Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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When Mike Mularkey shared his desire to implement an "exotic smashmouth" style of offense with the Tennessee Titans -- based on a system he first used as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 2000s -- skeptics wondered if an old-school scheme would impact the development of Marcus Mariota as the team's franchise quarterback. The naysayers questioned whether Mularkey would be able to build a system that accentuated the second-year pro's unique skills as an electric, dual-threat playmaker while keeping the QB1 out of harm's way in a league where defenses routinely beat mobile quarterbacks to a pulp.
Although I vividly remember Mularkey helping Kordell Stewart find his game as a mobile playmaker with the Steelers (Stewart earned Pro Bowl honors and guided Pittsburgh to a 13-3 record in 2001), I wondered how he would craft an offense to maximize a quarterback who tallied over 10,000 pass yards and 2,000 rush yards as a collegian. Furthermore, could he take the second-year pro's game up a notch by putting him in his comfort zone as a player?
Before I discuss the system and what the Titans are doing with their star quarterback, I think it's important to take a look back at how I viewed Mariota as a prospect in the 2015 draft class.
As a 6-foot-4, 222-pound playmaker with 4.5 speed, I believed his athleticism, agility and mobility were his strengths. He not only showed the ability to outrun defenders to the corner, but he possessed the acceleration and burst to take it the distance when he reached the second level. From a throwing standpoint, Mariota excelled as a quick-rhythm passer in an Oregon attack that featured a number of "catch, rock and fire" concepts. He was effective as a play-action passer from the pocket or on the move, due to his unique combination of athleticism and ball-handling skills. With Mariota also displaying an above-average arm and a quick release, I thought he was at his best when attacking seams following play fakes in the backfield.
Considering all of these unique abilities, I was curious about the concepts the Titans would feature to help their franchise quarterback get into a groove in his sophomore campaign. After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie have crafted a collegiate-style attack that showcases the talents of their top two offensive stars: running back DeMarco Murray and Mariota. This has been particularly apparent over the past two weeks, when the Titans have won consecutive games to get right back in the AFC South race. The running game is built around a downhill scheme that allows Murray to attack the defense with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, but the team mixes in some zone-read concepts and designed quarterback runs from the shotgun to take advantage of Mariota's running skills. This allows the Titans to employ a multi-dimensional ground game that exploits undisciplined defenders at the point of attack.
Check out the video clip just below. In the first play of this past Sunday's win over the Cleveland Browns, Mariota took off on a zone-read run for a 41-yard gain:
The play featured a downhill run fake, but it was actually a quarterback run designed to get the star signal caller around the corner with a lead blocker (Delanie Walker, who had motioned across the formation before the snap) paving the way. The combination of deception and misdirection pulled defenders out of the hole, leaving a huge crease for the swift runner to attack.
On that play, Tennessee broke the huddle with a bunch formation set to the right. Walker was positioned as the inside receiver and Murray was aligned on the side of the trips. Mariota took the snap and executed a sweep fake to Murray heading to the left (with Walker appearing to lead the way) before pulling the ball and racing around the right corner accompanied by pulling tackle Jack Conklin.
Considering how well Mariota executed these concepts at Oregon, it is not much of a surprise that he has been more effective since the Titans have unleashed him as a runner. Looking at the numbers from this season, I don't believe it is a coincidence that his best overall performances have come in games where he has logged more rushing attempts. In Week 5 and 6, Mariota averaged seven rushing attempts for 62.5 rush yards -- compared to just 3.25 attempts and 18 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1 through 4. With the Titans notching wins over the past two weeks, Tennessee (3-3, one game out of first place) should continue to incorporate designed quarterback runs and encourage their young passer to scramble whenever the protection breaks down in the passing game.
"Based on how he played at Oregon, he needs to play in a system that allows him to work on the edges," one NFC scout told me. "He is smooth and fluid executing zone reads and option plays. Plus, he is at his best when throwing on the run. I think you mess him up if you try to chain him to the pocket."
When I asked another personnel man about how Mariota was deployed during his rookie season, he told me that he felt like former Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt never had a feel for how to use the mobile playmaker.
