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 how the final four remaining teams were built ...
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Defense wins championships ... right?
That's what I've been taught to believe since I strapped on the pads for the first time as a 7-year-old Pop Warner player, but the game has definitely transformed at the NFL level. Explosive offenses are reigning supreme and team builders should pay attention to the changing landscape when it comes to constructing a contender in 2019.
Instead of focusing on limiting points with stifling defense, the teams that are competing for the Lombardi Trophy today are the ones capable of lighting up scoreboards. Need proof? Check out the last four teams remaining in this postseason tournament: Not only were the Chiefs (35.3 points per game), Rams (32.9), Saints (31.5) and Patriots (27.2) the four highest-scoring clubs during the 2018 regular season, but this foursome combined to average the most points (31.8), yards (404.8) and passing yards (277.5) per game of any Championship Sunday quartet in the Super Bowl era. The Rams and Chiefs scored 30-plus points in 12 regular-season games. Prior to 2018, only four teams had ever accomplished that feat in a single season: the 1999 Rams, 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots and 2013 Broncos, all of whom made the Super Bowl (though only the '99 Rams won it all).
Times are certainly changing, with league rules making it advantageous for organizations to load up their rosters with passers and playmakers capable of exploiting the freeway-like conditions present over the middle of the field. The best teams in the league are throwing the ball between the numbers and allowing their top targets to feast on defenses with catch-and-run plays, in addition to pushing the ball down the field to rack up explosive plays.
It's not a coincidence that the Chiefs are the most explosive offense in football, with a quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who throws deep on 15.1 percent of his passes (third-most in the NFL). As a result, Mahomes amassed 75 regular-season completions of at least 20 yards (tops in the league) and 15 completions of 40 yards or more (second-most).
Interestingly, Jared Goff ranks behind only Mahomes with 69 completions of at least 20 yards. The Rams' QB1 uses the threat of play-action to throw the ball over defenders' heads. In 2018, Goff paced the NFL in rate of play-action attempts (35.4 percent of dropbacks) and touchdowns on play-action passes (13), according to Pro Football Focus. That's a ton of production using the threat of the run to lure defenders to the line of scrimmage, but it makes sense, based on the success of their running game. The Rams and Saints are the only teams in the NFL with 30-plus touchdown passes and 20-plus touchdown runs. That speaks to the balance displayed by those teams -- and underscores the chameleon-like nature of each of the final four participants.
Studying each of the offenses playing on Championship Sunday, the diversity stands out. The Rams, Saints and Patriots feature power-based rush attacks to go with multi-pronged passing games that create headaches for their opponents. The Chiefs are just as potent on the ground, but their scheme features a little more deception and misdirection than brute force. That's not a slight or dismissal of their backfield talent, but the myriad shifts, motions and misdirection actions help runners find creases between the tackles.
Looking at the power-based running trio, I believe more teams should pay attention to the collections of RB talented assembled by those squads. Each team features at least two running backs with diverse skills as potential RB1s. The Rams have a pair of bulky backs (Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson) with hard-nosed running games. The Saints have interchangeable RB1s with explosive inside running skills and spectacular pass-catching skills. Although Mark Ingram is more of a screen-game playmaker and Alvin Kamara is a dynamic route runner out of the backfield, the Saints can rely on either one to steady the passing game. The Patriots are unique in their approach, with Sony Michel operating as the lead back and James White used primarily as a receiver in the passing game. Michel does the dirty work between the tackles out of run-heavy sets and a few select spread packages. Meanwhile, White racks up receptions on an assortment of swings, screens and option routes from spread and empty formations. White's versatility makes him an easy No. 1 target to lean on against opponents intent on taking away the Patriots' outside treats.
"In an ideal world, you would love to have two running backs with complementary skills," an AFC running backs coach told me. "It's hard to manage with different styles of backs, but an organized play-caller with some creativity can pull it off."
The common thread between the final four also shows up along the offensive line. Each of these teams has invested in the O-line, with general managers throwing draft substantial capital, free agency bucks and man hours in pursuit of a rock-solid five-man front. The Rams, Saints and Chiefs, in particular, have been able to do it through notable acquisitions on draft day or through free agency.
