All 32 NFL clubs will hit the field this week as the first full slate of NFL preseason action takes place, bookended by nationally televised games on ESPN on Thursday and Monday nights and five nationally televised games on Friday and Saturday on NFL Network – including the network’s first-ever live tripleheader.
“You have to use preseason games as indicators because throughout the whole training camp we’ll just be knocking heads against each other,” says new St. Louis Rams head coach STEVE SPAGNUOLO. “When you’re able to stack yourself up against somebody else, that’s when you get a better indicator of where you’re at and what you have.”
All that “stacking up” comes this week packed with interesting storylines:
•ARIZONA at PITTSBURGH (Thursday, ESPN, 8:00 PM ET): A Super Bowl rematch highlights the first full weekend of preseason games. Six months have passed since Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay, but the memories are still fresh for both squads.
“They’ve been playing it on NFL Network, so I’ve seen a lot of the clips, and it brings back a lot of the things that I remember from it,” says Cardinals head coach KEN WHISENHUNT, who will take over offensive playcalling duties full-time in 2009.
But the preseason is not about looking back at last season, it is when hope springs eternal and teams look to “own the moment” in the upcoming campaign.
“The ’08 Steelers are the ’08 Steelers,” says Steelers head coach MIKE TOMLIN. “We’re here team-building for ’09. We’re going to be blue-collar and humble and start the process of building our football team.”
The Arizona Cardinals are also building for 2009, but they already have plenty of offensive pieces in place. The KURT WARNER-led aerial attack, featuring the 1,000-yard wide receiver trio of LARRY FITZGERALD, ANQUAN BOLDIN and STEVE BREASTON, added first-round running back CHRIS “BEANIE” WELLS into the mix to shore up the ground game.
Warner’s counterpart, Pittsburgh’s BEN ROETHLISBERGER, who has the most wins in NFL history for a quarterback in his first five seasons (51), looks to start off the next five-season span the right way.
JAMES HARRISON, the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, is definitely intent on starting anew in 2009. “I actually feel better now than I did coming in the previous year,” he says. Look out opposing quarterbacks!
•CAROLINA at NEW YORK GIANTS (Monday, ESPN, 8:15 PM ET): The NFC’s top-two playoff seeds in ’08 look to build on the foundations they laid last season. While both teams can air it out, those foundations were built from the ground up.
The Giants’ No. 1-ranked rushing attack looks to team up 1,000-yard rusher BRANDON JACOBS with a replacement for departed 1,000-yard rusher DERRICK WARD (Tampa Bay). Youngsters AHMAD BRADSHAW, DANNY WARE and ANDRE BROWN aim to fill those big shoes. Carolina’s dynamic duo consists of DE ANGELO WILLIAMS and JONATHAN STEWART, who combined for 2,351 yards, the best of any backfield tandem since 1984.
“It’s such a long season,” says Giants general manager JERRY REESE. “If you have a couple of pretty good backs it always helps.”
Both teams take on a new dimension in the passing game. Giants QB ELI MANNING will have a multitude of young receivers competing behind STEVE SMITH and DOMENIK HIXON, including MARIO MANNINGHAM, SINORICE MOSS and first-round rookie HAKEEM NICKS.
Carolina is expecting even further improvement from the receiving corps, including third-year pro DWAYNE JARRETT. His play is anticipated to contribute to the already top-flight group headed by STEVE SMITH and MUHSIN MUHAMMAD.
•AMONG OTHER INTERESTING GAMES THIS WEEK:
◦NEW ENGLAND at PHILADELPHIA (Thursday, 7:30 PM ET): Two of the five teams with a .600 or better winning percentage in the past 10 years face off. Two-time Super Bowl MVP TOM BRADY makes his return for the Patriots (.688 winning percentage since 1999) against DONOVAN MC NABB’s Eagles (NFC-best 97 wins since 1999), who have appeared in five of the past 10 NFC Championship games.
◦ST. LOUIS RAMS at NEW YORK JETS (Friday, NFL Network, 7:00 PM ET): Defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches make their debuts as Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo returns to his old stomping grounds (The Meadowlands, where he was the Giants’ defensive coordinator from 2007-08) to face REX RYAN’s Jets and their new quarterback – fifth-overall selection MARK SANCHEZ. This game marks the first of five live NFL Network telecasts in a 30-hour span.
◦MINNESOTA at INDIANAPOLIS (Friday, 7:30 PM ET): Vikings fans get a chance to see ’08 NFL leading rusher ADRIAN PETERSON tune up at RB, while the Colts will trot out their three-time NFL MVP PEYTON MANNING, who looks to continue climbing the all-time charts in his 12th season. “Peyton is driven each day to succeed,” says Indianapolis rookie head coach JIM CALDWELL.
◦DENVER at SAN FRANCISCO (Friday, NFL Network, 10:00 PM ET): First action of the season for new Denver QB KYLE ORTON under first-year Broncos head coach JOSH MC DANIELS. He will face the 49ers, winners of four of their last five games in ’08 under MIKE SINGLETARY (who was one of two head coaches to go from interim to full-time this offseason, along with Oakland’s TOM CABLE). San Francisco quarterbacks SHAUN HILL (7-3 as a starter) and ALEX SMITH (No. 1 overall selection in ’05) battle for the starting job.
◦ATLANTA at DETROIT (Saturday, NFL Network, 4:00 PM ET): The first overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, MATTHEW STAFFORD will make his debut at Ford Field under new Lions head coach JIM SCHWARTZ. Stafford and the Lions will hope to replicate the success of ’08 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year MATT RYAN, who quarterbacks the Falcons. The Falcons improved by seven wins in ’08 and were one of seven teams to make the postseason after not qualifying the year before, the 13th consecutive season at least five teams have accomplished that feat.
◦CHICAGO at BUFFALO (Saturday, NFL Network, 7:00 PM ET): The second game of NFL Network’s first-ever live tripleheader features the Bears debut of All-Star QB JAY CUTLER and the home debut of Bills WR TERRELL OWENS. Owens caught two passes for 27 yards from QB TRENT EDWARDS in the 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. Edwards acknowledges that the preseason is “a good chance for me to get ready mentally and physically for the regular-season games.”
◦SEATTLE at SAN DIEGO (Saturday, NFL Network, 10:00 PM ET): These two teams have each won their division four of the past five seasons, and their climb back to West Division supremacy starts here. Seattle QB MATT HASSELBECK will welcome his new target WR T.J. HOUSHMANDZADEH, while the Chargers All-Star QB PHILIP RIVERS has no shortage of options for his high-powered offense.
So it’s time to match up with a “real opponent.” “Let’s get on the field and find out about this,” says Giants head coach TOM COUGHLIN referring to the beginning of the preseason. “There’s no sense in just talking about it, let’s just do it.”
HALL OF FAME GAME PARTICIPANTS GO FROM AUGUST TO JANUARY: At least one of the teams to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game has made the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons, starting with both the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins in 2001.