Monday, August 11, 2014

Taste of success leaves Blue Jackets craving more

The Columbus Blue Jackets last season got a taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a five-year absence, and even a first-round exit has not dampened their enthusiasm and expectations for 2014-15.

In fact, moves such as signing center Brandon Dubinsky to a six-year contract extension and trading for left wing Scott Hartnell have the Blue Jackets thinking big.

"On paper we stack up against any team in the East," Hartnell said.

That's the kind of attitude general manager Jarmo Kekalainen wanted when he traded left wing R.J. Umberger to the Philadelphia Flyers for Hartnell on June 23.

"He has respect from the room right away because of his career, what he's done in this League," Kekalainen said of Hartnell.

Yet, the Blue Jackets realize for all the hope and hype they have much to accomplish despite coming off the best season in franchise history.

Columbus finished fourth in Metropolitan Division with a 43-32-7 record. The Blue Jackets finished with 93 points, earned the first wild card in the Eastern Conference and a postseason matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins advanced in six games but the Blue Jackets pushed them, splitting the first four games, all by 4-3 scores. Even in a 4-3 loss in Game 6, the Blue Jackets nearly overcame a four-goal deficit with three goals in the third period.

"I'm really proud about the effort, the no-quit in our team and the identity we've established," Kekalainen said. "Now the Blue Jackets are known through the League for the identity we've built, which is a hard-working, hard-to-play-against, no quit, blue-collar team. I'm really proud of that.

"But let's not be satisfied here. It makes me really excited about the players we have, the potential we have."

The player with the biggest upside is also Kekalainen's biggest concern. Restricted free agent Ryan Johansen had a breakout season in 2013-14 on the final year of his rookie contract and has yet to re-sign.

Talks continue and there's little chance Johansen will not be wearing a Blue Jackets uniform this season, but the sticking point is a two-year offer from Kekalainen; Johansen would prefer double that length.

Johansen, 22, was the youngest 30-goal (33) scorer in the regular season and had two goals and four assists in the playoffs.

Kekalainen's focus wasn't just on Johansen. He kept busy this summer retaining restricted free agents defensemen Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout, David Savard and Will Weber and forwards Sean Collins, Corey Tropp and Dana Tyrell.

Columbus also signed former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Brian Gibbons, who scored twice against the Blue Jackets in Game 2, to a one-year, two-way contract.

The Blue Jackets continued their youth movement when they did not bring back unrestricted free agent defensemen Nikita Nikitin and Nick Schultz and bottom-six forwards Blake Comeau, Derek MacKenzie and Jack Skille, although goalie Curtis McElhinney signed a new contract.

There could be open slots for a bevy of candidates from the NHL Draft class of 2013 to make the jump to the Blue Jackets, just as defenseman Ryan Murray and forward Boone Jenner went from junior hockey to solid rookie seasons in 2013-14.

Centers Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg and left wing Kerby Rychel have been allowed to nurture their games at a pace that allows them better shots not to be overwhelmed by their first NHL experiences.

Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said coaching young players has its advantages.

"They're sponges, they want to soak it up, they want to get better and improve," he said. "It's not to say older players don't want to get better and improve, but a lot of times their games are really established."

The Blue Jackets' depth means they don't have to rush their top picks in the 2014 NHL Draft. Center Sonny Milano (No. 16) is expected to enroll at Boston College while defenseman Ryan Collins (No. 47) heads to the University of Minnesota.

They're players for the future. It's Richards' job to make sure the current roster doesn't get complacent. After all, the Blue Jackets are still searching for their first playoff series win.

"In the end we finished 15th out of 30 teams," Richards said. "It is moving up, and that's what we want to do, but it's still just middle of the road. It's mediocre. We want to keep pushing, keep getting better."

Dynamic Burakovsky leads Capitals' top 10 prospects

With new general manager Brian MacLellan and new coach Barry Trotz, training camp will be a clean slate for the Washington Capitals.

That includes a talented group of prospects that will be looking to impress the new staff and potentially earn NHL jobs.

"With all these younger guys, they have to prove to the coaches that they deserve to stay," assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said.

Here's a look at the Capitals' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Andre Burakovsky, LW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 23), 2013 draft

Last season: 57 GP, 41-46-87, Erie, OHL

"We're hoping that he has that attitude that he's going to come in and compete for a spot, which he will," Mahoney said. "That'll be up to Andre to see how he does. He's only going to be a 19-year-old this coming year, but he definitely has shown that he's got the skill, the hockey sense and has some really good tools. It'll be up to him to come in and make an impression on the coaches."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 26), 2010 draft

Last season: 17 GP, 3-6-9, Washington

After nearly four years of waiting, the Capitals finally signed Kuznetsov on March 8, and he made his NHL debut two days later. Kuznetsov, 22 (6-0, 172), showed flashes of the skill that made him a first-round draft pick, including three assists against the Vancouver Canucks in his third game. The hope is the experience he gained in his short stint last season, plus a full training camp, will pay dividends when the 2014-15 season starts.

"I think that experience last year playing the games should really be a benefit to him," Mahoney said. "I expect him to get off to a much better start this year than if he hadn't come over and played those games last year. He had that experience of playing against NHL players and playing NHL games. That's out of the way now that he had that experience toward the end of last year. We expect him to come in and play well right off the bat."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

3. Riley Barber, RW

How acquired: 6th round (No. 167), 2012 draft

Last season: 38 GP, 19-25-44, Miami, NCHC

Barber, 20 (6-0, 194), continued his rapid ascent up the Capitals' prospect list with an outstanding sophomore season at Miami. Included in there was a strong showing offensively and as captain of the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, scoring four goals in five games as the U.S. finished fifth. He'll return to Miami for his third season, but the Capitals certainly will be ready to welcome him when he decides to turn pro.

"We're really happy with his development," Mahoney said. "He had a really impressive World Juniors two years ago when he played with [Alex] Galchenyuk. I was really happy to see him again last year in the World Junior tournament, and they made him the captain of the team. I thought that spoke very highly of him and his character. He had another good tournament, he had another good season at Miami. I think Riley is progressing in the right direction for us."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

4. Jakub Vrana, LW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 13), 2014 draft

Last season: 24 GP, 2-1-3, Linkoping, SWE

Vrana's skating and goal scoring are what drew the attention of the Capitals, and what could earn him an NHL job as soon as next season. Though the 18-year-old didn't fill the net during his stint in the Swedish Hockey League, he had 14 goals in 24 games with Linkoping's junior team. More impressively, he had a tournament-best eight goals in seven games to help the Czech Republic win a silver medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

"We really liked his skating," Mahoney said. "He's got very good speed; he's fast with the puck. And we really like his ability to score goals. He had eight goals in seven games in the [World U-18] tournament. The Czech team had a very good tournament and we thought he was one of the reasons they excelled this year. … Jakub (5-11, 185) is a smart player. He's got a gift, he can put the puck in the net and he skates well. He really enjoys the game."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

5. Madison Bowey, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 53), 2013 draft

Last season: 72 GP, 21-39-60, plus-44, Kelowna, WHL

Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Tyler Myers and Sheldon Souray are just a few of the defensemen to play for Kelowna of the Western Hockey League on their way to prolific NHL careers. None of them, however, scored as many goals for the Rockets as Bowey (6-1, 195) did last season, when he broke the previous mark of 19 scored by Tyson Barrie in 2009-10. He served as captain as an 18-year-old, a role he'll most likely return to this season.

"What was even more impressive for me was they had a very good team, they were ranked very high in Canada, but Madison was the captain and he was an 18-year-old and there were 19- and 20-year-olds on that team," Mahoney said. "Not only was he the captain and still one of the younger players, but he was captain of one of the best teams in the country. That speaks volumes for his character."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

6. Chandler Stephenson, C

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 77), 2012 draft

Last season: 69 GP, 30-59-89, Regina, WHL

The Capitals rewarded Stephenson, 20 (5-11, 190) for his fine season with two games with Hershey in the American Hockey League at the end of the season. As impressive as it was for him to score 30 goals, what stood out was his WHL-leading eight shorthanded goals.

"He's very strong on the puck," Mahoney said. "He's got really good hockey sense. I really like the idea that he led the Western Hockey League in shorthanded goals also. That speaks pretty highly, to have that much success in the penalty kill, be able to score those goals. … Usually coaches will play very smart players on the penalty kill, and to have that success with scoring shorthanded goals shows his ability to score and his hockey sense and the speed."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

7. Christian Djoos, D

How acquired: 7th round (No. 195), 2012 draft

Last season: 47 GP, 1-12-13, Brynas, SWE

About the only thing standing between Djoos and being NHL-ready is his size: he's listed at 158 pounds on a 6-foot frame. He turns 20 on Aug. 6.

