Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the massive concern for an offseason darling ...
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All offseason, the Oakland Raiders were touted as one of the teams poised to break out. But judging by what we've seen over the first two weeks of the 2016 campaign, a porous defense could prevent Jack Del Rio's squad from making a legitimate run at a playoff berth.
On paper, the unit appears promising, as it features All-Pro terror Khalil Mack and a bunch of high-profile offseason additions, including linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and a pair of playmaking safeties (first-round pick Karl Joseph and Pro Bowl veteran Reggie Nelson). But after allowing 500-plus yards in back-to-back games, Oakland ranks dead last in a host of defensive categories (total defense, passing defense and yards per play, to name a few).
Sure, the Raiders have faced a pair of quality quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Since 1940, though, no NFL team has allowed more total yards in its first two games than Oakland's 1,035. When I read that nugget in the NFL Media research packet, I was stunned. But I was truly horrified by what I saw from the Raiders' defense when I popped in the tape of their first two games. The unit not only lacked gap discipline and hustle against the run, but the secondary completely failed to hold up in man or zone coverage. And then there's the lack of a legitimate pass rush from a front line that features a monster (Mack) and a big-money speed rusher (Irvin). Seriously, what gives?
Now, I know two games don't make a season, but teams will exploit vulnerabilities that show up on tape -- and Oakland's defense has been completely exposed by a pair of NFC South offenses. The unit has surrendered big plays at an alarming rate, as evidenced by the fact that the Raiders are yielding an astounding 8.02 yards per play. While the run defense has been spotty at best, the Raiders have repeatedly failed to keep things in front of them. The secondary, in particular, has allowed the ball to fly over the top -- Oakland has yielded five passing plays of 40-plus yards (a league high).
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I could point out several poor plays from a number of defensive backs, but Sean Smith quickly has become the guy offensive coordinators have targeted. Despite coming over as a big-money free agent in the offseason, the eighth-year veteran has struggled at right corner for the Raiders. He has been spun around like a top in press coverage and his lack of top-end speed has been routinely exposed on vertical routes.
Later in the game, Smith surrendered a 98-yard score to Cooks with the same glaring issues showing up on the tape. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound corner failed to get his hands on Cooks to disrupt the route, and his poor technique (Smith didn't kick-slide or take a six-inch step to the outside to mirror Cook's speed release) allowed the Saints burner to win a foot race down the boundary on the fade route:
Although the technical flaws are correctable, the lack of athleticism and burst displayed by Smith on those plays will encourage future opponents to attack the veteran early and often, to see if he can hold up on the island without help.
Naturally, it is easy to cite Smith as one of the biggest issues plaguing the defense, but the Raiders haven't gotten quality play from their safeties, either. Reggie Nelson and Keith McGill repeatedly have been out of position between the hashes, leaving huge voids for quarterbacks to find receivers running free to the post or down the seams. These are certainly the vacant areas of a single-high defense, but the Raiders' deep players have failed to shrink those windows with proper alignment and positioning.
It's possible that the insertion of Karl Joseph into the starting rotation could improve the play between the hashes. With McGill starting the first two games of the season at strong safety, the No. 14 overall pick was limited to special teams duty. But he was a terrific ballhawk and playmaker at West Virginia prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury during his senior season. And reporting through this week has indicated that he's going to get his chance on defense this Sunday at Tennessee. He could add a much-needed spark to the unit.
Here's another thing: The pass defense will improve dramatically if/when the team cranks up its pass rush. To this point, the Raiders' vaunted front line has been a non-factor on passing downs. The unit has amassed just two sacks and failed to wreak the kind of havoc many expected when the team added Irvin to a group that features a two-spot All-Pro (Mack) with the skills to be a true game changer off the edge.
One of the reasons Oakland's pass rush hasn't been able to get untracked: a lack of "tee off" opportunities. The Raiders have failed to win on first down (i.e., hold opponents to three yards or fewer) and the inordinate amount of "mix" downs (offense can run or pass in a manageable situations) has prevented defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. from dialing up five- and six-man pressures, which create one-on-one opportunities for Mack and Irvin. With the unit unable to hunt the quarterback in advantageous situations, the pass rush has been neutralized by opponents using play action or misdirection (bootleg/naked) passes.
Speaking of Mack and Irvin, the Raiders still need to get more from their designated pass rushers off the edges. Mack, in particular, must be a bigger factor as a pressure player on the outside. After tallying 15 sacks in 2015, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder has been neutralized at the point of attack and rarely come close to even sniffing the quarterback in the pocket. In fact, he has yet to register a sack or tackle for loss through two games, and his ineffectiveness has been quite surprising, considering how well he finished last season (with 11 sacks over the team's final eight games).
