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 key to New England's defensive dominance.
But first, a look at one team that needs to start thinking about what's next at the game's most important position ...
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In the NFL, it takes about 30 games to determine whether a quarterback is the real deal or not.
I know that could be perceived as a harsh assessment of a quarterback in the middle of his third season, but the Bears shouldn't let Trubisky become an albatross who prevents them from seriously contending for a Super Bowl ring behind a championship-caliber defense loaded with five-star players in their prime.
Despite the fact that he did just make the Pro Bowl last season -- as a replacement for Jared Goff -- the rest of the NFL doesn't view Trubisky as a franchise quarterback. This is made apparent by the way opponents defend Chicago in key moments. Instead of focusing on taking away the Bears' aerial attack with double-teams and trap coverage, the majority of defensive coordinators have put the game on No. 10's shoulders and dared him to beat them with his arm. This is how New Orleans defended Chicago in the Saints' 36-25 win last Sunday, with Trubisky baited into a whopping 54 throws despite averaging a measly 4.6 yards per attempt. Sure, he added a couple of touchdowns in garbage time, but anyone who watched the game saw a young quarterback without the capacity to carry an offense.
Although NFL teams can at times get away with winning games with a mid-level quarterback anchoring the offense, that's not exactly what you want from a quarterback taken at the top of a draft, overDeshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. Both of those two young passers have established themselves as true franchise quarterbacks, providing their respective teams with extensive evidence that they can fully shoulder the load of a QB1. Shoot, Mahomes is the reigning league MVP! Trubisky, however, doesn't have a string of signature performances on his resume that should entice Bears officials to sign on for an extended commitment to the 25-year-old quarterback, something the franchise will be eligible to do after this season. At this point, there's no reason for Chicago to commit big bucks to a quarterback who just hasn't shown the ability to elevate the team to another level.
Moreover, Chicago decision-makers have seen how hard Nagy has worked to mask the quarterback's deficiencies, and it isn't good enough to get the Bears to the winner's circle. Don't believe me? Just check Chicago's stats and you'll notice the team hasn't reached 300 yards of total offense in a single game this season. And Trubisky is playing like a QB2 when you look at his numbers, ranking 19th among 34 qualified passers in completion percentage (64.4), 31st in pass yards per game (167.8), 33rd in yards per attempt (5.2) and 26th in passer rating (82.8). That production won't get it done in a league where quarterback play is often the deciding factor between the contenders and pretenders in January.
"You can win games with a mid-level quarterback, but the margin of error is slim," an NFC executive told me. "It's hard to play around the quarterback. Everyone else has to take on a greater role when you don't have a guy at the position. ... You can win, but there's a ceiling on how good the team can become without a Tier 1 player in place."
That's why the Bears shouldn't talk themselves into holding onto Trubisky beyond his rookie deal. Trying to justify the lofty No. 2 overall pick -- and the rare move up one draft slot to secure said pick -- will only keep Chicago stuck in neutral. Team officials simply cannot prioritize draft-pick confirmation over winning. The best decision-makers move on from their mistakes quickly and focus on getting the roster right for long-term title contention.
"Don't waste time when you know that you've gotten it wrong draft day," another NFC executive said. "When you keep guys around just because you've drafted them high, you send a bad message to the locker room. Guys know who can and who can't play.
"When you pay those guys who can't play big money, it can tear up your locker room, especially when you have a team that's on the verge of contention."
With that in mind, Pace should learn from the recent mistakes of the Jaguars (Blake Bortles) and Dolphins (Ryan Tannehill), who both doubled down on young quarterbacks who couldn't play at a high level or elevate the performance of their teammates to the championship standard. Executives might win press conferences when they discuss the commitment to a "draft and develop" model, but they won't touch a Lombardi Trophy if they commit to a quarterback who can't get the job done.
