Scout's Notebook  

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Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive woes, hybrid playmakers and more

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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:

-- Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen and Alvin Kamara should follow in the footsteps of one particular hybrid playmaker.

-- The key to Washington's defensive resurgence.

But first, a look at Pittsburgh's surprisingly underwhelming offense ...

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I'm not a hardcore gamer any more, but if you challenged me to a game of "Madden NFL 18," I would quickly grab the sticks and scroll down to the Pittsburgh Steelers as my team of choice. I'm looking to light up the scoreboard, and the Steelers have all of the key components needed to hang half a hundred on any gamer in sight.

From their two-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback to their hybrid running back virtuoso to the unstoppable pass-catching phenom at WR1, the Steelers have the most dynamic "Big Three" in football. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown man the marquee roles on an offense that doesn't show a single weakness on paper. With an offensive line that's routinely touted as one of the top-five units in the league and a supporting cast of explosive playmakers in complementary roles (see: Martavis Bryant), Pittsburgh's offense has the firepower to ring up numbers like a pinball machine on the way to running through the AFC.

That's what we all expected, right?

That's why it's shocking to see the 2-1 Steelers -- with a rivalry bout at Baltimore on Sunday -- ranked 22nd in total offense (302.3 yards per game) and 16th in scoring (21.3 points per game). Although those numbers aren't necessarily awful -- and we're still just three weeks into the season -- it's not the kind of production we all expected from a team loaded with blue-chip playmakers at the highest-profile spots. These Steelers aren't supposed to have any problems putting the ball in the paint. But that is indeed the case -- and the loss of explosive production could leave Pittsburgh on the outside looking in when it's time to chase the Lombardi Trophy in January.

To be fair, Brown has played up to the standard as the highest-paid receiver in football. He already has a pair of 10-catch games on his ledger and currently leads the league in receptions (26) and receiving yards (354). Not to mention, he has delivered five receptions of 20-plus yards (second-most in the NFL) and accounted for first downs on 69.2 percent of his catches. Despite facing double-teams and clouded coverage to his side, Brown has continued to put up the numbers that reflect his standing as one of the top players in the NFL today -- and that impacts the kind of coverage the rest of the Steelers' playmakers face on the perimeter.

On the other hand, Roethlisberger and Bell have not played up to the standard this season. They haven't dominated the game as top-tier talents at their respective positions, and their shortcomings have made Pittsburgh more vulnerable than expected at this time. Roethlisberger, in particular, hasn't played like a top-five player at his position -- not even close. He is completing just 62.7 percent of his passes while averaging a pedestrian 6.7 yards per attempt. Sure, his 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is good, but elite quarterbacks should be more efficient and effective in quick-rhythm offenses that feature high completion-percentage throws. That's why I'm concerned about his slow start, particularly when I dig deeper into the numbers.

According to Next Gen Stats, Big Ben is connecting on just 70.2 percent of his throws to wide-open receivers (guys with 3-plus yards of separation at the target) in 2017, after posting an 85.8 percent mark a season ago. He is repeatedly missing open receivers down the field, as the Steelers' weapons rank seventh in average separation with a 3.03-yard mark per attempt. And his wayward throws can't be attributed to a dirty pocket or poor pass protection: According to Next Gen Stats, Pittsburgh's offensive line ranks in the top five when it comes to average separation (distance between the quarterback and the nearest pass rusher per pass attempt) after finishing second in the category in 2016. If that's not enough evidence, the O-line is providing Big Ben with roughly the same amount of time in the pocket as last season (a 2.57-second average in 2017, compared to 2.59 last year).

To his credit, Roethlisberger knows that he hasn't played well and has pointed the finger at himself when citing reasons for the offense's early struggles.

"The quarterback needs to play better," Roethlisberger told reporters, via ESPN.com. "I didn't play well enough to win. We lost the game because of me, because I didn't play well enough. It's not on anyone else. That's how I felt, that's what you've got to do is you've got to own it. And I'll own it.

"If I play better in that game, I feel we win the game. If I play better in the first two weeks, then we're going to score more points and we're going to have a productive offense and we don't have to answer questions about why our offense isn't where it is."

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it is obvious Big Ben is forcing the ball to Brown in critical situations. He has thrown the ball to his WR1 with as many as three defenders in close proximity. Although Brown has made him right -- as evidenced by this catch in Cleveland -- the uptick in hero throws has disrupted the rhythm and flow of Pittsburgh's passing game.

"Sometimes there are guys that might be open where I quickly go to AB," Roethlisberger said. "I need to reel myself in and just take what the defense gives us, give us the best play possible, not just the best guy possible. ... It's not about a No. 3 or establishing guys. We're going to rotate guys in. We have enough weapons that we can do that. I just need to be better at getting guys involved."

