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 an offense that could run circles around the NFL in 2018 ...
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Tyreek Hill might've been onto something in late August, when he boldly predicted the Kansas City Chiefs would have the top offense in football. At the time, most of us chalked this up to the kind of optimistic banter that flows out of training camps across the NFL, but take another look at the Pro Bowl receiver's words to my NFL Network colleague, Stacey Dales.
"I know that we will be the best offense in this National Football League, without a doubt in my head," Hill told Dales after K.C.'s third preseason game. "We got the best tight end, the best running back, we got two of the best deep-ball threat receivers -- Sammy Watkins addition, who can do it all -- great offensive line, Hall of Fame coach. So, the sky's the limit for us. It's up to us to put all the pieces together."
On paper, there's no disputing the Chiefs' potential. The team has one of the most explosive playmakers in football in Hill and a dynamic catch-and-run specialist in Watkins who brings the potential to score from anywhere on the field. And then there's Travis Kelce, the ultra-versatile tight end who has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in each of the past two seasons. Throw in the reigning NFL rushing king (Kareem Hunt) and a strong-arm gunslinger capable of throwing the ball out of the stadium (Patrick Mahomes), and the Chiefs have the kind of personnel that makes "Madden" gamers salivate over the potential to hang a 50 burger on any opponent.
With Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) adept at crafting creative plays pulled straight from collegiate playbooks, the Chiefs stress opposing defenses with their collective speed, quickness and scheme deception.
Reviewing game tape from Kansas City's 38-28 Week 1 win over the Chargers, the explosive potential of this unit is plain to see, particularly when Reid is on his game as a play caller. The Chiefs featured a variety of misdirection plays, including the fly sweep, to keep defenders on their heels. The misdirection and deception is tantalizing eye candy to defenders, which leads to hesitation and uncertainty at the point of attack. Considering the speed and explosiveness of Hill and Watkins on vertical routes, any momentary pause can result in the ball flying over the head of defenders in the back end.
But there's so much more to K.C.'s offense than a "bombs away" approach with a second-year signal-caller at the helm. The team has added more quick-rhythm concepts to the game plan, with an assortment of bubble/jailbreak screens designed to immediately get the ball into the hands of Hill and Watkins on the outside. Both burners can turn these line-of-scrimmage passes into explosive gains with their quickness and dynamic open-field skills. Kelce is also a weapon on these concepts, as a big-bodied playmaker with A-plus athleticism and speed. Just check out this 80-yard touchdown from two seasons ago:
Considering the high completion rate and explosive potential of these plays, it is sensible to feature them prominently in the game plan each week. They help Mahomes settle into a rhythm as a passer, while also getting top playmakers touches on the perimeter.
To that last point, the Chiefs have to find a way to keep Hunt involved in the game as a runner in order to fully maximize the unit's potential. The 2017 rushing champ tallied just 49 rushing yards on 16 carries in Week 1. Those numbers must improve to force opponents to respect K.C.'s ground attack. The Chiefs went 6-0 last season when Hunt logged at least 20 rushing attempts.
Before the season, I thought Kansas City's offense looked like a re-creation of the most explosive attacks Reid fielded in Philadelphia, with Hill, Watkins, Kelce and Hunt respectively reprising the roles of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy. After watching the pieces of the puzzles come together quickly in Week 1, I believe the Chiefs' 2018 offense is not only the best unit Reid has directed, but it could indeed surpass the Rams' attack as the top-ranked offense in the league.
JOSH ALLEN'S FIRST START: What I'd like to see in Buffalo's game plan
Allen, a late-bloomer prep prospect who started two years at Wyoming, was widely advertised as a cannon-armed project who would need some time to get acclimated in the NFL. That said, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound passer is a significant upgrade over Peterman, and the Bills can put a plan in place to help him keep his head above water as a starter. Looking back at Allen's performance throughout the preseason, I believe there are a handful of concepts and plays that will help the rookie find his rhythm earlier in games.
As a spectacular deep-ball thrower with A+ arm talent, Allen excels at pushing the ball down the field on vertical passes off play-action. Although he is routinely late with his reads, he has enough arm strength to make up for the hesitation with laser-like tosses. Allen routinely fires the ball to the boundary on deep outs/comebacks, while also throwing darts to receivers on deep in-breaking patterns, particularly digs and deep crossers at intermediate range. He has a good feel for finding and leading receivers into open areas with his throws after turning his back to the defense to sell the run-action fake. In fact, Allen's comfort level with play-action should encourage the Bills to build the bulk of their game plan around the ground game and a complementary play-action passing attack. With defenders intent on stopping LeSean McCoy to put the Bills behind the chains, Buffalo would be wise to flip the script and throw more play-action passes on early downs to keep the offense on schedule. If Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones can win their one-on-one matchups on the outside, the combination of play-action and vertical routes could lead to some first downs and touchdowns against an overaggressive front seven.
