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Steve Smith questionable to return with knee injury

Steve Smith AP

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was protecting a dislocated finger early in the game.

He suddenly has a bigger concern.

Smith pulled up after no contact and immediately went to the locker room to get his left knee checked out. The Panthers have already announced his return as questionable, during a scoreless tie with the Saints.

That’s a huge blow for the home team, though their defense is holding the Saints in check so far. The Panthers are going to be able to run, but this puts more pressure on Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, if Smith’s not able to return.

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Five questions: New England Patriots

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady AP

The Patriots winning the AFC East has almost reached the death and taxes level of certainty, which means the big question for them is always about something bigger.

Can they win the Super Bowl?

They’ve certainly got a chance to get there in a conference that many believe is set up for another title game clash between Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Winning that game for the first time since 2011 and challenging whoever survives in the NFC will take the right answers to the five questions we’re posing about the Patriots.

1. Can Gronk stay healthy?

If you can answer an unimpeachable yes to this question, you should probably do whatever you can to get in touch with the Patriots because they’d likely pay good money for help keeping tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for an entire season.

The last time he did that was during the 2011 season, when he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gronkowski played in seven games last year and the Patriots had 25 touchdown passes for the entire season.

During that brief period when Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots were a buzzsaw on offense. They found the slogging much harder when he was out of the lineup recovering from back surgery or after he tore his ACL, though. The latter injury will him from cutting loose in a preseason game and Week One isn’t guaranteed, so there will be at least a few more weeks of wondering about when he’ll get the full green light.

And then it will be many more weeks for Patriots fans to worry about losing him every time he takes a hit.

2. How good can Darrelle Revis make this defense?

One need only look at the revolving door of cornerbacks that the Patriots have employed recently to know how much Revis changes things for New England. We’re not sure yet if he’ll be playing one side of the field or following a particular receiver each week, but it’s a good bet that Belichick will be doing things differently now that he has one of the league’s best corners to use on every snap of the ball.

It helps that he has so many other pieces to put in play around Revis. Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Donta’ Hightower have gained experience, Devin McCourty has transitioned well to safety, Jerod Mayo is back from last year’s pectoral injury and they’ll have Brandon Browner after he serves his four-game suspension. It adds up to the best defensive group on paper for New England in some time and Revis is the piece that could make it special.

3. Will time catch up to Tom Brady?

Brady turned 37 this year and he’s coming off a season that saw him take 40 sacks while posing his lowest completion percentage in a decade, all of which can be seen as reasons to argue that a quarterback could be starting the decline phase of his career.

Others would point to Gronkowski’s absence and a shortage of reliable wide receivers as reasons why Brady was less successful than in past seasons. The receiver question hasn’t been settled as the team is still hoping for Aaron Dobson and/or Brandon LaFell to provide a steady threat next to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who Brady jokingly called pygmies this summer.

The gut feeling here is that a better cast of characters would lead to better things from Brady, but age catches up with all of us sooner or later.

4. Can their defensive tackles hold up?

If Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Dominique Easley are all healthy, they should make for an imposing trio in the center of the defensive line. It’s a big if, though.

Wilfork tore his Achilles last year and turns 33 in November while Kelly is coming back from a torn ACL and nearing his 34th birthday. Easley is a first-round pick and much younger, but he suffered the second torn ACL of his playing career last season. When Wilfork and Kelly went down last year, the Patriots defense took a serious hit and a similar turn of events this year would mitigate the good things discussed above.

5. How many fumbles is too many for Stevan Ridley?

Ridley lost a fumble in the team’s preseason game against the Eagles, an unhappy reminder of the four fumbles he lost last season. Those fumbles landed him in Belichick’s doghouse for a time and kept Ridley from building on a strong 2012 season.

LeGarrette Blount left as a free agent, but Shane Vereen and fourth-round pick James White are on hand as options should Ridley’s fumbles become a problem again this season. With free agency looming for the 2011 third-round pick, that would probably work out worse for him than it would for the Patriots.

