Week 1 Game Previews
NFL Game Scout
The Sports Xchange
MIAMI DOLPHINS at HOUSTON TEXANS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS (Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts)
PREDICTION: Texans 31-15
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Dolphins better come prepared to stop the run and run the ball. Houston will look to set up high-percentage, play-action passes by pounding RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate early. And Miami can't afford to fall behind by more than a score with ultra-raw rookie QB Ryan Tannehill making his first career start behind a banged-up offensive line and minus dynamic playmakers. He'll face a slew of exotic blitz packages he's never seen before. RB Reggie Bush must have a big impact on the ground and as an outlet receiver.
FAST FACTS: Tannehill started just 19 career games at Texas A&M. ... Houston has won the past six meetings.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Earlier this month a few of the Miami Dolphins' leaders approached coach Joe Philbin about forming a leadership council that would allow the players to take more ownership of the team.
The rookie head coach told them he'd take it into consideration, but it appears he'll continue doing things his way. That might explain Philbin's plans to have captains voted on weekly by the coaching staff, which strays from what the Dolphins have done for at least a decade.
Philbin said this approach carries over from what he's done throughout his coaching career. The University of Iowa, the biggest college Philbin coached at, elects captains weekly. And the Green Bay Packers also take that approach until the playoffs, according to Philbin.
"That's kind of what I've been used to, and that's what I'm going to do at this point in time anyway," Philbin said.
Various veterans have spoken about the need for strong leadership, and it should be interesting to see who steps to the forefront on a weekly basis, especially during the season's rough patches.
"I hate talking about last year, but when we were losing games we did a good job of stepping up, coming together. Nobody gave up and we started winning games," left tackle Jake Long said referring to the 2011 season, where he served as a captain with linebacker Karlos Dansby.
"We still have a core group of guys who were leaders in that," Long said. "We just have to carry it over and we will."
The Texans aren't in panic mode, but they went to practice on Thursday with every starter healthy and on the field, and they left minus two of their best players.
Running back Arian Foster and outside linebacker Brooks Reed left practice with a third remaining. They were added to the injury report as limited participation.
Coach Gary Kubiak said Foster has a sore knee and Reed a sore hip. Both were sent to get treatment. Because of their treatment, they weren't available to the media. The club said Reed and Foster would speak to reporters on Friday.
"Precautionary reasons," coach Gary Kubiak said about Foster and Reed being sent to Reliant Stadium early. "Arian's knee is a little sore, so he missed like the last third of practice. Brooks' hip is a little sore, same thing with him. I expect those two guys are fine."
Kubiak expects Foster and Reed to play. If something happens and they can't play, Foster would be replaced by Ben Tate and Reed by Whitney Mercilus.
If Foster and Reed start against the Dolphins, as expected, the Texans will have a healthy lineup. They have two new starters on offense and one on defense from last season's 10-6 team that won the AFC South and lost in the divisional round at Baltimore.
Right guard Antoine Caldwell and right tackle Derek Newton are new starters on the offense. Most questions about the offense start with them. Caldwell was a part-time starter in the past. Newton, a two-year veteran, is making his first start against the Dolphins.
The new starter on defense is inside linebacker Bradie James. He plays next to Brian Cushing, the leading tackler last season who was voted MVP by his teammates.
There's less concern about James than there is about Caldwell and Newton. James is surrounded by talented and productive defensive players. Caldwell and Newton have to protect quarterback Matt Schaub and clear paths for Foster and Tate.
Can they do it? Fans will have to wait until Sunday to find out.
--ILB Karlos Dansby (right knee) practiced without limitations and should start on Sunday.
--OLB Kevin Burnett (back) practiced without limitations and should start Sunday's game after sitting out all of the exhibition season.
--OG John Jerry (right ankle) was limited for two straight practices but it looks like he'll play on Sunday.
--LT Jake Long (right knee) was limited for the second straight practice session but expects to play.
--OLB Koa Misi (back) was limited for the second straight practice session.
--OLB Jason Trusnik (ankle) was limited for the second straight session.
--OLB Bryan Braman (pulled hamstring), a reserve who excels on special teams, didn't practice Thursday. He may miss the Miami game.
--ILB Brian Cushing (bruised ribs) was limited in practice. He'll start against Miami.
--TE Owen Daniels (illness) was limited in practice but will start Sunday.
--RB Arian Foster (sore knee) was limited in practice but will start Sunday.
--FS Shiloh Keo (sore neck) was limited in practice but will play Sunday.
--OLB Brooks Reed (sore hip) was limited in practice but will start Sunday.
BUFFALO BILLS at NEW YORK JETS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS, Kenny Albert, Rich Gannon
PREDICTION: Bills 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills allowed 4.8 yards per carry last season, but believe they have upgraded their defensive personnel significantly. If the front seven can contain RB Shonn Greene, the only Jets quarterback to throw a touchdown pass in the preseason was third-stringer Greg McElroy. New York does have an unwrapped package in the Tim Tebow-led Wildcat, and a healthy Santonio Holmes. The Bills will also run the ball heavily with the combination of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, but coach Chan Gailey likes to spread the field. With WR Stevie Johnson not 100 percent and shadowed by Darrelle Revis, Donald Jones must produce in the No. 2 role.
FAST FACTS: Jackson averaged 137.6 yards from scrimmage per game last season. ... The Jets were the first team in 35 years to go through their first three preseason games without scoring a touchdown.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
With the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to the defense, expectations that the Bills can rush the passer with the best teams in the NFL are high.
But in Sunday's regular-season opener, expecting the New York Jets to drop quarterback Mark Sanchez back on every play and invite Super Mario and Co., to come and get him aren't every reasonable.
The Jets have promised to get back to the "ground and pound" offensive scheme that delivered back-to-back appearances in the AFC title game before last year's disappointing slide to 8-8. In two wins over Buffalo, however, the Jets were true to themselves, using Shonn Greene effectively and allowing Sanchez to manage the game. Greene ran a combined 32 times for 154 yards (4.8 average) in those wins. The Bills can't let that happen again.
"I pride myself on stopping the run," second-year defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said. "Stopping the run first, and making them a one-dimensional team. As a team I think we all gravitate to that, stopping the run and defending the pass. And I think that is where we are going with that. We are going to be ready to go."
Of course, the Bills are eager to see Williams go. He led the club with two sacks in the preseason but playing time was limited and opponents were vanilla.
"I typically really do not get nervous, but it does feel like my rookie year all over again," said Williams, who spent his first six NFL seasons with the Houston Texas. "It does feel like I got drafted again. I am pretty sure it will be a little anxiety (filled)."
The Bills are counting heavily on Williams and Anderson to make a difference and have paid heavily for that right ($58 million in guaranteed money). Williams, who has 53 career sacks, was off to a torrid start last year for the Texans with five sacks when he tore a pectoral muscle in Week 5 at Oakland. He was placed on injured reserve.
"It has been a long time (since I've played)," Williams said. "(I am ready) to get out here with these guys and get after it."
The Jets certainly acted like a team trying to take the ball out of the hands of Mark Sanchez during the offseason, when they hired a run-first offensive coordinator in Tony Sparano, flirted with Peyton Manning and then, after signing Sanchez to a mostly cosmetic extension, acquired Tim Tebow to serve as the change-of-pace Wildcat quarterback.
But when coach Rex Ryan sees Sanchez, he sees someone ready to take the next step and become the franchise quarterback the Jets have been searching for since Joe Namath was traded to the Rams.
"He's working as hard as anybody I've ever been around," Ryan said Wednesday. "I see him stepping up, challenging his teammates, all those type of things, not that you (wouldn't) expect it, but it's like this is him. You saw it coming. It's his fourth year.
"I mentioned this before: As a rookie he was looked at as a weakness on our football team, and I said there's going to be a day where he's looked at as the strength of our team and not a weakness. I think that day is right now."
Ryan continued to praise Sanchez during his press conference Thursday, when he said he was impressed with the initiative Sanchez took in meeting this spring with Chad Pennington, the ex-Jets quarterback who ran Sparano's offense with the Miami Dolphins in 2008.
"His motivation. I think, is much more than having Tim here or having other things," Ryan said. "This is a competitor, No. 1, and he wants to be great. And I think he's making strides to be that quarterback that we want here."
Of course, the public perception is a little different after Sanchez threw 18 interceptions and fumbled 10 times last year and after several months of breathless anticipation over how Tebow will cut into Sanchez' snaps, if not outright take his job.
If Sanchez is fueled by the public slights, he's not telling. Three years under the New York microscope seems to have worn on Sanchez, who didn't take any of the bait Wednesday when asked if he felt he had something to prove to outsiders. Nor did he deviate from the middle-of-the-road stance he's taken regarding the presence of Tebow.
"I have to play the cards I'm dealt here," Sanchez said. "Keep working hard and leading this team and do(ing) everything I can. It's my job to work together, Tim and I, so that's what we'll do for the betterment of the team."
--DE Mario Williams makes his Buffalo debut on Sunday at the New York Jets. The two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans signed a record $100 million contract in the offseason and faces first-time starting Jets tackle Austin Howard on Sunday.
--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led the NFL in interceptions a year ago with 23, faces two of the NFL's best cornermen in Derrell Revis and Antonio Cromartie on Sunday when the Bills travel to the Jets. The Bills hired QB coach David Lee to work with Fitzpatrick's mechanics and the coaching staff is eager to see what effect the move has had.
--OLB Arthur Moats has won the starting strong-side linebacker job. The third-year pro from James Madison was a sixth-round pick in 2010 whose hit on then-Vikings QB Brett Favre ended Favre's consecutive starts streak at 297.
--PK John Potter, a seventh-round pick from Western Michigan, was kept as a kickoff specialist. He's expected to be on the game-day roster at the Jets Sunday. Buffalo is eager to improve its 28th ranking on total touchbacks using veteran Rian Lindell and saving Lindell's leg for field goals. Potter booted 11 of 13 kickoffs for touchbacks in the preseason.
--QB/WR Brad Smith took a significant leap in his recovery from a groin injury on Thursday, taking some reps at receiver and allowing the team to work on some Wildcat packages. "Encouraged," is how coach Chan Gailey described Smith. The Bills play at the Jets Sunday.
--WR Stevie Johnson, who is coming off offseason groin surgery, did not practice Thursday. He is experiencing tightness, the team said, but he is expected to be full go for Sunday's game at the Jets. The team is being cautious with his repetitions in practice as their ability to throw the ball would be severely hampered without their No. 1 receiver.
--RG Kraig Urbik returned to practice on a limited basis after missing a day with a tight back. He'll be fine for Sunday's opener at the Jets.
--WR Stephen Hill will be the Jets' second starting wideout against the Bills on Sunday. Hill had two costly drops against the Panthers on Aug. 26 and dropped two potential touchdown passes during the preseason, but he also led the Jets with nine catches for 106 yards in three exhibition games.
--WR Bilal Powell garnered plenty of praise from Rex Ryan Thursday. While Ryan said Powell will split no. 2 tailback duties with Joe McKnight, he said the Jets were so impressed with Powell's football smarts that they were ready to hand him the third-down back job as a rookie last year if LaDainian Tomlinson didn't return.
--CB Antonio Cromartie could see some time at wide receiver against the Bills. Ryan was coy when asked if Cromartie would line up on offense, saying only "We'll see" with an expression that looked half-smirking and half-winking. Cromartie, Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano all spoke this summer of using Cromartie in a "Cro Package."
--WR Chaz Schilens didn't record a catch in the preseason and missed the final three games with a high ankle sprain, but coach Rex Ryan said Thursday he expects Schilens to be active Sunday and that he has been impressed with his performance in practice this week.
--S Eric Smith (hip) will almost certainly miss the Jets' regular season opener against the Bills. He was hurt against the Bengals on Aug. 12.
--OT Dennis Landolt (knee) is listed as out for the Bills game. He is recovering from a dislocated knee he suffered during training camp.
--SS LaRon Landry (heel) didn't practice Thursday but is expected to start against the Bills. The day off was part of the Jets' attempts to keep Landry on a "pitch count" as he recovers from the Achilles injury that plagued him with the Redskins last year.
--TE Dustin Keller (hamstring) was limited in practice Thursday but is expected to play against the Bills.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS at TENNESSEE TITANS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
PREDICTION: Patriots 32-18
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Titans want to set the tone with RB Chris Johnson, but he averaged 2.9 yards in the preseason after narrowly eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards in 2011. Jake Locker's mobility will be a greater concern for the Patriots, who lost their top two pass rushers from last season and ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense. Putting up points is almost a given for New England. The Titans have two solid coverage linebackers in Colin McCarthy and Will Witherspoon, but containing TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez strains a secondary with little proven depth. The Titans believe their pass rush has improved, but rattling QB Tom Brady requires constant pressure.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots have the NFL's longest winning streak in Week 1 games at six. ... The Titans have surrendered a 127.7 QB rating to Brady in the past three meetings.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Just because the first game of the new season - Sunday's trip to Tennessee to take on the Titans -- was less than a week away didn't mean coach Bill Belichick was going to stop tweaking his roster.
