The 2015 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night when reigning Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers. The enduring summer, where organised team activities, training camp and the pre-season try, but ultimately fail, to fill the void left by the regular season and the play-offs, is over. Football is back, and with it another year of ferocious hits, lung-busting runs and one-handed grabs.
Here are five key talking points ahead of Week One.
Steelers offense, even without Le’Veon Bell, could put up big numbers
The Patriots will raise their fourth banner before Thursday’s kick-off to commemorate February’s dramatic Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks. But they face a stern test against the Steelers, who carry a loaded offence featuring Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Heath Miller.
The Patriots secondary underwent significant changes in the off-season as starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner both departed in free agency.
Malcolm Butler, the undrated free agent who became a global superstar after his last-gasp interception in Super Bowl XLIX, is now their starting left cornerback. The last time the Patriots played the Steelers they scored 55 points. Something similar might be required tonight.
It’s a battle of the number one and number two picks in Tampa Bay
Marcus Mariota takes on the player chosen one pick ahead of him in the 2015 draft on Sunday, Jameis Winston. It will be seen as Mariota’s chance to show the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that they made the wrong choice in selecting the former Heisman Trophy winner first overall. Although based on the pre-season, the Buccaneers may already know that.
Winston was outshone by his rival in four pre-season games. Mariota completed 70 per cent of his pass attempts and threw a touchdown pass. Meanwhile, Winston laboured to a 48.9 per cent completion, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
But it was the pre-season, which has proven time and again not to be a definitive prelude to what the regular season holds. This week one rookie showdown should be fantastic.
Peyton Manning’s arm will be tested against the Ravens
Peyton Manning struggled immensely in the second half of 2014. In the last five games of the regular season he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. In the divisional round he completed 56.5 per cent of his passes as the Broncos fell to a home loss against the Indianapolis Colts.
He wasn’t much better in the pre-season, leading no touchdown drives in 11 possessions. There are genuine concerns over his arm which, after 17 seasons in the league, is losing its zip.
Fortunately for Manning a change in scheme and a fearsome defence look set to ease the 39-year-old’s workload. New head coach Gary Kubiak has installed a zone-blocking scheme and for the first time since 2012 the Broncos offence will feature a fullback, both of which are sure signs that this will be a more run-focused team in 2015.
Except that scheme might be altered against the Ravens, who will prove difficult to beat if the Broncos rely on the run. Last season the Ravens ranked fourth in rushing yards relinquished and, despite losing Haloti Ngata in the off-season, the defensive line remains stout with Brandon Williams proving an excellent run-stuffer.
If the Broncos can’t run the ball then Manning will be forced to throw. Then we’ll see whether the concerns over his arm were justifiable.
Linebackers Clowney and Bowman return from injury
Fans were denied the chance to see Jadeveon Clowney last season after the 2014 No 1 overall pick tore his meniscus in week one. Clowney is back and he’s on a mission to establish the scariest pass-rush duo in the NFL alongside Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt.
He didn’t feature in the pre-season but viewers of HBO’s Hard Knocks were treated to a glimpse of Clowney’s rehabilitation and head coach Bill O’Brien has high ambitions for Clowney. In the season finale O’Brien gushed about having “90 and 99”, the respective shirt numbers of Clowney and Watt, together on the field.
The San Francisco 49ers have their own returning linebacker. NaVorro Bowman missed the entire 2014 campaign after suffering an ACL tear in the 2013 NFC Championship game but proved in the pre-season that he’s certainly a potential candidate for comeback player of the year.
Against the Dallas Cowboys Bowman had three tackles, two of which went for a loss. He only played three snaps in the entire game. A week later against the Broncos the 27-year-old had two sacks on Peyton Manning in the same drive.
Clowney and Bowman are clearly intent on making up for lost time.
Taylor, Fitzpatrick and Hoyer among new starting quarterbacks
Nine franchises have different starting quarterbacks than they did this time last year.
The Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins, Titans and Buccaneers will all start with a different quarterback under centre, each hoping that this one can become a franchise player.
The Browns in particular needn't get their hopes up. The last time Cleveland had a quarterback who played the entire 16 games of the regular season was in 2001, when Tim Couch ran the show.
It’s a remarkable stat and one that has every chance of continuing for at least another season given that the Browns have Johnny Manziel, their first-round draft pick from 2014, lying in wait.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Browns starter, isn’t much of an upgrade from Manziel despite the former Texas A&M superstar's shaky rookie season. It will be a major surprise if we didn’t see Manziel for at least a quarter of the year.
Thursday (Friday 01.30am GMT): Steelers @ Patriots
Sunday: Colts @ Bills
Browns @ Jets
Panthers @ Jaguars
Packers @ Bears
Chiefs @ Texans
Dolphins @ Redskins
Seahawks @ Rams
Lions @ Chargers
Saints @ Cardinals
Ravens @ Broncos
Bengals @ Raiders
Titans @ Buccaneers
Giants @ Cowboys
Monday: Eagles @ Falcons
Vikings @ 49ersReuse content