Pace and Nagy know Trubisky can't cut it at the highest level. They can't waste their time waiting on No. 10 to become something that he's not: a franchise quarterback.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: No Luck, no problem -- better off with Brissett
This is not a dismissal of Luck's extraordinary talent. Quite the contrary. Brissett may not have all the same gifts that Luck did, but he's playing the game at a level not seen since the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis. How so? Well, thus far, the fourth-year pro is the first Colts quarterback to post a passer rating of 100 or better in a season with 200-plus pass attempts since Manning accomplished the feat in 2006, a campaign that ended with Indy hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. In fact, Brissett's completion percentage (65.0), pass yards per game (231.3), touchdown-to-interception ratio (14:3) and passer rating (101.0) are similar to the production delivered by Manning during the team's Super Bowl-winning season. The perennial Pro Bowl selectee finished that year with a 65.0 percent completion rate, 274.8 pass yards per game, a 31:9 TD-INT ratio and a 101.0 passer rating.
Yes, Brissett is quietly producing at a rate that rivals a Pro Bowl season by an all-time great who set the standard for QB play on the franchise. Let that marinate for a bit.
Oh, and believe it or not, Luck never finished a season with a passer rating of 100.0 or better, a feat that's well within reach for Brissett this season. I know the thought of Brissett potentially outperforming No. 12 in some areas isn't what many observers envisioned when he took over as the team's QB1 following Luck's stunning retirement in August, but a combination of his steady play and the evolution of the offense (and defense) has helped the Colts rise to the top of the AFC South entering Week 8.
"He's a pretty good player when he doesn't have to shoulder the load," said a former NFL defensive coordinator familiar with Brissett. "He understands how to manage the game and he doesn't put the ball in harm's way. ... He did it before in New England when surrounded by good players and he's showing us again that he can play winning football with the right pieces around him."
Those comments might surprise some observers with Brissett's 2017 struggles still in mind (4-11 record, 81.7 passer rating, sacked a league-high 52 times), but he is an improved player on a better team in 2019. The Colts have upgraded their offensive line and running back positions since that season and the commitment to the running game has eased the burden on the QB. Marlon Mack is averaging 19.8 carries per game (fourth in the NFL) and ranks seventh in rushing yards per game (85.7). He's one of six running backs to average more than 75 rush yards per game and score 10-plus touchdowns since 2018. That's a list that includes Ezekiel Elliott, Chris Carson, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Todd Gurley.
With a solid rushing attack in place, the Colts are facing manageable third-down situations and converting at a rate (46.9 percent, seventh-best in the NFL) that's in line with their league-best 48.6 percent rate from last season. In addition, the Colts have been an efficient red-zone team with a 65.2 percent scoring rate, which is fifth-best in the league. What's more, Brissett leads the league in red-zone TD passes with 13.
While a quick glance at the team totals will lead some observers to point out that the offense isn't as explosive as the 2018 version (the Colts are averaging 3.3 points per game fewer this season) the more possession-oriented unit directed by Brissett is better equipped to play complementary football due to No. 7's managerial skills and the team's potent rushing attack. He's on pace to commit fewer turnovers than Luck did last season.
"The winning formula doesn't change for young quarterbacks," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "A strong running game and stout defense are a quarterback's best friend. ... He just needs to manage the game and play to an acceptable standard. If the quarterback doesn't mess it up with turnovers and silly mistakes, the team will win a bunch of games."
In a league in which coaches constantly preach to their players that more games are truly lost than won, Brissett's steady play has enabled the Colts to climb to the top of their division when many predicted their demise after Luck's retirement.
PATRIOTS' NO. 1 DEFENSE: Why less is more in New England
"The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple." -- Albert Einstein
I don't know if Bill Belichick is a historian, but the Patriots' head man will go down as arguably the greatest coach in NFL history due to his ability to apply Einstein's principle to his defensive approach. The eight-time Super Bowl champion (including the two rings he earned as Giants defensive coordinator) has stymied aerial attacks around the NFL for years by utilizing a straightforward man-coverage scheme that's masked by the multiplicity of New England's defensive fronts.