"He's a very, very intelligent player," Mahoney said. "Very patient with the puck. Does a really good job on the power play. I thought he did very well on the power play last year in the World Junior tournament for Sweden. The challenge for Christian will be to continue to get stronger physically. But he's a very smart player, handles the puck really well. I really like his patience with the puck. He plays with a lot of poise, a lot of confidence. I like his ability to hang onto the puck to allow teammates to get open, or to hang onto it on the power play and allow the play to take shape and find the open man and make the right decisions. There's no panic in his game."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

8. Garrett Haar, D
How acquired: 7th round (No. 207), 2011 draft

Last season: 61 GP, 7-38-45, plus-32, Portland, WHL

After two seasons at Western Michigan, Haar, 21 on Aug. 16, opted for the WHL, and the change obviously paid off when he helped Portland reach the league championship series while displaying a solid all-around game at 5-11, 194.

"It was a very good experience this past season for Garrett to be able to play on a good team with a good organization, good coaching," Mahoney said. "He played with some other pretty good defensemen. … To go four rounds [in the WHL playoffs] was good for him and his development. All those games are pretty high-intensity games."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

9. Vitek Vanecek, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 39), 2014 draft

Last season: 38 GP, 2.64 GAA, .921 save percentage, Liberec, CZE-JR

The Capitals liked Vanecek, 18 (6-1, 180) enough to trade two picks to move up five spots and select him. He had a solid season for his club team but also shined at the World U-18 Championship in April, with a 2.74 goals-against average in seven games to help the Czech Republic win the silver medal.

"You don't advance in that tournament without having good goaltending, and we thought he played exceptional," Mahoney said.

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

10. Brian Pinho, C

How acquired: 6th round (No. 174), 2013 draft

Last season: 59 GP, 28-28-56, plus-29, Indiana, USHL

Pinho, 19 (6-0, 173) capped his first season in the United States Hockey League in the best way possible, scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the final game in the best-of-5 championship series.

"We really saw a much more confident player toward the end of the year than he was at the beginning of the year," Mahoney said. "Going into the USHL last year, the early part of the season was a transition for him. I thought he adjusted really well, and after Christmas we thought he really took off, played a lot better. That was a confidence thing. … He got excellent coaching, played on a really good team, won a championship. Those are all really good learning experiences."

Projected NHL arrival: 2018-19

New regime aims to get more out of Capitals lineup

For the first time in seven seasons the Washington Capitals did not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013-14. That led to some substantial changes.

Brian MacLellan became the third general manager in the past 32 years, replacing long-tenured George McPhee. Barry Trotz became the fourth coach in the past 30 months, a fact that had a lot to do with MacLellan's promotion from assistant GM.

When Adam Oates was hired to coach in Washington, the mission statement seemed to be "Fix Alex Ovechkin, fix the Capitals." Ovechkin scored lots of goals for Oates and the power play often was incredible. But pretty much everything else, from possession to goal prevention to penalty killing and secondary scoring, was far from incredible. The Capitals slipped in 2012-13 and sunk in 2013-14, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

There's a new regime, a new system and some new players. There is better depth on defense but not necessarily up front. Will the changes result in a return to the postseason?

Here is a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Capitals:

FORWARDS

Brooks Laich - Nicklas Backstrom - Alex Ovechkin

Eric Fehr - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera - Marcus Johansson - Joel Ward

Aaron Volpatti - Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson

Chris Brown - Michael Latta

If Kuznetsov is not ready to play center, he could reprise his role from the end of last season next to Ovechkin and Backstrom. Fehr had a nice season as the center of the third line and could end up back there if Kuznetsov or Johansson don't cut it in the middle or if prospect Andre Burakovsky forces his way onto the team.

Wilson needs to play more, but he's also expected to miss part of training camp recovering from an ankle injury. He and Volpatti were crushed in possession at even strength last season, but the switch from Oates to Trotz could help all of the forwards in that area.

Ovechkin had terrible luck last season when people other than him were shooting the puck at even strength at both ends of the ice. Be prepared for "he's playing better defense" stories when his plus/minus rating improves.

Better health for Laich and necessary development for players like Kuznetsov and Johansson are big keys not only to helping replace the departed Mikhail Grabovski, but also improve the group's overall performance.

DEFENSEMEN

Brooks Orpik - John Carlson

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov - Mike Green

John Erskine

If this doesn't work, Trotz can put "Carlzner" (Alzner and Carlson) back together and pair the two ex-Pittsburgh Penguins, though Orpik and Niskanen have very little experience playing with each other at even strength.

Green and Orlov were the team's best possession pairing last season, and if they see sheltered minutes they could do some offensive damage in 2014-15. If Oates' objective was to "fix" Ovechkin, Trotz and his staff need to get Carlson and Alzner, two of the best young defensemen in the League when Bruce Boudreau was in charge, back on track.

If that happens this could be one of the best defense corps in the Eastern Conference; it already is one of the most expensive. There also is lots of depth with NHL experience behind these seven because the Capitals used 14 different defensemen last season.

GOALTENDERS
Braden Holtby

Justin Peters

Holtby was one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL but had a rough 2013-14 in large part because Oates wanted him to change his standard positioning and philosophy in net. Even with his struggles Holtby was eighth among goaltenders with at least 35 games in even strength save percentage at .928.

Holtby will have a chance to work with new goaltending coach Mitch Korn. Given Trotz's teams typically are sound defensively, plus the infusion of talent in the defense corps, it could add up to a huge bounce-back season for Holtby.

The Capitals added Peters instead of a more-established veteran because they want Holtby to carry the majority of the workload. Philipp Grubauer played well for the Capitals last season as the No. 3 player on the depth chart and likely will see a lot of work for Hershey in the American Hockey League while waiting for his turn again in 2014-15.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Andre Burakovsky, F Kris Newbury, D Jack Hillen, D Nate Schmidt, G Philipp Grubauer

Versatile Laich eager to help Capitals again

Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich couldn't wait for Monday to come. It's the day he's finally scheduled to hit the ice and incorporate skating into his offseason training regimen.

It's been two years since Laich has been as energized and excited to lace 'em up as he is now; two very hard, painful, injury-riddled years to be exact.

"Now when I step on the ice I feel completely free as opposed to very limited, like the last two years," Laich told NHL.com.

This can only be viewed as fantastic news for the Capitals.
Laich is Washington's most versatile forward, the only player on the roster who has the ability to excel playing any position on any line no matter the opponent. In five seasons from 2007-12, he missed four games (all in the 2009-10 season), averaged 47.6 points-per-season and played every position except goaltender.

His past two seasons have been marred by a groin injury that limited his mobility and prevented him from being a strong skater. He played in 60 games, had 19 points, two surgeries, and scores of painful days. He said it felt like his body was in prison.

"You're just fearful of any sort of acceleration, fearful of any turn, fearful of engaging in any contact because you know there's an extreme amount of pain coming your way if you do that," Laich said. "It's a very difficult way to live. It's a very difficult way to participate, let alone try to excel at the sport. What I feel is the last two years have been trying to survive that day in order to be on the ice the next day as well. That's not productive."

But Laich had surgery in mid-March to release a tight adductor muscle and now knows the feeling of liberation. He says that he's "completely healthy" and has "had just an unbelievable summer of training."

Laich, now 31, also feels his best is yet to come.

"I don't knock on wood. That's the way I feel," Laich said. "Last summer, having gone through a procedure, I tried to make myself believe I was healthy in order to try and feel that way. This summer is different. I completely feel healthy so I believe it. Last summer we did a lot of rehab, trying to get back to functional. This summer, right from the day we started training, it's been nothing but try to excel at the training and to push the limits. There's no inhibition or concern anymore. It is training to try and maximize your performance. I'm completely mentally and physically liberated from the groin injury and so excited to just resume playing hockey."

The Capitals no doubt need Laich to be at his best, perhaps even better than he's ever been. He can play anywhere in the lineup and provide 50-plus points while playing on the first penalty-kill unit and the second, perhaps even first, power-play unit.

"I need a healthy Brooks Laich," Capitals coach Barry Trotz told NHL.com.

It appears he has one. Skating starts Monday.

"I'm going to hit the ice and take off right away, be ready for camp and be ready for the regular season," Laich said.

"I'm healthy now. I'm back. Let's play some hockey."

Trotz-Ovechkin bond among questions facing Capitals

A new general manager (Brian MacLellan), new coach (Barry Trotz) and two high-priced veteran additions to the blue line (Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik) indicate the Capitals will have a new look this season after their streak of six consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs came to an end last season.

However, the final answers to the following five questions ultimately will determine if Washington's new path will lead to the postseason:

1. How will Barry Trotz get along with Alex Ovechkin? -- Trotz knows that trust must be established between him and his captain. He started that process in late June when he went to Las Vegas for his first face-to-face meeting with Ovechkin as the Capitals coach.

Ovechkin was in Vegas to accept the Rocket Richard Trophy at the 2014 NHL Awards, and Trotz knew it was a good time to sit with him in a relaxed environment.

