I like to follow a couple of teams through pre-season alongside my own Bengals and the major storylines. This will include the team being featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks as that gives you a chance to see all of the games that you get the highlights of and gives me an in to a team I don’t know.
So this year I am following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thanks to them being on Hard Knocks, and the LA Rams who happen to have been last year’s Hard Knocks and Amazon’s All or Nothing team, but mainly I’m watching the Rams this pre-season to see how their new head coach Sean McVay does in turning around their offence. Even if at thirty-one he is making me feel like I’ve done nothing with my life…
I will pick up the week two games next week, but what have I learnt in the first two Hard Knocks episodes and the week one pre-season games?
Well, this years Hard Knocks has mostly been good fun with a strong cast of characters. I’ve been impressed with Jameis Winston who is clearly invested in trying to be a good leader for his team. Not only is he working hard and making his way round the whole team, but the moment that was eye opening to me was when he approached a group of smiling linemen during the Buccaneers game against the Bengals and almost quietly dropped a line about being glad they were enjoying themselves but that Ryan (Ryan Griffin, backup quarterback fighting for a roster spot with newly signed Ryan Fitzpatrick) was injured. It was an effective way of making his point.
Winston is still searching for the right blend of risk taking and protecting the ball, a discussion we saw him having with head coach Dirk Koetter, but only time will tell if he can find it.
Winston is not the only player showing leadership, and it was a surprise to number 49, Riley Bullogh, to be singled out by Koetter in a meeting about displaying leadership, since he was their third string mike linebacker. Most teams don’t carry three mike linebackers if they play a 4-3 defence, but I was impressed not only with the way Bullogh has been portrayed on Hard Knocks, but also with the way he played and he also managed to catch the eye whilst I was watching the game against the Bengals. I think he may well make the team.
Sadly, we’ve already had our first painful cut, and it is always hard to watch someone go through this, but second year kicker Robert Aguayo seems to have struggled ever since being picked in the second round by the Buccaneers last year. He was an incredibly accurate kicker in college, but whether it is the pressure of being such a high round pick for a kicker, or simply the reality of kicking in the NFL, he has not managed to be consistent in the NFL and although he was picked up on waivers by the Chicago Bears, it hard to know if he’ll be able to turn things round. The problem is likely to be that this narrative will follow him around, as will the questions about his career, and you would have to be incredibly tough minded to set this aside when you know it will keep following you. I hope he turns things around, but only time will tell.
I’ll pick up other players as we go forward, the duo of new signing DeSean Jackson and establish receiver Mike Evans have featured heavily and should provide Winston with a nice balance on offence, but the other player who seems to be a genuinely good guy as well as a wrecker of offences, both in practice on game day is Gerald McCoy. Seeing this seven-year veteran carrying others pads around, dressed in a kimono, and testing the waters of what is an acceptable celebration has been a lot of fun. It’s always nice to see a different side of players who you so often only get to see in a helmet and pads.
So as the Buccaneers played and lost to the Bengals, what is there to say about the team from Cincinnati?
Well apart from getting a win, the Bengals offence line seemed to hold up and there were promising signs on offence, although you can only tell so much in pre-season. However, with a running and passing touchdown, third string quarterback Jeff Driskel made a claim that the Bengals should keep three quarterbacks on the roster this season. Given the number of receivers that they might want to keep, this could be difficult as the Bengals have only been keeping two recently, but I suspect Driskel would get snapped up by another team if they tried to stash him on the practice squad.
It is hard to say too much about pass coverage when you only have the TV copy to watch, but on defence the pass rush did catch the eye, particularly Jordan Willis although Carl Lawson looked good as well and I think both players could help add and an extra pass rush element to the defence this season. However, the pass coverage in the middle of the field was soft, and this is definitely something to keep an eye on.
So if the Bengals looked solid, how did the LA Rams go in their first game against the Dallas Cowboys?
Well the major thing that struck me on the offensive side of the ball was ball security. I suspect this will be a point of emphasis in the coming weeks as the ball was put on the ground a lot. Fumbles and drops hampered the team, and although McVay won his first game, there is still a lot of work to do. That said rookie running back Justin Davis caught the eye when he wasn’t fumbling with his burst and ability to make defenders miss, and so if he can secure the ball he could become a useful backup to Todd Gurley. Only time will tell if the o-line will play better through the season, but it was certainly strange to see Andrew Whitworth playing in the blue and white of the Rams. I’ll need to see more of second year quarterback Jared Goff to form any serious opinion, but he hasn’t shone yet and that has to be worrying given what the Rams gave up to select him number one in the 2016 draft.
Still, the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins last week and it will be fun to see if Watkins can stay fit this season, and if he can help the Rams turn round their passing attack.
The defence for the Rams looked good though, they seemed to be picking up the defence of new co-ordinator Wade Philips quickly and this was without Aaron Donald, although I will be interested to see how the disruptive tackle lines up in Philips’ 3-4 defence.
This leaves with one final point to make about the pre-season so far before I start catching up with the week two game, the Rams switch to the blue and white helmets with the white face-masks is definitely a good one as they look great.
Who says you do not learn anything in pre-season!