Sunday, August 10, 2014

New Orleans Saints beat St. Louis Rams 26-24 in preseason opener

Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks scored in his debut game with the New Orleans Saints, running back Mark Ingram picked up where he left off last season and the defense kept the St. Louis Rams offense under wraps as the Saints won their preseason opener 26-24 at the Edward Jones Dome.

It took a couple of quarters for Cooks, the team's first-round draft pick to get going, but he finished with five receptions for 55 yards and a dynamic 25-yard touchdown in the third quarter from Ryan Griffin.

Ingram, a former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama and a 2011 first-round pick by the Saints, scored on a 22-yard run in the second quarter and looked very impressive in his lone half of action. He finished with 83 yards on just eight carries.

Griffin, who entered the game late in the first quarter, put up better numbers than Luke McCown, who started the game in place of a slightly injured Drew Brees. Griffin was 16 of 23 for 179 yards and the TD pass to Cooks. McCown, who just played a few possessions in the first quarter, was 7 of 10 for 49 yards. He had the Saints moving on their opening possession until Rams defensive end Chris Long made an athletic interception of a screen pass.

St. Louis scored its points on a 16-yard TD pass from Shaun Hill to Cory Harkey, a 24-yard scoring pass from Hill to Stedman Bailey, a 45-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein and a 15-yard TD pass from Austin Davis to Austin Franklin.

The Saints scored the rest of their points on a 2-yard run by Khiry Robinson and a pair of 37-yard field goals, one each from Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke.

It was a solid team effort with just a few miscues. Two of those miscues happened on special teams as Graham missed a 33-yard extra point (a distance the NFL is experimenting with) and the Rams converted a punt fake in the third quarter. The team had two turnovers - the impressive interception by Long - and fourth-string QB Logan Kilgore had a tipped ball picked off late in the fourth quarter. The team did commit 10 penalties for 104 yards.

The Rams had a chance to win the game on a 59-yard field goal but Zuerlein's kick went left.

Bortles, defense define thrilling night at the ‘Bank

It’s back. At long, glorious last.

That’s the first takeaway from the Jaguars’ 2014 preseason opener Friday – that this hyped-up fan base, this loyal following that has waited for this day for a little more than seven months …

Well, those guys and gals were ready.

#Jaguarstwitter exploded Friday morning, and crackled all day. The energy around EverBank Field was festive and frenetic hours before the preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game won by the Jaguars, 16-10, in front of an announced crowd of 59,100. And it all exploded again early Friday evening in a spruced-up ‘Bank with a couple of really big, really cool video boards overlooking some equally cool cabanas and pools.

And to say those hyped-up fans got what they wanted …

Yeah, you can say that.

That’s because while the Jaguars didn’t look perfect, and while there is a lot that must improve, they did look good. And they looked really good in two really important areas.

They looked good defensively. Maybe even dominant.

The second area that looked good mattered a little more. That’s because the second area was really just one guy, and that guy was rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.

Bortles, as expected, didn’t start and he didn’t play with the first team. Instead, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft played with the second team, as has been the case throughout training camp and as is expected to be the case for a while longer.

And no, Bortles didn’t lead the Jaguars to a touchdown. But who cared, really?

He was poised. He was accurate. His passes had zip. He made the right decisions. His passes had little of the wobble that made headlines during offseason activities. He threw downfield, and the offense had a bounce when he played.

It was a strikingly good debut.

And for a franchise that has been searching for a franchise quarterback for a very long time, it was a very good sign. Bortles isn’t the guy yet. He’s not going to start next week, though fans and media without question will clamor for that to happen.

But if you entered Friday looking for signs that Bortles has what it takes to be very good …

Well, you darned sure saw that.

“As a rookie, he did an outstanding job,” wide receiver Kerry Taylor said. “I don’t think he made many mistakes out there. He played really well.”

He completed 7 of 11 passes for 117 yards, and that would have been better if not for two uncharacteristic drops by wide receiver Mike Brown.

Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley was asked if perhaps the performance had earned Bortles some repetitions with the first team, something he hasn’t gotten in the offseason or training camp. Bradley said that could perhaps happen sometime in the preseason, maybe in Week 4 or maybe before, but Bradley was strikingly conscious to say that many rookies might get such a look.

Bradley’s approach isn’t surprising. The Jaguars have been intent on not putting pressure on Bortles, on allowing him to learn, develop and compete with starter Chad Henne. There was no indication listening to Bradley Friday that the Jaguars’ approach of starting Henne this season had changed.

We’ll have plenty of time to discuss and debate that, and the debate will surely start immediately. But as for Friday night, there was more to the Jaguars’ performance than just Henne/Bortles.

There was an impressive early showing for a deeper, more-active defensive line, with Leo pass rusher Ryan Davis – who has played his way not only into a roster spot but a key role – twice drawing penalties. That three-and-out was the start that group wanted.

And there was the impressive follow-up for the defensive line to that start, with defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks dominant throughout the first quarter and end Chris Clemons getting his first sack midway through the first quarter.

There was safety Winston Guy, Jr., returning an interception 68 yards and putting an exclamation point touchdown on the first-team defense’s performance.

And there was the second-team defense playing nearly as well, with end Tyson Alualu’s registering an impressive sack/fumble early in the second quarter. There was also reserve running back Denard Robinsoncapping the night with a 26-yard touchdown that eventually clinched a feel-good preseason opening victory.

The performance wasn’t without flaws. The center position, where Mike Brewster struggled with shotgun snaps to Henne early, is a concern. The running offense is, too. The first-team offense struggled, and the offense as a whole didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter.

But offensively, don’t forget: wide receivers Cecil Shorts III and Allen Robinson didn’t play. Starting running back Toby Gerhart didn’t, either. If those guys aren’t productive parts of the offense this season, something’s amiss and with those three amissin’ Friday, the Jaguars’ first-team offense didn’t feel quite so first-team.

But while those are important details, they are details nonetheless, and – like the quarterback debate that is sure to dominate Jaguars talk this week – they are details that can be discussed later.

Part of the big picture Friday night was it appears the Jaguars have a good defense, and the bigger part of the big picture is they appear to have a guy who sooner rather than later have a chance to develop into a franchise quarterback.

Those were two really cool things to see Friday if you were one of those people who had waited seven months for football to come back to ‘the Bank.

And come back it did Friday night. At long, glorious last.

Late Score Beats Bucs in Preseason Opener

The Jacksonville Jaguars have a prized rookie quarterback they’re breaking in and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a whole host of new faces on offense, but their preseason-opening matchup on Friday night was all about defense.

The Jaguars’ third-string offense did manage to mount a 62-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended in Denard Robinson’s 23-yard touchdown run to SECURE a 16-10 victory at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field. The Buccaneers had tied the game minutes early on an 85-yard drive led by QB Mike Glennon, which ended in his six-yard TD pass to first-year WR Tommy Streeter.

The Buccaneers hope to see more from new starting quarterback Josh McCown, a reshaped offensive line and a collection of young skill-position players as the preseason continues. On this first night, however, it was the defense that looked much closer to being season-ready. The same can be said for the Jaguars, who started under Chad Henne’s direction but eventually gave way to Blake Bortles, the third-overall pick in this year’s draft. As is the main point of the preseason, both the Bucs and the Jaguars were able to pinpoint issues they need to improve over the next month.

“There are things we have to work on, and we see those as we go, as we get out here and go against a different defense than we do in camp,” said McCown. “You learn a lot from these games, things that you don’t maybe discover in practice, that you discover when you get in live action. We certainly learned some things and that will help us.”

