Monthly Archives: August 2014

Notes: Newman role model; Third-and-denied; Bruises pile up

Mohamed Sanu salutes his teammates Saturday night.

As good as the first teams looked on Saturday night, the second teams did not look so hot in the Bengals’ 25-17 loss and it was said all three coordinators looked as if they had swallowed a lemon.

“I’m very disappointed,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “After the ones went out, it looked like nobody had practiced. It’s disappointing.”

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther threatened the backups with their very jobs, proclaiming he was still looking for rosters spots 19-25. That’s about all that’s left because his ones have allowed only two field goals this preseason.

“They have plenty of good guys around this building to learn from,” Guenther said. “They see how it’s done the right way all the time. Fast , efficiently, and they go in there and they lose their minds. They panic…We have to get them better.”

One of the guys they should be learning from is the ageless one, cornerback Terence Newman. Less than three weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Newman blew up one Jets drive when he dropped running back Chris Johnson for a five-yard loss on a flare pass. He stopped another drive when he picked off a Geno Smith pass with the help of safety George Iloka’s blitz and then got his team into field goal range when he ignored the Jets’ foolishness following the interception and let them get the personal foul.

He could thank himself for the play on Johnson.

“I’ve seen that play quite a few times, when the back flares right now and the quarterback takes a little drop,” Newman said. “I literally watched the film in my locker today and saw that play two or three times.”

That’s the kind of preparation Guenther is talking about getting from his backups, the backups that promptly gave up 81 yards and two touchdowns to the Jets first teamers in a span of eight minutes in the second quarter. But Newman gave Guenther the credit for the interception: “I was in the right place and it was the perfect defense. I didn’t do anything. All credit goes to Paulie G.”

But that’s not why Newman threw him the intercepted ball after the two Jets offensive linemen were called for personal fouls for taking shots at Newman after the play.

“He told me he was going to get a pick tonight,” Guenther said. “He threw the ball from midfield through a crowd of people. Yeah, I caught it.

“He’s damn good. He’s a great pro. He takes care of his body, He asks good questions. He’s a leader in our room.”

A great enough pro that Newman let the Jets get the personal foul as he walked away and let his teammates cover for him. Half of the Jets’ 12 penalties were personal fouls or unnecessary roughing calls on the offense and the Bengals defense had none.

“I don’t want our guys to back down from anybody,” Guenther said. “But at the same time, we don’t respond.”

Guenther can only hope his backups start emulating starters like Newman.

THIRD AND DISAPPOINTMENT:  Jackson’s joy of converting a third-and-one for a touchdown lasted less than three minutes. On third-and-one from the Jets 23, running back Giovani Bernard got blown up by nose tackle Damon Harrison, which would indicate rookie center Russell Bodine got beat but no one had looked at film to know.

Whatever, they didn’t make it and Jackson was furious.

“If we hadn’t screwed up the other third-and-one I thought we could have scored again,” Jackson said. “We’ll definitely fix it. We should make third-and-one. We’ll look at how we called it, how we blocked it.”

Bodine had a holding call on the previous drive.

MO-MOMENTUM:  Andy Dalton and Mohamed Sanu were the two best players of training camp, so it was fitting that they hooked up on Paul Brown Stadium’s first TD of the season from 46 yards out. Sanu chalks up his camp to another year wiser.

“I’ve gained more experience. My body feels that much better than the year before,” he said. “It heals a lot better. I trained really well this offseason. And I’ve got another year under my belt. It’s knowing how to attack defenses, knowing how to be a better football player.”

MORE HUE: Jets head coach Rex Ryan wasted no time blitzing first-year quarterback Matt Scott from the blind-side with his first team defense against the Bengals backups. Bang. Fumble. Boom. Jets ball at the Bengals 19. Boff. The Jets score their first TD two minutes later.

With Jason Campbell on the bench (bruised elbow), backup quarterbacks Matt Scott and Tyler Wilson (with no regular season games between them) really struggled on 15 of 35 passing for less than a 100 yards, one interception and five sacks.

“I don’t blame him. Again, I’m not mad at Rex for what he decides to do with his team, you know?” Jackson said. “I’m disappointed in our offense that we didn’t get it stopped.”

INJURY ROUNDUP: Head coach Marvin Lewis thought the only significant injury coming out of Saturday was running back Rex Burkhead’s knee, and that appears not to be a season-ender.

But they had plenty of guys leave, starting with their first two picks, cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hip) and running back Jeremy Hill (shoulder). Two other draft picks also came off, fifth-round linebacker Marquis Flowers (ankle) and wide receiver James Wright (hip). Pro Bowl WILL backer Vontaze Burfict go his shoulder checked out, but was cleared to return. Linebacker JK Schaffer, coming off a concussion, went out for good after a hit to the head.

