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 Carolina's defensive resurgence.
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Entering this season, the Dallas Cowboys' offense was routinely portrayed as a potential video game-like scoring machine with stars at every key position. But it's time for Jerry Jones and Co. to realize they're missing an elite wide receiver on the perimeter.
Before you @ me on Twitter suggesting I'm a hater ... Game film, traditional statistics and quantitative data all suggest Bryant is a player on the decline with an increasingly limited game. After posting three straight seasons of 1,200-plus yards and totaling 41 touchdowns from 2012 through '14, Bryant hasn't come close to the 1,000-yard mark in either of the past two years, with injuries seemingly robbing him of the explosiveness that once made him a dominant playmaker on the outside.
Despite finishing 2016 with eight touchdowns and an impressive average of 15.9 yards per catch, Bryant is basically a jump-ball specialist who lacks the route-running skills to get open against elite cornerbacks.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I see that Bryant primarily runs three routes from an out-wide alignment: slants, go-routes and digs/crossers. He uses his superior strength and length to push off or separate from defenders at the top of routes. Bryant's lack of polish on intermediate routes prevents him from being an integral part of the passing game, particularly when opponents employ press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
This coincides with the information I received from our Next Gen Stats team here at NFL Media. The Cowboys' WR1 averaged just 1.82 yards of separation at the target in 2016, which was well below the NFL average of 2.70 yards. Through the first two weeks of this season, Bryant's separation number has dipped to 1.68 yards at the target, compared to the league average of 2.88. With Bryant struggling to come down with tight-window targets (targets with less than 1 yard of separation from the defender) in 2017 -- the Cowboys receiver has only hauled in one of nine tight-window targets -- it is becoming tougher for Dallas to feed its WR1.
With all that said, Bryant still has value to the Cowboys as a complementary player. He is still capable of winning 50-50 balls on the perimeter, an ability that strikes fear into defenders.
"He's still a jump-ball God out here," Talib said earlier this week, via the Dallas Morning News. "If you throw him the ball, he's probably going to come down with it nine times out of 10. He's a real good receiver, and just playing him in the past, that ain't going to help you."
The Cowboys can help their No. 1 receiver regain some of his effectiveness in the passing game by being more creative with his deployment in formations. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can use more motions and stack formations to help Dez escape press coverage at the line of scrimmage. In addition, Dallas can incorporate some pre-snap shifts into the game plan to keep defensive coordinators guessing about Bryant's whereabouts on every play. Careful scripting can mask Dez's loss of explosiveness as a playmaker. And overall, creative play design could help the Cowboys transition their longtime No. 1 receiver into a more effective complementary role in the passing game.
GIANTS' OFFENSE: Stop blaming the line for all of the struggles
The narrative surrounding the 2017 New York Giants is that their offensive woes are primarily due to an inept offensive line that features five turnstiles at the line of scrimmage. A popular notion going around is that Big Blue's front line is the worst collection of offensive linemen in the league, given their inability to keep a two-time Super Bowl MVP upright in the pocket or generate a push in the running game.
While I can't completely absolve Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry and Bobby Hart from blame for the team's dismal 0-2 start, I'm here to tell you the Giants' woes primarily fall on the shoulders of Ben McAdoo, Eli Manning and an underachieving set of pass catchers and ball carriers who've failed to live up to the hype that preceded the season.
My film study and some close statistical analysis suggests the team's front line is being unfairly blamed for all the Giants' woes when it's really the skill guys who are consistently coming up short. From Manning's struggles with accuracy, ball placement and decisiveness to the pass catchers' problems creating separation and holding onto the ball to the running backs' lack of explosiveness between the tackles, New York's offensive ineptitude can be pinned on a number of factors that have little to do with the play of the big boys up front.
For instance, the Giants are providing Manning with more time to throw in the pocket than he experienced a season ago. Next Gen Stats show that he has averaged 2.76 seconds from snap to throw, which is significantly higher than his 2016 mark (2.53) and well above league average (2.63). In addition, the G-Men have improved their average time-to-sack-allowed figure to 4.38 seconds, after conceding quarterback takedowns at an average clip of 3.95 seconds last fall. Considering league average is 4.44 seconds, the Giants' pass protection hasn't been nearly as leaky as some have suggested.
