The Playbook: Previewing Packers-49ers, Redskins-Eagles, other Week 1 games
Green Bay at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX): When we last saw the Green Bay Packers, their defense was flailing away at Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. Helpless to stop the 49ers’ offensive onslaught, Green Bay watched Kaepernick roll up 181 rushing yards — a postseason record for a quarterback — en route to a 45-31 win.
Having used a first-round pick on DE Datone Jones and with OLB Nick Perry back from injury, the Packers swear they’re now better equipped, physically and mentally, for San Francisco. We shall see.
Part and parcel of slowing that San Francisco attack will be keeping it off the field. Green Bay should have more of a chance to do so in 2013 thanks to the arrivals of rookie running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Save for an 18-yard TD run from DuJuan Harris, the Packers’ run game was fairly nonexistent against the 49ers, both in that playoff setback and in a 30-22 Week 1 loss.
San Francisco rushed for 186 yards in that first meeting, which occurred several weeks before Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith at QB. The 49ers certainly will challenge Green Bay’s rush defense early and often Sunday afternoon.
For Green Bay, this is the first of a brutal three-game stretch to open the season that subsequently includes a home game with Washington and trip to Cincinnati. The opportunity is there for the Packers to send a resounding message to the NFL about their legitimacy … or to head into a Week 4 bye reeling. Aaron Rodgers’ presence at QB makes it hard to envision too much misfortune befalling this team, especially if he gets a little more help from the ground game.
And the San Francisco secondary is still finding its footing as Rodgers looms. The 49ers replaced veteran safety Dashon Goldson with rookie Eric Reid, then brought in Nnamdi Asomugha (and Eric Wright, who’s on the Non-Football Injury list until Week 7) to bolster the CB spot. The corners will have their hands full with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones in this one.
San Francisco’s Week 1 win last season helped bring that playoff game to Candlestick — the 49ers, at 11-4-1, finished just ahead of the 11-5 Packers. This outcome could hold similar weight in early 2014. – Chris Burke
NY Giants at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC): The Giants’ passing attack might be a bit rusty to start — Eli Manning never had Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks on the field in the preseason at the same time. Third-down and goal-line situations were problematic for the G-Men in the exhibition campaign, and with running back Andre Brown out, David Wilson will be the main man in the backfield. Offensive linemen David Baas and David Diehl are not expected to play against the Cowboys. On defense, New York is hoping for the best from two pass-rushers dealing with injuries — veteran Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Damontre Moore.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are going through changes of their own. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will show all the wrinkles for the first time as Dallas moves to more of a base 4-3 defense. There’s more to Kiffin’s schemes than a bunch of Tampa-2 coverage, though. On offense, Bill Callahan takes over play-calling duties from head coach Jason Garrett. No matter who’s in charge of the schemes, pass protection looks to be the same problem it was last season. Dallas signed guard Brian Waters, who didn’t play at all in 2012, to a contract, but he’ll need time to get up to speed. Right now, the plan seems to favor former tackle Doug Free at right guard with Jermey Parnell taking Free’s old spot. Left tackle Tyron Smith, who had a great 2012 season under the radar, is the only sure thing.
Both teams are hurting in the secondary — especially at the safety position — and both offenses have the vertical threats to attack those weaknesses. New York’s Stevie Brown is out for the season with a torn ACL, which leaves Ryan Mundy and Antrel Rolle to cover Dez Bryant and Miles Austin upfield and help with Jason Witten in the intermediate game. The Cowboys are going with a patchwork (at best) safety rotation, so look for Cruz to test it early and often with his patented speed seam routes.
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray will face a very effective Giants front against the run with more looks than in years past (they’ve been experimenting with 3-4 packages), which puts more pressure on Romo. Dallas’ quarterback is better under pressure than people generally think, but if the Cowboys are to pull out this key divisional home game, he’ll have to play with his head and avoid the few plays per game that put his team in danger. – Doug Farrar
Atlanta at New Orleans (1 p.m. ET, FOX): The dividing line in the NFC South last season was pretty clear. Atlanta finished 13-3 while everyone else went 7-9. That group of also-rans included the Saints, who would like to pretend the 2012 season never happened.
From the bounty scandal to Sean Payton’s suspension to a defense that allowed more yards than any NFL team ever, New Orleans slipped into a nightmare during the 2012 offseason and never woke up. Toppling the rival Falcons in Week 1 would go a long way toward getting the Saints back on track.
Easier said than done. The Falcons, yet again, believe that this is the year they finally get over the top and get back to the Super Bowl. They had that goal within their sights last season only to cough up a 10-point lead to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
Both of these teams are built around dynamic passing attacks — the host Saints with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston leading the way; the Falcons featuring Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The question on the New Orleans sideline: Is the defense capable of holding its own?
Atlanta was far from perfect on that side of the football last season but still managed to cobble together a unit that finished fifth best in points allowed. The Saints, off that disastrous defensive showing in 2012, already have lost three key contributors to season-ending injuries, and a fourth (Jonathan Vilma) for several weeks. The remaining pieces, including burgeoning star Cam Jordan and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, will look to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for guidance.
The Falcons, meanwhile, used their first- and second-round picks in the 2012 draft on CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, respectively. That duo will be tasked with replacing Dunta Robinson, just as ex-Giant Osi Umenyiora has to fill John Abraham’s shoes up front.
We’ve come to expect exciting, high-scoring clashes when these teams meet. The season-opening showdown in the Superdome ought to be no different. – CB
Philadelphia at Washington (Monday, 6:55 p.m. ET, ESPN): The most interesting matchup in this game might be London Fletcher vs. the mesh point. The Redskins’ veteran linebacker will be responsible for diagnosing a new Philadelphia offense with backfield looks and disguises that have already caused trouble for experienced defensive coaches. The Redskins kept backup quarterback Pat White on the roster to simulate Michael Vick in practice, and perhaps no NFL defense gets more looks at a tricked-up backfield than Washington’s.
With all the talk about Robert Griffin III, some are overlooking the Redskins’ front seven, but the Eagles will not be. Jim Haslett’s 3-4 defense has two outstanding outside linebackers in Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, a criminally underrated penetrating defensive tackle in Barry Cofield and an inside linebacker duo of Fletcher and Perry Riley that can do most anything. Look for Philly to take the fakes outside, test the Redskins in the perimeter game and move away from an inside run game that Washington can handle. Running back LeSean McCoy is as elusive as any back in the league, and Washington will have its fill of him through the game. He is the key to Chip Kelly’s offense. If the Redskins follow one aspect of the run more than another, McCoy and Michael Vick will make plays to exploit that mistake.
The Eagles have the advantage of knowing what base offense the Redskins run, though they’ve never really stopped it to any great degree. In 2012, Griffin tormented Philadelphia’s safeties with his play fakes, ran all over the place against their undisciplined fronts and threw for six touchdown passes and over 10 yards per attempt in two games. Washington head coach Mike Shanahan will likely look to establish the run early, and this is an ideal defense for that strategy — the Eagles allowed 5.3 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns in the preseason. In that span, they frequently lost battles at the point of the attack, and the Redskins have the kind of physical run game to make them pay for any weaknesses.
Philadelphia will try to press Washington’s receivers with cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Safeties Patrick Chung and Nate Allen have the tougher task: Stay assignment-correct against Griffin, don’t peek into the backfield too much and be ready when the coverage switches. The Eagles must contain Griffin with their front seven and let at least one of their safeties roam in the defensive backfield. Washington’s iffy secondary has the same test with Vick. – DF