Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— How big a deal is the Ravens’ play-calling imbroglio?
— This dual-threat quarterback — not Lamar Jackson — could be the modern prototype.
— Is Dalvin Cook a legit MVP candidate?
But first, a look at five teams still trying to figure out what they are …
The biggest challenge an NFL coach faces each season is determining the identity of his team. Despite what a roster might look like on paper, the game is played between the lines, and coaches must be able to cater their game plans to strengths and weaknesses when the ball is snapped.
When I worked for the Carolina Panthers, John Fox would frequently tell coaches and scouts that it takes about eight games to evaluate your team and determine how to best utilize your personnel to enhance your odds of winning each week. He suggested that every game is winnable on the schedule, but coaches have to be willing to do whatever it takes — based on what you have at your disposal — to prevail. That simplistic sentiment didn’t fully resonate with me at the time, but the more I watch NFL games, the more I realize some coaches have a tough time mapping out the best approach as the season unfolds.
With all of that in mind, I studied the league landscape and identified five teams with a major identity crisis on one side of the ball. What can each do to shore up the unit? I have my ideas …
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense: The Buccaneers’ identity crisis stems from a grizzled head coach attempting to acquiesce to the demands of a quarterback who’s considered the G.O.A.T. in most circles.
Bruce Arians has enjoyed success as an offensive play-caller by utilizing a high-risk, high-reward offensive system that pushes the ball down the field with an assortment of vertical throws. Tom Brady, on the other hand, has claimed six Super Bowl rings as an efficient dink-and-dunk passer who works the middle of the field as well as any quarterback in NFL history. The 21st-year veteran’s unprecedented success in New England’s rigid system makes him reluctant to depart from it, but most of his current teammates are completely unfamiliar with the scheme. This makes it hard for offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to craft a diversified call sheet that satisfies his boss (Arians) and the team’s most important player (Brady) each week. In addition, the lack of continuity between Tampa’s established scheme and TB12’s preferred style makes it hard to get the ball to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Brady’s more comfortable throwing to Rob Gronkowski — and to a much lesser degree, Antonio Brown — due to previous connections in the Pats’ system.
Not to be outdone, the screams for more touches from Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette make it even harder for Leftwich to feed every mouth, given that he only has about 60-65 offensive snaps each week.
The Buccaneers can resolve their issues by simply playing “connect the dots” football from the pocket, while mixing in enough runs to keep defenses honest. The balanced approach will result in players getting the ball based on the defense’s coverage, but Leftwich and Arians can tweak the call sheet to ensure the top playmakers get enough touches to stay engaged.
It is hard to suggest that a team has too much talent, but the Buccaneers’ loaded lineup will require Arians and Brady to navigate a chemistry experiment that has the potential to produce fireworks or burn down the lab in Tampa.
Seattle Seahawks’ defense: Pete Carroll must shake his head in film sessions as he watches the unit formerly known as the “Legion of Boom” dissolve into the “Legion of Gloom.” Seattle’s once-vaunted defense has become the Achilles’ heel of a Super Bowl contender. That’s a pretty shocking — but undoubtedly true — statement to make.
In fact, the unit is so bad that the 2020 Seahawks have already given up more points (243) and passing yards (2,897) than the Super Bowl-winning Seattle defense surrendered in the entire 2013 season (231 points, 2,752 passing yards).
The dramatic decline of Carroll’s defense is a head-scratcher — questions persist on whether it’s a scheme or personnel issue. From a schematic standpoint, the Seahawks (6-2) have moved away from the signature single-high safety coverage that was synonymous with the “LOB.” The team utilizes more split-safety coverages to keep opponents from peppering the defense with a combination of man and Cover 3 beaters. In addition, Seattle has featured more five-man pressures with linebackers and safeties incorporated into the pass rush.
Surveying the team’s personnel, the defensive backfield has star power in Jamal Adams. But the All-Pro safety is at his best near the line of scrimmage, acting as a hybrid linebacker within the box. Quandre Diggs has developed into a solid center fielder with the IQ and instincts to thrive as the star on the top of the Christmas tree. Injuries have limited the effectiveness of Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar, but they’re capable corners with the size, length and speed to hold up on the island.