Yes, Big Ben needs to play "connect the dots" football from the pocket and let Pittsburgh's superior talent take over on the perimeter. But the Steelers also need the best running back in the game to get back to being a dominant force in the backfield. Bell has rushed for just 180 yards on 52 carries (3.5 yards per attempt) with one total touchdown. He doesn't have a run over 15 yards.

While I initially attributed Bell's slow start to shaking the rush off after skipping training camp and the preseason, I'm beginning to worry that the Pro Bowl runner has lost some of his juice as a playmaker. In 2017, Bell has run with blocked boxes (more offensive blockers than defenders within the tackle box) on 32.5 percent of his rushing attempts (most in the NFL), but he is only averaging 3.23 yards per carry on those runs. For comparison's sake, Bell ran against blocked boxes on 26.7 percent of his rushing attempts in 2016 and logged a 6.2-yard average. Given Bell's decline in production, I initially wondered if the O-line was struggling at the point of attack. But according to Next Gen Stats, Bell is spending just as much time behind the line of scrimmage (3.06 seconds, compared to 3.07 seconds in 2016) with his deliberate running style, so it's not like the defense is immediately on top of him this fall.

When I looked at Bell's game tape, I saw a rusty runner who's a little out of rhythm when it comes to hitting holes. Bell is a split-second late getting to his back-side cuts -- and that moment of hesitancy is allowing defenders to corral him before he can get going. Although every successful runner in the business will tell you that he needs a heavy workload to get into a rhythm, Bell has had plenty of attempts to find his groove over the past two games with marginal success (42 rushes for 148 yards).

As a franchise runner earning more than $12 million this year, Bell has to start delivering the goods to help the Pittsburgh offense get back on track.

Overall, the Steelers remain the scariest offense in football -- on paper -- but it's time for each of their stars to play like difference makers. Brown has held up his end of the deal -- let's see if Big Ben and Bell will join him to spark an offensive revival in the Steel City. How about starting this Sunday against the hated Ravens?

HYBRIDS: A model for Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen and Alvin Kamara

If I were an NFL offensive coordinator looking to transform a multi-purpose weapon into a star, I'd lock myself in the film room and study how Andy Reid has transformed Tyreek Hill into an explosive playmaking machine in Kansas City.

The 2016 Pro Bowl returner has quickly become one of the league's most dynamic offensive players due to a carefully crafted plan that allows Hill to touch the ball as a runner or receiver from anywhere on the field. Although he is listed as the Chiefs' WR1 and spends the majority of his time out wide or in the slot as a pass catcher, the former college running back boasts a unique set of skills that allows him to terrorize defenses as a hybrid player on the perimeter.

The Chiefs immediately began to tap into Hill's versatility during his rookie campaign of 2016, when they gave him 138 touches on a variety of runs (24 rushing attempts), receptions (61 catches) and returns (39 punt returns and 14 kick returns). He converted those attempts into 12 touchdowns and 1,836 all-purpose yards. Keep in mind, Hill lined up on offense on just 401 of a possible 990 offensive plays last season, with the bulk of his work done out wide (207 snaps on the outside of formation) or in the slot (163 snaps) as the team's No. 3 receiver.

Although few envisioned Hill making such an immediate impact on the offense when he was selected with the No. 165 overall pick in the 2016 draft (thanks in part to off-field domestic violence issues), Reid and his staff quickly recognized the rookie's offensive potential and moved him around to create opportunities for him to touch the ball as a runner-receiver on the perimeter.

"He was a running back (in college) that they kind of moved around a little bit," Reid told reporters, via ESPN, at the Annual League Meeting in Phoenix this past offseason. "His routes when he first came were kind of raw. They weren't as disciplined as they need to be in this offense. So much of this offense is timing and being in a certain spot and knowing defenses, knowing secondaries and all that, how you're going to make adjustments. That was all new. He is a smart kid. He picked it up so fast, and he was able to play at our level."

In Kansas City, Hill's rapid development encouraged Reid to feature him prominently in the passing game as a WR1 this season. But observers around the league, particularly coaches with deficiencies at key playmaking spots who have a hybrid player on the roster, should look at how the Chiefs deploy their explosive playmaker (and De'Anthony Thomas) to add some creativity to their own offensive playbooks.

Looking at the current NFL landscape, I believe there are three rookie running backs -- Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, Chicago's Tarik Cohen and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara -- with the explosive athleticism and versatile prowess to thrive as designated playmakers in their respective offenses. Most importantly, they each have the ability to fill a huge void in the passing game as a dynamic playmaker with mismatch potential.

