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Rookies Facing Toughest Tests in NFL's 1st Week

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2015

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) cheers his team during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Week 1 of the NFL regular season can be unpredictable.

New coaches, new quarterbacks and new schemes. There are so many alterations from the previous year, and even those players who haven't officially changed anything have had months to improve or decline, be it physically, technically or otherwise.

The first week of the year is special because it marks the return of football, but otherwise it is just another one of 16 game weeks for all those involved—all of those except for the rookies making their debuts. 

For the rookies, it's the first step for the rest of their careers. The first step can often be the toughest.

Some rookies have it easier than others. They are eased into lesser roles with their new teams and/or play with better supporting casts against teams that offer favorable matchups. Even those players can struggle simply because they haven't adjusted to the speed of the NFL after four preseason games.

If you're unfortunate enough to be one of the rookies facing the toughest type of test you can face during your first week of professional football, you're unlikely to come away looking good.

Even while understanding that one game doesn't make a career, it can still be disheartening for fans watching when their exciting new addition doesn't immediately live up to his reputation. It helps if you can identify those most likely to falter, though.

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As such, here are the rookies facing the toughest tests in Week 1 and the matchups that will make it so tough on them.

Jameis Winston vs. Dick LeBeau

Over the course of his long career, Dick LeBeau has excelled against rookie quarterbacks and quarterbacks facing his defense for the first time.

LeBeau's defensive philosophy is built around his ability to confuse the quarterback. He disguises his pass rushes and blitzes from different formations to create hesitation that leads to sacks or confusion that baits the quarterback into throwing interceptions.

When you're a rookie trying to adjust to the speed of the NFL and more complex defenses than you faced in college, LeBeau is the last defensive coordinator you want to see. His aggressive approach is another layer on top of the many you're already attempting to climb over.

That is the situation Jameis Winston finds himself in this weekend. Winston's Tampa Bay Buccaneers face LeBeau's Tennessee Titans in his professional debut.

Most rookie quarterbacks enter the NFL with low initial expectations. Winston shouldn't. Winston was sold through the draft process as a pro-ready player because of his exceptional understanding of concepts in coverage and his ability to immediately break them down at the snap.

Through the preseason, Winston showed off the positives and negatives of his skill set. He carved up simpler coverages when given time in the pocket. This was particularly evident against the Cincinnati Bengals when Winston was able to move the ball against their first-team defense.

It was against the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns where Winston struggled most. Those two defenses made more aggressive movements both before and after the snap to confuse him.

Credit: NFL.com

This play comes from the Browns game. Late in the first quarter, the offense is set up deep in its own territory on a 3rd-and-11. With four down linemen and one linebacker pressing the line of scrimmage over the center, the Buccaneers are threatening to blitz five defenders after the quarterback.

Importantly, the Buccaneers have dropped a safety into the box on the left side of the offense. That gives the defense three second-level defenders to that side of the field, where there are only two eligible receiving options, including the running back.

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Unsurprisingly, Winston focuses on the linebacker threatening to blitz over the middle when the ball is snapped. His eyes linger too long on the linebacker after he drops into coverage and doesn't blitz. While Winston was focusing on the inside linebacker, the Browns were blitzing from his left with both second-level defenders.

Winston needed to recognize that the linebacker wasn't blitzing quicker than he did so he could get to his first read quicker. His first read would have allowed him to recognize that the left defensive end was dropping into coverage and not trying to penetrate the pocket.

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As he drops further into the pocket, Winston's eyes remain on the dropping linebacker. At the same time, Doug Martin is missing his block. Martin's blown assignment allows the first second-level blitzer to have a free run at Winston.

This is a crucial detail on the play. If Martin had picked up the first blitzer from the second level, Winston would have had enough time to stop and turn his eyes to the left of the play. The other second-level blitzer was five yards farther downfield, so it would have taken him longer to get to Winston.

Behind the blitz, the offense had a receiver running a slant route into space that was Winston's only viable option on the play.

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Martin's missed block and Winston's lax eyes meant the signal-caller never had an opportunity to find the slant route. Instead he continued to move backward before flinging the ball indiscriminately downfield. The pass was ultimately brought in by an underneath defender for an interception.