Looking at the tape, I believe opponents have done a better job of crafting game plans that limit Mack's one-on-one chances. For instance, the Falcons used a variety of multiple-tight end personnel packages and formations that forced Mack to fight through two or three bodies on the way to the quarterback. With Mack's game built on a variety of power-based maneuvers instead of finesse moves, he is unable to quickly overpower multiple blockers to get into the quarterback's face before the ball is released.
The absence of Mario Edwards Jr. (who's currently on IR with a hip injury) is also affecting Mack's production as a pass rusher. Edwards, at 6-3 and 280 pounds, is a disruptive penetrator capable of winning with speed or power at the line of scrimmage. Although Edwards' sack totals fail to accurately portray his impact, opponents respect his game and routinely double-team him at the point of attack, giving Mack more freedom to operate off the edge. Edwards played a major role in Mack's success down the stretch in 2015, and it's not a coincidence that the All-Pro hasn't had a sack in the past four games (going back to last December) without Edwards on the field.
With Edwards not expected to return to action until the latter half of the season, Norton needs to find a way to unleash his top pass rusher and get his defense back on track. Whether that's moving Mack around the field (he's primarily lined up at LDE/LOLB thus far) or using more stunts, Norton must do everything he can to maximize No. 52's talents. Otherwise, Oakland's defensive woes could prevent a talented young team from making the tournament.
ASK THE LEAGUE: What's up with Aaron Rodgers and the Pack attack?
After watching Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense struggle at Minnesota in a prime-time matchup, the Twitterverse has been buzzing about the two-time MVP's play. Critics have started to question whether Rodgers is still on top of his game and if the offense can get back on track after being mired in a slump for nearly a year. I placed a few phone calls to some of my buddies around the league to get their take on what's going on with Rodgers and Co. Here is what I asked -- and their responses:
AFC defensive coach: "Rodgers is still special, but he makes his plays off extended plays -- their explosives come off scrambles or him running around in the pocket. They don't have a strong running game and they lack exceptional receivers, so he has to make magic happen. It's hard to live on improvisational plays in this league."
NFC scout: "The quarterback isn't playing well -- and he hasn't since last season. He is making rookie mistakes from the pocket. They also need more speed on the perimeter. They have some fast guys on the roster -- Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery, and Trevor Davis -- but those guys aren't getting onto the field. They should think about putting those guys in the mix to give him some help."
AFC pro personnel director: "Rodgers is still a great player, but their offensive line is not very good. They've had lots of changes along the front line and it hasn't come together yet. Plus, Jordy Nelson isn't healthy on the outside. By mid to later in the season, they will be fine."
The Packers' offense has been out of whack for quite a while now, going well into last season. Like most observers, I thought Green Bay's offensive woes would be solved by the return of Jordy Nelson. The Packers' WR1 had emerged as one of the most explosive playmakers in the league prior to his knee injury in 2015, and his presence made life easier for the rest of the pass catchers on the field. But Nelson's return hasn't sparked the team's passing game and the receivers continue to struggle against tight coverage. Opponents are challenging the Packers' receivers at the line of scrimmage and they are simply unable to separate down the field. With defensive coordinators frequently using two deep safeties over the top to eliminate the deep ball (Cover 2-Man), Green Bay's having a tough time consistently moving the ball through the air.
Eddie Lacy and the Packers' sputtering ground game has contributed to the lack of explosiveness from the offense. Green Bay's RB1 is averaging just 55.5 yards per game thus far in 2016, and defensive coordinators refuse to commit extra defenders to the box with an unproductive back in the "dot" position. The Pack's glaring weaknesses on the outside are exposed when defenders are allowed to focus on stopping the pass and shutting down a one-dimensional attack.
As far as Rodgers, the former MVP is not playing well and his frustration has led to undisciplined play from the pocket. Rodgers is electing to play sandlot football in hopes of producing big plays, instead of patiently picking apart opponents by targeting checkdowns or underneath receivers in the route progression. Although he has always bought time and extended plays when the pocket collapses, Rodgers is beginning to move around and scramble before the play has fully developed. This has not only disrupted the flow of the offense, but it has made it hard for Mike McCarthy to get into a rhythm as a play caller, with a number of long-yardage situations on tap. With miracle plays hard to find on the script, the Packers need everyone, including the star QB, to pick up their play and help the offense get back on track.
NEXT-GEN STATS: Why Minnesota could be better without Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson is unquestionably one of the best runners in NFL history, but the Minnesota Vikings' offense might improve with him on the sidelines until at least November due to a torn meniscus. I know that statement will draw the ire of "All Day" fans, but let's be honest: He has started to show signs of decline over the last year, and the offense has been stuck in neutral whenever he is on the field.
