What to Watch For: NFL Week 1
Football fans rejoice, for the much-anticipated arrival of the NFL regular season is finally upon us. During such glorious times, we may require something of a guide (or a reminder), breaking down some of the more intriguing elements of football action—especially as the beer begins to cloud our better judgment and ability to concentrate.
Trying to pay attention to everything in a football game when you have 22 different moving parts operating at the same time can be frustrating—not to mention virtually impossible.
When faced with these obstacles common to the exuberant football fan, perhaps we can turn to this slideshow as a way to move back toward what’s important, or at the very least toward some entertaining options to watch.
So sit back, relax and enjoy some of these intriguing matchups and storylines as we head full-force into Week 1 of the regular season.
Revis Returns to Face His Former Team
One of the more juicy storylines of Week 1 has to be the return of Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis to both football and to his former city, with the Buccaneers headed to New York to kick off the season with a flare for the dramatic.
Revis hasn’t seen a snap of game-day action since September of last season, which also includes the preseason this summer. During that time he’s been rehabbing a torn ACL in hopes of returning to his former glory.
Recently, Jets QB Geno Smith admitted he didn’t think it was necessary to study tape on Revis in preparation for this matchup, which also happens to be his first start as an NFL quarterback.
This information came as a surprise to the former All-Pro cornerback, who seemed amused by the idea of a rookie quarterback starting in his first game and not taking the time to study key opponents for the week.
In any case, there should be some heated emotions simmering underneath the normally calm demeanor of Darrelle Revis. It should come as no surprise he feels disrespected by his former team and will enter this contest with layered emotions. Aside from the natural urge for retribution, there are still some lingering internal questions that will soon be answered.
Will he have the confidence in his surgically repaired knee and general football condition to play 60 minutes of an NFL football game?
As the saying goes, there’s being in "good shape," and then there’s being in "football shape."
It’s hard to believe Revis won’t be gasping for air early and often during most of the game. But if there was ever a time to suck it up, dig deep and play inspired football, this would be it.
Can Packers Establish a Running Game with Lacy Against the 49ers D?
For the last few years, Aaron Rodgers has been relentlessly harassed by NFL defenses. Through it all he has managed to flourish with unprecedented success at the quarterback position. But lately the Packers have fallen short in the playoffs, while the bodily harm to Rodgers continues to mount.
Green Bay seems to recognize the need to establish a viable running game in order to preserve the health of the best quarterback in the NFL and to control the ball during the winter months. The growing trend of a marginalized running game is not the route Green Bay is looking to continue down.
Come Sunday, the Packers’ running game will be put to the ultimate test against arguably the best run defense in the NFL.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy may not be the official starter for the season opener, but expect the former Alabama star to receive numerous opportunities early in order to establish balance offensively.
Though Green Bay may eventually become a more balanced offense in 2013, the 49ers defense is not where you want to force that issue. If there are question marks in that defense, the secondary would be the more likely candidate for heavy experimentation.
San Francisco lost its Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson in free agency (now replaced by a rookie), and its slot corner, Chris Culliver, is out for the season with an injury.
There should be significantly more opportunities to exploit the 49ers secondary with Aaron Rodgers and his weapons, rather than foolishly sending unproven ball-carriers into the teeth of a legendary defense.
Dallas Debuts Its Tampa-2 Defense Against the Giants
When owner Jerry Jones decided to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replace him with the experienced (and very old) Monte Kiffin, he was essentially saying it was time to simplify the team's approach on that side of the ball.
Kiffin is the architect of the Tampa-2 defense, which was made famous during his 13 years as defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This scheme helped the Buccaneers to win their first and only Super Bowl back in the 2002-03 season.
The general concept is designed around freeing up the defensive line so it can attack upfield by playing the run on the way to the quarterback. This also means there should be little need to blitz.
In the back end, "Cover 2" is defined by having two deep safeties, each asked to play half the field as deep as the deepest man on offense. The middle of the field is a vulnerable spot but is given some protection by the middle linebacker who is asked to drop almost as far back as a safety once the pass is declared.
