As is customary, the NFL’s third full weekend of preseason contests will serve as a dress rehearsal for the opening of the regular season. Here is a pressing question for each of the 32 teams as they make final preparations for their season openers.
— Alex Marvez
Miami: Can the defense stop leaking?
All the media attention given to Chad Johnson and the quarterback competition has shifted focus away from a unit that hasn’t looked sharp under first-year coordinator Kevin Coyle. “It seems like we haven’t been able to get off the field early on,” Coyle told Dolphins media earlier this week. “Each play there is a breakdown.” The absence of three injured players in the front seven (linebackers Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby and end Cameron Wake) has exposed what little depth the Dolphins have at those positions. Cornerback Vontae Davis also has proved unable to win back his starting job from Richard Marshall.
New York Jets: Can anyone play right tackle?
Wayne Hunter isn’t getting the job done. He surrendered 2.5 sacks last Saturday night against the New York Giants, looking even worse than he did during a mediocre 2011 campaign. The Jets stubbornly stood by Hunter during the offseason, then failed in a desperate gambit to get preseason competition when former Carolina starter Jeff Otah failed a team physical. Even with a lack of proven depth, Hunter’s job is likely on the line in Sunday night’s game against Carolina.
Buffalo: Will Bills begin to look worthy of the offseason hype?
In particular, the first-team offense is off to a shaky start. The Bills have driven for one touchdown in seven possessions against the first-team defenses of Washington and Minnesota. On the positive side entering Saturday night’s game against Pittsburgh, David Nelson has emerged as a solid complement to No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson, and rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn earned a starting spot like general manager Buddy Nix had hoped.
New England: How will the offensive line come together?
Tom Brady should be happy he didn’t play Monday night against Philadelphia. Both of New England’s starting tackles — Nate Solder (left) and Marcus Cannon (right) — had a rough outing. Solder’s play is especially worrisome because he is being counted on to protect Brady’s blindside, much as Matt Light did for 11 seasons before retiring. The interior line isn’t cohesive yet, either. Left guard Logan Mankins continues to recover from knee surgery. Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly are competing to start at center. And it remains unknown whether incumbent right guard Brian Waters will report to play in 2012.
Cleveland: Will Richardson log any playing time?
Three projected starters — running back Trent Richardson, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Ben Watson — missed last Thursday night’s game against Green Bay. That doesn’t bode well for a team that will be fielding a rookie under center for the Week 1 opener against Philadelphia.
Baltimore: How much better can the pass rush get?
No one player should be expected to replace star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who might miss the entire season with an Achilles tendon injury. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees also isn’t dialing up too many exotic blitzes in the preseason. Even so, the Ravens enter Thursday night’s game against Jacksonville having notched only two sacks in their first two preseason contests. One positive development: Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw made his preseason debut last Friday against Detroit after missing the opener with an injury.
Cincinnati: Should the Bengals be pinching themselves?
While suffering their share of training camp injuries — they've been hit hard at cornerback and lost left guard Travelle Wharton (knee) for the season — the Bengals enter Thursday night’s game against Green Bay with all 22 starting positions filled and solid depth across the board. That hadn't happened previously in the Marvin Lewis era. No wonder Lewis plans to have all his starters out by halftime against the Packers.
Pittsburgh: Who will carry the running game?
Pittsburgh’s top two rushers (Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman) are hurt. The hope is that bruiser Jon Dwyer and speedy rookie Chris Rainey can team to handle the load for the short term with 2011 seventh-round draft pick Baron Batch contributing as a backup. Putting further strain on the offense is the ongoing absence of wide receiver Mike Wallace, who has refused to sign his restricted free-agent tender.
Indianapolis: Who will become the short-term replacement for 2011 leading tackler Pat Angerer?
Angerer (foot) is out until early in the regular season, and backup A.J. Edds (knee) is on injured reserve. Jerrell Freeman, an import from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, has the early edge over four-year NFL veteran Moise Fokou entering Saturday’s game against Washington.
Houston: Who will win the kicking duel?
The Texans invested a 2012 fifth-round pick in Randy Bullock, but 34-year-old Shayne Graham has outplayed him during the first two preseason games. Graham made three long field goals last Saturday in a 20-9 win over San Francisco and has gotten good distance on kickoffs. Bullock might have a better long-term future and more upside than Graham, but the Texans must choose wisely or risk a repeat of the 2009 season. That’s when the Texans finished out of the playoffs at 9-7 after Kris Brown missed game-tying field goals late in two losses.
Jacksonville: How much progress has QB Blaine Gabbert truly made?
The early signs are positive in head coach Mike Mularkey’s attempt to re-create Gabbert after his disastrous rookie season. Gabbert has looked poised in the pocket and already is developing chemistry with rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon. However, a better Gabbert gauge will come Thursday night when he faces Baltimore’s zone-blitz scheme at M&T Bank Stadium.
Tennessee: Can Jake Locker prove his coach made the right choice?
