The purpose of these games is evaluation, so we’ll be previewing what to look for on each side of the ball in each game. We already dug into what to watch on offense, so today we dig into what we might see with the first look of this new defensive scheme.
Bringing the blitz
Preseason isn’t really made for unveiling the secrets of the playbook. Teams want to do enough to represent what they might do in the regular season, but not enough to put tendencies on tape for future opponents, especially in the first preseason game. That’s an interesting dilemma when it comes to what James Bettcher loves to do — blitz.
So what should we expect? I went back and watched the Arizona Cardinals’ first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders last season (yes, I did that for you). Oakland dropped back to pass 35 times and Bettcher brought five or more defenders on 14 of those plays (40 percent), a higher rate than Bettcher brought five or more defenders in the regular season last year (32.4 percent). However, these weren’t really the exotic presnap looks Bettcher will favor when the real games start. The blitzes were also mostly bringing an extra linebacker and not using defensive back blitzes the Cardinals used so much of last season — per the Football Outsiders Almanac, the 13 percent defensive back blitz rate was the sixth-highest rate in the league.
Against the Raiders last season, Bettcher brought the blitz on five of 13 drop backs (38.5 percent) in the first half against E.J. Manuel and on nine of 22 drop backs in the second half against Connor Cook (40.9 percent). That might have been the most preseason sentence ever written.
Free for all at safety
“I’d say there’s four guys for that role,” Bettcher said of the safety competition, non-Landon Collins edition. “There’s none that’s separated themselves.”
Darian Thompson, Michael Thomas, Andrew Adams, and Curtis Riley will all get a chance to make a case to be the starting safety opposite Collins. Those are the top four, but they might not necessarily be the only ones in the race. Last week William Gay played some snaps at safety with the first-team defense then got hurt, though he returned to the field this week back at slot corner.
The free safety is an integral part of Bettcher’s scheme, when all is going as planned and if Collins will continually be moved around the formation. No team relied on safeties more in man coverage than the Cardinals last season, though much of that came from Tyrann Mathieu playing a hybrid safety-slot corner role even when two other safeties were on the field. It’s possible William Gay is getting that treatment in reverse, though he’s still not a lock to make the roster.
Either way, this safety battle is still wide open and whoever wins — and possibly even those who don’t — will play a major role in this defense.
Other things to watch
Slot corner: This is as up in the air as safety. Gay has gotten time there. So has Donte Deayon, before injury. B.W. Webb has been making strides with the first-team as of late. Grant Haley has seen a lot of time with the second team. Newly-signed Leonard Johnson manned the slot for the Buffalo Bills last season. Any of these players could be the Week 1 starter or could just as easily not make the final 53.
Defensive line rotation: We’re probably not going to see a lot from guys like Damon Harrison, but it should be interesting to watch where others along the line slot in. The starting three-man line looks to be Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson, and rookie B.J. Hill. In some practices, those three have switched positions on the line, some plays included Hill at nose tackle and Harrison at the end. Hill is a rookie, but a starter, so his involvement and movement along the line should be an interesting development in the game.
This also won’t be another situation where the starters play 80 percent of the defensive snaps during the season, so this will be time for players like Kerry Wynn, Robert Thomas, and A.J. Francis to make an impact.
EDGE depth: Olivier Vernon is the only player with a defined role, and he’s not likely to play much if at all on Thursday night. Connor Barwin, Kareem Martin, and Lorenzo Carter will work for the outside linebacker role opposite Vernon. This could also be a chance for someone like Avery Moss to shine in his transition from a traditional 4-3 defensive end.
Opponent bonus: Baker Mayfield
Mayfield was the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, but Tyrod Taylor is settled as the Browns’ starter — at least for now. At Oklahoma, Mayfield was one of the most exciting college quarterbacks in some time — he led college football in adjusted yards per attempt in each of the past two seasons — and this will be everyone’s first look at him on an NFL field.
He’ll probably get a decent amount of playing time — think the half Lamar Jackson got in the Hall of Fame Game — though we’re not going to get a full unveiling of what a Mayfield-led NFL offense looks like. Like Jackson’s preseason debut, there shouldn’t be too much taken away from the good or bad, but it should be fun to get the first glimpse of what the future of the quarterback position could be in Cleveland.