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:
-- Blaine Gabbert, starting quarterback? Yes, Bruce Arians really could roll with the veteran in 2018.
But first, a look at one backfield that's driving opposing defenses crazy ...
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While some observers will view that statement as a "prisoner of the moment" proclamation, I truly believe we haven't seen an RB tandem capable of matching the collective playmaking skills of the New Orleans Saints' dynamic duo.
Ingram and Kamara are on pace to combine for more than 3,000 scrimmage yards and 25 touchdowns this season. Since 1970, that feat has been accomplished by exactly one RB duo: O.J. Simpson and Jim Braxton of the 1975 Buffalo Bills. Ingram and Kamara are also on pace to become the first backfield tandem ever to each have 1,500-plus scrimmage yards in a single season -- Ingram's slated for 1,535, while Kamara's on pace for 1,591. Considering they're already the first RB teammates to each have 1,000-plus scrimmage yards through Week 12 since Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack of the 1985 Cleveland Browns, the Saints' 1-2 punch at running back deserves to be placed on a pedestal as one of the truly rare combinations in football.
"Sean Payton has changed the game with the way that he's used Ingram and Kamara," an NFC scout told me. "Each guy can run the ball between the tackles or on the edges, while also making plays in the passing game. They are interchangeable in every sense of the word, and [Payton] takes advantage of their versatility to create headaches for opponents.
"I've seen plenty of teams use multiple backs, but I don't think anyone has done it quite like this. These guys are a special combination."
That lofty praise will certainly raise some eyebrows in league circles, based on how each running back was graded during the pre-draft process, but the Saints' RB combo is a unique situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Individually, Ingram and Kamara weren't regarded as potential "blue chip" contributors, but Payton has elevated their play with clever scheming and formation deployment. He has not only tapped into each of their individual strengths as "hybrids" (running backs with receiver-like skills in the passing game), but he has consistently put them in roles where they can succeed against the defense.
Whether it's calling hard-hitting running plays and slow screens to No. 22 or getting the ball to No. 41 on a variety of isolation routes and now screens on the outside of spread formations, Payton has found a way to unleash these two on the perimeter. As a result, the duo is averaging 195.4 scrimmage yards per game, which is the highest combined-scrimmage-yards average since Walter Payton and Matt Suhey posted 196.2 per outing in 1983.
Imagine if the Saints hadn't attempted to blend Adrian Peterson into the mix during the first quarter of the season. The veteran running back's presence stifled the growth of the duo, as Peterson stole valuable touches from the guys on the ground. Since his departure prior to Week 6's game slate, the Saints lead the NFL in rushing yards per game (169.6), rushing touchdowns (15), yards per carry (5.3), rushing first downs (63) and rushes of 10-plus yards (34). As the only NFL team averaging more than 5 yards per carry in this span, the Saints' running game has blossomed with an addition-by-subtraction move that clearly defined the roles of the remaining backs in the rotation.
Speaking of roles, I do believe Payton has established a pecking order for his top two playmakers. Although each guy receives a high volume of touches on a mix of runs and pass, the Saints primarily use Ingram as the lead runner on the ground and Kamara as the mismatch playmaker in the passing game.
In Ingram, the Saints are leaning on a one-time Pro Bowler who is at his best operating out of the "dot" (directly behind the quarterback) in one- and two-back sets. He consistently picks up tough yards running downhill (and off-tackle) plays that allow him to hit the hole with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. As a compact power back (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) with a power-based game, he frequently runs through contact in the hole on the way to getting to the second level. In the passing game, he exhibits soft hands and outstanding patience picking up yards on an assortment of slow screens from run-heavy sets. Based on his production as an RB1, he gives the Saints a back to hang their hat on in a pinch.
"Ingram is a steady player," the NFC scout said. "He's not flashy or spectacular in any way, but he's consistent as a runner and receiver. There's a value to having that kind of guy in the backfield."