Payton sends message to Graham, team

NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton has talked in the past about the importance of “creating a crisis” to get his team’s attention. It’s something he learned from mentor Bill Parcells and a tact he used in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIV when he gave some of his New Orleans Saints players a tongue-lashing for arriving late to a meeting.

Well, whether he wanted it or not, Payton got his crisis on Friday night in one of the uglier New Orleans Saints outings I can ever remember — preseason or otherwise.

The Saints committed 22 penalties, which led to a Payton postgame tirade that channeled some of former Saints coach Jim Mora’s classic rants.

And the ugliest moment of all came during a sideline shouting match between Payton and star tight end Jimmy Graham after Graham was twice penalized for dunking after touchdowns.

It was a disturbing moment. Payton’s reaction was expected — players naturally get chewed out after penalties. It’s why some of us were following Payton with our binoculars from up in the press box after Graham jogged off the field.

But Graham’s emotional reaction was unexpected. As veteran teammate Zach Strief said, Graham had to know the tongue-lashing was coming. But as Strief also said, Graham is an emotional player who obviously feels strongly about protesting the new anti-dunking rule that took away one of his signature emotional outlets.

Graham chose to avoid the media on Friday night, exiting the locker room as reporters arrived. So I won’t try to put any words in his mouth or even try to guess whether his frustration goes beyond his thoughts on the NFL’s new penalty.

But I’ve always respected Graham as a player and a person, as a hard and determined worker and as a good locker-room guy and favorite of coaches. So I don’t anticipate him allowing this issue to fester any more than it already has.

As for the issue of the Saints’ sloppy play — those 20 other penalties that had nothing to do with dunking — I’ll rank that as mildly disturbing.

It’s not something we’ve seen from the Saints consistently in the past. They have a smart, veteran team for the most part, with a proven, veteran coaching staff.

And you can be absolutely certain that the players and coaches will be sent a message through more tirades to come behind closed doors.

“We’ll find ourselves at the short end of a game and then wonder about our offseason goals and what happened. And we won’t know exactly when it happened,” Payton said, making it clear that there’s nothing harmless about a crisis in Week 2 of the preseason.

“We’ll say, ‘Hey, when we get to the regular season, it’ll clean itself up,’” Payton said. “That’s silliness.”

Juan Castillo Gains Trust With Offensive Linemen


As Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo enters his second full season, he notices a change.

Castillo was added to the coaching staff in early 2013 as the Ravens went on their Super Bowl run. He took over the lead of the offensive line the next year, and implemented his proven blocking techniques and teaching methods.

While Castillo had used them to chrun out Pro Bowlers in Philadelphia for 16 years, the changes were new to the Ravens’ offensive linemen.

On Thursday, Castillo was asked how he would compare this year to last.

“I think the important thing for any coach, I think is the players knowing you and really trusting you,” Castillo said. “And I think that happens through time. I think the guys, now, they’re getting to know me a little bit, and hopefully they trust me.”

Amidst fans and on talk radio, Castillo was often the scapegoat for the Ravens’ running problems last year. In reality, there were a lot of issues that went into it.

There were injuries along the offensive line with Kelechi Osemele (back) going down for most of the season. Center Gino Gradkowski was starting for the first time in his career. Running backs Ray Rice (hip) and Bernard Pierce (knee/shoulder) also labored throughout the entire season.

The Ravens were last in the NFL with just 3.1 yards per carry last season. They were 30th in rushing yards per game (83.0) in part because they had to largely abandon the run game and turn into a spread offense.

After the season ended, Head Coach John Harbaugh stuck by Castillo. The only change was in title, as Castillo went from being the run game coordinator to offensive line coach, a position previously held by Andy Moeller before he left for Cleveland.

New Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak will now coordinate the run game. He brings his tried-and-true zone run scheme that the offense will hang its hat on. And that scheme fits Castillo’s mentality well.

“The biggest thing is [Kubiak runs his plays] over and over and over,” Castillo said. “It becomes natural. Your linemen get a good feel for it, and also your back gets a good feel for the reads. Not everybody is committed like that to a certain scheme.”

Castillo is always teaching. At the start of practice, when many players are still going through warm-ups, Castillo has his group working on individual drills, exploding and pushing each other off the line.

“There’s never been a problem with Juan’s coaching style,” Harbaugh said in June. “It’s just a lot of hard work, a lot of reps. He likes to see us do it over and over and over again until we’re not thinking about it. That’s just how we do it – we grind.”

