Andy Benoit and our other experts here at The 33rd Team give you some insight on the weekend games for Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season,
Week 1 Matchup Previews
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Panthers Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons have new play-callers. We know what to expect from Panthers coach Frank Reich: a diverse run game, two-by-two formations, judicious use of motion, three-route combinations to the boundary in the far red zone and presumably in-breaking routes given the size of Carolina’s receiving corps (new veterans DJ Chark and Adam Thielen, along with second-round rookie Jonathan Mingo and incumbent Laviska Shenault are all 6-foot-1 or taller).
For Atlanta, we do not know what to expect from coordinator Ryan Nielsen. The widely respected former New Orleans Saints defensive line coach will call a defense for the first time. While many defensive line coaches-turned-coordinators over the years have run basic, execution-oriented systems predicated on speed and fundamentals, it wouldn’t be surprising if Nielsen did what fellow defensive line coach Anthony Weaver did when coordinating Houston’s defense in 2020 and ran a highly aggressive, voluminous scheme.
Nielsen always has had a good vision of the big picture and in New Orleans, he had the freedom to install his own stunts and pass rush mechanics depending on the coverage call. That’s especially meaningful in a Saints defense that always plays a large variety of coverages.
Falcons Offense vs. Panthers Defense
Arthur Smith’s offense will be a pain to gameplan against. As my dear friend Peter King highlighted a few weeks ago, this unit has three full-fledged flex weapons in Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts. It also has a versatile No. 2 tight end in Jonnu Smith and wide receivers in Drake London and Mack Hollins, who have enough size to play into the formation, almost like light tight ends.
The pain for the defense: figuring out which packages to play against which groupings and in what situations.
The Falcons can play the same group on third-and-long that they played on second-and-short, and the defense will have to treat it as two different units. This is especially frustrating early in the season because all the Falcons film that new Panthers defensive coordinator Evero Ejiro has studied could be for naught. It was for Atlanta’s September opponents last year. The Falcons came out in Week 1 and ran a drastically different offense than in 2021.
Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
Texans Offense vs. Ravens Defense
The schedule was unkind to C.J. Stroud. Baltimore is not the defense you want to face in your first NFL game. Though second-year coordinator Mike MacDonald does not blitz as frequently as predecessor Wink Martindale (no one does), MacDonald blitzes creatively, often incorporating stunts and twists for his second-level pass rushers. He also has Baltimore playing a lot more out of pre-snap split safety structures, which allow a defense to rotate to almost any coverage. The picture Stroud sees before the snap will not be the one he sees after it. Former 49ers passing game coordinator and first-time NFL play-caller Bobby Slowik knows this. Expect him to help Stroud with a heavy dose of early down passes, with defined throws underneath or intermediate throws on half-field reads on play-action.
Ravens Offense vs. Texans Defense
Everyone around the league is eager to see how Lamar Jackson performs under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The Baltimore Ravens added a necessary stable of new receivers – Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers and Nelson Agholor – for their more spread out, 11 personnel-intensive scheme. And a lot has been made about how the system has “empowered” Jackson. But one could argue that there’s no system more empowering for a uniquely gifted mobile quarterback than the uber-creative, multidimensional gap scheme ground game run by previous coordinator Greg Roman.
The only predictor we have of Jackson’s comfort level in the new scheme is an examination of his output in 11 personnel snaps on neutral first- and second-down situations over the past three years. On these snaps, Jackson’s 7.4 yards per attempt ranks 32nd among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes thrown. His 86.2 passer rating ranks 22nd. But keep in mind, defenses at this time had focused most of their first- and second-down game-planning efforts on Baltimore’s 21 and 22 personnel packages. Now Jackson will be facing defenses that have prepared extensively for 11 personnel.
San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Browns Offense vs. Bengals Defense
One sign that Deshaun Watson was less than comfortable last season: his average depth of target on bootlegs (a Browns staple) was about one-third that of Jacoby Brissett’s. Recall that what made Watson so dangerous in his Houston Texans heyday was his willingness to attack downfield. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski believes in stretching the field and throwing deep on bootlegs (Most offenses run deep routes on bootlegs but rarely actually target them).
Stefanski almost certainly has stressed aggression to Watson, especially against a Bengals defense that is essentially incorporating three new safeties: free-agent pickup Nick Scott (Rams), third-round rookie Jordan Battle and last year’s first-round pick Daxton Hill, who will see a huge jump in playing time.
With Cleveland’s offensive approach poised to open up and expand for Watson, and with investments made at wide receiver (trading for Elijah Moore, signing Marquise Goodwin and drafting Cedric Tillman in the third round), we’ll probably see more 11 personnel from the Browns this season. They shifted in that direction in the second half of last season. More 11 personnel from Cleveland will mean nickel personnel (on early downs and possibly dime personnel on passing downs from Cincinnati. Which means more snaps for slot corner Mike Hilton.
