With Peyton Manning lighting up the scoreboard on Thursday night, Colin Kaepernick showing he can win games through the air, and the Eagles showing that Chip Kelly's offense CAN work in the NFL, we really couldn't have asked for a better opening weekend to the NFL season.
It was an action packed weekend and it'd be easy to miss some key points. What should know before we move on to week two?
As we talked about last Friday, there was a good deal of pressure on two rookie quarterbacks making their first starts, as both Geno Smith and EJ Manuel faced off against top defenses in Tampa Bay and New England. In somewhat of a surprise, both quarterbacks played better than expected, and Smith even led his team to victory. But was his performance more impressive than Manuel's losing effort?
Smith's performance certainly had ups and downs. There were some truly head scratching plays, including one where running backwards led to an 18 yard loss – a decision that will drive coaches crazy but also served as a testament to Smith's confidence in his ability to make plays. That confidence was also apparent as he elected to test Darelle Revis early on in the game. It wasn't the wisest decision he'll make in his career, but it is nice to see him play with confidence after a rough preseason.
The first half wasn't an especially pretty debut for Smith, as it included two turnovers during a stretch where the offense simply couldn't seem to find a rhythm. Smith and the rest of the offense got a little more comfortable as the game progressed though, and while it wasn't ever pretty the rookie was able to make plays when his team needed them. Most notably, Smith hit Kellen Winslow Jr. with 29 seconds left in the game, and then scrambled and drew a late hit penalty to put the Jets in position to win. There was plenty to improve upon, but it was certainly a better than expected debut for Smith.
Buffalo may have not won the game, but EJ Manuel was certainly impressive in his debut. Against a defense that is typically able to befuddle rookie quarterbacks (and often veteran ones, as well), Manuel was able to protect the football and do exactly what his team asked of him. As discussed last week, the Bills have done a good job building a team that is help a rookie quarterback succeed. Buffalo focused on protecting Manuel, using the short passing game and heavy doses of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller. When he was asked to throw the ball down the field Manuel hit two receivers for touchdowns and perhaps more importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. It wasn't a performance that will stand out in the box score, but he brought his team within five seconds of beating the Patriots, and you certainly can't ask for much more than that.
Recapping the Match-Ups to Watch
Chicago OG Kyle Long vs Cincinnati DT Geno Atkins
Head coach Marc Trestman showed a ton of faith in his young offensive linemen, trotting not only Kyle Long but also fellow rookie Jordan Mills on the the field as starters against one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the league. Long had the especially tough match up of dealing with the best defensive tackle in the game, Geno Atkins.
It was tall task for his first career NFL start, but Long was more than ready. While he didn't stop Atkins outright, not many offensive linemen have been able to do that. What he did do, however, was give up just two pressures and kept Atkins (or any other Bengals' defender, for that matter) from getting to Jay Cutler. It was an outstanding showing for Long and Mills, and will give Bears fans plenty to get excited about early in the season.
Tennessee's Front Seven vs Pittsburgh's Offensive Line
When previewing the interior of the Steelers' offensive line, it wasn't a stretch to say that Maurkice Pouncey was the sole bright spot heading into this match up. So when David Decastro inexplicably ending up cutting down his teammate, that left a prime opportunity for the Titans' defensive line to have a dominate performance. To put it simply, they didn't disappoint.
Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure seemingly every time he dropped back to pass, and the already struggling running game got even worse for Pittsburgh. We said last week that the Titans' Jurrell Casey could be poised for a breakout season, and the defensive tackle was the best player on the field in this one. He was unstoppable for most of the game, and was the catalyst for all the defensive success Tennessee had in this one.
Cleveland CB Joe Haden vs Miami WR Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace had one of the most disappointing debuts of any free agent acquisition, catching just one pass. Joe Haden all but eliminated Wallace from the game entirely, and it should have put Cleveland in position to win this game. Unfortunately, Browns' QB Brandon Weeden was simply awful in the game, and it cost his team a chance at the win. Instead, it was simply the status quo in Cleveland, as yet another stellar performance from Haden went to waste.
Scouting Notes from Across the League
– Wallace wasn't the only disappointing Dolphin. Rookie Dion Jordan hardly saw the field, and when he did he was largely ineffective. He did manage to sack Weeden once, but that was erased thanks to a facemask call.
– Eagles' rookie OL Lane Johnson had an outstanding start to the season, just like the rest of his fellow offensive linemen on Monday Night. He and the rest of the group were a huge part of Lesean McCoy's success, and will help that success be sustainable even when defenses catch up to the fast pace of the Chip Kelly offense.
– Getting to move to a 3-4 defensive end spot apparently has turned Saints' DE Cam Jordan into a pass rushing phenom. With eight pressures on Matt Ryan, Jordan was a key factor in New Orleans surprising win against Atlanta.
– Aldon Smith has to be thrilled that Justin Smith is healthy and back on the field. There isn't a big beneficiary to Justin Smith's presence, and it showed against Green Bay. If the two pass rushers stay healthy, the 49ers will be the team to beat in the NFC.
– Star Lotulelei didn't play a huge number of snaps, but when he was on the field he had a solid game. As he continues to get into NFL caliber condition, the Panthers should continue to see the on field results improve.