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 what a struggling star must do to recapture the form that made him one of the game's best ...
What's wrong with Carson Wentz?
That's the question percolating in the City of Brotherly Love after Wentz -- considered an MVP front-runner less than three years ago -- has delivered back-to-back clunkers to open the season for the 0-2 Eagles.
Sure, Wentz has battled the injury bug in recent years, succumbing to ailments late in the season in both 2017 and 2018 and departing early in the team's playoff loss to the Seahawks this past January after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jadeveon Clowney. While doubts about his durability have followed him throughout his career, this is the first time the team is facing questions about whether he's regressing as the Eagles' franchise passer.
The fifth-year QB has opened the season by throwing two interceptions in consecutive games for the first time in his career. He's posted a sub-75 passer rating in two straight games for the first time since his rookie campaign. In all, he's compiled a completion percentage of 58.8, an average of 6.0 yards per attempt, a TD-to-INT ratio of 2:4 and a passer rating of 64.4 this season. When you compare that with his production from the last four games of 2019 (67.6 percent completion rate, 6.9 yards per attempt, 7:0 TD-INT ratio, 100.8 pass rating), it's easy to see why folks are left to scratch their heads about what's gone wrong.
Can the Eagles fix Wentz's shoddy footwork and mechanics? Is Doug Pederson giving his quarterback the best chance to succeed with his play calls? Do the Eagles have enough weapons around him? Can Wentz thrive behind a patchwork offensive line?
Looking at that list of questions and concerns, it appears Philadelphia has a lot of work to do to get its QB1 back on track.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the first two weeks of the season, Wentz appears uncomfortable inside and outside of the pocket. He's displayed the ability to make plays with his legs during his NFL career, but he's been reluctant to run or buy time in the pocket this year. Perhaps the injuries have tempered his desire to rely on his legs, but Wentz is clearly not at his best playing like a statue from the pocket. He lacks the accuracy, touch and timing to pick apart defenses as a pinpoint passer without utilizing his athleticism as a threat. If he continues to try to play like a traditional pocket passer, he will remain an inconsistent playmaker for the Eagles.
With that in mind, Pederson needs to help his quarterback by better tailoring the game plans to his talents. Considering how well Wentz played prior to his season-ending knee injury in 2017, the Eagles' head coach would be wise to revisit those game plans and implement the tactics that elevated the young signal-caller's game. That should mean more movement passes designed to get Wentz on the move to take advantage of his athleticism and effectiveness as a passer on the move. The bootleg or sprint-out action not only gets Wentz on the perimeter but it simplifies his reads by cutting down the field.
In addition, the Eagles should bring back some of the RPOs and zone-reads that have helped their QB1 get into a rhythm early in games. Although his injury history is a concern, Wentz is at his best when utilizing his mobility and running skills. The Eagles should lean into those concepts to help him get back on track.
Looking at the Eagles' supporting cast, there are enough playmakers around Wentz to help him succeed. He has arguably the best tight end duo in football at his disposal, with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert creating mismatches all over the field. DeSean Jackson is still a viable threat as a big-play specialist on the outside. Injuries to Jalen Reagor (suffered a thumb injury in Week 2) and Alshon Jeffery (has yet to play this season after undergoing offseason foot surgery) have created a void in the passing game, but Miles Sanders' versatility as a runner/receiver adds a dimension to the offense.
The offensive line, while home to three former All-Pros, is suspect in some areas, with three would-be starters on either the injured reserve or PUP list. That said, Pederson should be able to work around its deficiencies with formations, motions and concepts that alleviate the pressure on the front five to hold up against premier pass rushers.
That's why the concerns about Wentz really go back to the QB1 and how he determines to play the position. If he signs off on Pederson featuring concepts that play to his strengths as an athlete, he could quickly resurrect his game and flash the skills that made him a top-five quarterback. Now, if his body simply won't allow him to return to his previous form, that's out of anyone's control at this point. However, if Wentz stubbornly refuses to embrace his athleticism and attempts to play like a statuesque passer from the pocket, he could become the Eagles' version of what Washington experienced in the previous decade with Robert Griffin III, who went from the Offensive Rookie of the Year to a flamed-out playmaker mired in mediocrity because he either couldn't or wouldn't embrace the playing style that once made him great.