Neither offense found the end zone in the first half, and the two teams combined for just 217 yards by the intermission. Jacksonville opened the scoring on S Winston Guy’s 68-yard interception return in the first quarter, capitalizing on a hurried Josh McCown pass that sailed well over rookie WR Mike Evans’ head. The Bucs got their only points of the first half on an 18-yard drive that followed the Jaguars’ second botched snap of the game, with Connor Barth booting a 44-yard field goal.

McCown and the Bucs’ starting offense had difficulty gaining any traction, though of course a purposely vanilla game plan played a part in that. Still, McCown was under pressure under most of his drop-backs and finished with just two completions in four attempts for 20 yards while absorbing two sacks and fumbling twice. He did show good mobility, running twice for 13 yards, including one on a busted play after his first fumble.

The Bucs, who have a nearly completely rebuilt offensive line in 2014 and are still trying to determine their starting guards, didn’t appear to settle anything on that front in the preseason opener. The running game managed just 82 yards while Buc QBs were sacked three times and hurried on several other occasions.

“We’re not ready yet,” said Head Coach Lovie Smith of the Bucs’ front line. “I mean, this first game, we kind of see where we are a little bit. [We] had some protection issues, didn’t protect the quarterback well enough. That’s pretty much it.”

Glennon completed 11 of 19 passes for 140 yards, with the TD pass and no competing interceptions spiking his passer rating to 98.6.

“It was good to get out there. There was definitely some rust but we’ll shake it off and get better. It’s something to build on going forward; it’s Week One of the preseason and we’ve still got a month until the first game so we have a lot of time to work out what we’re lacking on.”

The Buccaneers’ starting defense was certainly ready for Chad Henne and the Jags’ attack, however. DT Gerald McCoy blew through the line on the first play from scrimmage to blow up a running play and tackle RB Jordan Todman for a five-yard loss. On Jacksonville’s second drive, McCoy’s instant pressure forced Todman to break wide, where he was dragged down for no gain by McCoy’s All-Pro running mate, LB Lavonte David.

“Everybody flying around, getting to play fast – the defense is simple and hard at the same time,” said McCoy. “It’s hard to get down, but once you do, it’s very simple and you can play fast. I think we did that tonight. They got a tipped pass that got them a couple extra yards, but past that they didn’t really get anything. I think it was a good first outing. It could be better, a little bit, with our fits, but overall I think it was good.”

The Bucs’ CONTINUED to stifle the Jaguars’ offense after the first round of reserves came in for Tampa Bay, with defensive linemen William Gholston, Da’Quan Bowers and Steven Means standing out in particular. Those three were frequently in the opposing backfield, and they combined for eight tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed in about a half of play.

“Coach [Smith] challenged us,” said Bowers. “He told us how many hats there would be on game day, so we took it upon ourselves not to let there be a drop-off when we were in the game. So we played physical and played hard and just tried to do everything that they asked us to do.”

Overall, it was a very promising start in the Cover Two defense being INSTALLED by Smith and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier, but eventually Smith wants to see turnovers added to the mix. Even in the preseason, turnover differential is often the key, and the Bucs’ lost that battle, 2-0.

“The defense did a good job of keeping them out [of the end zone],” said Smith. “But we say it’s defense versus defense. Their defense scored a touchdown, we didn’t. We [played] hard, but we’re still not where we need to be on the defensive side either.”

The starters may not have played long on Friday night, but DT Gerald McCoy didn’t need a lot of time to announce his presence. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, McCoy knifed right through the line and blew up a running play that ended up in a five-yard loss for RB Jordan Todman. A three-and-out ensued.

The Bucs’ first offensive possession of the season didn’t go any better, although a 17-yard completion by McCown to WR Chris Owusu on third-and-nine was erased by a penalty. The Bucs had two flags thrown on them during the series, resulting in a punt that set the Jaguars up at their own 41.

The Jaguars got into Buccaneers territory thanks to a well-defended pass that deflected off three players before landing in the arms of TE D.J. Tialavea for a gain of 13. The Bucs’ defense held at that point, however, thanks to a near-interception by Leonard Johnson and a botched snap by the Jaguars on third down.