"I learned a lot from that, how he thinks and how he sees the world," Trotz said. "I learned about how he views himself, how he views his job with the team. It was good. I told him what I expected. … We had some dialogue. I learned about his family, who is important in his life."
Trotz already knows what to expect from Ovechkin in terms of production. What he has to do is work with Ovechkin to get him to buy into playing a 200-foot, skating game. Ovechkin is a role model on the Capitals and Trotz wants players who are role models to set the tone for how he would like his entire team to play.

2. Will the new coaching staff get the best out of Karl Alzner and John Carlson? -- Even with Orpik and Niskanen, the success of the defense hinges on Alzner and Carlson, who have the ability to lead Trotz's push for more offense from the back end with their combination of physical play, sturdiness in the defensive zone, skating, passing and puckhandling.

If they get back to doing all that this season, Washington will have a better chance to have a sustained offensive attack, something it lacked last season.

The Capitals were 24th in the NHL with a 47.1 Corsi-for percentage, according to ExtraSkater.com. That means their possession game wasn't good, and Alzner and Carlson were at the center of that. Alzner's Corsi-for percentage was 47 percent while Carlson's was 46.9 percent.

The relatively low Corsi-for percentages for each player has something to do with their quality of competition (they routinely faced the opposition's best players) and that they started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone.

Orpik and Niskanen will alleviate some pressure in both areas, especially if Alzner and Carlson are separated at the start of the season, which seems like a possibility.

3. Who will be the No. 2 center behind Nicklas Backstrom? -- Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov have the inside track, according to Trotz. They played the wing in Washington last season, but Trotz likes Johansson's speed and Kuznetsov's creativity as a playmaker and scorer. Eric Fehr, a third-line center last season, likely will move to the wing.

Trotz was also impressed by 2013 first-round pick (No. 23) Andre Burakovsky in development camp. Brooks Laich is an option as well now that he's healthy following surgery in March to address a nagging groin injury.

4. Is Kuznetsov ready for a breakout season? -- Kuznetsov, the 26th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, showed glimpses of what he can do last season when he arrived from Russia in March. He had three assists in his third NHL game and finished with nine points in 17 games.

In Trotz's perfect world Kuznetsov will be Washington's No. 2 center. He should be listed among preseason favorites for the Calder Trophy.

5. Will goalie coach Mitch Korn turn Braden Holtby around? -- Korn, who mentored Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne with the Nashville Predators, has to get Holtby back to the level he was at in 2012-13, when he had 23 wins, a .920 save percentage, a 2.58 goals-against average and four shutouts in 36 games.

Holtby never has gone wire-to-wire as a No. 1 goaltender in an 82-game NHL season. He was supposed to last season, but a combination of changes in his style to play deeper in the crease and the Capitals' poor defense hurt him; he had a 2.85 GAA and .915 save percentage in 48 games.

Trotz confident he can fix what ailed Capitals

As part of his exercise in discovering information about his new team, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been asking friends and colleagues around the NHL to disclose what they told their players before playing the Capitals in recent seasons.

Trotz's discoveries have given him an indication as to why the Capitals failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"It was pretty consistent," Trotz told NHL.com. "They would say, 'Don't let them score on the rush. Don't let their forwards freewheel. Take away time and space. They don't do much around the net. They're not very physical. They don't block shots.' It was good information, and now I've got to get it changed. I know I can."
It starts with the captain. Trotz doesn't want to take away Alex Ovechkin's offensive ability, but he wants to put more responsibility on Ovechkin to play a 200-foot game. Trotz said he has seen a lot of "glide" in Ovechkin's game and he noted his 5-on-5 production has to improve.

Ovechkin scored 24 of his 51 goals last season on the power play. He had one even-strength goal over his final 22 games.

"He's a lot more dangerous when he's skating, when he's moving, when he's got a little bit of room to operate," Trotz said. "I have found him standing still a lot on the film that I'm watching, very easy to cover, and he still got 51 goals."

Trotz wants to take some scoring pressure off Ovechkin by having the defensemen play a bigger role in the offense.

"People tend to think because I've come to Washington that I'm going to stand back, and I hate that," Trotz said. "In Nashville I was known as a defensive coach because my star players were a goalie [Pekka Rinne] and a defenseman [Shea Weber]. We had to play to our strength."

Trotz still urged the defensemen in Nashville to carry the puck up the ice. He wants to see the same from the Capitals defensemen, particularly Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Mike Green. That's in contrast to the system Washington played under former coach Adam Oates.

Trotz said he was stunned to learn 14.2 percent of the Capitals' goals last season came from defensemen. Washington was tied for 15th in the NHL for goals scored by defensemen with 32. By comparison, the Predators were first with 52 goals, including 23 from Weber.

"We were probably always in the top-five [in goals] from the back end, and a lot of people can't name more than two or three of the forwards we had," Trotz said of his time with the Predators. "With the forwards I have in Washington, I hope to keep their offensive production very high and add some more offense from the back end."

Trotz's focus in training camp will be in the middle of the ice. The center depth behind Nicklas Backstrom is a work in progress.

Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will compete for the second and third spots. Johansson and Kuznetsov played the wing in Washington last season. Burakovsky impressed Trotz at development camp last month.

Brooks Laich or Troy Brouwer will likely be the other wing on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Eric Fehr, the third-line center between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward last season, will likely move to the wing.

"I think we're going to be a lot deeper through the middle of the ice than I even expected," Trotz said.

Goalie coach Mitch Korn, who also comes to Washington from Nashville, has to get Braden Holtby's game back to the level it was at two seasons ago, when he had a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 36 appearances. He had a 2.85 GAA and .915 save percentage in 48 appearances last season.

The Capitals signed Justin Peters to be Holtby's backup. They chose not to go after a bigger name as a show of faith to Holtby, who must improve if the Capitals are going to become a Stanley Cup contender under Trotz.

"My biggest thought on this season for us is it can't be a burnt year," Laich told NHL.com. "We can't go through the year, get to the playoffs, make it to the first or second round and say, 'OK, that's good enough.' We can't burn this year. We need to win this year."

Cardinals Begin By Battering Texans

Carson Palmer was in the interview room quicker than normal, and he admitted he almost didn’t bother with a shower.
“I didn’t sweat,” the Cardinals quarterback said.
There wasn’t much to sweat Saturday night for the Cardinals in their preseason opener. The 32-0 whacking of the Houston Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium was about as good as it could have gotten for Bruce Arians and his group. The team came out with no serious injuries, the passing offense was outstanding regardless of the quarterback who played, and the defense not only delivered a shutout but did not allow the Texans a third-down conversion.
“They were happy to hit someone else,” Arians said. “There is no question about that.”
Arians also wanted a fast start, and nowhere was that more noticeable than within Arians’ beloved air attack.

Palmer was perfect throwing the ball on his first drive, and when the night was over, the trio of Palmer, Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas combined for 27-of-34 passes for 349 yards and no interceptions.
Each man threw a touchdown pass.
It’s a far cry from training camp last year, when so many on offense were struggling with Arians’ system – a problem that carried far into the regular season.
“Everybody’s confidence is so much different than last year,” Palmer said. “There’s not that half-second of unsure-edness, if that’s a word, in the back of your mind before the ball is snapped, or that timidness where you’re not quite sure where to step or what the adjustment is post-snap. All that stuff is gone.”
Palmer was able to check everything off his first preseason game to-do list. Get hit? Check, after he got slammed for a sack by J.J. Watt on his possession. Convert a tough third down? Check, with his 25-yard completion to John Brown when it was third-and-16 following the Watt sack. Efficiency? Well, he was 5-for-5 for 84 yards throwing the ball. Touchdown? Yep, hitting Larry Fitzgerald on a seven-yard score.
Stanton completed 11 of 17 passes for 152 yards and threw a TD pass to Jaron Brown. Thomas, the rookie, completed 11 of 12 passes for 113 yards with his scoring pass going to Dan Buckner.
Thomas, even playing against deep backups, was a revelation. Even Arians admitted Thomas threw the ball better

“by far” than any other moment since he joined the Cardinals.
“It just slowed down for me,” Thomas said. “It felt good. Everybody was in their right spots and I was making good reads.”
It didn’t even matter that wide receivers Michael Floyd (groin) and Ted Ginn (knee) didn’t even dress. Rookie wide receiver John Brown was excellent with five catches for 87 yards and also drew a 39-yard pass interference penalty. Twelve different Cardinals caught passes.
And the way the defense played, the offense didn’t even need to do as well as it did. The defensive starters generated a three-and-out on their first possession – almost getting an interception – and then actually getting a pick of Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the second drive when cornerback Antonio Cromartie gathered in a pass tipped by linebacker Kevin Minter.
The only real Houston drive that threatened points came right before halftime, and linebacker Marcus Benard snuffed that out with a one-handed interception of his own. The defense even outscored the Texans on the night when third-string linebacker JoJo Dickson sacked quarterback Tom Savage for a safety.
“We looked fast,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “The defense was flying around. … For the most part, the effort was flawless, the execution was flawless.”
The Texans had the ball for less than 18 minutes in the game and generated only 172 total yards, compared to 407 for the Cardinals. If there were nits to pick, the running game never really did get going. The Cardinals ran for 81 yards in 37 carries, including just 15 yards on 12 attempts in the first half.
“The run game, (for which) I’m sure we’ll get yelled at and screamed at,” Palmer said. “But the passing game, I thought we did a good job.”
The Cardinals become the first team to pitch a preseason shutout since … the Cardinals did it in Green Bay in last year’s preseason opener. That one was 17-0. This one left the Cardinals feeling much more confident.
“The game wasn’t perfect,” Minter said, “but we played a great game.”