I named Hilton the best blitzing DB in the NFL this summer and stand by that. Which is why I was extremely surprised to find this when diving into the data:
- Bengals pass D “offensive success rate allowed” on blitzed involving Mike Hilton: 45%
- Bengals pass D “offensive success rate allowed” on blitzes NOT involving Mike Hilton: 32%
This does not mean that Hilton’s blitzing is the cause of Cincinnati’s woes. And it does NOT mean that Hilton has been ineffective. (Also worth noting: a lot of his best blitz work comes against the run, which is not part of this stat.) What it does mean is the Bengals D as a whole has room to improve on their slot blitz rush and coverages.
Bengals Offense vs. BRowns Defense
Zac Taylor comes from the Sean McVay tree, but unlike the Rams, the Bengals use surprisingly little play-action. They ranked 30th in play-action usage last season. One might think that could be related to them ranking 32nd in yards per carry under center. But in 2021, their play-action usage ranked 31st.
Not surprisingly, the Bengals are near the top of the league in usage of empty sets – the furthest thing you can do from play-action. Joe Burrow is outstanding at processing coverages pre-and post-snap out of empty.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts
Jaguars Offense vs. Colts Defense
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor are fantastic at dialing up designer plays against anticipated coverages. And while Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has become a little more schematically diverse in recent years, he still subscribes to a classic Cover 3 philosophy.
Bradley’s thinking: We know that you know that we’ll play our straightforward single-high zone coverage, which means we can also anticipate many of the plays you’ll run – and they’ll be plays we’ve seen before. Expect Trevor Lawrence to target a lot of deeper route combinations out of 3×1 and 1×3 formations.
Colts Offense vs. Jaguars Defense
The Jaguars last season ranked 13th in blitz rate on passing downs but just 30th in success rate on those snaps. Instincts might say you want to come after a green rookie quarterback like Anthony Richardson. But a lot of times, the best solution is to keep seven in coverage, play zone and force the young quarterback to read multiple defenders and areas of the field.
Blitzes present 1-on-1 man coverage, where a quarterback’s decision-making becomes easy. Jacksonville has all the more reason to take this approach given that three of the previous four years, they’ve invested a first-round pick (including two top-seven picks) in edge rushers: 2019 Josh Allen (2019), K’Lavon Chaisson (2020 and now entering a make-or-break year) and Travon Walker (2022).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings
Buccaneers Offense vs. Vikings Defense
Baker Mayfield is in a great situation. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an albeit remade but seemingly decent-at-worst offensive line. They’re thin on experience at wide receiver after losing Russell Gage (knee) for the season but have a prototypical on-the-ball perimeter weapon in Mike Evans and an off-the-ball interior weapon in Chris Godwin. And they’re coordinated by 42-year-old Dave Canales, who, as the receivers coach and later the quarterback coach in Seattle, was integral in the game planning for every Seattle Seahawks game of Russell Wilson’s career. The things that Wilson did best – slower-developing downfield play-action (especially out of the pocket) and quick game out of super-spread formations – are in line with Mayfield’s strengths.
One thing Canales’ Seahawks were great at in recent years were stack and bunch releases. Expect to see those on Sunday; it’s not entirely known what schematic approach new Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores will take. It will most likely be heavily influenced by his Patriots background, which means a lot of man coverage.
Vikings Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense
If the Minnesota Vikings are to advance past the Wild-Card Round this season, they’ll need better pass protection from guards Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram. The 2020 and 2022 late second-round picks combined to give up 42 quarterback hits last season, which doubled the next-highest amount for a guard tandem.
This Sunday poses an immediate tough test for both. Not only is Buccaneers nose tackle Vita Vea a tremendous mover for a man with his size and power, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has always done a fantastic job attacking interior offensive linemen with stunts, blitzes and gap exchange rushes.
Tennessee Titans at New Orleans Saints
Titans Offense vs. Saints Defense
Star corner Marshon Lattimore will likely travel with DeAndre Hopkins, which means Tennessee Titans 2022 first-round wide receiver Treylon Burks will see New Orleans Saints 2022 second-round corner Alontae Taylor. That’s a tough matchup for Burks.
Quietly, Taylor was borderline sensational down the stretch last season. He showed he could spar with big, physical receivers like Davante Adams and Drake London (whom he dominated), and remarkably, he also handled quick, shifty types like Arizona’s Rondale Moore.
Saints Offense vs. Titans Defense
Taylor is not the only second-year Saint poised for stardom. Last season, undrafted rookie wideout Rashid Shaheed finished third in the league in yards per route among receivers with at least 100 routes. Shaheed is swift and explosive, and not just downfield but also at the shorter and intermediate levels.
