NFL Week 1: Predicting Winners and Losers of Weekend's Biggest Matchups
In its simplest form, football can be reduced to a series of one-on-one matchups. Everyone has an assignment, and in the purest sense of the Bill Belichick-ism, everyone has a job.
Execution is critical on each snap, and every tiny victory in those matchups leads to larger tallies in the win column. There are some matchups, however, that play a greater role in the weekly clashes of wits and brawn. Several lie ahead Sunday and Monday as regular-season football makes its glorious return to our lives and you say goodbye to loved ones for a few months.
Can new Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman sufficiently slow Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and football vacuum Antonio Brown? What will happen when monstrous New Orleans Saints tackle Terron Armstead tangles with the Oakland Raiders' Khalil Mack? And will New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo survive his faceoff with Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu?
Every week, I'll dig into the most compelling matchups and try to predict who will win those individual battles. That surely won't result in eating a steady diet of crow, right? (Maybe!)
Let's dive into Week 1, starting with the aforementioned Mathieu and his refusal to play under any one position title.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Tyrann Mathieu
Garoppolo has something in common with Denver Broncos pivot Trevor Siemian: They're both being tossed into a burning inferno to start for championship-contending teams, and they're both rookies as far as regular-season starting experience is concerned.
Garoppolo has had an extra year of development while learning alongside fellow Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He's also at least experienced a tablespoon of NFL regular-season action in mop-up duty while attempting 31 passes.
But he's never had the experience of a defensive coordinator's combing through his tape and zeroing in on the tiniest bit of minutiae that could expose a weakness. He's never faced a specific game plan at the NFL level, one designed to test how well Garoppolo can handle pressure in the pocket while also navigating his passes through a sea of swarming defenders downfield.
Most of all, he's never done all that when asked to go against a ball-hawking defensive back on Mathieu's level.
Exactly which Mathieu we see in prime time Sunday night is the looming question hovering over the Cardinals defense. The safety suffered a torn ACL in December 2015. Although he progressed well in his recovery and was removed from the physically unable to perform list in mid-August, the 24-year-old didn't take a preseason snap and will be seeing his first game action in nearly eight months.
But Garoppolo's night won't be especially enjoyable if Mathieu is even, say, 80 percent of his usual Swiss army knife self Sunday.
Mathieu is a very 2016 NFL defender in that we try to slap labels on him and consistently fail. Most depth charts will list him as a safety because that's where he plays in the Cardinals' base defense. But like many modern defenses, the Cardinals deploy a variety of sub-packages, and they primarily call on Mathieu to line up as a slot cornerback.
Which is wise, because Mathieu is at his best when given the open field to roam. He recorded the third-best passer rating in coverage among slot cornerbacks in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, and also finished with 22 passes defensed even while missing two games.
Mathieu wins this one as long as we assume he's close to full health. Please also remember Mathieu led all cornerbacks in total pressures (10), per PFF, while often a central figure in Arizona's exotic blitz schemes. Oh, and he finished second among cornerbacks with 17 run stops, per PFF. He's terrifyingly versatile against someone like Garoppolo, who has been playing checkers all preseason without the movable chess pieces.
Mike Daniels vs. Luke Joeckel
The Jacksonville Jaguars made an expected move official in late August when head coach Gus Bradley announced Luke Joeckel will play guard.
With that, Jacksonville pulled the plug on the Joeckel left tackle experiment just three seasons after investing a second overall pick in him.
Three years and 35 regular-season games of floundering have shown the Jaguars that Joeckel turns to rubble when asked to be an offensive line cornerstone. But there's still a frightening problem now as Joeckel tries to salvage his career and the Jaguars attempt to do the same with a high draft pick.
Neither party involved knows if left guard really is the solution, and now Joeckel is about to spend part of his afternoon Sunday trying to at least impede Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels.
That might not end quite as badly as the reverse somersault Joeckel did after failing miserably against Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. In fairness to Joeckel, being matched up against arguably the league's best interior pass-rusher when you still have the guard training wheels on is some pretty evil stuff.
But Daniels is vicious on the interior too and ranked sixth among all 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 with 53 pressures, per PFF. If Joeckel is hoping for a soft landing as he adjusts to a new position, he should keep looking.
Let's give this one to Daniels, who also ranked fifth among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 with 27 run stops, per PFF.
Mike Evans vs. Desmond Trufant
Everyone has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans listed among the leading breakout wide receiver candidates for 2016. That includes your very NFL-savvy grandmother.
The argument in his favor amounts to some rudimentary football math. Even while finishing second in the league in drops during the 2015 season, per PFF, Evans posted 1,206 receiving yards (averaging 16.3 yards per catch). He also did that despite missing a game.
Evans should climb to yet another level of production if he can reduce the slipperiness of his hands just a little and cut down on his drops. Of course, the growth and maturity of quarterback Jameis Winston will help too.