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Jay Gruden says false start calls on RG3 were “a little insane”

grudenrg3 AP

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III picked up two false start penalties in the first quarter of Monday night’s preseason game, and coach Jay Gruden wasn’t happy about it.

Gruden wasn’t unhappy with Griffin. He was unhappy that the officials were so strict about the false start rules that they flagged Griffin for merely moving while barking out signals before the play.

“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t have him do any sudden movement with his hands or try to really move his head and shoulders,” Gruden said, via the Washington Post. “But that to me was a little insane.”

Gruden said it’s hard for a quarterback to yell loud enough to be heard over the crowd while being perfectly still.

“In a loud stadium, in order to enunciate your words, sometimes you have to move your chest to yell. Am I right? ‘HUT!’ ” Gruden said. “Sometimes you yell, and that’s what he was doing.”

If the officials are going to call false starts that strictly in the regular season, Griffin will need to find a way to yell without moving.

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Report: Kyle Cook retiring after six seasons

Kyle Cook AP

Center Kyle Cook never caught on with another team after being released by the Bengals in March and now it looks like he won’t be doing it in the future either.

Adam Caplan of ESPN reports that Cook has decided to retire after six seasons. Cook went undrafted out of Michigan State in 2007, made his debut with the Bengals the next season and moved into the starting lineup in 2009. He started 66 games before his release, including all 16 last season.

Caplan writes that Cook was the best free agent center available, an opinion he shares with PFT’s Michael Wilkening, and that makes one wonder if he could be persuaded to rethink his decision if a team came calling after an injury during the regular season. Cook wasn’t great last season, but that kind of experience has value at an important spot on the offensive line.

The Bengals drafted center Russell Bodine in the fourth round and the signs coming out of Cincinnati are that he’ll be the starter come September 7.

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Half-baked plan: Both Blount and Bell to play tonight

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The Steelers are going to take their time deciding how to handle running backs LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell after last night’s marijuana possession arrests.

And they’re definitely going to wait longer than a day.

According to Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will play both of them tonight against the Eagles.

Bell, who was also charged with DUI, has paid his own way to Philadelphia to join the team, so apparently he’s going to get something for his money. Blount was on the team charter.

The move to play them seems dicey in light of potential punishment, but the Steelers also have to pick a roster after tonight’s game, and having their regular runners in there will give them a better chance to evaluate the rest of the offense.

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PFT Live: Steelers talk with Ed Bouchette, 49ers talk with Matt Maiocco

Britain Steelers Vikings Football AP

Two Steelers players were caught with grass in Pittsburgh, they’re tearing up the grass in Santa Clara and we’ll be talking about all that and much more during Thursday’s edition of PFT Live.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will join Mike Florio to discuss the arrests of running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount on Wednesday and the possible fallout if they are charged with marijuana possession and, in the case of Bell, DUI in the future. That will include Pittsburgh’s plans for the pair when they face the Eagles in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area will also be on hand to discuss the work underway at Levi’s Stadium to replace some of the sod after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stopped Wednesday’s workout at the team’s new stadium because of problems with the field. They’ll also talk about the team that the 49ers will be putting on that field during Maiocco’s visit.

It all gets started at 1 p.m. ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Raiders have no worries about Khalil Mack

Khalil Mack, Kellen Moore AP

Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney got a lot of attention for his sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during last week’s preseason game, but there was no such acclaim for Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack after his own sack.

That’s because Mack’s sack came against backups for the Lions, which isn’t exactly what you’d call a crowning achievement for the fifth overall pick in the draft. Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Mack has had a “ho-hum” training camp for the Raiders and that the rookie “has looked slow getting off the line of scrimmage,” something that Mack says is because he’s thinking too much in the heat of the moment.

