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 old-school approach that has fueled a team's rise to postseason contention. *
-- How Matt Eberflus abruptly flipped the script on Indianapolis' defense.
But first, a look at what's contributed to a steep and sudden decline for one of the league's top young QBs ...
* * * **
That's the million-dollar question floating around the league after the two-time Pro Bowler's recent struggles. The third-year pro is in the midst of a dismal three-game stretch that has seen him post a 55.4 percent completion rate and a 1:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio for a 54.8 passer rating. With the team posting a 1-2 mark during that span while averaging only 19.6 points and a little over 300 yards per game (321.6), the football world is beginning to wonder what happened to the midseason MVP candidate.
Remember, Goff was spearheading an offense that averaged 34.9 points during the first 12 games of the season. Prior to falling off track in Week 13, Goff had compiled a 67.7 percent completion rate, 26:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 113.5 passer rating. He was spitting out 300-yard games like an ATM machine, displaying the kind of touch, timing and anticipation that's expected of a former No. 1 overall pick.
There are a handful of factors that have contributed to Goff's struggles and the Rams' offensive woes. Defensive coordinators have caught up with the Rams' scheme and their "11" personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs). Despite the well-deserved praise McVay has received for his innovative approach with Goff, the Rams' offense has grown stale in recent weeks. The team's not using as many pre-snap shifts and motions, and the tricky fly-sweep action has also been put to bed. Without the misdirection and eye candy to divert the defense's eyes, the Rams are having a tougher time creating explosive plays on the ground or through the air.
"The Rams haven't evolved their offense," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "They're running the same plays from the same formations with a tweak here or there. At some point, you have to mix up your personnel groupings or add a variety of shifts and motions to keep the defense from honing in on your tendencies. If you're going to play straight up without a lot of variety, you have to have better players. I don't know if they have the kind of personnel that can overwhelm opponents."
To that point, I found it interesting that the Rams' passing offense has stalled without pre-snap motion, according to Pro Football Focus. During Weeks 1-12, the Rams used pre-snap motion on 42.8 percent of their dropbacks with an average of 9.0 yards per attempt and a 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Since Week 13, the Rams are only using pre-snap motion on 23.9 of dropbacks with a 7.9 yards-per-attempt average and a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
By comparison, the Rams averaged only 4.7 yards per attempt and posted a 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- worst in the league in both categories -- on dropbacks without pre-snap motion (76.1 percent) during Weeks 13-15. That's a significant dip from the 9.5 yards per attempt and 15:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio posted during Weeks 1-12 on dropbacks without pre-snap motion (57.2 percent).
In addition, the Rams have used play-action on less than 25 percent of their dropbacks in each of their past two games (17.5 percent versus Philadelphia -- lowest in a game this season -- and 22.9 percent versus Chicago), per Pro Football Focus. Those games are the only two contests this season in which Goff hasn't used play-action on 25 percent or more of his dropbacks. Interestingly, four of his five interceptions over the past two games occurred on non-play-action passes.
Part of Goff's interception woes on traditional dropback passes could also be attributed to the team's waning commitment to the running game. After running on 43.7 percent (eighth-most in the league) of their offensive snaps in Weeks 1-13, the Rams have run on only 23.0 percent of their plays in Weeks 14-15, per NFL Research. That's not only the lowest total in the league over that span but it explains why defenders are consistently clouding the passing windows in the passing game.
Without the threat of Todd Gurley plunging between the tackles, defenders are getting deeper drops in zones and daring Goff to take the check-down or underneath routes. They are intent on taking away the deep ball and making Los Angeles' QB1 drive the length of the field on "dink-and-dunk" throws.
"Defensive coordinators are not allowing the Rams to throw over the top of the defense," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "They are taking away the 'explosive' plays and daring the quarterback to string together completions to move the ball down the field. This approach can frustrate a quarterback who is used to making big play after big play. ... These tactics also frustrate the play caller when he loses his patience with a 'small ball' approach. If the quarterback and play caller aren't disciplined or patient, they will turn the ball over when they keep forcing the ball down the field."
To that point, opponents are definitely using more umbrella-like coverage against the Rams, but they're also mixing in some pressure tactics off pre-snap disguise. Although some of the pressures are merely "simulated" pressures with only four defenders rushing the quarterback, Goff has struggled under the increased harassment. He has been pressured at least 12 times in each of the last three games with a 32.3 percent completion rate, 0:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 3.9 passer rating when under pressure. Those last two figures are the worst in the football since Week 13.
