There is nothing like watching the chess match that ensues each week in the NFL.
From observing the way crafty coaches implement exotic schemes to exploit mismatches to watching a pair of blue-chip players duke it out against each other, I've learned that the pro game is all about the matchups. That's why I decided to pen a column that looks at various games and identifies the pivotal battle. You know, the crucial "game within a game" that will play a huge part in deciding the contest's ultimate outcome.
So, after extensively studying All-22 Coaches Film to assess the strengths and weaknesses of teams, I offer up the matchups to watch in Week 1:
Most exciting matchup: Robert Griffin III vs. Texans' pass rush
Before the 2014 NFL Draft, the Texans already boasted one of the top pass rushes in football with J.J. Watt anchoring the D-line, but the unit could emerge as an absolute force of nature now that No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has joined the lineup. The rookie flashed big-time potential during the preseason with his combination of size, speed and athleticism overwhelming blockers off the edge. He produced a handful of splash plays off speed rushes, which immediately caught the attention of offensive coordinators around the league. With the Texans capable of lining up Clowney and Watt on opposite sides in their base 3-4 or using them side-by-side in their nickel package, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can get after Washington quarterback RGIII with a number of stunts, games and blitzes to disrupt his rhythm in the pocket. Not to mention, Crennel can free up Whitney Mercilus to hunt off the edge and take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the back side.
Given the challenges presented by the Texans' formidable front line, the pressure falls squarely on Griffin to get the ball out quickly on short and intermediate throws. He must release throws immediately after hitting the top of his drop on three- and five-steppers to avoid taking big shots in the pocket. Additionally, he should fire a number of quick screens to Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, to take advantage of their explosive running skills while wearing down the Texans' defensive linemen by making them run-and-chase to the sideline. If RGIII can ramp up the tempo while stringing together several completions, he can tire out a talented bunch and attack a secondary that could be susceptible to the deep ball.
Most favorable offensive matchup: Dez Bryant vs. 49ers' cornerbacks
Bryant quickly has developed into one of the NFL's truly elite pass catchers. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and tallied 25 receiving touchdowns in that span. Despite routinely facing an assortment of double-coverage tactics designed to neutralize his impact on the passing game, Bryant continues to get open on short and intermediate throws underneath coverage. With the Cowboys prominently featuring a variety of catch-and-run passes under new offensive play caller Scott Linehan, the explosive wideout will have plenty of opportunities to make plays when opponents attempt to take away the deep ball with rolled coverage. In addition, Linehan's creative scheming and formation diversity (see: how Calvin Johnson was used during Linehan's time with the Detroit Lions) will enable Bryant to get a number of one-on-one chances on the perimeter.
Thus, the 49ers' young cornerback tandem of Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver faces quite a challenge. They will need to put their hands on Bryant near the line of scrimmage to take away free access to routes and force the Pro Bowler to work for each completion. While the emphasis on rules restricting excessive contact on the part of defenders could lead to a few penalties on the outside, the aggressive tactics will be needed to buy time for a pass rush that is missing linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. Without a formidable rush capable of harassing Tony Romo in the pocket, the 49ers will need their cornerbacks to disrupt the timing of the passing game. Brock and Culliver are capable starters, but asking them to slow down one of the premier pass catchers in the game feels like a tall order.
Most favorable defensive matchup: Rex Ryan's defense vs. Derek Carr
Say what you want about Ryan's bodacious personality, but here's the truth: He is one of the best defensive minds in football. Rex is a brilliant play designer, extremely adept at creating chaos using a variety of simulated pressures and overload blitzes that can spin the heads of even the savviest signal-callers in the pocket. Given the opportunity to play against a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start, Ryan will open up the playbook and use his most exotic pressures and pre-snap disguises. With hesitancy and indecisiveness leading to late/errant throws from Carr, the Jets could generate a number of turnovers off tips and overthrows. And that's not even considering the sacks and big hits from Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and others on blown assignments at the point of attack.