After such surprising moves as releasing veterans like Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Dan Koppen, Brian Hoyer and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch in the final two waves of cuts, New England kept tinkering.
Initially, that included a trade for second-year former Rams receiver Greg Salas. Salas had played in six games for St. Louis as a fourth-round pick last fall before landing on injured reserve with a broken leg. He caught an impressive 27 passes working in an offense run by current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
But the Salas move wasn't the last in the week leading up to the opener. On Sept. 5, the team made a series of moves to both the active roster and practice squad. Most notably the team placed one of its seemingly endless tight ends - former Viking Visanthe Shiancoe - on injured reserve, with a designation to return. But the tight-end depth chart wasn't limited to three players for long as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells got a new teammate in the form of another former Rams player, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui
In addition to signing Hoomanawanui, the team also got a visit from former Browns and Bucs playmaker Kellen Winslow, though Winslow apparently failed his physical, making the team's decision of who to sign pretty simple.
Hoomanawanui played two seasons in St. Louis as a former fifth-round pick. The 6-4, 263-pounder played in 16 games with 11 starts, hauling in 20 receptions for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
In his weekly press conference the quarterback who'll be throwing to the many tight ends and new faces at receiver said he's learned to take the roster moves in stride, even when they include such close friends as Koppen, Hoyer and Branch.
"I think in some ways you become a bit desensitized to it," quarterback Tom Brady said. "It's not my decision, so I can't really think about it too much other than supporting your friends and what they're going through. But it's not like I can go in and lobby for guys; it's what decisions have been made or what coach always feels is in the best interest of the team. You just try to worry about going out there and doing your job. And we had practice that day, so we went out and practiced and you try to have a good practice regardless of who is out there because if you don't, you're really doing a disservice to yourself, your teammates and the franchise. You have to go out and compartmentalize things and go out there and have good practices and ultimately be prepared for the game."
Abundance of tight ends, the addition of an outside receiver like Brandon Lloyd and a few of the other offseason moves to the Patriots offense could bring a new look to one of the NFL's best passing attacks from a year ago. While Brady will still spend much of his time looking for Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker - the productive core returning from a year ago -- it's possible that more three-tight end sets and multi-back sets will be mixed in. The idea could be to try and keep opponents in more base defense and less nickel and dime looks.
Of course with Belichick involved, you never really know what you're going to get. That includes game plans as well as weekly roster transitions.
Belichick was busy this week tinkering with his roster long after cuts to 53 had been made and likely will continue to make moves as the season rolls on.
A young quarterback's best friend can be a good running game.
And though the Tennessee Titans aren't as married to the running game now as they were under Jeff Fisher, now might be a good time to rekindle that relationship.
With the Titans facing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' high-powered offense in the season opener, even defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was saying it would be a good time for the running game to find itself.
Asked the best way to contain the Patriots' weapons like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, Gray replied, "Give the ball 50 times to Chris Johnson."
Johnson said he would be fine with that. But in all seriousness, Johnson and the Titans know they have to contribute significantly and not put too much of the burden on Jake Locker making his first NFL start.
"That would help him a lot. Anytime a quarterback is in his first start, it's always good to have a good running game," Johnson said. "I feel like if we can get the running game going, it will help him get momentum and he'll be all right."
Coach Mike Munchak sounds much more confident in his running game than a year ago, when Johnson missed all of camp and preseason with a holdout following the lockout. He welcomes whatever slack the running game can pick up to help his young quarterback.
"For any quarterback, you don't want to hand off twice and have it be third-and-10 or third-and-11. You just can't have those types of things," Munchak said. "Last year, there were a lot of things we just didn't know what was gonna happen. Chris held out and that created a lot of uncertainty, just because of the offense being with a new coordinator."
--CB Devin McCourty will be on the same NFL field on Sunday as his twin brother Jason, a cornerback with the Titans who recently signed a lucrative contract extension. Devin, New England's 2010 first-round pick was excited to see Jason, a Tennessee sixth-round pick in 2009, up close in game action. "This should be exciting," Devin said. "We've gone against each other in different basketball games and things like that, but really never been at each other or on opposing teams. We've always played together. It will be kind of cool to watch each other in live action, really rooting against each other."
--C Ryan Wendell is expected to get the start at center for the Patriots in the season opener in Tennessee. While careful not to say that he would indeed be filling the shoes of the now-departed Dan Koppen, Wendell was clearly anxious to get the season underway. "I'm really excited, I think everybody is, to get the season started in earnest," Wendell said this week. "Fight for wins that count towards our record and I think that we're all excited for that. I am. I'm just really excited to go out there and do the best that I can in my role."
--FB Eric Kettani was released from the Patriots practice squad Sept. 5. The former Navy star had spent last summer in New England before being recalled to active duty. Coach Bill Belichick reportedly played a role in getting Kettani released from his Navy commitments this offseason, allowing the fullback to take part fully in training camp.
--WR Sam Kirkland was released from the New England practice squad Sept. 5.
--WR Kerry Taylor was signed to the Patriots practice squad Sept. 5. Taylor had been claimed by New England off waivers from the Vikings on Aug. 27 before being released on Aug. 31. He also spent a week on the team's practice squad last season.
--OL Jeremiah Warren was signed to the New England practice squad Sept. 5. The undrafted rookie out of South Florida had spent the entire summer with the Patriots before being cut on Aug. 31.
--S Patrick Chung was not only on the practice field on Wednesday as the Patriots prepared for the Titans, but he worked out without a red, non-contact jersey for the first time since suffering what was announced by the team as a shoulder injury against the Eagles in the second preseason game. Chung was listed as having full participation on New England's first injury report of the year.
--T Sebastian Vollmer saw just nine reps of action in the Patriots final preseason game after missing most of the summer on PUP recovering from offseason back surgery. The projected starting right tackle was then listed as limited participation on the Patriots first injury report of the season.
--OL Nick McDonald did not practice thanks to a shoulder injury on Wednesday, but returned to the practice field for limited participation on Thursday.
--RB Shane Vereen did not practice on either Wednesday or Thursday thanks to a foot injury suffered in preseason action.
--TE Daniel Fells (shin) and CB Sterling Moore (knee) were both limited participants in practice action as the Patriots prepared to take on the Titans this week.
--QB Jake Locker makes the first start of his NFL career after being a first-round pick. The decision to start Locker was as much "gut feeling" as anything in terms of his being able to handle the responsibility of being a starting NFL quarterback.
--With WR Kenny Britt suspended for the opener, expect rookie WR Kendall Wright, the team's first-round pick to get lots of work and probably start alongside Nate Washington. Locker and Wright developed a nice rapport in preseason.
--S Robert Johnson, barely an afterthought his first two years in the league, will play a lot and might even get the start depending upon what package the Titans use against the Patriots. The Titans like his free safety skills.
--C Fernando Velasco will start at center for the Titans, giving the Titans a "big" center (6-4, 312) for the first time since the days of Justin Hartwig.
--LS Beau Brinkley will be on the spot as a rookie as he replaces long-time snapper Ken Amato, who was not re-signed. Brinkley had a couple of high snaps on kicks but has settled down and done well.
--DT Sen'Derrick Marks missed another practice with a sprained right MCL, but the Titans are hopeful that he can practice Friday and play on Sunday.
--If DT Sen-Derrick Marks cannot go, rookie third-round pick Mike Martin could be next in line for reps at defensive tackle.
--DE Scott Solomon had his right knee scoped last week and missed another practice. He is questionable for Sunday.
--T Mike Otto will be out this week as he recovers from knee and hand surgeries.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS at CHICAGO BEARS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
PREDICTION: Bears 30-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck showed a veteran's poise in preseason games, but also a propensity to start slow with just one first-quarter touchdown. His offensive line isn't a stone wall, and the Bears present matchup issues across the front with DE Julius Peppers also sliding inside in some packages. Luck needs the running game to pick up the pace after a grim preseason effort. The Bears aren't just explosive on offense with WR Brandon Marshall and RB Matt Forte, but KR-PR Devin Hester (19 career return TDs) is a primary focal point for Colts kickers. If OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can heat up the pocket and force QB Jay Cutler to throw early, it gives Indy's secondary a better chance to hold up.
FAST FACTS: The Colts have lost five of the past six meetings. ... Cutler's teams are 24-0 when he has a 100-plus passer rating.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Andrew Luck says that he's ready to face the Chicago Bears' vaunted defense.
Of course, the Indianapolis Colts' rookie quarterback understands that there's a big difference between being ready to play and actually playing well. But that's his objective heading into Sunday's regular-season opener at Solider Field.
"Excited. Obviously going up against a great team, great defense. It will be a great measuring stick I think for us. Just very excited to get going," Luck said this week.
The Colts' No. 1 draft pick knows that the tempo and overall speed of the game will pick up considerably with the regular-season underway. But Luck had a strong showing over the course of four preseason games, improvement which he hopes will continue this week.
"Having the preseason games and sort of getting back there and feeling live bullets standing in the pocket, and going through that was helpful. (I've been) trying to think about comparing it to freshman year in college where you don't get to scrimmage anybody else, you don't get to play anybody else," he pointed out.
"I'll take these next couple practices (this week) very seriously. I think those will help prepare (me) and hopefully I'll be ready to go."
As a rookie in the National Football League, particularly as a first-year starting quarterback in the league, Luck is quite aware that there will be more than a few bumps and bruises along the way.
After all, his predecessor with the Colts -- Peyton Manning -- threw 28 interceptions en route to a 3-13 season in 1998. Manning also had 26 touchdown passes that season.
"I hope I don't have to (experience a lot of growing pains). But yeah. I think it's part of growing up. Part of being a rookie is, I guess, coming up to situations that you haven't seen before," Luck said. "I've got great guys to rely on all around this locker room. Just try to get to the basics when things like that happen and just run the offense."
So what's been the biggest transition from being the starting quarterback at Stanford to, now, being the No. 1 starter for the Colts?
"I think so far it's been just the breadth of (pass) protections. The different types of protections. Drop back, play-action, the nakeds, the boots," he voiced. "We didn't have that many in college and now I'm like, 'OK this is a man protection, this picks up this type of blitz, this is scat, this is a slide protection.' That's sort of been the biggest challenge."
And what's it like preparing to face a defense with so many recognizable names such as middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers and outside linebacker Lance Briggs?
"I think at first when you turn the film on, you're like, 'Oh my gosh, that is Julius Peppers, standing up there.' But you have to get that out of your system and you can't go out there and stare in awe of those guys," Luck said.
"Obviously, you watch them grow up but you're not trying to get autographs from them, you're trying to win a game. So it'll be fun and I'm looking forward to it."
Super-charged offense or not, the Bears will still have to win some games with defense this season if they plan on making it to the postseason for just the second time in six years.
And, for the defense to shoulder its share of the load, it needs Brian Urlacher in the middle of the action. The eight-time Pro Bowler says he plans to play the entire game Sunday against the Colts at Soldier Field. That sounds ludicrous for a player who missed the entire preseason and almost all of training camp, if for no other reason than his diminished level of conditioning.
"I'm not up to speed," Urlacher admits. "I know the defense well, but I've got to get my technique down and work on some things. But I'm practicing, that's all that matters to me. I'll get it down the more I'm out there, the more reps I see, I'll get better. I'm not as out of shape as I thought I would be, so that's good."
Actually, Urlacher did not practice on Thursday, but the occasional day off is part of the plan this season. He is expected to practice Friday.
For maybe the first time since his rookie year in 2000, there are questions about whether an opposing offense might try to take advantage of the Bears' middle linebacker.
"If they want to test me," Urlacher said, "then I'll have more chances to make plays."
Defensive end Israel Idonije believes that would be a poor decision for the Colts.
"If anyone who's thinking that Brian is going to be a weak part of the defense, then absolutely, run at him," Idonije challenged. "The guy is a physical specimen. He's worked hard to put himself into a position so he can be on the field. He's one of those guys who are relentless. He's a tough, tough guy. If that's something they think they can exploit, by all means they're going to try. Then, at the end of the day, we'll see. We're going to see what happens."
--If OG Joe Reitz is unable to play Sunday, look for either OG Seth Olsen or OG/OT Jeff Linkenbach to get the start. Both Olsen and Linkenbach have split duty with Reitz since the start of training camp. Early indications, though, is that it would probably be Linkenbach, who has played guard and tackle during his two years with the team.
