Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season is always the most exciting time of the year. The Super Bowl really only involves the emotional investment of two fanbases, while the draft doesn't feature any actual football being played.
Week 1, however, has everything: optimism, excitement, inevitable disappointment and, most importantly, lots and lots of football.
It can be a bit overwhelming if you haven't followed the offseason too closely (or even if you have), so sometimes it's best to carefully digest the week ahead by careful and separate breakdown. Here are three of the more interesting matchups to watch out for this weekend.
St. Louis Rams Receivers vs. Arizona Cardinals Cornerbacks
Everything that the St. Louis Rams have attempted on offense over the past few seasons has been hampered by their porous offensive line. Free-agent addition Jake Long may not have lived up to his hype as a first overall draft pick, but he is a dramatic improvement over all his Rams predecessors at left tackle during the Sam Bradford era.
Long's arrival actually improves two positions, as Rodger Saffold moves to start at right tackle. The Rams' new-look O-line faces a tough test against the Arizona Cardinals front, but it should be able to hold up enough to give the passing game a chance.
Both the Rams' group of receiving options and the Cardinals defensive backs have changed a lot since last season.
For St. Louis, Tavon Austin and Jared Cook have arrived to replace the departed Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola. But Austin and Cook bring different skill sets to the table than Gibson and Amendola, which will alter the structure of the team's passing attack.
Cook is listed as a tight end, but he is essentially an oversized, super-charged athlete who excels at catching footballs. Austin, meanwhile, wasn't taken in the top 10 of the draft to be a possession receiver; he will be expected to consistently make big plays while still making underneath receptions when needed.
For the Cardinals, three starters and one significant contributor from last year's secondary have departed. William Gay, Adrian Wilson and Greg Toler all signed with AFC sides, while Kerry Rhodes remains a free agent. Only Patrick Peterson carries over from last season's starting lineup, with Rashad Johnson getting promoted to the starting lineup.
General manager Steve Keim surrounded Peterson and Johnson with free-agent additions Antoine Cason, Yeremiah Bell and Jerraud Powers, talented (but polarizing) rookie Tyrann Mathieu, and Javier Arenas, who arrived in a trade from the Kansas City Chiefs. Furthermore, Todd Bowles has succeeded Todd Bowles at defensive coordinator position.
Even though the Cardinals have made a lot of moves in their secondary, a clearly defined plan appears to have been followed. In Mathieu and Arenas, the Cardinals have brought in two defensive backs who should excel at covering the smaller, more agile receivers. Those are the kinds of receivers that Peterson struggled with the most last season.
Arenas wasn't overly impressive in Kansas City, but he did do a commendable job in the inside covering slot receivers. Mathieu played inside a lot at LSU and will be a safety in the NFL. But he is expected to start as the inside cornerback in nickel packages.
Against the Rams, one inside cornerback may not be enough, however.
On Jared Cook's touchdown against the Denver Broncos this preseason, the Rams showed off the formation that is likely to be their base on offense this season. Austin should spend most of his time in the slot, but Cook and Austin Pettis could regularly swap positions with Givens also coming inside sometimes.
This formation is going to pressure opponents' secondaries and allow the Rams to force mismatches. With Cook, a freak athlete who can play all over the field, Austin, a lightning-quick receiver who will excel in space, Pettis, a talented player who can replicate Gibson's play on intermediate routes, and Givens, a developing speedster who showed up very well as a rookie, the Rams will find weaknesses in the secondary.
The Cardinals may be better set to match up to the Rams than the majority of teams in the league. However, the real question is how they will choose to match up to the receivers.
Last season, Ray Horton moved Peterson around to follow the opposition's best wideout. The Rams' best receiver is likely to be Givens, as he has looked the most comfortable with Bradford during the preseason. But Givens isn't likely to be featured heavily from snap to snap. Instead, the Rams passing attack is most likely going to focus on Cook and Austin.
Austin is a nightmare matchup for Peterson. The DB's lanky frame makes him susceptible to Austin's quickness underneath, just like it did against Amendola last season. Cook, on the other hand, could be the perfect player for Peterson to cover.
Peterson can run with Cook but also has the size to stick to him on passes. Furthermore, any time Bradford looks to exploit Cook's size, he would be risking a turnover to one of the most dangerous defensive backs in the NFL.
