|High-profile QBs Jay Cutler (left) and Aaron Rodgers highlight the start of a new chapter in the Bears-Packers rivalry.|
The games always come down to key matchups, so let's look at some of the big ones to watch as we kick off the 2009 season:
Titans LT Michael Roos vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison
The 2009 NFL Kickoff game features the team with the most wins last season (Tennessee) against the Super Bowl champion (Pittsburgh). And the battle between Roos and Harrison should be epic since both players made the Pro Bowl.
Roos was the winner in their head-to-head matchup last season, and he has long arms, very good feet and quickness. Harrison never stops, competing hard on every play until the whistle blows, and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year had 16 sacks last season. He also possesses enough quickness to drop into space and is good at recognizing plays.
Dolphins ILB Channing Crowder vs. Falcons RB Michael Turner
Miami and Atlanta were surprise teams last season, and these two players had a lot to do with that. Crowder made 113 tackles in the Dolphins' 10th-ranked defense and is very good against the run from his inside linebacker spot in the 3-4 scheme. His job will be to contain Turner, who ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
Turner has very good vision as a runner and the speed to go the distance. The Falcons love to pound the ball -- they ran 126 times more than they passed in '08 -- and finished second in rushing offense last season. They were 8-0 in games in which Turner rushed for 50 or more yards in the first half.
Chiefs LB DJ Johnson vs. Ravens RB Ray Rice
Last season, the Ravens ran the ball 159 times more than they passed. During the 2009 preseason, they passed more than they ran. But don't let the preseason fool you: The Ravens want to run the ball, and they will during the regular season.
Rice has the talent to run inside or outside. He'll pass protect when needed and also is an outstanding receiver. He has excellent quickness and a very strong lower body. He should touch the ball at least 16 times per game.
Johnson will play the inside weak linebacker position in the Chiefs' new 3-4 defense. The scheme should free up Johnson to make more plays and increase the number of tackles he's involved in against the run. Kansas City will be improved on defense after allowing 440 points in 2008 and recording just 10 sacks, the fewest by any team since the stat started being tracked in 1982.
Eagles LB Omar Gaither
vs. Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams
Both of these teams have new defensive coordinators. Jim Johnson passed away this summer, not long after the Eagles promoted Sean McDermott, and the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks to improve their 20th-ranked defense.
Meeks will rely on the Panthers' third-ranked rushing attack to keep opposing offenses off the field, and that starts with Williams. He ran for 1,515 yards last season and averaged 5.5 yards per carry while splitting time with Jonathan Stewart. Carolina ran 90 times more than it passed last season, with Williams carrying the ball 273 times. He is very strong, can break tackles, has excellent quickness and speed and also is a very good receiver.
Gaither replaces Stewart Bradley, who suffered season-ending knee injury this summer, at middle linebacker. Gaither has experience at the position, and he is good against the run, but he's questionable in the passing game. This is a homecoming for Gaither, who grew up in Charlotte.
Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil vs. Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth
The Bengals, with a healthy Carson Palmer, can move the ball and score a lot of points. Forget about 2008, when Palmer was injured much of the season. In the three previous years, when Palmer was healthy, Cincinnati scored 1,174 points -- 390 per season.
Whitworth, one of the most underrated players in the NFL, is a reason for that. He has outstanding athletic ability, long arms, very good feet and is extremely powerful. He has a chance to be a Pro Bowl player this year if Cincinnati has a good season. Whitworth was injured after starting the first 10 games last season and didn't play the rest of the way, so the Bengals are happy to have him back.
Dumervil plays outside linebacker/defensive end in the Broncos' new 3-4 defensive scheme. He can rush the passer -- he has 26 sacks in his first three NFL seasons-- and he is very quick and moves well in all directions. Dumervil is hard to block and never quits trying to make the play.
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson
There isn't a lot of history between these teams, and if the 2008 rankings are all we have to go with here, then Peterson and his Minnesota teammates should have a field day. Cleveland allowed 151 rushing yards per game and 16 total rushing touchdowns. Minnesota, meanwhile, ran for 146 yards per game with 15 total rushing TDs.
Peterson has rare speed and rare running skills, and if you check out his first carry in the third preseason game against the Houston Texans, when he went 75 yards for a touchdown, you know what I mean. Peterson can see the hole, change directions and hit top speed just like that. He has excellent hands and also is a great screen runner. He'll come out in obvious third-down passing situations -- not because of a receiving problem but because of his pass-protection skills.
Jackson led the NFL in tackles last season with 154. He's somewhat undersized for an inside linebacker -- it's important for nose tackle Shaun Rogers to keep people off Jackson for him to achieve success. Jackson also plays well in space.
Jets OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson vs. Texans DE Mario Williams
These players know each other well. They faced each other in college, shared the green room at the 2006 draft and then were taken in the first four picks -- Williams first overall by Houston and Ferguson fourth by New York. Both have started every game since their rookie season.
Ferguson is very athletic, with long arms and the ability to mirror the pass rusher. He has grown stronger over the past two years, and his play has improved to the point where he was named a 2008 Pro Bowl alternate.
Williams is very physical and strong. He uses his hands extremely well in run defense and while rushing the passer, and he is a dominating presence. Williams had 12 sacks in 2008 and started in last season's Pro Bowl. He has improved every year and already is one of the best at his position.
Another key matchup in this game: Both teams have outstanding special teams coaches -- Mike Westhoff for the Jets and Joe Marciano for the Texans. Watch this chess match, as it could be a factor in the game's outcome.
Jaguars CB Rashean Mathis vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning
Manning, who will make his 177th consecutive start, has amazing accuracy when he's able to remain in the pocket. He has thrown for three or more touchdowns in 52 games, 300-plus yards in 47 games and posted a passer rating of 100-plus in 68 games. Manning is very hard to fool with coverages and very seldom is caught running a bad play. (On a side note, I'm not sure anyone understands the things he says at the line of scrimmage and if they are meaningful or not.)
