Entering Week 1 after a long lockout is as close to uncharted waters as we can get in football. No one knows for sure what's going to happen this weekend. Will rookies deliver after limited preparation time? Will any of the new rules affect games more than we anticipate? Are offenses even close to being ready to handle what defenses will be throwing at them? Here are six things I'll be paying attention to this weekend:
1. Three top teams turn to young LBs
Casey Matthews (Eagles), Mason Foster (Bucs) and possibly Greg Jones (Giants) will be running the show come Sunday. I saw all three youngsters perform at the Senior Bowl in January. Back then, they looked like solid middle-round prospects set to spend their first year on special teams and compete for a starting spot in 2012. That's not the case anymore.
Starting in Week 1 is a tall task for any rookie, but it's especially tough for a first-year middle linebacker. Matthews, Foster and Jones will have to make adjustments, change calls, recognize personnel groups and check stunts and blitzes as formations change. And once the play begins, they'll have to fight off blocks and make plays all while hoping their pre-snap calls don't backfire. Lots of pressure on these young men.
2. Return game less of a factor
With the NFL moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line, there has been much speculation about the rule change's impact. Let's clear that up now (see box, right).
You can see the large discrepancy in TDs and returns over 40 yards, but both can't be fully attributed to the 5-yard difference. Keep in mind, with scoring steadily climbing over the past two decades, there has been an increase in kick returns from 1,977 in 1993 to 2,539 this past year. In other words, many more opportunities for a long return. In the Packers' win Thursday night, there were plenty of touchbacks -- yet Randall Cobb managed a record 108-yard TD return.
3. Enticing battles in the trenches
One of the best things about early-season games is seeing how inexperienced rookies matchup against savvy veterans. When I asked Texans tackle Eric Winston what advice he would give Colts rookie Anthony Castonzo on facing Mario Williams, Winston said, "Don't make eye contact with him before the snap. Just keep your head down and get ready for the storm."
Castonzo-Williams is just one matchup on my radar this weekend. Chicago right tackle Gabe Carimi squares off against Atlanta's Ray Edwards; Giants left tackle William Beatty faces the Redskins' Brian Orakpo; Eagles rookie center Jason Kelce must block Rams nose tackle Fred Robbins; and Cowboys sub Jeremy Parnell, starting for injured rookie Tyron Smith, faces Jets linebacker Calvin Pace.
This battle isn't at the line of scrimmage, but Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib needs to prevent Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson from having another big day -- Johnson snagged 10 receptions for 152 yards last year in the Lions' win in Tampa. If Johnson runs wild through the secondary again, then the Bucs will begin the new year 0-1.
4. Blitz happy defenses
There is no doubt in my mind that defenses will be amping up the pressure in 2011. Offenses are not ready to handle everything defensive coordinators throw at them -- expect to see blitz after blitz this Sunday. So, which teams bring the real heat and which quarterbacks are going to feel it in Week 1? The chart on the right lists the most blitz-happy units from 2010. I suspect they'll be sending even more men to the quarterback this year.
5. Non-Manning streaks possibly coming to an end
A couple of streaks that have nothing to do with a certain injured quarterback in Indy are on the line this weekend.
Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh is 3-0 in opening games, but Ben Roethlisberger has won seven straight against Baltimore. Carolina is 7-0 in the regular season against Arizona, however, the Panthers will put that streak on the line when Cam Newton makes his first career start at quarterback.
6. Time for these teams to deliver
A number of teams were really hyped this summer despite unimpressive 2010 campaigns. Detroit, St. Louis and Houston combined for a 19-29 record last year, yet the expectations are for all three to be playoff contenders in 2011.
The Texans have failed to live up to the hype in the past, but they definitely seem ready to deal with the pressure, based on my observations from camp. To a man they just said, "No more excuses, just time to deliver."
Lions coach Jim Schwartz and Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo have talked to their teams about handling expectations, and both men told me their teams are ready to take that next step. That starts now with the Lions headed to Tampa Bay and the Rams at home against Philadelphia.
The Lions beat the Bucs last year to snap a 26-game road losing streak, and I already mentioned how the Johnson-Talib matchup on the outside could decide that game. Look for the Rams to use a lot of power runs to reduce the effectiveness of the Eagles' super cornerbacks.
There's also a long list of quarterbacks that head into Week 1 with a ton of pressure to perform. There might not be a Week 2 for the likes of Tarvaris Jackson (Seattle), Alex Smith (San Francisco), Chad Henne (Miami), Rex Grossman (Washington) and Luke McCown (Jacksonville) if they play poorly.