The run game should have more of a chance to flourish because Kubiak is dedicated to it, which was evident in the first preseason game. The Ravens’ first opening touchdown drive was perfectly balanced with five runs and five passes. Baltimore ran 48 times for 237 yards, a staggering average of 4.9 yards per carry.

“We stay committed to the run game this year, which is a good thing,” guard A.Q. Shipley said. “If we run it the first play and it doesn’t get 5 yards, [Kubiak] might run it again. It gives us more opportunities as opposed to if you don’t get success on first down then we’re straight into passing all the time.”

Kubiak wants physicality up front, and that’s what Castillo has been teaching.

“We’re trying to punish people,” Castillo said.

“As a defensive player, it’s tough when somebody comes off [the line of scrimmage] and hits you in the mouth and you have to make the tackle. As an offensive lineman, what you want to do is after you get that first hit, go ahead and finish.”

The Ravens worked a great deal on their run game on Thursday, the final official day of training camp, and they feel good about where it’s headed.

“We’re confident that we’re going to run the football,” Castillo said. “We’re going to come off the football, we’re going to finish and we’re going to be physical.”

That’s music to a lineman’s ears.

“I really like where they’re at right now,” Harbaugh said of the offensive line. “Our coaches have done a great job with them and I’m excited about where they’re going. Just like everybody else, we have to keep getting better.”

Tomlin: ‘Man that was great work’

The Steelers held their first of two practices against the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday and it was a good outing for both teams.

LATROBE, Pa. – It went just as Coach Mike Tomlin had hoped it would, a productive practice against the Buffalo Bills run in a professional manner, without the incidents that occurred when the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders recently held a joint practice.

“Man that was great work. Buffalo was a great dance partner,” said Tomlin. “We appreciate Coach (Doug) Marrone and that group and got a lot of things done. Similar work to what we’ve been doing in terms of structure of the practice and drills setup, but obviously a different sense of urgency, some different schematics and some different guys. It was really a productive day for us. In just a brief communication with Coach, I think it was a very productive day for them.

“I appreciate the professionalism from both teams and that’s what it’s about, too. I think we’ve got an obligation to show our professionalism. I thought both teams did a great job of that largely.”

There was the normal aggressiveness that comes with a practice of this sort, with the defenses always wanting to impose their will, but the practice generated nothing more than a little extracurricular activity that quickly passed.

“I thought it was great practice. I thought there was great etiquette,” said Tomlin. “I appreciate the restraint and professionalism by both teams. I think that doesn’t get reported often enough. We like to turn on the TV and see gory, unfortunate incidents like what happened between Dallas and Oakland, and we’re here to prove that teams are capable of coming together and doing it in a productive and professional manner. I compliment both teams for how they did it today.”

Tomlin said one of the biggest advantages to the joint practice was the increased intensity it generated, giving it a different feel than when you go against your teammates.

“What it does is you only get so many practice opportunities and practice days, and it raises the level of intensity and urgency up a notch,” said Tomlin. “I think anytime you can do that with a football team it helps. So I really don’t compare it to in-stadium work. I compare it to a non-practice against another football team.”

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger probably had a different take on the practice than some of his teammates as quarterbacks don’t take shots in the live hitting, but he liked the work that got done against the Bills.

“It’s good for other guys that are hitting people and getting hit. For me it’s not a lot different,” said Roethlisberger. “It’s going against a different defense, a defense that we will see not only in the preseason but a 4-3 defense that our defense doesn’t run very often.”

Roethlisberger thought it had a definite advantage for some of the younger receivers and backs on the team, giving them a new look than they have become used to during camp.

“Going against new guys is good,” said Roethlisberger. “You go against the same guy every day and learn how he is. To have a new defensive back to go against is good for them.”
The Steelers sustained a few bumps and bruises in the practice, but also long snapper Greg Warren left with what could be a potential significant injury according to Tomlin.

“Will Johnson went off with a hamstring strain of some description, doesn’t appear to be significant,” said Tomlin. “We’ll take a look at him. Will Allen, same thing. A potential significant one is Greg Warren. He went off with a leg injury. He’s being evaluated (and I) don’t know the extent of that at this time. I’ll have a better update for you, I’m sure, tomorrow.”

Camp report: Pollak getting to know center again

The Bengals padded up one more time Tuesday before playing the Jets Saturday at 7 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium and they unveiled their healthiest offensive line yet.

Right tackle Andre Smith looks to be in the last days of his concussion protocol after suiting up but not participating in team drills. The left side of the line was intact with tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Clint Boling. And Mike Pollak continued to do what he’s been doing the last couple of days and playing center with the second group.