Texans open 2014 preseason with 32-0 loss

Bill O’Brien’s NFL debut ended in a disappointing 32-0 preseason loss in Arizona filled with penalties (13 for 126 yards) and two early interceptions. The Texans trio of quarterbacks were unable to jumpstart the offense which was without starters Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.

"I told the team we’re all in it together," O'Brien said after the game. "It’s the first preseason game. There’s no where to go but up from where we are over there. Tonight too many penalties, turnovers, couldn’t get off the field on third down, couldn’t get a kickoff return past the 15-yard line. We’re going to get back to work tonight. We’ve got a big week with Atlanta coming in here."

Arizona scored back-to-back touchdowns on its first two drives and added a field goal to score 17 points in the first quarter. The Texans defensive starters played just one quarter while Ryan Fitzpatrick played the entire first half of Saturday night’s game. Backups Case Keenum and Tom Savage each played a quarter in the second half. Mike Thomas led the receivers with four catches for 40 yards on the day.

Jadeveon Clowney made his NFL debut at outside linebacker and contributed a tackle for loss of five yards. J.J. Watt, who remained in the game for the entire first quarter, sacked Carson Palmer on the second play of the game for a loss of seven yards. Nose tackle Jerrell Powe recorded the Texans’ second sack of the night, taking down Cardinals quarterback Logan Thomas for a 6-yard loss in the third quarter.



Fitzpatrick and the Texans offense struggled in the first half, with drives ending in two turnovers and three punts. The Texans were unable to get a first down until their third series of the game. Fitzpatrick threw two picks in the first half, under center with both the first and second units during the game. He finished the day completing just 6 of 14 passes for 55 yards and two interceptions.


“I think it was good to get out there in a live game, didn’t really get hit all that much, kind of knock the rust off a little bit, go against a different squad, guys you haven’t been seeing every day in training camp; In that sense it was good," Fitzpatrick said. "In terms of the execution and the turnovers and everything, obviously not what we wanted out there tonight."

Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both threw for touchdowns while Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro added was 3-for-3 in field goals from 32, 28, and 25 yards. Palmer completed 5-of-5 passes for 84 yards and a score. Stanton was 11-of-17 for 152 yards with the Cardinals’ second touchdown of the day.

Carson Palmer led the Cardinals to an early 7-0 lead on his first and only series. Despite a J.J. Watt sack on the second play, Palmer connected with Larry Fitzgerald on a 7-yard touchdown pass at the end of a 79-yard drive.

Drew Stanton replaced Palmer on Cardinals’ second offensive series and scored the Cardinals second touchdown of the day. Stanton’s pass intended for Jaron Brown resulted in a pass interference call on Brandon Harris, moving the ball 39 yards. Brown went on to score the Cardinals second touchdown of the day, extending Arizona’s lead to 14 with 3:50 remaining in the first quarter.

Following a three-and-out on his first drive, Fitzpatrick’s second chance to score ended in a turnover. His pass, intended for rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, was intercepted by cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Arizona converted the turnover into three points, following a 32-yard field goal by Catanzaro.

Houston trailed 20-0 at halftime.

The Texans' running game was the lone bright spot in the first half, according to head coach Bill O’Brien. Houston had 77 rushing yards while Arizona’s backs were held to 15 yards. Johnathan Grimes led with ten rushes for 39 yards on the day, while rookie Alfred Blue ran for 14 yards on his first-ever NFL carry in the second quarter.

Case Keenum entered the game in the third quarter but was unable to get the Texans in scoring range. He finished with a 76.2 passer rating, completing 3-of-5 passes for 29 yards, including a 15-yard pass to wide receiver EZ Nwachukwu.

"I have to go look at the film and see what I can do better," Keenum said. "Obviously, the penalties, our pre-snap penalties. Those are most of the time on the quarterback and I take responsibility for those. That’s part of managing the game. There is every little play that I am going to nitpick and go back and look at the throws, the checks, and the reads.”

Rookie quarterback Tom Savage took over in the final quarter of the game. Savage completed two of three passes for 14 yards. He was sacked twice for a loss of 16 yards, including one for a safety with just 1:28 remaining in the game.

The Texans will face the Atlanta Falcons next Saturday and will hold joint practices on August 13 and 14.




Game Notes:
- Making their debuts for the Texans were WR Joe Adams, OLB Jason Ankrah, RB Alfred Blue, K Chris Boswell, ILB Max Bullough, T Tyson Clabo, S Chris Clemons, OLB Jadeveon Clowney, RB Tim Cornett, TE Anthony Denham, C James Ferentz, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, OLB Quentin Groves, CB Andre Hal, OLB Paul Hazel, G Bronson Irwin, CB Travis Labhart, S Kendrick Lewis, NT Ricardo Mathews, FB Toben Opurum, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, NT Jerrell Powe, OLB Lawrence Sidbury, T Xavier Su’a-Filo, DE Julius Warmsley
- Captains for the Texans were LT Duane Brown, P Shane Lechler, C Chris Myers and DE J.J. Watt
- Houston won the toss and deferred. Arizona elected to receive to start the game.

Titans Win Preseason Opener 20-16 Over Packers

The Titans got touchdowns from Shonn Greene, Bishop Sankey and Jackie Battle in a 20-16 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the preseason opener for both teams Saturday night at LP Field.

Battle’s rushing touchdown from seven yards out gave the Titans their first lead of the game with 5:02 remaining, capping a five-play, 80-yard scoring drive led by rookie QB Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee’s defense held Green Bay on its final possession to give head coach Ken Whisenhunt a victory in his preseason debut for the Titans.

Both teams endured a Nashville monsoon with the relentless downpour lasting nearly the duration of the contest.

Jake Locker and the Titans' starting offense played the entire first quarter, encompassing three-plus drives. The rain ruined any plans of a passing game, leaving Locker just 1-of-2 passing for five yards.

The wet conditions contributed to each team having its fair share of mishandled snaps and drops.

“It’s a lot of water,” said Locker. “Given the circumstances, we were able to move the ball a little running it. We would liked to have done a little better in the passing game, but it’s something that we know we can work on going forward.”

Veteran backup Charlie Whitehust played the second and third quarters, completing 10-of-15 passes for 94 yards, including a five-yard TD pass on a screen to Sankey. Mettenberger, the rookie out of LSU, played out the fourth quarter, completing 4-of-7 passes for 87 yards, including a long of 38 to receiver Brian Robiskie.

The Packers received the opening kick and marched down the field with James Starks capping the drive with a 20-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead.


“Obviously, we would have loved to come out and play great football that first series and get a three-and out,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “We had to go back out there and Titan up and play our defense, play the Titans defense. We didn’t do that on the first drive, the second drive we did.”

A Packers muffed punt late in the opening quarter gave the Titans a first-and-10 from the Green Bay 13-yard line. Shonn Greene wasted no time taking the first down carry through a wide open hole on the left side, walking into the end zone for Tennessee's first score of the game. Maikon Bonani missed the 33-yard experimental extra point, keeping the game at 7-6 Packers.

The second team offense showed flashes in the second quarter, highlighted by Charlie Whitehurstevading the oncoming rush and finding Bishop Sankey for a 23-yard catch and run. A sack stalled the drive as the 7-6 score line held into the half.

“Conditions were pretty tough,” Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt said after the first half. “It’s something that we get a chance to look at and work on. We had some mistakes, but we made some good plays. We had some guys that made some plays.”

Green Bay opened the scoring in the second half on a Rajion Neal 12-yard touchdown run. Wide receiver Chris Harper provided the big play of the drive, finding himself wide open down the left sideline for a 38-yard reception. The Packers' failed two-point conversion attempt left the score 13-6.

Sankey led the Titans' response with five carries for 24 yards and a five-yard touchdown reception from Charlie Whitehurst, capping a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Travis Coons connected on his PAT attempt, tying the game at 13 apiece. Sankey finished with 37 yards on 13 carries and three receptions for 38 yards and one touchdown.