--OLB Robert Mathis says he is done with looking back at the Colts' 2-14 2011 season. The past is the past, according to Mathis. He says that this year's team has some making up to do.
"We'll say it's more than a chip (on the shoulders of the players). It's a whole two-by-four wood block," Mathis said. "We know what we got in this locker room. We know what we've been working hard towards all offseason so it's time to put it on the field."
--S Antoine Bethea contends that the Colts have bought into what first-year coach Chuck Pagano, along with new coordinators Bruce Arians and Greg Manusky, are selling.
"The people in this building believe in what we can do. We know what we have," Bethea said. "The system that has been brought over has done a tremendous job in the past. Like we've been saying as players, if we just grasp onto the concept and buy in, we'll be fine. As far as the naysayers are saying, you can't be worried about that."
--WR Austin Collie wasn't upset that Steelers LB Larry Foote wasn't fined for the forearm to the side of his helmet during the second week of preseason. Collie suffered a concussion on the play. "No I'm not. That's just football," he said. "Would I have liked to have avoided the hit? Yes. But those guys on the Pittsburgh Steelers, those guys fly around and they have one mindset and that's to hit the guy with the ball. It's just unfortunate."
--Rookie WR LaVon Brazill is expected to handle the kickoff return and punt return duties for the Colts Sunday in Chicago. Brazill did both jobs during the preseason but fellow rookie WR T.Y. Hilton may also be used to return kicks if cleared to play.
--WR Austin Collie (concussion) saw limited practice time Thursday. He remains hopeful of playing Sunday against the Bears. Collie said before the start of Thursday's practice that while he has been cleared to fully participate in workouts this week, he's still waiting to hear if he will be cleared to play in Sunday's game. He expects to be in the starting lineup in Chicago. "We're just going to continue to see how I feel. I don't want to make a definite statement of yes I am playing on Sunday, no I'm not playing on Sunday because we still have time," Collie said. "I want to see how things go (in practice Thursday). I want to see how things go tomorrow and we'll go from there."
--DE Cory Redding (knee) fully participated in Thursday's practice and is expected to start Sunday in Chicago.
--RB Delone Carter (ribs) went through a full workout on Thursday and should be available to play Sunday against the Bears.
--RB Mewelde Moore (ribs) fully practiced Thursday and is expected to play at Chicago on Sunday.
--CB Jerraud Powers (knee) practiced on Thursday and will start against the Bears on Sunday.
--WR T.Y. Hilton (shoulder) saw limited work Thursday. Hilton's status for the Chicago game has yet to be determined.
--OG Joe Reitz (knee) did not practice Thursday. Reitz has experienced a sore knee since training camp. He was also inadvertently kicked in the knee during practice last week. He might be a game-time decision.
--WR Brandon Marshall had an NFL-record 21 catches (for 200 yards) the last time he played against the Colts in 2009.
--QB Jay Cutler has a 90.6 passer rating on opening day but just an 8-7 TD-interception ratio.
--RB Matt Forte has averaged just 3.7 yards on 81 opening-day carries but has caught 15 passes for 249 yards (17.3-yard average) and three touchdowns.
--PK Robbie Gould has never missed a kick on opening day, hitting 14 of 14 field-goal attempts and 10 of 10 extra points.
--WR/RS Devin Hester has averaged 12.5 yards on 14 opening-day punt returns with one TD but just 20.4 yards on eight kickoff returns. He returned the opening kickoff for a TD against the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
--LB Brian Urlacher (knee) did not practice Thursday but will do so on Friday and said he expects to play the entire game on Sunday.
--S Chris Conte (shoulder) was limited Thursday and will probably be listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.
--P Adam Podlesh (hip) was limited Thursday and did not kick, as he did a day earlier. Podlesh probably will not play Sunday.
--RB Lorenzo Booker (head) didn't practice and probably won't play.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES at CLEVELAND BROWNS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale
PREDICTION: Eagles 28-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Michael Vick (ribs, thumb) made barely a cameo appearance in preseason. He's not expected to be limited against the Browns but was never fully comfortable behind his revamped offensive line in August. Getting the ball to RB LeSean McCoy and TE Brent Celek not only keeps Vick upright, but should put the line in a comfort zone before attacking vertically against the Browns' suspect secondary. Cleveland's offense is a raw work in progress. QB Brandon Weeden has to be wary of forcing the ball into tight windows while facing heavy pressure from the Eagles' front four, making TE Benjamin Watson a critical target. RB Trent Richardson (knee) must help move the chains and keep Philadelphia's defense honest.
FAST FACTS: Eagles WR DeSean Jackson averages 45.4 yards on his 30 career touchdowns. ... The Browns allowed 184.9 passing yards per game last season, second-fewest in the NFL.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Eagles' March trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans was considered their most significant offseason moves. A two-time Pro Bowler who addressed the team's biggest defensive offseason need and was a team leader to boot.
But Ryans' play in the Eagles' four preseason games was very unremarkable. He played in three of the four games and failed to make a tackle in two of them, leading many to wonder whether his 2010 Achilles injury has turned him into just another player.
But defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said Thursday that he hasn't been disappointed in Ryans at all, and that he expects him to have a terrific season.
"He did make plays," Castillo said. "He made plays in practice. He did things. He got everybody lined up. He's been a leader for our group. He's done some good things that we see, and sometimes I think it's not always judged on tackles.
"We get to see the tape (and) he is feeling comfortable with our system and he's doing a good job for our young kids. I think the thing that's really special is that you see him in install and the notes that he takes and how he prepares for games. That's invaluable.
"You see the other kids sitting right next to him and they see the way he takes notes and the way he prepares and that's where he is really valuable to those guys."
Ryans is going to be a key to the Eagles' success this season. Playing behind defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide-nine, he needs to play well against the run. He also is one of the Eagles' two linebackers in their nickel package. So he's going to be on the field a lot.
"I see it in practice," Castillo said of Ryans. "I've seen it in training camp. I've seen the difference he's made in the middle."
Trent Richardson did not take part in a full practice for the Browns on either Wednesday or Thursday.
The Browns revealed on their injury report that Richardson had "limited participation in practice," which means he missed some of the team's work.
Coach Pat Shurmur continues to say that Richardson looks good in practice, but he did not practice after Aug. 7 in preseason -- two days before arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
"I think it'll feel good," Richardson said of his knee. "If I'm out there on the field."
Of course "if" is the key word in that statement.
The Browns would love to have Richardson. They believe that running the ball is the most effective way to combat Philadelphia's wide-nine defense, and to slow its pass rush. Richardson is a key in that effort.
But it's not likely anyone will know if Richardson will play until Sunday. He likely will be listed as questionable by the Browns on Friday, with his availability on Sunday coming down to a game-time decision.
--MLB DeMeco Ryans did not have a particularly impressive preseason, failing to make a tackle in two of the three games in which he played.
--P Chas Henry put eight of his 12 punts inside the 20 in the preseason. That and PK Alex Henery's trust in him as a holder went a long way in determining why the Eagles kept Henry over two-time Pro Bowler Mat McBriar.
--OT King Dunlap will be making just his eighth career start Sunday when he starts at left tackle against the Cleveland Browns ahead of Demetress Bell.
--DE Jason Babin appears to have put on considerable weight during his month-long rehab from a calf strain, most of it in his stomach. It remains to be seen how that will affect his quickness off the edge.
--DT Fletcher Cox tweaked his knee in practice Wednesday and was a limited participant Thursday. Cox still is expected to play Sunday. He'll be part of the Eagles' four-man rotation.
--WR Riley Cooper is expected to miss at least the first two games as he continues to recover from a broken collarbone. The Eagles are going with just four wide receivers until Cooper is ready.
--S Nate Allen was a full practice participant for the last two days and is expected to play Sunday against Cleveland. He tweaked his hamstring in last week's final preseason game.
--RT Mitchell Schwartz will be tested in his first NFL game. Eagles defensive end Jason Babin had 18 sacks a year ago, and his pass-rush quickness could give Schwartz fits.
--LB Scott Fujita still awaits word on the injunction he and the other three players filed asking for a temporary restraining order to stay their suspensions. A ruling on the case is expected on Friday. Fujita was suspended three games for allegedly contributing money to the Saints illegal bounty pool.
--WR Josh Gordon makes his debut on Sunday after being taken in the supplemental draft. The Browns gave up a second-round pick for Gordon, so he will play. The question is how well he grasps the pro game. Coach Pat Shurmur said Gordon is "as far along as you can be as a rookie."
--QB Brandon Weeden's best attribute? "I don't think he ever lets you see him sweat,"? said offensive coordinator Brad Childress. If any team might make Weeden sweat, it'd be Philadelphia. He struggled with the Eagles pass rush in preseason.
--OL John Greco (calf) and Oniel Cousins (ankle) both missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. If neither can play the Browns will be thin on the offensive line, with only rookie tackle Ryan Miller in reserve. One injury up front could really help the Eagles. It's possible the team could make a practice squad move if they feel a seventh lineman is needed. THe Browns have three offensive linemen on the practice squad.
--OLB James-Michael Johnson will miss the game with a strained oblique muscle. Johnson had an impressive preseason, but was injured in the final game. He will be replaced by a rookie, probably L.J. Fort, undrafted from Northern Iowa. Facing two backup outside linebackers can't hurt the cause of Eagles RB LeSean McCoy or QB Mike Vick.
--TEs Jordan Cameron (groin) and Ben Watson (thigh) were both limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. If neither play, Alex Smith would be the only healthy tight end, which could prompt the Browns to use a lot of three-wide receiver sets. That might help the passing game, but it won't help the Browns run the ball or pass protect.
ST. LOUIS RAMS at DETROIT LIONS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jaime Maggio
PREDICTION: Lions 30-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: Lions coach Jim Schwartz was previously defensive coordinator for Rams coach Jeff Fisher with the Titans, and the coaching staffs know one another well. The Rams added $50 million free agent CB Cortland Finnegan to contend with the likes of Calvin Johnson. The Lions are better equipped to spread the ball to other receivers but lack a consistent running game, making QB Matthew Stafford a target against the Rams' underrated front seven. St. Louis is a polar opposite offensively, aiming for a meat grinder approach and controlled intermediate-range passing game. RB Steven Jackson remains the essential constant and with defensive backs seeking him out, QB Sam Bradford can capitalize with regular one-on-one matchups outside.
FAST FACTS: Based on average age of players on the 53-man roster, the Lions are the oldest team in the NFL; the Rams are the youngest.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
When the Rams take the field in their opener Sunday at Detroit, they will be doing it with a roster that includes 17 rookies. Many are expected to have prominent roles.
Rok Watkins might start at left guard, and if he doesn't he could still get time there with Robert Turner. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson could see time as the nickel back.
Both kickers, Greg Zuerlien and punter Johnny Hekker are rookies.
Asked if he's ever had a group this young, coach Jeff Fisher said, "No. Not close. That's what's exciting about it. ... These guys are anxious and eager, they've got confidence. I'd much rather coach a young team than an old team."
When asked if his coaching style changes with such a young team, Fisher said, "Nothing changes. You take the same approach, preparation-wise. You just have to maybe spend a little extra time with some of the younger guys to let them know what the regular season is all about. Seventeen rookies on this roster and that doesn't include practice squad. There's a good chance that quite a few of them are going to be in this ballgame."
Quarterback Sam Bradford, a grizzly third-year player, admitted he feels old with all the rookies.
He added, "I didn't realize that until we were at the luncheon the other day and, I think, someone asked coach Fisher about it and he said we had 16 or 17 rookies and I was like, 'Oh my God, that seems extremely high.' But looking around I think we've got a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies in this locker room who are going to help us. We're better because they're here. We're better because they're on our team and I look forward to taking the field with them."
Was he surprised by that number? Bradford said, "I think that's really probably why it did surprise me because we've had a lot of rookies step in, handle everything that's been thrown at them. I know the guys on offense have done a great job as far as picking up and retaining information. When they're in the huddle they're just like anyone else and I think that's a good sign."
Two of the rookies are receivers Bradford expects to be throwing to, Brian Quick and Chris Givens.
Bradford said, "The past couple weeks they've been rotating in there with the ones quite a bit. So even though I haven't thrown to them much in games, I think we've developed a nice chemistry in practice the past two weeks."
If you wanted to play up the mentor-protege angle leading up to the season opener against the Rams, it's best to stay away from the protege.
"It's the Rams vs. Lions; that's it," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.
You won't get much help from the mentor, either.
"It's about the players on the field, not about Jim and me," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
Schwartz cut his coaching teeth working for Fisher for 10 seasons in Tennessee. Fisher actually promoted him twice - from defensive assistant to linebackers coach and then to defensive coordinator - both times against some resistance within the organization.