DINK AND DUNK
Is Lamar Jackson already a Hall of Fame lock? OK, the short answer is no. I know it is way too early to award Jackson, who is just two weeks into his third NFL season, a gold jacket, but the reigning MVP is building quite a case for inclusion in the elite club. Jackson exited Week 2 with a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 46:9, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 45-plus touchdown passes and fewer than 10 interceptions over his first 600 pass attempts, per NFL Media Research.
Considering Patrick Mahomes (49:12), Dan Marino (48:16) and Kurt Warner (45:18) are the only quarterbacks with at least 45 pass touchdowns and fewer than 20 interceptions on their first 600 attempts, Jackson's feats confirm his status as an all-time great.
Think about it.
No. 8's TD-to-INT ratio to this point places him in front of a pair of Hall of Famers and the undisputed QB1 in the game right now when they reached the 600-attempt mark. And he's done it while posting the second-highest passer rating in NFL history (107.1) for a quarterback with at least 500 pass attempts. With Jackson also shattering records as one of the most prolific runners at the position, the Ravens' QB could very well earn himself a one-way ticket to Canton as the best dual-threat quarterback to ever play.
Stephon Gilmore's decline. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is discovering that life as the NFL's CB1 is fleeting when everyone is gunning for you. After a rough outing in a prime-time game against the Seahawks that exposed some of his vulnerabilities as an elite corner, Gilmore's reign as the Lockdown King could be coming to an end.
Before you @ me suggesting that I'm overreacting to DK Metcalf's spectacular performance against Gilmore (four catches, 92 yards and a touchdown), it is important to note that the second-year pro's success against the Patriots' CB1 is part of a trend that began near the end of 2019.
In Weeks 16 and 17 of last season, Gilmore struggled against the explosiveness of the Bills' John Brown and Dolphins' DeVante Parker. They successfully attacked the veteran on the island, utilizing their speed, quickness and burst to keep him on his heels.
Despite being a top-tier cover corner with outstanding instincts, awareness and technique, Gilmore isn't an A-plus athlete at this stage of his career. The ninth-year pro wins with his knowledge, experience and football intelligence. As a crafty vet with 115 games of experience, Gilmore understands hash-split alignments, route concepts and body language (from wide receivers and quarterbacks). He relies on his mind more than his athletic gifts to make plays.
The disciplined technician held opposing receivers to a 46.7 percent (42 of 90 targets) catch rate in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. That number ticked up slightly in 2019 (49.0%; 47 of 96 targets). In 2020, Gilmore is allowing a 66.7 percent catch rate (8 of 12 targets) through the first two games.
Part of the All-Pro corner's recent struggles can be attributed to his razor-thin margin for error when facing A+ athletes with explosive speed and quickness. He must win at the line of scrimmage or maintain proper leverage early. If he doesn't do at least one of those two things, his speed deficiencies are apparent late in routes.
Against Brown, Parker and Metcalf, Gilmore's lack of elite athleticism and speed showed up on tape. Offensive coordinators are taking notice, of course. They have started to test the 30-year-old's agility and explosiveness with double moves and exotic routes (post-corners, etc.) to see if he can still hold up on the island. With the Patriots set to face the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill -- arguably the fastest receiver in the game -- in Week 4, we could soon find out if the reigning DPOY can make the necessary changes to retain his crown.
The 49ers' secret weapon? The 49ers might look back at George Kittle's injury as a blessing in disguise at the end of the season. The temporary absence of the All-Pro tight end has enabled the 49ers to uncover the talents of a former Pro Bowler at the position. Jordan Reed stepped in for Kittle against the Jets in Week 2 and delivered a seven-catch, 50-yard effort with a pair of touchdowns that reminded the football world of his playmaking ability.
