Monday Night Football Preview: Capping Off a Thrilling Week 1
It's good to have football back, and Week 1 surely didn't disappoint.
In Sunday's finale, Arizona Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro lined up for a go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter, only to have a bad snap lead to a miss and a victory for Jimmy Garoppolo and the New England Patriots.
And that was just the most recent thriller from Week 1.
From the Carolina Panthers coming up just short in Denver on Thursday night to Russell Wilson's game-winning drive against the Miami Dolphins Sunday afternoon, Week 1 has provided plenty of excitement so far. With two games left on the schedule, Monday night is sure to provide some more fireworks.
First, Ben Roethlisberger leads the Pittsburgh Steelers into the nation's capital to take on the Washington Redskins, and later we'll see Chip Kelly make his debut as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers against the Rams in their return to Los Angeles.
What can we expect in the final two games of Week 1? Let's take a look.
Pittsburgh's Offense Debuts Without Several Playmakers
The Steelers head into Washington missing a number of key offensive weapons in Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton. Bell is serving a three game suspension for missed drug tests while Bryant will sit out the entire 2016 season after missing drug tests. Additionally, Wheaton has been ruled out with a shoulder injury after missing practice all week.
Last season, running back DeAngelo Williams showed he still had some gas left in the tank while filling in for Bell. The 33-year-old back started 10 games for the Steelers and finished with 200 carries, 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. Per numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Bell was one of the most efficient backs in the league, notching a 0.07 Rushing NEP per carry, third-best among backs with more than 100 carries. While Bell is out, look for Williams to be a bell cow.
In the passing game, Roethlisberger opens 2016 with a number of new targets. Gone are Bryant and the retired Heath Miller. Wheaton was expected to start opposite of Antonio Brown with second-year undrafted free agent Eli Rogers serving as the slot receiver. But now with Wheaton out, either Sammie Coates or Darrius Heyward-Bey will start opposite of Brown.
There were a number of glowing reports surrounding Coates this offseason, but after struggling through the preseason, Coates failed to supplant Wheaton as a starter. Perhaps he can make some noise with Wheaton missing time.
Jesse James, in his second season out of Penn State, will be replacing Miller after free-agent signee Ladarius Green was placed on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury and recurring headaches.
Is Kirk Cousins For Real?
In his first full season as a starter, Cousins was impressive, completing 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Cousins was also one of the most efficient passers in 2015 in terms of Passing NEP per drop back. He finished the season tied with Drew Brees as the sixth-best in that category (0.24), right behind Roethlisberger (0.25) and ahead of Cam Newton (0.20).
Despite the breakout campaign, there's skepticism around whether Cousins can repeat his performance in 2016. That skepticism also seems to come from the Redskins' front office as Cousins was not signed to a long-term deal this offseason. Instead, he will play under the one-year franchise tag.
Looking closer at Cousins' success in 2015, you can see that he excelled playing at home last season. At the friendly confines of FedEx Field, Cousins threw 16 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions and averaged 271 passing yards per game. In road games, Cousins' production dipped to only 249.5 passing yards a game and 13 touchdowns with 9 interceptions.
Cousins returns a full complement of weapons from 2015, including a healthy Jordan Reed and a contract-year DeSean Jackson. Additionally, the Redskins used their first-round pick on TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson. After missing time with an Achilles injury, Doctson is listed as questionable for the season opener.
Chip Kelly's San Francisco Debut
After three seasons in Philadelphia, Chip Kelly will make his head-coaching debut for the 49ers Monday night. Kelly's tenure in Philadelphia ended abruptly following a 7-9 campaign in 2015. In San Francisco, Kelly inherits a roster that went 5-11 with head coach Jim Tomsula in 2015.
A player who figures to benefit from Kelly's system is running back Carlos Hyde. Kelly has shown a willingness to feed his star running back, giving LeSean McCoy 300-plus carries in each of his first two seasons in Philadelphia. While Hyde has flashed over his first two seasons, he's also missed 11 games over that time, including nine games in 2015 with foot injury. Hyde figures to see a heavy workload under Chip Kelly but faces a tough test in Week 1 against Los Angeles's second-best run defense, per numberFire projections.
A quarterback competition between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick this offseason was anticipated, but Kaepernick missed time with injuries and was never able to pass Gabbert, who ended 2015 as the team's starter, on the depth chart.
Gabbert started eight games for the 49ers in 2015, leading the team to a 3-5 record in those starts. He completed 63 percent of his pass attempts for 2,031 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 7 picks. Gabbert, though, didn't grade well, according to our metrics. His -0.03 Passing NEP per drop back fell well shy of the league average of 0.11.
The Rams Are Back in Southern California
After 21 seasons in St. Louis, the Rams are back in Los Angeles and open the year with a trip north to visit the 49ers.
When it was announced that the Rams had traded up to take Jared Goff with the first overall selection in the draft, it was assumed that the Rams would be opening this new era with a new quarterback, but that won't be the case. In fact, Goff is expected to be a healthy scratch Monday, as he is currently the third quarterback on the Rams' depth chart, behind starter Case Keenum and backup Sean Mannion
Keenum started five games for the Rams in 2015, leading the team to a 3-2 record in those starts. He completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 828 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception. The fourth-year quarterback ended the season with a 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back on 129 pass plays, ranking him as a middle-of-the-pack starter.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for the Rams, their offense revolves around second-year running back Todd Gurley. In his rookie year, Gurley rushed for 10 touchdowns and 1,106 yards on 229 carries (4.8 yards per carry). Of the 30 running backs with at least 150 carries in 2015, Gurley's 0.03 Rushing NEP per rush ranked third, behind only DeAngelo Williams (0.07) and Mark Ingram (0.07).
Gurley saw about 20 touches per game in 2015 and is expected to match or exceed that workload in his sophomore campaign.
Our algorithms are projecting two close games tonight.
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