Against the blitz, Goff has struggled in the past three games, posting a 45.5 percent completion rate, 4.1 yards per attempt, 0:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 38.1 passer rating when facing five or more rushers. Goff's passer rating over that span is the second-worst in the league among qualifiers (only Josh Rosen is worse at 31.8) and significantly lower than the 111.1 mark (sixth-best) he posted in Weeks 1-11.
"Quarterbacks change when they get hit," said the former D-coordinator. "It doesn't matter how long they've played in the league, quarterbacks are affected by contact. The constant harassment quickens their internal clock, which leads to errant throws and questionable decisions from the pocket. ... Some of the overthrows and short hops you're seeing from Goff are due to the pressure and feeling defenders around him. He's been rattled and the Rams have to find a way to settle him down to get the offense back on track."
With that in mind, McVay has to make sure protection is a priority when calling passes over the next few games. The Rams have used some max protection (off play-action) schemes throughout the season and it is time to reintroduce those tactics heading into the postseason. The extra bodies will not only make Goff feel safe and secure but it will help their offensive line hold up against a formidable pass rush.
The Rams also need to get back to the pre-snap motions and shifts that were a big part of their offense early in the season. The constant movement will give No. 16 some man/zone indicators while also creating a little space for the Rams' receivers. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods have each topped the 1,000-yard mark this season, but they could use a little assistance escaping bump-and-run coverage. With a little movement designed to create space or a potential pick near the line of scrimmage, the Rams should put No. 12 and No. 17 on the move to give them the best chance to win on the outside.
Finally, the Rams might want to consider picking up the tempo on offense to settle their young quarterback down. At his best, Goff operates the offense at breakneck speed to keep defenders on their heels while forcing the defensive coordinator to scale back his exotic pressures. In addition, the quickened pace will eliminate some of the pre-snap coverage disguises opponents have used to cloud No. 16's mind.
If the Rams are going to reclaim their spot as the team to beat in the NFC, Goff has to play better and it's on McVay to figure out a way to help his QB1 regain his game and swagger. With two weeks left before the tournament starts, the football world is waiting to see which No. 16 will show up when we reach "win or go home" season.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) How will the New England Patriots replace Gordon? When Josh Gordon stunningly announced that he was stepping away from the Patriots on Thursday morning -- shortly before news broke that the receiver would be suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his reinstatement under the league's substance abuse policy -- plenty of observers rushed to dance on the Patriots' grave. But I would caution naysayers to hold off on the funeral procession in New England. Despite losing a productive pass catcher occupying the No. 1 role in the aerial attack, the Pats still have enough weapons to win the AFC.
I know that statement will take some by surprise, but we've seen New England rack up plenty of Ws without brand-name weapons on the perimeter. Remember, this is the same team that won Super Bowl LI without Rob Gronkowski and nearly captured Super Bowl LII without Julian Edelman. Clearly, this is not a coaching staff you should doubt.
That's why I'm not ready to discount the Patriots' chances of cobbling together enough offense to knock off anyone in the AFC playoffs. Although the big-bodied Gordon had started to show promise as the top dog in the passing game with a team-leading 720 receiving yards, the Patriots can morph into a "small ball" team in his absence and still knock off the Chiefs, Chargers and Steelers in a one-and-done setting.
Sure, the prospect of the Patriots' returning to the dink-and-dunk style of offense doesn't look like a scary proposition, based on the team's pedestrian WR corps and Gronk's declining health, but I believe the collective skills of the running backs could provide a path to victory for the squad. Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead bring diverse skills to the backfield, and their individual games complement each other like small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Michel is the Patriots' leading rusher (765 yards in 11 games) and has three 100-yard games in Year 1. He's shown the ability to operate as a work-horse back. In fact, when No. 26 runs the ball 17-plus times, the Patriots are 5-1, with the rookie averaging 94.8 rushing yards in those contests. With that in mind, I would expect New England to feature Michel as the tailback in run-heavy sets, particularly the I-formation with "Jumbo" personnel on the field. This is how the Patriots used Michel early in the season and it's how the team deployed him when he notched his most recent 100-yard game (against the Jets in Week 12). The rookie excels in a gap scheme that features old-school guard pulls on powers, counters and sweeps from the I-formation. Michel not only has the speed and quickness to explode through holes to the second level, but he also flashes enough strength and power to run through contact at the line of scrimmage. As the Patriots shift to a grind-it-out approach without Gordon on the field, Michel's ability to do the dirty work between the tackles gives the team a chance to play ball-control football heading into the postseason.