Pollak (knee) didn’t work all spring and after coming back in training camp, had to take another week off because of swelling. Given that Pollak is viewed as a valuable backup at both guard and center, and given that they’re starting a rookie center in Russell Bodine, that had been a bit unnerving.

But after Tuesday’s practice Pollak, otherwise known as The Insurance Policy,  reported he felt good and is anxious to see how he comes out of Saturday’s game.

“I come out and ask where I am each day,” Pollack said.  “Whatever gets me in a role to get on the field. I just want to play where I can. I’m later in my career , I know my days are numbered. As long as I can get in there, that’s what I care about.”

The Colts took Pollak, an Arizona State center, in the second round of the 2008 draft. Since they had Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, they switched Pollak to guard and even though he feels he’s a more natural center he’s only played it in two blowouts during his previous six seasons in the NFL.

New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s style is a  throwback for him but he’s been working intently at it.

“The one thing is when we go up tempo, no huddle, that’s kind of what we did in Indy and it’s just getting that mindset,” Pollak said. “It’s not going to be an every game thing, that’s just one of the differences from last year.”

Pollak thinks Bodine is “going to be a good player down the road,’ and is impressed with how much he’s taken on. Yes, he has helped him with his shot-gun snaps that go awry on occasion. He understands why Bodine has been hesitant to adopt some of his style.

“When I got to Indy, Jeff Saturday kind of changed how I snapped the ball,” Pollak said. “I’m not going to push it on him. Each guy does their own little thing. It’s like  throwing mechanics. You want the guy to have his own mechanics. But if you can tweak something to help him, you do it.”

PLAYER OF THE DAY: Tight end Jermaine Gresham was a factor right from the first team snap of the day when he mixed it up a bit with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Voice of the Bengals Dan Hoard charted him for seven catches in the team drills.

He’s one of the reasons they think they can survive the Marvin Jones broken foot the first three weeks of the season. Gresham can line up outside or in the slot while stretching defenses, as can tight end Tyler Eifert.

He made some big catches in the No. 1 offense’s script. On one first-and-10 play, quarterback Andy Dalton got in trouble in the pocket, but kept the play alive sprinting to the perimeter and Gresham came back to help him on the sidelines, beating SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur just before stepping out-of-bounds.

On third-and-five inside the 10, Gresham got inside safety Danieal Manning and kept running to the flag in the corner and Dalton hit him in stride for a touchdown.

When they went goal line on third down from the 2, Dalton was three of five, the last a touchdown to a wide open Gresham off play action.

PLAY OF THE DAY: It was in a seven-on-seven drill, but it just shows you how smart and good cornerback Leon Hall is. Working against Dalton and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, Hall made a lightning quick interception in the middle of the field before Green could make his one final burst on a deep route.

“I was able to read Andy’s eyes….The defense we were playing made it a little easier for me,” Hall said. “I didn’t have to worry about the deep threat. I had help over the top.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: After covering a pass, cornerback Terence Newman looked to the sidelines and noted a NFL Network cameraman with flowing black hair and a major-league moustache.

“Hey Russell Brand,” Newman said. “I love your movies.”

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (hip) didn’t work. Defensive tackle Domata Peko dressed but didn’t work as he’s in the final stages of the concussion protocol. Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (ill) didn’t work, either, and the other to tackle, Geno Atkins, didn’t dress….

So the two D-tackles for the 1s were Devon Still and Christo Bilukidi, the two guys that seem to be in the hunt for that fourth and final tackle spot…

Right tackle Marshall Newhouse left in the field on a cart with an unknown injury late in practice…

Dalton, an estimated 22 of 35 passing, didn’t have the sharpest of days, but chalk up much of that to active defense. They were particularly disruptive with blitzes.

CB Darrin Walls Asks, ‘Why Not Me?’

When times get tough, like, say, when your third-round rookie cornerback tears his ACL and your starting corner has to be assisted off the field in visible pain with an ankle injury all on the same day, you need a guy like

Darrin Walls to make a move.

“I just feel like it’s an opportunity for guys to step up just like myself,” Walls said today after practice. “For me it’s just going into it with a positive mind, just going out there daily and trying to get better and just doing what I normally do. I think with those injuries now, it’s time for guys to step up, and why not me?”

Walls, entering his fourth season in the NFL, is listed third on the first depth chart released by the Jets this season at right corner behind Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson. But the depth chart at the CB position is a fluid one for the Jets. Rex said today that he considers Wilson to be a starter in the slot, which really leaves Walls No. 2 on the outside.

