x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

NFL preview: The road to the Super Bowl starts right now

Helmets and shoulders pads are on so it is time for Mike Tierney to look at the 10 important talking points before the NFL season kicks off.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a big surprise last season and led his team all the way to the Super Bowl. Gregory Bull / AP Photo
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a big surprise last season and led his team all the way to the Super Bowl. Gregory Bull / AP Photo

1 Copying strategies

Coaches are notorious copycats, and an offensive strategy that became the flavour of the month(s) in 2012 was the "read option", which could spread through the league.

The quarterback takes the snap, rolls out and elects to run or pass based on how he reads the defence. Colin Kaepernick's expertise nearly won a Super Bowl for San Francisco 49ers. Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins) were effective.

Will more teams try it? Maybe not. The quarterback is exposed to injurious hits and defences will be better prepared.

2 Defence issues for Saints

New Orleans Saints have paid the steep price for Bountygate, their pay-to-hurt fund on defence. With morale low and coach Sean Payton suspended last season, the Saints stumbled to 7-9, with fingers pointed again at the defence - this time for allowing a record yards total.

Payton deals mainly with the offence, so much focus falls on the new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, who installed a 3-4 alignment to replace the 4-3. Like high-scoring games? Then the Saints are your team.

3 Pressure on Ryan

Rex Ryan, Rob's better-known brother, is also in the spotlight - under witheringly intense heat. The coach of New York Jets is 16-18 the past two seasons and saddled with a quarterback conundrum.

Does he opt for the underachieving veteran Mark Sanchez or the unprepared rookie Geno Smith? Ryan's surprise insertion of Sanchez, late in a pre-season game, a move which resulted in a shoulder injury for Sanchez, further turned up the temperature.

Wonder if Ryan, who shed 120 pounds through dieting, can sweat off any more?

4 Kicking question

The debate on whether to eliminate the nearly automatic extra-point kick has broadened to include field goals. Not dropping them but raising the degree of difficulty.

Three-pointers bring little suspense; 10 kickers exceeded 90 per cent accuracy last season and all but five regulars bettering 80 per cent.

Teams are no longer hesitant to try from beyond 50 yards. The trend has cut slightly into touchdowns, which deliver a bit more excitement. No doubt the name "football" fits better than it did a decade ago.

5 Doubts on Ravens

No team has repeated as Super Bowl winners since New England Patriots nine years ago, but few defending champions begin their seasons surrounded by more scepticism than Baltimore.

Eight starters have departed, more than ever from a title team. Notably, the linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis retired.

Most of the saved salary money went to lock up Joe Flacco, the quarterback, and the pass rusher Elvis Dumervil from the Denver Broncos, who fell into the Ravens' lap. Their usual top coaching and player evaluation must pay off.

6 Fast plays

Chip Kelly of the new Philadelphia Eagles coach is the latest former college coach to install a system that was a hit on the university level. Many before him have failed.

In this case, however, several pro teams already have borrowed from Kelly's philosophy: a hurry-up offence in which players rush to their starting points immediately after a play ends and snap the ball to prevent defensive substitutions and bring on fatigue.

Officiating crews could kill the grand experiment if they take their time placing the football, throwing off the fast-pace timing of Kelly Ball.

7 New faces

Kelly is one of eight new head coaches, as one-fourth of the league saw fit to switch.

All but one bring a background on offence, which suggests that franchise owners see scoring as a prime imperative. The most familiar name outside NFL circles is Andy Reid. After averaging 10 wins in 14 seasons at Philadelphia, he is embracing a change of scenery, with Kansas City Chiefs.

Also seeking a new start with the Chiefs is the quarterback Alex Smith after eight mostly undistinguished years with the 49ers where he went up and down their depth chart.

8 Impressive quartet

Quarterbacks fresh off college campuses are more NFL-ready than ever, as displayed last season by Griffin, Wilson, Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins) and Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts), the rookie of the year.

The so-called sophomore slump in sports has some basis in reality because opposing teams are afforded an off-season to counteract the new arrivals. The Fab Four - OK, Tannehill was less than fabulous - are worth watching, more so than the weak incoming crop of quarterbacks.

9 Rush hour

The flip side to pass-crazy offences is teams desperately searching for pass rushers. Four late-career players who were sack-happy in their primes have changed addresses.

Atlanta Falcons bade farewell to John Abraham, 35, who has 122 career sacks, and replaced him with the former New York Giant Usi Umenyiora, 31 (75 sacks).

Dwight Freeney, 33, took his 107.5 sacks from Indianapolis to San Diego Chargers. The relative youngster Dumervil, 29 (63.5 sacks), landed in Baltimore after a paperwork error by Denver freed him up.

10 Open-air Super Bowl

All 47 Super Bowls have been staged in domed stadiums or outdoor arenas in warm-weather locales. Not so this season, when the 48th Super Bowl kicks off on February 2 at the uncovered MetLife Stadium in metropolitan New York. League owners, as they often do, placed their title game in a new stadium, MetLife having opened in 2010.

However, not even their combined wealth can buy pleasant weather, in New York, in early February. The Farmers' Almanac, which predicts weather based on planetary positions and lunar cycles, foresees a winter storm hitting the region that weekend.

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