Through the first two preseason games, Locker hasn’t done much to differentiate himself from incumbent Matt Hasselbeck. Locker, though, has more upside and better mobility. Locker would help justify coach Mike Munchak’s decision with a stronger effort Thursday against Arizona than in last weekend’s preseason game against Tampa Bay.
Denver: When will the Manning-led offense start looking like a Manning-led offense?
The Broncos have more turnovers (four) than touchdowns (one) in Manning’s first seven preseason possessions. Such growing pains are largely the result of Manning still trying to get his timing down with new targets in new surroundings. Manning admitted to FOXSports.com he isn’t as far along at this point in the preseason as he would be if he were still with Indianapolis. On Sunday, San Francisco’s staunch defense will provide Manning with his latest challenge.
Kansas City: Will WR Dwayne Bowe be ready to play Friday vs. Seattle?
Bowe finally reported last Friday after signing his one-year franchise tender. Because of his contract holdout, Bowe hadn’t spent any time with the team or learning new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s system. Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel said Monday that Bowe’s absence has left him “really behind” his peers. And with so much preseason practice time missed, Crennel wants to proceed cautiously to try to prevent injury. When up to speed, Bowe will give Kansas City more offensive flexibility, such as the ability to regularly feature the speedy Dexter McCluster in the slot.
San Diego: Will injuries to key players finally stop?
The Chargers should feel snakebitten. After running back Ryan Mathews (clavicle) was lost in the first preseason game, wide receiver Vincent Brown broke his ankle last Saturday night against Dallas. Fortunately for the Chargers, general manager A.J. Smith did a nice offseason job adding proven depth to the roster. Ronnie Brown will start until Mathews is back, which will likely be Week 2 of the regular season. Brown’s return will take longer, increasing the chances that veteran wideouts Micheal Spurlock and Roscoe Parrish make the club.
Oakland: Who will emerge as the top backup RB?
This is especially important considering Darren McFadden’s extensive injury history. Mike Goodson, who was acquired in an offseason trade with Carolina, continued his penchant for turnovers last Friday, fumbling twice against Arizona. Another performance like that Saturday against Detroit could get Woodson cut. Taiwan Jones, a 2011 fourth-round pick, will make his bid for the role after missing the first two games because of a hamstring injury.
Dallas: Which young WRs will win the final roster spots behind Bryant, Austin and Ogletree?
The door is open with Dez Bryant (knee) and Miles Austin (hamstring) likely sidelined for the rest of the preseason. Andre Holmes (pictured) has ideal size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) and could stick because of long-term upside. Danny Coale, a 2012 fifth-round pick from Virginia Tech, likely will make his preseason debut Saturday against St. Louis. Also battling are Dwayne Harris and undrafted rookie Cole Beasley, who had a team-high seven catches last Saturday against the Chargers. But if they all fail to impress, will the Cowboys take a look at signing Plaxico Burress?
Philadelphia: Is Nick Foles for real?
In his 14 years as Philadelphia’s head coach, Andy Reid said he believes no other rookie quarterback has played as well during the preseason as this third-round pick from Arizona. Just how far advanced Foles is and whether he’s ready to bump injured Mike Kafka (hand) as Michael Vick’s regular-season backup should become evident Friday when the Eagles face Cleveland. Vick is unlikely to play because of a rib injury, giving Foles the starting nod and extensive playing time against Cleveland’s first-team defense.
Washington: How does Robert Griffin III compare to Andrew Luck?
A head-to-head comparison can be made Saturday when Griffin and the Redskins host Indianapolis and fellow rookie Luck. Griffin hasn’t shown as much poise in the pocket as Luck, but that would be expected considering Griffin is younger and less experienced in running a pro-style offense. Griffin does have better mobility, which came in handy last Saturday against Chicago’s pass rush with Washington missing three of its starting offensive linemen. The better the Redskins protect Griffin, the faster he can develop his pocket passing.
New York Giants: Can the defensive tackles avoid more injuries?
Starter Chris Canty (knee) remains on the physically unable to perform list, 2011 second-round pick Marvin Austin (back) and Shaun Rogers (blood clot) are sidelined and reserve Martin Parker (back) is out for the season. The Giants will be forced to field a slew of newcomers and camp bodies behind first-teamers Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard for Friday night’s game at Chicago.
Chicago: Who will form starting left side of the offensive line?
J’Marcus Webb (pictured) gets the start at left tackle Friday against the New York Giants, but 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams will get a chance, playing in relief, to stake a claim for the spot. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice should have a clearer picture of whether Webb or Williams gets the nod as the duo gets tested by New York’s fierce pass rush. There’s also competition at left guard with former San Francisco 49ers starter Chilo Rachal pushing Chris Spencer for a first-team spot.
Green Bay: How quickly can RB Cedric Benson make an impact?