The Bills should also consider putting in some RPO (run-pass option) concepts and zone-read plays to take advantage of Allen's underrated skills as a runner. When I watched the QB at Wyoming, I thought he could do some Cam Newton-like things in the ground game. The Bills could tap into those skills by featuring some designed quarterback runs, with No. 17 racing around the corner on QB sweeps and QB powers. If Allen can pad his stats with 50 or so rushing yards, he can add a dimension to Buffalo's offense and force defenders to play 11-on-11 on running downs.
Overall, the Bills should keep the long-term plans in mind when they trot out Allen this weekend. They should exhibit enough patience to live through his mistakes as a rookie starter and focus on building him up for the 2019 season. From discovering which passing concepts work for him to figuring out how many RPOs and read-options fit his game to determining what kind of pass catchers are needed on the perimeter, Buffalo must ignore the results and focus on the process of helping Allen get better. That's the only way this first-round pick will become the franchise quarterback everyone wants in Western New York.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
Before you dismiss my chatter as crazy talk, I think it is important to understand my point when it comes to Rodgers' playing style and how it impacts Green Bay's offense.
The two-time MVP -- who's listed as "questionable" for Sunday's game against the Vikings -- is arguably the best player in the league, due to a spectacular game that mixes improvisation with A+ arm talent, pinpoint accuracy and a gunslinger's mentality. Rodgers is one of the few quarterbacks in the NFL with the capacity to play like a surgeon from the pocket or operate like a jazz musician on the perimeter playing to his own beat. In fact, No. 12's improvisational skills are so dynamic that defenders fear Rodgers more when he flees the pocket.
"He is at his best when he can run around and make plays like it is sandlot football," an AFC secondary coach told me. "He kills you with the unscripted plays. When he dances around the pocket or runs around until one of his receivers breaks free on the scramble drill. ... It is hard for defenders to stay in 'plaster' mode for extended periods of time when the Packers are so good at the organized chaos of the scramble drill. Rodgers has enough arm talent and athleticism to wait for one of his guys to get open and drop a dime to him anywhere on the field. ... He makes life miserable for defenders in coverage."
To that point, Rodgers has been the league's most effective big-play QB on the move. Since 2016, he has the NFL's highest touchdown rate on the run with an 11.0 mark that more than doubles the league average (5.3) during that span, according to NFL Research.
Despite his remarkable production operating outside of the pocket, Rodgers' improvisational style can disrupt the rhythm and flow of the offense. A series of broken plays in succession can make it hard for Mike McCarthy to get the team's other playmakers into a groove with specific play calls. Most importantly, it prevents the play caller from being able to properly assess and attack the defense when so much of the offensive production is tied to scramble tosses and second-reaction plays.
Looking at Rodgers' performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 from my press-box seat, I felt the Packers' first-half struggles were partially due to the QB's impromptu playing style. Rodgers uncharacteristically failed to play on schedule during the first few series of the game, which led to a handful of incompletions on broken plays. To be fair, Khalil Mack was crushing the pocket off the edge, but Rodgers was off the mark when tossing the ball after dancing around in the pocket in the first half. Just look at the numbers:
Week 1 (pre-injury): 3 for 7, 13 yards, 50.3 passer rating.
Week 1 (post-injury): 17 for 23, 273 yards, 3 TDs, 152.7 passer rating.
Those numbers certainly tell part of the story, but if you dig a little deeper into Next Gen Stats, you can see that Rodgers' first-half woes could be tied to his decision to run around a little more in the pocket. Despite taking more time to throw, Rodgers' completion rate was down and he ran into a few pressures, as evidenced by the increased pressure rate and scramble-yards-per-attempt numbers. In an attempt to make bigger plays on improvised scrambles, Rodgers actually hurt his offense with his play. The offensive line couldn't adequately protect him because it didn't know the launch point. As a result, the Packers inadvertently blocked defenders into the quarterback, leading to unnecessary sacks, QB hits and blocked passing lanes.
