Minnesota at Tennessee
Vikings: Mike Zimmer (wisely) won’t say whether he’s starting Shaun Hill or newcomer Sam Bradford. Obviously, the decision comes down to how comfortable Bradford is with Norv Turner’s system. Something to ponder: Tennessee’s defense features a lot of disguised fronts and coverages. That’s not a great mix for a QB playing in an unfamiliar scheme.
Titans: People were excited about how rookie running back Derrick Henry looked in the preseason. Don’t expect big numbers on Sunday. Minnesota’s run-defending front, headed by nose tackle Linval Joseph, is one of the best in the league.
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Cleveland at Philadelphia
Browns: Is there a more hit-or-miss pair of wide receivers entering Week 1 than Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor? The two represent immense talent that could blossom into a dynamic playmaking duo, or into absolutely nothing at all.
Eagles: No surprise at all that it’s Carson Wentz at the helm. Despite coming out of an FCS school, Wentz is the most pro-ready QB to enter the league since Andrew Luck.
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Chicago at Houston
Bears: Jay Cutler once again has his two large stud receivers in Alshon Jeffery and now Kevin White (questionable this week with a hamstring). Will he succumb to the temptation of making the wild, 50/50 type throws that defined him up until last year?
Texans: The focus will be on J.J. Watt and how healthy he looks coming off back surgery, but an important side spotlight goes on Jadeveon Clowney and how he’ll be used. Clowney is a better inside rusher than outside rusher. The guess here is Texans coaches will accommodate this.
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Buffalo at Baltimore
Bills: How much will we see of undrafted rookie Glenn Gronkowski (aka Baby Gronk)? Though the Bills are a run-based offense, they used a fullback pretty sparingly last season.
Ravens: Much has been made about two rookies starting on the left side of the O-line (first-round tackle Ronnie Stanley and fourth-round guard Alex Lewis). But just as important are the other three O-line spots. Center Jeremy Zuttah is coming off an injury-plagued season. Right guard Marshal Yanda is elite but wasn’t as dominant in 2015 as he was in ’14. Right tackle Ricky Wagner must continue to ascend.
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San Diego at Kansas City
Chargers: Danny Woodhead is a major component of this offense. The leading receiver among all NFL backs in 2015 has an excellent feel for checkdown routes. The hidden genius of Philip Rivers is his ability to quickly recognize when to check it down.
Chiefs: The depth at cornerback is largely unproven. That could be a problem for a pressure-happy defense that’s predicated on matchup coverages.
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Oakland at New Orleans
Raiders: When Khalil Mack gets his 18th sack sometime this December, just remember: He’s an even better run defender than pass rusher.
Saints: I’m eager to see unheralded stud corner Delvin Breaux travel with Amari Cooper.
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Tampa Bay at Atlanta
Buccaneers: First-year NFL head coach Dirk Koetter does a tremendous job with downfield route combinations against predictable coverages. That’s a concern for the Falcons given that you know Dan Quinn’s defense will often play a Seahawks-style Cover 3.
Falcons: Calm down about Matt Ryan in Kyle Shanahan’s system. For one, we’re talking about a high-level QB and one of the league’s best young offensive designers. Guys like that usually iron out wrinkles. For two, Ryan over the last two seasons has become markedly better at quarterbacking on the move. He’s more than capable of executing Shanahan’s rolling-pocket, play-action concepts.
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Cincinnati at N.Y. Jets
Bengals: Don’t expect much blitzing from Cincy this week. D coordinator Paul Guenther isn’t as big on it as predecessor Mike Zimmer. Guenther is especially reluctant to call his staple double-A-gap blitzes when Vontaze Burfict is out. (The volatile linebacker is serving the first of a three-game suspension.) What’s more, Ryan Fitzpatrick becomes more erratic the later in the down it gets. You only blitz if you want to end a play early in the down.
Jets: If the Bengals want to get A.J. Green matched on someone other than Darrelle Revis, they’ll move Green into the slot. Best to do that on first or second down, when the Jets are more likely to be in zone. Revis only plays the slot if it is man coverage. The Jets must be ready for one or two deep shots to Green in the slot, likely when the ball is near midfield.