"I have been very fortunate to have had some very good teachers," Schwartz said. "I started with Bill Belichick (in Cleveland) and continued with Jeff Fisher. I owe where I am to both of those guys. They gave me an opportunity and they gave me good structure to work in."
Among the things he's taken from Fisher is not only his conviction in his schemes and philosophy, but in his ability to adapt to different situations.
"Jeff Fisher-coached teams are always tough, always physical and always well-prepared," Schwartz said. "They always run well, but they are adaptable. There were times in Tennessee when Eddie George was going to carry the ball 40 times and there were times when Steve McNair was going to throw it 40 times.
"Being a good coach in the NFL is being able to adapt to your personnel and to situations that come up. That's the hallmark of what Jeff has done. You can't be around for 17 years unless you adjust and change. The run-and-shoot didn't last 17 years. The 4-6 defense didn't last 17 years. Jeff Fisher has and I respect him for that."
Schwartz has not and will not talk to the team about his relationship with Fisher or how much it means to him to be coaching against his mentor. He doesn't have to.
"We know this is real meaningful for him," said middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who played for Fisher in Tennessee. "Coach Fisher gave him an opportunity to be a linebacker coach and to work his way up to defensive coordinator. Coach is grateful for that.
"To have the opportunity to play against somebody who gave you the edge to come into the league, you know he's been anticipating this.
"He would never talk about any of that stuff. He just wants to win and start the season off the right way. But I know I'm excited about it and I know deep down, he's excited about it."
--DT Kellen Heard, just added on waivers from Buffalo, will likely see considerable time in the defensive tackle rotation. Heard is one of only three healthy defensive tackles on the roster.
--TE Matthew Mulligan is listed on the depth chart as the starter, but he is known more for his blocking than pass-catching.
--TE Lance Kendricks returned to practice Wednesday after missing practice last week and the final preseason game for an undisclosed reason. Kendricks has to show he can be more consistent catching the ball.
--CB Trumaine Johnson, the team's third-round pick, is improving fast and could end up being the team's nickel corner.
--WR Chris Givens has speed to be a downfield threat; he just have to develop a connection and timing with QB Sam Bradford. Givens drew two pass interference penalties in the preseason on deep passes.
--DT Michael Brockers did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of an ankle injury and will likely be declared out on Friday.
--DT Darell Scott did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of a knee injury and is not expected to play this week.
--DT Matthew Conrath did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of a knee injury suffered in the preseason finale against Baltimore.
--C Dominic Raiola not only studied film from the Rams' preseason games, he also went back and studied the Lions' two games against the Saints last season. Why? Because Fisher originally hired former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (suspended for his role in the bounty scandal) and presently Williams' son Blake is calling the defensive signals. But even that didn't reveal any magical insight into what the Lions might see Sunday. "I don't think it helps at all," Raiola said. "I think it's a totally different scheme. I am sure that question has gone through (Schwartz's) mind a million times, but there are different hands on that defense now. I'm sure Fisher has his stamp on it, but there are a bunch of different people influencing the calls."
--DT Ndamukong Suh was asked about his relationship with coach Jim Schwartz on Wednesday. "I am not saying I wasn't close with him," Suh said. "Everything is a learning process. It's just like if you have a newborn, you have to understand what that newborn wants and needs to grow to be a strong woman or man. It's the same process." Suh's closest relationships, outside of his teammates, are with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Those are the coaches he spends the most time with. "The biggest thing is that (he and Schwartz) continue to grow and continue to understand each other," Suh said. "I did the same thing with coach Bo (Pelini at Nebraska) - understanding him and what he wanted and what he expected. Now me and Bo are very, very close. I think me and Jim will end up being very, very close when it's all said and done. But I still have to learn and understand what he wants from me in terms of being a player and a professional."
--CB Bill Bentley, third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette, will most likely start on Sunday. "It would be an honor and a blessing to be out there with the starters unit from all the hard work I'm putting in," he said. "It'd be nice to start. If I don't start, oh well. When my number is called, I'll come in and contribute to my team any way possible - special teams, at the corner spot, anywhere." If he does start, he knows the Rams will test him early and often. "No doubt. I want to be tested," Bentley said. "Give me an opportunity to make plays, and give me a couple spotlights."
--DE Cliff Avril knows the numbers, but he's not putting much stock in them. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked 9.3 percent of the time he dropped back to pass, the second most in the league. "We definitely feel like we should go out and dominate, and that's the goal every week," said Avril. "But they're doing different things to try and give Bradford some time in the pocket."
--QB Matthew Stafford's commercial promoting Monday Night Football is a hit both inside the locker room and outside. But Stafford is taking it in stride. "Those guys know I don't take myself too seriously," Stafford said. "Between the lines I'm trying to be as good a football player as I can, be as good as leader as I can. But I have fun just like everybody else. I can make fun of myself. I know I'm not perfect. It's fun to do. And as long as other people laugh, I'm cool with it."
QB Shaun Hill, who runs the Kangaroo Court inside the team's quarterback room, said the commercial is going to cost Stafford some money. "Every time I see it," Hill said, straying from protocol to explain the $5 penalties that cover everything from gratuitous Jumbotron appearances to unexcused bathroom breaks during games. "Anytime you're on national TV, it's a fine."
--S Louis Delmas has not practiced since having surgery on his right knee Aug. 7. He is not expected to play Sunday. Veteran John Wendling will start in his place.
--CB Chris Houston has not practiced since injuring his right ankle in the final exhibition game Aug. 25. He has been running and working with a trainer during practice. Coach Jim Schwartz won't decide until Friday whether or not Houston will play Sunday, but it's doubtful. Veteran Drayton Florence is expected to start in his place."
ATLANTA FALCONS at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
PREDICTION: Eagles 33-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: Without suspended OLB Tambi Hali to contend with, the Falcons won't hold back a full-throttle, up-tempo passing attack led by Matt Ryan and WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones. The running game has become more versatile with change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers behind Michael Turner. The Chiefs bolstered the running game with Peyton Hillis, who'll share carries with speedster Jamaal Charles. The Falcons' secondary isn't a sure-tackling crew, and QB Matt Cassel will rush the ball to his big receivers -- WRs Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin and TE Tony Moeaki -- to force Atlanta's secondary to make open-field stops.
FAST FACTS: Ryan's 43 victories are the second-most in a player's first four seasons since the 1950s. ... The Chiefs are 3-0 all-time at home against the Falcons.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Tight end Tony Gonzalez knows that his return to Kansas City, the city where he started his illustrious career, will be emotional.
Gonzalez, 36, spent the first 12 years of his NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"My cousin still lives there," Gonzalez said. "My brother still lives there. My charity base foundation is still there, so I've got a lot of ties to the city. It's going to be special. It's going to be kind of weird going in there. It's going to be like going back to the house that you grew up in."
Gonzalez doesn't know what it's going to be like walking on the field from the visitor's tunnel.
"There's a lot of heartbreak on that field," said Gonzalez, referring to some first-round playoff exits with the Chiefs. "A lot of triumphs, too. It's something that I'm looking forward to. It's going to be a special feeling to go back there."
Gonzalez requested a trade in the 2008 season because he didn't believe that he could endure another rebuilding program. He was traded to the Falcons for a second-round pick that was used to select cornerback Javier Arenas.
The Chiefs went 13-3 in Gonzalez' rookie year. In his second season, he dropped 17 passes and rededicated himself to the game.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think I'd be the player that I am today if I didn't have a season like that," Gonzalez said. "It was embarrassing. You feel like you've let your teammates down, the city down, and you've let the organization down and it can either motivate you or kill your career."
With an injury-riddled defense, the Chiefs head into their opener against Atlanta and the Falcons high-powered offense with a plan to help their defense.
That means get ready for a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis and the Chiefs' running game.
"You don't necessarily need to score a lot of points if you can keep those other guys off the field," said head coach Romeo Crennel. "If you can keep them off the field and control the ball, now you hold the points down, you just have to score enough points to win."
Scoring points has been a problem in recent seasons for the Chiefs and that continued even into the 2012 preseason when they were outscored 116-61 and scored just 34 points in the last three games.
Rather than get into a Matt Cassel-Matt Ryan battle, or a Dwayne Bowe-Roddy White scenario, Crennel indicated he wants to take his two-headed running game and keep the Falcons offense on the sidelines. That's just fine with Charles and Hillis.
"Whatever it is, I'm not backing down from any situation; I'm here and I'm not going anywhere," said Charles, who is coming back from last year's ACL injury that ended his season after six quarters. "I know I got hurt last year, but I've been in every preseason game this year, so that tells you a lot right there."
Charles has not shown any ill effects from the injury and surgery, and he's gained a huge fan in Hillis, who came to the Chiefs in the offseason from Cleveland as a free agent.
"Anything in life, no matter what job it is, you need somebody there that can make you better," said Hillis. "I think when that challenge is there, it's good for both of you. He definitely brings something to the table that I look up to. I try to learn some of his game to apply to mine. Hopefully that will help my game out some. I'm just blessed to be in the same backfield with him and to play with him."
--CB Dominique Franks was re-signed to the team. He was released in the cutdown to 53 players.
--WR Tim Toone suffered a hamstring injury near the end of practice on Wednesday and was waived-injured on Thursday. With Toone gone, the Falcons only have four receivers on the active roster. They have two on the practice squad.
--QB Matt Ryan passed for a franchise-record 4,177 passing yards last year. He has dropped the last two season openers on the road at Pittsburgh in 2010 and at Chicago in 2011.
--LT Sam Baker gets a break in the opener. Instead of facing Kansas City's Tamba Hali (suspended), he will be matched up against outside linebacker Andy Studebaker, who has 2.5 career sacks in 54 NFL games.
--RB Jacquizz Rodgers will split time with Michael Turner and return kickoffs in the season opener.
--RB Jason Snelling (calf) fully participated in practice on Thursday and is likely to be probable for the game on Sunday.
--CB Christopher Owens (hamstring) fully participated in practice on Thursday and is expected to be probable for the game.
--S Abram Elam will get the start against Atlanta on Sunday, filling in for injured free safety Kendrick Lewis (shoulder). Last season, Elam started 16 games in Dallas with the Cowboys. When he opens the game against the Falcons he will become the sixth player to start a game at one of the two safety spots since last season's opener.
--OLB Andy Studebaker will get the first chance to replace suspended OLB Tamba Hali in the season opener against Atlanta. Studebaker is in his fifth season out of Division III Wheaton College in Illinois, playing in 55 games with seven starts. He has 2.5 sacks - that compares to Hali's 55.5 sacks.
--NT Dontari Poe will open the season starting at nose tackle in place of the injured Anthony Toribio. The first-round draft choice ran with the second team throughout the preseason until Toribio's ankle injury opened the door. With his start, Poe will push to eight the consecutive years when the Chiefs No. 1 pick opened Game No. 1.
--ILB Brandon Siler may get a chance to play defense along with his special teams duties on Sunday against Atlanta due to a late groin injury suffered by starting ILB Jovan Belcher. He spent last year on the sidelines after a preseason Achilles injury.
--CB Jacques Reeves has not played a regular-season NFL game in two seasons but he will play in the opener against Atlanta and may be in the starting lineup pending the condition of Brandon Flowers' foot and Jalil Brown's groin. Those injuries have given Reeves time with the first defense in the week of preparation.
--ILB Derrick Johnson looks more and more like he's going to be good to go for Sunday's season opener against the Atlanta Falcons. The Chiefs have not made any announcement, but he's been taking most of his full turn in practice and said that while his sprained ankle is sore, it's not something he can't deal with.
--NT Anthony Toribio has very little chance of playing on Sunday against Atlanta because of a sprained ankle. Toribio has not gotten back into practice and spends his time in the rehab area, riding a stationary bike.
--CB Brandon Flowers has practiced this week on a limited basis, the first time he's gotten on the field in five weeks, since he suffered a foot injury on July 31 at training camp. Flowers has done some work with the first-team defense but he hasn't pushed the foot at full speed yet.
--FS Kendrick Lewis will miss the season opener because of a right shoulder injury that he suffered in the second preseason game. Lewis started all 16 games last year at free safety, but played most of that time with a right shoulder injury that led to offseason surgery.
--ILB Jovan Belcher came up lame after practice on Wednesday with a groin pull. Belcher did not practice on Thursday, as head coach/coordinator Romeo Crennel pulled him from the work in hopes to see him able to work on Friday. If Belcher can't play, Brandon Siler will replace him in the starting lineup.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS at MINNESOTA VIKINGS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
PREDICTION: Jaguars 20-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: Each team needs its running game to thrive to alleviate pressure on second-year starting quarterbacks who finished last season with a resounding thud. The problem? Neither top back is at full strength. Maurice Jones-Drew will back up Rashad Jennings, who has 132 career carries, after holding out for 38 days and reporting Sunday. In the Jaguars' new offense, QB Blaine Gabbert can check out of trouble spots and welcomes the addition of fifth overall pick Justin Blackmon, but his biggest worry is DEs Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Vikings QB Christian Ponder wasn't accurate and needs the threat of play-action that RB Adrian Peterson (knee) affords, but Toby Gerhart is expected to get the brunt of the workload.