"That was great for Jordan," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told the media after the game. "We knew he had a chance to have a big game today. I don't know what he finished with, but he was the same guy he's always been. He beat man coverage, his hands were great, he did a good job in the run game and really helped us today."
Reed's impact is a significant development for a 49ers offense that could use another big-bodied pass-catcher to complement Kittle. The oft-injured veteran could be the answer -- if he can stay healthy -- as a natural flex tight end with the athleticism to win one-on-one battles against linebackers and safeties in space. Although he still appears a little rusty after sitting out the 2019 season with the seventh documented concussion of his football career (dating back to college), Reed's presence makes the 49ers' multi-tight end sets a nightmare to defend.
1) The return of Blitzburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a storied tradition of playing great defense since the days of the "Steel Curtain," but the current edition reminds me of the Blitzburgh units directed by former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers are pummeling opponents with a blitz-heavy approach that leaves opposing quarterbacks battered and bruised after 60 minutes of constant pressure.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Steelers lead the NFL in blitz rate (57.8%) and pressure rate (45.6%) this season. In addition, the unit's 51.9 percent QB pressure rate on blitzes is the second-highest mark in the NFL. Those numbers are the continuation of a trend that's helped the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (172) and QB hits (364) since 2017.
With opponents scared to death by their pressure package, the Steelers have also utilized a variety of simulated pressures (four-man rushes with pre-snap blitz disguises) to harass quarterbacks in the pocket. Pittsburgh's 36.8 percent QB pressure rate when rushing four or fewer rushers is the highest in the NFL.
Considering the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks and takeaways since 2019 while also ranking as a top-five unit in points per game allowed (18.9, fifth), total yards per game allowed (304.2, fifth) and opponent passer rating (79.6, third), the resurgence of the defense utilizing a pressure-heavy approach has certainly caught the eyes of defensive minds around the league.
"(Mike) Tomlin is back to doing the stuff that worked for him in Minnesota (as defensive coordinator)," said a long-time former NFL defensive coordinator. "He is bringing pressure from all over the field with a mix of man and zone coverage behind it. ... He can dial up the pressure because he has the perfect personnel to go after quarterbacks with explosive pass rushers like (T.J.) Watt and (Bud) Dupree on the edges and (Devin) Bush in the middle. Plus, No. 28 (Mike Hilton) is pretty good as a blitzer from the slot.
"He has to be careful exposing the secondary at times, but he is willing to live and die by the blitz. ... Right now, it's working."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, the Steelers' defensive plan features the perfect marriage between scheme and personnel. The unit is arguably the fastest in the league with a collection of energetic athletes occupying the marquee spots in a 3-4 (or 2-4-5) front. Watt and Dupree are a dynamic tandem off the edge with disruptive games built on speed, power and explosiveness. Hilton is the wild card of the group as a blitz-happy slot defender with a knack for getting to the quarterback. The fifth-year pro is a fearless rusher with energy and wiggle. He's elusive at the point of attack and his relentless playing style creates disruption in the backfield.
From a schematic standpoint, the Steelers are utilizing a straightforward approach that is effective due to the energy and intensity of the defenders. The pressure tactics are combined with man-free coverage to eliminate the layups and force quarterbacks to complete contested passes down the field.
The utilization of man coverage runs counter the zone blitz tactics featured by Blitzburgh in the past, but it eliminates the voids in zone coverage and challenges quarterbacks to make accurate tight-window throws under duress. With the pressure and coverage working in unison, the 2020 version of Blitzburgh could vault the Steelers back into title contention.
