Week 1 of the regular season is thrilling not only because football is back, but also because we finally learn more about the offseason’s great unknowns.
Chief among this year’s mysteries the Arizona Cardinals’ all-in bet on the Air Raid, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. The uncertainty of what to expect makes Sunday’s visit from the Detroit Lions fascinating, even if neither team is pegged as a major playoff contender.
1. Will the Air Raid fly out of the gates, or crash and burn?
Remember when Chip Kelly and Michael Vick eviscerated the Washington Redskins to open the 2013 season? Of course you do. Well, Kingsbury and Murray are hoping for an encore.
Kingsbury kept his powder dry during the preseason, eschewing the no-huddle, four-WR sets and packaged plays that define his offense. Most of his concepts aren’t new to the NFL, but he’ll present them in myriad ways through tempo, formations, motion and varied personnel. Murray’s quick release, precision and legs fit perfectly in the quick-timing scheme.
Matt Patricia has the unenviable job of game-planning for the unknown, preparing for ghosts that his defense may or may not see. A few tactics he will surely lean on: blitzes and, especially, stunts and twists.
Expect teams to blitz Murray relentlessly early on, to test both his mettle and the soundness of Kingsbury’s protections. With wide offensive-line splits and limited protection calls, the scheme is vulnerable to extra rushers and especially stunts, as penetrators can surge easily into adjacent gaps and clear the way for loopers.
As he did in New England, Patricia loves bringing stunts, usually from muddy fronts that show six or seven potential rushers but only bring four or five. Free agent prize Trey Flowers is a key part of these. The Cardinals must be ready with an answer.
2. Hill vs. Ramsey, Round 2
In Week 5 in Kansas City last year, Jalen Ramsey covered Tyreek Hill only occasionally, seeing five targets in the matchup. The first three were incomplete — two vs. man coverage, one vs. zone — but Hill got free late in the third quarter for a 10-yard hitch under Ramsey’s zone cushion and a 36-yard fade vs. man coverage.
Sunday’s matchup in Jacksonville should be juicier, as Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash said Ramsey will shadow Hill.
“Our linebackers can run,” Wash said. “All of our guys can run. We can just say, ‘Hey, Jalen, you go take care of him.’”
That suggests the Jaguars will play mostly man coverage rather than Wash’s typical Cover-3 (and sometimes Cover-4). How often will he put Ramsey on an island with no safety help?
Ramsey can win a fair fight, but Andy Reid rarely settles for fair fights. He’ll have Hill whirring in presnap and jet motion throughout the game, forcing Ramsey to chase across the formation and limiting opportunities to press. It should make for a terrific back-and-forth battle.
3. Can McVay shred the blueprint?
Defenses finally caught up to the Rams’ offense late last season, culminating in a 3-point output in Super Bowl LIII, using a few consistent tactics: condensed fronts along the D-line and Cover-4 (also called quarters) on the back end.
The Bears and Patriots were particularly effective, using 6-1 fronts — six men on the line of scrimmage, one off-ball linebacker — to disrupt L.A.’s zone running game, and Cover-4 to squelch deep play-action designs.
The Panthers are suited to use similar tactics on Sunday in Charlotte. Luke Kuechly’s smarts and range fit perfectly as the lone ‘backer in a 6-1 front, and cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson are well-versed in off-zone.
Sean McVay had the whole offseason to adapt and draw up counterpunches, so he’ll surely have some answers. More diversity in the run game (gap-scheme runs with pull-blockers instead of pure zone) could solve the 6-1 front problem, assuming McVay trusts first-time starters Joe Noteboom (left guard) and Brian Allen (center).
4. How much will Seattle cater to Clowney?
Jadeveon Clowney is a devastating talent, but the Texans deployed him in a unique role. That’s not to say he can’t slot in as an immediate star for the Seahawks, but it’s unclear how similarly Seattle will use him.
While tremendously gifted, Clowney has never been a pure edge-bender who threatens offensive tackles outside (partly why he’s never reached 10 sacks in a season). He more often goes through or inside offensive tackles, or better yet, guards and centers. The Texans weaponized Clowney by matching him one-on-one with interior linemen, often out of five-man fronts and usually from a stand-up, roving position.
Attacking the interior would be wise Sunday against the visiting Bengals, who are weak at guard after injuries and Clint Boling’s retirement. With defensive tackle Jarran Reed suspended, the Seahawks have more room to bump Clowney inside, but it’s unclear if they’ll want him standing up and roving like he did in Houston.
Either way, Clowney should thrive from Day 1 against the run, where he uses physicality and relentlessness to blow up runs on the front side and chase down ball carriers from the back side.
5. What can Tunsil do for O’Brien?
Bill O’Brien wanted Laremy Tunsil so desperately that he paid more than the Bears did for Khalil Mack or the Browns did for Odell Beckham Jr. While the Texans obviously needed better protection on the edge, this was a drastic measure.
Was O’Brien thinking solely of keeping Deshaun Watson healthy at all costs? Does he have broader plans — more deep dropbacks or fewer 6- and 7-man protections — in mind with the blind side fortified? Does he trust the rest of the offensive line?
O’Brien preferred having five eligible receivers running routes in New England, but he hasn’t had that luxury in Houston. Tunsil doesn’t necessarily solve that problem, though. While he should be able to handle Saints second-year end Marcus Davenport in New Orleans on Monday, right tackle Seantrel Henderson will need help against All-Pro Cameron Jordan.
The onus is also on Watson to manage the pocket properly. While the line was indeed poor in 2018, he often sensed pressure that wasn’t there, bailing on an adequate pocket and creating actual pressure in the process. His tendency to hold the ball also accounted for several sacks.
A better feel in the pocket and quicker distribution will be key on Monday and throughout 2019.
—By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media