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How much should we put into third preseason games?

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By Eric Edholm

Generally speaking, NFL teams tend to play their starters more in their third preseason games than any other.

So shouldn't we then put more stock into what they do in these games heading into the regular season?

In some cases, yes. In others, not as much.

Here's a quick run-through of the biggest issues that came from this week's games (minus Broncos-Steelers, which is later tonight) and which teams should be more concerned than others:

Rams: The passing game looked fully developed, and the protection of Sam Bradford was good.

Verdict: This was a promising development, but the season-ending injury to Donnie Avery is a bad sign for a WR corps that seriously lacks talent now.

Patriots: The pass defense was a big sore spot, and the pass rush was very spotty.

Verdict: The Patriots' defense looked better, much better, in the first two preseason games, so I am hesistant to make too much of it. But the coverage was poor, and there will be games when the rush just isn't there to make up for it.

Packers: What a performance by the offense, which looked lethal even without WR Greg Jennings. The special teams appeared improved, too.

Verdict: What you see is what you get. The Packers will be this year's Saints, scoring in batches. Aaron Rodgers could be the league's MVP. And I was encouraged by the special teams, which I thought might be their Achilles heel.

Colts: Peyton Manning was non-plussed by the officials' calls during the two-minute offense, and the defense was gashed at times no matter what it threw at the Packers.

Verdict: Expect the officials to get some sort of memo about "over-calling" some of these procedural penalties; remember, it's preseason for the officials, too, and they're attempting to adjust to a new position of the official. As for the defense, it was pretty shocking to see, but likely an aberration.

Falcons: The defense stood up extremely well against the Dolphins with starting QB Chad Henne in the game. The young players made big plays in big spots.

Verdict: There has been growing sentiment that the defense is ready to step up. (Interestingly, the offense has taken a few steps back, it appears.) Curtis Lofton and Lawrence Sidbury had big games, and the entire unit should be better this season. They get two big QB breaks in Weeks One (no Ben Roethlisberger) and Two (no Kurt Warner) before head to New Orleans to face Drew Brees and the Saints.

Dolphins: The run game — the team's bread and butter — was not effective as the offensive line was overmatched by the Falcons.

Verdict: Tony Sparano should get these guys in order for the start of the season, but it might not be a dominant group at any point. There will be games where the Dolphins run the ball very well, but I susupect there will be others where they have real trouble with it, too. At least Henne and Brandon Marshall hooked up for a few big plays.

Jets: The first-team offense hasn't looked good in any of the three games. You can say what you want about vanilla play calling, but this is not the way the team would have liked to execute this preseason. The Jets turned it over four times in the loss to the Redskins.

Verdict: There's genuine concern about the team's ability to move the ball consistently. Mark Sanchez has been sub-par. He must make more plays and be less erratic. But with this defense, the offense does not have to be a world-beating group.

Redskins: Donovan McNabb missed the game with an ankle injury, and he could miss the opener, Mike Shanahan said today. Few pass-catching threats have emerged.

Verdict: Although I think McNabb will play Week One against the Cowboys, I think he'll struggle in the game and in the early part of the season with so few weapons at his disposal. I like the tight ends, and Santana Moss will make 3-4 plays a game. But who is next on the totem pole? Devin Thomas? Anthony Armstrong?

Saints: Could Chris Ivory be the Saints' latest rags-to-riches running back? Is Jonathan Vilma's injury going to be serious?

Verdict: Ivory has a chance to make it, but he has been given a lot of chances before and hasn't always made the most of him. Still, his 76-yard zig-zagging reception against the Chargers shows he has NFL-type skills and could be a diamond in the rough. Vilma's injury was scary but appears to be relatively minor.

Chargers: The defense missed opportunities at making big plays. There are questions about depth after losing players in the offseason.

Verdict: The offense will make up for some deficiencies on defense, and overall the "D" remains a pretty good unit. Plenty of quality defenses have looked bad against the Saints. There is not a major concern here, I don't think.

Eagles: Kevin Kolb's struggles continued, as pass protection was shaky.