2) Is Darren Waller the best tight end in football? Move over, George Kittle and Travis Kelce -- the competition for the TE1 spot is now a three-man race, with Waller closing fast. If you're not familiar with the Raiders' tight end, you're missing out on a fantasy football god with a game that keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
The former Georgia Tech receiver-turned-tight end has become the ultimate mismatch player for the Raiders with the speed and athleticism of a wideout in a basketball player's body. Measuring 6-foot-6, 255 pounds with long arms and strong hands, Waller combines ballerina-like movement skills with post-up ability in traffic. He is a superb route runner with enough wiggle to separate from linebackers and safeties on seam routes, crossers and option routes.
Waller is a five-star route runner with hard-to-guard ability, but he is at his best with the rock in his hands after the catch. Possessing the most yards after catch (91) among tight ends this season, he is a dynamic runner with the speed, balance and body control to turn short passes into big gains in the open field.
In 2019, Waller flashed big-play potential during a 1,100-yard campaign that showcased a surprisingly polished game for a converted wide receiver, and the fifth-year pro has taken his game up a notch during his third campaign under Jon Gruden.
"Darren's a great player, our job is to try and get him the ball," Gruden said, via the San Jose Mercury News. "I'd take him over any tight end. I know Kittle and Kelce are as good as they get, but Waller is right up there with them. This is his second year playing the position. It's astonishing what this man can do."
Against the Saints, Waller displayed his progress in a 12-catch, 105-yard effort that included a touchdown reception. He accounted for eight first downs as the Raiders' designated chain mover in the passing game and showed improved skills as a blocker. Waller's prime-time performance caught the attention of defensive coaches around the league, including a six-time Super Bowl winner slated to face the spectacular tight end in Week 3.
"He's a big challenge. Really impressed by everything he does," Bill Belichick said during a media conference call on Tuesday. "He's a very competitive blocker, got great size, got great quickness for his size, catches the ball very well. You know, he can really, he can run all the routes. Is really a very versatile player, talented, that shows good toughness and very competitive guy. So, yeah, he'll definitely be a problem for us."
Waller's combination of size, athleticism and skill will continue to give opponents problems as he makes his case to be considered the ultimate TE1 in today's game.
Drew Brees won't rebound from early-season struggles. I don't expect Brees to re-emerge as the MVP-caliber player we've grown accustomed to seeing for most of his 20-year career. The Saints' quarterback has lost his fastball and I don't believe it's coming back. I know that's not what the Who Dats want to hear, but let me explain: Remember, this is the Hail Mary section of the notebook ...
I'm certainly not dismissing Brees' accomplishments as a Hall of Fame-worthy player, but his regression is easy to see. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees is averaging just 5.0 air yards per attempt after averaging 6.7, 7.1, 6.3 and 7.6 air yards per attempt in the previous four seasons. Those numbers aren't exactly jaw-dropping, as Brees ranked near the bottom of the league (28th or lower) in the category in each of those years, but they're obviously much better than his mark thus far this season.
Part of Brees' putrid air-yard production can be attributed to his willingness to target receivers aligned in the backfield. He has targeted players in the backfield on 30.9 percent of his attempts in 2020, up from the 24.1 percent of his attempts in 2019. The checkdown-heavy approach has enabled him to keep his completion percentage at or above 70 percent for four of the last five seasons, but the dink-and-dunk passes fail to stretch the defense.
While Brees' supporters might argue "small ball" has worked for the Saints, the tactics worked in previous years due to his ability to also complete intermediate passes with a surgeon's precision. He connected on 66.3 percent of his passes at intermediate range (10-19 air yards) while averaging 12.3 yards per attempt and posting a 12:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 138.3 passer rating on those throws in 2019. No. 9 hasn't been nearly as effective this season with a 42.9 percent completion rate, 0:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 45.2 passer rating on intermediate throws. We could ignore the data and attribute Brees' slow start to Michael Thomas' absence, but the film reveals an aging player who is unable to consistently get the ball over the plate.
If the Saints find a way to roll through the NFC with Brees at quarterback, it will be due to the veteran befuddling opponents with a wicked knuckleball that somehow flutters and floats past defenders instead of the fastball we're used to seeing from him.