FAST FACTS: Peterson is 67 rushing yards shy of Robert Smith's career Vikings rushing record of 6,818. ... The Jaguars were third in the AFC with a plus-five takeaway margin in 2011.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Jaguars may be missing two key defensive starters when they open the season in Minnesota Sunday.
Cornerback Derek Cox, their best cover corner, was limited for the second consecutive day Thursday with a hamstring injury while Daryl Smith, their best linebacker, didn't participate because of a groin injury.
Coach Mike Mularkey doesn't meet with the media on Thursdays so it is difficult to judge their status.
Cox seems unlikely to play but Smith's status is uncertain. He wasn't on the Wednesday injury report but on the Thursday injury report he was listed as N/A on Wednesday, which means he practiced Wednesday and then suffered a setback.
If both Cox and Smith can't play, it will be a setback for their defense as they face second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.
Mularkey hasn't named the replacements but Kyle Bosworth has been the next linebacker and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland are reserve corners.
The Jaguars did get good news when wide receiver Justin Blackmon was a full participant in practice after suffering an ankle injury in practice Wednesday.
Two players who were held out of practice for non-injury reasons, center Brad Meester and defensive end Aaron Morgan, also returned to practice. Meester got a veteran day off and Morgan was dealing with a personal issue.
Morgan's return gives them three healthy defensive ends. Two other ends, Austen Lane and George Selvie, are injured.
The topic of Adrian Peterson's playing status won't go away. At least not until late Friday night or Saturday morning.
After saying for a week that Peterson's Week 1 status will be a game-time decision, coach Leslie Frazier said Thursday that the team should have all the information it needs to make a decision either Friday night or Saturday morning.
Peterson's reps in practice have been increased to between 25 and 35, the same workload that his backup, Toby Gerhart, is getting. The contact he's getting is the same as any other player gets in-season, which means he's not being tackled to the ground or having his legs targeted.
Peterson, who had his left knee reconstructed a little more than eight months ago, said he hasn't been told which way the team will decide. But he's convinced that his goal of playing in the opener against the Jaguars will be achieved.
"I haven't had any doubts," Peterson said. "That's not the way I'm programmed. It's not the way you accomplish things - to have doubts. That comes from people around you. That is what it is. It comes with it. I feel I'm a positive guy, keeping my eyes focused on what I said I want to do."
Frazier insists the team has not made up its mind yet.
"I don't want to be conclusive on Thursday," he said.
So the decision that everyone has been waiting on since last December will have to wait at least another day.
"Everything we've asked him to do thus far, he's been able to get it done to the point where you believe he's functioning properly," Frazier said. "But we want to do some things with him (Friday) as well."
But even if Peterson is cleared for Sunday, Frazier said he'll be limited.
"You just can't forget that he's missed a lot of football and a lot of offseason and the fact that he's still coming off a major, major injury," Frazier said. "So we just need to be wise if he got into the game with what we did with him for sure."
--C Brad Meester returned to practice Thursday after getting a veteran day off Wednesday.
--DE Aaron Morgan returned to practice Thursday after getting a day off to deal with a personal issue.
--WR Laurent Robinson caught only two passes in the preseason but offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he wasn't targeting him and said he expects him to have a big season.
--WR Mike Thomas will start the season as the kick returner and slot receiver and could have a big impact on the team.
--OL Eben Britton was drafted to be a right tackle but is playing left guard because of injuries.
--LB Daryl Smith didn't practice Thursday with a groin injury and his status is uncertain for Sunday. He was listed as N/A for Wednesday on the Thursday report which means he practiced Wednesday and then suffered a setback.
--CB Derex Cox was limited for the second consecutive day Thursday with a hamstring injury and is unlikely to play.
--WR Justin Blackmon returned to practice Thursday after suffering a knee injury on Wednesday.
--CB Mike Harris was limited Thursday for the second consecutive day with a hamstring injury and may not play.
--G Uche Nwaneri returned to full practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday with an ankle injury.
--DE Austen Lane didn't practice Thursday with a foot injury and won't play.
--DE George Selvie didn't practice Thursday with a knee injury and won't play.
--CB Antoine Winfield missed Thursday's practice for personal reasons. He's expected back Friday. Winfield has had a good camp and preseason. At 35, he's nine years older than the next oldest defensive back and 10 years older than the next oldest cornerback. Yet he's still the best defensive back on the team.
--LDE Brian Robison, who is coming off a career-high eight sacks a season ago, will go up against right tackle Cameron Bradfield, a second-year player who made two starts last year as an undrafted rookie. Robison is good at taking advantage of any extra attention paid to right defensive end Jared Allen.
--WR Tori Gurley was added to the Vikings' practice squad and could work his way up to the 53-man roster by season's end. A year ago, the Vikings tried to sign him off the Packers' practice squad, but Gurley declined the offer and stayed in Green Bay. When the Packers released him, the Vikings were quick to extend the offer to join the practice squad.
--MLB Jasper Brinkley still has to prove that he's capable of being the team's starting middle linebacker. Questions abound after Brinkley, who has never been a full-time starter, missed all of last season because of hip surgery. The Vikings don't have much of a Plan B or Plan C behind Brinkley. Rookie seventh-round draft pick Audie Cole is listed No. 2 while Tyrone McKenzie, an unheralded free-agent acquisition, is listed No. 3.
--WR Michael Jenkins will start opposite Percy Harvin on Sunday. Jenkins, a starter last year, gets the nod this year by default. Jerome Simpson is the starter, but will serve a three-game suspension to start the season. The Vikings wanted one of their younger backups to step forward, but the slower 30-year-old Jenkins was the best option to start.
--RB Adrian Peterson (knee) had his left knee reconstructed a little more than eight months ago. He is on schedule to meet his goal of returning in time for the season opener, but the Vikings are being extra cautious not to rush him. Coach Leslie Frazier had said for awhile that it would be a game-time decision, but changed that on Thursday, saying a decision likely would be made Friday night or Saturday morning. Either way, even if Peterson plays, his touches will be severely limited.
--LB Marvin Mitchell (ankle) didn't practice and is unlikely to play on Sunday. He's a backup and special teamer the team can get by without.
--WR Jarius Wright (ankle) didn't practice and is unlikely to play on Sunday. He's the sixth receiver on the team and a backup return man, so his presence won't be missed.
--PR Marcus Sherels (ankle) got some work in practice on Wednesday and is expected to play. He's the No. 1 punt returner and backup to Percy Harvin at kick returner.
--S Andrew Sendejo (ankle) didn't practice and is unlikely to play on Sunday. He's a backup safety and a special teamer the team can get by without.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Intensity Synthetic Turf
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
PREDICTION: Saints 35-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Redskins revealed little in the preseason and kept hidden large chunks of the playbook adapted from the Baylor offense Robert Griffin III mastered as the 2011 Heisman winner. The Redskins' offense, loosely rooted in the West Coast scheme, remains dependent upon contributions from the running game and three backs -- led by Evan Royster -- will have a regular role in the attack. Saints QB Drew Brees was masterful finding favorable one-on-one matchups last season. He'll attack the Redskins' over-aggressive man defense by getting rid of the ball before OLB Brian Orakpo and assorted blitz packages snarl the Saints' passing game.
FAST FACTS: Redskins coach Mike Shanahan's 14 career Week 1 wins is tops among active coaches. ... Brees set single-season records with 5,476 pass yards, 13 300-yard games, 468 completions and a 71.2 completion percentage in 2011.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Roy Helu hasn't talked to the media this week. The other two candidates to start at running back in Sunday's season opener at New Orleans, Helu's fellow second-year man, Evan Royster, and rookie Alfred Morris, maintain that they're in the dark about who's going to get the nod.
"I'm planning like I'm going to start," said Royster, who started the final two games of 2011 and last month's preseason opener and is listed first on the depth chart. "I don't think it really matters because I think we're all going to play. I'm much more confident than I was last year because I know what I'm doing. I'm not nervous like I was last year. Maybe not knowing messes with some people's mentality ... but I don't think it matters whether I know (now) or not until Sunday."
Sixth-round draft choice Morris, who earned raves after rebounding from a shaky outing in the second preseason game at Chicago to rush for 197 yards on 14 carries the following week against Indianapolis, was equally mellow about the situation.
"I don't worry about who's starting," Morris said. "I enjoy playing. I'm just having fun. I just want an opportunity to play. It's coach's decision. Whatever he decides, I'm down with it. I don't think my preseason could have gone any better. I got better as it went along. Starting would be a real accomplishment as a rookie. I certainly didn't expect that when I was drafted."
Washington was 30th in 2010 with 1,461 rushing yards when Ryan Torain replaced injured fellow former Bronco Clinton Portis for good as the No. 1 back in November. Last season, the Redskins only rose to 25th in rushing with 1,614 yards as the since-released Tim Hightower and Torain carried the load early and rookies Helu and Royster did so down the stretch.
With Hightower's surprising release last Friday, Shanahan is going with Helu (five career starts), Royster (two) and Morris (zero) making them the least experienced group of backs in the league.
"We have three guys that we know can play," said Shanahan, who wants to make sure about the health of Helu, who missed the Bears and Colts games with a tender Achilles, and Royster, who missed the latter contest with a knee injury then sprained his neck in the finale against Tampa Bay.
But quarterback Robert Griffin said, while agreeing that "they can all go out there and tote the rock," added, "Hopefully one of them can separate himself from the rest."
Thanks to 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, there's a little extra buzz about the Saints' regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
For Saints' coaches and players on the defensive side of the ball, the buzz comes from having the task of figuring out how to stop one of the most electric players in college football last season.
For some of the other players, including Drew Brees, there's some excitement about seeing another young quarterback making his first NFL start like Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton -- all No. 1 draft picks -- have done in recent years.
Griffin was the second overall pick in the draft, but his dual-threat abilities will make for another highly-anticipated debut against the Saints.
But the fact that he doesn't have a lot of film to go on won't make much of a difference to the Saints, interim coach Aaron Kromer pointed out this week.
"When a guy has a gap, he fills his gap. When he has a responsibility, he does his responsibility, so as long as (all) of the guys are doing their job," Kromer said in trying to defend the shifty Griffin.
"Obviously, with a lot of potential on this quarterback who can run the ball, it is going to be big to stop him," he said.
Certainly, Kromer knows what the Saints are up against -- and it's not about the hype that has accompanied Griffin to the pro ranks.
"He took Baylor and made them into a powerhouse, which they hadn't been in a long time," he said. "When one guy can really change a program, and he has shown he can do it in college, there's a good chance he can do it in the NFL."
--OLB Brian Orakpo (shoulder), who had been sidelined since injuring his left shoulder in the first half at Chicago on Aug. 18, practiced for a second straight day on Thursday and is expected to start at New Orleans.
--FB Darrel Young (hamstring), who had been sidelined since injuring his right hamstring on July 30, practiced for a second straight day on Thursday and is expected to play at New Orleans.
--LG Kory Lichtensteiger (knee), who had been sidelined since having his right knee scoped on July 30, practiced for a second straight day on Thursday and is expected to start at New Orleans.
--RB Evan Royster, who left the preseason finale against Tampa Bay with a neck injury, practiced for a second straight day on Thursday and is expected to play at New Orleans.
--NT Chris Baker, who injured an ankle against the Bucs, practiced on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday and is expected to play at New Orleans.
--RDE Turk McBride will likely start Sunday in place of Will Smith, who is serving a four-game suspension for his role in the bounty scandal.
--WR Courtney Roby could be the fourth wide receiver on the field if Adrian Arrington is unable to play because of his knee problems.
--WR Joe Morgan may also have a chance to be bumped up to be the fourth wideout if Arrington can't play Sunday.
--WR Marques Colston (foot) was able to practice on a limited basis Thursday and is expected to play Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
--WR Adrian Arrington (knee) experienced swelling Thursday and did not participate in practice and his status for Sunday's game was unknown.
--T Marcel Jones (knee) did not practice Thursday and his availability for the game with the Redskins is not known.
--LCB Jabari Greer (sports hernia) was limited again Thursday, but will likely be ready for Sunday's game.
--MLB Curtis Lofton (ankle) had full participation in practice for the first time since being injured on Aug. 17 and should start Sunday.
