again less-than-innocent bystanders.
Other than rookie receiver Brandon LaFell, no one has flashed for Carolina's offense in August. Quarterback Matt Moore hasn't been dreadful, but he's missed some big-play chances and isn't giving anyone reason to get excited this summer. DeAngelo Williams might be fine in time, but his nine-carry, 13-yard night against the Titans had to be a bit sobering. The Panthers defense may keep them in games this season, but at some point the offense will have to stand and be heard from. All of Carolina still awaits that development.
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