"He's never had that kind of quarterback before," the AFC personnel executive told me. "Wiz has always worked with classic drop-back passers -- veteran guys who understood the passing game. He's not used to adapting his system to fit young players' talents, especially a guy that likes to run."
Looking at the tape, it's apparent the 2016 Titans' offensive staff doesn't have a problem playing to the quarterback's strengths. The coaches not only have incorporated Mariota into the running game, but they have cleverly meshed quick-game routes and movement passes (with throwback options) to help Mariota find his comfort zone. He majored in those concepts at Oregon and returning to an offense that features some familiar reads has helped accelerate his growth.
As I studied the Titans' passing concepts, I came away impressed with how Robiskie has mixed in some "layups" from spread and bunch (or stacked) alignments. From simple "stick" concepts (6-yard hitch by a slot receiver) to mesh routes (two-level crossing routes), the Titans' passing game features a number of plays that have straightforward reads for the quarterback (route combinations work against nearly every coverage). This allows Mariota to be more decisive from the pocket, which leads to quicker and more precise throws.
On the play, the Titans motioned Walker from a wide alignment into the slot beside Johnson. The tight end raced up the field at the snap to vacate the area. Johnson paused for a count and used Walker as a picker on the play, coming underneath the big-bodied tight end. Mariota simply read the reaction of Walker's defender to determine whether to fire the slant or the corner. When the defenders elected to sit back and caught Walker at the goal line, Mariota fired a dart to Johnson for the score. Interestingly, the Titans had unsuccessfully attempted that play on the previous down, but simply flipped the formation and ran it again. With execution trumping deception, the Titans scored on an easy pitch-and-catch throw.
In addition to using more pick-and-stick throws, the Titans have helped Mariota find his game by featuring a number of movement/bootleg concepts with a throwback route in the progression. These routes are effective all over the field, but the Titans particularly have enjoyed success with these tactics in the red zone.
Given the production and effectiveness of these plays, the Titans were wise to make bootlegs a bigger part of the plan after the offense stumbled out of the gate. Considering how much attention is paid to the league's third-ranked rushing attack (the Titans average 146.7 ground yards per game), the complementary movement-passing game will continue to provide Mariota with big-play opportunities.
Overall, the Titans have helped their young franchise quarterback get back on track by tweaking their system to accentuate his strengths as a mobile playmaker with a strong arm and a quick release. While traditionalists scoff at the notion of a collegiate offense successfully working in the NFL, the Titans are proving that a hybrid version of the scheme could help a younger passer find his way while adjusting to the pro game. With Mariota posting back-to-back "100s" (100-plus passer rating) in two straight wins, the blueprint is working in Nashville.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Can Terrelle Pryor be a No. 1 receiver?
After spending three-plus years pursuing his dream of being an NFL quarterback, Terrelle Pryordecided to try his hand at wide receiver. While plenty of coaches and scouts believed he was talented enough to play on the perimeter, few expected him to develop into a WR1. But after watching Pryor deliver big play after big play for the Cleveland Browns throughout the first half of this season as the focal point of the team's passing game, I wanted to reach out to my scouting buddies to see if the narrative has started to change. I placed a few phone calls and posed this question:
NFC assistant director of pro personnel: "He honestly looks the part for Cleveland. He is a freakish athlete, and he's made plays despite being relatively new to the position. He can be a No. 1 for the Browns, but I think he's probably a No. 2 or No. 3 for most teams. I think he's an ascending player, though."
Former NFL general manager: "He's big, fast and explosive. He's a dynamic athlete with all of the tools needed to dominate on the perimeter. He's far from a finished product, but the upside is tremendous. ... Basically, he's Josh Gordon without the drama."
Former NFL head coach: "He's a young guy with tremendous upside. He's big, fast and physical. He's not polished, but he could certainly grow into a No. 1 receiver in some systems. ... Worst case, he could be a solid No. 2 and fill a key role as a QB3."
AFC pro personnel director: "He has rare talent. He obviously has some things he needs to clean up, but he's long, fast, athletic, with leaping ability and body control. He definitely could get there -- it's too bad that he didn't embrace the move to wide receiver from the start."