None of that is a cause for concern for Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who said he believes Mack will be an impact player in 2014. Safety Charles Woodson said that Mack just needs time to digest everything in front of him before he starts making plays.

“He has a lot on his plate,” Woodson said. “Not just from the standpoint of him being a high pick and everybody expecting that ‘wow’ factor out of him, but as far as the plays, knowing the positions and different things they have him doing, there is a lot expected of him in that sense, too. You just allow him to grow as a player … This guy is going to be OK, and I think the sky is the limit for him.”

Clowney and plenty of other highly touted rookies have has rough moments during their first preseason outings as well, so there’s nothing unusual about it taking some time for things to come together for Mack. Based on his college exploits and size/speed mix, there’s every reason to believe big things will follow once they do.

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Jason Garrett: DeVonte Holloman advised to end career after neck injury

DeVonte Holloman AP

One of the Cowboys’ young defensive players has reportedly received some unfortunate news.

Second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman has been advised by doctors to give up football due to a neck injury, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Thursday, according to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Holloman injured his neck in the Cowboys’ Saturday exhibition vs. Baltimore. Moreover, he suffered a spinal contusion last season.

The 23-year-old Holloman appeared in nine games (two starts) for Dallas in 2013, recording 26 tackles and two sacks. A South Carolina product, Holloman was a sixth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2013.

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49ers already replacing the sod in their new stadium

levis-stadium-dirt-field-aerial

The 49ers are going to have some dirt and grass stains on their brand new Levi’s, as they’re already replacing the sod in their state-of-the-art stadium.

After one concert, a soccer match and one preseason NFL game, the field was already in such dire shape the 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh pulled his team off the field last night during a practice.

 

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, crews were at work this morning stripping up the old sod to put in new, in advance of the next game there Sunday.

The previous grass was installed in April, and didn’t root down well enough to keep multiple players from slipping and sod to come up in chunks at last night’s public practice.

The 49ers issued a statement Wednesday night saying the team had “determined the appropriate measures necessary to have the field ready for Sunday and look forward to hosting the San Diego Chargers.”

They have more than that on tap, as two high school games are schedule there on Aug. 29, followed by a soccer match between Mexico and Chile on Sept. 6 before the regular season opener against the Bears on Sept. 14.

Such quick turnarounds for sod aren’t uncommon, but it’s still a dramatic blemish for a brand-new building.

Photo credit: KNTV

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Tom Coughlin: Want excitement? Move extra points to the 1

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

Giants coach Tom Coughlin says the NFL went in the wrong direction in its preseason extra point experiment.

Coughlin says that if the idea is to make extra points a more exciting play, moving kicks back to the 15-yard line while keeping two-point conversion attempts at the 2-yard line wasn’t the right way to do it. Coughlin says the NFL should have moved all point-after attempts to the 1-yard line, to encourage coaches to go for two.

I didn’t think much of it when it was suggested,” Coughlin said, via Conor Orr of the Star-Ledger. “There are some ways to change that part of it if the intent is to make it more exciting. I think that certainly would be one of them. I think you have to be aware of the fact that it’s a 33-yard field goal in November when the wind’s blowing and it’s snowing here and it’s… in Miami it’s 75 degrees. It’s a little different in different parts of the country. You do have to be aware of that. I would say probably the ball will stay at the two, extra points. But if you really want to make it interesting put it at the one.”

Coughlin makes a good point: If the ball were spotted at the 1-yard line, NFL coaches would be much more tempted to go for two more often, on the theory that a run up the middle is more likely to be successful from a yard away than two yards away. (And additionally under the theory that a pass is more likely to be successful when the defense has to stack the line of scrimmage to stop a run up the middle.)

The NFL is expected to make some change to the extra point rule, and probably sooner rather than later. Coughlin’s idea of moving the ball to the 1 may make more sense than the preseason experiment of moving the ball to the 15.

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Chargers preseason tickets going for next to nothing

pennies-on-the-dollar-3

Each week during the regular season, we monitor the Chargers for blackouts.