Though he isn’t expected to get enough depth to truly cover the middle completely, his drop is designed to put more air on the QB’s delivery, which should give the safeties more time to break on the ball.
The two cornerbacks in a “Tampa 2” are expected to be very physical—both against the receivers and in run support. They're essentially the outside contain player against the run and are not expected to carry the receivers too far up the field. Their primary job is to jam and reroute receivers before settling between eight and 12 yards in order to break on any intermediate routes thrown toward the perimeter.
The middle of field inside the intermediate zone is supposed to be covered by the two outside linebackers. This is about 10 to 12 yards deep and between the numbers.
This Sunday night, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys personnel manage to make the transition from a 3-4 defense to a Tampa-2 concept in just a matter of months.
One player to keep an eye on in particular is pass-rush extraordinaire DeMarcus Ware. This will be his first time lining up at defensive end in the NFL, and he no longer has to worry about dropping into coverage. He should be completely free to treat every down as if it were 3rd-and-long.
This is similar to the assignment Dwight Freeney had during the pinnacle of his career with the Colts.
Middle linebacker Sean Lee will also be a key player to keep an eye on. He will need to demonstrate very quick read-and-react instincts as well as fluidity in the hips to get as deep as he possibly can when the pass declares.
If Ware and Lee are able to adjust to the new defensive scheme in Dallas, this should be an intimidating group for any offense to face as the season progresses.
The Mathieu Factor
It’s been well over a year since Tyrann Mathieu has played in a meaningful football game. It’s possible that the man formerly known as the Honey Badger enters the NFL this year as the most instinctual defensive player in the country.
Mathieu’s most obvious limitation happens to be his diminutive physical stature. At 5’9” and 186 pounds, few NFL teams were willing to gamble on such a small kid carrying such heavy baggage.
It’s this baggage that eventually led to Mathieu’s dismissal from LSU after numerous failed drug tests (see video above).
Since then he has seemingly been able to refocus thanks in large part to his friend and current teammate, Patrick Peterson.
These two have quite the interesting relationship.
The question now is, what type of impact will Mathieu have on the Arizona Cardinals defense?
This Sunday the Cardinals march into St. Louis to face off against a much-improved divisional opponent.
Mathieu is currently listed as a backup, according to the Cardinals' official website, but it shouldn't make much difference. Expect the rookie to see plenty of action in the secondary, as he'll be used somewhat like a Swiss Army knife.
It’s difficult to say how much of an impact he will have against the Rams in his first NFL game, but it'll definitely be exciting to see what he can do against the likes of fellow rookie Tavon Austin. Both players are explosive, highly talented and extremely undersized.
Mathieu’s true value to the Cardinals should come by way of turnovers. This has always been his specialty and may be the difference between a win and a loss in this game.
If he does find success in the NFL while managing to stay out of trouble, there’s no doubt he can contribute a great deal of that to the influence and support from his friend and teammate, Patrick Peterson.
Kyle Long vs. Geno Atkins
Last April in the 2013 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears surprised a lot of people with their first overall pick, Kyle Long.
This 6’6”, 313-pound offensive lineman out of Oregon was considered by most to be too raw and inexperienced to have much of an impact in the NFL in his first few years, if ever. Furthermore, he entered the draft with a checkered past, having been arrested in 2009 for a DWI.
Despite the criticism, the Bears seemed confident in their decision to move forward by improving their team upfront with the addition of this powerful athlete.
Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams, is definitely equipped with the proper genetics to play in the NFL—but few people expected him to have the type of success he has had thus far during the preseason.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Long graded out as the top offensive guard in the NFL throughout the preseason. That includes both veterans and rookies, by the way. In 133 snaps, he didn’t allow a single sack while only giving up one hit on the quarterback. His run-blocking was also extremely impressive.
All of this early success for Long has created a very appealing matchup against one of the NFL's most dominating interior linemen in the league, Geno Atkins. Unfortunately, this matchup is also likely to go largely unnoticed. But for those of you interested in witnessing an amazing battle in the trenches, I fully recommend you pay close attention to the one between Atkins and Long.
