Here are some of my observations after the first weekend of football.
Patriots' two-headed monster at TE makes them tough to stop
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have emerged as Tom Brady's most dangerous weapons behind their athleticism and versatility. The duo was sensational as rookies combining for 87 catches for 1,109 yards with 16 touchdowns. If Monday night's win over the Dolphins was a sign of things to come, Hernandez and Gronkowski could be in for rapid improvement.
The tandem took turns acting as Brady's primary option, combining for 13 receptions, 189 yards and two scores. The Patriots frequently used their "12" personnel package (one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) in a variety of formations. From one-back, double-tight end formations to empty sets with both tight ends flanked wide, the Patriots used Hernandez and Gronkowski to dictate coverage and create mismatches in space.
Hernandez, in particular, has become Brady's favorite pawn as an H-back. He's often used as a slot receiver to force opponents to declare their coverage, which allows Brady to identify the best possible matchup. Hernandez often represents that choice and his unique skill set leads to big plays. Against the Dolphins, Hernandez's ability to stretch the field produced two 30-yard completions en route to 103-yard effort on seven receptions.
Gronkowski, on the other hand, plays primarily as the conventional tight end. He spends most of his time along the line of scrimmage next to the offensive tackle. This allows the Patriots to incorporate him into pass protection against certain blitz looks or leak him into the route as a safety valve in the middle of the field. His size and pass-catching range makes him a valuable weapon near the red zone, and Brady has shown a propensity to get him the ball in those situations.
Phillips has Mario looking super
The Texans' decision to switch the 6-foot-6, 283-pound Mario Williams from defensive end to outside linebacker was initially met with skepticism, but the move looks like a wise one after his dominant performance against the Colts. Williams was magnificent off the edges, tallying two sacks, one forced fumble, two hurries and a tackle for loss in the Texans' 34-7 win.
Although Williams' talent overwhelms most blockers, it was Wade Phillips' clever deployment that led to the Week 1 production. Phillips configured his scheme to routinely pit Williams against one of the Colts' tight ends, which led to a mismatch. Both of Williams' sacks came against Dallas Clark in isolated situations, and he had no problem defeating the undersized tight end.
For all of the concern about Williams' ability to play in space, Phillips did a masterful job of using him primarily as a pass rusher off the edge. While Williams would walk out over displaced tight ends or slot receivers, he typically rushed from his outside position and forced the Colts to account for him regardless of his alignment. With the constant movement causing uncertainty for Kerry Collins and his blockers, Williams often ran unimpeded to the backfield.
Phillips utilized similar tactics to turn Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware into sack monsters in previous stops in San Diego and Dallas. With Williams off to a stellar start, it appears the defensive guru is poised to have another success story.
Is Newton a young Vick?
Newton helps Smith rediscover game
Steve Smith has been relatively quiet over the past two seasons due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play, but Cam Newton's arrival has changed things in Carolina. Smith plucked eight balls for 178 yards with two scores against the Cardinals, and looked like the vertical threat who posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2005 to 2008. The 11th-year pro flew past defenders on deep balls, including a go-route and double move for his touchdown catches of 77 and 26 yards.
Even at 32, Smith still possesses the speed and acceleration to blow the top of coverage. He combines that explosiveness with leaping ability that allows him to win contested balls despite his 5-9 frame. With a quarterback finally capable and willing to take advantage of those skills, Smith could quickly regain his elite form.
Raiders continue to bully AFC West rivals
Sweeping the division last season was quietly keyed by the defensive line's ability to overpower opponents at the point of attack. After watching Oakland's dismantling of Denver, the frontline shows no sign of slowing down.
Led by Richard Seymour, the group pulverized Kyle Orton and harassed him into an uneven performance. Seymour had two sacks and provided relentless pressure up the middle. Matt Shaughnessy and Tommy Kelly each had a sack and overwhelmed the Broncos' offensive line with their strength and determination. Their ability to chase Orton out of the pocket on second and third effort quickened the quarterback's internal clock and led to inexplicable mistakes.
While the Raiders' dominance in the trenches was a group effort, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan should also get credit by utilizing more secondary pressure early in the game. By frequently attacking from various spots with man and zone blitzes by a safety or nickel defender, the Broncos' offensive line looked hesitant and unsure of their assignments. Their indecisiveness allowed the Raiders' to get a quick jump off the ball and consistently work their way into the backfield.