Before we dig deeper into how each can impact his team's passing game, we should look at how all three are already contributing as hybrids:

-- Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers: 25 rushes for 73 rushing yards; 18 receptions for 173 receiving yards.

-- Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears: 30 rushes for 181 rushing yards; 24 receptions for 150 receiving yards and a touchdown.

-- Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: 10 rushes for 58 rushing yards; 10 receptions for 76 receiving yards.

In today's game, running backs are the easiest mismatch players to feature in the game plan. They are capable of impacting the game from traditional spots or they can be used out wide or in the slot to exploit an overmatched linebacker or safety in space. With K.C. electing to move on from its previous WR1 (Jeremy Maclin) in June, the Chiefs have been able to lean on their young star's versatility as a runner-receiver to create splash plays on the perimeter.

In Carolina, the Panthers want to use a similar tactic to add some spice to an offense that misses Greg Olsen as he recovers from a broken foot. This loss threatens to put the full offensive burden on Cam Newton's shoulders, but the quarterback is still recovering from ailments of his own. Despite McCaffrey's resume as a high-volume runner at Stanford, he was viewed as the best slot receiver in the draft after scouts watched him showcase his strong hands and precise route-running skills in pre-draft workouts. He has certainly exhibited those qualities throughout the preseason and the Panthers' first three games.

With Olsen sidelined, it might be time for the team to utilize McCaffrey extensively as a pass catcher to add some juice to the aerial attack. Whether the rookie's running swing routes from the backfield or option routes from the slot, the Panthers need to put their most explosive offensive weapon in a position to touch the rock 15-20 times each game to increase their overall scoring output.

Based on offensive coordinator Mike Shula's creativity in the past, I would expect to see No. 22 used on more jet sweeps and traditional runs (power) to take advantage of his spectacular running skills. At wide receiver, McCaffrey is certainly polished enough to run most of the routes in the route tree from the slot or out wide. If the Panthers use more empty formations to force linebackers to check the slippery running back in space, McCaffrey could carry the load as the team's top playmaker.

In Chicago, Cohen has already created some buzz as the electric change-of-pace back with outstanding speed, wiggle and burst. As a polished route runner and dynamic ball carrier, he creates problems for opponents when aligned as a halfback in the Bears' shotgun formations, particularly in 3x1 sets with him positioned to or away from the three-receiver side. He is savvy enough to use his fellow receivers to create picks or rubs against his assigned defender, which leads to big plays when the opponent is in man coverage.

As the Bears look for more ways to utilize Cohen's talents, they could steal a page from the Chiefs' playbook and use some misdirection plays in the backfield to get him to the second level as a runner. But the Bears really should consider using Cohen as a quasi-receiver to compensate for their lack of weapons out wide. The North Carolina A&T product is not only a polished route runner, but he is a speedster capable of taking the top off coverage with his explosiveness. The Bears can take advantage of his talents by splitting him out wide and targeting him on a variety of isolation routes (go routes or post routes) against favorable coverages.

Down in New Orleans, Kamara started this season stuck behind a pair of veteran running backs, but he's beginning to get more opportunities as a change-of-pace player in the backfield. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound hybrid has flashed big-play potential as a runner and receiver, which is critical for an offense that lacks "field flippers" on the outside. Sure, Willie Snead's return will help the unit generate more explosive plays, but Kamara can add some sizzle to an offense that still misses Brandin Cooks' electric playmaking ability on the outside.

Think of it this way: Kamara has delivered two explosive plays (20-plus yards) in 20 touches and shows home run ability whenever he touches the ball. Thus, the Saints would be wise to feature him more prominently. Looking at how the Chiefs initially used Hill as a rookie, I believe Sean Payton could certainly draw up more empty formations with Kamara aligned out wide. With the potent playmaker positioned in space against an overmatched linebacker, Drew Brees could use the rookie as a sneaky vertical threat in the passing game.

REDSKINS' D: Greg Manusky makes instant impact with flexible approach

When new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky promised the Washington Redskins would "beat the crap out of a lot of people" during an interview with the team website in the offseason, I thought it was simply bluster from a coach attempting to fire up a rabid fan base.

Now, I certainly have a great deal of respect for my former teammate's football acumen, based on our time together on the Kansas City Chiefs (1997-98), but I questioned whether he could quickly build a championship-caliber defense in the nation's capital with a number of rookies and newcomers joining a cast of veterans on an underachieving unit that ranked 28th in total defense a season ago.