Mathis led the Jaguars last season with four interceptions -- returning two of them for touchdowns. He is a very instinctive player in the passing game, always around the football. He has the height and long arms to make plays, and he can catch the ball. He has some trouble with double moves.
Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Saints CB Tracy Porter
Johnson is a very tough matchup for any cornerback in the NFL. He has rare speed (running a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash), very good hand-eye coordination and body control. He makes the tough catches and will go inside for them. He has very good build-up speed -- in other words, his acceleration is outstanding.
Porter is a second-year pro who looked very good while starting five games in 2008 before missing the rest of the season with an injury. He had one interception and was on his way to having a fine rookie season before being hurt. For him to be successful, Porter must redirect Johnson early in his release off the line of scrimmage. I'm sure the defensive staff in New Orleans -- under the leadership of new coordinator Gregg Williams -- will have some special coverage in place against Johnson, who had 12 touchdown catches and 1,331 receiving yards in 2008. Porter has coverage skills, but Johnson has Randy Moss-like ability.
Cowboys RB Marion Barber vs. Buccaneers LB Barrett Ruud
Early season games in Florida always are tough on the visitors. Dallas most likely will be asked to wear its blue jerseys and sit on the sunny side of Raymond James Stadium. I'm reminded of the Cowboys' season opener in Jacksonville three years ago: Coach Bill Parcells worked his players hard in hot weather during training camp to get them ready, but they still wilted after taking an early lead and lost.
Dallas will want to run the football and keep the clock moving as fast as possible in this game. The Cowboys have a very good offensive line, and Barber is an excellent inside runner because of his strength and vision. He's also a very good goal-line back who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Tampa Bay has a new defensive coordinator in Jim Bates, and Ruud will play a big role in the scheme, both with his play and his leadership. In 2008, Ruud had 137 tackles and two interceptions. He is a tough competitor who will stop the run and play well in space.
Niners CB Nate Clements vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald
Clements joined San Francisco in 2007 as an unrestricted free agent. At the time, it was the richest contract ever given to a defensive player -- that achievement has been trumped a few times since then -- so Clements matches up with the opponent's best receiver. He is very physical, an excellent tackler and twice in his career has posted more than 100 tackles. He has great ball skills and forces a lot of fumbles.
Fitzgerald has started 76 games over the last four seasons and made 426 catches for 46 touchdowns. He is coming off the greatest postseason a receiver has ever had, and he also was named MVP of the Pro Bowl. He is tall and fast, with great hands and strength for the position. He just turned 26 last month and should be a Hall of Famer when it's all said and done.
Giants LB Antonio Pierce vs. Redskins RB Clinton Portis
Portis has gained 1,262 yards or more in six of his seven NFL seasons, including 1,482 yards in 2008. Going into this season, he has 9,202 career rushing yards, and he has posted 25 100-yard rushing games since joining Washington in 2004. When Portis came into the NFL in 2002 with Denver, he weighed 215 pounds and ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash. Now at 221 pounds, he has very good running ability to go with his power and receiving skills, and he also will block.
Pierce, New York's middle linebacker, is the reason the team was able to hold Portis to 121 total yards in two games last season. Pierce also helped limit Portis to one catch. Pierce can fill a lane, make tackles at the line of scrimmage and play in space.
Rams RB Steven Jackson vs. Seahawks LB Lofa Tatupu
St. Louis will need a big game from Jackson to move the chains because its offense was on the field less than 27 minutes per game last season, putting a big strain on the defense. Jackson has everything you need to be a good running back -- speed, quickness, production. He has posted four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with an average team. He also had 90 catches in 2006.
Tatupu failed to make the Pro Bowl last season after going to Hawaii after each of his first three years in the NFL. He is very good against the run and plays well in space. He is athletic with extremely good reactions.
Bears QB Jay Cutler vs. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Both of these quarterbacks will celebrate their 26th birthday this year, both were first-round draft picks and both are coming off great preseasons. Cutler's play was outstanding against Denver -- his former team -- in Week 3 of the preseason, and Rodgers led Green Bay to scores in nine of the 12 series he played in this summer.
Cutler has everything you're looking for in a quarterback -- mobility, arm strength, accuracy, good recognition. Rodgers is a very mature quarterback with outstanding skills. I'd expect to see Packers fans try to disrupt Cutler, who has a reputation of being a hothead.
Bills WR Terrell Owens vs. Patriots WR Randy Moss
Both of these players love the big stage -- and Monday Night Football is as big as it gets.
Moss has the size and speed to make him a tough matchup for anybody. And he has developed a very good relationship with New England quarterback Tom Brady.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick's modus operandi is to identify the opponent's top offensive threat and find a way to neutralize that player. Buffalo's top offensive threat is Owens, who missed the final four games of the preseason but should be ready to go full speed against New England. Owens ranks fifth in the NFL in career receiving yards (14,122), fourth in touchdown catches (141) and sixth in receptions (951). He is tall, fast and loves to play in big games.
Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson vs. Raiders LB Thomas Howard
San Diego has won 11 in a row against Oakland, outscoring its AFC West rival by 176 points in those games. The Chargers haven't scored less than 21 points in any of those contests, but the most the Raiders have scored is 18.
Tomlinson has rushed for just over 1,900 yards in 16 career games against Oakland -- the most for any player versus any opponent. San Diego will run the off-tackle play between 15 to 20 times, and Tomlinson loves it. Also, the Raiders have had a tough time stopping it.
Howard is starting his fourth season with the Raiders and has improved every year. If Oakland is to break this losing streak, Howard needs to make tackles at the line of scrimmage.