But in the preseason, it’s hard for some people to give away the tickets they’ve already paid for.

According to Jonathan Horn of U-T San Diego, the secondary market for Chargers tickets underscores the (lack of) value of the preseason for consumers.

They found tickets for next week’s fourth exhibition game as low as $6.55, with most seats available on StubHub going around 85 percent off face value.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the game features the Cardinals, who will be back 11 days later for a real game on Monday Night Football, or that few if any stars will appear.

“It’s got all the factors of being a dud,” said ticket broker John Nelson, owner of Premier Tickets in Mission Valley. “I’m prepared to take $10 a ticket just to get something.”

Considering it’s the secondary market — meaning they’ve already sold that ticket once — it’s hard to know how much NFL owners care about the low demand.

But it’s also a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the preseason at a time when there’s little movement from owners to shorten it.

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Will Packers keep three quarterbacks?

Akeem Ayers, Karl Klug, Scott Tolzien AP

One year ago, the Packers had Vince Young, B.J. Coleman and Graham Harrell competing to back up starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But by the beginning of the 2013 regular season, all three reserves were gone.

A total backup QB reshuffling isn’t in the cards this season for Green Bay, which has two capable reserves in Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien. But as Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted in a story published Wednesday, the Packers may have to decide whether to keep one or two backups behind Rodgers.

The competition between Flynn and Tolzien is “neck and neck,” Packers QBs coach Alex Van Pelt told the Journal Sentinel.

Rodgers expressed similar sentiments.

“I think they’re both playing well and it is close,” Rodgers said, per the Journal Sentinel. “I think they have made the No. 2 decision difficult and also keeping three quarterbacks difficult.”

According to Journal Sentinel, Flynn has practiced as the top backup this week and looks likely relieve Rodgers in Friday night’s dress rehearsal against Oakland.

There are downsides to keeping two or three quarterbacks. If the Packers keep just two, they will have let go of either Flynn, who’s risen to the occasion in relief of Rodgers throughout his career; or Tolzien, who may have more long-term upside than Flynn.

However, if the Packers go with three quarterbacks, they will lose a depth chart spot at another position.

That said, the Packers look to be a facing a more pleasant decision than a year ago, when it was quite clear Rodgers’ backup might not be on the roster.

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Le’Veon Bell made his own way to Philadelphia

Le'Veon Bell AP

Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were both in a car pulled over by police on Wednesday and are expected to be charged with possession of marijuana after 20 grams of it were found in the vehicle, but only Bell is also facing potential DUI charges since he was behind the wheel.

Bell was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital to have his blood drawn to test for marijuana in his system, which meant that he didn’t make it on the team’s charter flight to Philadelphia for Thursday’s game against the Eagles. Missing the charter won’t mean that Bell is staying at home, however.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Bell made his own way to Philadelphia. Blount, who did not have any blood drawn, was on the team’s charter flight.

The team is aware of the incident on Wednesday, but offered no further comment about either player’s status for Thursday night’s game or anything else having to do with their status.

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Report: 49ers don’t want to trade holdout guard Alex Boone

alexboonerhino

Considering the 49ers either did or did not offer holdout guard Alex Boone a new deal that would pay him like a top-12 guard in the NFL, his situation is still very much in limbo.

Thus, teams are calling to ask about his availability.

But according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers are not interested in trading Boone.

One source suggested that they only way they’d do it is if someone offered a first- or second-round pick, a high price considering the new contract that would have to accompany it.

And that’s almost a de facto “no sale” sign, unless some team is truly desperate.

Boone has two years left on his current deal, and is scheduled to make $2 million this season. He’s held out of the first four weeks of training camp, which led to fines of $30,000, which means he will shortly chew up about half that amount.

The 49ers have been talking up backup Joe Looney, and by putting out word that they don’t want to deal Boone, perhaps they might make a move to keep him.

