0 of 9
Roger Steinman/Associated Press
The dress rehearsals are in the books.
Two games Sunday put the finishing touches on the all-important third full week of the 2018 preseason.
OK, as important as exhibitions ever get.
In most cases, this is the week in which starters see the most action. And sure enough, the Cincinnati Bengals left the first-team offense on the field for a while in Buffalo against a Bills team with a major question to answer.
The Bengals were in midseason form. The Bills are trying to decide who their quarterback is—and if it matters.
The nightcap featured the Arizona Cardinals traveling to Dallas to face the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. In a game in which Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson all took the night off, offense was optional.
By optional, I mean nonexistent—especially for Dallas.
However, it wasn’t all bad news for the Cowboys. A youngster who has made more appearances on the suspended list than in the box score stole the show early, and we’ll begin our rundown on the final day of dress rehearsals with that pass-rusher.
1 of 9
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Since the Cowboys selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft, Randy Gregory has been more of a cautionary tale than an impact player. Over the last two seasons, he has played in a grand total of two games. He has more career suspensions for failed drug tests than career sacks.
“The team they are on a whole another schedule. They want to help you. I am thankful I had the team as opposed to being on another team where they would say, the kid’s messed up, let him go. I think the team has dealt with enough players in similar situations and mental states that they are kind of used to it and know what to do about it.”
It looks like the Cowboys may be about to get some return on their investment and patience.
In Sunday night’s matchup with the Cardinals, Gregory was next to unblockable. He blew past left tackle D.J. Humphries for a first-quarter sack and was in the backfield more times than you can count.
The showing made a believer of Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. “If Randy Gregory plays a full season,” Machota tweeted, “he’ll finish with double-digit sacks.”
It’s a big “if.”
Gregory hasn’t played in a regular-season game since January 2017. And he’s on thin ice with both the Cowboys and the NFL. If he fails another drug test, his next suspension could be measured in years—plural.
But Gregory’s clean now and looked fantastic against the Redbirds. If he can generate consistent pressure opposite Demarcus Lawrence, that Cowboys front four could get frightening quickly.
2 of 9
John Grieshop/Getty Images
No player in NFL history has run a faster 40-yard dash at the scouting combine than Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross. His 4.22 a year ago got the young burner drafted in the first round.
Making a grand total of zero catches as a rookie got him labeled a bust.
Ross is trying to shake that classification in Year 2. He’s had a good enough summer that the Bengals parted ways with veteran Brandon LaFell.
Ross kept that momentum going into Sunday’s dress rehearsal at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It didn’t take long for him to make an impact. On Cincinnati’s first play from scrimmage, Ross got behind the defense, caught a long pass from Andy Dalton, put on a couple of moves and scampered into the end zone from 57 yards out.
It wasn’t a perfect day—Ross dropped a catchable pass later in the first quarter. But with two receptions for 66 yards and that score on four targets in the first half, Ross demonstrated his ability to take the top off a defense while playing opposite A.J. Green.
Plus, he’s dirt cheap in fantasy football drafts this year—like last-round cheap.
3 of 9
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
If Sunday was any indication, they should be.
Cincinnati’s defensive front gave the Bills fits—to the tune of five sacks in the first half alone. The Bengals were all up in Josh Allen’s business from the get-go, whether it was veteran stars such as defensive tackle Geno Atkins or youngsters like Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis.
This is a defensive front that could do some real damage. It’s not just the talent level of guys like Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals are also deep along the defensive front. They can churn players such as Lawson, Willis and rookie Sam Hubbard in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh.
Being able to unleash rested players throughout a game can make a big difference—especially when those players are good at what they do.
Allen found that out the hard way in Sunday’s 26-13 defeat.
4 of 9
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Sunday’s matchup was supposed to provide some clarity regarding the Bills’ cloudy situation at quarterback. With AJ McCarron nicked up (collarbone), rookie Josh Allen got the start.
If he played well, Allen could’ve made up head coach Sean McDermott’s mind.
It didn’t take long to realize this plan had hit a snag.
At first glance, it appears as though Allen blew his audition. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft completed just six of 12 passes for 34 yards in the first half. He was sacked five times.
That last part is the big takeaway. Simply put, Allen didn’t really have a chance. The Bengals destroyed Buffalo’s offensive line, and the rookie dropped back just in time to get hit.
Nathan Peterman had a better go of it, connecting on 16 of 21 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown. That performance came with the twos, but it may have been enough to insert Peterman back into the mix to start against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 9.
Of course, unless the line starts playing a lot better in a hurry, it won’t matter if it’s Allen at quarterback. Or Peterman. Or McCarron, for that matter.
The result will be the same—and it won’t be good.
