Anticipation high for start of season
Offensive innovations, QB questions, coaching changes provide much intrigue
All the talk turns to action this week.
Week 1 has arrived, and I can't remember a season more anticipated. The NFC is loaded. Offenses plan to quicken the tempo. NFL defensive coordinators have to figure out solutions to offenses that have puzzled college defensive coordinators for years.
We are ready for some football, and here are the top 10 trends heading into Week 1:
1. An offseason to fix read-option defensive problems: Most defensive coaches had problems stopping the read-option. No coach has a bigger problem than Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Green Bay lost a divisional playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers because Colin Kaepernick ran the Packers out of the playoffs with the read-option. The 49ers called the read-option 16 times and gained 176 yards on those plays. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 149 of those yards came before contact. No team looked as lost against the read-option as the Packers, who didn't face it much last season. Capers has had the offseason to research and try to fix the problem. Linebacker Clay Matthews said the Packers have established the rules of how to stop the read-option. On Sunday, the Packers will have the chance to show how well they can do against these plays against San Francisco. Because the 49ers have had so much change at wide receiver, Jim Harbaugh might decide to use more of the read-option to move the offense. One of the keys for the Packers is to try to get several good hits on Kaepernick, which is legal as long as he's executing a fake on the read-option. For those plays, the quarterbacks lose the protection given to throwers. With opening games against the 49ers and Redskins, the Packers better known how to stop the read-option, or they could get off to an 0-2 start.
2. Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6 or cover who? The return of Sean Payton to the sideline should make the Saints a playoff contender. But they couldn't be facing the Atlanta Falcons at a worse time. The Saints are converting to a 3-4 defense, but injuries have made a mess of everything. Three linebackers and defensive end Kenyon Coleman are on injured reserve. The Saints face the Falcons with only three outside linebackers, and two of them -- Martez Wilson and Junior Galette -- missed most of the preseason with injuries. That leaves Parys Haralson as the Saints' most experienced 3-4 outside linebacker, and he just came over from San Francisco in a trade. If the Saints try to cover the Falcons with zone coverage, watch out. The Falcons know that a lot of opponents like to commit six defenders to bracket Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. If that happens, Matt Ryan will dump off the ball to Steven Jackson. It sure would have helped the Saints if this game against the Falcons was scheduled later in the season.
3. The demolition derby division: One of the reasons the NFC East is so popular is because of the division's competitiveness. All four teams in the division have great rivalries. Because of the intensity of these games, it's one of the hardest divisions in which to win road games. Eli Manning of the Giants, however, is 4-0 in Jerry Jones' palace of a stadium. The Giants open at Dallas on Sunday night in a game in which Tony Romo faces a lot of pressure. During the offseason, he signed an $18 million a year contract extension. Plenty of fans think that's too much for a quarterback on a team stuck at 8-8 mediocrity. On Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles open the Chip Kelly era against the Washington Redskins. The NFC East is hard to handicap because it always seems as though the games within the division are so tight that it's not out of the question for the four teams to each come out with 3-3 division records.
4. The rookie quarterback trend continues -- or does it? Last year, five rookie starters dazzled the NFL with their successful play. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Griffin each took their teams to the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden showed promise. Two rookies will start Sunday -- EJ Manuel for the Buffalo Bills against the New England Patriots, and Geno Smith, who won the New York Jets job by default and will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I say default because Mark Sanchez lost his bid to start when he injured his shoulder playing in the fourth quarter of the third preseason game. Most draft experts thought the 2013 class of quarterbacks didn't even come close to the Class of 2012. Manuel, considered the most raw of the rookie quarterbacks, was the only QB to go in the first round. Manuel and Smith will become the eighth and ninth rookie quarterbacks to open the season as starters during the past three years, the first time that has happened since 1950. You do get the feeling they will start the season with losses.
