A look at what to expect in Saturday night's preseason games:
49ERS AT BRONCOS, 9 p.m.
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Peyton Manning hasn't had his pair of Pro Bowl receivers on the field with him since the playoffs. Emmanuel Sanders (hamstring) is sitting this one out and Demaryius Thomas is still working his way into ''football shape'' after missing the entire offseason program in a contract dispute. In his debut last week, Manning's four drives all ended in punts thanks to drops and flags.
Ronnie Hillman loves Denver's new zone blocking scheme. He leads the league with a 7.5-yard average this summer. ''I think this offense fits him very well ... because that's what he did at San Diego State, he was a great zone runner,'' general manager John Elway said.
The 49ers were dealt another blow this week when Ahmad Brooks, charged with misdemeanor sexual battery, was sent home from Colorado, where the team was practicing with the Broncos. Brooks was expected to start at the outside linebacker spot vacated by Aldon Smith's release three weeks ago. Third-year pro Corey Lemonier will now start.
''That's a big loss for us,'' linebacker NaVorro Bowman said, lamenting the latest absence of a key player. That list includes Smith, four key free agents and five retirees this offseason.
EAGLES AT PACKERS, 8 p.m.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could just be a spectator.
The Packers lost top receiver Jordy Nelson to a season-ending right knee injury last week. The last thing coach Mike McCarthy needs is for the NFL MVP to get hurt, too, on a night when Green Bay will likely be without three starting offensive linemen because of injuries.
That means backups might get meaningful minutes trying to make the team.
''Personally, I'd like to be efficient,'' rookie quarterback Matt Blanchard on Thursday. ''It's our first showcase for the 2015 Packers. I know the starters aren't going to be playing, but for us it's our first time out on Lambeau this season and it's going to be a good night.''
McCarthy hadn't announced how he would handle playing time, so forgive Blanchard for being a little enthusiastic. An undrafted free agent from at Division III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater, Blanchard faces long odds for making the Packers behind Rodgers, Scott Tolzien and rookie Brett Hundley, a fifth-round pick.
Tolzien isn't expected to play after being evaluated for a possible concussion. It might be up to Hundley and Blanchard to connect with young receivers Myles White and Jeff Janis with the Packers looking for options to replace Nelson.
For the Eagles, quarterback Sam Bradford wouldn't mind playing more than one drive to help shake off rust. He's coming back from tearing his left ACL twice in a 10-month span with the Rams. Bradford is now in charge of coach Chip Kelly's high-octane offense, but played one drive last weekend against Baltimore after sitting out the first exhibition game. He led the offense on a touchdown drive and absorbed two big hits. On one play, Terrell Suggs was penalized for tackling Bradford's knees on a handoff.
Kelly typically likes to play his starting quarterback into the third quarter of this game, but might have to weigh how much time Bradford needs on the field against the desire to limit exposure to injury. The Eagles like what they've seen from the limited snaps Bradford and running back DeMarco Murray had last week. Murray, who left Dallas as a free agent, ran for 17 yards and a touchdown on five carries.
BEARS AT BENGALS, 7:30 p.m.
Both teams want to see a lot more out of their offenses in the last chance for the starters to get it right. They'll rest for most of the final preseason game a week later.
Chicago's first-team offense has no touchdowns in the first two preseason games. Jay Cutler has led three drives inside the 20-yard line, but the Bears settled for field goals. The starting offense has produced only four field goals in the two games.
The Bears need to choose backups for running back Matt Forte. Jeremy Langford, a fourth-round pick, had 80 yards in the second preseason game. Three backs are competing for the third and possibly fourth spots: Jacquizz Rodgers, Ka'Deem Carey and Senorise Perry.
Cincinnati's offense was dreadful in a loss at Tampa Bay. Andy Dalton threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He finished 6 of 13 for 46 yards and was sacked three times. Running back Jeremy Hill also fumbled.
Dalton's first interception skipped through the hands of A.J. Green. He overthrew tight end Tyler Eifert on the second one. The starting offense managed 49 yards on 26 plays.
SEAHAWKS AT CHARGERS, 8 p.m.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is likely to see his most extensive time of the exhibition season and looks to get the Seahawks' first-team offense into the end zone for the first time. They have one offensive touchdown in two weeks, that coming in the fourth quarter against Denver.