Mettenberger entered the contest and played the entire fourth quarter. His first throw was a third-down dart to Isaiah Williams for a first down. The drive however ended abruptly with Mettenberger losing control of the wet football, which was recovered by Packers linebacker Jake Doughty. The rookie QB’s second drive wasn’t any smoother after having a pass deflect off the hands of Battle and into the awaiting arms of Packers linebacker Korey Jones for the interception.

Trailing 16-13 after a Mason Crosby 32-yard field goal, Mettenberger found his mojo. Consecutive long completions to tight end Chase Coffman (26 yards) and receiver Brian Robiskie (38 yards) put the Titans on the Packers' nine yard line. Two plays later, Battle put the finishing touches on the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run on a toss to the right side. Bonani’s PAT made it 20-16 Titans.

The Titans' defense stood tall to close the game, stopping the Packers on second and one, third and one, and again on fourth and one from their own 24-yard line. Tennessee will take their 1-0 preseason record to New Orleans next Friday, Aug. 15 for the team’s first road game.

NOTES: Rookie DB Marqueston Huff sacked Packers QB Scott Tolzien to end the first half … C Chris Spencer left the game in the first half with an ankle injury and did not return … Battle was on the punt return unit and nearly blocked a punt in the first half … First-round pick Taylor Lewan played left tackle with the second team offense … LB Colin McCarthy left the game with a left shoulder injury

Packers start fast but Titans rally for win, 20-16

The Packers didn’t need all of their stars for the No. 1 offense to get off to a strong preseason start.


With quarterback Matt Flynn starting for Aaron Rodgers and running back James Starks taking Eddie Lacy’s place, the Packers marched right down rainy LP Field to start Saturday night’s preseason opener and looked pretty good doing it.

The eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive was the opening score in what became a soaking-wet, 20-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans. It was highlighted by six Starks runs for 49 yards, including a 20-yard TD scamper less than 4 ½ minutes into the contest. The running game, even without Lacy, looked downright dominant.

“That’s always what the O-line wants to do,” new center JC Tretter said. “It was a great start, especially the first drive of the season. I think that sets a good tone for how we want to play.”

Receiver Jordy Nelson took the night off, too, and most of the first unit aside from Tretter exited after their crisp debut.


“With the weather and stuff, we didn’t let it alter how we were playing,” Starks said. “We got off to a fast start.”

The No. 1 defense did the same, allowing only one first down on Tennessee’s first two possessions before a muffed punt by rookie receiver Davante Adams gave the Titans a short field for a score.

“It’s a starting point,” said outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who worked with counterpart Julius Peppers in a game for the first time. “We tried to form a base with the guys, build some continuity.”

Third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien then began the second half the way Flynn and the offense began the first, taking the ball right down the field.

Tolzien completed a pair of throws to receiver Chris Harper for 55 yards, while undrafted rookie running back Rajion Neal (five carries, 39 yards) pounded out runs of 15, 8 and 12 yards, the last one a TD scamper off the left side.

Head coach Mike McCarthy noted after the game that Neal sustained a knee injury.


In the middle of that 79-yard drive, Tolzien (8 of 12, 124 yards, 100.7 rating) kept the possession alive with a heads-up fumble recovery. Losing the wet ball on a rollout as he cocked his arm to throw, Tolzien grabbed Tennessee linebacker Brandon Copeland around the waist as he reached to recover the ball, pulled Copeland away and dove in front of him to get the ball himself.

“It’s an awful feeling when you go forward with your arm and it gets really light because there’s no ball there,” Tolzien said. “The ball was on the ground. That’s your possession. It was just a reaction to trying to get the ball. Kind of takes you back to backyard football.”

Harper appeared to be making a move in the crowded competition at receiver, but he failed to haul in what appeared to be a catchable ball on the 2-point conversion try right after Neal’s TD. He also couldn’t corral a short fourth-down throw in the fourth quarter that would have kept the chains moving.

Adams had a similar night of ups and downs, catching two passes for 22 yards but fumbling two punts. He recovered the first one himself but wasn’t so lucky on the second.


"The coaches are not na├»ve to the fact that it’s the hardest rain in the world, but I’ve got to come up with those," Adams said.

Deeper down the depth chart, two defenders made standout plays in the fourth quarter that gave the Packers a chance to win.

Former practice-squad cornerback Jumal Rolle had a strip-sack of Titans rookie QB Zach Mettenberger, but the Packers offense was unable to take advantage of a possession that started in Tennessee territory.

Moments later, Mettenberger’s short pass over the middle to running back Jackie Battle deflected way up into the air, and undrafted rookie linebacker Korey Jones cradled it for an interception.

“I jumped a little early and lost it in the lights, so I’m just happy I came down with it,” said Jones, who had been quiet thus far in training camp but now has a building block in his bid to earn a roster spot. “Right place, right time. It was fun. Can’t wait to do it again.”

Jones ran the ball back to the Tennessee 13-yard line, and the Packers kicked a field goal that gave them a 16-13 lead at the time.

It didn’t hold up, as the Packers’ No. 3 defense couldn’t make it three stops in a row, but some key objectives were reached as everybody who dressed, played, and did so in adverse conditions.

“It stinks that you lose, but it’s the first preseason game, so you have to build on it,” Tolzien said.

The Packers will try to do that next Saturday in, thankfully, a climate-controlled dome in St. Louis.

Moore, Fuller lead Lions to late preseason victory

Third-string quarterback Kellen Moore came to the rescue late and helped the Lions secure a 13-12 victory.
What happened:The Detroit Lions had a tough go of it on offense for most of the game with Matthew Stafford and most of the starters playing just one series. However, third-string quarterback Kellen Moore came to the rescue late and helped the Lions secure a 13-12 come from behind victory in head coach Jim Caldwell’s debut.
Moore led a four-play, 50-yard drive and found second-year receiver Corey Fuller streaking down the left sideline for a 21-yard touchdown with 1:05 left in the game to propel the Lions to victory.

Stafford finished his night completing 2-of-4 passes for 18 yards, one of which was a 14-yarder to receiver Golden Tate, to set up a Nate Freese field goal on the first possession of the game.

After that, however, the Lions struggled to do much else on that side of the football, until late in the fourth quarter.

Backup Dan Orlovsky played the rest of the first half and the third quarter and finished 12-of-23 passing for 89 yards (3.9 average) with a passer rating of 61.7.

Moore finished his night 11-of-13 passing for 121 yards with a touchdown and a 131.1 passer rating.

What didn’t happen: The Browns didn’t have a lot of success moving the football, either. The Lions gave up just four field goals and 282 total yards and forced two turnovers.

Neither quarterbacks Brian Hoyer nor Johnny Manziel had much success against the Lions defense.

Hoyer finished his night 6-of-14 passing for 92 yards with a 65.2 passer rating.

Manziel was a little better, completing seven his 11 pass attempts for 63 yards (79.0 passer rating), but the Lions kept him mostly in check.

Critical moment: With the Lions needing a touchdown win the game late in the fourth quarter, Moore threw a perfect pass to a streaking Fuller for a 21-yard touchdown.

Fuller, a former track star turned football player, has been dramatically improved this training camp vs. last year. The Lions love his height and speed and he showed that he can stretch the field on that crucial play late in the game.

Key stat: The Lions defense held Cleveland to just 5-of-16 on third down conversions as the Browns failed to get into the end zone all night.

Player of the game: Moore led three fourth-quarter drives into Cleveland territory and looked poised all night.

He completed 84.6 percent of his passes and delivered the football on time and in rhythm all night.

Honorable mention player of the game: Rookie running back George Winn has already earned a reputation as a tough runner in training camp and that translated to the field vs. Cleveland.

Winn finished the game with 39 rushing yards on six carries (6.5 average) and caught three passes for another 23

Cleveland Browns fall, 13-12, to Detroit Lions

It was only a snippet of what 2014 Cleveland Browns football will be about, but it was an encouraging bite of pie.
On Saturday night at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions defeated the Browns 13-12. Kellen Moore threw a 21-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter to put the Lions ahead for good.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer and the first-string offense methodically moved the football down the field in two of his three drives, resulting in Billy Cundiff field goals of 43 and 26 yards. Hoyer finished the night going 6-for-14, with 92 yards passing. The veteran took advantage of Detroit defensive lapses on some passes, including a notable 28-yard flare to fullback MarQueis Gray on the opening drive.
Quietly, Ben Tate was also a big part of the Browns scoring drives. His six carries for 25 yards won’t wow you in the box score. But Tate ran tough, found holes in the zone scheme and looked much shiftier in an actual game setting as opposed to practice.
The offense moved the football. There was an issue, though, that could’ve led to more points: Third-downs were not friendly to the Browns’ first unit. The team was 0-for-4. There were some overthrows and some dropped passes – one from Miles Austin that might’ve led to a touchdown.
"We learned some lessons in this game," said head coach Mike Pettine. "You can’t just kick field goals when you get in the red zone, you’ve got to score touchdowns. When you get a chance to finish a game, defensively, you want to be in that situation and you’ve got to execute.:
But this is what the Browns and Hoyer desperately needed: live game action. Reviewing this film will be the greatest asset for the offense moving forward.
“It was good to be back out on the field with my teammates, to go out there and move the ball,” said Hoyer. “We kind of killed ourselves with some things. There are definitely a couple of reads I would like to take back and a few throws, but for the most part it’s good to get out there and play against someone else.”


Rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel took the field to a smattering of camera flashes and even some boos from the Detroit faithful. He took only four snaps in the first half, a three-and-out and a QB kneel.
But once the third quarter began, the rookie from Texas A&M reminded NFL fans why he was worthy of being selected in the first round. Cleveland looked exciting. Manziel’s legs added a dimension to the offense, occasionally giving the Lions fits. A 16-yard scramble from Manziel in the middle of the third quarter are the kinds of plays that give the 21-year-old a chance to start the regular season.
"Luckily for me there's three more games to get out there and learn what to do in different situations against defenses," said Manziel after the game. "I'm still growing up as a quarterback. Week One, is obviously I guess you guys would say, it's close. But at the same time there's a lot of things [I'm working on] that will paint a better picture for us."
It shouldn’t be buried this far in the story, because it was the story: Cleveland’s defense dominated.
Head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil dialed up an array of exotic blitzes, flustering the Lions’ offense. Donte Whitner leveled Theo Riddick on a pass over the middle, injuring the running back’s abdominal. Barkevious Mingo posted a sack and lined up all over the field. Rotational lineman Armonty Bryant was a nightmare matchup for the Lions’ interior offensive line. And the second and third units picked up the momentum and carried it all throughout the second half.
Whitner and Karlos Dansby, both team captains, were encouraged.
“I feel like we ran to the football and we didn’t make mental errors,” said Whitner. “We tackled pretty well. We’ve just got off the field on third down.”
"We dialed up some good play calls," said Dansby. "I wanted to go in for a kill-shot on one hit, but it's the preseason. That time will come."
The Browns players have Sunday off and will resume training camp practice Monday morning.

Giants top Steelers, 20-16

AT A GLANCE
While starters played into the second quarter of the second preseason game, the Giants were again propelled by a late touchdown catch by wide receiver Corey Washington for a 20-16 victory at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the first play of the Giants’ second drive in the first quarter, running back Rashad Jennings took a handoff over the right guard and accelerated through the defense for a 73-yard touchdown. Coincidentally, the Giants’ long play in last week’s Hall of Fame Game against the Buffalo Bills was also 73 yards on Washington’s late touchdown catch from Ryan Nassib.

>> RASHAD JENNINGS GIVES GIANTS EARLY LEAD

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE OFFENSE
Since the Giants hired new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo back in January, the focus has been on Eli Manning and the passing game. But through the first two preseason games, it’s the rushing attack that has piqued people’s interest so far. That’s because of the one-two punch of Rashad Jennings, who broke free for a 73-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and rookie Andre Williams, who had seven attempts for 35 yards. Meanwhile, the offense didn’t complete a pass until the two-minute warning in the first half (granted they had attempted only three passes at that point) as Eli Manning (0-of-2 for 0 yards) played the first four drives, producing just eight yards and three punts aside from the one-play touchdown drive thanks to Jennings and his blocking. Backing up Manning, Nassib came in and spent time with the first-team offensive line before the backups rotated in, completing 12-of-21 passes for 81 yards and a fumble (backwards pass) that Steelers linebacker Howard Jones retuned 28 yards for a touchdown.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE DEFENSE
Like the offense, the defense started slowly on Saturday night, drawing a few penalties and giving up a big play (46-yard catch-and-run by Dri Archer), which is an area the Giants’ defense excelled in last season. But thanks to tight coverage by cornerback Walter Thurmond III on Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore three plays later, the defense held and forced Pittsburgh to settle for a short field goal. While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played just one drive before being replaced by backup Bruce Gadkowski, the Giants found success in their defensive line rotation. Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, and Damontre Moore all had quarterback hurries while defensive tackle Markus Kuhn notched a sack. Johnathan Hankins also started again at left defensive tackle in place of Mike Patterson.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE SPECIAL TEAMS
The special teams had another miscue for the second game in a row. Last Sunday in the Hall of Fame Game it was a blown block that resulted in a blocked punt. This time it was a muffed punt return by Charles James II, which the Steelers recovered deep in the Giants’ territory and turned into three points on a field goal. Otherwise, the special teams outfit was sharp for the Giants. The Giants booted touchback after touchback on kickoffs and allowed just eight yards on four punt returns, which included a great tackle by long snapper Zak DeOssie in coverage in the first quarter. Meanwhile, in a reverse of last week, Brandon McManus began by kicking the extra points -- which are placed at the 15-yard line in the first three weeks of the preseason as part of an NFL experiment -- while Josh Brown took the field goal attempts, making his only attempt from 45 yards and a late extra point. The kicking competition continued as McManus came on and made a 46-yarder right before halftime.

ROOKIE WATCH
WR Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) did not play; RB Andre Williams rushed seven times for 35 yards (long of 10); LB Devon Kennard had two tackles; DE Jordan Stanton recorded a sack.

Steelers fall to Giants, 20-16

GIANTS 20, STEELERS 16

Steelers’ record: 0-1
One year ago: 0-1
Preseason series record: Giants lead, 14-13

STORYLINE
It wasn’t a must-win situation, because these games don’t count in the standings. But this preseason opener couldn’t be termed meaningless, because the 2014 Steelers still are in the formative stage, and one of the characteristics every team seeks to develop is the ability to find ways to win games. The roster turnover meant many of the guys in uniform either were new to the NFL, new to the Steelers, or new to the roles they are expected to fill for this team.

“We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment, clean football but at this stage of the journey we’ll see where we are in that regard,” said Coach Mile Tomlin a couple of days before the game. “But I think what’s paramount is that we play fast and we play hard and we play with urgency.”

Last summer, the Steelers were winless in the preseason, with the defeats coming to the Giants by 18-13, to the Redskins by 24-13, to the Chiefs by 26-20 in overtime, and to the Panthers by 25-10. Then what followed was an 0-4 start to the regular season that became 2-6 at the midway point of a season that ended with the Steelers just outside the playoff field.

While there is no scientific proof that winning preseason games is the simple solution to getting off to a fast start during the regular season, the learning-how-to-win-together trait is a critical one to be developed, and sooner has to be better than later.

“We’re excited about taking the next step in overall team development, which is playing in a stadium versus an opponent in the New York Giants,” Tomlin had said. “It’s a significant step for us, and what we’re looking for in this first time out is quite simple. I want the group to play fast; I want them to play with the urgency that’s required to play winning football in a stadium setting. I’m looking for that.”


TURNING POINT
Allowing big plays was a problem for the Steelers defense throughout 2013, and so it was again early in this preseason opener. After kicking off to open the game, the Steelers defense posted a three-and-out, and Ben Roethlisberger followed by directing the offense on a seven-play, 70-yard drive ending with a 26-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham for a 3-0 lead. On the first offensive play following then kickoff, Rashad Jennings broke up the middle and raced 73 yards for a touchdown that gave the Giants a 7-3 lead. The Steelers defense allowed only 60 yards in the entire first half besides that one run. On the long run, defensive end Cam Heyward slanted the wrong way to create the initial gap that Jenning exploited.

“We just had a guy get out of his gap,” said safety Mike Mitchell. “We have to continue to work it, be more disciplined and work our run defense. It’s preseason game one. As we continue to grow and develop and gel as a unit, we’ll cut down on those mistakes. Guys will continue to be in their gaps. One thing as a safety, we can all take better angles in tackling.”

STAT THAT STANDS OUT I
The Steelers record the outcome of preseason games dating back to 1965, and in that span the team has had four winless preseasons – 1965, 1987, 2006, and 2013.


The 1965 team was reeling from the firing of Coach Buddy Parker and would end up 2-12 under Mike Nixon; the 1987 team finished 8-7 during a season in which replacement players filled in for three games during a strike by the union; the 2006 team was experiencing a Super Bowl hangover; and the 2013 team came on to post the league’s best second-half record only to fall just short of making the playoffs.

STAT THAT STANDS OUT II
On the flip side of the franchise’s history following winless preseasons, there have been three undefeated preseasons in Steelers’ history. In 1974, the team finishing 6-0 in a preseason that contained a players’ strike went on to win Super Bowl IX; the 1982 team followed its undefeated preseason with a win at Dallas in the opener and then another in overtime against the defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals before a players’ strike wiped out the next two months of a regular season that ended with the Steelers losing a home playoff game to San Diego; and the 1997 team used an undefeated preseason to transition to Kordell Stewart at quarterback on the way to losing in the AFC Championship Game to Denver at Three Rivers Stadium.


