Packers' system elevating Aaron Rodgers; Bills' brilliant move

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:

But first, a look at why Aaron Rodgers is playing like an MVP again …

In NFL circles, team builders rave about how The Shanahan System can transform mid-level quarterbacks into stars.

The hype is certainly valid, as we’ve seen the likes of Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo thrive within variations of the scheme in recent years. Not so long ago, we witnessed Matt Ryan emerge as the league MVP in the Shanahan scheme, which marries a wide-zone-based running game with a complementary play-action passing attack that creates big-play opportunities down the field.

Considering how this offense has helped transform good players into great ones, what would happen if an established superstar played in the system? 

Well, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is giving the football world the answer to that question with his sizzling performance. In his second season in coach Matt LaFleur’s version of the scheme, the veteran quarterback has Green Bay on pace to set a Super Bowl era record in scoring offense (38.0 points per game) and is being mentioned as a contender for his third MVP award.

Rodgers has opened this season on a tear, becoming just the fourth player since at least 1948 with 12-plus pass touchdowns and zero interceptions through the first four games of a season, per NFL Media Research. He’s on a pace that tops even his output from the early going of his first MVP campaign (2011), when he set the single-season record for passer rating (122.5). He recorded a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 124.6 passer rating through the first four games that year. Rodgers has a 13:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 128.4 passer rating through the first four games of 2020. Yes, he’s well on his way to bouncing back from a down year (by Rodgers’ standards), posting better numbers in completion rate (70.5%, up from 62.0%), pass yards per game (303.5, up from 250.1) and passer rating (128.4, up from 95.4) than he did in 2019. 

The 36-year-old has done this despite not having No.1 receiver Davante Adams on the field for the last two games. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Rodgers perform at an elite level without a five-star supporting cast. (Remember, Green Bay has never drafted a running back, wide receiver or tight end in the first round during his time with the team.) However, I would contend that the former MVP’s success as an older player with a cast of unheralded skill-position players is a testament to the system.

That’s not a knock on how well Rodgers is playing, but it is a tip of the cap to LaFleur for designing a system laden with play-action passes that create easy completions for the quarterback. The Packers are utilizing more movement passes (bootlegs) with tight ends and H-backs leaking into the flat through the back door. They have complemented those movement concepts with some traditional play-action passes featuring deep crosses and post routes that provide big-play chances. The game plan has also featured some RPO-like quick routes with flash fakes in the backfield. With the Packers mixing in some quick screens (wide receivers) and slow screens (running backs) to the edges, too, Rodgers is stretching defenses horizontally and vertically with high-percentage concepts. 

With that in mind, I believe we are seeing how a coach can elevate even a great player by alleviating some of the pressure on him through schematics and structure. Instead of Rodgers carrying the offense with his improvisational skills, he is trusting the system and letting the big plays come to him. Considering how the scheme has helped a host of good quarterbacks play at a Pro Bowl level, it should not come as a surprise that we’re seeing an aging star get back to playing like an MVP candidate in Green Bay.

DINK AND DUNK

Is Stefon Diggs the best acquisition of the offseason? Bills GM Brandon Beane should be the front-runner for NFL Executive of the Year for landing the former Vikings receiver.

Sure, it cost a pretty penny to pry Diggs away from Minnesota in March (Buffalo gave up a 2020 first-round pick, a 2020 fifth-rounder, a 2020 sixth-rounder and a 2021 fourth-round selection in exchange for the WR and a 2020 seventh-round pick), but the move has worked out extremely well thus far, as Diggs entered Week 5 tied for the league lead in receiving yards (403). His presence on the perimeter has boosted Josh Allen’s efficiency, as evidenced by his 122.7 passer rating in 2020 compared to a 67.9 mark in 2018 and an 85.3 in 2019. As an A-plus route runner with vertical playmaking ability, Diggs has accounted for the fourth-most receiving yards on go routes (four catches, 123 yards, TD) and crossing routes (five catches, 111 yards, TD), per Next Gen Stats.