Kamara has emerged as the Saints' splash player on offense. He is a highlight reel waiting to happen, and Payton has tapped into his explosive versatility to add another dimension to the Saints' offensive attack. Kamara averages 8.4 yards per touch, making him the only back in the last 25 seasons to average more than 8 yards on 100-plus touches. Not to mention, he became the first player since Herschel Walker (1986) to amass 500-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards in his first 11 NFL games.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I've been impressed with Kamara's unique set of skills as a running/receiving threat out of the backfield. The rookie third-rounder catches the ball like a wide receiver on the perimeter, but also flashes enough physicality and toughness to run the ball between the tackles on traditional or deceptive runs. While his running skills are enough to keep defensive coordinators honest, it has been his ability to win in the passing game that has made opponents fear his presence on the perimeter.
"He's special," the NFC scout said. "I don't know how we missed on him as a first-round talent, but he has a combination of skills that makes him hard to guard in space. He's quick, explosive and polished as a route runner. He gets open against everyone, and you need to have a plan to deal with him in the passing game to slow him down. He's given Payton a chance to do some of the things that he used to do with Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, which is downright scary."
With the Saints' offense scoring 32.7 points per game since Ingram and Kamara were elevated to the Nos. 1 and 2 roles in the backfield, you best believe the rest of the league is certainly anxious about the prospect of facing the most explosive backfield tandem in NFL history.
CHIEFS WOES: Benching Alex Smith is NOT the solution
Based on my Twitter interactions with Kansas City fans, Alex Smith is completely to blame for the team's 1-5 record over the past six games, and the early-season MVP candidate deserves to be replaced by an unproven rookie with a big arm and a gunslinger mentality. In Chiefs Kingdom, Patrick Mahomes is the magic elixir who cures all of the team's woes and puts K.C. back into Super Bowl contention this season.
Guys ... Are you serious?
At the risk of coming off as a Smith apologist, I believe it's asinine to blame all of the Chiefs' failures on their QB1, given how many of the team's parts have underperformed over the past month. Entering this season, Kansas City was expected to lean on a stellar defense to make a run at the title. Well, that unit currently ranks in the bottom five in both pass and rush defense. For perspective, 32 teams have ranked bottom five against the pass and rush since 1970, but only one of those squads (the 1980 Minnesota Vikings) made the playoffs. With that in mind, how is it even possible to suggest that removing the starting quarterback would put the Chiefs back on track?
But enough about the Chiefs' leaky defense. The offensive downturn is the most noticeable change from the good old days of the rollicking 5-0 start to this season. The Chiefs are averaging just 18.0 points per game over the past six. And over the last two weeks, they scored 10 points or fewer in back-to-back games for the first time since 2012. No matter how you slice it, that's not good enough -- and the quarterback is certainly to blame for some of the team's woes. Smith has seemingly fallen off a cliff since a spectacular start that saw him post a 72.4 percent completion rate, 15:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 120.5 passer rating while averaging 8.7 yards per attempt during the team's first seven games. He led the NFL in each of those respective categories while directing a video game-like offense that took the league by storm.
Over the past four games, though, Smith has seen those numbers plummet as teams have caught up with the Chiefs' scheme. The veteran has posted a 63.1 percent completion rate, 4:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a 78.7 passer rating. Smith is averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt during this span, as his deep-ball efficiency has completely dropped off. After completing 53.1 percent of his deep balls (passes of 20-plus air yards) with a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio for a 138.0 passer rating over the first eight games, Smith has completed just 36.4 percent of his deep balls with a 0:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 38.8 passer rating over the past three. With his yards-per-attempt average on deep balls dipping to 10.6 over the last three games -- after sitting at 22.4 during the first eight weeks of the season -- Smith has seemingly reverted back the "manager" role that he occupied as the director of the offense in prior years.
Still, while the numbers certainly indicate a regression from the team's QB1, Smith's recent ineffectiveness isn't enough to justify a spot on the bench. Sure, his touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating during that span isn't up to par ... But on the season, he ranks second overall in passer rating (104.5) and his 19:4 TD-to-INT ratio remains near the top of the league.