AFC senior personnel executive: "I don't think so. He is a big, natural athlete who can make some 'wow' plays every now and then, but he is still learning and developing at the position. He is still learning how to run routes, set defenders up and create separation consistently. He is a No. 1 for them because they don't have any other options, but I believe he is probably a solid No. 2 on most teams."
Terrelle Pryor is one of the most fascinating stories of the 2016 season. He has not only transitioned from NFL quarterback to wide receiver, but he has emerged as the Browns' No. 1 option in the passing game. While I can't say I'm surprised Pryor has succeeded as a pass catcher, based on his unique combination of size (6-4, 223 pounds), speed (reported 4.38 40 time) and athleticism, I'm amazed at how quickly he has developed into a top-notch playmaker at the position.
Through six games, Pryor has totaled 33 receptions for 413 yards and three scores. That's remarkable production for a pass catcher with less than a full year of experience playing his current position. In addition, he has recorded 21 rushing yards on eight attempts with one score and has completed 5 of 9 passes for 41 yards as a QB3/Wildcat quarterback.
Again, though, Pryor's success doesn't necessarily shock me. After all, he displayed an impressive array of skills as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, capturing MVP awards at the 2010 Rose Bowl and 2011 Sugar Bowl as an electric dual-threat playmaker. At the time, I believed he was the best player on the field, someone whose dazzling offensive talents made him a threat to score whenever he touched the ball.
When I look at Pryor play wide receiver for the Browns, I still see an explosive playmaker with unique talents as a multi-purpose threat. He is quickly becoming a dependable pass catcher adept at making plays as a deep-ball/red-zone specialist. He also shows promise as a runner/passer, playing Wildcat QB in exotic formations. Thus, he is a valuable commodity as a versatile offensive weapon for a creative mind.
Although he must continue to refine his technique as a route runner, I believe Pryor has the potential to become a Terrell Owens-like playmaker on the outside. Not that he will post Hall of Fame numbers as a WR1, but he definitely can make an impact as a rugged pass catcher who overwhelms defenders with his sheer size and athleticism.
THE REBUTTAL: Why is the Vikings' defense so good?
The Minnesota Vikings are surprisingly sitting atop the NFC with a 5-0 record despite losing their franchise quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) and running back (Adrian Peterson) to serious injuries. Many believed those setbacks would torpedo the Vikings' Super Bowl chances, but the stellar play of their suffocating defense has helped the Purple People Eaters emerge as the current team to beat in the NFC. Given some time to talk to second-year linebacker Eric Kendricks during the Vikings' Week 6 bye, I wanted to discover some of the reasons behind the team's fast start. How have the Vikings responded so well to the adversity many expected would cripple their title hopes? Here's what Kendricks told me during our talk:
*What's has been the key to your defense's early-season performance? *
Eric Kendricks: "I feel like we are all so focused. When you look around the room during meetings and practice, you see that everyone has the same goal. It's obvious by the way that everyone is preparing and getting ready."
How hard is it to get everyone to buy in and not worry about who is getting the credit for the defense's success?
EK: "I don't know. It's crazy. All we care about is winning and getting the job done. We are trying to play to our standard. We know what we are capable of. If we are talking right and communicating, we feel like [the opposing offense] can't do anything on us."
*Do you ever get a sense or feel that when opposing offensive players look across the line, they know they have no shot against your defense? *
EK: "Yes. Especially when the film meets the game and the situations match up with what we've practiced against during the week ... everything is lining up. It doesn't matter where the ball is or what the situation is. I can look around to the guys on my left and right, and know that they are ready to go."
*You guys are pretty creative in how you attack the quarterback with various pre-snap bluffs and disguises. How complex is what you're doing on defense? *
EK: "It takes a lot of practice. It was hard for me at times [last year] to know where everyone was lining up and what they were doing, but as everyone keeps playing and getting more comfortable with each other, we are able to do more stuff. ... We have a lot of smart guys who want to do this kind of stuff."