With Diggs on the perimeter, Allen has become a more efficient deep-ball passer, particularly on go routes and crossers. He has a 61.5 percent completion rate with two touchdowns, one interception and a 113.0 passer rating on go routes this season. That’s a significant improvement from the 31.1 percent completion rate, 4:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 78.4 passer rating he had when targeting those routes in 2019. On crossing routes, Allen’s 75 percent completion rate, 13.1 yards per attempt, 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 156.3 passer rating is well above the 63.9 percent completion rate, 8.0 yards per attempt, 4:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 97.0 passer rating he posted in 2019.

Building a championship team comes down to player acquisition and player development. By adding Diggs to the roster, Beane added an explosive weapon to the Bills’ lineup and accelerated the development of his young franchise passer. With Allen suddenly looking like an MVP candidate, Beane could be among the Bills claiming some hardware at the end of the season.

Justin Herbert earned this opportunity. There’s an unwritten rule in NFL that suggests starters should not lose their starting position due to injury. That said, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn had no choice but to officially hand the QB1 job to Herbert this week.

Despite an 0-3 record as the team’s starter since taking over for Tyrod Taylor, Herbert ranks among the top 10 passers in completion rate (72%, seventh in the NFL), passing yards per game (310.3, fifth) and pass yards per attempt (8.7, sixth). In addition, he ranks 12th in passer rating (102.2) and has finished each start with a passer rating of at least 88.0.

Herbert’s effectiveness extends beyond the stat sheet, though. The 6-foot-6, 237-pounder meshes well with the Chargers’ system as a big, athletic playmaker with a high IQ and a strong arm. Herbert’s athletic ability enables the Chargers to feature more movement passes, particularly play-action passes with half roll-outs and bootleg action. The Chargers have utilized play-action on 29.2 percent of his pass attempts (10th-highest rate in the NFL) and he’s averaged 11 air yards per attempt on play-action passes (fifth-most in the league), per Next Gen Stats.

The emphasis on the vertical passing game has unlocked Keenan Allen on the perimeter. Since Herbert stepped into the starting lineup in Week 2, Allen leads the NFL in targets (41) and receptions (28) and ranks sixth in receiving yards (290). The Bolts’ WR1 has averaged 9.3 receptions, 13.7 targets and 96.7 receiving yards per game with Herbert at the helm after posting just four receptions for 37 yards on eight targets with Taylor under center in Week 1.

When the Chargers selected Herbert with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, we knew it wouldn’t be too long before he assumed the QB1 role to lead the franchise through the 2020s. After showing the football world that he is ready for the job, his time has arrived earlier than expected, as unfair as it might seem to his predecessor.

The Texans needed a checks-and-balances system for Bill O’Brien. Houston’s former general manager and head coach is the latest example of why a balance of power is necessary in NFL front offices. Although running a franchise isn’t exactly like operating the federal government, the checks and balances system established by the U.S. Constitution to guard against one branch grabbing too much power provides the ideal framework for how NFL front offices should work in 2020.

In the NFL, the power is traditionally split between the general manager and the head coach. The GM is supposed to make decisions that will keep the team in title contention in the long term. The head coach should be charged with making decisions to put the team in the best position to win in the immediate future. He makes lineup changes and tactical adjustments to win each week.

O’Brien certainly deserves credit for being an above-average head coach during his time with the Texans. He finished his tenure with a 52-48 record over six-plus seasons, leading the team to four playoff appearances and three division titles. By most accounts, he was an adequate leader (and offensive mind) with a gruff personality who oversaw winning seasons in five of his six full campaigns.

That said, O’Brien’s decisions as a general manager likely kept him from reaching his potential as a head coach. He dismissed two of the Texans’ top players via trade (see: Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins) and didn’t receive much in return. His aggressive moves to acquire his preferred blue-chip players (Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Duke Johnson) robbed the Texans of significant draft capital to replenish their roster.