Aaron Rodgers by half in Week 1 vs. the Bears:
-- Average time to throw: 3.54 seconds | Pressure rate: 33.3 | Scramble yards per attempt: 8.2 | Average mph at throw: 4.53.
-- Average time to throw: 2.78 seconds | Pressure rate: 21.7 | Scramble yards per attempt: 4.2 | Average mph at throw: 2.92.
Although the offensive line is certainly familiar with Rodgers' playing style and improvisational ways, there is something to be said for playing disciplined football within the pocket. Rodgers' knee injury limited his mobility and tied him to the pocket in the second half. As a result, No. 12 changed his game and played more like a shortstop "turning two" in the second half. He fired the ball to Randall Cobb and Davante Adams on an assortment of quick passes to the perimeter. Rodgers relied on his playmakers' exceptional run-after-catch abilities to pick up yardage, instead of trying to create big plays with scramble tosses.
With Rodgers piling up completions on a variety of "catch and fire" passes, the Packers' offense finally looked like the efficient juggernaut that routinely lights up scoreboards around the league. Each completion forced the defense to overreact to the quick game, prompting Bears corners to creep up toward the line of scrimmage to make "bang-bang" tackles, but leaving them vulnerable to the deep ball. Rodgers eventually exploited those tactics by throwing the ball over the top of the defense on go-routes down the boundary (SEE: Geronimo Allison's 39-yard touchdown).
This cat-and-mouse game certainly shifts the advantage to the veteran quarterback and allows the Packers' offense to roll behind a simplistic approach. With the knee injury also forcing the Packers to use more pistol formation running plays, the team is able to create big-play opportunities in the passing game on a variety of play-action fakes on downhill action.
Overall, Rodgers' injury not only forces him to play with more discipline and structure in the pocket, but it prompts McCarthy to stick to the script as a play caller. Given the Packers' success with the All-Pro quarterback and savvy play caller working together, Rodgers' unfortunate knee injury could make the offense flow better, with a hard-and-fast script that leans on quick passes, runs and clever play-action passes instead of random scramble tosses outside of the pocket.
2) The key to Michael Thomas' monster production. When it comes to elite wide receivers, I don't think Michael Thomas came into this season on most people's top-five lists, despite having started his NFL career with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. But Sean Payton's decision to use the 6-3, 212-pounder extensively in the slot could help him slip past the velvet ropes into the VIP section in 2018.
Thomas is fresh off a remarkable Week 1 performance that saw him torch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the tune of 16 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. Showcasing his dominance as a pass catcher between the numbers, No. 13 overpowered smaller defensive backs on short and intermediate patterns that allowed him to use his strength and physicality to create space at the top of each route. Thomas' giant catch radius makes him a QB-friendly target for Drew Brees to rely on in critical situations.
"The game is changing," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "Instead of playing with smaller, quicker guys, teams are using big slot receivers to create mismatches. Although bigger pass catchers are slower, they have a huge catch radius that makes life easier for the quarterback. ... It's like having another tight end on the field.
"How do you match up with it? Your third and fourth corner aren't used to playing a bigger guy and your No. 1 corner might not be comfortable playing inside. Either way, you've created problems by putting a big slot corner on the field."
Studying the New Orleans Saints' offense over that past decade, Payton has always found a big, athletic pass catcher to occupy this role. For years, Marques Colston gave opponents fits from the slot as the Saints' WR1. He effectively worked the seams on Brees' favorite four-vertical routes while also finding soft spots in zones on a variety of "sit down" patterns between the hashes.
Thomas has stepped into that role in the Saints' offense since becoming the team's No. 1 receiver following the Brandin Cooks trade prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. Thomas ran 116 routes out of the slot in 2017 and was targeted on 47 of them (40.5 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. That target percentage led all slot receivers by a whopping margin (Robert Woods and Adam Thielen ranked second with a 25 percent target rate from the slot) and surpassed the historically gaudy rates registered by Wes Welker (34.7 percent in 2009), Michael Crabtree (33.6 in 2012), Brandon Marshall (32.8 in 2009) and Julio Jones (31.4 in 2015).
