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:
-- A blueprint for how to get the most out of one of the league's promising young passers.
-- The defensive player making a strong case for MVP front-runner status.
-- An emerging star who deserves your attention.
But first, a look at the surprisingly quiet start for a player who's made lot of noise for a long time ...
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That question might seem out of line, based on the six-time Pro Bowler's status as arguably the best wide receiver in the game, but something isn't right with No. 84's production for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite receiving the second-most targets (42) in the league through the first three weeks of action, Brown ranked 30th in receiving yards (210) with only two receptions of at least 20 yards. He is averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch (8.8; well below his career average of 13.4) and looks nothing like the impact player who compiled five straight seasons with 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards.
It's pretty simple. The Steelers have a new offensive coordinator (Randy Fichtner) who is still figuring out how to put his stamp on the offense while incorporating all of the weaponry on the perimeter. And the offense misses the presence of Le'Veon Bell in the lineup. I'm sure the analytics crowd will take me to task for my last comment, but defensive coordinators play the Steelers differently when No. 26 is not on the field.
Sure, the Steelers' offense isn't exactly suffering without Bell. In fact, Pittsburgh is averaging more points per game with James Conner as the RB1 this season (29.3) than it did with Bell in 2017 (25.2). However, the loss of the ultimate weapon in the backfield allows opponents to play more two-deep and bracket coverages with double teams directed toward Brown. Opponents are willing to live with Conner and others getting their yards on the perimeter while limiting AB's big-play chances.
"Teams are willing to let those other guys have big days if they can contain Brown," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "They're willing to gamble the other guys won't produce enough big plays to impact the game. It doesn't always work, but you take your chances with the others to keep No. 84 in check."
To that point, it isn't a coincidence that James (22.8 yards per catch) and McDonald (19.7 YPC) are putting up big numbers working the middle of the field. They are winning their 1-on-1 matchups and Ben Roethlisberger is leaning on other guys when the coverage forces the ball away from Brown.
Don't believe me? How else do you explain the Steelers' tight ends more than doubling their average for yards per catch from last season? Teams are opening up the middle of the field to make sure Brown doesn't get free releases on the outside. In addition, opposing defensive coordinators are positioning a safety over the top of Brown to limit his big-play chances when playing man coverage against the Steelers.
That brings me back to the team's new play caller and how Fichtner is tailoring the offense to suit his tastes. Under the previous offensive coordinator (Todd Haley), the Steelers were viewed as an unimaginative squad, but his system featured a number of unique crossing routes and scatter concepts from bunch formations. Haley got the ball to Brown on the run while also mixing in some vertical shots to take advantage of his burst and acceleration. He also fed him repeatedly on a variety of WR screens designed to get him easy touches on the perimeter to keep him engaged while also tapping into his exceptional running skills.
With Fichtner at the helm, the Steelers have continued to put the ball in Brown's hands on screens and quick routes, but the team hasn't been able to get him untracked in the vertical game. Naturally, the opponents' decision to take away the deep ball with two-deep coverage and bracket tactics makes it harder to get it to him down the field, but a creative play caller will find a way to push the ball down the field through clever scheming.
That said, the Steelers need to run the ball a little more to create some chances to throw deep off play-action. The threat of a strong running game forces defensive coordinators to drop a defender in the box, which leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities on the outside. While Conner has shown flashes of being a productive runner, the play caller's trust in the quarterback could prompt him to lean too heavily on the pass. Without a balanced approach, the defense can pick and choose when they want to load zones to Brown's side to make him a non-factor in the passing game.
Overall, it really boils down to Fichtner and Roethlisberger finding ways to get AB the ball without force-feeding him the ball. The team can certainly script several designed touches in the game plan to keep Brown engaged. It might take a designated coach to keep up with the all-world receiver's touches, but having someone on the sideline with a running tally could help Fichtner remember to periodically toss the ball out to Brown.
"You have to get the ball to your stars throughout the game or they will check out when you need them," a former NFL offensive coordinator told me. "Someone needs to keep up with the touch count and routinely remind the play caller when a star goes a few series without a touch. We've always done it that way and you have to do it with today's kids to keep them locked in. ... If they don't touch the ball early, they could have a tough time leaning on him in the fourth quarter. ... You have to keep them into the game."
Pittsburgh can also explore moving Brown around more to take advantage of potential holes in coverage. Whether it's putting him in the slot or motioning him out of the backfield to disrupt the defense's double-team tactics, if the Steelers throw in a few new routes with Brown designated as the No. 1 option in the progression, the Steelers' WR1 could get into a groove.