With the moves failing to elevate the Texans to the ranks of the elite, O’Brien’s power play is an example of why you DON’T empower head coaches to operate like czars at the top of the franchise. Head coaches can be short-sighted, making decisions without considering the long-term consequences. A general manager would challenge them to think beyond today and contemplate how each move impacts the roster down the road. Moreover, a strong general manager would forge a relationship with the head coach that enabled the team to field the best roster for today while retaining enough assets to upgrade the roster tomorrow.

After watching the Texans’ empire fall apart under the reign of a dictator in the front office, it might be wise for the team to return to a democracy the next time around.

COVER 2

1) Joe Burrow is the real deal. Whenever a team holds the NFL draft’s No. 1 overall pick, it wants to walk away with a player who has the potential to reverse the franchise’s fortunes. After watching Burrow’s impact on the Cincinnati Bengals in just four games, I think it’s safe to say Zac Taylor and Co. got it right when they took the former LSU standout with the top selection.

Burrow is the first rookie in NFL history with 300-plus passing yards in three straight games, and he’s on track to shatter the single-season rookie record in completions, attempts and passing yards. Burrow’s 1,121 pass yards are the third-most by a quarterback through his first four career games in the Super Bowl era, behind only Cam Newton (1,386) and Andrew Luck (1,208).

The numbers on the stat sheet are certainly impressive, but it is the performance between the lines that really stands out to me. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I’m blown away by Burrow’s composure, pocket poise, judgment and accuracy. He exudes confidence in his play. From his command of the offense to his resilience after bad plays, Burrow manages the game and his emotions like an All-Pro at the position. He doesn’t flinch despite being battered and beaten in the pocket, and his toughness endears him to his teammates.

As a passer, Burrow is at his best playing small ball on the perimeter. He is a run-pass option specialist with an outstanding feel for the quick-rhythm passing game. He has already shown the capacity to carve up coverage with surgical precision when he’s able to throw comfortably from the pocket. Burrow repeatedly dices up coverage on in-breaking routes (cross, in, slant and post) at short-to-intermediate range. He anticipates and delivers accurate tosses to receivers scooting into open windows inside the numbers. The Bengals’ QB1 boasts a 78.4 percent completion rate, 9.7 yards per attempt, 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 126.6 passer rating on in-breaking routes, per Next Gen Stats.

Taylor has enhanced Burrow’s ability to carve up defenses on in-breaking routes by featuring more spread and empty formations. By stretching the defense horizontally without a running back in the backfield, the Bengals have enabled Burrow to spot potential blitzes and anticipate open windows against man or zone coverage. At LSU, he thrived as a passer when operating out of empty formations, and Taylor is wisely featuring a variety of spread-and-shred concepts to help his young passer get into a groove.

From a critical standpoint, Burrow has been off the mark on deep throws. According to PFF, he has only completed one of 22 pass attempts at deep range (20-plus air yards). Those numbers are certainly startling to see on paper, but Burrow’s deep-ball struggles aren’t as bad as they appear. Despite missing a few go routes on planned heaves from the pocket, he displays enough arm strength and touch to target deep areas of the field. He has failed to connect with his receivers due to a variety of reasons (receivers failing to win 50-50 balls, passes thrown wide and outside and harried scramble tosses thrown under duress), but his failures are fixable.

He needs more time to develop the chemistry and connection with his top targets while Taylor and Co. figure out which routes are best for Burrow’s game. Based on early returns, the Bengals could feature more deep crossers and post routes off play-action instead of throwing bombs down the boundary. The vertical passing game between the numbers is not only a better fit for Burrow’s arm, but it accentuates his strengths as a pinpoint in-breaking passer.

Overall, it is hard to deduct many points from Burrow’s total score after watching him carve up defenses each week. He has quickly settled in as the Bengals’ QB1 and things are definitely looking up for the franchise with a budding star in place.