The next drive started with a crazy play in which DT Sen’Derrick Marks swatted the ball out of McCown’s hands for a fumble but the Bucs’ QB picked it up and ran for nine yards, with a defensive penalty tacking on five more. A sack by DE Chris Clemons three plays later ended that possession, but Michael Koenen’s punt rolled to a stop at the Jacksonville two-yard line. The Bucs’ defense held, thanks in large part to a great open-field tackle by CB Johnthan Banks, and the ensuing punt put the ball back in the Bucs’ hands close to midfield.

Unfortunately, that field position didn’t do the Bucs any good, because McCown threw a third-down pass under pressure that was intercepted by S Winston Guy and returned 68 yards for the game’s first score.

A third-and-one rollout pass to Jackson gained 18 yards to jump-start the Bucs’ next drive but it ended on another turnover, early in the second quarter when DE Tyson Alualu forced a McCown fumble that the Jaguars RECOVERED at the Bucs’ 42. The Bucs’ second-string defense was able to keep that from turning into points, however, thanks to a couple of tackles in the backfield by Da’Quan Bowers and a second botched snap by the Jags, which ended up as a first down for the Bucs on Jacksonville’s 44.

The second-team offense came in for the Bucs at this point (although the starting O-Line hung around a little longer), and an AUDIBLE hand-off by Glennon to Rainey led to a nine-yard gain to the Jaguars’’ 32. The drive stalled a few plays later but Connor Barth banged home a 44-yard field goal for the Bucs’ first points of the season.

Rookie Blake Bortles, the third-overall pick in the 2014 draft, took over the reins on the next drive for Jacksonville and led the Jaguars into Bucs territory, but key stops by Gholston and LB Dane Fletcher helped force a punt that bounded into the end zone for a touchback. The Bucs brought in a new O-line to complete the switch to a second-team attack, but the drive went nowhere and Koenen’s punt was fair caught at the Jacksonville 40.

Another short drive and a punt-touchback gave it back to the Bucs with 1:32 to play, and two quick Glennon passes to Louis Murphy got the ball to the Jacksonville 47. However, three incompletions followed and the Bucs had to punt again, with the ball downed at Jacksonville’s four with 51 seconds to play in the half.

The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but a penalty on the kickoff return forced them to start at their own eight. With Glennon still under center, the offense moved forward in fits and starts, taking more than six minutes off the clock to get to the Bucs’ 47-yard line. RB Mike James bounced off one tackle to get 20 yards on a third-and-21 swing pass, but the Bucs elected to punt on fourth-and-one.

Bortles followed with an impressive drive, with the big play coming on a 31-yard pass down the middle to WR Mike Brown. A PERSONAL foul by DT Akeem Spence tacked on 15 yards and put the ball at the Bucs’ 14. Tampa Bay’s defense held at that point but a 26-yard field goal by Casey Redfern gave the Jaguars a seven-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.

A nifty rollout pass on a broken play by Glennon to Seferian-Jenkins gained 23 yards on third-and-eight on the ensuing drive, and Sims followed with a 27-yard gain on a short swing pass on the next snap. Rookie WR Robert Herronfollowed with a fantastic SPINNINGcatch of a ball behind him, getting the ball into the red zone, and James ran up the gut for 11 yards to the Jags’ seven as the third quarter came to an end.

The Bucs got the ball back quickly and third-string passer Mike Kafka’s first pass was a 48-yarder to Seferian-Jenkins, but the play was called back due to holding.
Game Notes:
- There are no inactives during the preseason, but the Buccaneers did indicate a handful of players who would not play in the game. That list included CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, S Dashon Goldson, DE Scott Solomon and DT Jibreel Black.

- The Jaguars chose to hold the following players out of Friday’s game: WR Tandon Doss, RB Toby Gerhart, LB J.T. Thomas III, Allen Robinson, Cecil Shorts III, TE Brandon Barden and TE Clay Harbor.