--WLB David Hawthorne (knee) was able to practice fully Thursday and should be ready for Sunday's game.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at ARIZONA CARDINALS =================================================
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Heath Evans, Heidi Androl
PREDICTION: Seahawks 24-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals have a makeshift offensive line and with QB John Skelton winning the starting job almost by default, Arizona will attempt to attack the teeth of Seattle's defense with RBs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. The Seahawks feature a big, physical defensive group that is charged with keeping games low scoring. RB Marshawn Lynch is questionable with back spasms, although rookie Robert Turbin displayed a similarly hard-nosed style during the preseason. Seattle loves rookie QB Russell Wilson's leadership and scrambling ability, but questions persist about moving the ball between the hashes at under 5-feet-11, and Seattle has another rookie in RG J.R. Sweezy.
FAST FACTS: Seattle will travel 26,200 miles for road games this season, second-most behind Oakland's 28,692. ... Arizona will feature three new starters on the offensive line from the end of last season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch returned to practice for the first time in over two weeks, and was a limited participant in Thursday's workout for Seattle as the team readies for the season opener at NFC West division rival Arizona.
Lynch hasn't practiced or played in a game since Seattle's second preseason game at Denver on Aug. 18, but appeared to move well working through individual and team drills during the early portions of practice for Seattle.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday that he would take a day-by-day approach to Lynch's availability for Sunday's game against the Cardinals, waiting until the end of the week to determine if his starting running back would be ready.
Lynch has been bothered by back spasms, but told reporters this week that he would prepare as if he will be ready to play this weekend.
Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt certainly expects to see Lynch on the field down in the desert.
"I expect him to play," Whisenhunt said, when asked if he was preparing for Seattle's offense any different because Lynch's back spasms might keep him out of the game. "It's not affecting our preparation. We're preparing that he's going to play."
While Lynch returned to practice, reserve quarterback Matt Flynn was a surprise addition to the injury report on Thursday. Flynn's sore elbow cropped up as an issue again this week, and he was a limited participant in practice on Thursday.
The LSU product missed Seattle's third preseason game with tendinitis in his throwing arm, but the pain subsided enough for him to play in the team's final preseason game against Oakland. However, it appears that Flynn might have to manage the injury for an extended period of time to begin the season.
Inside linebacker Daryl Washington, one of the team's best young players, agreed to terms on a new six-year contract, the club announced on Thursday.
Washington, a second-round pick in 2010, had two years remaining on his rookie deal. Financial terms were not released but it's believed Washington received significant bumps in salary this year and in 2013.
Washington led the team in tackles a year ago with 111. He also had five sacks and 16 tackles for loss. That's the most tackles for loss by a Cardinal since end Clyde Simmons had 17 in 1995.
Washington, who plays the weak side, is an important part of the defense. The scheme is to keep blockers off Washington and allow him to use his speed to make tackles.
Washington plays on all downs. He turns 26 next month and should continue to improve.
Ten of the Cardinals' defensive starters are under contract beyond this season. Only inside linebacker Paris Lenon is in the last year of his deal.
--FS Chris Maragos returned to practice this week after suffering a shoulder injury two weeks ago in the team's third preseason game at Kansas City, and should be ready to play against Arizona. Maragos serves as the backup for safety Earl Thomas.
--WR Doug Baldwin returned to practice this week after missing the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. Baldwin full participated in practice and appears ready to play on Sunday.
--WR Ricardo Lockette returned to Seattle's practice squad after being released during final roster cut downs. Lockette made a couple of explosive plays during the back stretch of the 2011 season, and the team still likes his potential as a big-play threat.
--DE Greg Scruggs (hamstring) did not practice again on Thursday, and likely will not play against Arizona.
--WR Golden Tate (knee) missed his third straight day of practice on Thursday, but has not been ruled out for Sunday's game at Arizona.
--OL James Carpenter (knee) was a limited participant in practice on Thursday, and likely will not play against the Cardinals.
--LT D'Anthony Batiste will start his first NFL game at tackle on Sunday. Batiste last started a game in 2007. He started four games at guard that year for the Falcons.
--RT Bobby Massie, the fourth-round pick, will open the season as the starting right tackle.
--CB Jamell Fleming, the third-round pick, likely will be the team's nickel back to begin the season, replacing Michael Adams.
--DB Justin Bethel was drafted as a safety but he's practicing at cornerback, too. Bethel has a long way to go as a defender but he should excel on special teams. He blocked three kicks in the preseason.
--WR Michael Floyd is technically the team's fourth receiver. But he'll play in specialty situations and could be dangerous in the red zone.
--RG Adam Snyder is nursing a left elbow injury that has limited him in practice this week. He is expected to play, however.
--OLB O'Brien Schofield has dealt with a sore, swollen knee over the last two weeks. The Cardinals have given him some downtime in practice and expect him to play against the Seahawks.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS at GREEN BAY PACKERS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
PREDICTION: Packers 23-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers aren't likely to make much headway against the 49ers' run defense with a backfield headlined by Cedric Benson. Green Bay featured a more up-tempo offense during the preseason, and San Francisco struggled against Denver's no-huddle offense during the exhibition slate. Look for QB Aaron Rodgers to get to the line quickly, spread the field with his deep receiving corps and try to tax the 49ers' secondary. The 49ers upgraded their passing game and WR Randy Moss is expected to start, but they remain a run-first offense. QB Alex Smith's main priority is protecting the ball, and he has a big target in TE Vernon Smith, who has averaged 23.7 yards per catch with three touchdowns in the past three meetings.
FAST FACTS: Moss has 1,273 career receiving yards against the Packers, which includes 13 touchdowns in 14 games. ... The Packers have 19 former undrafted free agents on their opening 53-man roster.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
No one knows what to expect from Randy Moss on his return to Green Bay's Lambeau Field. Moss has scored 15 touchdowns against the Packers, the most of any other player. He also needs 57 yards to have the most yardage against the Pack of any player.
But Moss can't predict how he and the 49ers will perform this Sunday. "Well, I don't think any receiver really feels like they're where they want to be going into the season," Moss said. "The only thing I can really hang my hat on is we put enough work in to go into Week 1. That's all I can really say."
In a brief chat with the media, Moss said repeatedly that he was just glad he made the team, which some other receivers of his same vintage did not do. Terrell Owens was released in Seattle and Chad Johnson was booted out of Dolphins' training camp.
Meanwhile, Moss continues to draw raves from teammates and his coaches about his on-field ability and his locker-room demeanor.
"He's good," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's darn good. We feel great about him."
Moss did not miss a day of training camp and he is a loud and humorous presence in the locker room.
"I love being around this group. These guys are so young and so energetic," Moss said. "They love to have fun. When you boil it all down, we're nothing but big kids."
Moss will start in Green Bay, the site of his most notorious on-field antic -- the wiping of his posterior on the goal post at hallowed Lambeau back in 2005, his last year as a Viking. One stipulation in talking to Moss, was that he didn't want to discuss his history in Green Bay. Moss touched on it anyway.
"I just don't like people bringing up the old stuff," Moss said. "I tried to have fun with the fans -- tried to have fun. But at the same time, I want to go out here and compete. I think it's a good thing that my comeback -- or whatever you want to consider it. ...Lambeau's a nice place to start it."
Aaron Rodgers had no trouble sprinting past linebackers and defensive backs from the Cincinnati Bengals as he pulled the football down and scored two touchdowns with his feet in an Aug. 23 preseason game.
Rodgers isn't so sure he can come out the winner if he feels the urge to turn the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers into a mini-track meet on the Lambeau Field turf Sunday.
"It's going to be a fast game," Rodgers said. "This is a defense that, opposed to some of the teams we played in the preseason, they really close fast.
"As a quarterback who likes to move around, I think that's definitely on my mind. It's probably not going to be me getting out in the open and making a move and trying to outrun somebody. It's me getting out (on the run), looking to make a play with throwing the football. When I have to run, making sure I figure out how fast those guys are coming and getting down, because those guys do really get after you quickly. ... You just have to be safe with the football."
As potent as he is throwing the football, Rodgers is doubly dangerous because of his athleticism, nimble feet and fearless play to take off with the ball when the pocket collapses.
Rodgers has rushed for at least 200 yards every season he's been Green Bay's starter since 2008. He ranked second on the team in 2009 and '10 with 316 and 356 yards, respectively, and had the third-highest total with 257 yards last season.
This preseason, Rodgers led the Packers with an average of 8.4 rushing yards and the two touchdowns he ran in against the Bengals.
Running the football against the 49ers, who gave up a league-low 77.3 rushing yards per game and only 3.5 yards per carry last season, will be a tall order for Green Bay's new-look backfield. The Packers signed veteran standout Cedric Benson midway through training camp and also are looking to get second-year player Alex Green involved after he missed most of last season because of a torn ACL.
If push comes to shove and Rodgers has to take matters into not only his hands but also with his feet, seeing his name atop Green Bay's rushing list on the stats sheet Sunday wouldn't be a surprise. The league MVP did so twice last season, including a career-high 66 yards in seven scrambles in the Packers' last meaningful game - their 37-20 upset loss to the New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs Jan. 15 at Lambeau.
Head coach Mike McCarthy feels that perhaps more than any other season Rodgers is cut out to take on all challengers out of the starting block, if needed.
"I think he is leaner and stronger than he's been in the past," McCarthy said this week. "I think he's in really good shape right now. From the time he left here in June to training camp, he definitely got himself ready."
--WR Kyle Williams will likely get the start as the punt returner in Green Bay because of injury.
--QB Colin Kaepernick's job this week is to be Aaron Rodgers. Defensive backs wanted Kaepernick because they want to get used to his strong arm. S Donte Whitner said Kaepernick's fastball is so hard, it burns your hands when he catches his passes. Whitner also said defensive backs have caught balls after practice from a cranked up juggs gun.
--RB Kendall Hunter will handle the main kickoff return duties if Ted Ginn Jr. is sidelined for this game.
--DE Justin Smith will "destroy" Packers LT Marshall Newhouse according to NFL analyst and former Bears defensive lineman Tim Ryan. He said Newhouse will really struggle against Smith in the run game.
--WR Ted Ginn Jr. missed practice again with a sprained ankle. Ginn has not practiced since Aug. 26 when he turned the ankle in Denver.
--RB Brandon Jacobs (knee) was also held out for a second straight day and will probably miss the opener.
--RB Cedric Benson is up to speed with the terminology of the Packers offense. Head coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday he feels "very comfortable" that Benson knows the game plan going into Sunday's season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Benson is expected to make the start at halfback, four weeks after the Packers signed the eighth-year player. Benson played the final two preseason games and had 10 carries for 49 yards.
--QB Aaron Rodgers will make his third start against the 49ers, his favorite team while growing up in Northern California. Rodgers completed 70.7 percent of his passes (53-of-75) for 642 yards and five touchdowns without an interception for a 118.9 passer rating in the first two meetings, both Green Bay wins.
--NT B.J. Raji had full-time work in the team's padded practice Thursday and, barring a setback by the end of the week, will be ready to play in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Pro Bowl lineman suffered an ankle injury on the first play from scrimmage in the Packers' final preseason game Aug. 30.
--CB Davon House practiced in pads Thursday but was limited in his participation. The second-year player is a long shot to be activated Sunday. House, a starting candidate early in training camp, returned to practice Wednesday after being out since suffering a dislocated left shoulder Aug. 9. He is wearing a protective harness over the shoulder. Jarrett Bush is penciled in as the starter on the right side, opposite Tramon Williams.
--S Sean Richardson practiced Thursday for the first time this week. Richardson, an undrafted rookie, had limited work a week after he suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason finale.
--TE Tom Crabtree practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. Crabtree, a key contributor in the Packers' multiple-tight end sets for his blocking abilities, is expected to be cleared to play Sunday. He has been recovering from a shoulder sprain he sustained Aug. 23.
--RB James Starks remained out and won't play Sunday because of a turf-toe injury he suffered Aug. 9. The presumptive starting halfback at the outset of training camp is iffy to get back on the field next week, when the Packers will have a short turnaround and play the Chicago Bears in a Thursday night game Sept. 13.
--LB Jamari Lattimore, a contributor on special teams, didn't practice Thursday after being a limited participant the previous day. Lattimore is trying to bounce back from an ankle injury.
CAROLINA PANTHERS at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Mike Martz, Kristina Pink
PREDICTION: Panthers 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers outscored the Bucs 86-35 in sweeping the series last season. Carolina rushed for 270 yards in the second meeting, and Panthers QB Cam Newton racked up 594 yards in the two games. Tampa Bay has a new defensive scheme and upgraded personnel, and will be charged with containing that ground game and forcing Newton to be efficient out of third-and-long. Bucs QB Josh Freeman lost 30 pounds and the team brought in WR Vincent Jackson to help stretch the field. But Freeman is still getting comfortable in the new offense, and needs a strong debut out of rookie RB Doug Martin. The element of surprise - Carolina looked at old Rutgers tape to get a feel for Bucs coach Greg Schiano's schemes -- is Tampa Bay's best weapon.