2) Will Kyle Allen lead turnaround in Washington? I’m not surprised the Washington Football Team pulled the plug on the Dwayne Haskins experiment in favor of Allen after only four games. The third-year pro was acquired from the Carolina Panthers this offseason to serve as the team’s QB2, but familiarity with the coaches and system made him a viable option as a starter for the team.

Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner believed in Allen enough last season to name him the Panthers’ QB1 with Cam Newton sidelined with injuries. The former undrafted free agent won his first four games as a fill-in with a 106.6 passer rating, throwing seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Most impressive, he displayed poise, confidence and strong managerial skills guiding the team to a few one-score wins. Allen’s early success led some to consider him as a potential long-term starter in Carolina.

Those sentiments changed after Allen notched only one win over his last eight starts with a 10:15 TD-to-INT ratio and 70.9 passer rating. The drastic decline in production matched his deteriorating performance on the field. Allen’s questionable judgment, inconsistent ball placement and shoddy fundamentals showed up as defensive coordinators got a feel for his game and started attacking his weaknesses with pressure and coverage.

That said, Allen has a chance to succeed in Washington due to his understanding of the system and experience. Although he has only been in the league for three years, he has 13 starts on his resume and those game reps could help him manage the offense better than Haskins did. In addition, his familiarity with Turner as a play-caller could help the offensive coordinator expand his game plans to feature more concepts, play calls and audibles to attack opponents.

Although knowing what to do doesn’t guarantee success, the Washington Football Team is hoping Allen’s mastery of the scheme will spark a team that’s eyeing a playoff berth in the woebegone NFC East.

HAIL MARY

The truth hurts in Dallas. I appreciate Xavier Woods unintentionally confirming what the football world already knew about the 1-3 Cowboys’ defense: The unit doesn’t play hard.

“Our effort’s been good,” the starting safety told reporters, via the Dallas Morning News. “I mean, on certain plays, some guys, me included, there may be a lack. But overall, the effort is there. We’re in the NFL. You don’t expect guys full speed for 70 plays. That’s not possible. But you’re going to push all you can.

“I mean, we know you don’t expect a back-side corner to make a play on the opposite side. If he’s running full speed, it’s just not possible, to be honest.”

Wow!

Honestly, I’m stunned by Woods’ admission, but not surprised by the sentiment. The fourth-year pro doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with taking an occasional play off or loafing if making a play across the field appears to be an unrealistic endeavor. Woods is just saying and doing what he’s allowed to do under the parameters of the culture established within Dallas’ defensive meeting room.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it is apparent the Cowboys aren’t held to a high standard when it comes to hustling or playing physical. There are too many examples of Woods and his teammates walking or jogging to the ball, instead of pursuing ball carriers with reckless abandon. The lackadaisical effort is nauseating to watch, but it also explains why Dallas has surrendered 38-plus points in three straight games and ranks at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category.

The Cowboys clearly aren’t a collection of “try hard” guys with high-revving motors. And the coaching staff refuses to hold them to a standard that demands maximum effort. Instead of chastising and nudging the underachievers to raise their games, Mike McCarthy and Mike Nolan have dismissed questions pertaining to the defense’s effort. Perhaps they are simply shielding their players from outside criticism and chewing them out behind closed doors, but their public comments aren’t honest or transparent to anyone who has watched the tape.

Watching last Sunday’s 49-38 loss to the Browns, I saw countless examples of Cowboys defenders taking plays off or failing to chase the ball with maximum effort. From Aldon Smith walking on the back side during Kareem Hunt’s 14-yard touchdown to the entire defense shutting it down on Odell Beckham Jr.’s game-clinching touchdown, it’s crystal clear that the defense doesn’t play with the requisite energy to compete at an elite level. Moreover, Dallas defenders don’t believe they need to up the ante when it comes to their effort.

Until Cowboys players and coaches acknowledge that this defense must give more effort on the field, the unit will continue to languish in the cellar and undermine a Dallas offense that ranks first in yards and third in points.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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