To my surprise, the Redskins' D not only looks new and improved, but the unit has the potential to emerge as the bully on the block in the NFC by the end of the season. From the ultra-athletic front seven that features a pair of Pro Bowlers (Ryan Kerrigan and Zach Brown) to an opportunistic secondary built around the playmaking talents of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Josh Norman), the 'Skins have blue-chip players at every level of the defense. In addition, the defense has a number of intriguing free-agent additions (D.J. Swearinger and Stacy McGee), rookies (Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Fabian Moreau) and holdovers (Kendall Fuller) with the athleticism and attitude to make differences as key contributors in a role-specific defense.

I attended Washington's Week 2 win over the Rams. And as I studied the Redskins' defensive personnel from my press box seat at the L.A. Coliseum, I was impressed with their overall team speed and energetic playing style. The unit sprinted to the ball with reckless abandon while displaying the physicality and toughness that's typically associated with elite defenses. The Redskins' strong defensive performance -- against what is a surprisingly explosive Rams offense -- caught my eye. Thus, I made it a point to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to get a better feel for what they were doing.

From a schematic standpoint, Washington used a traditional 3-4 front on early downs against the Rams, but jumped into a versatile 2-4-5 (2 DL, 4 LB, 5 DB) with Matt Ioannidis (or Ziggy Hood) and Jonathan Allen aligned as defensive tackles. This enables Kerrigan and Preston Smith to become quarterback hunters from a three-point stance instead of dropping one of the outside linebackers into coverage. In addition, it puts Fuller on the field as a slot corner to better match up with the "11" personnel grouping (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) opponents are trotting out on a regular basis in 2017.

Interestingly, the Redskins blitzed a lot against the Rams, but played off coverage or zone-blitz coverage behind it (three under, three deep). Last season, Redskins defenders griped about wanting to play more press coverage, yet they have excelled in 2017 playing from distance with vision on the quarterback. When I asked Manusky about playing more off and zone coverage, he told me that it's "too hard" to play press extensively in today's game. Plus, the increased usage of zone or off coverage gives defenders a better opportunity to get interceptions off tips and overthrows due to their eyes being on the quarterback more.

To that point, the coverage is always enhanced by a strong pass rush -- and the Redskins have shown the ability to generate pressure using a straight four-man rush or by bringing extra defenders on a variety of blitzes to create one-on-one opportunities at the line of scrimmage. Prior to Week 3, the Redskins called pressures with at least five pass rushers on 44.4 percent of their defensive snaps -- the fourth-highest figure in the NFL, well above the league's 27.5 percent average. While the added pressure didn't necessarily translate into sack production, the constant harassment combined with consistent "over the top" coverage has helped the Redskins keep the big plays to a minimum.

With all that in mind, I expected to pop in the tape of the Redskins' dominant performance against the Raiders this past Sunday and see a barrage of blitzes and zone dogs thrown at Derek Carr. But no -- I didn't see many exotic pressures on tape. The Redskins primarily rushed four defenders and dropped seven guys into coverage with their eyes on the quarterback. Washington blitzed on just 8.6 percent of its defensive snaps against Oakland. This strategy drastically differed from what the 'Skins had shown previously, but it was sensible, based on the Raiders' quick-rhythm passing game and Carr's quick release. By instructing his defenders to sit in zones (Cover 2-Clamp or Cover 3) with their eyes on the thrower, Manusky helped his guys play faster and more aggressive against a team that wanted to chew up yardage on a variety of catch-and-run concepts on the outside.

The Redskins also used some man coverage (Cover 1), with the corners toggling between off and press techniques. The off technique was particularly effective when the defenders sat at the sticks on second- or third-and-long situations. With the Redskins mixing in a fair amount of single-high safety zones (Cover 3 or Zone Dogs), the unorthodox look clouded the picture for the Raiders' quarterback and receivers, leading to hesitation and indecision on the perimeter.

Most defensive play callers are afraid to change their game plan from week to week, but Manusky's approach speaks volumes about his tactical versatility and the diverse games of his top players. The Redskins' defensive architect emphasized communication repeatedly after his promotion, and getting his troops to buy into the notion of being on the same page every play gives Manusky the flexibility to attack opponents with different looks each week.

Washington's hustle and solid tackling also pop off the tape. The 'Skins routinely have 11 guys running to the football with proper leverage on the ball carrier. Considering the correlation between missed tackles and big plays, the Redskins' willingness to run, rally and tackle is a big part of why this defense is currently the No. 5 unit in the NFL. And this defense is a big reason why Monday night's Redskins-Chiefs game in Kansas City looks so enticing.

When Manusky was promoted to from outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in January, it didn't register a blip on the national radar. But the wily play caller is quickly putting together a defense that could tip the balance of power in the NFC East.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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