Although Martin missed his assignment, Winston also could have covered for that if his process in the pocket were faster.

It's unrealistic to expect his process in the pocket to be that fast at this stage of his career, but that is the challenge sitting ahead of him. Winston won't be playing behind a high-quality offensive line, nor will he be able to lean on an efficient running game with a dominant defense.

Winston's offensive line features two rookies in the starting lineup—one who's transitioning from Division II college football—and lacks talent from top to bottom.

The Titans don't have exceptional pass-rushing talent, but they have enough pieces to consistently get the better of the Buccaneers' individuals in one-on-one matchups. Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo in particular could cause major issues for Winston even without LeBeau's creativity.

Furthermore, Winston could be out with his best receiver on Sunday. Mike Evans has missed practice with a hamstring injury this week, per NFL Nation's Pat Yasinskas.

Brandon Scherff vs. Ndamukong Suh

In college, Brandon Scherff was a dominant player.

He played left tackle for Iowa and was selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2015 draft. Like Zack Martin and Joel Bitonio before him, Scherff is moving from being a top college offensive tackle to being a starting guard in the NFL.

Theoretically, he should immediately have an athleticism advantage over interior defensive linemen, even at the NFL level. Unfortunately for Scherff, that's not going to be the case over the first couple of weeks as he faces off against the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams.

In Week 1, he will be dealing with both Earl Mitchell and Ndamukong Suh. Mitchell is an above-average starting tackle, but even he pales in comparison to Suh's talent.

Suh is arguably a top-five defensive player in the whole league. While Scherff is still figuring out the technical minutia of playing guard at this level, he would have been hoping to rely on his athleticism against his opponents. Suh not only is technically sound, but he will also make Scherff look like a below-average athlete.

To battle effectively against Suh, Scherff will have to dramatically improve on his preseason displays.

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Suh (6'4", 320 lbs) can beat guards in every possible way. He understands how to use his hands to gain leverage and power through the chests of blockers, but he can also win battles through his sheer power when the guard has better positioning.

Possessing a burst off the line of scrimmage and unnatural balance means that taking advantage of any space afforded to him is always an option.

It's unlikely that Washington would willingly put Scherff in space against Suh, but the quality of the Dolphins defensive line will make it difficult for the team to consistently give him help. Washington head coach Jay Gruden understands the challenge, per 247Sports' Jamie Oaks:

You know, like I said before, he’s gonna have his ups and downs. He’s going against some pretty good players on the defensive line his first couple weeks. He’s got Aaron Donald with the Rams. He’s got Suh, possibily he’s over there. He’s got this Mitchell guy. So, he’s gonna have some great challenges early. We’ll see how ready he is.

The one thing about him is that I feel that’s he’s a mentally tough, stable human being and if he does get beat, it’s not going to affect him in the long haul. He’s going to keep competing and that’s what we like to see. It’s one thing to get beat every now and then on a nice swim move or a bull rush or something like that, but to not let it affect you play moving forward is very, very important. We think that’s a great quality that Brandon has.

Scherff is going to need to prove that mental toughness because Suh isn't just likely to beat him every now and then.

Ronald Darby vs. T.Y. Hilton

Preseason wasn't kind to Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby.

Darby wasn't a first-round pick, but he had high expectations entering the season because he was the Bills' second-round pick. He was also arriving into a situation where he could afford to be an ancillary piece on a dominant defense.

If the Bills are to make the playoffs, they will likely need Darby to be an effective starter throughout the whole season. They can afford to help him a lot with their pass-rushing talent up front and Stephon Gilmore playing across from him.

Week 1 of the regular season is going to provide a stiff challenge for Darby. The Indianapolis Colts figure to have one of the best—if not the best—passing attacks in the NFL this year.

Darby will likely be matched up against T.Y. Hilton with a lot of safety help over the top. That will leave Stephon Gilmore alone with Andre Johnson on the other side of the field. Quarterback Andrew Luck will look to that matchup, but the defense will be OK so long as it can contain the offense as a whole.