Granted, the issues with Flowers' game are significant. The No. 9 overall pick in 2015 is coming off an awful performance against Detroit where he surrendered three sacks to Ziggy Ansah while showing questionable lateral quickness, hand skills and balance. Flowers was thoroughly whooped by the 2015 Pro Bowler, and the prime-time beatdown left a smudge on his resume, especially in the wake of his preseason struggles. He looks out of place at left tackle, which made the team's refusal to send help to his side one of the most perplexing moves of the game.
On the other side, Hart has been through his fair share of tough moments on the edge. He has struggled to neutralize speed or power off the edge, which makes him vulnerable to energetic pass rushers positioned at left defensive end.
Despite those challenges, the Giants have still provided Manning with enough time to get the ball out of his hands in an offense built around a quick-rhythm passing game. New York primarily uses quick routes off catch-and-fire drops or quick-rhythm intermediate throws where the quarterback is expected to throw as soon as he reaches the top of his drop. Based on the aforementioned Next Gen Stats' information, Manning is clearly holding onto the ball too long, which is leading to unnecessary sacks in the pocket.
Part of Manning's indecisiveness and hesitancy can be attributed to the receivers' lack of separation. Against Detroit in Week 2, Manning was forced to throw 40.6 percent of his passes into tight windows (defenders within one yard of the receiver at the target point) -- that was the highest tight-window percentage in a game for Eli over the last two seasons. With the tight coverage leading to more tips and overthrows, it's not surprising that he has failed to post a passer rating above 90 in his last five games (going back to last season).
I must admit that I'm a little surprised at the lack of separation created by the Giants' receivers, based on the talent among the corps. The Giants have three legitimate pass catchers with big-time games in the lineup, yet Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard couldn't shake free from coverage against a feisty secondary. Although Evan Engram has had his moments as a mismatch player, it is hard to count on a rookie to consistently win his one-on-one battles unless he is put in a position to succeed on the perimeter.
That's why McAdoo and the Giants' offensive staff are also accountable for the team's woes. The Giants' game plans have lacked formational or personnel diversity -- the G-Men have been in "11" personnel on more than 90 percent of their snaps in 2017 -- and there simply isn't enough pre-snap window dressing to mask their favorite routes. Without exotic shifts or motions to throw defenders off the scent, New York is allowing defensive coordinators to read its mail.
Think about it this way: The older and more limited the quarterback, the more the play caller and supporting cast need to help him. Thus, the Giants must find a way to address the lack of offensive creativity to help the team end its eight-game streak (going back to 2016) with 20 or fewer points.
One way the Giants can alleviate the burden on Manning is to put a greater emphasis on the running game. The presence of a strong ground attack opens up the field for the passer off play-action, while also creating more "off" coverage looks, with the defense likely to counter with "plus-one" fronts (eight-man fronts vs. two backs, etc.). If the Giants get the running game untracked, the defense will lift the blanket off the receivers and the offense will regain the rhythm that made it a high-powered unit in McAdoo's early days with the squad.
Sounds great, right? It should sound like music to Giants fans' ears, despite the perceived issues with the offensive line. The much-maligned quintet has actually blocked well at the point of attack. According to Next Gen Stats, the Giants rank 10th in yards per carry before a defender closes to within one yard of the runner -- but they only rank 22nd in yards per carry. Thus, the problem with the running game rests on the ball carriers more than the blockers. If Orleans Darkwa or Paul Perkins can find a rhythm, I think we will see the Giants' running game and offense finally reach their potential.
Overall, the Giants' offense is a mess, but contrary to popular belief, the offensive line isn't solely responsible.
PANTHERS' DEFENSE: Aggressive unit makes Carolina a contender again
When nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers told the assembled media on Sunday that the 2017 Carolina Panthers' defense is the "best" unit he's ever played on, I was a little surprised, based on my experience watching the ultra-athletic pass rusher anchor a handful of dominant defenses during my time as a scout with that franchise. Peppers spearheaded defenses in Carolina that ranked second (2002) and third (2005) in the NFL during his first stint in Carolina.