*I've always been taught that you must have trust and communication to play great defense. Do you feel like you guys have that on your defense? *
EK: "Absolutely! Trust and communication is everything. If you don't have communication and you can't have trust ... You best believe, we are out there communicating with one another and letting each other know exactly what we are seeing and what to expect."
Coach Mike Zimmer comes off as a hard-nosed guy, but you guys appear to love playing for him. How is it playing for a guy like that?
EK: "It's awesome! These past two years, I've learned more about football than ever. Obviously, you learn stuff as you grow up through high school and college, but now I'm in the NFL with guys who have been doing it for a long time. I knew to get on-board quick to be a contributor. ... This staff has done a good job of helping me and everyone else get ready [to play at a high level]."
You lost your starting quarterback and running back, yet the team is undefeated and at the top of the NFC. How have the Vikings been able to overcome those losses when the outside world said that the season was over?
EK: "Preparation. You can't control some things in football, but you can control how we view things and how we work. That's all we do: grind."
I'm fascinated by the Vikings' resiliency, toughness and competitiveness. They've overcome a number of injuries to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender. While I expected their defense to be a top-five unit, based on its star-studded personnel and diverse scheme, I didn't expect the Vikings to stifle opponents to this degree. Minnesota is challenging the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2015 Denver Broncos for all-time defensive supremacy with its spectacular efforts thus far. The defense is allowing 12.6 points per game, with 19 sacks and 12 takeaways thus far. Through five games, the '85 Bears yielded 17.6 points per game with 16 sacks and 17 takeaways, while the '15 Broncos posted marks of 15.8 points allowed with 22 sacks and 14 takeaways.
Think about that: The Vikings are not only playing championship-caliber defense, but they are playing at a historic level after the football world dismissed their Super Bowl chances due to the loss of a pair of offensive playmakers. On the surface, the loss of Bridgewater and Peterson wouldn't appear to affect the defense, but their absence put more pressure on the unit to keep the score down and generate enough splash plays to create short fields or scoring opportunities.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I came away impressed with the Vikings' combination of pass rush and coverage. The front line, which features four players with at least three sacks (Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph), has held opponents to a 55.5 percent completion rate and a 65.3 passer rating. Considering how well the Vikings have fared while facing an impressive slate of premier quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson) over the past eight games (including the 2015 playoffs) -- allowing a 55.7 percent completion rate, a 7:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 65.5 passer rating in that span -- this unit's dominant performance isn't a fluke. Minnesota is incredibly consistent in all phases, and the Vikings appear to play on a string whenever they step onto the field.
Most importantly, I believe the unit completely bought into Zimmer's culture, based on my conversation with Kendricks. The second-year pro repeatedly talked about work ethic, preparation and "the standard" during our chat. He emphasized how much time his group of defenders spent in the film room, and how those sessions help the defense play faster when the players recognize tendencies on the field. In addition, Kendricks talked about the individual and collective accountability needed to play defense at a championship level. From the trust and communication to the relentless hustle and effort, the Vikings' defense is firing on all cylinders.
SAN DIEGO STRUGGLES: Why Mike McCoy deserves more patience
I know some San Diego Chargers fans would love to utter Donald Trump's catch phrase to Mike McCoy, given the team's 2-4 start, but I would urge Bolts supporters to slow down and take a deep breath before tossing aside a coach who is close to building a legitimate contender in the AFC.
I'm sure that's what some of you are thinking after reading that last statement, but San Diego is much closer to being a playoff team than an also-ran under McCoy's guidance. Despite sporting a 6-16 record since the beginning of 2015, the Chargers are trending in the right direction with a solid nucleus that features Pro Bowl-caliber players in critical spots.
Stepping back and looking at the roster, San Diego has a dynamic set of offensive triplets (Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen) and a star in the making in Hunter Henry. On defense, the unit boasts a pair of explosive pass rushers (Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa), a playmaking defensive tackle (Corey Liuget) and a "lockdown" cover corner (Jason Verrett). Not to mention, the team has a pair of budding young stars in Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown pummeling runners between the tackles.
