Marcus Peters' woes with Rams; Josh Gordon now Patriots' WR1

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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:

-- The Patriots have a new No. 1 pass catcher.

-- Bruce Irvin gives the Falcons exactly what they need to make a run.

But first, a look at why a star player is struggling so much in his debut season with his new team ...

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What's wrong with Marcus Peters? That's the million-dollar question floating around Los Angeles, with the two-time Pro Bowler coming off a handful of subpar performances, including a dismal showing against Michael Thomas. Peters looked completely overmatched against the Saints star -- and appears lost at times in the Rams' scheme. This is certainly not what the football world expected when L.A. acquired the 25-year-old CB (and a 2018 sixth-round pick) from the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick.

How can a fourth-year pro with a resume that already includes a Defensive Rookie of the Year award, a first-team All-Pro nod and 20 career interceptions fail to fit into a system run by Wade Phillips, one of the top defensive minds in football?

"He's being asked to play a style that doesn't fit his skill set," a former Pro Bowl cornerback familiar with Peters' game and the Rams' scheme told me. "He is a zone corner who needs to play off, clue the quarterback and jump routes. He's a smart player with terrific instincts and ball skills, but he's not able to put those traits into practice because he's playing more press coverage and spending most of his time at the line of scrimmage."

To that point, Peters is indeed widely viewed as an instinctive playmaker at the position in football circles. Coaches rave about his ball skills and diagnostic ability. When he's locked in and focused, No. 22 is one of the best in the business at reading routes on the perimeter and aggressively breaking on throws based on clues from the quarterback or wide receiver. Peters has mastered "key the three" technique (defensive backs will anticipate routes based on the quarterback's drop) and has a keen understanding of hash-split rules (defensive backs anticipate wide receivers' routes based on alignment in relation to where the ball is positioned on a hash), which has played a huge role in his success as a playmaker.

Studying the All-22 tape from Peters' time in Kansas City and Los Angeles, I can confirm that he has always been at his best when he sits off at a distance and reads routes. Although he is a bit of a risk taker on the perimeter, Peters is a calculated gambler who jumps routes based on clues gathered from film study. His uncanny ability to squat on short and intermediate routes makes him susceptible to double moves, but it also results in a lot of interceptions and pass breakups.

That said, Peters is not a "shutdown corner" in the truest sense of the term. He is relatively capable of playing bump-and-run coverage on the perimeter, but he doesn't possess elite speed and his lack of eye discipline can result in some ugly plays. In addition, Peters appears to have some communication problems with his new teammates and this uncertainty has been costly in key moments.

"Peters was a great prospect coming out of school, but I wondered about his ability to focus as a No. 1 corner," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He's smart, tough and talented, but I don't know if he has the mental stamina needed to be a shutdown corner. He appears to have concentration lapses when I look at him on tape.

"If I'm the Rams, I would try to put him back into his comfort zone this year, but I don't know if he is a long-term answer for them as a top corner."

With L.A.'s other marquee CB acquisition (Aqib Talib) sidelined by an ankle injury, Peters' struggles have been amplified. Outwardly, though, the team remains confident he can man the No. 1 spot on the defensive perimeter.

"I think the biggest thing is, each situation based on the coverage, what is his responsibility within the framework of that call? What are we asking of him? He's a guy that we have a lot of confidence in," McVay said Monday during his press conference, via USA Today. "In a lot of instances, he's isolated one-on-one with the other team's best receiver and that's come up throughout various times this season. There's going to be an element of, those great players will make some of their plays. I think the standards that Marcus has for himself, that we have for him, we expect him to play and make some of those plays."

To that point, the Rams believe Peters can help himself by paying greater attention to detail and focusing on the fundamentals.

"I think the biggest thing -- especially with just defense in general, with a team like [New Orleans], that does such a great job changing up their tempos, personnel groupings, putting different players in a variety of different spots -- it's just getting the call in, getting our cleats in the grass, being ready to go and lock in and play with the proper technique with our alignment, our assignment and just the fundamentals," McVay said, while reflecting on the loss to the Saints. "When he does that, you can see there's some great examples of being on the screws, looking like an elite-type player and that's really defense in general because it's so reactionary driven."

I would expect the Rams to tweak some things to help Peters rediscover his swagger and playmaking ability. Phillips will likely approach his star corner and ask him how he can put him in his comfort zone.