"Certainly, James is a player that has been very successful and productive in his role, and other teams are aware of that," coordinator Josh McDaniels said on a conference call Tuesday, via USA Today. "He gets plenty of attention from other people, and sometimes that means the ball needs to go somewhere else, and sometimes we can still find a way to get him the football and let him have the opportunity to make plays.
"I mean, he's obviously a very good player for us, has been tremendous in his role, is very valuable. So, the more he touches it, the more we can get it to him, we usually feel very good about those opportunities. ... He needs to be involved -- he certainly has been a tremendous player for us and the more he can touch the ball, the better off we all feel."
Considering White's impact on the Patriots' aerial attack when he's heavily involved in the game plan (SEE: Super Bowl LI, when White racked up 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown), McDaniels should make it a point to get the ball to No. 28 early and often in the passing game to fill the void created by Gordon's departure.
Burkhead is the wild card of the group, as a versatile playmaker capable of filling in for Michel or White in their respective roles. The veteran hasn't put up big numbers in limited action (due to injury), but he's certainly capable of being a key contributor in an expanded role. Whether it is as the RB2 in two-back spread looks or as the rotational running back in traditional formations, Burkhead could be the unsung hero who helps the Patriots get over the hump.
Still, despite Burkhead's potential contributions, I believe Michel and White are really the keys to the Patriots' success going forward. Each has enjoyed some time in the sun this season, playing crucial roles in different wins. McDaniels will tap into their skills to buoy an offense that lacks an explosive playmaker on the perimeter.
With Gordon gone -- and Gronkowski and Edelman unable to consistently carry the load any more as top-tier offensive weapons -- the running backs could become the focal point of a revamped game plan that sparks a title run.
2) Ravens turning back the clock to win games: I don't know if John Harbaugh has checked out a few Army-Navy games during his tenure with the Baltimore Ravens, but it certainly appears the veteran head coach has taken a few ideas from the service academies when it comes to playing offensive football with Lamar Jackson at the helm.
Since installing the former Heisman Trophy winner at QB1 in Week 11, the Ravens have become a "run, run, run" squad behind a suddenly devastating rushing attack that's piled up 1,152 yards over the past five games. That's the second-highest rushing total over a five-game span since Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears rolled up 1,278 rushing in 1977 (the Michael Vick-led Falcons tallied 1,160 yards rushing in their five games of the 2006 season), according to Elias. Although Jackson's contributions to the running game bring about comparisons to Vick and that Atlanta team, the way the Ravens are going about their business is unlike anything that we've seen in the NFL.
Remember, the NFL is a passing league where quarterbacks are expected to do their damage from the pocket with pinpoint passing skills. Yet, Jackson is operating like a single-wing quarterback from the early 1900s. Since taking over as Baltimore's starter, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound playmaker is averaging 17.2 rushing attempts and 85.4 rushing yards. No quarterback with a minimum of five starts has ever averaged more than 10.1 rushing attempts per start in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Although those numbers sound crazy in today's game, it shouldn't surprise anyone who watched Jackson post back-to-back 1,500-yard rushing seasons at Louisville. The electric playmaker rushed for more career yards in college than Saquon Barkley and totaled 50 rushing touchdowns in three seasons.
Think about that. Jackson totaled more rushing yards as a collegian than the NFL's third-ranked rusher this season, and he's continued to pile up ridiculous numbers as a runner in a league where the quarterback isn't expected to be a factor in the running game. Jackson's 566 rushing yards leads all quarterbacks and he's rushed for at least 70 yards in four of his five starts.
With a dangerous threat in the backfield, it's sensible for the Ravens to build their offensive attack around an option-based running game despite the objections of traditionalists who scoff at the notion of a run-first quarterback succeeding in the league. While I certainly understand their concerns, particularly regarding injury risk and long-term durability, I also see the benefits of incorporating the QB1 into the running game.
In traditional offenses, defenses play 11-on-10 football when the quarterback isn't considered a runner. Defensive coordinators will use "plus-one" defensive fronts to occupy every gap at the line of scrimmage with the extra defender free to plug an open hole.