First-rounder Chris Olave had a commendable rookie season (he was targeted deep as much as any receiver) and Michael Thomas is back healthy (hopefully … we’ll see), so Shaheed may not have as many opportunities at big numbers at first. But don’t be surprised if, before long, he becomes the guy who worries defenses the most.
Arizona Cardinals at Washington Commanders
Cardinals Offense vs. Commanders Defense
The Arizona Cardinals are short on talent and undergoing a schematic overhaul under new coach Jonathan Gannon and first-time offensive coordinator Drew Petzing. The run game can be a critical stabilizer for an offense in this situation, and Petzing in Cleveland was exposed to a uniquely diverse ground game that featured wide zone and gap scheme runs out of multi-tight end sets.
Week 1 poses an immediate test, as the Washington Commanders last season ranked fifth in fewest rushing yards allowed per run. They have top-shelf block-shedders inside in Daron Payne and the quick-handed Jonathan Allen, plus high-level edge setters in Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
Commanders Offense vs. Cardinals Defense
Eric Bienemy is a well-known name but an unknown play-caller. Even if he wants to replicate the approach he experienced in Kansas City, he can only take that so far, given that he does not have perhaps history’s most talented passer and greatest receiving tight end. The assumption might be that Bienemy, a run game aficionado and old-school-styled leader, will want to pound the rock. But don’t be surprised if the Commanders have a bombs-away approach this Sunday. The Cardinals are a young, remade defense without a known quality pass rusher.
Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Packers Offense vs. Bears Defense
“21 Pony” is a rising package across the NFL. It features two true running backs (in Green Bay’s case, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon), one tight end and one receiver. Most defenses play nickel against it, particularly in Green Bay’s case, given that Jones has split out as a receiver as much as any running back in the NFL. The Green Bay Packers will test Chicago’s pricey free-agent linebacker signings (Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards) with various motions and RPOs out of this package. That will be a great way to get Jordan Love comfortable.
Bears Offense vs. Packers Defense
Justin Fields led all NFL quarterbacks with 1,143 yards rushing last season, more than 700 of which were on scrambles (which should count as passing yards). Fields gets lumped into discussions about other mobile quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts, but his only peer is Lamar Jackson. Those two have an unparalleled 0-to-60 burst that makes all the difference on designed quarterback runs, whereas a ballcarrier, you’re usually starting from a standstill position (off a play fake) instead of on the move (like when getting a handoff). In two games last season, the Packers held Fields to 21 yards on four designed runs.
Philadelphia Eagles at New England Patriots
Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos
Raiders Offense vs. Broncos Defense
We don’t know what kind of deal the Las Vegas Raiders have truly offered Josh Jacobs, but his absence would have been painful. Yes, running backs who do not contribute to the passing game are fairly interchangeable, which keeps their prices down. And yes, Jacobs is much more of a pure runner than a multi-dimensional back. But he’s arguably the best pure runner. In terms of creating yards and maximizing traditional carries, he’s almost without peer. He is light-footed and strong on contact. With dynamic lateral agility and re-acceleration ability, he can afford to be patient.
Stylistically, he perfectly fits Josh McDaniels’ foundational, two-back, strongside running approach. This is a good matchup. The Denver Broncos have a bevy of unheralded but sturdy first-level run defenders in D.J. Jones and Zach Allen.
Broncos Offense vs. Raiders Defense
The Raiders best have their substitution procedures in order. Sean Payton’s trademark is throwing a lot of different personnel packages and formations at you, especially during the scripted plays to open a game. Given that there’s no film on Payton’s packages in Denver (preseason does not count), Las Vegas’s communication will be tested heavily, both from up in the booth and down on the field.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Rams Offense vs. Seahawks Defense
Bobby Wagner thrived as a blitzer for the Los Angeles Rams last season and will likely be deployed in that way against them around a half-dozen times on Sunday. Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt does not call a lot of blitzes; only four defenses blitzed less than Seattle last season.
But Hurtt did call simulated pressures at the second-highest rate in the league. Those four-man rushes often have a stack linebacker rushing inside from off the ball (a solo “blitzer,” if you will) and an edge defender dropping into coverage. Timing from the linebacker is everything on these, which is why the sagacious Wagner thrives on them.
Seahawks Offense vs. Rams Defense
Presumably, the Rams’ young, remade defense will stick to its Vic Fangio-style quarters shells and matchup zone principles. This means the Seahawks, with their new 11 personnel-heavy offense, will attack them downfield between the numbers, where they can get wide receivers matched against linebackers and safeties. Offensive coordinator Shane Waldon does an outstanding job with pre-snap motion and intertwined release and route designs to propagate these opportunities.
Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets
Andy Benoit worked for Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff from 2020 through 2022. Before that, he was a football analyst, writer and content producer for Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated, as well as at CBS Sports and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy_Benoit.