With Carlos Dunlap certain to settle into his role as a designated pass rusher, the Seahawks might be able to rediscover their defensive identity by leaning on their best players (Bobby Wagner, Adams, Diggs and Dunlap) to resurrect the defense from the gutter.
New England Patriots’ offense: Replacing Tom Brady with Cam Newton has led to a bumpy transition for the Patriots’ offense. The former MVP has limitations as a passer, and the lack of explosive weapons on the perimeter has led to a pedestrian passing game.
Given those challenges, the Pats (3-5) have been at their best when playing ground-and-pound football with Newton as the focal point. The big-bodied playmaker is one of the most dangerous runners in the league, particularly on designed QB runs. Newton leads the NFL in rushing attempts, touchdowns and first downs on designed QB runs, per Pro Football Focus.
The threat of the Patriots’ QB1 keeping the rock on read-option plays enables Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead to thrive as viable options in the running game. Harris, in particular, has emerged as an effective runner, averaging 70.0 rush yards per game and 5.6 rush yards per attempt since being activated in Week 4.
If the threat of the running game is established, the Patriots are able to set up Newton for success, utilizing a variety of play-action passes and RPO-like concepts designed to take advantage of overaggressive second-level defenders. The approach won’t light up scoreboards, but New England could control games and scratch out a few wins to climb back into playoff contention.
Indianapolis Colts’ offense: The Colts want to bludgeon opponents with a physical running game built around a powerful offensive line and a stable of blue-collar running backs, but the presence of an accomplished veteran quarterback threatens to undermine the team’s preferred approach.
As the ultimate gunslinger, Philip Rivers will push the envelope to produce big plays in the passing game, but his penchant for risky throws can result in game-changing turnovers in key moments. In addition, Rivers’ statuesque playing style makes him a sitting duck in the pocket against fast defenses featuring explosive pass rushers.
When it comes to his play-calling script, Frank Reich must balance the need to get his quarterback into a groove with staying true to the strength of the team (offensive line). The Colts must run the ball enough to reflect their identity as a no-nonsense football team while sprinkling in a quick-rhythm passing game that enable Indy to max out Rivers’ ability at this stage of his career. The veteran brings value as a high-IQ playmaker with a ton of experience, but Reich needs to avoid the temptation of putting too much on No. 17’s shoulders.
Thursday night’s 34-17 win over the AFC South rival Titans was a step in the right direction, as the Colts (6-3) racked up 430 yards with good balance (297 passing, 133 rushing), while not turning the ball over a single time.
Los Angeles Chargers’ defense: The Chargers’ inability to win close games has put Gus Bradley and the defense under the microscope. Los Angeles has repeatedly squandered double-digit, late-game leads despite a defensive lineup that features a set of outstanding pass rushers and cover corners.
From a personnel standpoint, the Bolts have a pair of five-star edge rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but injuries have limited their impact and overall production. Meanwhile, the “Jackboyz” haven’t played up to their reputation, with Casey Hayward taking a step back and a cast of young defensive backs playing out of position (see: Nasir Adderley and Rayshawn Jenkins) following the loss of superstar safety Derwin James. With Chris Harris Jr. sidelined by a foot injury since Week 3 and Desmond King traded to Tennessee earlier this month, the Chargers haven’t played like the game-wrecking, turnover-producing unit many anticipated entering this season.
While injuries have certainly played a role in the defense’s demise, the repeated late-game failures have cast a light on the scheme, philosophy and play-calling from the defensive coordinator. Are the Chargers too conservative? Have opponents caught up with the scheme? Can Bradley come up with effective game day adjustments?
Anthony Lynn must uncover the answers to those questions while urging his defensive coordinator to fix the problems that continue to come up in the game’s waning moments. Perhaps the eventual return of some blue-chip players will mask some of the Chargers’ schematic flaws, but it might be time for the defense to simply get back to the basics (running to the ball, tackling and eliminating big plays) to reverse the team’s late-game fortunes.
Why Baltimore’s play-calling controversy’s much ado about nothing. Lamar Jackson created a stir this week during an appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, declaring that opposing defenses know what the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) intend to do before the snap.
“They’re calling out our plays, stuff like that,” Jackson said. “They know what we’re doing. Sometimes stuff won’t go our way if they’re beating us to the punch.”