For example, a two-back formation with a tight end and wide receivers on each side of the field would feature seven gaps (WR-OT-OG-C-OG-OT-TE-WR) at the line of scrimmage but the defense could fill each of the gaps with an eight-man front while also having enough defenders to cover the outside receivers with a deep safety. However, a mobile quarterback changes the equation because a defender must account for his whereabouts and that creates one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage in the running game. If the offense is able to secure a hat on a hat at the point of attack, running backs find plenty of room between the tackles. Most importantly, the cumulative effect of dealing with the physicality of a rugged running game wears opponents down over the course of 60 minutes.
"To me, it's good football," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at his Monday press conference. "... The running game does have that effect. It's tough to stop that style of play when it's executed well with physicality. Our guys are doing that and I'm proud of them for that. That's the way we're playing football right now."
Studying the Ravens' running game with Jackson at QB1, coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has taken advantage of the quarterback's running skills by using a variety of read-option concepts from an assortment of run-heavy formations with "12" (1 RB, 2 TE and 2 WR), "13" (1 RB, 3 TE and 1 WR), "21" (2 RB, 1 TE and 2 WR) and some "six-man" O-line personnel groupings on the field. The power-based attack features a Pistol alignment (three yards behind the quarterback in a shotgun formation) with the running back routinely attacking between the tackles. Jackson will frequently place the ball in the belly of the runner and read a designated defender along the line to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it and run around the corner. The cat-and-mouse game between Jackson and the defense exploits undisciplined units that are unable to stay with their assigned players at the point of attack.
To that point, Gus Edwards has certainly benefited from playing with Jackson in an option-based system. The undrafted rookie has averaged 97.2 rushing yards on 19.2 carries over the past five games. Edwards has not only given the Ravens' ground attack some toughness with his "bull in a china shop" running style but he has teamed with Jackson to help the Ravens become the first team since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers to rush for at least 190 yards in five straight games.
"It's the Ravens' Way," said the former NFL defensive coordinator from the opening section of this piece, who had a stint in Baltimore. "The entire organization believes in a run-first philosophy. This style of play meshes with their identity. ... This is who they are and want to be."
Considering the production of the Ravens' 1-2 punch in the backfield, the team's NFL-high 64.5 percent rush percentage since Week 11 shouldn't surprise anyone who has seen the team bully its last five opponents. The Ravens have averaged 46.8 rushing attempts and 230.4 rushing yards since Week 11, with the team amassing 66 first downs on running plays. That's a ridiculous amount of production from a running game that only averaged 92.7 rushing yards per game prior to Jackson stepping in as the QB1.
If those numbers alone don't validate the team's move toward an option-based running game that looks like it was plucked from the pages of an Army or Navy playbook, the Ravens' surge into postseason contention should confirm Harbaugh made a wise decision to play throwback football in today's pass-happy league.
3) The key to Indy's defensive dominance. If you want to know why the Indianapolis Colts are suddenly in the thick of the AFC playoff race, look no further than their 10th-ranked defense. That might not fit the "Andrew Luck for MVP" campaign being floated around the Twitterverse, but the Colts' hard-hitting defense has been the biggest reason why Indy has emerged as the team no one wants to face in the postseason.
Now, I know we're not accustomed to seeing the Colts' defense touted as one of the premier units in the NFL, but first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus has transformed this D into one of the stingiest in football. Since Week 7, the Colts lead the NFL in scoring defense, yielding just 15.0 points per game. On the season, Indianapolis has held five opponents to 10 points or fewer -- a feat this franchise accomplished just six times over the four previous years combined.
Normally, that kind of turnaround would be attributed to a scheme change or a lineup overhaul, but the Colts' defensive rise can really be boiled down to one word: hustle.
"People always say this system is about a certain coverage or a certain front and that's not what it is at all," Eberflus recently told The Athletic. "People get that misconception. That was taught to me years ago by guys that have been coaching in it for 30 years. It's not about that. It's about style. It's about how we do things."
Despite the implementation of a zone-based, Tampa 2 scheme, Indy's defensive dominance comes down to the effort and energy expended by the 11 defenders on the field.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the team's past eight games, I was blown away by the collective hustle of the group. From defensive linemen chasing the ball after performing a pass-rushing/run-stuffing technique to linebackers executing sideline-to-sideline pursuit to defensive backs rallying to gang tackle a ball carrier on the perimeter, the Colts' defense swarms to the action like a pack of wolves in an episode "Wild Kingdom" on Animal Planet. To a man, Indianapolis' defenders never slow down or break stride prior to the whistle -- and the collective hustle has resulted in fewer big plays allowed and more turnovers.
