Sunday, the New Orleans Saints jump-start their season at home against the Washington Redskins. Week 1 is always the most difficult week to project because of the turnover on each roster with players gone and many new ones added in their stead.
No game in the entire league will epitomize that fact to a greater degree than the Washington-New Orleans game.
Washington has kept the same system it's been sporting the past two years under Mike Shanahan. But the offense has made a huge upgrade at the quarterback position, bringing in Robert Griffin III to run the show.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner promises to add a missing dimension to an offense mired in mediocrity the past two years.
On the Saints' side, the offense figures to remain largely the same as it has the past six years under Sean Payton. But the defense promises to look dramatically different under brand-new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Under Spagnuolo, the Saints are transitioning to a more conservative, modified Tampa 2 scheme. Much like Chicago, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay of years past, the Saints will aim to generate enough pressure with their front four that the back seven can focus on coverage.
Of course, that is an oversimplification, but for our purposes works just fine.
Everything said is meant to show that watching three Redskins games from a year ago (as I did) may not give us everything we need to know to accurately predict the keys to this Week 1 contest.
I will try nonetheless.
Few things are more obvious in film study of the Redskins' entire team than to say the team knows how to rush the passer.
Between Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan (and Adam Carriker to a lesser degree), the Redskins are great at pushing the pocket and forcing quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.
Unlike many 3-4 base defenses who create pressure with intricate blitz schemes, the Redskins create pressure with explosion. Orakpo and Kerrigan especially are freakish athletes who can break down even the best offensive tackles in the game.
Sure, the Redskins will run some stunts and a few twists and games here and there, but by and large, the defense creates pressure with matchups. Their whole goal is to get Orakpo and Kerrigan matched up on linemen who cannot contain them.
And that's where the Saints have an issue. Certainly, a football observer would recognize that while the Saints are beyond fine in the middle of their offensive line, the outside spots (Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod) are not as sound.
It is obvious that Bushrod matched up against Orakpo and/or Kerrigan is not going to work for every offensive snap. The same can be said for Strief against those two freak athletes.
As a result, the Saints are going to have to be creative in the way they choose to protect Drew Brees. Of course, keeping the Redskins off-balance with screens and draws will help.
Other ways to help are fairly obvious. Keep a back or tight end in to help block those guys. To that end, Mark Ingram and David Thomas are exceptional pieces to help the offensive line.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has likely also considered throwing a number of quick three-step drop passes just to get the ball out of Brees' hands.
It's interesting to me that protecting Drew Brees was one of my three keys in the Saints' blueprint for making the Super Bowl earlier this week.
That ability will be tested right out of the gate in Week 1 against one of the NFL's best pass-rushing defenses.
The Redskins defense is set up quite nicely. Though the team has obvious deficiencies in the secondary, the pass rush makes up for it most of the time.
That factor is the reason the primary key for New Orleans offensively is to protect Brees. If he is getting crushed, he will be unable to sling the ball down the field. But if he is protected, the team can easily take advantage of a porous secondary.
Former Saints head coach Jim Haslett runs the Redskins defense. As the coordinator, he is responsible for orchestrating the coverages, blitzes and line calls. While he keeps the line calls and blitzes relatively simple, he does mix the coverages to try to keep the offense confused.
Of course, Drew Brees is more than able to process all of the things the secondary is doing in lightning-quick speed. Brees will notice that the Redskins defense is susceptible to the deep pass, especially after using double-moves flooding particular zones.
Again, if the Saints are able to protect and give Brees time, he should have a field day Sunday against the Redskins secondary.
The primary difference between the 2011 version of the Washington Redskins and the 2012 team is not going to be the ability to effectively throw the ball down the field (though that definitely figures to improve). It is going to be Robert Griffin's ability to make a play when everything else breaks down around him.
Similar to Cam Newton a year ago, Griffin isn't going to be a run-first quarterback. Instead, he will only run when he has no other options. That could happen quite a bit in Week 1, as the Saints will be at full strength in the secondary and will be whipping out a brand new system for the first time in regular-season action.
Because it is primarily a zone scheme, there should automatically be a plethora of eyes on Griffin. That should help keep him contained. But eyes do not equal tackles. Saints defenders must be prepared to tackle the slippery signal-caller.
If they can do that, they'll go a long way to shutting down what figures to be an exciting, yet futile offense early in the season.
At the same time, it is of great importance to note that the Redskins offensive line is terrible at protecting the quarterback. While scrambling quarterbacks are generally good at getting yards with their legs, they tend to trust their instincts too much and thus can easily be blindsided by pressure.
For that reason, Griffin figures to be an easy target to hit when the team is able to get to him in this game.
The Redskins do a lot of different things to dress up their offense. But the reality is that it's actually quite a simple offense.
In the run game, the team will run the zone scheme all day long. In that scheme, the team really is just trying to take advantage of an overaggressive defense. It wants its running back to cut back against the grain of the play to daylight.
Any of the Redskins running backs can do this effectively. There really is little distinction between them, other than to say that Roy Helu has the most natural talent.
In the passing game, they actually have a pretty similar philosophy. They will run two receivers into the same zone vertically. They are trying to attack a one-safety defense by making the safety choose which receiver he wants to take, leaving the other receiver open.
Most downs the Saints are going to play two deep safeties, making this proposition a more difficult one to accomplish. But that doesn't mean they won't still try. No matter the coverages it is seeing, the team will continue to push the ball down the field, especially with the big, accurate arm that RGIII possesses.
The Redskins will do this with about 100 different receivers, from Santana Moss to Pierre Garcon to Leonard Hankerson to Josh Morgan.
To combat this approach, the Saints would be wise to use their corners in more man-to-man coverage, which will automatically free the safeties to double those flood routes. Because the Saints will not blitz often, they'll always have six or seven defenders to cover four receivers.
Run or pass, the approach should stay the same. As the now-infamous poster facade of Sean Payton that's matted up in the practice facility reads, "Do your job."
It's that very approach that will allow the Saints to contain the Redskins offense this weekend.
It should be a win-win, unless the Redskins get a little tricky.
It is kind of remarkable that the blueprint piece I linked earlier was written not with the Redskins game in mind. Yet two of the three keys there have shown up here.
It is partially because special teams tends to be the forgotten child of football. Everyone knows he's there but, accidentally or not, forgets to check on him and make any mention of his existence.
Most football coaches, however, take special teams very seriously. But that doesn't mean certain teams aren't better or worse in that particular area.
The Redskins happen to be one of those teams who struggle on special teams. They've long had issues at the kicker position. Billy Cundiff isn't going to change that.
And though team officials seem to be quite high on Brandon Banks, it matters little, as the rest of the return team unit often fails to do its job.
Of course, the Saints have a very capable special teams unit, headed up by Courtney Roby. They should be able to stuff the Redskins return game early and often.
In other areas, it would come as no surprise if the Saints outduel the Redskins. Between Thomas Morstead and Garrett Hartley, the Saints possess one of the NFL's best kicking duos.
So, here's what I'll go out on a limb with. Even if the Saints and Redskins were to stalemate on offense and defense (which seems unlikely), the Saints would still likely win this game because they are better on special teams.
Or at least they should be. The guys still have to show up and play on Sunday.