If the Steelers want to get the best out of Brown in the near future, they must create better opportunities for their star wideout with better scheming and routinely scripted touches on game day.
JOSH ROSEN'S DEBUT: How Cards can help rookie excel
It's about time!
That's what Arizona Cardinals fans should have chanted when No. 3 jogged onto the field with about four minutes left in the team's Week 3 game against the Chicago Bears. Sure, Rosen only completed four of seven passes for 36 yards with an interception, but the rookie got a taste of the speed and tempo of an NFL regular-season game. Considering he is set to make his first start Sunday against Seattle, the chance to get live reps in a critical situation should help him hit the ground running when he takes the field as the Cardinals' QB1.
Think about it this way: Rosen got a chance to run onto the field in a fourth-quarter-comeback scenario with limited practice reps under his belt. He was on the field for two drives (11 plays) and moved the ball a total of 36 yards. Although he tossed an interception on fourth-and-5 with a chance to move the team into field-goal range, Rosen connected on three spot-on throws (two hinge routes and a middle-hook route) during his initial drive that showcased his potential as a rhythm passer.
With that in mind, I believe Arizona can build a game plan around Rosen's talents that not only allows him to find his groove as a young QB1, but one that helps the team jump-start an offense that's been sputtering for three weeks.
Naturally, the Cardinals should focus their efforts on getting the ball to David Johnson in a variety of ways to alleviate the pressure on Rosen. A fourth-year pro, Johnson is one of the most explosive playmakers in the league and his versatility as an RB1 should result in 20-plus touches each week. To this point, Johnson has only averaged 14.7 touches per game in 2018. His lack of involvement is surprising based on his transcendent 2016 campaign, when he finished with 20-plus touches in 12 of 16 games. Considering he nearly became a 1,000/1,000 club member during that season, the Cardinals should make a more concerted effort to feed him the ball with Rosen under center.
In the passing game, the Cardinals should feature more quick throws and intermediate passes. Rosen was an outstanding rhythm passer at UCLA, and he was at his best during the preseason executing quick-rhythm plays with one or two easily defined reads in the progression. These concepts get the ball out of the young passer's hands quickly and reduce his exposure to big hits behind a shaky offensive line. Given the Cardinals' suspect blocking, the decision to build around rhythm throws should be a starting point for any game plan with this rookie QB in mind.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the preseason, Rosen was at his best making quick-rhythm throws, particularly quick outs, speed outs and curls/hinge routes. Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 of the preseason, Rosen repeatedly fired darts to his playmakers on throws outside of the numbers. He not only threw with excellent zip and velocity, but he also dropped dimes on a handful of passes that required outstanding touch, timing and anticipation. On seam passes, in particular, Rosen's willingness to let the ball go before the receiver makes his break could add a big-play dimension to a Cardinals offense that's been lacking some sizzle.
With No. 3 in the lineup, the Cardinals should also consider using more play-action passes to create bigger windows down the field. If the Cardinals use the threat of Johnson's explosiveness as a runner, the rookie passer should be able to exploit the open windows behind the linebackers on seams, digs and deep crossers at 15-to-18 yards. In addition, the Cardinals need to use Johnson on screens, swings and checkdowns to help the rookie get into a rhythm.
Plus, it is always a good idea to get the ball into the hands of one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league. Johnson can score from anywhere on the field, and the Cardinals should find a way to use deception and misdirection to help Rosen get the ball to his top playmaker in a variety of ways. In addition, the team needs to put Johnson in the slot and out wide to create some mismatches in the passing game. No. 31 spent just two snaps outside of the backfield in Week 3 after being used extensively as a pass catcher in 2016 (80 receptions on 120 targets).
With other teams employing empty formations to help young quarterbacks identify coverage, the Cardinals could use Johnson as a pawn on the chessboard to make it easy for Rosen to read, react and play faster from the pocket. Rosen's high football IQ was identified as one of his top traits as a prospect and the utilization of No. 31 as a movable chess piece will only help the young quarterback find his way as a new starter.
The final part of the Cardinals' new plan with Rosen should feature more opportunities for Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. The duo has been productive individually, but they haven't been able to impact the game simultaneously. Rosen would benefit from having a dependable 1-2 punch on the perimeter. That's why it is imperative for the coaching staff to come up with a plan to not only get Rosen in rhythm but to maximize the talents of top playmakers on the perimeter.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
I know we are only a few weeks into the season and a defender hasn't won the award since Lawrence Taylor claimed the honor in 1986, but Mack has been sensational since stepping onto the field with the Bears. He has registered at least one sack and a forced fumble in every contest while helping the Bears emerge as legitimate playoff contenders behind a top-five defense that could rank as the NFL's best by the end of the season.