Despite leading the NFL in rushing in 2015 with 1,485 yards, Peterson has been one of the worst runners in the league over the past 10 games (including the playoffs), averaging just 3.3 yards per carry since Week 11 of last year (the lowest figure in football for a back with at least 100 carries). He has only topped the 100-yard mark twice during that 10-game span, and before going down with the knee injury, he started off the 2016 campaign with just 50 rushing yards in 31 attempts. Peterson's putrid average of 1.6 yards per carry ranks as the worst in the NFL since 1970 for a player with at least 30 totes through the first two games of a season.
In a bottom-line business, it's hard to continue to lean on a player who's failing to produce at a high level, but the Vikings certainly felt obligated to continue to hand the ball off to a guy with three NFL rushing titles and a 2,000-yard season on the résumé. Last season, Peterson accounted 45.5 percent of the Vikings' offensive touches (the highest mark for an NFL player) and 29 percent of the team's scrimmage yards (also an NFL high). That's a lot of work for a running back over age 30 in a young man's league.
Now, I know I'm being a little hard on Peterson, and his supporters will point out that his mere presence on the field helps the rest of the Vikings' offense work, but the numbers and film don't support that argument. Defensive coordinators were not loading the box with eight-man fronts (or plus-1 schemes that position an extra defender near the line of scrimmage to defend the run) with No. 28 in the backfield. According to Next-Gen Stats, Peterson faced an eight-man box on only five offensive snaps in 2016. I know the eyeball test will lead to some disputes over those numbers, but the Vikings' tendency to use run-heavy sets with two or three tight ends in tight or clustered alignments clouds the evaluation. Those defensive fronts aren't necessarily "plus 1" schemes. Thus, Minnesota just didn't face as many loaded boxes as many anticipated with Peterson on the field.
Although the veteran back prefers to run from the "dot" position in an I-formation, the use of under-center sets or condensed formations doesn't play to the strengths of the Vikings' best offensive players: Sam Bradford and Stefon Diggs. This point is frequently overlooked with No. 28 on the field, but Minnesota's top weapons are most effective operating from spread formations with a shotgun snap. Bradford and Diggs excelled as collegians in spread offenses and they were most effective against the Packers when operating from open formations.
Looking at the All-22 tape, it was obvious Bradford was very comfortable directing the offense with the receivers in wide alignments across the field. The clever use of doubles (2x2), trips (3x1) and empty formations allowed the veteran signal caller to quickly sniff out the coverage and immediately get the ball into hands of his receivers on the perimeter. In addition, the space created by the spread alignments enabled Diggs to use his spectacular stop-start quickness and route-running skills to work away from coverage over the middle of the field. This led to Bradford compiling a 149.1 passer rating when targeting the Vikings' WR1 in the contest.
But the success of Bradford and Diggs is not a one-game aberration. Despite critics taking the Vikings to task for acquiring the oft-injured quarterback, Bradford has performed at a very high level going back to the middle of last season. Since November 2015, he has compiled a 68.5 percent completion rate (fourth-best in NFL in that span), an average of 280.6 passing yards per game, a 12:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 99.6 passer rating. Those numbers not only suggest that Bradford is a capable passer, but that he can carry an offense on the strength of his right arm.
Diggs is clearly entrenched as the Vikings' top receiver after posting back-to-back 100-yard games to start the season. He is an electric playmaker with outstanding hands and ball skills. In addition, he is a crafty route runner with a number of slick releases and stems that make him nearly impossible to cover on the perimeter. With opponents unable to effectively bracket or double-team Diggs, Minnesota quarterbacks have enjoyed outstanding success when targeting the second-year pro (completing 16 of 20 targets for 285 yards and a touchdown, with a 135.4 passer rating).
I know it's crazy to imagine the Vikings' attack humming without No. 28 playing a major role, but Peterson's diminishing production made it necessary to tweak the offensive approach regardless of whether he was injured or not.
THE REBUTTAL: Is Tavon Austin really a No. 1 receiver?
That's the question that immediately came to mind when I heard the reports of the four-year, $42 million extension that Austin signed with the Los Angeles Rams near the end of training camp. Why in the world would the Rams commit big bucks to a receiver who averaged 41 catches and 378 yards per season over his first three NFL campaigns? I couldn't figure out how the Rams planned to get a return on their investment, seeing how they've failed to get the ball to the ultra-explosive -- but diminutive -- playmaker since he arrived as No. 8 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
That's why I had to make a trip to the Coliseum to get a first-hand look at how the Rams would showcase their most dynamic weapon on the perimeter. Most importantly, I wanted to talk to a few folks to see if I could get the scoop on why Austin is such an essential piece of this organization's offensive puzzle for this season and beyond.