While talent acquisition is the responsibility of the front office (general managers and scouts), the development of the team falls on the coaching staff. Say what you want about the team's disappointing record, but you can't dispute the on-field development of the team's core players. From top to bottom, the Chargers' foundation players have performed to expectations and the credit should go to the coaching staff for putting top players in the best positions to make plays. Granted, some would argue that hasn't always been the case, particularly with a guy like Gordon -- but he has played well during his second season after struggling as a rookie. With undrafted players like Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams thriving as surprise contributors, the Chargers' coaches are certainly getting production from guys who weren't expected to fill key roles heading into the season.
To that point, I think it is important to recognize the litany of injuries the Chargers have encountered over the past two seasons. I know every team experiences the losses of key players throughout the year, but few have been bitten by the injury bug like the Chargers. The team is currently without Danny Woodhead, Manti Te'o, Stevie Johnson, Verrett and Allen -- and we haven't even hit the halfway mark. Not to mention, Bosa missed the first four games of the season after a lengthy holdout and hamstring issue that kept him from stepping onto the field. Thus, it's hard to really evaluate how good the Chargers could be under McCoy's direction.
With that being said, Bill Parcells repeatedly stated "you are what your record is" when evaluating a team, and the Chargers are sitting in the AFC West cellar at this point. On the surface, the 2-4 record is not only disappointing but it seemingly echoes an extended run of poor performance dating back to 2014. Since jumping out to a 5-1 record that season, the Chargers have lost 22 of their last 32 games. Part of their problem revolves around their inability to win close games. Since 2013, the Chargers have played the third-most games in the NFL decided by eight points or fewer -- behind the Ravens (38) and Saints (35) -- but sport only a 13-21 record in those contests.
No matter what I say, that's just not a good look on a résumé. However, let's take a closer look at how the Chargers have performed this season. San Diego has dominated play during the first three quarters of games, outscoring opponents to the tune of 145-81 in those stanzas. On the flip side, they've been outscored 74-28 in the fourth quarter/overtime. Most disturbing: They've lost the turnover battle in the fourth quarter (minus-3) and made a number of bone-head errors that have called McCoy's leadership and coaching acumen into question.
Now, it's easy to blame the coach for every error, but players should be accountable for their physical mistakes. Fumbles, dropped balls and botched snaps aren't coaching errors. Therefore, it's a bit misguided to blame those miscues on the coaching staff.
"When contemplating a coaching change, you're looking for repetitive errors," a former general manager told me. "Things like clock management, situational-awareness errors and a lack of preparedness. Issues that should be covered in practice, but were glossed over and rarely discussed. If you see those issues play out on the field, then you pin the blame on the coach. Physical errors are on the players."
That's why I cringe whenever I hear McCoy blamed for numerous late-game gaffes that have led to heartbreaking losses for the Chargers this season. Sure, he is ultimately responsible for the performance of the team, but late-game fumbles by Gordon, Henry and Travis Benjamin have cost the Chargers potential wins. Not to mention, a dropped snap on a game-tying field-goal attempt. I don't how any coach could've prevented those errors.
"There aren't realistic expectations in sports anymore," the former general manager said. "If you aren't in the Super Bowl or Final Four or College Football Playoff, then the season is a considered a disappointment. People don't understand that you can't hoist the trophy every year."
If Chargers fans were wise, they would take a look at one of their former assistant coaches: Ron Rivera, who benefitted from his ownership exhibiting patience. "Riverboat" Ron posted a 13-19 record during his first two years on the job with the Carolina Panthers before rewarding the team with a 12-4 record and an NFC South title in Year 3. Although the team fell back the below .500 the next season, the Panthers somehow won the division crown and claimed a playoff victory on Wild Card Weekend. Last year, the team rolled to a 15-1 record and represented the NFC in Super Bowl 50. Carolina's a disappointing 1-5 right now, but you can't completely count them out yet, given what they've accomplished of late.
McCoy already has shown the NFL that he knows how to win after posting back-to-back 9-7 records during his first two seasons (and winning a playoff game in 2013). Although the Chargers' recent slump has been littered with improbable losses that are hard to stomach, a little show of faith could reap big rewards down the road for a team that's still playing hard for its coach.