"The best part about him is the accountability that he took afterwards," McVay said. "The first thing he's going to do is look inward and figure out what he can do to be better. We still have a lot of confidence in him. It's a collaborative effort as coaches and as players for us all as a team to try to do things that are conducive for putting our players in good spots from a coaching standpoint. Then, the players to be able to go execute it. Whether it's Marcus or anybody -- offense, defense, special teams -- those are the expectations. With a good player and a productive player that's had as much success as he has had and the confidence we have in him, we trust that he'll improve."

With the Rams' defense appearing vulnerable in a shootout with a top contender -- New Orleans handed Los Angeles its first loss of the season, after all -- the team has to find a way to help Peters rediscover his mojo down the stretch. Considering the strengths of the cornerback's game prior to his arrival in Los Angeles, I believe Phillips should give Peters the green light to use "off" technique in man and zone coverage. He's at his best when he can sit off and read routes at a distance, relying on his eyes and natural instincts to make plays.

DEZ BRYANT JOINS SAINTS: Will he push them over the top?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published prior to the news that the Saints fear Bryant suffered a torn Achilles during practice on Friday.

The New Orleans Saints' decision this week to add Dez Bryant to a roster loaded with offensive playmakers raised plenty of eyebrows in league circles, but it's the kind of transaction that could help the team hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl LIII.

I know that statement might take some by surprise -- based on my previous comments regarding Bryant and his declining game -- but I really believe No. 88 could be the X-factor that pushes the Saints over the top. Although NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reports that Bryant is unlikely to take the field in this Sunday's game at Cincinnati, his eventual incorporation looms larger than many seem to think.

Despite questions about Bryant's speed, explosiveness and route-running skills, I think the three-time Pro Bowler can still be a legitimate threat on the perimeter. As a 6-foot-2, 220-pound pass catcher with a rugged game built on strength, power and physicality, Bryant excels at winning 50-50 balls down the field. He has a knack for creating space with subtle push-offs and rip-through maneuvers that help him snag back-shoulder fades along the boundary. In addition, Bryant has an outstanding combination of leaping ability and hand-eye coordination that results in spectacular plays in the red zone.

Since 2012, Bryant ranks second in the NFL in touchdown receptions with 58, trailing only Antonio Brown (67). That's despite the fact that Dez has yet to play a snap this season. This speaks volumes about his ability to put the ball in the paint as a red-zone weapon.

Evaluating Bryant's most recent work on the All-22 Coaches Film, I saw a guy who was still an effective playmaker on the perimeter last season. The freshly minted 30-year-old is at his best running in-breaking routes (slants and digs) or isolation routes down the boundary, particularly back-shoulder fades. Although he wasn't creating as much separation in recent years as he did during his prime, Bryant consistently won in the red zone, relying on his size, strength and leaping ability to beat tight coverage on fades and slants inside the 10-yard line.

Check the stats from his past two seasons: Despite widespread chatter on his decline, Bryant still scored 14 touchdowns in 29 games. And in 2017, Bryant was one of the most effective wide receivers on tight-window targets, according to Next Gen Stats. Dez posted the fifth-highest passer rating (88.2) on tight-window targets (1 yard or less of separation) with a 4:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio (the top figure among the 40 wide receivers with 20-plus tight-window targets last year). Granted, 29.5 percent of his targets fell within the tight-window category -- more than all but nine wide receivers with 50-plus targets -- but Bryant's continued success coming down with 50-50 balls cannot be dismissed.

In New Orleans, Bryant joins the perfect team to exploit his skill set, due to the presence of an elite quarterback with incredible accuracy and a creative play caller with a proven track record of maximizing the talents of his top playmakers.

Drew Brees is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history. In fact, he very well could be the most accurate passer ever. Brees currently leads the league with a mind-bending 76.3 percent completion rate. And this comes right on the heels of Brees' spectacular 2017 campaign, when he set a new single-season record for completion percentage (72.0). Quarterbacks have posted a completion percentage of 70-plus nine times in league history, and four of those have come via Brees. The 39-year-old passer rarely misses the mark and continues to display extraordinary awareness when it comes to throwing receivers open, particularly on seam routes along the hash or fades down the sidelines.

Brees' 68.6 passer rating on tight-window targets ranks fourth in the NFL this season among quarterbacks with at least 25 tight-window attempts, according to Next Gen Stats. Given Bryant's uncanny ability to come down with contested catches and Brees' pinpoint accuracy, it is easy to envision this connection prospering in New Orleans.

