nfl week 1: four things to keep an eye on
By Tayyib Abu
Football is back! Thursday’s thrilling opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers kicked off the 2021 season in wild style. The weekend features a full slate of games as all teams enter the fray. Months of preparation have gone into readying teams for the 17-game schedule in 2021.
There are several mouthwatering games and storylines on the menu for Week 1. Rookie quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones all make their NFL debuts. New head coaches such as Brandon Staley and Robert Saleh enter the coaching ranks for the first time, and the return of star players from injury are some of the ingredients that should make Week 1 a slobberknocker.
Here are four things to watch in Week 1 of the new season…
Can Najee Harris Turbocharge the Steelers Offense?
After starting 11-0 last season, the Steelers’ season collapsed as they eventually lost to the Browns in the wildcard round. The lack of a run game contributed to their eventual demise. The Steelers came dead last in rushing yardage, and their adjusted line yards total per Football Outsiders was also rock bottom.
The antidote for that could be Najee Harris. Harris is an electrifying talent with plenty of promise. The first-round pick out of Alabama is given the task to turbocharge the Steelers run game.
Week 1 offers Harris an acid test as the Steelers travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills. The Bills front seven struggled in run defense last year. Ed Oliver ranked 40th out of 57 in run stop rate for interior linemen. Quinton Jefferson was 53rd on that list. The return of Star Lotulelei should stiffen up the run defense, and coach Sean McDermott has emphasized that in the preseason.
There are also concerns at the second level for the Bills. AJ Klein had one of the higher broken tackle rates in 2020. Harris is a runner that accelerates with violence if he moves through the levels.
Sean McDermott is a fabulous defensive coach, and he preaches physicality on defense. The Bills must clean up their run defense if they are to take the next step. Playing Harris in Week 1 provides them with a stern examination. If Harris can become the rumbling bell-cow back that Pittsburgh expects, the Steelers’ offense will become much more dangerous.
Consecutive 1,000 yard rushing years for Alabama are the highlights on his CV. The tide’s offensive line was dominant, allowing Harris room to roam. The Steelers’ line isn’t the best unit in the NFL. However, if Matt Canada can move away from the split zone/one-gap running game to an outside-zone game and get Harris running laterally with speed, the Steelers might have something in their newest backfield weapon.
Sam Darnold’s Redemption Story Starts Now
Sam Darnold endured three difficult years playing for the Jets. The offseason offered Darnold an escape route to Carolina as the Panthers swooped to sign him. As fate would have it, Darnold’s debut for the Panthers will see them welcome the New York Jets.
It is now-or-never for Darnold and his NFL career. Inconsistencies and erratic performances blighted his time in New York. Working alongside talented offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Darnold has the perfect opportunity to rebuild his reputation.
Brady’s offensive prowess was on show during LSU’s historic run to the national championship in 2019. That offense featured a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver. Getting superstar running back Christian McCaffrey back from injury will help. As will rookie wideout Terrace Marshall JR – the LSU alum has shone in preseason and training camp.
Brady has the weapons to employ the spread, quick-strike offense that spectacularly worked for Joe Burrow in Baton Rouge. Darnold’s mechanics as a pocket passer are similar to Burrow’s, and a shot at the team that never gave him a chance offers the perfect start to his redemption story.
Is Justin Herbert Going to Get Even Better?
Justin Herbert enjoyed a rookie season from the gods. The quarterback stood in as emergency relief after Tyrod Taylor bizarrely got injured by the team doctor. Herbert shone as he repeatedly threw lasers all over the field.
However, like all debut albums that go platinum, Herbert’s task to improve in 2021 is difficult. A change in coaching staff may not help that challenge. New coordinator Joe Lombardi has a checkered past as a coordinator. He infamously fell out with Matthew Stafford in Detroit, and Herbert shares plenty of traits with the now Rams quarterback.
Lombardi tried to add an element of game manager to Stafford’s game, and Herbert showed in year one that he is a gunslinger, not a manager. Furthermore, Herbert’s numbers are arguably unsustainable.
Herbert ranked fourth in DVOA while under pressure, whereas his DVOA without pressure was just above average. Those trends should reverse in 2021, although Herbert has an early opportunity to perform in the face of pressure.
The Washington Football Team’s defensive front seven will attack Herbert this Sunday. A retooled Chargers offensive line boasting free-agent acquisition Corey Linsley must repel the incoming attack. Linsley is adept at identifying defensive looks and can help Herbert change protections at the line of scrimmage.
Washington’s defenders can beat opponents in one-on-one situations, as well as using stunts, twists, and innovative moves to defeat linemen. Herbert’s sophomore year kicks off with the most challenging examination.
How Will the Ravens Adjust To tTe Injuries?
The Ravens round out Week 1 on Monday Night Football as they head to the Nevada desert to take on the Raiders. The last few weeks have devastated the Ravens as Baltimore has suffered a spate of significant injuries.
Baltimore’s running back room got decimated in the space of a few weeks. First, JK Dobbins went down with an ACL injury. The Ravens then suffered more bad news as Gus ‘The Bus’ Edwards also tore his ACL. Cornerback Marcus Peters injured his ACL as well.
The Ravens should be okay at cornerback, but the primary concerns are in the backfield. The NFL’s most prolific rushing attack is now playing with one hand tied behind its back. Yes, Lamar Jackson is still an elite runner. But, the Ravens won’t want to increase his number of carries due to the injury risk.
Furthermore, the Ravens attack is predicated on using multiple backs. Dobbins is a slashing runner with an excellent burst, and Edwards provides the power in short-yardage situations.
Taking them away is like removing two turbochargers from a Ferrari supercar. Baltimore’s running game must change. Last year, they called run plays 36% of the time when Jackson lined up in the pistol or shotgun.
Jackson may need to get more comfortable under center, and the Ravens might need to pivot towards a limited power run game with a heavy dosage of play action. Certainly, offseason additions Sammy Watkins and Tylan Wallace will see much more activity in the passing game. The same can get said about tight end Mark Andrews who inked a contract extension earlier this week.
Lamar Jackson is next in line for a bumper payday. The former MVP must demonstrate that he can pass the ball at a high level. Injuries have taken the Ravens’ legs away. Now Lamar Jackson needs to use his arm to carry the Ravens’ offense. A Week 1 tilt against a Raiders team that was one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL last year gives him the perfect opportunity out of the gate.
Greg Roman and Jackson need to ad-lib quickly. Fortunately for them, the Raiders are one of the best opponents they could’ve asked for.
Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1