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Green Bay at Jacksonville
Packers: The most interesting thing in all of Week 1 (maybe besides how Jimmy Garoppolo does for the Patriots) will be how Jordy Nelson’s return impacts Green Bay’s offense. That passing game fell apart without Nelson last year.
Jaguars: No team is better at deep play-action on first down than Jacksonville. The Packers—and all other Jags opponents—must be on high alert for this.
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Miami at Seattle
Dolphins: Byron Maxwell returns to Seattle a richer man but less-respected football player. Whether he rebounds from last year’s poor season in Philly will depend largely on how he is used in Miami. Maxwell is at his best pressing on the outside and playing to his help (be it the sideline or inside zone defenders). He becomes more of a tossup when asked to play iso man coverage.
Seahawks: First-round rookie guard Germain Ifedi is out with a high ankle sprain. Not a good start for a zone-blocking O-line that’s facing Ndamukong Suh and was already littered with questions to begin with.
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N.Y. Giants at Dallas
Giants: The Giants will trot out their seventh different Week 1 starting middle linebacker in seven years this Sunday. There’s a price to pay for such fluctuation. Without a trusted middle field signal caller, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could be more hesitant to shift around his defensive fronts. Tactically, the Giants become much easier to run-block.
Cowboys: One thing that can really help an untested QB like Dak Prescott is having a true No. 1 receiver like Dez Bryant. When a defense dedicates a safety over the top of Bryant, it’s difficult to disguise the coverage on that side of the field. Just by running his routes, Bryant can help simplify at least some of Prescott’s reads.
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Detroit at Indianapolis
Detroit: With Calvin Johnson gone, tight end Eric Ebron needs to elevate his play. In terms of skill set, Ebron—along with maybe running back Theo Riddick—is the only potential mismatch-maker on Detroit’s offense. But based on his first two NFL seasons, the former first-round pick has a long way to go.
Indianapolis: Owner Jim Irsay was unsettled this preseason by what he saw from a Colts O-line that was addressed but not fully upgraded over the offseason. Those linemen can expect to be challenged with stunts and twists from Detroit’s four-man pass rush. Those tactics force blockers to move laterally and communicate.
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New England at Arizona
Patriots: Given all of their aggressive inside blitz ploys, you could argue that the last defense you want an inexperienced quarterback to debut against is the Cardinals. Expect the Patriots to lean almost entirely on their quick-strike passing game.
Cardinals: Chandler Jones gets a chance at Patriots payback in his first game as a Cardinal. It will be fascinating to see how coordinator James Bettcher uses him. Jones is not a pure edge-burning rusher, he’s much more of a technician. The Cards shouldn’t expect to just place him in a wide-9 position and watch him rack up the sacks.
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Pittsburgh at Washington
Steelers: When the Steelers keep both safeties split back in the middle of the field, be on high alert for some sort of blitz off the edge. No team blitzes out of two-high coverage more aggressively or frequently.
Washington: The defending NFC East champions return the same offense plus first-round receiver Josh Doctson (who, granted, was hurt for much of August and might need a month or two to get going). Washington also returns essentially the same defense only with a new All-Pro corner in Josh Norman. What’s more, the entire coaching staff remains in place, so all of this team’s practices have centered around perfecting its core principles, not having to learn new ones. Such continuity is rare in pro football.
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Los Angeles at San Francisco
Rams: The thing about Todd Gurley is his change-of-direction is so nuanced and smooth, it’s almost imperceptible. He’s the most natural runner in the NFL.
49ers: Lost in all the talk about Colin Kaepernick is the fact that Blaine Gabbert is actually this team’s quarterback. If Gabbert feels comfortable with his pass protection, he’s a terrific thrower (especially between the numbers). But if he feels the least bit uncomfortable, he unravels. Chip Kelly’s scheme is built on snap decision-making, which in theory, nullifies a pass rush. This is a great opportunity for Gabbert.
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Broncos: The gameplan Thursday night was largely the same from the Super Bowl: man coverage with green-dog blitzes against Carolina’s extra pass protectors. The results wound up being mostly the same. Denver’s pass rush in the fourth quarter decided the game.
Panthers: Denver wasn’t the only team featuring man coverage pressure concepts Thursday night. The Panthers invested in this tactic several key times, as well. Will that become more of their M.O. in 2016?
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