This is exactly what Colts general manager Chris Ballard envisioned when he originally spearheaded a coaching search that resulted in Eberflus joining the team as the defensive coordinator. And it was part of the reason why the Rod Marinelli disciple was retained after Josh McDaniels backed out of his deal and Frank Reich was hired as the new head coach.
"Ballard was always intrigued by Marinelli and his system," a former Colts defensive assistant familiar with the general manager's philosophy told me. "He believed the system was ideal for young players because it allowed them to play 'free and loose' on the field. With younger players capable of playing right away, the team could quickly turn around the defense by adding some draftees to the lineup under the right coach. ... [Ballard] had watched it work in Chicago and he was intent on doing the same thing in Indianapolis."
Mission accomplished. Eberflus has elevated the play of a defense loaded with young players, castoffs and misfits by getting them to buy into the principles of a system that's built on sweat equity. If you're willing to work and fly to the football, you can play for the Colts; if not, you'll find yourself on the sidelines or the unemployment line. That philosophy might be hard for some players to understand, but the message struck the right chord with a young, scrappy team featuring a bunch of players with something to prove.
"You'll be exposed in a good way or a bad way," Eberflus said, via ESPN.com. "If you're coaching the right way and doing the right stuff, guess what? Everything is going to rise. It's going to rise where it's supposed to rise. The good players we have on our defense. All the guys that buy in to the fundamentals and are coached correctly all rise up.
"Everything is out on the table. There's no hiding in the system. Can't hide the effort, can't hide the execution. The players know that. We tell them. The system hardens you to play a certain way and then what happens is, when guys buy into that, then it becomes a style they hold each other to."
The turnovers also show up when the entire unit commits to hustling and running to the ball. Second-level defenders, particularly in zone coverage, begin to snag interceptions off tips and overthrows. The combination of vision on the quarterback and relentless effort to disrupt the intended receiver after the throw frequently results in a turnover when the pass is slightly off the mark. The Colts' collective energy and hustle also lead to big hits that produce fumbles. Whether it is gang tackling runners with the first defender securing the tackle while the next defender attacks the ball or simply punching the ball out as part of a solo tackle, the Colts' ball awareness and hustle frequently lead to balls popping out of a runner's arms.
"He's always talking about it," rookie star Darius Leonard, who comfortably leads the NFL in tackles with 146 and also has forced four fumbles, said to The Athletic. "You don't know anybody who wants to keep getting hit in the face over and over again. If we keep going after the ball over and over again, at some point, they're going to spit the bit and the ball is going to be out for us to get it."
This approach has certainly borne fruit for the Colts. After finishing last season tied for 20th in takeaways, Indianapolis is currently tied for ninth with 22 (12 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries). Considering the strong correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning games, the Colts' ability to produce takeaways this season has certainly helped them vault back into playoff contention.
From a schematic standpoint, the Colts aren't showing earth-shattering stuff on tape. They will play a mix of three coverages (Cover 3, Tampa 2 and Cover 1-Man Free) from a two-high shell (looks like Cover 2 prior to the snap) with some basic zone dogs and blitzes mixed in. Although these simplified schemes could be featured in any high school game plan, Indianapolis' rock-solid execution allows the unit to dominate without tricks or gimmicks. The Colts are rarely out of position against the run, with defenders perfectly plugged into a gap-control scheme. Against the pass, the Colts are consistently keeping the ball in front of the defense and quickly rallying to tackle receivers after the catch. The defense ranks fourth in average yards per reception (10.4 yards), having allowed just 35 completions of 20-plus yards (tied for fourth-fewest in the NFL) and only three completions of 40-plus (second-fewest).
In a league where explosive plays and turnovers decide games, the Colts are excelling in both areas behind a simplified scheme that enables defenders to simply "hustle and flow" to the ball.
"You can play that when you have a bunch of young, hungry players who are looking to prove themselves," the former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "They're going to buy into the scheme and play hard because they want to establish themselves as players in the league. Once they have a little success and see that the coaches' methods produce results, they will really commit to doing things the right way and you will see the defense take off."
Based on the Colts' surprising defensive prowess, it is safe to say Eberflus and his staff have convinced an unheralded set of defenders that a little hustle still goes a long way in the NFL.