Preventing Hilton from creating a big play or two with his speed will go a long way to helping the Bills win their first game of the season.

In the preseason, Darby had two interceptions against the Cleveland Browns. However, those interceptions weren't reflective of his snap-by-snap performances. Despite his straight-line speed (4.38 40-yard dash), Darby was repeatedly beaten deep down the field by opposing receivers.

Martavis Bryant of the Pittsburgh Steelers badly exposed him.

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Being that it was the preseason, the Bills weren't game-planning for their opponents. As such, it was easier for teams to attack Darby and get him in preferable matchups for the offense. With that said, this wasn't a play where that was relevant.

Darby is lined up in press coverage to the top of the screen against Bryant.

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Although he is lined up in press coverage, Darby isn't aggressive with Bryant at the snap. Considering the size difference between the two, that isn't a surprise. Against Hilton in Week 1, Darby (5'11", 193 lbs) can afford to be more aggressive if he is smart with his hand usage.

On this occasion, Darby didn't need to be aggressive with Bryant to stick with him through the initial stages of his route.

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Covering the initial stages of the route was the easier task. Bryant didn't make an aggressive move to release from the line of scrimmage. Once he got outside of Darby, he began to pull away from the defensive back.

Darby attempted to latch onto his inside shoulder before turning around to locate the football, but he was unable to. When Darby looked back for the ball, Bryant was already too far downfield for him to control him in his route.

Because the ball was thrown further downfield, Darby immediately had to abandon his attempts to find the ball and attempt to recover position against Bryant. He was unable to, and because he never actually found the ball, Bryant was able to come free to the inside as he drifted toward the sideline.

Vic Beasley vs. Jason Peters

There's no doubt that Vic Beasley is going to immediately upgrade the Atlanta Falcons pass rush during his rookie season. Beasley's value as a pass-rusher is huge to the Falcons, but he needs to prove that he can be a quality run defender to be a quality starter.

Unfortunately for Beasley and the Falcons, he is going to make his debut in the worst possible situation for his skill set.

The rookie will face off against Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles. Peters is a mammoth (6'4", 328 lbs) who moves like a wide receiver in space. He can make any type of block and should be able to consistently overwhelm Beasley at the point of contact.

Peters isn't necessarily the best starting left tackle in the NFL. But he's definitely in the discussion, and it's between him and Joe Staley as the best run-blocker in the NFL.

What worsens matters for Beasley and the Falcons is that the Eagles are likely going to run the ball a huge amount. Not only do they have a reloaded running back depth chart to take advantage of, but they will also likely want to ease Sam Bradford into their offense as the starting quarterback.

During the third week of the preseason, Beasley got an extended opportunity to play against an offense that is similar to the one the Eagles use.

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The Dolphins' starting left tackle, Branden Albert, isn't in Peters' class as a player, but Beasley didn't even get an opportunity to show his skill set against him. Instead, he worked against the the team's backup, Dallas Thomas.

Despite playing against a lesser caliber of talent, Beasley didn't show up well against the run.

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Understanding Beasley's skill set, the Eagles are very likely to flip their running plays so that they regularly leave the other defensive end unblocked on their option-style running plays. That will force Beasley to set the edge on the other side of the field instead of leaving him in space as the read.

On the first play of the Dolphins game, this was what the offense did.

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Beasley is way too aggressive on this play. He allows the left tackle to easily push him out of the play as he crashes down inside his inside shoulder. Lamar Miller is able to simply extend the beginning of his run toward the sideline, directing him outside of the left tackle.

Miller goes cleanly into the secondary past where Beasley should be.

Any NFL left tackle could take advantage of this kind of run defense. Beasley made it too easy for Thomas. Against Peters, Beasley can't afford to do this. There will be times when Beasley plays the run perfectly against Peters, and the left tackle's physical ability will still allow him to win.

Giving up easy snaps to go along with those losses will lead to a huge day for the Eagles' running game. It's possible that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is anticipating this kind of matchup problem and will reduce Beasley's role.

While that may make sense during the short term, it would likely be better for Beasley to get this opportunity to go against one of the best left tackles in the NFL.

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