With that said, I do believe Smith needs to play better. He needs to hit receivers within the strike zone when they're settling into open areas. In addition, he needs to find a way to make opponents pay for playing soft zone coverage -- primarily Cover 2 (two-deep, five underneath zone) -- in all situations.
Whether it's taking the sweet spots in those zones (hole shots between corner and safety along the boundary or short areas underneath the linebackers) or connecting the dots on a variety of checkdowns, Smith has to move the offense consistently and find a way to get the ball into the end zone. That's the responsibility of the QB1 and he's failed to do that during the team's recent slump.
For their part, though, the Chiefs' coaching staff and playmakers could do more to make life easier on No. 11. Against Cover 2, Kansas City's receivers need to be precise with their routes despite facing jams on the outside. Tyreek Hill, in particular, needs to figure out how to play against rolled-up corners along the boundary. The Pro Bowl playmaker must continue to refine his route-running skills so that he can consistently get to the designated target area when Smith is ready to throw. Remember, opponents are running Cover 2 to limit No. 10's effectiveness as a home run specialist, and he must show defensive coordinators that he can create explosive plays on other routes besides vertical patterns.
Kelce also needs to be a bigger factor in the passing game as a "MOF" (middle of the field) weapon in intermediate areas. Whether it's posting up over the middle on Y-stick routes or various sit-down concepts, the first-team All-Pro tight end needs to be available to Smith between the hashes to help the quarterback move the chains. Cover 2 forces quarterbacks to play small ball, and the Chiefs must understand how to counter those tactics to be successful.
"We've played some teams that show a very low percentage of Cover 2 in their other games and then they've popped to that against us," Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said, via ESPN.com. "We have Cover 2 beaters, but conversely, if they're in Cover 2, that should open up our run game. So we need to run the ball better somehow."
Yes, the running game is really where the Chiefs should focus their efforts. A strong ground attack forces opponents to abandon two-high looks because an extra safety is needed in the box to create a plus-one advantage against the run. If Kareem Hunt can get back to being a difference maker on the ground, the Chiefs can dictate the terms to the defense and once again produce big plays through the air.
Remember, Smith's early-season success was tied to Hunt's dominance as an RB1. During the team's first seven games, the rookie averaged 102.4 rushing yards and 5.6 yards per carry. Hunt's production on the ground has significantly declined over the past four weeks, with opponents holding him to averages of 43.3 yards per game and 2.9 yards per attempt. Those numbers are not only disappointing on the surface, but they show why more opponents are willing to sit in Cover 2 against the Chiefs on most downs. Until the Chiefs prove that they can run effectively against light boxes (seven-man front against two-back sets; six-man front against one-back sets), they will continue to see two-deep coverage from defensive coordinators daring them to run the ball.
That's why the real problem solvers are located on the Chiefs' offensive line. The team's five-man front must start winning their individual battles at the line of scrimmage to help Hunt get to the second level consistently. During the first five weeks of the season, Hunt averaged 3.88 yards per carry before contact -- the third-best figure in the NFL over that time, according to Next Gen Stats. In Weeks 6 through 12, he has averaged 1.37 yards per carry before contact -- the 41st-best figure in the league during that span.
I know many in Chiefs Kingdom believe removing No. 11 will erase all of the team's problems, but that's a fallacy. For one thing, the backup quarterback is routinely the most popular player on the team among some fans. And let's be honest: Mahomes entered this league as a very talented -- and very raw -- quarterback prospect. This was NOT a plug-and-play draft pick. And regardless: The quarterback position hasn't been the only problem area in K.C.
BLAINE GABBERT: Yes, he really could be Arizona's starting QB in 2018
One man's trash is another man's treasure.
"The way he's playing right now, I'd be very, very comfortable (with Gabbert starting)," Arians said on Monday.