FAST FACTS: Schiano and Panthers coach Ron Rivera were both on the Chicago Bears' staff from 1997-98.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The last time Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano game-planned for a regular-season game in the NFL, he was studying tape of Brett Favre and the Packers.
Schiano, who was the Bears' defensive backfield coach for that 1998 season finale, spent the next 14 years in college football. This Sunday in Tampa Bay, the former Rutgers head coach will be welcomed back to the pros by one of the NFL's more unique tests: game-planning for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Which challenge do you even start off with?
"What challenge doesn't he present is the better question," Schiano said this week. "He does everything. He runs the football. He throws the football. He even catches the football. You're not going to stop Cam Newton. No one has.
"Our job is to try and contain him and not let him sting you too bad. When you're dealing with a guy like Cam, you're just trying to hold off the explosion."
After a 2011 season full of eye-popping stats, perhaps none illustrate Newton's success as good as this: he accounted for 35 touchdowns -- The Titans, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Redskins, Colts, Jaguars, Browns, Chiefs and Rams all scored less than 35 times last year.
While some expect last season's Rookie of the Year to experience a sophomore slump, the exact opposite could happen. Newton may just be getting started.
"I think he understands more and more what this offense is about," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "I think he'll begin to change his decision-making process. I think he'll begin to take what's given to him at times."
One of Newton's biggest problems last season was a propensity to dwell too long on the negative. He's vowed to hide some of those outward emotions after interceptions or losses this season.
While the 23 year old has some growing up to do, one thing the kid doesn't lack is confidence.
"So many people still have expectations, feel a certain way about me, but I don't think none of them will ever be as high as mine," Newton said. "I'm not surprised by nothing that I do. The only thing that surprises me is when I do not play to my potential."
Newton's first chance to back up that potential comes Sunday against the Bucs and Schiano. The rookie head coach has the unenviable task of getting this year's first look at last year's most-impressive rookie player.
Newton's numbers from 2011 have made the Panthers a trendy "dark-horse" team heading into 2012. But the kid with all that confidence knows potential and talk mean nothing until the real games start.
"I think there's a lot of guys that are getting it, including myself," Newton said when asked about the expectations surrounding the Panthers. "But I think it will be answered on Sunday.
"It's easy for me to come out here and hoo-rah and say this or say that, how this guy's doing good or how this guy's doing good. But it's all going to come down to how we perform on Sunday."
Boise State rookie Doug Martin won the Bucs' starting tailback spot. How many touches will he get against Carolina? As many as he can handle, according to coach Greg Schiano.
"I think it is a feel thing, and that's probably not as scientific as maybe you want it to be, but that's the way I look at it," Schiano said. "I have a long-term vision, I know it's a long season, I know all those things. But you get to play this game this Sunday. It's a one-game season as far as I'm concerned then we pick up the next one after that.
"You do everything you can to be 1-0 at the end of this one-game season."
Martin is a complete back who is capable of playing on all three downs. Schiano compares him to the Ravens' Ray Rice, whom he coached at Rutgers. Schiano wasn't shy about making Rice a workhorse and he won't hesitate to put Martin in that role for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay has some other options in the backfield. LeGarrette Blount, the team's leading rusher the past two seasons, could give Martin a rest on occasion. He also will be used in four-minute situations to hammer the defense.
"LeGarrette adds a dimension, in terms of his size, as a complementary back," Bucs offensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "We're very excited about where we are right now with Doug and the things he's done and the ability to have a 1-2 punch. I think in this league, it's very hard to carry the entire load. We're just trying to make sure we have a fresh pair of legs that's ready to run behind a very physical offensive line and control the line of scrimmage and establish the run game."
The Bucs also have rookie Michael Smith, who will return kickoffs, and former Giants running back D.J. Ware, who can play on third down.
Ware was signed on Saturday by the Bucs after being released by the Giants and has made a seamless transition to the Bucs offense under Sullivan, the former Giants quarterback coach.
"Right now we're trying to get all our (backs) ready," Sullivan said. "He's hitting the ground running. I certainly have a comfort level being with him all those years in New York in pressure situations - third down, two-minute, etc."
--WR Steve Smith plans to walk off the field Sunday barefoot. He'll take off his cleats and walk back to the locker room to raise awareness for Samaritan's Feet, a Charlotte-based organization that provides footwear for impoverished children. Smith, who participated in a number of Samaritan's Feet events this summer, will give away shoes on most of the Panthers' road trips this season, starting Saturday in Clearwater, Fla. "This isn't a publicity stunt to bring attention to myself," Smith said in a statement. "I have seen the hurt and need firsthand in L.A., Charlotte, Peru, Dominican Republic, Memphis and several other places. People in our own country are wearing shoes three and four sizes too small or their shoes have lost all integrity." Ironically, before he returned to practice this week, Smith was having trouble wearing a shoe on his left foot. He missed the last two weeks of preseason with an infection, but he will start against the Bucs.
--DT Dwan Edwards isn't listed first on the Panthers depth chart, but he should get the bulk of snaps alongside DT Ron Edwards. Dwan Edwards, who joined the team Sunday after he was released by Buffalo, has had to do some last-minute cramming, but he gets the gist of what Carolina hopes to do on defense. "I know they want to play fast. They got some great linebackers, so hopefully I'll allow them to run around and make plays like they're capable of. I just want to come here and help in any way I can," Edwards said.
--DT Corvey Irvin, who was picked up off waivers by the Bucs this week, may get a chance to play against the team that drafted him. After the Panthers used a 2009 third-round pick on Irvin, he appeared in only two games before he was released before the 2011 season. Irvin's on a list of Panthers' third-round, defensive tackle busts. Terrell McClain, a 2011 draftee, was cut Sunday. And Atiyyah Ellison, who the Panthers took in the 2005 draft, never appeared in a game for Carolina.
--RB Jonathan Stewart, who's been out since spraining his ankle against the Jets on Aug. 26, missed practice again Thursday. Coach Ron Rivera's been "optimistic" about Stewart's chances to play against the Bucs, but Rivera also admits the Panthers have game planned to play without their fifth-year back. If Stewart doesn't play, RB DeAngelo Williams will share carries with FB Mike Tolbert.
--CB Myron Lewis took reps at E.J. Biggers' cornerback spot.
--PK Connor Barth has made 15 straight field-goal attempts, one short of the team record shared by Martin Gramatica and Michael Husted.
--CB Ronde Barber will start his 200th consecutive game Sunday, extending his streak of the most among active cornerbacks.
--CB E.J. Biggers still is out with a foot injury and did not practice Thursday. He is not expected to play.
--CB Anything Gaitor has a hamstring strain and did not practice Thursday.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS at DENVER BRONCOS
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya)
PREDICTION: Broncos 28-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers want to be more balanced under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley - especially against potentially strong offenses like Denver's. But with RB Rashard Mendenhall's (knee) status uncertain and no proven backups, look for plenty of quick strikes in the passing game to combat the Broncos' pass rush.
Peyton Manning completed 71.4 percent of his passes during the preseason, but has admitted getting in sync with a new offensive scheme and a new group of receivers will be a season-long exercise. If Pittsburgh struggles to disrupt the pocket, Manning should have his way with the Steelers starting a new left cornerback and FS Ryan Clark not playing for health reasons in high altitude.
FAST FACTS: Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the Broncos' first play of overtime to lead Denver to a 29-23 win in the wild card round of the playoffs last season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
It looks as though the Steelers will have to play in Denver without one of its best players, and that could make life easier for Peyton Manning.
James Harrison, who had his knee scoped Aug. 15, did not practice Thursday and looks as though he will not play in Denver Sunday night. Harrison practiced Monday for the first time after he came off the PUP list. He signaled on Tuesday that all was well with his knee.
However, he was limited in practice Wednesday and refused to talk about his knee afterward. After watching practice on Wednesday, he wrote two notes to the media. "I will answer all questions on Fridays." And the other note said, "And only Fridays." He signed his name to both notes.
Harrison missed all of training camp, first because of swelling in his knee and then after the surgery to remove part of the meniscus that was thought to be causing it. He also participated very little in spring drills.
Harrison missed four games last season with a broken eye socket and another to an NFL suspension for his rough play. He still made his fifth straight Pro Bowl in his fifth season as their starting right outside linebacker.
Chris Carter, a second-year player who played strictly special teams as a rookie, will start in Harrison's place.
Fortunately for the Steelers, their other pass-rushing linebacker, LaMarr Woodley, is ready to go. Woodley, who plays on the left outside, had nine sacks after the first eight games last season than played little in the second half of the season. He was on pace to break Harrison's team record of 16 sacks, set in 2008. Harrison is fourth on the Steelers' career sack list with 58.
You can't swing around one of the Broncos' iPad playbooks in their locker room without finding a defensive player who has said their unit's goal is to finish in the league's top five this year. It's the mantra that's been passed down from coordinator Jack Del Rio to his players: to build off the improvement from 32nd to 20th last year and leap into the upper echelon.
But it won't happen without the Broncos consistently getting pressure on and subsequently bringing down opposing quarterbacks. In some cases, the first part of that will be enough to disrupt and cause a few errant throws. Against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, that's a different matter altogether.
"When I was in Baltimore, he would drive us crazy because we just knew we had to contain him and if he broke containment; that's how he got us," said defensive tackle Justin Bannan, who played with the Ravens from 2006-09. "The guy's elusive and he's a big guy so you think he's not that fast, but he really is. With the combination of size and speed, it makes it tough."
During the Broncos' 29-23 wild-card win over the Steelers last Jan. 8, Denver got to Roethlisberger for five sacks -- including one each by defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller, the Broncos' primary edge pass rushers. But Roethlisberger was hobbling on one healthy leg during that game -- and in spite of that, still managed to elude enough pass rushers to guide the Steelers to 17 second-half points, leading a comeback that was doomed by a sudden-death, 80-yard Tim Tebow-to-Demaryius Thomas touchdown connection.
Bum ankle and all, Roethlisberger torched the Broncos for 145 yards on 11-of-17 passing after halftime of that playoff game.
"How many guys can you see that size that can scramble and be accurate at the same time? Not a lot," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "He gives you a lot of fits because he extends plays. He's as sharp as they come."
That's where the Broncos' defensive tackles must marshal a more consistent pass rush than the group did last year. The two starters for most of the season, Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas, are gone; Bunkley signed with the Saints in free agency, while Thomas wasn't re-signed. Of the Broncos' four primary defensive tackles -- Bannan, Ty Warren, Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein -- only Unrein was on the 53-man roster at the end of last year.
If Dumervil, Miller and defensive end Derek Wolfe get to Roethlisberger, they might not be able to bring him down alone. They'll need help, which the defensive tackles must provide.
"When we get to him, we've got to gang-tackle him," said Vickerson, who, like Warren, spent most of the 2011 season on injured reserve. "Ben's good at extending the plays, so we've got to continue our rush, because he can lose you with his feet a little bit, making time in the pocket. You've just got to close in on him and gang-tackle him and make sure you grab him and get him down."
Top-five defenses do that. Denver will learn quickly whether that's a realistic possibility.
--WR Mike Wallace likely will start in Denver after holding out the entire preseason. In the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos last year, Wallace caught three passes for 26 yards, and ran one yard around end for a touchdown.
--DE Ziggy Hood, the team's No. 1 pick in 2009, finally opens a season as a starter. He did not start until the third game of last season.
--G Ramon Foster will open the season as injured rookie David DeCastro's replacement at right guard. Foster started 26 games at guard the past two seasons, including the post-season.
--S Ryan Mundy has started only two regular-season games in his previous four years (the first on the practice squad), both coming in 2010. He will make his second consecutive start for Ryan Clark in Denver, counting January's playoff game.
--RB Rashard Mendenhall went through his third straight full practice. He is recovering from January ACL surgery and his participation in the opener is still considered slim.
--LB Larry Foote (ankle) returned to a full practice Thursday after skipping Wednesday's practice.
--RB Baron Batch (groin) did not practice Thursday after being limited on Wednesday.
--RB Isaac Redman (ankle), the presumed starter with Mendenhall out, went through a full practice but there remains concern about his injury.
--LB Jason Worilds (wrist) seems good to go after his third straight practice.
--LB Stevenson Sylvester (knee, MCL) did not practice and will not play.
--RB Knowshon Moreno was promoted to the second team after spending training camp listed fourth on the depth chart. Moreno averaged 7.0 yards per carry in the preseason finale, his best work since tearing his ACL last November.
--RB Lance Ball is listed as the third-team running back, but could have a major role in the Broncos' passing game. He was targeted by Peyton Manning seven times in the preseason, which tied him for the team lead.