5. Young quarterbacks on the hot seat: Terrelle Pryor, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert aren't rookies, but they face tough assignments. They have to prove they are good enough to be starters. Locker has the most pressure. This is his third season in the league, and the Tennessee Titans aren't sure he is the right quarterback to lead them to the postseason. Last year, the team probably didn't help by putting him in an offense that didn't work well for his skills. Locker is more of a great athlete than a great quarterback. Titans coach Mike Munchak is going to more of a power-running attack than the quick-passing attack of last season. The tough part is having Locker open up against the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. The Steelers usually eat up young quarterbacks. Gabbert has been horrible during his first two seasons in Jacksonville, but he showed great improvement in the preseason before suffering a broken thumb. The Jaguars open against the revamped Kansas City Chiefs. And then there is Pryor. Entering camp, he wasn't in competition for the Oakland Raiders' starting job. Matt Flynn did so poorly behind a bad offensive line in the preseason, however, that Pryor is getting the start against the Indianapolis Colts. Were he still at Ohio State, Pryor battling against Luck might be considered competitive. That might not be the case with the state of the Raiders' roster.
Mike and Mike
ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton comments on Robert Griffin III's relationship with the Redskins, the QB situations in New York, Oakland and Buffalo and more.
6. Gauging the fast-paced offenses: The big thing everyone will learn during the first week of the season is how many teams will be using fast-paced offenses. We know Philadelphia, New England, Denver and Buffalo will be center stage in using quick offenses. More will jump in, if not this year then next year. It's inevitable. Look at college football. A record 18 teams averaged 80 or more plays a game last season. More college teams added the fast-tempo offenses to their game plans last week. For that reason, strategically, this could be one of the most interesting seasons in the NFL.
7. A tough road for the Seahawks: The road to the Super Bowl is a tough one for the Seattle Seahawks, a team many consider to be the most talented in the NFC. Their problem is their road schedule. They face five teams with winning records on the road, and the other three won't be easy -- Arizona, St. Louis and Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers game is critical for the Seahawks. It's one of five 1 p.m. ET starts on their schedule. Early games are tough for West Coast teams, whose body clocks are at 10 a.m. at kickoff. West Coast teams often get off to slow starts under these circumstances. This game is so important because three of Seattle's 1 p.m. ET starts are against 2012 playoff teams -- Houston, Indianapolis and Atlanta -- and the remaining one is against the New York Giants. The Panthers are expected to improve from their 7-9 season last year. This one won't be easy for the Seahawks.
8. Coming back from bad knee injuries: Peterson set the stage for players coming off knee reconstruction. His success last year left no one surprised that Darrelle Revis and Griffin will start in Week 1. It's fitting that Revis opens against his former team, the Jets. The Redskins, who open against the Eagles, will have to determine if RG III should still be a running quarterback coming off his surgery. They won't be the only players coming off major injuries. Maurice Jones-Drew returns after missing most of last year with a foot injury. He goes against the Chiefs. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes has an outside chance of playing against the Bucs. He is coming off a bad Lisfranc injury that limited him to four games last season.
9. New coaches, new places: There are eight new coaches, seven of whom coach on the offensive side of the ball. Andy Reid of the Chiefs was considered the head-coaching prize of the offseason, and he draws a Jaguars team that is in rebuilding mode. New Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley understands that rebuilding the Jags will take time. Reid wasted no time, though. The Chiefs lead the league with 30 new players on the 53-man roster. Kelly opens with the Eagles against the Redskins, a tough assignment. Rob Chudzinski of the Cleveland Browns faces a Miami Dolphins franchise that outspent everyone in the offseason. Mike McCoy has a tough challenge Monday night with his Chargers going against the Houston Texans, considered the top team in the AFC South and a Super Bowl contender. Perhaps the most interesting matchup is Bruce Arians of the Cardinals going against a young, talented St. Louis Rams team. Doug Marrone is in the toughest spot. His Bills, with the inexperienced Manuel, go against the New England Patriots and Tom Brady. Mark Trestman opens his Chicago Bears era in a tough matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.
10. "Hard Knocks" meets hard assignment: Too bad HBO concluded the "Hard Knocks" series without taking in Sunday's game between the Bengals and Bears. There is plenty of drama on both sides. The Bengals enter the season with many people believing they are favorites to win the AFC North. They have some of the best skill-position players in football along with a top defense. The pressure falls on Andy Dalton at quarterback to get this team over the top. The better drama is with the Bears. Trestman was hired to get the best out of Jay Cutler, who can turn on a coach if he doesn't like the scheme. Would love to see the HBO cameras filming those meetings.
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