Benson is set to make his Packers debut Thursday night against Cincinnati, which is where he played the past four seasons. If he can quickly learn Green Bay’s pass protection scheme and avoid the fumbling problems that plagued him late last season, Benson has a legitimate chance to start Week 1 against San Francisco. The oft-injured James Starks is sidelined with turf toe while Alex Green is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and still being limited by Packers trainers.
Detroit: Can anyone cover Calvin Johnson?
The Baltimore Ravens certainly didn’t last Friday. “Megatron” had five receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown in less than a half of action against what is regarded as one of the NFL’s best secondaries. Oakland cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell will get their shot at Johnson in Saturday’s matchup.
Minnesota: Is it wise to rest Adrian Peterson the rest of the preseason?
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is taking no chances. Frazier has officially shot down media speculation that Peterson would play Friday against San Diego in his first game since suffering a serious knee injury last December. Peterson’s return is now expected Week 1 vs. Jacksonville. Expect the Vikings to remain cautious early in the regular season as A.P. gets used to contact and game action once again.
Atlanta: Can the Falcons clean up their sloppy play?
Even considering it’s the preseason and replacement referees are handling — and sometimes mishandling — games, Atlanta’s 21 penalties for 242 yards is excessive. “It’s a big emphasis point for us these last two preseason games,” said Falcons head coach Mike Smith, whose team plays Friday at Miami. “If a flag is thrown, it’s a penalty. That’s what you have to coach to, and that’s what we coach to.”
New Orleans: Will defense grasp new schemes under Steve Spagnuolo?
The Saints had poor gap control and discipline while surrendering 209 first-half yards to visiting Jacksonville last Friday. New Orleans now enters Saturday’s contest against high-powered Houston with depth problems at linebacker. Curtis Lofton (ankle) and David Hawthorne (knee) are hurt, raising questions about their availability for the season opener. Chris Chamberlain suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier in the preseason, and Jon Vilma remains suspended by the NFL for his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal. Barrett Ruud, acquired in a Monday trade with Seattle, could make his debut against the Texans.
Carolina: Who will become Panthers' specialists?
The competition at punter and kicker is in, ahem, full swing entering Sunday night’s game against the New York Jets. Olindo Mare (pictured), who missed late field goals in two Panthers losses last season, is in a dead heat with former CFL standout Justin Medlock. The Panthers invested a 2012 sixth-round pick for punter Brad Nortman, but he is in danger of losing the job to veteran Nick Harris. Nortman has the stronger leg and more long-term potential; Harris is a better directional punter and proven under NFL pressure.
Tampa Bay: Did head coach Greg Schiano overdo it in his first NFL camp?
Schiano has tried to preach discipline and a physical brand of football ever since Tampa Bay’s offseason program began. But after a lackluster performance last Friday against Tennessee, Schiano admitted some of the problems stemmed from “fatigue.” Schiano has pushed Tampa Bay as hard as any team in the NFL has been pushed, if not more so, during the preseason under the sweltering Florida sun. The Bucs had better find some energy quickly with New England on the schedule Friday night.
San Francisco: Are we seeing 49ers' future starting QB in Colin Kaepernick?
At this time last year, it appeared the 49ers might have made a mistake selecting Kaepernick in the second round. He finished the 2011 preseason with five interceptions in limited playing time. Although Alex Smith is entrenched as the starter for 2012, Kaepernick has shown great improvement this preseason while besting Josh Johnson for the backup role. Johnson, a former second-stringer in Tampa Bay, enters Sunday’s game against Denver competing with Scott Tolzien for a roster spot.
Seattle: Will rookie Russell Wilson really emerge as Seattle’s No. 1 QB?
He has a legitimate chance to secure that role in his start Friday at Kansas City. Because Wilson is a shade under 5-foot-11, numerous teams had pre-draft concerns he wouldn’t have the height to excel in the NFL. Not only has he started disproving that theory, Wilson has displayed enough promise to unseat Matt Flynn as the front-runner for the job. This also doesn’t speak well for Flynn, who was given $10 million guaranteed as part of the free-agent contract he signed to leave Green Bay this offseason.
St. Louis: Will a bona fide No. 2 receiver emerge to complement Danny Amendola?
Austin Pettis (pictured) has looked sharp but will miss the first two games of the regular season serving an NFL suspension. Nobody has stepped up yet to fill the void. Brandon Gibson and Danario Alexander have missed significant preseason time with hamstring injuries. Free-agent pickup Steve Smith has yet to show he is the same caliber player who caught 107 passes while with the New York Giants in 2009. Brian Quick, a 2012 second-round draft pick, is raw from having played collegiately at Appalachian State. Greg Salas is considered more of a special-teams contributor than an offensive threat. That leaves impressive rookie Chris Givens, who has an opportunity to earn more snaps with a strong showing Saturday at Dallas.
Arizona: Will NFL’s worst QB derby finally come to an end?
After three dreadful performances, Kevin Kolb finally is being replaced by backup John Skelton. With even an average performance Thursday against Tennessee, Skelton should land the job.