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What to watch for on 'Monday Night Football'

Monday Night Football has plenty to live up to.

There have already been four games decided by one point in Week 1, the most in NFL history for a Kickoff Weekend. Sunday brought football back to the masses with a cool blast of wall-to-wall drama, as all but three showdowns were decided by a touchdown or less.

The adventure continues this evening with back-to-back tilts on national television. We've returned to that beautiful period where our weekends and workdays are dotted with NFL theater and glory as we mine our way toward Super Bowl LI.

Here's what we'll be watching for on Monday night:

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers

  1. Not exactly a magical matchup on paper, fans of football history won't ignore how significant this game really is. It's been 7,934 days -- all the way back to Christmas Eve 1994 -- since the Rams last suited up as a Los Angeles-based franchise. The move west doesn't come without its difficulties, though, as the Rams will travel more miles this season (35,952) than any other club in the league, per NFL Research. The Rams also play four of their first six games on the road, so a fast start against the Niners is in order.

As we noted on last week's Around The NFL Podcast, it's hard to find two teams who endured more depressing preseasons. Chip Kelly's once-ballyhooed offense looked entirely mundane in August, with starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert suffering amid the NFL's thinnest collection of skill-position players. For the Rams, no matter how they paint it, watching No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff struggle under center and plummet down the depth chart is highly disappointing for a team that sold the farm for the ex-Cal star. That's especially true after watching No. 2 pick Carson Wentz miss three preseason games only to guide the Eagles to a well-played win in Week 1.

  1. With Goff out of the picture, the Rams will lean on Case Keenum at quarterback. Entrenched in a game-manager role, he's hardly the centerpiece of this attack, not with star running back Todd Gurley in the mix. Look for the second-year workhorse to be unleashed against a Niners defense that spent way too much time on the field in the preseason. San Francisco will counter with two massive defensive ends -- 6-foot-7, 292-pound Arik Armstead and 6-foot-7, 300-pound rookie DeForest Buckner -- at the point of attack. Gurley, of course, led all rookies and finished third in the league in rushing yards last season despite missing three games. It's worth noting that his production tailed off down the stretch: After rushing for 141.5 yards per tilt at 6.4 yards per carry over his first four starts, Gurley averaged just 66.4 yards at 3.9 yards per rush over his final eight games. We expect him to see 20-plus carries on Monday night against a defense that stacks the box.
  1. Kelly walked into a rough situation with the Niners. A shadow of the talented team Jim Harbaugh took to Super Bowl XLVII, San Francisco's roster has been savaged by retirements, defections and underwhelming fill-ins. Gabbert played admirably for stretches last season, but hardly "won" the job this August. He simply looms as the "safer" choice today over Kaepernick, who spent the offseason in post-surgery rehab mode and failed to show much of anything until the team's final preseason game. The cupboard is bare around Gabbert after pass-catcher Bruce Ellington was lost for the year. Receiver Torrey Smith still operates as a deep threat, but Quinton Patton and Jeremy Kerley -- the next two in line -- are hardly the kind of players who keep opposing coaches up at night. The bright spot in camp was Vance McDonald, the fourth-year tight end who looks to be in the best shape of his career and set up for a possible breakout season.
  1. Anchored by behemoth tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams defense is tied with the Broncos for the most sacks (186) since 2012. While fans are trained to watch the quarterback, spend Monday night tracking Donald, the 2014 Defensive Rookie of Year who operates as a disruptive, chaos-fueled berserker in the trenches. Outside of raining darkness on Gabbert, Donald on Monday will be focused on shutting down 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, who should see a mountain of touches in Kelly's run-heavy scheme. Shaun Draughn and Mike Davis could also see backfield snaps for an attack that remains intriguing only because of Kelly's presence. There was a well-researched and telling article penned about the coach last week, Chip Kelly and the Vanishing Offense, by The Ringer's Chris B. Brown. It not only unpacks how predictable the attack has become to opponents, but how Kelly refuses to adapt his approach, leaving Stanford head coach David Shaw to say last summer at a coaching clinic: "Chip Kelly is a friend, but I could not run the offense he runs. If you run an up-tempo offense, you better be good at staying on the field. If you cannot get first downs, your defense will play the entire game."

The Kelly angle alone makes the 49ers, at least in Week 1, an intriguing bit of business.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins

  1. A consensus top pick in fantasy drafts, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown faces a stiff test out of the gate. The Redskins roll into the season with a pair of uber-talented cornerbacks in Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman. The latter earned All-Pro honors with the Panthers last season, but Breeland's trajectory is just as juicy after finishing 2015 as a top-10 cover man, per Pro Football Focus. Look for the Redskins to employ both zone and man coverage, with defensive coordinator Joe Barry saying that Norman will occasionally shadow the Steelers' top receiver. Brown devastated the league last season with 136 catches for 1,834 yards and 10 scores. Still, that came with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of the lineup for four games. Brown's line with Big Ben playing all 16 tilts works out to an outrageous 158 grabs for 2,133 yards. It's very possible the pass-catcher's best season is yet to come.
  1. The Steelers, though, roll into Week 1 already shorthanded. Electric pass-catcher and red-zone fiend Martavis Bryant is serving an indefinite suspension while star running back Le'Veon Bell is also out of the mix on a three-game ban. Meanwhile, receiver Markus Wheaton has been ruled out with a shoulder injury. The absences can't be understated as Big Ben averages 57.8 more passing yards per game with Bryant in the lineup, while Pittsburgh is just 7-6 in games without Bell on the field. The lineup shuffling could mean increased targets for undrafted second-year slot receiver Eli Rogers, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey and preseason enigma Sammie Coates. Also keep an eye on massive 6-foot-7, 261-pound tight end Jesse James, who showed intriguing chemistry with Big Ben in August.
  1. Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins does not lack motivation this season, playing the campaign under his one-year, $19.953 million franchise tag. In a prove-it scenario, Cousins finds himself at the helm of an uneven offense. Backfield depth is a question behind second-year runner Matt Jones, who is questionable with a shoulder injury but will see the field ahead of Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson. Expect Cousins to test Pittsburgh's suspect secondary early and often, looking for tight end Jordan Reed and wideout DeSean Jackson. In 2015, Cousins sported a passer rating 16.0 points higher with the duo active. Reed's presence was especially difference-making, as Cousins threw 24 touchdowns and four picks with the tight end in the lineup to just five scores and seven picks minus Reed. With Pierre Garcon and slot wideout Jamison Crowder also in tow, Washington looms as a pass-heavy operation in Week 1.
  1. This game has sneaky potential to dissolve into a shootout. The Redskins are building an interesting, rugged roster under talented general manager Scot McCloughan, but Washington still allowed the second-highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks last season. The addition of Norman helps immensely, but Washington is shorthanded along the defensive line with nose tackle Kedric Golston (back) and end Kendall Reyes (groin) both questionable. The supremely confident Norman doesn't care about the injury report, though, telling ESPN: "I know I screw up in practice, but it's practice. That's what you have to work on, things and techniques and (concepts) you get beat on. But when you're out in the game: Kill, dominate and don't worry about everything else. Go balls to the wall and be who you are and that's a titan."
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