Eisen pressed the reigning MVP on what he meant, asking if Jackson could hear opponents calling out Baltimore’s plays.
“Yeah, they definitely do,” Jackson said. “Like, ‘run’ and stuff like that. ‘Watch out for this, watch out for that.’ Sometimes that’s what’s going on.”
At first blush, these comments appear to indict offensive coordinator Greg Roman as a predictable play-caller. But what Jackson’s words really let us know is that opponents clearly understand the Ravens’ identity. The signature plays from Baltimore’s playbook are on tape, and defenders know what they’re facing when Jackson and Co. step to the line. This is not abnormal, as Roman alluded to himself.
“Calling out plays on a defense is nothing new,” Roman said, a day after Jackson’s initial remarks. “I can talk about Ed Reed and Ray Lewis — every play, they’re trying to guess what play you’re going to run based on what they’re seeing. That’s a chess match.”
Roman’s right. And by the way, even if opponents might be wise to certain play calls due to intensive pregame film study, they still haven’t been able to stop Baltimore’s top-ranked rushing offense this season (170.1 rush YPG). In addition, the Ravens have scored 20-plus points in 31 consecutive games, breaking a tie with the 2012-14 Broncos for the longest such streak in NFL history.
Focusing on the quarterback’s individual play, critics will point to Jackson’s declining pass production from his transcendent 2019 campaign — completion percentage, passing yards per game, yards per attempt and passer rating are all down — but he remains the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL when it comes to the option game. On option keepers, according to Pro Football Focus, Jackson ranks among the top two NFL quarterbacks in rushes (40, ranked first), rushing yards (460, first), first downs (10, second) and touchdowns (two, tied for second). And with Jackson now owning a 25-5 QB record — tying Dan Marino for best 30-start mark in the Super Bowl era — any oppositional awareness of Baltimore’s tactics certainly hasn’t impacted the bottom line.
That’s why Jackson’s comments — and the resulting firestorm around them — should be kept in perspective. Great teams have obvious tendencies because they’ve taken a concept and mastered it. Those teams are also bold enough to continue doing the same thing, even when opponents know that it is coming, because they value execution over deception and trickery. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay teams rode the “Packers sweep” to five NFL championships and a pair of Super Bowl titles in the 1960s. As much as the game changes over the decades, much remains the same.
The Ravens have found a playing style and playbook that works them. No need to change anything until the rest of the NFL truly proves they’re able to stop Jackson and Co.
Is Kyler Murray the ideal modern quarterback? I don’t know how many 5-foot-10 quarterbacks will make it to the NFL, but I’m certain scouts are on the hunt for the next mobile playmaker with Kyler Murray-like skills.
The second-year pro is the first player in the Super Bowl era with 15-plus passing touchdowns and 500-plus rushing yards over his team’s first eight games of a season. He’s averaging 266.3 yards passing and 67.9 yards rushing per game, while also ranking third in the entire league with eight ground scores. Not to mention, his 5-3 Cardinals have already equaled their win total from the entire 2019 season.
Yes, Lamar Jackson just claimed the MVP award last season with an electric style of his own, but Murray is changing the way observers view playmakers at the position. The Cards QB is a different species, as a polished dropback passer with A+ arm talent and next-level passing ability. He can make every throw in the book with timing, touch and anticipation or fire lasers into tight windows. Moreover, Murray can deal from the pocket like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer spitting out winning hands all over the table. That said, Murray might be more dangerous as a runner than passer. He displays exceptional straight-line speed and stop-start quickness, while flashing uncanny awareness in traffic. Murray rarely takes unnecessary contact, deftly executing baseball slides or scooting out of bounds before defenders can get to him.
With this innate ability to protect himself from carnage, Murray should terrorize opponents for a long time as the ultimate dual-threat quarterback.
1) Dalvin Cook for MVP? The overwhelming majority of NFL players are best categorized as system guys. I know there is a negative connotation associated with that label, but so many of the game’s best players benefit from playing in schemes that accentuate their talents. Some players can improve from good to great in the right system, while others can emerge as superstars when paired with a scheme and play-caller that properly fit their abilities.