"Dez has been a really good player in this league for a long time and there's certainly a skill set he has that is going to be beneficial," Brees said this week. "I look forward to working with him. I look forward to building a rapport with him. I look forward to getting him involved in this offense and just [becoming] a complement to all the guys that we already have."

Keep Brees' sentiments in mind, because it is important to remember Bryant isn't going to be asked to play the lead role in this offense. The Saints have some of the NFL's top weapons in place at wide receiver and running back, so Dez can blend in and play his part on an attack that can morph from power to finesse at the drop of a dime.

At his best, Bryant is probably the third or fourth option in this lineup, particularly with Michael Thomas emerging as an elite WR1 (266 receptions since 2016, most in the NFL) and Alvin Kamara scoring points like a pinball machine (26 scrimmage touchdowns since 2017, second-most in NFL). With Mark Ingram also contributing as a consistent scorer (35 rushing touchdowns since 2014, second-most in this span), Bryant should be able to nicely settle into his role as a WR2 opposite Thomas.

That's why I'm all in on this move -- particularly with Sean Payton drawing up plays to help No. 88 add a dimension to his offense. The crafty head coach is arguably the best play designer in the business, with a keen understanding of how to create mismatches for his top playmakers through scheming. Payton will take a few weeks to determine Bryant's strengths and weaknesses, eventually forming a defined role for him as a situational playmaker.

"You know in our system that we'll play guys outside," Payton told reporters on a conference call. "We'll play guys inside. Mike Thomas is an 'X.' He's outside split end and then he will play in the slot and we will move guys around. The key is what they're doing and what we're asking them to do. You've seen that, I think, with him (primarily being on the outside in Dallas). We're not going to move him all over the formation in the first three weeks, four weeks he's here. We'll build on that much like we've done with any player."

From a strategic standpoint, I believe Bryant will play on the outside but also move into the slot in various packages. He is a big-bodied pass catcher capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes if he is put in a position to avoid bump-and-run coverage at the line of scrimmage. Looking back at the Saints' offenses from previous years, the team routinely used a big player on the inside to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Marques Colston spent a decade occupying that role -- now Bryant can assume it.

"Payton loves to use big slot receivers," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He will put a big body inside to expand the strike zone for the quarterback and create a mismatch against linebackers and nickel corners. ... Linebackers lack the speed and athleticism to contain big slot receivers and nickel corners are too little to deal with their physicality. With Bryant, Payton will probably use him like a tight end and allow him to work the seams against linebackers."

We've seen plenty of teams use older receivers with exceptional size in the slot to take advantage of their playmaking skills (SEE: Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), including the Saints with Thomas. With Bryant coming on board, New Orleans has interchangeable pieces on the perimeter to exploit potential mismatches when opponents elect to double-team Thomas or Kamara in the passing game.

"It works together," Payton said on the conference call. "If the safeties are [leaning] to Mike, then there's going to be some opportunities for guys like Tre'Quan (Smith). We have seen that now in the last three or four weeks. Tight ends (it helps). It's just a matter of whether the lean's going. The other day, the double came down on Kamara and Mike was left (open). Drew found him on that touchdown pass, the long one. So it's just an option opposite of where you might line up Mike Thomas or opposite of where Kamara might be -- and it's someone that you know can give you tough contested catches if you feel like that there is more attention to Mike's side."

The Saints didn't necessarily need Bryant on the roster to make a legitimate run at the title, but the addition of a trusty veteran always comes in handy down the stretch. I watched Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf repeatedly add veterans to the roster midway through the season to fortify the Green Bay Packers' rosters during their playoff runs (SEE: Andre Rison in the 1996 Super Bowl season). These moves are designed to help the team make a critical play in a key game.

In New Orleans, the Saints aren't counting on Bryant to be a Pro Bowl-caliber WR1 -- they are hoping the veteran can make a few plays down the stretch to push them over the top. If Dez throws up the "X" in a playoff win, the move is fully validated for Payton and the Saints.

TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL

1) Josh Gordon has quietly become New England's top pass catcher. That doesn't mean TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman aren't key cogs in the team's offense, but No. 10 is the straw that stirs the drink in this passing game. The troubled-but-talented wide receiver is coming off his second 100-yard game in three weeks, and he's been targeted 31 times in the Patriots' last four games.