STAT THAT STANDS OUT III
In the 13 preseason games throughout the NFL prior to Saturday night’s slate, officials had called a combined 44 defensive holding penalties and 21 illegal contact penalties.

INJURY REPORT
In his final news conference before the team left for New Jersey from Saint Vincent College, Coach Mike Tomlin referred to six players as questionable to participate in the preseason opener: Rob Blanchflower (ankle), Jarvis Jones (groin), Jordan Zumwalt (groin), Steve McLendon (concussion), Darrius Heyward-Bey (concussion), and Ryan Shazier (knee).

Of those six, Blanchflower, Zumwalt, and Jones participated in the final padded practice before the game, while McLendon, Heyward-Bey, and Shazier did not. Those three players who didn’t practice, plus Michael Palmer, were ruled out before the opening kickoff.

Ramon Foster left the game after getting poked in the eye in the first quarter. Foster did not return, but that had more to do with the number of plays he was allotted for this game as opposed to any debilitating effects of the injury.

Bears open preseason with victory

Jay Cutler looked sharp and the Bears defense played takeaway against the top-rated quarterback in the NFL last season in Friday night's 34-28 preseason-opening win over the Eagles.

Cutler completed 9 of 13 passes for 85 yards with one touchdown and a 112.7 passer rating on two series before being replaced by Jordan Palmer at the end of the first quarter. The defense, meanwhile, intercepted Nick Foles passes on two of Philadelphia's first three possessions.

Trailing 28-17 midway through the third quarter, the Bears scored the game's final 17 points as Jimmy Clausen threw touchdown passes of 73 yards to Chris Williams and 22 yards to Micheal Spurlock before Robbie Gould added a 25-yard field goal with 1:55 to play.

"It was a good win," said coach Marc Trestman. "It took all 90 guys to win this game. We had 90 Chicago Bears out there and we played four quarters. I was really excited about that."

The Bears defense excelled against Foles, who led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating last season. Foles, who threw for 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2013, matched that interception total in the first quarter Friday night when he was picked off by Ryan Mundy and Sherrick McManis.


Cutler put the Bears ahead 7-0 with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Miller on a nifty back-shoulder throw late in the first quarter. Cutler sustained the drive with completions of 13 yards to Brandon Marshall on third-and-11 and 23 yards to Dante Rosario on third-and-10.

"We had a few backed-up situations, some long yardage we were able to convert on," Cutler said. "I was getting more of a comfort level with the O-line, sitting in the pocket. Things were going good."

After the Eagles took a 14-7 lead on Matthew Tucker touchdown runs of 4 and 1 yards, the Bears tied the score 14-14 on Palmer's 12-yard TD pass to a leaping Miller with 1:07 left in the first half . The score came after Palmer had been intercepted early in the second quarter by safety Nate Allen.

The Bears' top three quarterbacks—Cutler, Palmer and Clausen—combined to complete 65 percent of their passes for 339 yards with four TDs, one interception and a 119.1 passer rating.

The Bears struggled on special teams all night, however, most notably when they allowed a 102-yard TD return by Josh Huff on the ensuing kickoff as the Eagles took a 21-14 halftime lead.

After Gould's 26-yard field goal cut the deficit to 21-17 early in the third quarter, Eagles backup quarterback Matt Barkley capped a 12-play, 94-yard drive with a 14-yard TD pass on a screen to running back David Fluellen, widening the margin to 28-17.

Clausen answered with TD passes on back-to-back third quarter possessions, hitting a streaking Williams down the right sideline for 73 yards and a wide open Micheal Spurlock over the middle for 22 yards, giving the Bears a 31-28 lead.

Trailing 34-28, the Eagles reached the Bears' 33 with :02 remaining. But cornerback Demontre Hurst tackled receiver Quron Pratt at the 19 after a 14-yard reception as time expired.

"It turned out to be the type of game we are going to have throughout the year, these 58-plus-two games," Trestman said. "It's going to take all 60 minutes to win them. It's good for our football team, and good for the guys. It was very encouraging from that standpoint."

Eagles Fall To Bears In Opener, 34-28

Friday night provided a lot of what the Eagles' coaches hoped for - teaching moments.

The Bears defeated the Eagles in the preseason opener by a 34-28 score at Soldier Field, but the end result isn't the most important aspect of the game. It was the first opportunity for the Eagles - both veterans and rookies, alike - to get into a game situation for the coaches to evaluate.

There were plenty of reasons for optimism.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez engineered two touchdown drives in his Eagles debut with both scores coming on runs by Matthew Tucker of 4 yards and 1 yards, respectively, in the second quarter. Sanchez finished the night 7-of-10 for 79 yards.

The Eagles posted 21 points in the second quarter after rookie wide receiver Josh Huff returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. Rookie free agent David Fluellen caught a screen pass from Matt Barkleyand ran 14 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to put the Eagles ahead 28-17.

The tight end group, as a whole, was strong. Zach Ertz led the entire team with four catches for 60 yards. James Casey had three catches for 33 yards.

Safety Nate Allen registered an interception as he got the start alongside Malcolm Jenkins. Linebacker Marcus Smith II, the first-round pick, had a nice tackle in space to take down wide receiver Josh Morgan for a loss of a yard.

Now, there are also things the Eagles need to clean up as they allowed 17 unanswered points to finish the game.

Quarterback Nick Foles saw two of his three drives on Friday night end with an interception. Foles' first interception came after a penalty wiped out a first-down reception by tight end Brent Celek. On the next play, Foles was under pressure and he forced a ball that sailed into the hands of safety Ryan Mundy. The second interception came as Foles threw into a crowded area of two receivers and it was nabbed by Bears cornerback Sherrick McManis.

Foles finished 6-of-9 for 44 yards.

The Bears did a good job of isolating Zach Miller on a linebacker as the veteran tight end hauled in two touchdown receptions. Cornerback Jaylen Watkins had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment after he missed the jam on Chris Williams and the receiver went past the rookie defensive back for a 73-yard score. Second-round pick wide receiver Jordan Matthews hauled in four receptions, but also had a couple of drops.

The Eagles are back in action Sunday at Franklin Field for the final Open Practice of Training Camp.

Cassel Crisp As Vikings Down Raiders

Matt Cassel was crisp from the start, giving Teddy Bridgewater a model touchdown drive to watch.
Bridgewater showed his age, aside from a few flashes of brilliance, and that's the early snapshot of the starting quarterback competition.

Cassel went 5 for 6 for 62 yards, and the Vikings broke in their temporary new home stadium for the next two years by beating the Oakland Raiders 10-6 in the exhibition opener on Friday night.
"Any time you can come down and score on your first drive, that's what you're trying to accomplish," Cassel said.
Bridgewater relieved Cassel at quarterback after one series, and the rookie's first name was rhythmically chanted during his first two snaps by a crowd eager to see the first-round draft pick in action. Playing into the third quarter, Bridgewater's debut was mixed at best: 6 for 13 for 49 yards, two sacks and one fumble the Vikings recovered.
He said he didn't notice the fuss from the fans.
"I felt pretty good. There were some missed opportunities, but I'll be able to come back next week and play more aggressive," Bridgewater said.
Coach Mike Zimmer agreed.

"There were a couple times in the game where he just didn't act like a veteran," Zimmer said. "Things happened that he hadn't seen before. So those are all great experiences for him. But he made some great throws."
Matt Schaub's first time in silver and black wasn't exactly smooth, either. The latest attempt by the Raiders to stop the quarterback carousel from spinning, Schaub finished 3 for 7 for 21 yards.
Schaub played three series, all three-and-outs.
"We were pretty sloppy," Schaub said.
Derek Carr, the second-round draft pick from Fresno State, took over in the second quarter and was only slightly more productive with and against the backups. Carr went 10 for 16 for 74 yards, but his high throw on the run to Jamize Olawale slipped through the fullback's hands and was intercepted by Kurt Coleman.
"He's a young QB, and he'll learn to keep the ball low because if he drops it, it goes to the ground," Coleman said.

Third-string quarterback Matt McGloin had a late 10-yard touchdown scramble. Darren McFadden had a 23-yard run, the only real highlight by a Raiders starter, leaving coach Dennis Allen disappointed.
"I thought we'd come out sharper than that," Allen said.
The acquisition of Schaub from Houston was just one of many moves during a busy offseason for the Raiders, and he's coming off a rough year. With three seasons of at least 4,000 passing yards for the Texans, though, Schaub has the potential to stabilize this long-unsettled position.
Since Rich Gannon won the NFL MVP award and guided the Raiders to the Super Bowl after that career year in 2002, the Raiders have had 17 different quarterbacks start at least one regular season game. Schaub will be the 18th in September, barring injury for the 33-year-old.
Both teams escaped without significant injuries, which is always the primary goal of these preseason contests. Raiders backup defensive tackle Justin Ellis walked slowly off the field with a head injury. The Vikings also announced backup safety Mistral Raymond was being evaluated for a head injury.
Not only was this game in purple for Zimmer, but it marked the start of a two-year stay at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota for the Vikings while their new fixed-roof facility is being built to replace the Metrodome downtown.