For a perfect example of this, look no further than Minnesota, where Dalvin Cook has become an MVP candidate as the featured playmaker in coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense. The NFL’s rushing leader entering Week 10, Cook is one of four running backs to run for 850-plus yards and at least 12 touchdowns in the first seven games of a season since 1950, per NFL Media Research. The other backs in that exclusive club — Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown — are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So, yes, Cook absolutely belongs in the MVP discussion. At this rate, perhaps the marriage between Cook and the Vikings’ scheme under Kubiak will result in the fourth-year pro rocking a gold jacket of his own down the road.
That statement might seem like a premature, piping-hot take, but take a deeper look at the historic numbers that Cook is producing this season. He’s on pace to post the most rush yards per game (122.6) and rush yards per attempt (6.0; min. 20 carries) since Adrian Peterson’s MVP campaign in 2012. With a rushing score against the Bears in Week 10, Cook would join George Rogers (1986), John Riggins (1983), and Lenny Moore (1964) as the only players in NFL history to run for at least one TD in each of their first eight games of a season. Two of those three players are enshrined in Canton.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, in reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film, it is the union between a one-cut runner and an outside-zone system that has produced fireworks for the Vikings. Cook attacks the outside foot of the designated offensive tackle to start along the plotted path but quickly squirts through an available crease when defenders jump out of their assigned gaps at the line of scrimmage. The synchronization of the offensive line combined with a talented runner who has outstanding vision and burst is creating a rushing attack that defenses can’t figure out how to stop. The Vikings are making a habit of absolutely gutting undisciplined defenses with basic runs that yield big gains.
While Cook has created a buzz with his success on the ground, he’s also adding spice to the Vikings’ passing game as a spectacular playmaker out of the backfield. The 2019 Pro Bowl selectee might be the best back on screen plays in the business with a combination of patience, ball skills and open-field running ability that makes him a challenge to contain. If he surpasses 200 scrimmage yards on Monday night, Cook will become the third RB since at least 1950 to reach that mark in three consecutive games, joining Le’Veon Bell (2014) and Walter Payton (1977).
In a league where running backs are rarely viewed as marquee players, Cook is attempting to turn back the clock with an MVP-caliber campaign that shows the value of pairing a five-star player with the perfect system for his talents.
2) Who is Trey Hendrickson? If you’re not a part of Who Dat Nation, there’s a good chance you haven’t paid attention to Trey Hendrickson’s development as a pass rusher for New Orleans. But if you want to know why the Saints are emerging as the favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV, you might want to take a look at the fourth-year veteran’s work this season.
Hendrickson ranks third in the league in sacks (7.5) behind Aaron Donald (9.0) and Myles Garrett (9.0), exhibiting a solid set of skills that makes him the perfect complementary rusher opposite Cam Jordan. As a high-motor defender with inside and outside pass-rush ability, Hendrickson is a trash collector at the line of scrimmage with a knack for corralling quarterbacks on extra-effort plays. He outworks blockers at the point of attack to register sacks on power maneuvers and hustle plays.
“He’s at his perfect weight, he’s a smart player and one of his great traits is his energy and effort,” said Saints coach Sean Payton of Hendrickson last month, per NOLA.com.
Reviewing my notes on Hendrickson from a few years back, when he was a prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Florida Atlantic product was viewed as an intriguing pass-rush specialist/special teams contributor. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder was a productive three-year starter with 40 tackles for loss, 28 sacks and eight forced fumbles as an Owl. He combined a non-stop motor with B-level athletic traits (4.65-second 40-yard dash; 10-foot-2-inch broad jump and 7.03-second three-cone time) to overwhelm blockers in Conference USA. Those characteristics also stood out as I watched Hendrickson earn Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors at the annual East-West Shrine Game a few months before the Saints made him a third-round pick.
While it is important to note that Hendrickson isn’t as disruptive as his NFL sack production might suggest, his presence on the front line gives the Saints a highly valuable third pass-rushing option within a rotation that includes Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Moreover, he gives defensive coordinator Dennis Allen a few options to consider when attacking opposing quarterbacks. Henderson’s positional versatility enables the team to put him on the field with Jordan and Davenport or feature him as a super-sub filling in for either edge rusher.
For a defense built to play with a lead and close out games, the emergence of another closer fortifies a bullpen that could help spark a title run.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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