Gordon is averaging 18.0 yards per catch on the season (23 catches for 413 yards) with three touchdowns and five receptions of 20-plus yards. Considering his lack of consistent football activity over the past five seasons and his inexperience in New England's offense, Gordon's spectacular production speaks volumes about his immense talent and impact on this receiving corps.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound veteran is a big, athletic pass catcher with strong hands and a rugged running style. Still just 27 years old, Gordon expands the strike zone for the quarterback with his large catch radius and routinely hauls in 50-50 balls down the field. In addition, he is a dependable target between the hashes on slants and digs. Given that Tom Brady prefers to work primarily from numbers to numbers at short and intermediate range, Gordon gives the New England another option to rely on in critical situations (third down and red zone).

Gordon has picked up the Patriots' complicated system, which features a myriad of pre- and post-snap adjustments for wide receivers, at a remarkably fast pace. New England pass catchers are expected to make "conversions" (adjust route based on defensive coverage) on the fly, and it is hard to master the scheme without a full offseason of work to grasp the concepts.

"He's come in and worked extremely hard to do that," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said during a conference call this week, via Mass Live. "I don't think there's any shortcut. When you come in to a new place kind of midstream, there's no shortcuts to try and learn the nuances and intricacies of somebody's system."

To that point, Gordon has made tremendous progress since being acquired from the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. After starting out in a bit role for the Patriots, he has become the team's top playmaker on the outside.

"Ultimately, his performance out there on the field -- good, bad or indifferent -- he's learning from every rep that we take in practice and in the games," McDaniels said on the call. "With all of those reps and all of that experience gained comes some confidence -- and with confidence, I think you can improve your performance."

With Brady becoming increasingly comfortable targeting Gordon on the perimeter, the Patriots have been able to lean on a former All-Pro to anchor the passing game as Gronk deals with various ailments. If and when No. 87 returns to full strength, the Patriots' offense could be unstoppable with a pair of legitimate No. 1 playmakers on the field at the same time.

2) Bruce Irvin is poised to make an impact in Atlanta. It's uncommon for a team to improve in the middle of the season by simply picking up a veteran cast-off in the free-agent market, but the Falcons just took a significant step forward in cementing themselves as legitimate contenders with the signing of Bruce Irvin.

Now, I know the veteran pass rusher was criticized for his effort and production at the end of his run with the Oakland Raiders, but reuniting with his former defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn) in a scheme that perfectly suits his talents could reignite Atlanta's pass rush.

"He's a real competitor," Quinn said, via the team website. "That point -- he has real energy and toughness and that second effort, the finishing part of it, is always going to be at hand. To add another guy with his speed and toughness into this group, he fits all the traits that we're looking for in our defense. It's an excellent addition for this defense."

Quinn is right. Irvin is a fantastic addition to a unit that's loaded with athletic playmakers at every level. Although he is a little older (31) and no longer the supreme athlete who entered the NFL as the 15th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Irvin still flashes the first-step quickness and burst to turn the corner on pass rush attempts. At the end of the day, Atlanta added a veteran pass rusher with 40 career sacks and 15 forced fumbles to a defense in desperate need of a sack artist to help the Falcons sneak into the playoffs.

Studying the All-22 tape of Irvin from earlier in the season, I was impressed with his get-off, balance and body control. He is not only still capable of blowing by blockers with a speed rush, but he also incorporates an effective dip-and-rip maneuver and a flashy spin move. While Raider Nation questioned Irvin's effort, particularly at the end of his Oakland tenure, I believe he remains a high-motor guy who plays with the kind of reckless abandon that typically results in garbage sacks.

In Atlanta, Irvin will crack the rotation as a nickel rusher opposite Vic Beasley. Despite their similarities as speed rushers, Irvin should complement Beasley nicely on passing downs. Irvin's ability to turn the corner in a hurry will flush some quarterbacks into Beasley's waiting arms. In addition, Irvin's presence off the edge will enable Quinn to lean on a deeper rotation against the pass-heavy teams in the NFC.

No one in Atlanta forgets the pass rush's meltdown in Super Bowl LI. Thus, the Falcons want to make sure they have enough bodies to throw at the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins and others in a potential playoff run. With Irvin joining Beasley, Takk McKinley and Grady Jarrett as pass-rushing specialists, Atlanta can throw a number of fastball pitchers at opponents to wear them down.

The NFL's dramatic shift to the air has made it imperative for contenders to have a bullpen full of pass rushers at their disposal. The Falcons are certainly in the game with Irvin joining the squad as a closer.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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