Verdict: Even with the offensive line getting healthy finally, I am not ready to bury this issue. I expect the Packers to come after Kolb until the Eagles show they can protect him. As for Kolb struggling even when he had time this preseason, this is not going to be an instant hit. I like his prospects long term, but he might not dominate immediately.

Chiefs: The offense struggled again. Despite the addition of some playmakers, there hasn't been a lot of noise yet.

Verdict: The Chiefs remain a work in progress, but I am starting to wonder if Matt Cassel is the guy there. He is right now, but all bets are off if the Chiefs start slowly. Jamaal Charles can't fumble and expect to get more carries than Thomas Jones.

Lions: For all the positives on offense, the defense continued to struggle.

Verdict: I wouldn't be fooling anyone to suggest that the Lions won't be very good defensively this season. Their best chances comes if that defensive line dominates opponents and can make up for deficiencies on the back end. But that isn't going to happen every week. Still, the offense gives them chances to beat teams. It's going to be fun to watch them with the ball this season.

Browns: See Lions, above.

Verdict: It's hard not to be encouraged with the offense, but the defense remains a sore spot. They only can scheme their way to success so much; it's clear the talent is not all there yet. I expect some moderate improvement as the season goes on, and the Browns are slightly better than people realize, but the defense will continue to hold this team back.

Bills: The offense has scored 59 points combined the past two games and has shown some real signs of life.

Verdict: C.J. Spiller has been as advertised, and though Trent Edwards was 13-of-17 passing for 153 yards against the Bengals, I am not sure he's going to be a top-16 quarterback. You will see bursts from Spiller, who will be a factor in the passing and run games, but after that it's going to be a patchwork unit. I am more encouraged than I was two weeks ago but not convinced that things are dramatically better.

Bengals: Carson Palmer and the receivers showed signs of life after a slow start to the preseason.

Verdict: This is to be expected, considering that Terrell Owens was added to the mix late and that rookies Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham are trying to get up to NFL speed. The Bengals have an intriguing mix of talen on offense, and now that Palmer looks healthy and steadier, they could take off if they are consistent and avoid turnovers.

Jaguars: The run blocking continued to struggle, and the pass rush was noticeably absent again.

Verdict: Things will get better now that the starting O-line is back together and that Maurice Jones-Drew will return in Week One from a precautionary absence. But the pass rush could remain a problem. Having all three starting linebackers out hurts, but are those players sure to provide the rush the team needs? Yet to be determined.

Buccaneers: Josh Johnson filled in fairly well for Josh Freeman and showed he has some NFL-caliber skills.

Verdict: Could Johnson push Freeman at some point? Yes, but the job will be Freeman's in Week One, assuming he's healthy. His thumb could prove to be an irritation, but if Freeman doesn't make enough strides, the Bucs could turn to Johnson and be in good shape. Johnson might never be a 16-game starter, but he has some interesting skills worth keeping around.

Giants: They had just five first downs in the first half, struggled to run the ball and had no answer for the Ravens' passing attack.

Verdict: As Vinny DiTrani wrote, "If this indeed was the dress rehearsal, the play should close before it even opens." It felt like a total dud of a game, with neither the offense nor defense bothering to show up. So do we chalk it up as one bad game? Or worry there are trends here? I suspect the defense will be far better than it showed against the Ravens, but the offensive inefficiency is something to follow.

Ravens: They slung the ball well with Joe Flacco, continuing their pass-proficient ways of the preseason.

Verdict: The Ravens will throw more this season. And better. Flacco has hit a peak in his third season, and Anquan Boldin changes the way teams defend the Ravens. Dicing up a good secondary such as the Giants' gives high hopes for this trend continuing.

Cowboys: The first-team offense has been abysmal: can't run, can't pass, can't block.

Verdict: There has to be concern here, even if the problems are corectable, as Tony Romo said. The line needs to get healthier and better. RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones look faster, but they have had no room to run. And Romo can't throw when he's getting snowed under. But Romo deserves some role in this, too. He has not been sharp through the first three preseason games and must get into a groove once Dez Bryant gets back.