Kansas City drafted LT Eric Fisher No. 1 overall and added RT Mitchell Schwartz as a marquee free-agent signee to shore up the bookends. The Saints invested a couple of first-round picks on starters (Andrus Peat and Ryan Ramczyk) and acquired an additional starter (Max Unger) through a blockbuster trade. The Rams solidified their offensive line with the signing of Andrew Whitworth, but they have a few homegrown products (Rodger Saffold and Rob Havenstein, both second-round picks) in the nucleus of their front line.
The Patriots have done it primarily by acquiring inexpensive, developmental players in the later rounds or in the bargain-basement bin of college or street free agency. LG Joe Thuney (a 2016 third-rounder), RG Shaq Mason (a 2015 fourth-rounder) and RT Marcus Cannon (a 2011 fifth-rounder) are former draft-and-develop projects who blossomed into starters. Center David Andrews also qualifies as a developmental player after entering the league as a college free agent in 2015. Left tackle Trent Brown was acquired in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. It certainly takes a lot of coaching and player development to pull off the Patriots' plan, but the sweat-equity investment enables the franchise to devote dollars to other areas of the roster.
A cheap QB1 also makes it easier to build a title contender. The Rams and Chiefs have first-round picks playing on rookie contracts while performing like five-star players at the position. Goff and Mahomes will eventually get big-money deals after snagging Pro Bowl honors and division titles, but a quick look at their competitors should prompt their teams to hold firm on overpaying for the position. With Brady and Brees playing on below-market deals -- at least relative to their career accolades -- the Patriots and Saints have each been able to put together a supporting cast that can elevate the play of the quarterback as his skills diminish with age.
The copycat nature of the NFL will lead every executive and coach to look at the participants in Sunday's doubleheader to see if there are lessons to be gleaned from their individual and collective approaches. With four high-powered offenses defining this season's tournament play, the general shift towards an offensive-centric team-building approach will only increase.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) The curious case of C.J. Anderson. It's uncommon for a player to go from couch potato to key contributor overnight, but that's been the case with Anderson's sudden re-emergence with the Rams. The one-time Pro Bowler, who spent time with the Panthers and Raiders earlier this season, has rushed for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games since joining the team in the middle of Week 16. Anderson has teamed with Todd Gurley to give the Rams a punishing 1-2 punch at running back that plays to the fears of every defensive coordinator in the league.
"This is the time of year when the running game really matters," the AFC running backs coach from the initial section of this piece told me. "You have to be able to get the tough yards to win. ... To have a pair of 'big' running backs with the size, strength and physicality to punish defenses is a rarity. The Rams have stumbled onto a combination that makes them a nightmare to deal with in the playoffs."
To that point, the Rams unleashed their new RB combination on the Cowboys in the Divisional Round to great effect, tallying 273 rushing yards in a 30-22 win that felt more lopsided than the final score indicates. Anderson topped the 100-yard mark for the third time in a Rams' uniform, exhibiting a rugged running style that makes defenders cringe. In addition, the 27-year-old showed impressive skills as the designated "closer" in the game's waning moments. Anderson's presence as the RB1 in the Rams' four-minute drill was significant because it suggests Sean McVay trusts the veteran in critical moments when most of the football world would expect Gurley to be in the game.
"Anderson has always been a stud," said the AFC running backs coach. "He rushed for 1,000 yards behind a bad offensive line in Denver. He's playing with a better offensive line and you're seeing what he can do.
"He's the real deal."
That's a strong endorsement for a running back who couldn't crack the rotation on a pair of non-playoff teams, but Anderson has proven he's a capable runner with the Rams. Specifically, he has shown that he is a perfect fit in the team's zone-based scheme that features inside- and outside-zone plays designed to "get a hat on a hat" at the point of attack, with the running back hitting the line of scrimmage with his shoulders square. With the offensive line instructed to cut down blockers on the back side while the front-side blockers latch on and run defenders out of their lanes, Anderson's downhill running style makes him the perfect guy to exploit creases created by overaggressive defenders.
