By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC South Analyst
Week 1 in the books, Week 2 on deck. Here are 5 things to watch for on Sunday:
1. Matt on Fire.
Peyton Manning looks odd in orange, but his play against the Steelers buried any reservations about a loss of talent. His solid start and apparent health will probably dominate the headlines when he leads the Broncos into Atlanta, but – for one week, at least – Matt Ryan is the quarterback to watch in the NFL.
After his opening-day carpet bombing of Arrowhead Stadium, Ryan is the far-and-away the league’s leader in Real Quarterback Rating – a metric with the highest correlation to winning in professional football. It won’t be as easy against the Broncos, who impeded Pittsburgh’s speed and deep passing game, but Dirk Koetter’s debut saw Ryan throw only one deep pass: a long incompletion to Julio Jones.
It was the plethora of spread concepts, Atlanta’s ridiculous receiving core, and Ryan’s auspicious accuracy that allowed the Falcons to abuse a depleted Kansas City secondary for 40 points. There’s too much talent on the perimeter. If Denver hopes to slow down Atlanta’s new-look offense, they’ll have to start at its core – disrupt Matt Ryan.
2. The Buccaneers got tough in a hurry.
Tampa Bay invades the New York Giants on Sunday, wielding a surprising new identity. After suffocating the Panthers in Week 1, the Buccaneers evolved from also-ran to adversary, and pose a serious threat to the early portion of New York’s campaign.
In just eight months, employing similar personnel, Greg Schiano inspired the softest set of Defensive Hogs in professional football to the greatest run-stopping performance in franchise history. In three years under Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay never finished better than twenty-eighth in rush defense, or twenty-sixth in Defensive Hog Index (including a distant thirty-second in 2011). But in their season debut under Schiano, the Buccaneers held Carolina – this century’s paragon of the ground game – to 10 yards on 12 carries. It was the lowest total, league-wide, in three seasons.
The Giants offensive line wilted against Dallas. The run game suffered, routes were hurried, and their passers were pressured on 15 of 35 dropbacks. If Tampa’s Hogs bring that cold intensity into Week 2, things will only get worse for Eli Manning.
3. There’s an offensive problem in New Orleans.
New Orleans travels to Carolina on Sunday. Winner stays afloat for another week. Loser wallows in the mud of last place, having stumbled out of the gate in one of the league’s toughest divisions.
Surrendering 40 points in a loss is definitely a defensive problem, but that wasn’t the surprise in New Orleans’s opening-day loss to the Washington Redskins. Since 2006, the Saints have deployed the most consistent Offensive Hogs in the NFL; the defense has (d)evolved from season-to-season, the personnel has shifted, but the blockers were always the league’s figurehead of offensive domination. This crested in 2011, when the Saints ranked first in Negative Pass Plays, a legendary first in third-down conversion, and fourth in yards per carry.
Exit Carl Nicks, and the line imploded against Washington. The notoriously quick-armed Drew Brees was pressured once every three dropbacks, their runners combined for 32 yards on 10 carries, and the Saints converted a meager 18 percent of their third downs. For years, the faults of the defense were camouflaged by the efficiency and versatility of the offense. Things can’t afford to change now; the Saints have weathered too much to survive an early-season paradigm shift.
4. Nothing wrong with Newton’s arm.
For all the faults of Week 1 – no running game, no blocking, and a special teams slip-up – the Panthers still bring a dangerous weapon into battle against the Saints: Cam Newton’s deep and intermediate passing. Without the threat of a run game, the Carolina quarterback’s aim was sharp as a broken bottle against the Tampa Bay defense.
Discounting an interception on a third-and-long prayer late in the second half, Newton’s downfield passing was stellar: 11 for 17, 228 yards, a touchdown, a pick, and a 103.1 passer rating.
The Saints/Redskins game reel probably plays like porn to Carolina coordinator Rob Chudzinski; a week ago, New Orleans failed to pressure Robert Griffin. The impressive rookie unleashed an all-time debut on the hapless Saints, and New Orleans earned the designation as Week 1’s worst pass defense.
If Newton maintains his accuracy and aggressiveness in Week 2, then a Panthers loss won’t be on the offense.
5. Connor Barth: model of consistency.
Last Sunday, kicker Connor Barth booted three field goals in a 16-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers – his tenth three-goal game since the Buccaneers signed him 2009. He hasn’t missed since Week 6 of last year – one of two kickers with 100-percent accuracy over that stretch – and his current streak of 18-conseuctive kicks converted set a franchise record.
If Tampa Bay doesn’t improve on their twenty-eighth ranked Real Passing Yards per Attempt or their 3.61 yards per rush, Barth’s going to get a lot of work in. Sign him in fantasy. Quick.