“I’m feeling pretty good going into my fourth season. I feel like I’m starting to become the player I want to be. I think I’m finally getting the confidence that I know I have to have to play the corner position. I mean, it’s a tough position, probably one of the toughest positions on the football field, so I feel like now I’m starting to get that confidence and develop to be a pretty good corner in the NFL.”

But to go from good to great, Walls must take his play to the next level.

“I wish Darrin could catch the ball a little better,” Ryan said Sunday. “He seems to lead the league in PBUs [pass breakups], so that’s something he’s working on, even after practice with Eric Smith [former Jets safety turned coaching intern]. Part of it, he does good and gets in position. Now to be a great one, you’ve got to be able to make those plays. I know he wants to be as good as he can be and he’s working hard at that.”

Each year Walls has spent in the league, he has gotten better, exponentially so in some categories in 2013. He played in 16 games last year, had 21 tackles (18 of them solo) and four pass deflections. But to get better, he must turn some of those PDs into INTs. Walls brought up his ball-catching ability today after practice at SUNY Cortland.

“I feel like last year I’d done a lot of good things and I did a lot of things that hindered me a little bit, but I feel like this could be a good year for me,” the Notre Dame alum said. “Every year I feel like I have gotten better and I found something to get better at. This year is just catching the ball.

Walls said he has been through his fair share of tough times, which is part of the reason he is able to relate to what Dexter McDougle, his rookie teammate, is going through so well. Despite the devastating injury, Walls is confident in McDougle’s ability to overcome it.

“Oh, yeah, he’s definitely in good spirits. I feel like he knows what’s ahead of him. He knows that his rehab process is going to be tough. He’s a positive kid himself, he knows he has to go through this,” Walls said. “He’s going through some adversity and I told him I’ve gone through some things in my life and you’ve got to come out stronger and I think he realizes that.”

Darrin’s strategy has always been to focus on the bright side of every situation, even in the face of the new challenges placed on the secondary with Sunday’s injuries. The new developments don’t change the mood in the secondary, but they also don’t warrant any reason to look back.

“I feel like we know that injuries happen in the NFL and you know it’s unfortunate that it happened to him. We’d love to have him out there,” Walls said. “He’s a great player, brings a good skillset to our secondary.

“But we’ve got to move on. We have to keep going and keep getting better every day. We can’t get back into ‘I wish we had this’ or ‘I wish we had that’ with him and Dee [Milliner] out. We need to be positive about it and make the best of the situation.”

“No setbacks” for Gronk; Sunday camp notes

When the Patriots went to Richmond last week for joint practices with the Redskins, they left tight end Rob Gronkowski behind. The big fella had been a regular attendee at every prior training camp practice this summer.

On Sunday, the first day back on the field in Foxborough, Gronk was back with his teammates and suited up in full pads, although he remained limited in the kind of work he could do.

Afterward, Gronkowski spoke to the media, insisting he had “no setbacks” last week while he focused on his rehabilitation with team trainers. He continues to work his way back slowly from a right knee injury sustained against Cleveland last December.

“Just a little time off to let the knee heal a little bit more. You know, you can’t always be grinding on it 24/7 off an injury. You have to let it heal,” he explained. “I’m feeling better since the time off, so, it’s going well. My body kind of needed it, my knee needed it, that rest, when they went to Virginia. It was good progress.”

Gronkowski’s training camp practices have consisted mostly of individual and position drills. He has yet to take part in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, but often works with QB Tom Brady and cornerback Darrelle Revis on red zone route-running and pass catching.

“It’s good just to have a defender out there, instead of running all my routes against air. To break off a guy right in front of you, just like it’s a game,” he continued. “Having Darrelle out there giving me a little contact, pushing me on my routes, it’s making me a better player. It’s basically more of a drill for me. He’s definitely learning, too, but he’s not going full-out.

“I’m going full-speed in the drills I’m doing, but they’re just limiting the drills I can do. Most likely, when I’m cleared for contact, it will be full-go, too.”

When that will be, however, remains a mystery. Gronkowski asserted that he and the team’s medical staff have no timeline for his return to full practice activity. He would only say repeatedly that he’s “getting better every day.”

Absentee Mallett
For the first time this summer, the Patriots practiced with just two quarterbacks. Brady and rookie Jimmy Garoppolo had to handle extra passing duty because Ryan Mallett did not take part. He didn’t even attend Sunday’s afternoon session.

Head coach Bill Belichick was asked afterward for the reason for Mallett’s absence.

“There’re all different players in different physical situations,” he responded, “so, I’m not going to get into all that. We’d be here all day.”