Wilson and the majority of Seattle's starters will play the entire first half and into the third quarter, coach Pete Carroll said.
''These guys need to play. They need the play time. They got to get ready,'' Carroll said. ''You can't hide from it, it's coming. It's right around the corner, and they need to be fit and mentally right to play four quarters of football two weeks from now, so we got to take this next step.''
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and rookie running back Melvin Gordon are expected to return. Rivers sat out last Saturday's victory at Arizona in a move coach Mike McCoy said had been planned since spring. Gordon sat out as a precaution after spraining his right ankle.
McCoy won't say how long the first-team offense is expected to stay in.
Also expected to miss the game is inside linebacker Manti Te'o (shoulder).
STEELERS AT BILLS, 4 p.m.
The Bills are still searching for a starting quarterback, with EJ Manuel getting his opportunity to reclaim his former job in the midst of a three-way competition. The Steelers suddenly have a competition for the backup job behind Ben Roethlisberger, with newly signed Michael Vick in the mix after Bruce Gradkowski sustained a season-ending injury to his left hand.
Manuel will start, though journeyman Matt Cassel and former Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor will also take snaps with the first-stringers - or at least those who are healthy. For the second consecutive week, Buffalo will be minus its top three receivers: Sammy Watkins (gluteal muscle/hamstring), Robert Woods (tightness) and Percy Harvin (hip). Running back Fred Jackson is set to return after missing three weeks (hamstring). However, newly acquired starter LeSean McCoy (hamstring) will miss his second straight game and is not expected to be ready until the season opener.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said there's a chance Vick could see limited playing time, giving the veteran a chance to compete against former coach Rex Ryan. Vick is competing for the backup job with Landry Jones, who has thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions. A bigger issue for Pittsburgh is at center, where newly signed Doug Legursky will compete with Cody Wallace to fill in for center Maurkice Pouncey, out indefinitely (left ankle).
BROWNS AT BUCCANEERS, 7 p.m.
The Buccaneers are happy with the progress of No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston, but emphasize he's still a rookie and there's much to be learned the rest of the preseason. There's no temptation to rest the young quarterback, who limped off the field after being wrestled to the ground on a sack Monday night.
Coach Lovie Smith will be looking for better protection from a revamped offensive line featuring two projected rookie starters. They've worked with Winston on avoiding big hits, learning when and how to slide when he runs the ball. The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner has yet to throw a touchdown pass, but finished long drives with TD runs in each of the first two games.
Center Evan Smith is back after sitting out the last game (groin), and the Bucs will look at potential replacements for right tackle Demar Dotson (left knee sprain). WR Mike Evans will sit out the final two preseason games (sore left hamstring).
The Browns are finally closer to full speed after a rash of injuries during training camp and the preseason. Quarterback Josh McCown, expected to start the season opener, returns to Tampa Bay, where he went 1-10 as a starter last season. WRs Dwayne Bowe (hamstring) and rookie running back Duke Johnson (hamstring) will be on the field for the first time in preseason.
Cleveland has major plans for Johnson, a third-round pick from Miami. Also, the Browns will get their first look in a game at receiver Terrelle Pryor, the former quarterback attempting to switch positions at 26. Pryor has been slowed by a hamstring issue.
Browns QB Johnny Manziel will not play (sore right elbow).
REDSKINS AT RAVENS, 7:30 p.m.
Joe Flacco is looking for a better performance than last week, when he threw two interceptions in a 40-17 loss at Philadelphia
The top priority for Robert Griffin III is merely to survive.
Griffin was sacked three times and fumbled twice against Detroit before being forced from the game in the second quarter. The quarterback was trying to pick up a loose ball when he took a blow to his head and right shoulder from Lions defensive end Corey Wootton.
Griffin went 2 for 5 for 8 yards on four possessions. The Redskins say he has been cleared to play by an independent neurologist.
Although the two teams both play their home games in Maryland, the Ravens need to excel for reasons that have nothing to do with this tepid rivalry.
''We want to go out there and play the best we can just so we feel that extra energy going into the first week (of the regular season),'' Flacco said.
VIKINGS AT COWBOYS, 7 p.m.
Adrian Peterson won't play, and Dez Bryant will. Those are the two biggest names for the game that will include most starters. Peterson will be in Texas after a turbulent year for the star running back triggered by child abuse charges in his home state. Bryant has yet to play in the exhibition season.