Geno Atkins has been an unstoppable force inside for the Cincinnati Bengals, tallying up 16 sacks a year ago. These numbers are nearly unheard of for a guy playing the 3-technique.
His success comes largely from his incredible functional strength and use of leverage, which allows him to penetrate and collapse the pocket with regularity. Once he beats his blocks, Atkins is incredibly good at closing the gap and finishing the play, where most defensive tackles lack the ability to run down quarterbacks.
If Kyle Long somehow manages to neutralize Geno Atkins this Sunday, he needs to be seriously considered for Rookie of the Year.
What to Understand About a Chip Kelly Offense
The common perception about a Chip Kelly offense is that the high-tempo component is the key to its success. Though there is an element of truth to that, the real struggle defenses face comes from the multiple options presented at the mesh point.
Basically, the challenge for defenses is trying to react to so many different options on a given play.
A typical Chip Kelly play incorporates a “triple-option” component, which is essentially exactly what it sounds like. The quarterback is asked to read the defense at the line of scrimmage in order to make an initial call to the offense.
Once that call is made and the ball is snapped, the quarterback then has the ability to either throw it, run it or hand the ball off. These various options can be executed a number of ways and make it very difficult for defenders to recognize their typical read-and-reaction keys.
It's from these brief moments of hesitation that the offense is given a significant advantage over the defense.
Adding tempo to these concepts only complicates things further for the defense as it becomes increasingly fatigued and struggles to get its bearings. For anyone who has played football before, you know that it’s incredibly difficult to think when you’re physically exhausted.
This one-two punch of multiplicity and fast-paced tempo are what make a Chip Kelly offense truly dangerous.
Entering the NFL, Kelly has claimed several times that he’s very willing to adapt his offense to fit the personnel he has on his roster. Though this may be true in theory, you shouldn’t expect to see much of a traditional offense in Philadelphia this year. There are sure to be a wide array of triple-option plays from his usual spread alignment.
It stands to reason Coach Kelly will first need to see this concept shut down with some consistency before he abandons it for a more conventional style of offense.
With both Mike Vick and Robert Griffin III running read-option offenses, the new era of the NFL is in full force. The Philadelphia vs. Washington game is scheduled for Monday night; however, the action on the field might end up looking more like it should be played on a Saturday, complete with a marching band—wait, it actually will have a marching band.
Manuel vs. Belichick in His NFL Debut
Come Sunday, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel will take the field of Gillette Stadium in his debut performance as a professional football player. Manuel has missed the last two preseason games because of minor knee surgery but claims he is not limited by it at all heading into Week 1 against the Patriots.
Experiencing the complexities of the NFL game for the first time is already one of the biggest challenges one will ever face. Having to endure this against Bill Belichick, one of the smartest football minds in the history of the game, will undoubtedly test Manuel to the brink of his limits.
The Bills have adopted a high-tempo offense under new head coach Doug Marrone. This should simplify the game somewhat for Manuel by not allowing him to over-think his pre-snap reads. This fast-paced style will also force the defense to show its hand immediately, which helps in reading coverages.
Manuel has a similar build and athleticism to Cam Newton (who lit up the league his rookie year) but enters the NFL far more accurate and with more polish overall as a quarterback. Although he’s bound to make some typical rookie mistakes, especially against a Belichick defense, expect the game to be far more competitive than most are anticipating.
Manuel is blessed with a talented offensive line and potent running game, which should take a great deal of pressure off his shoulders.
Belichick will try to hold back Manuel and the Bills with one of the youngest defenses in the NFL. Thirteen of the 26 active defensive players on the Patriots roster are entering their first or second year in the NFL. However, this unit is not without talent, and it should make life difficult for the inexperienced signal-caller.
The one element that should keep the Patriots on their toes in this matchup is containing Manuel inside the pocket and preventing him from making too many plays with his feet. This is where the young QB will find a way to keep this game close.
Side note: Tom Brady is only 194 yards away from having 45,000 career passing yards. This is a feat only eight quarterbacks in history have accomplished.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and featured columnist for Bleacher Report.