Looking at Thomas' Week 1 performance, it is apparent Payton will continue to feature his No. 1 receiver between the hashes early and often in 2018. According to Next Gen Stats, No. 13 logged 53.5 percent of his routes from the slot and posted exceptional numbers when working between the hashes. He finished with 10 receptions on 11 targets in the slot (90.9 catch rate) with 96 receiving yards and a score. Thomas' 133.3 passer rating on targets to him in the slot will certainly encourage Brees to send even more balls in his direction. According to Next Gen Stats, Thomas averaged 4.2 receiving yards per route run from the slot in Week 1 -- that lofty figure is even greater than his league-leading average of 3.6 yards per route run in the slot in 2017.
3) How far can D carry the Jets? The streets of New York are buzzing about the Jets' franchise quarterback, but fans of Gang Green should be even more excited about the team's promising defense. Fueled by a handful of homegrown playmakers, the unit has the potential to spark a playoff run for a team that was viewed as an afterthought by many observers heading into this season.
The Jets are coming off a spectacular performance on a prime-time stage, but the seeds of their collective greatness were planted during the draft process over the past four seasons. The Jets adhered to the old-school premise of building a dominant defense right down the middle by using three consecutive first-round picks on an interior defensive lineman (Leonard Williams, 2015), inside linebacker (Darron Lee, 2016) and a safety (Jamal Adams, 2017). The trio not only formed the nucleus of a more athletic defense with "culture-changers" at every level, but they gave the Jets A-level playmakers with the capacity to deliver splash plays and turnovers.
When I was a young player with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the mid-1990s, my defensive coordinator (Dick Jauron) told me that all championship-caliber defenses must be strong down the middle. He stressed that elite defenses feature five-star players at defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety. Jauron believed a rock-solid set of interior players would dominate opponents and create scoring opportunities for the offense.
Looking at Gang Green's unit, the old-school defense theory certainly comes to life when studying the games of Williams, Lee and Adams as the worker bees for the D.
"When I look at them, I see a group of high-IQ players with the energy and passion that you want as a group," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You can tell they prepare the right way by the way they pass off things (routes) in the secondary. They play with a level of trust that is only created on the practice field. ... Todd (Bowles) has them playing well. That's a credit to him and his staff for getting them to buy in."
While Bowles deserves credit for getting the group to play together on the field, Mike Maccagnan merits a tip of the cap for building the team the right way. The savvy general manager knocked it out of the park in the early rounds of the draft from 2015 to 2017 by sticking to a "BPA" (best player available) strategy when the Jets were on the clock. Williams, Lee and Adams were expected to be off the board by the time the Jets made their first pick, but fate dropped each of the blue-chip prospects into the team's lap.
Despite having more glaring needs in each of those drafts, the Jets opted for the best player, regardless of position, and the defense's strong play is certainly a reward for sticking to their game plan on draft day. But New York's brass also deserves credit for wisely using free agency to fill in the gaps on the roster. Trumaine Johnson joined Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine as recent free-agent signees in the secondary to give the team an experienced set of playmakers in the CB1, CB2 and CB3 roles.
Along the front seven, the team added Avery Williamson to the linebacker corps in the offseason to support a defensive line that features another blue-collar free-agent addition in Steve McLendon (2016). With the team also getting contributions from former Day 2 draft picks Jordan Jenkins (Round 3, 2016), Marcus Maye (Round 2, 2017; currently dealing with a foot injury) and Nathan Shepherd (Round 3, 2018), the Jets have gotten value from every player in the starting lineup.
In fact, the Jets' team-building approach is similar to the way Hall of Famer Ron Wolf told me championship teams should be constructed in the salary-cap era. The wily executive believed championship teams are primarily built through the draft with a few free agents added to the mix to fill any glaring holes. In studying the Jets' defensive depth chart, I see they have certainly adhered to that philosophy with a nice mix of homegrown stars and key free agents.
That said, the Jets are still a pass rusher away from fielding a defense that looks like it's championship-caliber on paper. This explains the team's reported interest in Khalil Mack when he was on the trade block, particularly after watching the Jets join the Saints and Dolphins as the only teams to fail to record a sack in Week 1.
Although teams have fielded solid defenses without five-star pass rushers, it's hard to win consistently without collecting sacks. Last season, the Buffalo Bills (27) and Kansas City Chiefs (31) earned playoff berths while finishing in the bottom third of the league in sacks. By comparison, seven of the top 10 teams in sacks reached the postseason tournament. With that in mind, the Jets will need to find a way to generate a decent pass rush through blitzing or heavy coverage tactics to solidify their place among the championship-caliber defenses in the league.
If the team can find a pass rusher or create a sack-by-committee approach, the Jets' defense could spearhead a playoff run with a rookie under center.