NFL Preseason Week 1: What to Watch for in Saturday's Matchups

Nick KostosContributor IAugust 9, 2014

NFL Preseason Week 1: What to Watch for in Saturday's Matchups

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Week 1 of the NFL preseason will wrap up Saturday night with four juicy contests, and each one is rife with questions.

    Here's what to watch for in Saturday's NFL preseason matchups, among many other storylines:

    • The Lions host the Browns in the most anticipated game thus far on the NFL calendar, and it'll be fascinating to watch rookie QB Johnny Manziel operate in a Cleveland uniform.
    • Two of the most successful franchises in NFL history, the Steelers and Giants, will tango at MetLife Stadium.
    • The Titans will seek to forge an identity when they host the Packers.
    • Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans, coming off a 2-14 season, take on Arizona in the nightcap.

Browns QB Johnny Manziel. Need I Say More?

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Since Day 1 of the 2014 NFL draft, we've been waiting for this. We've analyzed it more than the Zapruder film.

    It's dominated headlines. And it's finally here.

    On Saturday night, Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel—the artist known as Johnny Football—will make his highly anticipated NFL debut against the Lions in Detroit.

    NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport tweeted on Friday that he expects Manziel to play the second quarter and into the third after Brian Hoyer.

    I can't wait for it.

    Manziel is currently second on the team's depth chart behind Brian Hoyer. But let's be honest: Manziel is the better player and will end up starting more games in 2014 than Hoyer. There's no doubt about it.

    The hopes of the Browns franchise rest squarely on the right arm and legs of Manziel. He could rescue them from the doldrums and do it with flair.

Lions' Team Discipline

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Under the reign of deposed coach Jim Schwartz, the Detroit Lions earned a reputation as an undisciplined, immature football team.

    Whether it was senseless personal foul penalties or on-field ineptitude, the Lions were in dire need of a change after crashing and burning down the stretch of last season.

    Enter new coach Jim Caldwell, who is charged with evolving the club into a more mature unit.

    The Lions open their preseason campaign against the Browns, and it'll be noteworthy to watch how many times the team is flagged. Yes, there will be flags thrown, particularly with backups on the field, but will the Lions show more discipline?

    Caldwell must make sure the Lions play smarter football, or else he'll one day join Schwartz as an ex-head coach of the team.

Giants' Offensive and Defensive Lines

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Since coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning joined the New York Giants prior to the 2004 season, the team has found success when it has protected Manning and rushed the opposing passer.

    Last year, the Giants accomplished neither, and the team finished 7-9 and missed the postseason for the second consecutive year.

    This offseason, general manager Jerry Reese beefed up the offensive line, signing guards Geoff Schwartz and John Jerry, center J. D. Walton and tackle Charles Brown, and drafting center Weston Richburg in the second round.

    The moves did not pay dividends in last Sunday's Hall of Fame game against the Bills, as Buffalo's first-team defensive line trounced Big Blue's starting offensive line. It was a small sample size, though it was still disconcerting for Giants fans.

    As for the pass rush? The Giants are clearly hoping for a bounce-back season from defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who hasn't authored a solid campaign since 2011. There are also defensive ends Damontre Moore, Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers, but none are top-flight pass-rushers.

    The play of both lines will be heavily scrutinized throughout the preseason. If the Giants can't protect Manning or rush the opposing passer, they'll miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Pittsburgh's Rookie Class

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    In the humble opinion of this columnist, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert hit a home run during May's NFL draft.

    Players like linebacker Ryan Shazier (first round), defensive end Stephon Tuitt (second round), running back Dri Archer (third round) and receiver Martavis Bryant (fourth round) are among the greenhorns who should make an immediate impact this fall.

    Shazier, the fastest linebacker to enter the league since Brian Urlacher in 2000, will automatically inject speed and playmaking ability to an otherwise aging defense in desperate need of both. He and Tuitt are both in line for big roles, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com.

    Archer, the fastest running back at February's scouting combine (with a 4.26 second 40-yard dash), has the opportunity to shine, as does Bryant, who represents a big red-zone target (6'5") for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    These four neophytes will get their first taste of game action Saturday night when the Steelers visit the Giants. 

    And if the Steelers are to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, all four guys may need to be factors this season.

Can Titans QB Jake Locker Get the Job Done?

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker has failed to dazzle.

    He's also shown an inability to stay on the field, having missed 14 games over the past two seasons.

    And with the Titans having declined his fifth-year option, 2014 is Locker's equivalent of last-chance saloon in the Music City. 

    Locker has had all offseason to work with new coach Ken Whisenhunt, and he does have a solid offensive line in front of him. There is also talent at the skill positions, with rookie running back Bishop Sankey joining up-and-coming receivers Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter.

    This is it for Locker. If he can't stay healthy or if he plays poorly, he's done in Tennessee, and he might not ever start for another NFL team.

    His journey toward a contract extension begins Saturday night, when the Titans host the Packers.

Green Bay's Pass-Rushing Combination of Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has never had a pass-rushing partner quite like Julius Peppers.

    Peppers, who was signed by the Packers after being released by the Bears in a cost-cutting transaction, brings his 118.5 career sacks to Lambeau Field, and he'll join Matthews in terrorizing opposing quarterbacks this season.

    Over the past few years, it's been the defense that has let the Packers down. The offense, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has been consistently excellent. But with Peppers joining the unit, it's possible the defense could match the offenses's productivity.

    Matthews and Peppers will set their sights on Titans quarterback Jake Locker this Saturday night, but Locker won't be the only passer living in mortal fear of Green Bay's pass rush this season. That's the added dimension brought by Peppers.

Houston's Rookie Class

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Much like the Steelers, the Houston Texans absolutely cleaned up in the NFL draft. And their rookies will experience their first taste of NFL action Saturday night when the team plays in Arizona.

    The most exciting player to watch for is obviously defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the draft's No. 1 overall pick. Clowney possesses transcendent talent, pairing speed with sheer brutality. If he sparkles on the NFL stage, he'll join All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt to form the most devastating pass-rushing duo in the NFL.

    The Texans have other neophytes sure to make an impact as well. Second-round guard Xavier Su'a-Filo was heralded coming out of UCLA, while defensive tackle Louis Nix was a steal in the third round. 

    The club's quarterback of the future, Tom Savage, was plucked in the fourth round, and he'll get a long look against the Cardinals.

    The Texans' future will be on full display during the preseason, which is a prospect that should excite fans.

Cardinals Running Back Andre Ellington

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last season, Arizona Cardinals rookie running back Andre Ellington burst onto the scene, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and impressing with his electrifying speed.

    Now entering his second season, Ellington is the unquestionable starter in the Cardinals backfield, and bigger and better things could be on the horizon.

    Quarterback Carson Palmer is among those enthused by Ellington's progress, as he recently told Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:

    [Ellington is] so explosive, he’s so quick and then you want to put him in the pass game because he’s so good in the pass game. It’s so hard to predict, 'He’ll have x amount of yards, x amount of catches' because he is so talented in both. Selfishly I want to use him in the pass game, but selfishly I want to use him in the run game too.

    In that same piece by Urban, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians calls Ellington the "bell cow" of his backfield.

    Ellington will take his first step toward earning that status Saturday night when Cardinals host the Texans. If he thrives in that contest, it will surely be a sign of things to come.