5 of 9
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
This one comes with a Texas-sized caveat—the Cowboys rested both Prescott and Elliott on Sunday night.
Even so, the Arizona defense deserves some credit for feasting in the first half.
It wasn’t that Dallas managed just 116 total yards before halftime. Or that Arizona held the Cowboys off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. It’s that the Cardinals played the takeaway game with aplomb—again.
The Cowboys turned over the ball three times in the first 30 minutes alone. Both of Arizona’s touchdowns were the direct result of turnovers—a fumbled punt recovered in the end zone and a Patrick Peterson pick-six.
Peterson and linebacker Deone Bucannon were especially good. In addition to that interception, Peterson forced a fumble. Bucannon led all Cardinals in the first half with eight total tackles and chipped in a sack.
The first-half takeaways lifted the Cardinals’ total tally to 11—in 10 quarters of exhibition action.
If that carries over into the regular season, look out.
6 of 9
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Extended playing time for youngsters is one of the things fans can look forward to in preseason games—a glimpse into the future, if you will.
In that regard, Cardinals fans expected to get another long look at No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen on Sunday night.
They wound up disappointed.
Considering how Glennon played, Rosen’s grip on the backup job may have been solidified.
A strong argument can be made for playing it safe with the 21-year-old quarterback the Cardinals hope is the future at the position, but Rosen’s opportunities for game reps were already limited. Now, they’re just about gone.
Given Bradford’s extensive injury history (and the real possibility Rosen will play in 2018 as a result), the kid can use all the practice he can get.
7 of 9
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Over eight years in the NFL, Eric Decker caught 439 passes, piled up over 5,800 yards and found the end zone 53 times. He surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in a season three times.
There won’t be a fourth. As ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported, Decker announced his retirement Sunday on Instagram:
“It has been my childhood dream and my passion to play the game of football. I was very fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to have those dreams fulfilled and to have played with such extremely talented and hard-working teammates, coaches and staff. This has been a passion inside of me since I was a little boy but I know now it is time to hang my helmet up and start a new chapter in my life. I love football and always will. It will continue to be a part of my life.”
The 31-year-old Decker, who signed with the New England Patriots earlier this month, had his best seasons with the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. He caught 54 passes for 563 yards and a touchdown with the Tennessee Titans in 2017.
8 of 9
John Froschauer/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Rams are a trendy Super Bowl pick in many circles after they added several veteran stars in the offseason. But a dark cloud has been hanging over the team—the contract holdout of defensive lineman (and reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Aaron Donald.
It looks like the sun is finally about to break through.
As Mike Florio reported for Pro Football Talk on Sunday, Donald and the Rams are nearing an agreement on a megadeal that will make Donald the highest-paid defensive player in league history. The contract is believed to be in the neighborhood of $22 million per season, with $80 million in guarantees.
It’s nice work if you can get it.
On one hand, paying any non-quarterback that sort of cabbage puts a unique strain on a team’s salary cap. The Rams have handed out several big contracts of late (Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks), and there’s still the matter of Jared Goff’s looming whopper of a deal.
Still, Donald’s arguably the most dominant defender in the game—a terror rushing the passer and dominant against the run.
Getting him on the field puts the Rams that much closer to their goal in 2018—a trip to Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
9 of 9
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The last thing any team wants is to see a player get seriously hurt in a preseason game.
That’s what happened Saturday night at EverBank Field to Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee, who took a helmet to the knee against the Atlanta Falcons and had to be carted off the field.
If Lee’s not done for the year, it’ll be a near-miracle.
The injury (and how it happened) was a big topic of conversation Sunday, and Jags cornerback Jalen Ramsey (who isn’t known for being shy) made it clear he’s not happy.
But as Ryan Day reported for SB Nation’s Big Cat Country, Ramsey doesn’t blame Falcons safety Damontae Kazee for what occurred. He blames the NFL—and the new rule regarding leading with the helmet:
“It sucks. We are going to have to play for him. You can’t be mad at 27 [Damontae Kazee]. You have to be mad at the NFL; not mad at them but that is how the rule is. People are scared to tackle normal because I guess they don’t want to do helmet-to-helmet and get flagged. That was not even flagged and [you could] potentially get thrown out of the game. Game-changing stuff could happen. You don’t really want to blame anyone, but you feel bad for him. I don’t know, man, that’s just tough to see it happen to one of my teammates, period. But you can’t really blame 27.”
Ramsey does have a point. If players are afraid to go high for fear of drawing a flag, that leaves…going low. And when tacklers go low, injuries like Lee’s are going to happen.
If there’s anyone on the face of the Earth who doesn’t hate the new rule, they’re keeping a low profile.