All of that could easily be true when we take the long view in 2016. But in the short term, Evans has to overcome his divisional nemesis: Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant.
During the 12 games when Evans didn't have to concern himself with Trufant in 2015, he averaged 84.4 receiving yards. When he squared off against Trufant, that average dropped to 54.5 yards.
At 6'5" and 231 pounds, Evans will always have a size advantage over anyone who tries to cover him. But Trufant counters with great footwork, quick instincts and ball skills, all of which contributed to his third-ranked cover-snaps-per-reception ratio of 17.1 in 2015, per PFF.
This is a matchup and viewing experience that will require a whole lot of popcorn for many, many years.
The edge goes to Trufant because of his recent dominance. But the power of Evans and Winston's connection can't be underestimated. In Week 3 of the preseason, Evans caught all five of his targets for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Adrian Peterson vs. Titans Run Defense
If you thought the Minnesota Vikings offense was centered on running back Adrian Peterson in 2015, just wait to see how much the football functions as an extension of his hands now.
That makes for an intriguing matchup in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans and their run defense that allowed only 3.9 yards per carry in 2015 (tied for seventh). It's a unit led up the middle by run-stuffing defensive end Jurrell Casey, who has logged 50-plus tackles in each of his five NFL seasons, and by Wesley Woodyard, who led all middle linebackers in 2015 with a run-stop percentage of 14.3, per PFF.
This will be the classic battle of strength vs. strength. Or if you prefer, space eaters vs. a human mover.
I may deeply regret this, but let's lean toward the Titans run defense here. Peterson has kept bulldozing before when the whole stadium knows he's getting the ball repeatedly. But this time it feels different because Shaun Hill, who will likely start Week 1 because Bradford needs time to get comfortable with the Vikings offense, is at best a veteran journeyman. He won't scare any defense ever, and the line of scrimmage will be a crowded place to do business.
Khalil Mack vs. Terron Armstead
Now this is the good stuff. Buckle up for a heaping helping of two boulder-sized mountain men dueling for an afternoon in their trench tug-of-war.
Saints left tackle Terron Armstead is 6'5" and 304 pounds, and those measurements aren't nearly as important as what he does with his dump truck-like body. He's played 2,093 snaps over three seasons and has allowed just 10 sacks, per PFF.
That's five fewer sacks than Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack totaled in only his second season. Mack possesses a petrifying blend of speed to get to the corner, agility to bend around it and raw strength to plow you over if all else fails.
His first matchup of 2016 is against one of the league's strongest offensive tackles who excels at stopping all those things.
There are times when even the best pass-rushers can come up against a wall that's too high to scale. This might not be one of those times, which is why Mack gets the nod. He's proved to be matchup-proof after recording two sacks in 2015 against the Cleveland Browns and elite left tackle Joe Thomas.
Mike Wallace vs. Stephon Gilmore
If we were to make the baseball version of Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace, he'd be the slugger who tries to launch every ball into another galaxy. He either strikes out or hits home runs.
There's a group of pure speed threats in the NFL, receivers who do little more than streak downfield and hope a football is there when they look up. Wallace is their union leader, and his career has been tainted in recent seasons.
For the Wallace types in the NFL to be effective, they need a quarterback who's an accurate deep thrower. Wallace had that with the Pittsburgh Steelers when he averaged 17.2 yards per reception over the first four seasons of his career. Then over two years with the Miami Dolphins, that average fell to 12.8, and in 2015 with the Vikings, it hit a career single-year low of 12.1.
Now Wallace has been happily reunited with a quality deep thrower in Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. But life will still be difficult for the veteran 30-year-old in his Ravens regular-season debut.
Wallace will spend much of his afternoon looking for space and separation against Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who gave up a less than spectacular though still solid average of 13.3 yards in 2015 whenever he allowed a reception, per PFF.
There is some history here because of the two seasons Wallace spent in the AFC East with Miami. In 2013 Wallace totaled 114 yards on nine catches over two games against Buffalo, and in 2014 he finished with only 94 yards on nine catches again.
This will be a fun clash to watch. Let's give the win to Gilmore based on that recent past history.
Seahawks O-Line vs. Dolphins D-Line
There's an annual Seattle Seahawks conversation once the calendar flips to September and the countdown to regular-season football turns to watching hours, not days.
Sure, we talk about the defense, the rushing offense, the quarterback, the expanding list of talented wide receivers and the otherworldly tight end if he's healthy. But we know all of those elements are excellent, and they combine each year to make the Seahawks at worst a playoff team and then a common Super Bowl pick coming out of the NFC.
Then the conversation swirls around the same weakness that's been present for many years: the offensive line.
We all know what Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson can do as a runner and, more importantly, as an improviser. The latter skill allows him to manage chaos in the pocket effectively and with astounding consistency. When everything seems broken down and lost, Wilson can prolong plays. Then as bodies are lunging at him, he'll find the open receiver, and suddenly nothing turns into a whole lot of something.