Those units were heavy in front-seven talent and possessed playmakers at each of the safety spots. While there was little doubt about which player was the "point on the sword" -- Peppers was an absolute animal -- those teams featured a host of blue-chippers individually capable of taking over a game. Whether it was Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage, or Dan Morgan and Mike Minter patrolling the middle of the field, those Carolina defenses carried the water for the squad that made a Super Bowl run and an NFC Championship Game appearance in one three-year stretch.
That's why my ears perked up when I heard the 16th-year pro lavish such high praise on a unit that's still adjusting to new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was promoted to the job when Sean McDermott took over as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. To Peppers' credit, the early returns are quite impressive for 2-0 Carolina's D. Through two games, the Pantherslead the NFL in total defense (196.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (3.0 points per game). The unit also ranks in the top 10 in rush defense, pass defense and sacks.
Naturally, skeptics will point to the schedule, suggesting Carolina has yet to play a legit offense. The Panthers beat the 49ers (23-3) in Week 1 and the Bills (9-3) in Week 2. But that shouldn't distract observers from appreciating the unit's accomplishments as the first team to hold its first two opponents without a touchdown since the 2010 Baltimore Ravens.
"This defense is still under construction," Wilks told reporters, via ESPN.com. "I'm not going to sit here and jump the gun, and say this is going to be the best defense in the National Football League. But I tell you what; we have the chance to do that if we continue to process each day in the right order."
From a personnel perspective, the Panthers certainly have the pieces in place to field an elite defense. The team is strong down the middle (defensive tackle, linebackers and safeties) with a pair of emerging cornerbacks (James Bradberry and Daryl Worley) who bring size, length and a knack for knocking pass catchers on the perimeter. In addition, the unit features a few greybeards at defensive end (Mario Addison, Charles Johnson and Peppers) still capable of tracking down quarterbacks in their 30s.
While the unit is strong as a whole, the best defenses in the NFL also feature a handful of blue-chip players (guys who rank among the top 10 at their respective positions) at key spots. As I touched on, it's crucial being strong down the middle. And the Panthers' defensive tackles and linebackers are among the best in the business. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are monsters on the interior against the run and pass. Short, in particular, is a pass-rushing dynamo with a ridiculous combination of strength, quickness and combat skills that overwhelms blockers.
At linebacker, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis mix high football IQs with explosive athleticism to snuff out running plays between the tackles or quick-rhythm crossing routes at intermediate range. The perennial Pro Bowl selectees are the brains of the unit; their ability to communicate anticipated plays helps others play faster at their respective positions. Whether it is Davis barking out the direction of the running play based on tendency pickups or Kuechly getting the unit into a better play call due to a pre-snap read, the Panthers' linebackers control the game from the second level with their superb communication and diagnostic skills.
With that in mind, Wilks should get a ton of credit for fostering tremendous communication between his players. He empowers his guys through diligent and detailed presentations, yet he doesn't bog everyone down with unnecessary information. During my talks with Panthers officials in the past, Wilks repeatedly received glowing remarks for his attention to detail and organization skills. As a tactician, the long-time NFL assistant is far more aggressive than his predecessor. After playing more zone coverage under McDermott than any other squad in the league in 2016 (79.9 percent), the Panthers have been one of the most aggressive blitz teams, with five-man rushes on 47.8 percent of their defensive snaps (second-most in the NFL).
"Something that's part of my nature, part of my demeanor is that we're going to be aggressive," Wilks told the team website shortly after taking over as defensive coordinator. "I'm talking about being aggressive in everything we do -- from the meetings and how we learn material to our walkthroughs and, of course, on the field. My biggest thing is that I want the offense reacting to us rather than us always reacting to them. We're going to be really aggressive, trying to set the tone."
To that point, the Panthers have a chance to live up to the hype pumped out by their veteran pass rusher, due to the perfect marriage between personnel and philosophy. The defense's core players are ideally suited to play the aggressive style that Wilks prefers and the results speak for themselves thus far. Although the defense's next two assignments -- vs. New Orleans, at New England -- will provide us with a better perspective on the unit's ceiling, I'm all in on the Panthers' defense making this team a legit contender again in 2017.