Belichick’s use of the word “physical” would seem to suggest, however, that Mallett is in fact dealing with some sort of injury, which may have been sustained at the end of the first half of the preseason opener at Washington. Mallett, who started the contest, did not return to the game after halftime.

Mallett wasn’t the only player who didn’t take part, but he still has a job with the team, unlike three rookies: running back Stephen Houston and tight ends Justin Jones and Asa Watson. They were released prior to practice. In their place, the team signed veteran tight ends Ben Hartsock and Steve Maneri, as well as rookie tight end Terrence Miller.

“We’re looking for guys that are improving and kind of when they stop making improvement, then sometimes you feel like you’ve got to move on,” said Belichick. “We signed three players that we feel like will be competitive, but we’ll see.”

The head coach also issued a statement Sunday, remarking on the retirement of former Patriots safety Steve Gregory, who was released by New England during the offseason. After trying to resurrect his career with Kansas City, Gregory announced last week that he was leaving the game for good.

“Steve Gregory was a true professional and a pleasure to coach,” read Belichick’s statement. “He was one of the most well-liked and respected players because everything he did was the right way, with a great attitude and in the best interests of the team. On behalf of the New England Patriots, we thank Steve for his contributions on and off the field and wish him our very best in the future.”

Nose to the grind stone
It seems the Patriots are reverting to their traditional 3-4 defensive front. After beginning camp in the 4-3, which they’ve run almost exclusively the past couple of seasons, New England started employing 3-4 looks against the Redskins in Washington last week.

When they have, second-year lineman Joe Vellano has seen plenty of action, both as a nose tackle and an end. Vellano made the 2013 Patriots as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Maryland.

“Year 2, you still have to bust your butt and work hard,” he said after Sunday’s practice. “I feel pretty good, knowing the majority of the [playbook] coming in. It’s a real big camp for me. Definitely, knowing you went out there and did some things [last year] you can build on. Trying to increase my role and do everything I can do, play multiple positions.”

The differences between playing defensive line in the 4-3 as opposed to the 3-4 may not seem significant to the untrained eye, but Vellano maintains otherwise. His experience at Maryland, where he said the Terrapins played both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, is helping him become a more versatile pro.

“You know, you move two or three feet [where you line up at the line of scrimmage], it doesn’t look like much, but it is a lot of different reads, [opponents] are on you quicker. Your footwork, your base [are different]. If you don’t get the reps, you have to learn off the guys in the classroom and learn from the guys playing the position ahead of you. You have to get a lot of mental reps, and the [on-field] reps you do get, you have to know all the calls and the techniques. The more you know, and the more positions you know, it’s just going to make you a better football player.”

Stock Watch
Buy: Bryan Stork – A no-show since being injured in the fifth practice, the rookie center finally returned to practice, albeit in a rehab role. He was, however, sporting a practice jersey as he took part in some warm-up activities, including snapping to the QBs as they loosened up before practice.

Sell: Ryan Mallett – After a dismal performance in the preseason opener, Mallett was not on the field at all for Sunday’s practice.

Play of the Day: During 11-on-11, rookie QB Jimmy Garoppolo had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage. Rookie defensive lineman L.T. Tuipulotu came down with the unlikely INT and rambled down field, drawing loud cheers from his teammates.

Jaron Brown and Friday before the Texans

It’s been hard not to notice that wide receiver named Brown during training camp. Then again, Jaron Brown has had a year under his belt to know what to do.

Sure, rookie John Brown is the breakout-star-in-the-making. And he’ll be on the roster. Jaron Brown, the 2013 undrafted man out of Clemson, has more of a fight on his hands. But this last week seemed to show that this J. Brown likely ends up on the roster as well. Part of it had to do with prepping for the Texans game, since Jaron will be part of that second group that figures to play a lot Saturday. He definitely has found a rapport with backup quarterback Drew Stanton. It felt like he was making a two to three nice plays a practice (including a couple of nice grabs Thursday, as you can see below). Better yet, Bruce Arians loves the fact that Brown not only plays special teams, but is big and rugged enough at 6-2, 205 to stick his nose in the middle of kickoff coverage.

Jaron Brown had a nice preseason last year as well, which got him on the team. He’s showing up again. Assuming Jaron Brown doesn’t get hurt, he seems to be playing from ahead for that spot on the 53.

– If Jaron Brown looks like the leader for the fifth receiver job, where does that leave others? Brittan Golden hasn’t been bad either, but after the Cardinals added Ted Ginn and John Brown, his speed is less needed. Sixth-round draft pick Walt Powell also has been solid with good hands. Perhaps he’s a practice-squad target. The Cardinals are not going to be able to keep them all.