Before I dig into this subject, I think it's important for me to reveal how I initially viewed Austin as a draft prospect. The 5-foot-8, 176-pound playmaker was an electric multipurpose weapon at West Virginia. Austin flashed impressive stop-start quickness, burst and running skills with the ball in his hands. Although he was exposed to a limited route tree as a slot receiver in the Mountaineers' spread offense, it was easy to see his potential as a catch-and-run specialist from the slot. In addition, I thought his potential as a gadget player (direct-snap runs, reverses, bubble screens and fly sweeps) could make him a nice complementary playmaker on a team with an established No. 1 receiver on the field.
Despite my intrigue with his talent and potential, I did have some reservations about taking Austin at the top of the draft, due to his small stature and undefined game. I worried about investing a top pick in a player viewed as a specialty playmaker, and I openly questioned whether Austin could ever live up to the lofty expectations that accompany a top-10 grade. WR1s in this league are expected to be consistent 1,000-yard players, or at least guys who deliver game-changing plays (touchdowns, receptions of 25-plus yards and/or punt returns) every week. Inherently, Austin headlined a pre-draft story I penned on the most overrated prospects in the Class of 2013.
Looking at his pro performance thus far, I believe it is fair to say the Austin hasn't lived up to the standard that most expect from a receiver taken eighth overall. He has failed to produce a 1,000-yard season to date and has only scored 19 total touchdowns (nine receptions, seven rushes and three punt returns) in 46 career games. Sure, he is coming off a season where he produced as a multipurpose playmaker, converting 104 offensive touches (52 receptions, 52 rushing attempts) into 907 scrimmage yards, but those numbers still aren't quite WR1 stats.
When I asked Austin about his role, he dismissed the notion that he is a classic No. 1 receiver.
"I'm an 'ATH' [athlete]," Austin told me. "I might not have the best numbers, but by the end of the each game, I will have some kind of impact."
I thought that answer was insightful because he used the "ATH" term that's often voiced by recruiting analysts when evaluating top high school prospects. Analysts normally tag two-way players or multi-position playmakers as athletes on those lists. It is viewed as a term of endearment in some circles because it speaks volumes about the prospect's combination of speed, athleticism and playmaking ability. Thus, it makes sense for Austin to see himself in that light, based on his history as a high school player (two-time Maryland State Player of Year as a running back/slot receiver/returner at Dunbar High School in Baltimore) and collegian.
When Austin dropped that nugget on me, it led me to pause and rethink how I should view him, based on his skills and the way that he should be deployed. The fourth-year pro is unquestionably an electric playmaker capable of putting the ball in the paint when he gets chances on the perimeter as a runner/receiver. As a natural punt returner with explosive speed, quickness and wiggle, Austin excels at making defenders miss. His ability to create explosive plays with the ball in his hands makes him a dangerous guy to defend.
That brings me back to why the Rams paid big money to keep Austin in the fold for the foreseeable future. He is unquestionably the team's second-best offensive weapon behind Todd Gurley. In addition, he is the only receiver on the roster with the speed and explosiveness to threaten opponents on the outside and prompt defensive coordinators to alter their game plans. Thus, the team was compelled to reward him for his impact potential, despite his marginal production.
And actually, looking back at Austin's contract numbers (four years, $42 million), the Rams are essentially paying him like a top-tier WR2, according to league standards. His contract falls in line with the deals inked by Doug Baldwin (four years, $46 million), Allen Hurns (four years, $40.6 million) and Emmanuel Sanders (three years, $33 million). Although their roles on their respective teams vary, those guys are essentially viewed as low-level WR1s or top-notch WR2s around the league. Considering Austin's value to the Rams, the contract is sensible, based on how he impacts the offense as a primary playmaker.
When I spoke to a couple of Rams scouts about Austin and why it was important to retain him, they repeatedly told me that he is a "playmaker" and he has the potential deliver the "splash plays" the team needs in the passing game. While they acknowledged that they might've overpaid him a bit, the Rams wanted to send a clear message that they want to retain "their guys" when they come up as free agents.
Remember, the Rams dismissed a few long-term veterans (Chris Long and James Laurinaitis) and failed to re-sign a couple of core players, including Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, who had been key contributors. This led several vets to wonder if the team would commit big money to "homegrown" guys. Deals like Austin's help maintain chemistry and continuity in the locker room.
On the field, the Rams are still attempting to come up with a plan for Austin. When I spoke to members of the coaching staff in the offseason, I was told that he could be used as a Julian Edelman-type playmaker -- that he could catch 80 to 100 balls on a variety of option routes, short crossers and "flash" screens that take advantage of his skills as an electric "ATH" on the perimeter. Although it hasn't come to fruition to this point, Austin could eventually justify his big payday as the Rams' No. 1 option in the passing game, despite the critics taking exception to his substandard production as a WR1.