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Pierre Thomas expects to do “more pass protection and route running”

Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas AP

The Saints traded Darren Sproles to the Eagles this offseason and saw Lance Moore sign with the Steelers after getting cut in a pair of moves that eliminated two players that caught 108 passes between them in 2013.

Running back Pierre Thomas expects at least a few of those passes to come his way this season. Thomas has seen Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson get increased work running the ball this season, leaving him with the feeling that he’ll be doing a lot of his work in the passing game.

“I know my role is going to change a whole lot this year,” Thomas said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I’m going to do more pass protection and route running. I’m improving my route running game. I’m still going to be running the ball too. I’ve got a few changes here and there.”

Thomas was hardly a bystander in the passing offense last season as he caught 77 passes to set a career high, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him take on some of Sproles’ portfolio. But they also added rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks and given Ingram more work as a receiver this summer, so things may shake out differently than Thomas expects.

That may mean that he winds up doing more, however. Coach Sean Payton said that every year they go into a season with a plan for Thomas that then shifts because Thomas is “an exceptionally smart player” who knows the Saints offense very well after years in the system. That familiarity can be comforting to an offense and it could turn out to be a familiar role for Thomas as a result.

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Five questions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Buccaneers have a lot to put behind them after 2013.

But after blowing out the front office, sterilizing the locker room for MRSA and a lot of big names off the payroll (namely Darrelle Revis), it’s a new day in Tampa Bay.

They even changed the uniforms, although that might be one case where new isn’t better.

But for all the turnover in Tampa, there’s at least reason for optimism, which is something that was lacking after two seasons gone awry under Greg Schiano.

1. How quickly can Lovie Smith reshape the team in his own image?

By all accounts, quickly.

The Bucs turned over a roster like few teams in the league this offseason, on both sides of the ball. But this is clearly a team built to Smith’s specifications, with playmakers on every level of the defense, and a quarterback and an offense designed to minimize mistakes.

He’s also giving them a shot of credibility, after the fiasco that was the Greg Schiano experiment.

2. About that quarterback, is this a short-term fix?

Josh McCown has bounced around the league a bit, and has never been able to make a job his own for more than a few weeks at a time.

But he’s also respected in the locker room, and is coming off a brilliant stint in Chicago in relief of an injured Jay Cutler.

Mike Glennon isn’t so bad that they don’t think he can be their guy in a few years, but he wasn’t so good last year that Smith was willing to commit to him. Watching this position develop will be interesting as the season goes on, and if McCown can hang onto what could be his last chance at a starting job.

3. Can they keep either quarterback on his feet?

That might be the biggest question about this Bucs roster.

The offensive line was a hot mess early in the preseason, and they still can’t be sure who the guards are.

They spent free agent money on Anthony Collins to play left tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith to play center, and Demar Dotson is solid and underrated at right tackle. The spots between them are the big question marks.

They moved one presumptive starter (Jamon Meredity) to tackle after a bad debut, and are still grading a couple of kids at the moment. The two guard spots are far from a finished product, and they’ll likely look to add there via cuts or trades.

4. How much will the offense matter?

Maybe not as much as you’d think.

The Bucs have a chance to have an old-Bucs-level defense, built around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He and linebacker Lavonte David give the Bucs a Sapp-Brooks-ish duo in the front seven, and there’s plenty of talent around them.

They’ll need to be great, but there’s a very real possibility that can happen, as Smith puts his imprint on a team with plenty of existing talent.

5. How much ground can they make up in a year?

It would probably be unfair to expect the Bucs to pull off the worst-to-first, but that’s happened often in the NFC South.

Improvement is almost certain, as they have a clear direction and a coach that inspires confidence rather than mutiny.

If they can straighten out the offensive line and run a little, there’s a real chance for them to make a big step.

But playing in a division with the Panthers, Saints and Falcons is going to make it hard to expect a playoff berth in Year One of this project.

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