– The Texans aren’t going to play wide receiver Andre Johnson or running back Arian Foster Saturday. Whether No. 1 overall draft pick Jadaveon Clowney plays seems to be up in the air. Clowney, dealing with an undisclosed injury, seems to think he will start. Texans coach Bill O’Brien refuses to commit to Clowney playing. Who says there’s no drama in the preseason.

– The starters are going to get about 15 plays, maybe two possessions. I would guess it will be determined by the success of the first possession for both sides of the ball. That’ll open up the vast majority of the playing time for the second- and third-units. Logan Thomas is going to play the last chunk of the game, and after his camp thus far — he’s gotten almost all of the third-team reps since camp opened — it’ll be a big test.

– Players to watch in the game? I’ll be curious to see how Bobby Massie looks at right tackle and how John Brown fits. I want to see how guard Jonathan Cooper does against someone who isn’t Calais Campbell. I want to see backup offensive linemen Max Starks — who has an inside track to the roster if he shows well — and Earl Watford. I want to see Justin Bethel at cornerback, Kevin Minter as he begins his starting role and rookies like Deone Bucannon and Kareem Martin on defense.

Mostly, I want to see zero injuries. In the end, that’s really the most important part of the preseason.

– Speaking of preseason, here’s a link to the reminders if you are going to the game. It is a sellout, so it will be televised on local TV, on ABC-15.

– The Cardinals will be off Sunday and back at (open) practice Monday at University of Phoenix Stadium.


Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick: Status quo

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It’s still Geno Smith and Michael Vick, in that order, for the New York Jets. There were no competition-tilting developments, no spectacular plays for either quarterback Thursday night in the preseason opener. But there’s your story, especially from the Smith angle: He didn’t do anything great, but he also didn’t suffer any “Oh no, Geno” moments that he had in 2013. And that’s progress for the Jets because, a year ago, they watched with horrified expressions as Mark Sanchez opened the preseason with a pick-six on a screen pass.

The most definitive statement anyone can make after the Jets’ 13-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts is that Vick is keeping the pressure on Smith, the presumptive starter. Vick led the starting offense to a touchdown, and Smith didn’t, so maybe the anti-Geno crowd can try to turn that into a groundswell of Vick support. At this point, that would be a reach. This remains Smith’s job to lose. On opening night, he didn’t do anything to lose it. Even Vick acknowledged that, saying he doesn’t think he will be rewarded with additional first-team reps in practice.

“No, I don’t expect that,” Vick said. “I think the most important thing is to continue to build on what we’ve created, building blocks on the foundation. We can’t regress.”

Smith started the game, played two series (11 plays) and put a field goal on the board. His stat line (4-for-6, 33 yards) doesn’t matter, really, because the most important number for him was zero turnovers. That can’t be overstated, coming off a 25-turnover season. He was under duress at times, most notably on a third-down play from the Colts 33-yard line, but he threw the ball away instead of taking a sack or forcing a pass into coverage. Maybe, just maybe, that one little play is a sign of maturity.

“We were in field goal range, so you just want to keep points on the board,” Smith said.

The Smith-led offense failed to score a touchdown, and that makes two weeks in a row (if you count last weekend’s intrasquad scrimmage), but this wasn’t a train-wreck performance by any means. Coach Rex Ryan praised Smith, saying he played “extremely well.” If Ryan wasn’t satisfied, he wouldn’t have removed Smith after only two series. Sure, he wanted to get the ball in the end zone, but he saw enough for one game. Naturally, next week they need to see more.

“I thought he did a great job,” Ryan said of Smith. “He stepped up in the pocket a couple of times and protected the ball. I’m really pleased. I’m also pleased with Mike as well.”

Vick received a rousing ovation when he entered the game — as rousing as it gets in a half-empty stadium in the preseason — and he gave the fans a few moments to cheer. Basically, he did what he’s been doing for more than a decade, running faster than the defensive guys. He scrambled for 19 yards, including a 15-yard dash on a third-and-9. In his only series with the starters, he orchestrated a 14-play, 80-yard drive, ending with a 1-yard touchdown run by Chris Johnson. He hit a third-down pass and hit one on fourth down, too, looking very much like the savvy vet.

For the first time since training camp opened, Vick got more first-team reps than Smith. It’s interesting, but don’t read too much into that.

“I felt all right. It could’ve been better,” said Vick, who completed three of six passes for 17 yards. “I wanted to get some throws down the field, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So we’ll see what happens next week. There’s always next week.”

