Cover-Two: Players under pressure and Week 1 upset alerts
The Seahawks' dominant performance in Thursday night's season-opener whet our appetites for the rest of the league to get underway this weekend. To get you ready for Week 1, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss who's under pressure to start strong, top teams on upset alert and which of this offseason's numerous suspensions will loom largest on Sunday.
Which player is under the most pressure to perform in Week 1?
Doug Farrar: Robert Griffin III. The angst over Griffin's preseason performance was overdone, to say the least -- when you have analysts like Ron Jaworski flipping out over RGIII like his mechanics have completely disintegrated, that's a bit much. But it's true that Griffin is dealing with a new offense under first-time head coach Jay Gruden, and in this new offense, he's asked to stay in the pocket and make more and better reads before taking off on the run. It's an adjustment that Griffin has never had to make before, and that's a lot of the story behind his preseason stats: 13-of-20 for 141 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
In Week 1 against the Texans, Griffin will be facing an additional issue -- two of them, actually. Houston now has first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to partner with J.J. Watt on its defensive line, and that's a major problem for any opposing offensive line. When you have a third-year NFL quarterback dealing with a new set of ideas and running away from Watt and Clowney a good deal of the time (not to mention the fact that the Texans were horrid last year, and a loss would no doubt send the D.C. sports media into an interesting tailspin), you have the recipe for a lot of pressure on Mr. Griffin.
Chris Burke: Griffin. The concerns over Griffin's ability to ever find his 2012 form resurfaced as Washington's first-team offense stumbled through August. For the Redskins to have any hope of opening the year with a road victory, Griffin must distribute the ball confidently and show some of that throwback escapability to dodge Watt and Clowney.
Even though Houston finished last season at 2-14, it's too early in the season to dub any game a must-win. That said, a loss Sunday to the only team that finished with a worse record than Washington in 2013 would crank up the angst even further.
"We don't have to prove anything to anybody else out there," Griffin said this week, via USA Today. "All we have to do is go out there, be the team that we know we can be."
Just how good is that team? Hard to say, but it's rather clear that Washington needs Griffin at his best to be a legitimate NFC East threat.
Defend your Week 1 Upset Special.
Farrar: Miami over New England. This just has an upset feel to it, as I said on the Week 1 Audibles Podcast. The Dolphins are going into this game with a completely redefined offensive line (rookie right tackle JuWuan James looks particularly good), and this has allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to operate at a new level of efficiency. New offensive coordinator Joe Lazor is a proponent of a faster play tempo, and Miami's defense was an underrated entity in 2013, lost in the backwash of the bullying scandal. I have the Patriots representing the AFC in this year's Super Bowl, and they have the talent to win 12-14 games this season, but there's just something about the Dolphins in the opener at Miami's Sun Life Stadium that has me thinking that New England won't get off to the start it would like.
Burke: Dallas over San Francisco. Not sure I really see the Cowboys having anywhere close to enough defense to pull this off, but ... well, if there is a time to catch the 49ers off-guard, this is it. San Francisco has options in place of the injured NaVorro Bowman and suspended Aldon Smith. None of those options fills those linebackers' shoes, though, so it might take San Francisco's defense a couple of weeks to find a firm footing.
The 49ers also scuffled early in 2013, following up a Week 1 win over Green Bay by scoring 10 total points against Seattle and Indianapolis in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. While Dallas is not going to hold Colin Kaepernick and co. -- or anyone this season -- in single digits, a rusty performance from the 49ers' offense could pry open the door just enough for a potentially explosive Cowboys attack.
Which suspension will have the biggest impact in Week 1?
Farrar: Josh Gordon, WR, Browns. Gordon's year-long suspension for multiple violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policies was recently upheld, and that leaves the Browns with very little in their receiving corps. It's on head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer that they didn't do more (especially in the draft) to shore up depth at the position when they knew there was a good chance that Gordon would miss the entire season, but that's water under the bridge now. Now, starting quarterback Brian Hoyer (and backup Johnny Manziel, to whatever degree the Browns choose to use him in packages) will have Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin as their three primary receiver targets. Of course, tight end Jordan Cameron will be Cleveland's main target, but that lack of depth puts Cleveland's quarterbacks in a pinch against the Steelers in the season opener -- and beyond.
Good news, though: If the NFL and NFLPA agree to modify the current drug policy, Gordon may be reinstated into the league and pulled away from his current car salesman gig.
Burke: Robert Mathis, Colts. Having a strong secondary is critical against Peyton Manning. Generating a consistent pass rush might be even more important. The Seahawks proved that point in the Super Bowl: It was their ability to pester Manning in the pocket that turned the game into a rout.
Any hope the Colts had of forcing Manning onto his heels might have vanished when Mathis, coming off a league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2013, was hit with a four-game suspension to open the season. The Colts have high hopes for second-year outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, but neither he nor Erik Walden nor anyone else who will suit up for Indianapolis on Sunday will strike fear into the Denver front the way Mathis could have. If Manning finds his comfort zone as a result, the Colts' secondary won't have a chance.