The new Monsters of the Midway not only lead the NFL in sacks (14) but they rank in the top five in total defense (fifth, 289.0 yards per game) and rush defense (second, 65.3 YPG). Most importantly, they are tied for second in takeaways (eight). The Bears' defense was a top-10 unit a season ago, but Mack's arrival has helped it go from good to great in a hurry.
Now, I understand this was certainly the expectation when the Bears traded away a pair of first-round picks to acquire the disgruntled defender from the Oakland Raiders earlier this month, but he is looking like one of the league's biggest bargains even after signing a six-year, $141 million deal that is the richest ever for a defensive player.
When I study the All-22 Coaches Film, Mack's explosiveness and non-stop motor jump off the screen. The 6-foot-3, 252-pounder has always been a ferocious playmaker off the edge with a power-based game that overwhelms offensive tackles, but he's become a more refined and polished pass rusher in his fifth season. Mack will sprinkle in an inside spin move or a two-hand-swipe maneuver to a pass-rush arsenal that already features one of the most powerful one-hand stab (or long-arm moves) that you'll see in the NFL. With Mack also showcasing a devastating bull-rush maneuver and a hesitation speed rush, the Bears' new weapon is nearly unstoppable off the edge.
This is the type of performance you would expect from a defender with 44.5 sacks in 66 career games, but No. 52's impact on the Bears goes beyond his talent and production. Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio raved about Mack's attitude this week and made it a point to recognize him as a team guy when asked what he enjoys most about his new star.
"Well, his play, No. 1," Fangio told reporters. "But I think what I've enjoyed most about him is the guy does not have an ounce of prima donna in his body. He's a joy to be around. The other players like being around him. The coaches like being around him. Besides his talent and production, which everybody sees, he's really a breath of fresh air to be around, too, on a daily basis."
Fangio later added, "He's for the team. That stuff's contagious."
What more could you want? Mack has been a five-star playmaker on the field and an A-plus leader off the field. He has established a new standard of performance while also setting a positive example for his peers with his work ethic and selfless attitude. If MVPs are supposed to check off boxes as playmakers and leaders, Mack's three-game run should put him at the top of the list of candidates this season.
2) Xavien Howard is the NFL's best-kept secret: I don't know how many folks have been paying attention to No. 25 for the Miami Dolphins, but all of us in the football world should cast our eyes on him. Yes, cornerback Xavien Howard has quickly emerged as one of the league's premier defensive playmakers and it's time to give him props for his work.
Don't believe me? Just check out his stat sheet and you'll notice Howard has swiped seven interceptions in his last eight games, including a two-pick effort against the Oakland Raiders in Week 3 that showcased his superb ball skills, awareness and playmaking ability. The 6-foot-1, 192-pounder tracks the ball like an MLB center fielder while also displaying the quickness, athleticism and movement skills to play on the island.
Howard was a polarizing prospect in the 2016 draft class, but plenty of scouts expected him to emerge as a first-tier cornerback based on his stellar career at Baylor, where he excelled as a press corner. He routinely mauled opponents at the line of scrimmage, but showed enough instincts and awareness to shadow receivers all over the field using a variety of techniques. Although skeptics wondered if he possessed the discipline and overall explosiveness to blanket elite receivers on the perimeter, Howard's prototypical size and production (nine interceptions and 23 pass breakups over his final two seasons) made him an enticing prospect for any team looking for a CB1.
The Dolphins made him a second-round pick (38th overall), and his game is finally beginning to match his athletic potential on the field. The third-year pro began to break out last season, particularly against Brandin Cooks and the New England Patriots in Week 14 (two INTs). He has continued to play at a high level since that point.
"He's a player," a Dolphins defensive assistant told me. "He's still maturing, but he has size, skill and enough speed. He's always had the tools to be one of the best in the AFC, but he needed to learn how to attack the ball. Now that he's making plays and we're winning, he's beginning to get the recognition that he deserves."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it's easy to fall in love with Howard's game. He plays with outstanding effort and energy while displaying polished footwork and technique as a bump-and-run corner. In addition, Howard flashes superb instincts and awareness in zone coverage, as evidenced by his leaping interception in the back of the end zone in Week 3. The 25-year-old has a great feel for finding the ball and his sticky hands have helped the Dolphins' defense to a league-high seven interceptions while holding opponents to a league-low passer rating of 65.6.