The combination of Anderson and Gurley gives the Rams a unique RBBC (running back by committee) situation, with a pair of big backs capable of doing similar things within the scheme. To be clear, I'm not suggesting No. 35 is a Tier 1 back like No. 30, but the Rams don't have to adjust their play-calling with the newbie in the game. McVay is comfortable with either guy in the ground attack, which enables the runners to sub in and out without issue. In the passing game, Gurley is a more dynamic weapon on screens and extended backfield routes, but the running backs are primarily used as outlets in the Rams' aerial attack, particularly on play-action passes that mirror the team's base runs.
"It's hard to call plays in a committee situation when the running backs have different styles," the AFC running backs coach said. "There are so many moving parts that it is hard for the play-caller to put the right players in the game for their best plays. When you have a couple of backs capable of doing similar things, it makes it easier for him to call the game without worrying about the perfect play or rotation."
Studying the Next Gen Stats from the Divisional Round, I found it interesting that Gurley played 55.3 percent of the Rams' offensive snaps (42 of 76) with Anderson on the field for 44.7 percent (34 of 76) of the time. That's essentially an even split for a team that operates primarily out of "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) using a variety of condensed and bunch formations.
When the ground game was directed between the tackles, Gurley (10 rushes for 80 yards and a score) and Anderson (19 rushes for 102 yards and two scores) helped the Rams average 6.3 yards per rush on such runs, according to Pro Football Focus.
Facing a New Orleans defense that will be without injured defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the Rams' dynamic duo could be the focal point of McVay's game plan once again. Without No. 98 on the field, the Saints were allowing 3.4 yards per run play, yielding gains of 10-plus yards on just 6.6 percent of run snaps. Without Rankins? Those figures jump to 3.8 and 10.3, respectively. Thus, the Rams' 1-2 punch could exploit a sudden weakness in the middle of New Orleans' defensive front.
2) Bruce Arians is the perfect coach for Jameis Winston. I'm not a big believer in hiring a head coach based solely on his ability to develop a quarterback, but I absolutely love the marriage between Arians and Winston. The grizzled quarterback whisperer is the ideal mentor to help the former No. 1 overall pick maximize his talent.
Now, I know it is hard to envision a quarterback who's struggled mightily with turnovers his entire NFL career suddenly becoming an elite QB1, but Arians has helped the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer become stars under his tutelage. That's why Arians is confident he can transform Winston into a marquee player while also resurrecting Tampa Bay into a title contender.
"I think he can win it all," Arians said on "The Rich Eisen Show." "I mean, he has the intelligence, the toughness, and obviously the arm ability to lead a team. We have to put the right pieces around him."
Despite his turnover woes (58 interceptions and 18 lost fumbles in four seasons) and 21-33 record as a starter, Winston has certainly shown promise as a QB1. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in the each of his first two seasons. In addition, Winston is already the franchise leader in passing touchdowns (88).
With that in mind, I think Arians' experience crafting offenses around quarterbacks should serve him well in Tampa. He built vertical passing games around Luck and Palmer with speedy, playmaking pass catchers on the perimeter. In addition, he incorporated timing-based routes that required his signal-callers to throw on schedule and with anticipation, particularly on intermediate routes off dropbacks or play-action.
"They're going to be great together," Palmer said on NFL Network's "Up to the Minute." "It's probably the best thing that could've happened to Jameis at this point in his career. Getting a guy like B.A. to come in and clean up some things technically, and really installing what he does best, and that's push the ball down the field. [Arians will find] ways to get the ball down the field to Mike Evans with DeSean Jackson there and speed on the outside. His passing game, his vertical passing game, is just different. It's hard to defend. You don't see it throughout the league. Every team doesn't do what he does. That combined with the way that Jameis can throw the ball down the field with accuracy. I think it's a great tandem."
Looking at the Buccaneers, they certainly have the pieces in place to excel in a system that is specifically tailored toward Winston's strengths as a passer. Evans is a big-bodied WR1 with the size, athleticism and leaping ability to expand the strike zone. He overwhelms defenders with his strength and physicality, which makes him a dominant threat in the red zone, as well. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are a nice tandem at tight end, with each pass catcher capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes as designated chain-movers. Howard also adds a little sizzle to the lineup as an inside vertical threat on seam routes. Chris Godwin is a rugged possession receiver with the size, strength and toughness to make the tough catches over the middle. He has the potential to be a solid starter opposite Evans, or he could thrive as a dominant WR3 in an 11 personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) that features a burner on the outside.