Texans: Arian Foster continued to make believers by the day with another strong rushing effort.

Verdict: Everyone knows how badly the Texans have sought a lead runner to spearhead the ground game. Foster just might be this guy, although I think he needs help. I don't expect him to hold up for an entire season with constant pounding, though I do think he'll have some very nice performances along the way.

Vikings: Brett Favre has some nice moments with his new receivers, Javon Walker and Greg Camarillo.

Verdict: Call me a skeptic, but I am not ready to proclaim Walker NFL-ready after catching a TD pass against the Seahawks. He has been a tease almost every play he has taken in the NFL since 2006, so one nice catch isn't going to change my mind yet. I need to see way more. Camarillo, however, could be a 50-catch guy. Favre clearly overestimated his speed on the interception, overthrowing him by a good yard or two, but Favre should find Camarillo open quite a bit underneath this season once he picks up the offense.

Seahawks: Earl Thomas has a fantastic game, but the offense sputtered.

Verdict: Thomas is a fine player, though we have to mention the fact that Bernard Berrian gift-wrapped his 86-yard TD return on the interception that went right through his hands and into Thomas'. The offense? Well, there's a lot of work to do. The run game lacks an identity (though I think Justin Forsett will win the No. 1 spot) and the passing game has been too up and down. The offensive line is a big reason why. Expect more of that early in the season.

Panthers: The first-team offense still hasn't scored a TD, but the defense has stunned its three opponents with 18 sacks.

Verdict: They will meet in the middle. The offense will improve with Steve Smith, Jonathan Steart and Jeff Otah back, and the defense won't come close to keeping up its six-sacks-per-game pace. But I think we're talking about an underrated team either way. Free-agent-to-be John Fox is coaching pressure-free this season, and it will show.

Titans: Chris Johnson struggled, as did Vince Young, but the run defense was strong.

Verdict: No need to worry about Johnson. Young, he should be fine as well, although as we've seen, he will have a clunker here and there. But I am encouraged by the run defense, which will need to be sharp in Week One against the Rainders, who plan to play physical football this season. The Titans played disciplined football against the Panthers' run game, a very positive development.

Cardinals: The QB job remains open after both Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson threw for touchdowns.

Verdict: I think Leinart will win the job. But I don't think that will be the end-all-be-all decision. At some point, Ken Whisenhunt is bound to make a change. They just have too much invested in Leinart now and have to give him a shot to take the job and run with it. It's just that I am of the opinion he won't fully take advantage of that opportunity.

Bears: Jay Cutler struggled with off-target throws, and the defense turned in a so-so effort.

Verdict: The defense remains a concern, despite talent there. I just don't think it will perform up to its capabilities every week and will face a suddenly dangerous Lions offense in Week One. As for Cutler, who knows? You'll see glimpses of greatness, but in no way do I think he will suddenly stop throwing interceptions at such a high rate. He doesn't value possession enough, although Mike Martz has never worried about picks as long as he's scoring points. Problem is, the offense has been uneven at best so far and points have been hard to come by.

49ers: The first-team defense allowed three touchdowns, and the team committed 10 penalties.

Verdict: I am not convinced, unlike the rest of the natural world, that the 49ers are destined for greatness, even though I do have them winning the NFC West. And it's because they are prone to bouts of inconsistency, which makes me prone to doubt their credentials. I expect them to be a good but not great team this season and that their mistakes will cost them at times.

Raiders: The defense missed some tackles, and QB Jason Campbell suffered a neck stinger that looked scary for a moment.

Verdict: First part last. Campbell should be fine. I expect to see him out there Week One against the Titans. The Raiders' tackling this preseason has been a bit spotty, and it is one big thing that will prevent them from being the great defense they think they are capable of. Expect at least one change: Mike Mitchell could bounce Michael Huff at safety. Huff now has been beaten twice this preseason on long runs and appears to be a vulnerability. The rest of the unit should be more consistent, I believe, without him.

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