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:
But first, a look at something special developing in the desert ...
It might have taken Kliff Kingsbury a couple seasons to really get things going in Arizona, but the offensive wizard has finally unleashed an attack that is lighting up scoreboards around the league.
The undefeated Cardinals have topped the 30-point mark in five of their six games and average 32.3 points per game (fourth in the league) heading into Week 7. The team is rolling up 400-plus yards per game with a creative scheme that keeps defenders on their heels and leaves coordinators flipping through pages on their call sheet attempting to find an answer.
That said, while Kingsbury's Xs and Os pose major challenges to the opposition, it is the team's all-star players that are really creating problems.
Arizona is like a rock band with a cast of characters capable of churning out Grammy-winning hits. Whether you want to call them the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, the Cardinals have an ultra-talented lead singer and a group of supporting musicians that make award-winning melodies when they come together.
Kyler Murray is the straw that stirs the drink as an MVP-caliber playmaker with unique skills as a dual-threat quarterback. The third-year pro leads the league with a 73.8 percent completion rate while ranking in the top three in pass yards per attempt (8.9), pass and rush touchdowns (17) and passer rating (116.2). Murray has torched opponents all over the field, but particularly on throws outside the numbers. He leads the league with a 9:0 TD-INT ratio and 136.8 passer rating on those tosses, per Next Gen Stats. In addition, Murray has carved up defenses when targeting slot receivers, posting 12.5 yards per attempt (ranks first, min. 40 attempts), an 81.4 percent completion rate (first) and 137.0 passer rating (fourth) on such passes this season.
The pinpoint passer's diverse approach has forced opponents to defend the entire field, which leaves plenty of space for the team's talented collection of pass catchers to exploit.
Speaking of the Cardinals' receiving corps, it's difficult to piece together a group with a set of complementary skills that mesh well together, but Arizona has done it. From DeAndre Hopkins' spectacular skills as a 50-50 jump-ball specialist to A.J. Green's crafty play-making ability to Christian Kirk's underrated talents as a chain mover to Rondale Moore's ultra-versatile game, the Cardinals put pressure on the opponent to trot out a defensive backfield with the depth and talent to hold up against an all-star lineup.
The pressure on the Cardinals' opponents is only escalating with Zach Ertz coming on board in the past week to add another multi-faceted weapon to the arsenal. The three-time Pro Bowl tight end is one of the best route runners in the business with a set of skills that enable him to win from the slot or out wide in spread sets. He's also able to explode past defenders from a three-point stance while attached to the hip of an offensive tackle.
Ertz's sticky hands and playmaking ability add more firepower to a group that features five pass catchers with at least 20 catches (Hopkins, 26; Kirk, 26; Chase Edmonds, 26; Moore, 24; Green, 21). The balanced distribution is a testament to Murray's willingness to throw to the open receiver, and it's also an indicator of the receivers' selflessness and willing to sacrifice when it comes to compiling gaudy individual statistics.
Despite all of the attention the Cardinals' aerial circus has garnered during the team's sizzling start, no one should overlook a top-five rushing attack that has played a key role in making Kingsbury's offense a nightmare to deal with this season.
The Cardinals quietly are racking up 130.7 rush yards per game behind the two-man rotation of Edmonds (53 carries for 316 yards) and James Conner (79 carries for 272 yards and five TDs). The duo is thriving under Sean Kugler's direction as the team's run game coordinator, with the offense adopting a more physical approach at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals' running game surged to seventh in rush yards per game in 2020, but the unit has shown more ground-and-pound potential this season. That could make a huge difference when the team is playing in high-stakes December and January games (as could the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL right now, but we'll save that side of the ball for a later date).
The Cardinals' offense has displayed explosive potential since Kingsbury was hired in 2019, but the unit's evolution in 2021 gives the team a legitimate chance to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy. And hopefully the coach is back with his team in person very soon after spending the past week away from the facility following a positive COVID test.
LEONARD FOURNETTE: Bucs unlocking potential
I don't know how Bruce Arians did it, but he found a way to help Leonard Fournette realize his potential as a workhorse in a star-studded offense.
The fifth-year pro is posting career-best marks in yards per carry (4.3) and yards per catch (8.5) as the RB1 for the NFL's third-ranked offense. Although the Buccaneers rank near the bottom of the league in rush offense, Fournette has finished with 100-plus scrimmage yards in three straight games. With 376 yards from scrimmage (240 rushing, 136 receiving), he ranks behind Tennessee's Derrick Henry (463) and Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor (441) as the most productive playmakers in the league since Week 4.
"He's fit in," Arians told reporters this week. "He found his niche."
The former No. 4 overall pick has certainly carved out a nice role as a versatile weapon for the Bucs. Fournette has received a handoff or been targeted for a pass on 70 plays over the past three games. The heavy workload has confirmed his ascension into the leading role while silencing the critics who questioned his game and commitment during a turbulent three-year run with the Jaguars.
Despite posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, the Jaguars moved on from Fournette prior to the 2020 season. As a top draft pick, he was not only expected to carry the offense as a workhorse, but the Jaguars also expected to see more leadership qualities from him. However, Fournette failed in each area with injuries limiting his explosiveness on the field and his immaturity on the field and off leading to problems with the coaching staff.