Next week, the Jets go to Cincinnati, where you’d expect Smith to start and play the entire first half. The Geno Plan should continue. They haven’t reached the point of no return, but it’s approaching.

Can Geno’s Fun Fridays yield fun Sundays?

CORTLAND, N.Y. — By the end of last season, Geno Smith was down to 210 pounds, his lowest weight since his sophomore year at West Virginia. He lost his appetite, cut back on weight lifting because of a wrist injury and — let’s be honest — the job-related stress didn’t help. As his interception total grew, his waistline shrunk. He dropped almost 10 pounds, falling into a Manziel-ian weight class.

“I was losing weight, barely eating on game day, just being so anxious and so ready,” Smith recalled this week during a break at the New York Jets’ training camp. “I was banged up, too, but I fought through it and was able to finish strong.”

That he did, but the second-year quarterback applied some Darwin as he plotted his NFL future: He realized the sport truly is a survival of the fittest, deciding he needed to be bigger, stronger and faster to better cope with the grind of a 16-game season.

So Smith vacationed for only a week after the season, reporting to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, in January for a six-week program. Basically, he went to work on his body a few months before the Jets’ coaches went to work on his mind in the offseason program, which began in April.

The new Geno will be unveiled Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets open the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts. The organization has placed its faith in Smith, and now he gets a chance to justify it. It’s the start of a grueling, 20-week journey, and Smith is convinced he’s in a better place, mentally and physically. He added muscle mass in the offseason, pushing his weight into the 220- to 225-pound range.

“I’m definitely stronger and I feel a lot faster on the football field,” he said. “Maybe that’s just a bit of confidence I’m having, making me play faster. I definitely feel faster.”

Smith said it’s the hardest he trained in two years. After his final season at West Virginia, the focus was on draft preparation — the scouting combine, his pro day, personal workouts, etc. Like all incoming rookies, his overall conditioning probably slipped. He sprained an ankle in training camp, which also set him back. That he made it through 16 games, not losing any time to injury, was a small miracle.

“I took a beating,” he said.

Now the expectations are higher. Going the distance no longer is the primary objective; thriving is the goal. In the offseason, Smith concentrated on improving his leg strength. He’s squatting 50 pounds more than a year ago, which should help when he’s trying to break free from pass-rushers.

At IMG, Smith spent several hours a day in the weight room, ran hills with a parachute attached to his back and participated in what were billed as “Fun Fridays.” But as he said, “It wasn’t really that fun.”

With a bungee cord hooked to his waist, he pulled a 40-pound weight or a sled through a series of agility tests. There were six stations, each one lasting 30 seconds. Example: He’d sprint 10 yards, backpedal, sprint again, backpedal … and so on — with 40 pounds of resistance.

And it was on to the next station, no rest.

“It really helped me build up my lung capacity, my wind,” Smith said. “It makes me better on the football field, and I don’t get tired. I don’t feel as fatigued during practice or after practice.”

Smith was the fastest quarterback at the 2013 combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, so we’re not talking about a statue in the pocket here. Nevertheless, he wanted to add speed, knowing the plan is to continue what he started last December, when he turned up the aggressiveness. He ran more frequently than he did early in the season, adding another dimension to the offense. He finished with a team-high six rushing touchdowns.

Former teammate Brady Quinn believes Smith’s improved conditioning, coupled with the presence of Michael Vick, will make him more dangerous as a runner.

“There’s a knack to running, and [Vick] will give him a different perspective,” said Quinn, who spent part of last season on the Jets’ roster. “He’ll teach Geno how to see the windows when they open, and when to tuck it and run. There may be no better mentor for him.”

Smith blew away the coaches when he showed up for the offseason program in April.

“He’s just faster, he’s faster than he was,” quarterbacks coach David Lee said recently, adding that he received texts from Smith — pictures from Florida of his parachute sprints. “His body is stronger. He’s been in that weight room, so physically he’s faster, stronger and he’s lost body fat. When you do all that, your mind is right — and his mind is right.”

Once training camp began, Lee instituted his own conditioning program for the quarterbacks. Three days a week, after practice, they stay behind and sweat — a lot. They run gassers, sprinting around cones, and finish by throwing seven passes into a net, trying to hit a target. The idea, of course, is to overcome fatigue and maintain accuracy. Most games are won or lost in the fourth quarter. Smith threw more interceptions (seven) in the fourth than in any other quarter.

A new season starts Thursday night, and Smith expects those “Fun Fridays” last winter to produce Fun Sundays in the fall.

“That,” he said with a smile, “will be a good headline.”