It's what makes him arguably (?) the league's best young quarterback. But at some point, even Wilson's unique talent for evading pass-rushers reaches its peak, and he needs quality protection. And at some point, not receiving that protection could derail championship aspirations.
That threat was always present in 2015. Incredibly, there were eight weeks when Wilson was sacked four-plus times. That includes the Seahawks' playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers when he went down five times. Overall, Wilson has endured the punishment of 164 regular-season sacks over his four NFL seasons. That's the second-most sacks taken since 2012, behind only the Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill.
It's important to note Seattle's offensive line woes at length now, because the unit won't wait long to face a key test.
The Seahawks are up against a revamped Dolphins defensive line in Week 1 after the addition of defensive end Mario Williams. He didn't fit well with the Buffalo Bills in head coach Rex Ryan's system. But Williams is still only one year removed from a career single-season high 14.5 sacks, and now he'll be firing off the edge alongside defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and fellow defensive end Cameron Wake.
The Dolphins defensive line will win this battle. The larger issue, though, is whether the Seahawks offensive line can bend without breaking. That could be a weekly question in 2016.
Dak Prescott vs. a First-Team Defense That's Game-Planned for Him
As always, the dog days of August and the preseason build-up produced some great quotes from players who may have been trying to amuse themselves more than anything. Personally, my favorite this time around was Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' reaction to Trevor Siemian's being named his team's starting quarterback.
But Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott came in a close second when he was asked about the vanilla defenses that roam preseason fields.
"That's on them if they want to throw vanilla or rocky road or whatever they want to throw at me," Prescott told a group of Cowboys beat reporters. "It really has no [bearing] on what I do. I just go out there and try to concentrate on our game plan and play my best."
The surging rookie who will now play likely half the season as Tony Romo's replacement isn't afraid of any ice cream flavor NFL defenses offer. But his glowing preseason brilliance has perhaps made us overlook how difficult defenses become when even a few sprinkles are added to the vanilla.
There's no specific game-planning in the preseason, mostly because the outcome of those games is completely meaningless but also because coaching staffs focus on evaluating rosters that usually start at 90 players.
Now the New York Giants, the Cowboys' Week 1 opponent, have three preseason games' worth of tape to look back on in their effort to pick Prescott apart. They'll be able to react and scheme for his athleticism and possibly confuse him with exotic blitzes and coverages.
What Prescott does to rebound from any mistakes and then adjust as the game goes on will be an early barometer for just how far these Romo-less Cowboys can go.
Let's ride with Prescott here because he has the scrambling ability to escape pressure and has repeatedly demonstrated the accuracy to complete a variety of throws.
Todd Gurley vs. NaVorro Bowman
San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman has recorded 140-plus tackles in a season four times. Tackles are an imperfect metric because one can occur in the backfield or 20 yards downfield. When we look at defensive run stops, though, Bowman logged 50 of those in 2015, per PFF, which came after returning from a severe knee injury.
Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley was recovering from a knee injury of his own to begin 2015. He missed the first two games and then played only sparingly in Week 3. He also sat out in Week 17, but none of that missed time stopped him from running for 1,106 yards at a blistering average of 4.8 yards per carry.
Neither Gurley nor Bowman does his job alone. Gurley needs the support of blockers in front of him, and Bowman hopes his defensive linemen eat up those blockers.
But individually, Gurley and Bowman are among the best at what they do, which is tackle and power through tackles. Gurley won the first and only round between the two when he stomped the 49ers for 133 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 7 of 2015, an afternoon that included a 71-yard run.
This will be so, so close. But Bowman just might take Round 2, only because the defensive line in front of him will be a strength on an otherwise putrid 49ers team.
A.J. Green vs. Darrelle Revis
Our grand finale for Week 1 is a matchup that should be introduced by Bruce Buffer.
In one corner, we have Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who will become an even larger figure in his offense after the free-agency departures of wingmen Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Green is one of only two wideouts in league history to record 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of his first five seasons. He's done that while also recording double-digit touchdown receptions three times.
In the other corner is New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. He might not still be among the league's premier players at his position. Revis is 31 years old, and time has a way of winning every battle it's ever entered. But if Revis is beginning to slowly inch down from his mountain, you still have to look way, way up to see the peak he started from.
Revis allowed a passer rating in coverage of just 57.1 in 2015, per PFF, which ranked third among cornerbacks. When he last met Green in 2014, the Bengals wideout posted five catches for 81 yards (16.2 yards per reception) and a touchdown.
I'll side with Revis here, only because it's still difficult to visualize just how many layers of coverage Green will be going through after the offseason departures around him and how much help the Jets will give their stud cornerback. Brandon LaFell is scaring absolutely no one on the other side, and the Bengals offense could suffer without a quality complementary option opposite Green.