Arians has also been aggressively recruiting Jackson to return as a vertical threat on the perimeter. The veteran pass catcher remains one of the NFL's most dangerous big-play receivers -- he could easily average 20-plus yards per catch in Arians' aggressive system.
From a coaching standpoint, I think it is important to note the addition of Byron Leftwich as the team's offensive coordinator. Leftwich, who lined up under center for 10 years in the NFL, has already earned rave reviews for his work with quarterbacks in the past. He will not only call plays for the Buccaneers, but will work with Winston on the nuances of the position. As a former starter with significant playing experience, Leftwich can offer some real insight and perspective on how to manage the game from the position in a winning fashion. In addition, Leftwich can call the game through the quarterback's eyes, which will make life easier for Winston as a passer.
Considering Arians' success building franchise quarterbacks on winning squads, I think that the Buccaneers could re-emerge as playoff contenders behind a signal-caller who's being tutored by a proven QB whisperer.
3) Can Chuck Pagano take the Bears' defense to the next level? It is hard to imagine the Chicago Bears' defense improving on a 2018 campaign that saw the unit lead the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed per play, rushing defense and interceptions, but that's the task facing Chuck Pagano as he takes over a dominant unit in the Windy City. The 58-year-old, who served as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011 before spending six seasons as the Colts' head coach, inherits a defense that features a former Defensive Player of the Year (Khalil Mack) and a host of young defenders with speed, athleticism and playmaking ability.
"They're going to be good because they have players," an AFC secondary coach told me. "He's going to let them play. ... He's going to look at what they've done before and try to stick to that formula while putting his own spin on it. That's what he did in Baltimore and it worked for him. I would expect him to do the same in Chicago."
The Bears emerged as one of the top defenses in football under Vic Fangio. The wily defensive wizard -- who is now head coach of the Denver Broncos -- helped the unit rise from 31st in points allowed (in the season prior to his arrival) to No. 1 (in his fourth season at the helm). Utilizing a 3-4 zone-based scheme that placed an emphasis on keeping the ball in front of the defense, Bears defenders wore down opponents with their collective hustle, discipline and detail. Although some observers would call Chicago's defensive approach simplistic, based on the conservative nature of Fangio's play calls, the straightforward game plans routinely put players in optimal positions to make plays.
"Chuck, he understands what he's getting into here player-wise," Nagy said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. "That when you're surrounded by good players, a lot of times it's the players and not the plays. Chuck has a lot of experience. He gets that, and he'll do everything he can to keep this thing rolling."
Based on Pagano's history as a defensive coordinator and secondary coach, the Bears will be more aggressive under his direction. He believes in bringing blitz pressure and using man coverage behind it. That's a drastic change for a Chicago defense that relied on four-man rushes and the occasional zone-blitz to heat up the quarterback. That said, Pagano's preferred tight man coverage should eliminate some of the layups and quick passes opponents are creating to prop up their quarterbacks. Most importantly, the added pressure will lead to more sacks, turnovers and negative plays.
"He has an attacking mentality," Nagy said. "He is aggressive, but as we talk about all the time, be calculated, too. You've got to be smart with it. But he's been in this league for a while. He's had a lot of success. The more we talked, the more I felt that this is a really good, perfect fit for us. Just really looking forward to it and excited for it."
In Baltimore, Pagano took over a star-studded defense known for its run-stopping prowess and made it a stifling unit against the pass. In his one year as Baltimore's DC, he took the Ravens from 21st in passing yards allowed and ninth in passing touchdowns allowed to fourth and first, respectively, in those categories.
Considering Pagano did it with a defense that already featured Ravens icons Ray Lewis and Ed Reed upon his arrival -- as well as and a host of ultra-talented supporting cast members -- I believe the veteran coach is more than capable of upgrading the Bears' defense without making wholesale scheme changes.