Andy Benoit’s Ten Things to Watch
Rise of “two tights”
New England’s success with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez over the past two years opened a lot of eyes. The two dynamic, movable chess pieces created glaring matchup problems and invaluable flexibility with formations. The duo is no more, obviously, but there will be others popping up around the league. The Bengals, Cowboys, Titans, Eagles, Cardinals and Rams all made significant offseason moves to give themselves a dual tight end offense. Couple this with the handful of teams that already had that, and roughly half the league will regularly be playing “two tight” in 2013.
We’ll see how many offenses stick with the read-option once unblocked defensive ends figure out they can drill the quarterback even when he hands off.
Even if the read-option abates, pistol sets should surge. Offenses are realizing that pistol is essentially a quicker version of the shotgun, only with more play-action capabilities. It doesn’t always require the quarterback to run. Heck, even Peyton Manning’s Broncos experimented with the new set in August.
More S – P – R – E – A – D
NFL offenses will continue to stretch horizontally. Some will even do it on nearly a fulltime basis. Four intriguing storylines from four different teams that are transforming their once-traditional systems into spreads: A.) How will the Rams use Tavon Austin? B.) How will Chip Kelly’s play designs function on NFL fields, where tighter hashmarks leave less perimeter space to work with? C.) Can Philip Rivers prosper by throwing more quick-hitter type passes? D.) Can Jay Cutler?
A premium on man coverage
Offenses will continue to spread, and they’ll continue to use more hurry-up. The hidden benefit of hurry-up is it’s a great way to combat complex defensive looks. When the ball is snapped immediately, the defense doesn’t have time to disguise anything and is forced to play reactively.
Schematically, man coverage is the simplest way to defend spread sets and the hurry-up. It nullifies the spacing issues that most spread designs aim to exploit and requires minimal presnap communication. What’s more, in man coverage, defenders can pick up receivers immediately off the line of scrimmage, as opposed to a few yards downfield. That combats the quick strike throws that spreads and hurry-ups are largely built on.
On offense, it’s Packers wideout Randall Cobb. Mike McCarthy will employ a variety of tactics—including presnap motion and backfield alignments—to get the shifty, versatile third-year pro in space. Expect Cobb to have around 1,500 yards from scrimmage as the fulcrum of Green Bay’s offensive attack. On defense, it’s Everson Griffen. The fourth-year Vikings defensive end has sensational speed and pliable body control. He can play anywhere along the defensive front. If afforded enough playing time, Griffen will have a 15-sack season.
Super Bowl stepbacks
Losing key passing targets Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta and overhauling half the defense (with some good changes but also some bad) will prevent the Ravens from defending their Lombardi Trophy. 7-9 seems a likely record. The other Harbaugh-coached team is also poised to take a step back. The losses of Randy Moss and Delanie Walker—two middle-of-the-road contributors but highly unique mismatch creators—put more strain on a passing game that’s led by a young star who, granted is supremely talented, but far less polished than people realize. 10-6 seems likely in San Francisco.
Big changes on D in Big D
It’s can be difficult to transition from a multipronged hybrid 3-4 scheme to a more traditional 4-3 zone scheme. That’s what the Cowboys, who replaced defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with aging legend Monte Kiffin, are aiming to do. If Kiffin makes this a Seahawks type 4-3 zone (which would mean hybrid press-man concepts for outside corners), the Cowboys can flourish. If he makes it a Tampa-2 style zone, they could flounder.
It’s hard to envision anyone stopping this offense. Julio Jones is poised to become a top-5 caliber receiver. All the other weapons are back, only with the running back position upgraded from Michael Turner to Steven Jackson. Orchestrating it all is burgeoning star Matt Ryan and coordinator Dirk Koetter, one of the shrewdest play-callers in football.
Worst to first?
In each of the last 10 seasons, at least one team has won its division after finishing last the previous year. The contenders this season: Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Arizona. If forced to pick one, the choice here would be Cleveland. The Browns could have a playmaking defense, and their offense, though deprived of aerial weapons and depth, at least has the right style of players for Norv Turner’s highly accomplished system.