To the naked eye, the chaos within the box looks exotic and complex. But a close examination of New England's scheme reveals a vanilla coverage that's utilized on Pop Warner and high school fields across the country. Sure, the constant movement, blitzing and pre-snap disguises can leave young quarterbacks seeing ghosts, but the film reveals a game plan that's simple and easy to digest for secondary players.
"Man-to-man is the easiest coverage to teach," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "There's no thinking and minimal adjustments. You just focus on your man and keep him from catching the ball. ... The Patriots have done it for years because they know exactly who they want to play it and they know how to play it. They go and get guys with the talent to play man and let them focus on that. They let the linebackers and defensive line do all of the thinking and adjusting."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, you see that the Patriots are essentially a "man free" team, with their perimeter defensive backs assigned to a specific man and a safety positioned as a deep-post player. The Pats will utilize a "low hole" player (linebacker or safety positioned around 8 to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage) to disrupt crossers and short routes between the hashes when they don't add the linebacker to the pass rush.
If the Patriots bring "zero" pressure, they rush all of their linebackers and leave secondary defenders in man coverage without a safety in the post. This requires the DBs to back away from the line of scrimmage and play with a heavy inside alignment to stop slants and in-breaking routes, but the coverage enables the defense to bring more rushers than the offense can block in pass protection.
With each coverage presenting problems to the offense due to the elimination of layups, the quarterback is forced to make more tight-window throws against the New England. As a result, the Patriots have posted fantastic numbers in man coverage this season, including a 50.7 percent completion rate, 5.0 yards per attempt and a 36.3 passer rating. Through seven games, New England has snagged 11 of its astounding 18 interceptions (nine more than any other team) while in man-to-man, surrendering only one touchdown in the coverage. With such immense success, it is not surprising to discover the Patriots have played some form of man coverage on 63.5 percent of their defensive snaps this season.
"What Belichick has done is really smart," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "He committed to playing man coverage years ago and everything that the defensive backs do on the practice field is done with that in mind. ... They rep it every day from the spring through the end of the season, and that enables their players to know every route and bunch combination that they could face. ... They understand how they will be attacked and they work on getting around the pick and rubs that give some teams problems.
"By playing man-to-man, the Patriots have also made it easier on their cornerbacks to improve over time. ... Just imagine how good you can become when you're only asked to focus on your man and how to defend. That's why Stephon Gilmore's game has improved there. That's why some of their undrafted free agents pop. ... They get better because they work on the same skills through the same drills daily. That is really the secret to their success. ... They keep it simple and rep it. That's how you become great at it."
Thinking back to New England's dominant performance on Monday night against the New York Jets, we should've expected second-year QB Sam Darnold to struggle against a defense that changes like crazy at the line of scrimmage but remains the same on the second level. The complexity of the pre-snap movement and the intensity of the five- and six-man pressures -- with an occasional zone dog or three-man rush and accompanying eight-man coverage -- can leave a quarterback dazed and confused with the ball in his hands. For the defense, however, the constant movement and exotic shifting only require the front-seven guys (defensive linemen and linebackers/safeties) to know how to move around and make adjustments based on the offensive formation or blitz call. This enables the secondary to play fast and free, which leads to more interceptions and takeaways on errant throws or deflected passes.
That's why I'm concerned for this weekend's opposing quarterback: Baker Mayfield -- who was selected two picks before Darnold. The Cleveland Browns' second-year signal-caller, who has never played the Patriots before, has struggled against man-to-man this season, as evidenced by his 45.2 percent completion rate and 70.3 passer rating against the coverage in 2019. Those numbers are significantly down from the 59.1 percent completion rate and 92.8 passer rating he posted against man in 2018. Will Mayfield see ghosts on Sunday afternoon? Well, the Browns' struggling quarterback leads the NFL with 11 interceptions, so he could toss out picks to the ballhawking Pats secondary like a parent passing out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters. Against this unit, it could get ugly.