The Vikings played here once before, on Dec. 20, 2010, eight days after the Metrodome's roof was ripped open and toppled by a snowstorm. That game against Chicago was moved into the winter weather. The cold could wait for another day, though, on this picturesque summer night with a kickoff temperature of 81 degrees and a hazy sunset distracting from the penalties, punts and dropped passes once the second and third stringers took over for good. The Raiders were penalized 13 times for 94 yards.
With Adrian Peterson resting, Matt Asiata capped the opening drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Bridgewater took the Vikings another 10 plays on his first turn, setting up a 30-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
The Vikings were concerned enough about the safety spot next to Harrison Smith that they signed veteran Chris Crocker this week. With Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo all sitting out with injuries, Coleman got a chance for extended action at that position, another entry in that crowded field.

Raiders Fall to Vikings 10-6 in Minnesota

RB Latavius Murray returned K Blair Walsh’s opening kickoff to the Oakland 20. The Raiders went three and out and P Marquette King’s punt was returned to the Minnesota 30.
The Vikings started with Matt Cassel at quarterback. RB Matt Asiata capped a 70-yard drive with a 1-yard TD plunge and the Vikings took a 7-0 lead with 8:27 left in the 1st quarter.

The ensuing kickoff flew out of the back of the end zone for a touchback and the Raiders started at the 20. The Raiders went three and out after another drive hampered by a penalty and King came on to punt. WR Adam Theilen returned the punt to the Vikings 46.
The Raiders defense finally forced a Walsh field goal attempt. The 30-yard kick was good and the Vikings led 10-0 with 54 seconds left in the 1st quarter.
Murray fielded the ensuing kickoff in the end zone and took a knee for a touchback. The Raiders started at the 20. The Raiders managed one first down on a 23-yard burst from RB Darren McFadden before King was called on to punt a third time.
Theilen returned King’s punt to the Minnesota 43. LB Sio Moore’s sack of rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater forced a punt. P Jeff Locke’s punt was fair caught by WR Denarius Moore at the Raiders 11.

Rookie Derek Carr entered the game at quarterback for the Silver and Black. Carr’s promising first drive ended when a pass bounced off the hands of FB Jamize Olawale was intercepted by S Kurt Coleman and returned to the Vikings 39.
The Raiders defense held and forced a Locke punt. The Vikings were unable to down the punt at the Raiders 1 and the play was ruled a touchback. Carr and the Raiders offense took over at the 20 with 1:48 left in the 2nd quarter.
The Raiders were unable to mount a scoring drive and punted the ball back to the Vikings. The Raiders forced a three-and-out and Locke came on to punt with 19 seconds left in the 2nd quarter. WR Denarius Moore fielded the punt and was dropped at the Raiders 19. Carr took and knee and the Vikings took a 10-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“Well, we’ve got to clean up our play. We had too many mistakes. The penalties are killing us right now, especially on third down. We had a couple of chances to get off the field and we had penalties on defense," Head Coach Dennis Allen said at halftime. "Offensively, we started our first two drives of the game, on the first play we get a penalty and it puts us in a backed up situation. We’ve got to clean that up. We’ve got to clean the penalties up. I’ve seen some good things but the penalties are really hurting us right now.”
RB Jerick McKinnon returned the K Sebastian Janikowski’s 3rd quarter kickoff 28 yards to the 22. The Vikings settled for a 53-yard Walsh field goal attempt, which went wide right. The Raiders took over at the Oakland 43.
The Raiders drive stalled and King came on to punt. King’s punt was downed at the Minnesota 7. After yielding a couple of first downs, DE Ryan Robinson and DT Ricky Lumpkin combined for a sack that forced a punt. The 31-yard punt was downed at the Raiders 25.
The teams traded punts late in the 3rd quarter. Matt McGloin entered the game at quarterback for the Raiders with 1:05 left in the 3rd. The Raiders drove into Minnesota territory and settled for a 44-yard K Kevin Goessling field goal attempt. The kick was blocked and Minnesota took over at the 15.
The Raiders forced a Locke punt. WR Greg Jenkins called for and made a fair catch at the Oakland 32. McGloin appeared to have something going but the drive fizzled and King came on to punt. King’s punt rolled dead at the Vikings 12.

The Raiders held the Vikings to a three and out and Locke came on to put deep in his own end. The Raiders took over at their 44 after a punt and a penalty. McGloin scored on an 11-yard scramble to get the Raiders on the board. The two-point conversion failed and the Raiders trailed 10-6 with 1:25 left in the game.
McKinnon returned the pooch kick to the 15. The Raiders forced a three-and-out and Locke came on to punt with 26 seconds left in the game. Jenkins called for and made a fair catch at the Oakland 34.
The Raiders Hail Mary attempt was batted down as time expired and the Vikings secured the win. The Raiders return home to face the Lions Friday night at O.co Coliseum.

Bizarre Ending Results in 26-24 Loss Against Saints

The Rams got their preseason off to a decent, relatively healthy start on Friday, dropping a 26-24 contest to the Saints on Friday night.

As an exhibition game -- especially the first one -- the score does not matter as much as the way the teams played, and the individuals who made an impression.

LONG ARMS

Veteran defensive end Chris Long is firmly entrenched as one of the most important pieces of the Rams’ defensive attack. But new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has said that he’d like for Long to get his hands up more when he’s rushing the passer. Apparently, the big defensive end has been listening.


On the first drive of the game, Long came rushing from the left side, got his arms up, and picked off a short Luke McCown pass to give the Rams the ball at the New Orleans 47.

“I think [we] played pretty good,” linebacker Alec Ogletree said. “We definitely have to still work on our run things and stuff. But overall, we had a turnover and it went good for us.”

Long wasn’t in much, so it was one of the few plays he even had a chance to make. Robert Quinn did not see many snaps either, checking in for only a couple of third-down passing situations. But Long’s big interception certainly made it look like the Rams’ defensive front is picking up right where it left off.

FIRST ROUND EXPECTATIONS

Yes, Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald have lofty expectations attached to their names. And yes, they both looked impressive in their first live NFL action -- even though you won’t see that reflected in the box score.


Donald repeatedly broke through the offensive line to cause some disruption in the backfield. It was easy to see his high motor, and why so many have been giving him so much praise.

On the other side of the ball, Robinson started off the game at guard before moving over to tackle later in the first half. While at tackle, Robinson made a terrific block to spur running back Benny Cunningham for a 19-yard run. The big man cleared a gaping hole on the left side for Cunningham to burst through for the big gain.

“Without seeing the tape, it’s really hard for me to comment specifically, but it looked live like he was doing OK,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “He was making adjustments in the run game. When he got to tackle, it didn’t look like he had any issues with the protection.”

There’s a long way to go before even the regular season. But both first-round picks cleared their first hurdle with ease.

OTHER STANDOUTS

Cornerback E.J. Gaines had a particularly strong first half, especially tackling. The sixth-round pick made a big stop near the goal line early, and another nice tackle on the sideline later in the half. The rookie lit up Twitter as well, with plenty of fans happy about how the rookie looked in his first NFL action.

“It went real well for me,” Gaines said. “Just trying to get back into the feel of things, playing an actual game. It’s been a while.”

Gaines finished with a team-leading six total tackles on the game.

And it would be remiss not to mention seventh-round pick, Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay athlete to play in an NFL preseason game. Sam played at left defensive end for most of the game and had a couple moments, including a QB hit in the second quarter.

“It was amazing,” Sam said. “As a child, I never thought I would be here. And when I took my first snap, it was amazing. It’s a dream come true.”

LEFTOVERS

…The Rams got through the game reasonably healthy. But Fisher announced after the game that converted tight end Mason Brodine had suffered a fractured ankle. The injury ends Brodine’s season.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Fisher said. “We switched Mason over to tight end early in the offseason, and he did just a tremendous job working and learning the offense. Had a chance to help us and be a swing player for us.”


…Tight end Cory Harkey finished off the Rams’ first drive with a touchdown reception reminiscent of his big scoring catch against the Saints last season. Harkey again caught the ball in the flat and ran it a good chunk of yards for six. The differences? In this game, Harkey ran it down the left sideline and he could’ve driven a Mack Truck through the clear space on that side of the field.

…It took him a little while to warm up, but Tre Mason showed why you might be excited to see him play this year. The third-round pick broke off a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter to put the Rams in New Orleans territory, setting up an Austin Davis touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Austin Franklin.

“It was good to get my feet wet out there,” Mason said. “Now I know what to expect.”

…Officials told assembled St. Louis media last week about the new points of emphasis for the season, and they were enforced during Friday’s contest. There were four flags thrown for defensive holding, and three flags for illegal use of hands in the game.