In Tampa, Arians' hardline tactics and old-school approach have produced a new and improved player with a team-first attitude and multi-faceted game. The football world caught a glimpse of the veteran's revamped game when "Playoff Lenny" put up 448 scrimmage yards (300 rushing, 148 receiving) on 82 touches in last year's postseason. Fournette finished with 100-plus scrimmage yards in three of the Bucs' four playoff games and steadied the offense as a reliable backfield weapon.
Fast forward to 2021, and the veteran has continued to stabilize the offense as a rugged runner with check-down capabilities in the passing game. Fournette's hard-nosed running style has added a physical element to a Tampa Bay offense that prefers to throw the ball around the yard. With the ultra-physical runner also catching the ball consistently on swings, screens and checkdowns, the Bucs have upgraded their offense by fully utilizing the skills of a former blue-chip prospect.
RANDY GREGORY: Patience paying off for Cowboys
Credit Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys for hanging in there with Randy Gregory over the years while he battled his personal demons. The former second-round pick is rewarding the team for its patience with a breakout performance that has keyed a surging defense under new coordinator Dan Quinn.
Gregory has sparked the unit with four sacks, three tackles for loss and eight QB hits in five games. As a designated pass rusher off the edge, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound defender has flashed a combination of speed, quickness and power that has overwhelmed blockers at the point of attack. In addition, Gregory is playing with fanatical effort, producing disruptive plays on hustle and desire.
This is exactly how Jones envisioned the 28-year-old impacting the team after regaining control over his off-field struggles.
"Randy, I've been really impressed by the way he has stayed the course with legitimate life challenges," Jones said back in July. "He addresses them exemplarily. He has to fight the kinds of things that make those challenges for people. He has to fight that. I'm seeing him take the logic and the mentality of using what he's been through there, and I'm seeing him bring it over to his game and bring it over to being the professional he potentially might have the chance to be."
He's played in just 43 games since the Cowboys selected him 60th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, flashing his pass-rush potential throughout his career. It's all coming together for him now, though, as he has emerged as a perfect fit as an edge defender in Quinn's scheme. From his length to his first-step quickness and closing burst to his non-stop motor, the slender pass rusher has given the defense a versatile attack specialist to deploy in a few different positions to put relentless pressure on quarterbacks in the pocket.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming when Next Gen Stats credited Gregory with 27 quarterback pressures in 10 games a season ago. Knocking off the rust from an extended layoff due to his most recent suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, he made an immediate impact on a Dallas front line that lacked energy and effort.
This season, Quinn has taken advantage of Gregory's skills by moving him around to set up favorable matchups. The savvy defensive coordinator has also utilized more stunts with No. 94 featured prominently in the two-man game. Gregory's speed and quickness make him a nightmare to block when he has a running start to attack the pocket. With Quinn tapping into Gregory's athleticism and relentlessness as a pass rusher, quarterbacks who line up across from the Dallas D are facing constant harassment from a dynamic defender with something to prove.
BILL BELICHICK: Too conservative? Or just a realist?
What happened to the aggressive New England head coach who claimed six Super Bowl rings with a fearless mindset and killer instinct?
That is the question running through the Northeast, with Patriots fans wondering why Bill Belichick is playing the game so close to the vest after dominating the league for two decades by keeping opponents on their toes. The revered head man has dialed it back as a gambler, most noticeably on fourth-and-short situations. This conservatism has led to speculation that he lacks trust in his quarterback and offensive line, which, quite honestly, would be understandable.
The Patriots (2-4) are tied for the second-fewest fourth-down attempts with three. In fact, all three of those attempts came in the final two minutes of New England's 28-13 loss to New Orleans in Week 3. The Pats have not gone for it once in a non-desperation scenario. In a column earlier this week for the Boston Globe, Ben Volin charted every New England fourth down of this season, chronicling 23 punts, 15 field goal attempts and three offensive plays (with two conversions). And of those 41 fourth downs, 10 had to-go distances of 4 yards or fewer. In that down-and-distance range this year, the league is converting at a rate of 55 percent (88 for 160), per Volin. So why is Belichick suddenly operating so cautiously in a league that's increasingly keeping the offense on the field on fourth down?
While the analytics are pushing decision makers to utilize the extra down, a coach must consider the strengths and weaknesses of his own team. New England is starting a rookie quarterback behind an injury-plagued and underachieving offensive line. In addition, this Pats' defense is mediocre, ranking 17th in total D (359.2 yards per game). Those factors certainly do not inspire a lot of confidence when the coaching staff is considering whether or not to make a midfield gamble that could gift a scoring opportunity to the opposition. Belichick is playing the long game, based on his team's personnel and performance. Although the raw numbers might suggest going for it in certain scenarios, Belichick apparently does not trust his offense to come through -- or his defense to hold the fort on a short field.
Belichick's job is to put his team in the best position to win, and when I look at this roster, I can't argue with his general approach here. New England has a dearth of blue-chip players on both sides of the ball. These kinds of decisions often come down to a coach's trust in his No. 1 player to get the job done, and the Patriots do not have enough established studs to count on in critical moments. Tom Brady isn't walking through that door anymore.
Fans can implore Belichick to put his faith in Mac Jones, but without the luxury of a premier playmaker on the perimeter or a stingy defense in support, would you feel comfortable putting the game on the rookie's shoulders?