The Patriots' defense has emerged as the premier group in football by building the scheme around a simple coverage that enables good players to play great and great players to become elite.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Retro offense working wonders
At a time when the majority of NFL offenses are attempting to spread things out with skill players all over the field, the San Francisco 49ers are turning back the clock and pummeling opponents with an old-school approach that reminds me of football in the 1970s.
You read that correctly. Kyle Shanahan is using a playbook pulled directly from the disco era to run roughshod through a league that's ill-equipped to deal with a smashmouth offense that features a traditional fullback and tight end in base formations.
The 49ers are bludgeoning opponents with a 21 personnel offense that makes old-school coaches crack a smile at the sight of the fullback aligned in a three-point stance behind a quarterback taking snaps from under center in a traditional or offset I-formation. The "21" designation comes from the number of running backs (first digit) and tight ends (second digit) on the field when defensive coaches identify the offense's personnel. Instead of leaning so heavily on single-back formations with one running back and three wide receivers on the flanks with a tight end attached to the offensive line, the 49ers are making a lot of their hay in formations with two running backs and a tight end joined by two wide receivers on the perimeter. Although Shanahan will move the chess pieces all over the board to create a myriad of spread and two-back formations, he is forcing defensive coordinators to make hard decisions when determining which personnel packages to feature in the game plan.
"This is a matchup league," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "The best coaches are able to dictate how their opponents must play while being in their preferred packages. The 49ers put defensive coordinators in a bind because you have to make a decision whether to play 'big on big' against a team with a physical running game and a dynamic tight end. In most instances, you want to match up to their size, but the shifts and motions can put some of your linebackers in bad situations in space. If you don't have the right personnel on the field to handle some of the empty formations or Y-outside-of-Z formations or running-back-out-wide sets, you will have a long day defending them.
"Plus, you have to figure out a way to properly fit against their zone-running scheme. If one guy is out of place at the point of attack, the running back will scoot out of the backdoor on their bread-and-butter runs. ... What they're doing isn't complicated but it stresses the defense and creates opportunities to exploit certain defenders."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, the Niners' constant shifts and motions jump off the screen. They seemingly move a player or two prior to each snap and the carefully choreographed movements enable the quarterback to identify coverages while also making it tough for defenders to properly align. In addition, the constant movement and shifts make it hard for linebackers to make the correct "strength" calls (how the defense sets its front based on the running strength or passing strength of the offense).
With defenders forced to do so much thinking during the pre-snap phase, it is hard for them to play fast while also remembering how to properly fit against a challenging blocking scheme that creates natural creases at the point of attack.
"The zone-blocking scheme utilized by the 49ers is tough to defend because they come off the ball like elephants on parade on the front side while chopping down defenders on the back side," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "The chop blocks eliminate the back-side chasers and split the defense down the middle. If a linebacker takes a poor angle or runs past his assigned gap, the running backs will gash the defense on cutback runs. ... Your guys have to play disciplined football or it is going to be a problem."
To that point, the 49ers have been persistently running the ball from 21 personnel sets with 27.8 percent of their rushes (third-highest percentage in the NFL) derived from the package, according to Next Gen Stats. The team is averaging 5.6 yards per rush (fifth in the NFL) in their 21 personnel grouping with four rushing touchdowns (first). With the 49ers sporting the league's No. 2 rushing attack (172.7 yards per game) behind their RBBC (running back by committee) approach, the commitment to two-back football has been extremely effective.
From an individual standpoint, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida are averaging 7.4 (highest in the NFL, min. 10 rushes) and 6.5 (fourth-highest) yards per rush, respectively, from 21 personnel packages. To make matters worse for defenders and defensive coaches, Jimmy Garoppolo is one of the NFL's most efficient passers off play-action from 21 sets. No. 10 is posting a 132.6 passer rating on play-action passes in this personnel package.
That's a lot of positive production from a package plucked straight from the 1970s. The 49ers are gutting opponents with their two-back attack and it doesn't look like the league has an answer to their old-school approach.