Six for Sunday: Keep an eye on next wave of TEs, option QBs in Week 1
Kirwan: Julius Thomas is the first surprise of Week 1 but there will be plenty more. Some storylines to watch: How defenses dissect the read-option and how rookie coaches do against old vets.
Every week there are more storylines than you can count for the slate of NFL games. But opening weekend is unique in many ways. Case in point: Who predicted the Denver Broncos would hang a record-setting 49 points on the Baltimore Ravens ?
Most of the people like myself that visited the Ravens this summer felt that they were watching a better Baltimore defense than the one that won the Super Bowl. Instead, the Ravens gave up the most points in franchise history. Here's a look at six storylines I will be watching in Week 1 in the National Football League.
Young tight ends
Go back and read my camp review from Denver and it was from walking around the practice sessions that I saw a young Antonio Gates in a Denver uniform. Last night was Julius Thomas 's coming out party. His five receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns was no fluke.
With all the weapons on the field in Denver he will get big opportunities most weeks. A few other relatively unknown tight ends are also going to start putting up numbers. Keep an eye on Jordan Cameron ( Cleveland Browns ), Rob Housler ( Arizona Cardinals ), Zach Sudfeld ( New England Patriots ), David Paulson ( Pittsburgh Steelers ), and Luke Wilson ( Seattle Seahawks ). They may not be household names yet, but they all impressed me this summer and have the skills to put up solid production numbers.
Defending the pistol/spread offenses
If one thing rang out loud and clear on my camp tour, it was the fact that 32 defensive coordinators focused on the pistol and spread offenses. I came away from almost every camp with defensive players telling me quarterbacks are going to get hit and hit again. The NFL said defensive players can treat these option quarterbacks like running backs, which gives the defensive players the green light to go get them.
Hold on for just one minute! Somewhere down in the fine print it states that if a QB presenting the option to a defense can then establish the posture of a passing QB he is once again protected under the umbrella of the defenseless player. That is a very gray area.
A defensive end comes crashing in, he sees the QB ride the running back into the line from the pistol, and he pulls the ball, takes one attack step like a runner and pulls up still inside the tackle box and sets to throw. It happens in a split second. How is the defender going to flip the switch and not treat the QB as a runner? Philadelphia Eagles faces Robert Griffin III on Monday night, Green Bay Packers faces Colin Kaepernick on Sunday, and Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks -- with option QBs Russell Wilson and Cam Newton -- square off on Sunday, too. Let's see how many times the officials throw the flag on the defenders that thought they set their sights on a runner only to find out he reestablished himself as a QB.
Tough sledding for new coaches
There are eight new head coaches, 14 new offensive coordinators and 13 new defensive coordinators. No wonder so many people say it takes time to learn the new system. Coaches have limited access to the players in the spring, reduced practice time in the summer and have to line up Week 1 against veteran staffs that have been doing the same things for years.
Doug Marrone is the new head coach in Buffalo Bills with two new coordinators and a rookie QB starting in his first game. On the opposite side of the field is Bill Belichick with his 314 games as a head coach and Tom Brady with his 201 starts and a 20-2 record against the Buffalo Bills .
EJ Manuel was 10 years old when Belichick and Brady started dominating the NFL. Similar situations will be going on when Chip Kelly faces off with Mike Shanahan and Gus Bradley looks across the field and sees Andy Reid.
Trends to keep an eye on
Former Steeler wide receiver Mike Wallace visits Cleveland as a Dolphin after signing a big contract. Last year Wallace had one reception for 9 yards against the Cleveland Browns and in his last seven games against Cleveland he only has 16 receptions (2.3 per game) and hasn't scored a touchdown in his last three games against the Browns. And he had Ben Roethlisberger throwing most of the time. Now he's at the end of Ryan Tannehill passes and the young QB only threw four touchdown passes in eight road games last year.
Everyone agrees that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL, but recent history says don't expect a big opening day. In the last three years AP has not rushed for 100 yards in Game 1 and he only has two touchdowns in those three games.
AJ green of the Cincinnati Bengals is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL but he has just one touchdown catch in his last seven games as a Bengal. This weekend he's in Chicago Bears and they have some reputation at home against premier receivers. Calvin Johnson has played at Soldier Field six times and has one score. Greg Jennings has played there seven times and has two touchdowns.
Tony Romo faces the New York Giants , which hasn't been a pleasant experience in the past. Romo has lost four straight home games to the Giants and in his last four games anywhere against the G-men he has been sacked 15 times and thrown six interceptions. Conversely, Eli Manning has been sacked just twice in his last four games against the Dallas Cowboys in 151 pass plays.
Facing Dick LeBeau
For any team taking the field at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, it is usually a big problem for the offense against the defense cooked up by Dick LeBeau.
Former Steelers wide receiver Nate Washington , now with the Tennessee Titans , likes to say LeBeau starts blitzing coming off the bus. That may be true, but he also makes sure the top-ranked defense in 2012 stops the run.
Titans running back Chris Johnson has faced a LeBeau defense five times in his career. Johnson has 80 carries for 302 yards (3.8 per) and 15 receptions for 68 yards. In 95 touches CJ has found the end zone just twice.
History says Johnson touches the ball 19 times for 74 yards and probably doesn't score. As for his quarterback, Jake Locker was 1-5 on the road last year, threw six touchdowns, was intercepted seven times and was sacked 11 times. LeBeau will show him things he's never seen before.
Sacks the key to Packers-49ers
This rematch of the Packers-49ers playoff game that exposed the Packers defense last year when San Francisco put 586 yards and six touchdowns on the board has probably had the most fan interest on my Sirius radio show all week. And it's not just the intrigue of how the Green Bay defense will respond this Sunday that's getting all the attention.
Aaron Rodgers , the most sacked QB in the NFL last year, going on the road without his starting left tackle Brian Bulaga is the top storyline.
Last year Rodgers was sacked once every 14 pass attempts, but on the road it was worse at 1:10 pass attempts. Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari has to stop Aldon Smith and left guard Josh Sitton will have his hands tied with DE Justin Smith .
The 49ers know that sacking Rodgers is the key to winning this game. Rodgers' road record as a Packer is 24-23 and inside that record is a sack number. When Aaron Rodgers is sacked three or more times on the road, the Green Bay Packers are 9-15. In the last two years the 49ers defense at home has 50 sacks in 19 games (2.6 per game).
The other story is the Packers defense against Kaepernick and the pistol offense. AJ Hawk and BJ Raji both told me they worked hard on it
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