Individually, Howard is tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions and has allowed just a 35.3 completion percentage on passes thrown his way. In addition, he has held opposing quarterbacks to a 30.6 passer rating in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Those figures are on par with some of the best numbers posted by elite cover corners over the past few seasons, which speaks volumes about Howard's potential as a CB1.
With the Dolphins off to a 3-0 start and demanding attention early on, Howard could become a household name by the end of the season.
3) New craze sweeping the NFL: It doesn't take long for new ideas to spread around the NFL like wildfire, particularly when offensive coordinators are willing to steal any concept that puts points on the board and gets the ball into the hands of playmakers on the perimeter. That's why we are suddenly seeing every offense in the NFL feature some kind of fly sweep or jet sweep a few times a game.
The play, which features a wide receiver or slot player racing in front of the quarterback to take a handoff (or shovel pitch) on a sweep around the corner, is pulled straight from a high school playbook. It is so simple by design that Pop Warner teams run the play, but it is effective at the highest level due to the speed of the athletes touching the ball and the favorable blocking angles for the perimeter blockers.
"It's annoying," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "It is a play that tests the discipline of your defenders. If they read their keys and flow to the ball, you can keep it to a minimal gain. However, it can result in a big play if you let the runner get out of the gate. You have to have your corners set the edge or it could be a home run. ... You have to make sure they (defensive backs) get involved in the running game or you could have problems. It's almost like defending the triple option when you add the complements (inside run, screens and play-action passes) that go with it. It takes a disciplined defense to shut it down."
To that point, the fly/jet sweep forces defensive coordinators to devote countless hours to defending a play that might not be a big part of the opponent's offense. Defensive play callers have to assess how often a team uses fly/jet sweep concepts and determine whether it's worth coming up with a plan to defend it or concede a few 10-yard gains to the offense whenever it hands the ball off to a wide receiver or running back zipping around the corner on the play.
"If it's not a big part of a team's offense, you live with them picking up a few yards on the play," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "You tell your guys to rally to the ball and live to play another down. However, if they are running it six-to-eight times a game, you have to practice against it against every defensive call and assign defenders to the options on the play. In addition, you probably have to play a little more zone to set hard edges with the corners and eliminate some of the confusion that pops up when you play man to man."
Based on the coach's assessment of the play, it makes sense for offensive coordinators to use the sweep action a few times a game to force opponents into simplified looks. The constant action, deception, and misdirection can create hesitation and leave seams for runners all over the field.
In Week 3, the Miami Dolphins used a few variations of the play to create big gains for their offense. On Jakeem Grant's 19-yard touchdown, the Dolphins were in a two-by-two spread formation and motioned him across the formation before flipping the ball to him as he headed around the corner. He took advantage of a solid block from his running back to shoot through a lane on his way to a score.
Later in the game, the Dolphins ran the same play from a slot formation with a wing back and tight end in a snug position to the weak side. Albert Wilson raced across the formation to take a pitch from Ryan Tannehill on the way around the corner with Frank Gore serving as his lead blocker. When the Raiders didn't properly react to the motion by "rocking and rolling" their safeties (play-side safety flies down into the box; back-side safety rolls to the deep post), Wilson easily outran a couple of out-leveraged defenders for a 74-yard touchdown.
"Zone coverage is a much better option than man against the jet sweep," said an AFC defensive coordinator. "You can keep defenders in the proper position to defend the sweep and the inside run that sometimes accompanies the action. If you get caught in man to man, it can lead to a big play if your guys get caught up watching the eye candy and fail to stay on their assignments. The jet sweep can be a problem if you don't spend enough time working on it during the week."
With defensive coordinators scratching their heads when it comes to defending the play, the league's innovators have added other elements to the concept to create more stress for the defense. The Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, in particular, have used screens, inside runs and naked bootlegs off the sweep action to create explosive plays.
In fact, the Rams' elaborate utilization of the concept has made their offense one of the most difficult to defend, as they are willing to hand it to Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp or Robert Woods on the play. With everyone capable of touching the rock, the Rams have used the threat of the sweep to throw the ball to their playmakers on the perimeter. Against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night, they repeatedly generated big plays on misdirection passes off sweep action.
Jared Goff tossed a 19-yard touchdown to Kupp on a bootleg after executing a sweep fake to Gurley. The thought of No. 30 getting the ball on the sweep forced some hesitation on the second level of the defense, allowing Kupp to sneak past defenders on a deep crosser. The combination of the fake and route design worked to perfection and showed the football world another way to use a high school concept to generate points.