If Peterson covers Cook, then Antoine Cason will likely be asked to cover Givens on the outside and Mathieu will be put on Austin. With four receivers on the field and a running threat, the Cardinals safeties would be stretched, meaning that either Givens or Austin will be afforded more space than is comfortable for the Cardinals.
Maybe if Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington weren't suspended for the first four games of the season, then he could cover Cook and the Cardinals could anchor their coverage around Peterson's ability to cover Givens on an island. But Washington's absence means that there is somewhat of a jigsaw that needs to figure itself out on Sunday.
Chris Johnson vs. The Pittsburgh Steelers Front Seven
Chris Johnson has faced the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in every season of his five-year career so far. Johnson has never had 100 yards rushing (averaging 3.7 yards on 80 rushing attempts) against the Steelers, and was even limited to 57 yards during his 2,000-yard campaign of 2009.
His most productive game actually came last season when he had 19 carries for 91 yards. However, even though it was just last season, that game will look very different to the one that takes place between the two sides this weekend.
With Matt Hasselbeck under center, the Titans established the passing game early on against the Steelers last season. Seven of the team's first nine plays were passes. This took the Steelers out of their base defense, allowing Johnson to run against the nickel defense with his first carry.
As the game wore on, the Steelers went from setting up to stop Johnson to trying to limit Hasselbeck. Only 13 of Johnson's runs came against the Steelers base defense, with six of those carries coming in the fourth quarter. On those 13 carries, Johnson had 62 yards for a 4.8 YPC average, but his two longest runs came as the Steelers blitzed anticipating a pass.
That game plan is again available to the Titans this weekend, but with Jake Locker now under center, it is unlikely. Locker is auditioning to be the team's franchise quarterback, but asking him to throw the ball 44 times would play perfectly into the Steelers' plans.
Instead, the Titans will be looking to make use of their brand new offensive line. Or, more specifically, their brand new interior offensive line of Andy Levitre, Robert Turner and rookie Chance Warmack, as they will all make their team debuts on Sunday.
The Titans' new O-line won't be facing the same front seven the Steelers brought to Tennessee last season. Arguably the two best run defenders in the NFL over the past five years have departed the Steel City this offseason. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is to be replaced by youngster Steve McLendon, while some combination of Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones is set to take over for outside linebacker James Harrison.
Those two positions are vital for containing Chris Johnson.
As a former Defensive Player of the Year and current star of Hard Knocks, everyone knows about James Harrison. As a nose tackle who was never in position to fill the stat sheet, Hampton's work largely went unnoticed outside of Pittsburgh.
At 6'1" and at least 325 lbs., his sheer size, quickness and low pad level allowed him to maintain two gaps in the running game. Hampton's ability to handle both A-gaps (the gaps to either side of the center), freed up his teammates to penetrate the backfield or set the edge with fewer responsibilities. In a sense, having Hampton on the field was like having two extra defenders against the run.
In McLendon, the Steelers are altering the nose tackle position in their defense. McLendon can manage two gaps, but not to the same effectiveness of Hampton. That is because McLendon is taller, 6'4", and lighter, roughly 300 lbs. While McLendon lacks the horizontal size of Hampton, he has much more ability as a penetrator vertically.
Against the Titans last season, McLendon played sparingly, but as he has done throughout his career, he impressed.
On this play we see how McLendon penetrates up the field to disrupt plays instead of moving horizontally like Hampton. He is lined up with what appears to be a two-gap responsibility, but at the snap the play flows to the right side, so he is immediately able to attack the A-gap to the right side of the center.
McLendon beats Fernando Velasco with good use of his hands, before getting between the center and the left guard who is trying to come across to double-team him. McLendon uses his strength to hold off the two offensive linemen as he approaches the fullback. The fullback stays between McLendon and Johnson, but McLendon knocks him back far enough to push Johnson away from the hole up the middle.
Johnson had a gap, but he ultimately comes away with just a two-yard gain because of McLendon's penetration.
The Titans run a lot of zone-blocking or stretch plays to the outside where defensive line penetration and edge discipline is required to contain the running back. The Titans will be hoping that their investment on the interior of their line will prevent McLendon from penetrating in such fashion. Meanwhile, the Steelers will be hoping that whoever starts at outside linebacker across from LaMarr Woodley is disciplined enough to prevent any big cutback runs.
On Johnson's 58-yard touchdown run during Week 1 of the preseason this year, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo took a terrible angle at the snap. Orakpo may have been worried about Locker's rushing ability on a bootleg—something that he does bring over Hasselbeck—but he overplayed it, benefiting Johnson.
In LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers have one dominant edge defender against the run, but both Jones and Worilds have question marks at this point.
Dick LeBeau's defense always looks to take away the big play. Even though the Titans will run a variety of different rushing plays with their new guards, both players can pull across the field while Levitre is excellent at climbing to the second level. It's this type of play that will make or break Johnson on Sunday.
Kyle Long vs. Geno Atkins
The Chicago Bears had arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL last season, while the Cincinnati Bengals probably had the best defensive line. One offseason shouldn't really change that much for either side, but the Bears are hoping that their extensive retooling of their offensive front will allow them to immediately compete with the best units in the league.
Aaron Kromer arrives in Chicago as the new offensive coordinator after serving as the offensive line coach in New Orleans the last four seasons. Kromer brought with him his starting left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, who will prove to be a key component for the Bears. Bushord isn't an elite left tackle, but he is a big step up for the Bears.
While Bushrod and Kromer will likely be the biggest factors in determining how successful this line is over the long term, their Week 1 matchup will push the spotlight elsewhere.
Against the Bengals, the focus of any offensive line isn't stopping Michael Johnson at right defensive end. Johnson is a quality player, but the presence of elite defensive tackle Geno Atkins takes the spotlight away from him. Atkins primarily plays as a left defensive tackle for the Bengals, meaning that he will more often than not face off against the Bears' first-round draft pick Kyle Long.
Long has had a winding journey to becoming an NFL offensive linemen. Most analysts questioned the pick by the Bears, but many of those analysts have spent the preseason drooling over the former Oregon Duck's play.
The former college defensive end and left tackle has immediately inserted himself into the starting right guard position. While mostly playing against other starters in the preseason, Long has acquitted himself very well in all aspects of the game while showing off superior athleticism to most players on the field.
It's that athleticism that Long will look to lean on, but there's a stark contrast between the preseason and Week 1 against one of the best DTs in the league.
Long is a little bit tall for an offensive guard. At 6'6", he is two or three inches taller than what is ideal for the position, according to Football Outsiders' Ben Muth. It's not a major issue—taller guards can excel. San Francisco's Alex Boone, arguably the best guard in football right now, is 6'8".
While Long's height may not be a problem against most defensive linemen, it should be an issue against Atkins. The 25-year-old defensive tackle is very versatile and powerful, but his speed and the leverage he can create at 6'1" is what makes him almost unblockable at times. Long has the athleticism to stick with Atkins' bull rush or his burst off the line, but those five inches between the pair may give Atkins an insurmountable leverage advantage.
Against the Oakland Raiders this preseason, Long found himself in a situation where the defensive tackle looked to get underneath him at the snap before speeding past him through the B-gap (gap between the right guard and the right tackle).
Sixth-round pick Christo Bilukidi earned a spot on the Raiders' final 53-man roster. Crucially, he is 6'5", so he and Long are on the same level as this play begins. Bilukidi and Long battle each other with their arms at the snap, before Bilukidi appears to gain the upper hand by getting underneath the right guard.
This creates a small lane for him to attack, but Long stays active with his arms and immediately latches back onto the defender. Long extends his arms as they punch Bilukidi's shoulders before looking to manipulate him as he moves toward the quarterback.
Because Bilukidi is so high up, Long can use all of his strength and concentrate it through his arms to push Bilukidi passed the quarterback and onto the ground. This frees Jay Cutler to scramble forward for a first down on 3rd-and-long.
If you swap Bilukidi out for Atkins in the play above, Long wouldn't have the opportunity to recover. Instead of pushing the defensive lineman past his quarterback, Atkins would likely have been too close to the ground, causing Long to hunch over and lose part of his strength. Anyone who has watched HBO's Hard Knocks series this preseason understands that you need all your strength to deal with Atkins.
Atkins doesn't look like your typical defensive tackle; he resembles a running back more than anything. One of those diminutive but bullish backs such as Maurice Jones-Drew or Ray Rice, but with a slight mutation that brings more elements of Vonta Leach's physique into his composition.
Even if Atkins was 6'6" and didn't have the leverage advantage, he would still be a handful because of his speed and power combination. That leverage just elevates him from being one of the best penetrating 4-3 DTs in the NFL, alongside guys such as Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, into a class of his own.
For Kyle Long, this isn't so much a baptism of fire as it is like being born in an inferno.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf
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