With that in mind, the Raiders must protect Carr by using a conservative game plan built around the ground attack. Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden must combine for 30 to 35 carries to alleviate the burden on Carr to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm. Although the Jets' defense typically ranks as one of the stiffest units against the run, the Raiders can't deviate from a ground-heavy approach, because the attempts eventually could create big-play opportunities in the passing game off play-action. The Raiders should also allow Carr to throw a number of high-percentage passes (quick routes) on first down to take advantage of the eight-man fronts designed to slow down Jones-Drew and McFadden. If Carr can connect on enough early-down throws to force Ryan to take a more balanced approach, the rookie can limit his exposure to exotic pressures and have some time to attack a secondary that's suspect on the outside.
Best under-the-radar matchup: Falcons' receivers vs. Saints' secondary
Despite coming off a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2013, the Falcons' offensive attack remains one of the most feared in the NFC, thanks to an explosive receiving corps. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas are premier pass catchers with the speed, quickness and burst to overwhelm defenses on the perimeter. In addition, each player is a spectacular runner capable of turning short passes into big gains. Thus, the Falcons will use a dynamic screen game (WR screens) and quick-rhythm passing offense to take advantage of the potent trio.
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While stopping the Falcons' receiving corps is a daunting task for most NFL defenses, the Saints' secondary has all of the ingredients to get it done. Keenan Lewis is a terrific cover corner with the length and grittiness to blanket big-bodied receivers on an island. Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush comprise a dynamic three-headed monster at safety, which allows coordinator Rob Ryan to use an exotic "big nickel" package on passing downs. If I had to point out a weak link in the back end, I would cite cornerback Patrick Robinson. The fifth-year pro is not nearly as technically sound or savvy as Lewis, meaning the Falcons could elect to repeatedly throw to his side. If Robinson can hold his own in one-on-one matchups against Jones/White, or if the Saints are able to cover him up in rolled coverage, New Orleans could defuse the Falcons' explosive passing game and harass Matt Ryan with a feisty pass rush that doesn't get enough credit.
Bucky's Beast: Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears
Yes, as you probably gleaned, this is the guy I expect to go off this week. The five-time Pro Bowler could enjoy a monster day against the Bills' defense. In two games against Jim Schwartz's Detroit Lions last season, Marshall tallied 218 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches (26 targets). With Schwartz now directing the Bills' defense, Marshall could post big numbers against a secondary that lacks the size and length to match up with him on the perimeter. Marshall checks in at 6-4 and 230 pounds -- that's a tough assignment for Leodis McKelvin (5-10, 185), Stephon Gilmore (6-1, 190) and especially Nickell Robey (5-8, 165). With Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett also commanding significant attention in the Bears' passing game, Marshall should thrive as Jay Cutler's primary target against Buffalo.
The debate over the top cover corner in football rages on, but Sherman's name is clearly on the short list. He has blanketed receivers throughout his young career, earning first-team All-Pro honors in each of the last two seasons while snagging 16 picks and essentially shutting down one half of the field for the "Legion of Boom." While skeptics point to the Seahawks' ferocious pass rush and simplistic scheme as primary reasons for Sherman's success, there is no doubt that his physicality, relentless harassment and constant chatter combine to alter the performance of elite receivers on the edge. With Sherman also adept at baiting quarterbacks with his wily tactics, most of them simply avoid throwing the ball to the right side of the field out of respect for his game and penchant for playmaking.
With the Packers, it's all about creating big-play opportunities in the passing game for Aaron Rodgers. Mike McCarthy is one of the best play callers in football; he doesn't shy away from attacking elite defenders when he has the opportunity to exploit a weakness in coverage. Thus, Nelson will be a prominent part of the game plan, despite his looming matchup with Sherman. The seventh-year pro is an explosive athlete with exceptional speed, quickness and burst. Plus, he is a masterful route runner adept at running double moves (stutter-go) and vertical routes.
I expect the Packers to take advantage of those skills by sending Nelson on deep routes off play-action or bootleg action in the backfield. The run-action could lure Seattle safeties Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor out of the middle of the field, leaving Sherman isolated with Nelson on the outside. Given Nelson's shiftiness, the Packers might be able to beat the game's premier cover corner (at least in my book) on the perimeter.