That's the norm for Peterson, skipping the entire preseason for the fourth straight year even though he missed all but one game last year after allegations he had badly injured his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch he said was used for disciplinary purposes. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge to avoid jail time. Peterson admitted he'd like to play for the Cowboys when his agent was suggesting Peterson wanted a new football home.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has played three snaps this preseason and will finally have the All-Pro receiver in Bryant (hamstring) for what figures to be their only preseason game together. It should also be the first game for Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith (right arm muscle strain), and the first action since late in 2013 for linebacker Sean Lee, who missed last year with a knee injury.
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is 22 of 28 for 219 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in three preseason games. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer is 7-0 in the preseason, while Dallas' Jason Garrett has lost seven straight exhibitions.
COLTS AT RAMS, 8 p.m.
Both teams are 0-2 in the preseason, breaking in new offensive linemen and had defensive issues last week. The difference: Indianapolis has dropped seven preseason games in a row, but was the AFC runner-up last year; the Rams were 6-10 and haven't fielded a winner since 2003.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano counted more than a dozen missed tackles in a 23-11 loss to the Bears. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said his team's defensive miscues have been more a matter of gap responsibility.
The new right side of Indy's offensive line, tackle Jack Mewhart and guard Todd Herremans, has appeared out of sync at times. Center remains up for grabs between Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Harrison.
Andrew Luck had a rough go last week, getting sacked on the first pass play and then pressured into a throwaway on the next.
The Rams' starting offense has been a dud, held to a field goal in six possessions, but gets wide receiver Brian Quick (shoulder) for the first time. Two rookie starters on the right side of the line, Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown, will likely get extra snaps.
FALCONS AT DOLPHINS, 7 p.m.
The Dolphins' top two left tackles are out, with Branden Albert not fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, and backup Jason Fox sidelined by a concussion. But coach Joe Philbin said quarterback Ryan Tannehill will play despite any uncertainty about protection on his blind side.
Dallas Thomas, trying to win a starting job at guard, is the most likely candidate to fill in at left tackle.
Miami's first-team offense and defense both looked good in the first two exhibition games, and the target for them Saturday is 35 snaps, Philbin said. That means the most extensive playing time yet for the starters, including the team's most prominent newcomer, $114 million defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The Falcons' top running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, have missed the first two preseason games with hamstring injuries. They practiced this week, but coach Dan Quinn said Thursday he still isn't sure they will play. He said Coleman, the rookie third-round pick, is ahead of Freeman in his recovery.
Wide receiver Roddy White (minor elbow surgery), and safety William Moore (calf), won't play. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen has been cleared after going through the concussion protocol.
Some starters may play into the third quarter. It would not be a surprise if quarterback Matt Ryan, who has been sharp in the first two games, and wide receiver Julio Jones are pulled before the second half.
JETS AT GIANTS, 7 p.m.
While the game will interest fans, the important one between the teams will be played on Dec. 6.
Both teams are looking for offense.
Eli Manning and Giants starters have scored a field goal in seven possessions. Odell Beckham Jr. has yet to catch a pass and Victor Cruz remains sidelined (calf).
Defensively, the Giants showed improvement in their second game under Steve Spagnuolo. The line, still waiting for the injured Jason Pierre-Paul, generated a pass rush against Jacksonville. Jameel McClain will start at middle linebacker for the injured Jon Beason (knee). Highly regarded rookie safety Landon Collins is expected to play after spraining a knee two weeks ago.
Jets coach Todd Bowles expects the starters to play at least the first half. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the offense to a touchdown in the starters' final drive in a win over Atlanta.
Fitzpatrick is starting his third straight game, taking over after Geno Smith was sidelined six to 10 weeks when his jaw was broken by a punch from then-teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali on Aug. 11. Smith returned to the practice field this week, mostly as a spectator. He is likely to miss at least the first four regular-season games.
Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson appears set to make his preseason debut after missing nearly three weeks (hamstring). First-round pick Leonard Williams has been starting in DL Sheldon Richardson's place while Richardson works with the backups after being suspended the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on substance abuse. Richardson could face an even longer suspension after being charged with resisting arrest in Missouri on July 14 following a high-speed race. Williams had 1 1/2 sacks against the Falcons.
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