--TE Julius Thomas is the Broncos' only reserve tight end behind Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. The Broncos made heavy use of two-tight end formations during training camp, so if injury strikes, Thomas -- who is still not 100 percent after undergoing March ankle surgery -- is the Broncos' only insurance.
--FS Jim Leonhard will handle punt-return duties. Leonhard was the most experienced punt returner on the roster and sealed the position with a 17-yard return in the preseason finale Aug. 30.
--G Manny Ramirez will start for the injured Chris Kuper at right guard. Ramirez worked with the first team throughout the preseason, but hasn't played a regular-season snap on the offensive line since 2009, when he was with Detroit.
--CB Omar Bolden is on the third team at cornerback, but will contribute immediately as a rookie on kickoff returns. Bolden earned the job after sprinting 103 yards for a touchdown at Arizona on Aug. 30. It was the Broncos' longest touchdown of any kind in any game -- preseason, regular season or postseason.
--LB Steven Johnson beat out 2011 draft pick Mike Mohamed for the backup middle linebacker slot. Johnson, an undrafted rookie, led the Broncos in preseason tackles.
--RG Chris Kuper will miss at least the first regular-season game and perhaps as many as three as he recovers from a fractured forearm suffered in practice on Aug. 14. He was the only Bronco who didn't practice this week.
--LB Keith Brooking moved up to the backup weak-side linebacker slot in spite of missing the entire preseason because of a hamstring injury. Brooking practiced this week and is also a relief option at middle linebacker.
CINCINNATI BENGALS at BALTIMORE RAVENS
KICKOFF: Monday, 7:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum Turf
TV: ESPN (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters)
PREDICTION: Ravens 27-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens have infused a high-tempo, no-huddle look to their offense, and will look to get QB Joe Flacco in rhythm early. Baltimore knows it can run; RB Ray Rice racked up 295 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the Ravens' season sweep of the series last year. Cincinnati didn't show much production with its own ground game during the preseason, but the expectation is for RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott to set the table for QB Andy Dalton to work off play-action. The Bengals need to be more consistent on the ground and get more production out of their other receivers so the offense isn't so reliant on Dalton connecting on deep passes to WR A.J. Green.
FAST FACTS: Dalton was the first rookie quarterback to throw for over 20 touchdowns and lead a team to eight wins or more in 2011. ... Rice has 33 career receptions against the Bengals, his most against any team.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
In the two games the Bengals faced the Ravens last season, Baltimore running back Ray Rice had a field day against the Cincinnati defense, rushing for 295 yards and four touchdowns as the Ravens swept the Bengals for the first time since 2008.
If Cincinnati is to win its opener for the second straight year on Monday night, they will need to shut down Rice, who is effective as a rusher and receiver. Rice has 33 catches for 275 yards against the Bengals, which is the most he has against any opponent.
"He likes to cut back a lot and has a low center of gravity. He's got tremendous lower body strength," defensive tackle Geno Atkins said. "Even though you hit him you've got to make sure you've got him down on the ground because he will bounce off of that tackle and keep running."
The Bengals run defense struggled over the second half of last season. They finished 10th in the league but in seven of the final nine games, including the playoffs, teams ran for over 100 yards.
That is one reason why the Bengals signed defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who is known as a good run blocker off the edge, and drafted tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson.
The Bengals the majority of the time last year held Rice to carries of three yards or less, but it was the three carries of 50 yards or more that people remember.
"You have to get in your gaps, stay on your feet and make the tackle. That's how you prevent any run from going the distance," head coach Marvin Lewis said.
Ravens nose tackle guard Terrence Cody is wondering whether he'll start Monday night when the Ravens open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals.
After starting every game last season and recording a career-high 34 tackles for the NFL's third-ranked defense, Cody has seemingly lost ground to veteran defensive lineman Ma'ake Kemoeatu.
Although Cody is still listed as first on the depth chart, a resurgent Kemoeatu, who was out of football last year after getting up to a hefty 400 pounds, started during the preseason. Kemoeatu had five tackles, one for a loss during the preseason as Cody finished with four tackles and one pass deflection.
"We really don't know right now," Cody said. "I'll know a lot closer to game time what the playing time will be or if I'm up or starting or not."
Cody acknowledged that he would be disappointed if he loses his starting job and suggested that the coaching staff may be trying to use the carrot of starting to push him to perform.
"It will be, but, either way it goes, I'm still playing and it can change up later on during the year and I can get my spot back," Cody said. "I feel like it was a motivational thing to help me really focus in on what I got to do to lock in more."
--TE Jermaine Gresham has 11 catches for 135 yards in three meetings against the Ravens. In last year's Week 17 game he led the team in catches (five) and receiving yards (72).
--QB Andy Dalton threw for a career best 373 yards in last year's Week 11 game in Baltimore. He also threw three interceptions.
--CB Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) has been ruled out of Monday's game as he continues to work his way back from a pre-training camp workout injury.
--CB Jason Allen (quad) was on the exercise bike and did not practice after being able to go on Wednesday. Allen has been plagued by the injury throughout camp and is questionable for Monday's game.
--TE Donald Lee (thigh) was limited in Thursday's practice but is expected to be able to go on Monday.
--OT Ramon Harewood is appealing his $8,000 fine from the NFL stemming from an illegal block on St. Louis Rams rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Harewood wasn't penalized for his cut block, which caused Brockers to suffer a right ankle sprain that may sideline him for a few games.
-- OLB Paul Kruger is hoping to have more success than Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs normally has against stout Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
--ILB Jameel McClain will be a key figure in defending Bengals running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Ellis is a reliable, steady inside runner who's known for his toughness and ball security. McClain is an active, aggressive interior presence.
--WR Jacoby Jones is slated to handle punt returns and kickoff returns against the Bengals. If he gets tired or the Ravens need a change of pace, cornerback Lardarius Webb can fill in on punt returns and Deonte Thompson or LaQuan Williams can help out on kickoff returns.
--RB Ray Rice is slated for an expanded role after carrying the football only 10 times during the preseason. The Ravens' no-huddle attack isn't expected to diminish Rice's touches.
--OT Jah Reid remains sidelined due to a slow-to-heal strained right calf initially suffered in June when he was carted off the field. Since that minicamp practice, Reid has aggravated the leg injury twice. Although he wasn't placed on injured reserve, Reid still isn't able to practice.
--S Sean Considine (concussion) was at practice, but wearing a red jersey signifying he's off limits to contact.
--TEs Ed Dickson (shoulder) and Dennis Pitta (hand) aren't listed on the injury report. So much for their supposed game-time decision status. They were set to play all along.
--TE Bruce Figgins (shoulder) got an injury settlement, removing him from injured reserve.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS at OAKLAND RAIDERS
KICKOFF: Monday, 10:15 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: ESPN, Chris Berman, Trent Dilfer
PREDICTION: Chargers 27-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Much hinges on the availability of Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (clavicle), who could be a game-time decision. Despite coach Norv Turner's stated confidence in backups Ronnie Brown, Le'Ron McClain, Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley, they did little during the preseason. And the ground game is critical for San Diego with QB Philip Rivers working behind a line starting an undrafted rookie at left tackle while he also adjusts to life without WR Vincent Jackson. The Raiders do have a healthy feature back in Darren McFadden, and coordinator Greg Knapp intends to use him as a big-play threat, short-yardage back and even split him out wide. QB Carson Palmer's receiving corps is already thinned by injuries and the Chargers upgraded their pass rush over the offseason.
FAST FACTS: Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions last season, but had a 94.8 passer rating with five touchdowns in two meetings against Oakland. ... The Raiders will have their sixth different starting center in six years - Alex Parsons or Stefen Wisniewski.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Philip Rivers will return to Oakland on Monday night, eager for a season to start and a trend to end.
Rivers, who tossed four interceptions in limited play during the preseason, is coming off a season in which he threw a career-high 20 interceptions. Mixed in five lost fumbles and that's a boatload of turnovers from the quarterback spot.
Rivers knows what is expected from him and it's taking care of the ball in an offense that has shown plenty of fire power.
"Yeah, that's it right there," he said. "Don't turn the ball over, because we didn't have trouble moving the ball last year and we didn't have trouble scoring points, but we gave the ball away too much, I gave the ball away too much. If we can stay away from that, then we'll give ourselves a chance."
He'll try to do so against a Raiders secondary that has been tweaked, and against a pass rush that could feast on rookie left tackle Mike Harris making his NFL debut.
But Rivers is saying he is confident in Harris, and, really, what else can he say? With starter Jared Gaither practicing but once this summer because of back spasms, having Harris protecting Rivers' blind side doesn't really come as a surprise.
What was a shock was Rivers flinging the ball around last year with so little touch. Rivers loves having that gunslinger mentality, but he was also known for his dead-on accuracy.
"There's a fine line to being careful and being careless," said Rivers, who did throw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns last year. "You don't want to play the game careful because then you won't make any of those big plays that we made in the past. At the same time, you don't want to get carried away with trying to fit every ball in there, throwing the deep ball into two guys and hope Malcom (Floyd) or one of these guys comes down with it because they have in years past. So, there is a fine line, and finding that balance is key."
The Chargers' record was evenly balanced last year, and 8-8 isn't something Rivers and crew want to repeat.
But starting fast has seldom been a trait of coach Norv Turner's team. If Rivers starts mimicking some dreadful parts of 2011, the bad taste from last year will be difficult to rinse away.
Help arrived for the Raiders' injury-wracked corps of wide receivers in the form of a familiar face.
Derek Hagan, who made the Raiders with a strong training camp a year ago but was cut after six games in favor of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, was signed to a contract.
"He's a veteran player, he's been around, and he had a very nice workout," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said.
The Raiders also worked out veteran wide receivers Jabar Gaffney and Tiquan Underwood before settling on Hagan.
Wide receiver Jacoby Ford is almost certainly out of the opener with a left foot injury. Denarius Moore, who practiced Thursday for the first time since Aug. 4 with a hamstring strain, is far from a sure thing.
Rookie Juron Criner, like Moore, was limited in practice, because of an ankle injury.
Hagan thinks he can contribute immediately if called upon. The Raiders changed their offensive system in the offseason under offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, so what Hagan learned last year is of little help.
"I definitely expect myself to learn the whole playbook," Hagan said. "Obviously, this is what I do, this is my job, my profession. If I've got to learn it in three days, that's fine with me.
"It's definitely going to be a cram session. I'll just do what I'm supposed to do and be where I'm supposed to be Monday night."
--RB Ronnie Brown will be the main ball-carrier Monday, if, as expected, an injured Ryan Mathews is unavailable. Brown showed very little in the preseason, as did the rest of the Chargers' running attack, in Mathews' absence.
--WR Richard Goodman will be the kick returner against the Raiders, and he'll do so in a venue that has fond memories. Goodman, in last year's season finale, returned a kick 105 yards.
--DT Aubrayo Franklin will see increased playing time and could even start on Monday with Antonio Garay being limited in his work on Thursday. Franklin has showed well in the preseason and some have speculated he could eventually push Garay into more of a role outside at end.
--CB Shareece Wright should be the nickel back in the opener, a role held last year by Marcus Gilchrist. It was Gilchrist being slowed by a sore hamstring this preseason that opened the door for Wright.
--TE Antonio Gates could be primed for a big year. QB Philip Rivers remarked Thursday that Gates is moving like he did five years ago, no longer bothered by a sore foot.
--LT Jared Gaither (back) did not practice and will not play Monday.
--RB Ryan Mathews (clavicle) continued to do individual work but isn't expected to be active Monday.
--DT Antonio Garay (ankle) was limited in his work and his status is undetermined for Monday.
--WR Denarius Moore practiced for the first time since Aug. 4, was limited in practice, and coach Dennis Allen said he would be a game-time decision.
--CB Coye Francies was waived to make room for wide receiver Derek Hagan.
--DT Tommy Kelly led the Raiders with two preseason sacks and six other players had a single sack.
--LB Travis Goethel, the backup to Rolando McClain, led the Raiders in preseason tackles with 21 (13 solo).
--PK Sebastian Janikowski returned to practice after missing Tuesday's session following the birth of his twin daughters.
--S Tyvon Branch is the first defensive back to lead the Raiders in tackles in consecutive seasons.
--G Cooper Carlisle was limited in practice with a sore back.
--WR Jacoby Ford is likely out, meaning it's likely Phillip Adams will handle punt returns and Taiwan Jones kickoff returns against San Diego.
--C Stefen Wisniewski was on the field practicing, but Alex Parsons was working with the first team.
--DT Richard Seymour is back on the field and practicing with sore knees, but the Raiders could look to reduce his snaps, utilizing Tommy Kelly, Desmond Bryant and moving end Lamarr Houston inside.
--WR Denarius Moore was on the field for the first time since Aug. 5 and figures to be behind the curve when it comes to timing with quarterback Carson Palmer.