While most of the Twitterverse snickered at the grizzled coach's suggestion, I thought I would dig into the All-22 tape to see what could possibly lead Arians to view Gabbert as a potential QB1. I wanted to take a long, hard look at how the veteran fit the Cardinals' system and what improvements he made to his game to pique the interest of a highly respected QB whisperer. What does Arians see in the former top-10 pick who has widely been viewed as a bust, given his 10-32 record, 56.2 career completion percentage and 43:40 TD-to-INT ratio?
Before I popped in the tape, I went back through my notes from a couple seasons ago, when I boldly suggested to some colleagues that Gabbert might've been the best option for a team seeking a signal caller during the 2016 offseason. (Who knew Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott would kill it as rookies?) I was intrigued by his combination of size (6-4, 235 pounds), athleticism and arm talent. Despite his inconsistency and failures in Jacksonville, I saw him improve as a passer and playmaker during eight starts with the 49ers in 2015.
After he deservedly lost his job to Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the 2016 regular season, I started to regret my comments. But I remembered something that I learned from Hall of Fame exec Ron Wolf during my time in Green Bay. He told me a story about how Al Davis would always bring in dispatched first-rounders for stints with the Raiders because he believed that players drafted in the top round had shown a level of talent that warranted a high pick -- thus, smart teams should kick the tires on those players to see if their failures were due to a poor fit within a system or possibly a coaching issue. Wolf told me that former first-round QBs, in particular, should be investigated because the right coach might be able to unlock a special player in the right situation.
In a league where coaching matters, particularly at the quarterback position (see: Jared Goff), Gabbert could finally reach the potential that made him the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. After playing under seven different head coaches and six offensive coordinators during the first six seasons of his career, Gabbert is finally in a stable environment that could help him grow as a player. He not only has a proven quarterback developer in his corner in Arians, but he also has a former NFL starter (Byron Leftwich) in the quarterback room to learn the nuances of the position and the system. With offensive wizard Tom Moore also around to lend advice and support, the former first-round pick finally landed in the right environment to grow into a high-level player, In fact, he started to show signs of being a potential QB1 during this past offseason.
"I've been very pleased," Arians said back in August, via the team's website. "Short-term, I'd be very comfortable if he had to play for us. Long-term, if he continues at this rate, he could be a starter."
Yes, at the time, it seemed like coachspeak. But Arians' belief was backed up by a few of the Cardinals' veterans who watched him work during training camp.
"I had worked out with him a handful of times a couple of years ago in the offseason," Palmer said. "Very aware of his skill set. He's as talented as it gets throwing the football and moving around in the pocket and on the run. I haven't been surprised."
"He has been very good here throughout our camp," Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "It looks like he's gotten very acclimated with our offense. Coach Arians loves him. He loves his arm strength. Hopefully he can be a guy that can help us in the future."
Studying Gabbert's play from the past two weeks, I firmly believe he could succeed as a QB1 in Arizona's system.
As an athletic, quick-rhythm passer with A-level arm talent, Gabbert can make all of the throws required in Arians' attack. From the seam throws along the hashes to the quick under and bubble screens on the perimeter to the occasional deep post off play-action, Gabbert's best skills are showcased in this offense. Whether you credit the passer or the play caller for the veteran's effectiveness the past couple games (61.1 percent completion rate, 249.0 pass YPG, 5:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 87.6 passer rating), it's worth noting that his numbers are comparable to the 2017 production from the team's longtime starter, Carson Palmer (61.4 percent completion rate, 282.6 pass YPG, 9:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 84.4 passer rating). Considering how Drew Stanton couldn't keep pace during his brief run as the team's QB1 this year (48.4 percent completion rate, 180 pass YPG, 3:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 68.9 passer rating), the Cardinals should be encouraged by the growth of their current starting quarterback.
If Gabbert can string together a few more solid performances, Arians' QB experiment might address the team's biggest issue heading into the 2018 offseason.