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 vintage roots of Baltimore's fearsome rushing attack.
But first, a look at a late-blooming quarterback making good on his first-round pedigree ...
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One man's trash is another man's treasure.
NFL executives hope the idiom is true whenever they acquire an underachieving player from another team, but it is uncommon to land a franchise player in such a situation. That's why the Tennessee Titans should be ecstatic with the performance and production they're getting from Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins castoff is not only thriving as a starting quarterback, but he is looking like the player that many envisioned when Miami selected him eighth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Since stepping in as the Titans' QB1 in Week 7, Tannehill is posting career highs as a starter in win percentage (.800), completion percentage (71.01%), yards per attempt (9.25), touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:3) and passer rating (114.9). Most importantly, No. 17 has been the spark plug to an offense that's averaged 13.1 more points per game and 93.9 more total yards per game under his direction while also posting the highest red-zone percentage (92.9) in the league during that span entering Week 13.
That's exceptional production from a QB1, particularly one who wasn't regarded as more than a mid-level starter prior to the season. In fact, I didn't even view Tannehill as a legitimate threat to the Titans' young would-be franchise quarterback (Marcus Mariota) when Tannehill was acquired in a March trade with the Dolphins that only cost the team a 2019 seventh-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round selection. (Tennessee also received a 2019 sixth-round pick in the deal.)
Let's be honest. Tannehill didn't move the needle during his seven-year stint in Miami, with a 62.8 percent completion rate, 123:75 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 87.0 passer rating in 88 career games. Although those numbers would be considered solid in most eras, I believe franchise quarterbacks should produce at a higher level in a league that's made it easier to throw the ball around the yard.
With that in mind, I believe the Titans deserve a ton of credit for sacrificing some draft currency to see if they could get better results from Tannehill in a different environment. Considering he was a top-10 pick with the size, athleticism and arm talent to entice evaluators during the pre-draft process, it was a worthwhile risk to sign No. 17 on a modest new contract that paid him $7 million guaranteed with incentives that could push the value of the deal to the $12 million mark.
When I played for the Green Bay Packers, then-general manager Ron Wolf once told me he learned from Al Davis that wise executives should always bring in discarded first-round picks for a trial run to see if they would benefit from a change of scenery. He told me that guys selected in the first round generally had A-level talent, and sometimes it took a different voice (in terms of coaching), scheme or overall environment (in terms of the locker room) to help them find their way as players.
Tannehill has certainly taken to Tennessee, where he's playing in a power-based scheme that better suits his talents as a dual-threat playmaker. The Titans' coaches appear to have a solid grasp on his strengths and weaknesses as an athletic, quick-rhythm passer with B-plus arm strength, using an assortment of quicks and intermediate rhythm throws from shotgun formations to complement traditional play-action and movement-based passes from run-heavy sets. With Tannehill showing tremendous confidence in those aspects, the ball has come out in a hurry, and the opposing pass rush hasn't been a factor.
Additionally, Tannehill has been more willing to throw the ball outside to his wide receivers instead of force-feeding the tight ends over the middle. This subtle change has stretched defenses horizontally and given defensive coordinators more to think about when preparing for the Titans' aerial attack.
Furthermore, Tannehill's athleticism and running skills have added some diversity to the team's sledgehammer rushing attack, which is anchored by Derrick Henry. It's not a coincidence that No. 22 has averaged 115.0 rushing yards per game since Tannehill's insertion into the lineup. The veteran quarterback isn't afraid to take off as a scrambler, and he is enough of a threat on zone-read/stretch-bootleg plays that defenders must account for him in the running game. The removal of a back-side pursuer has evened up the numbers at the line of scrimmage, giving Henry more room to run between the tackles.
The synergy between Tannehill, Henry, the offensive line and Tennessee's receivers has enabled first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to settle in as a play-caller and craft an offensive identity that will give opponents problems down the stretch. Defensive coordinators must come up with tactics to handle a powerful rushing attack and an efficient quarterback with dual-threat capabilities. This is certainly not an easy task, and it is one of the reasons why the Titans should consider re-signing No. 17 as their long-term answer at the quarterback position, with Mariota bound for free agency after losing his job to Tannehill in the final year of his rookie contract.
I know Tannehill might not seem like the sexiest option on fantasy football draft boards, and his re-signing would shake up the mock draft world during the pre-draft process, but it is the best option for a team that's quietly emerging as a legitimate contender in the AFC South. By definition, franchise quarterbacks should provide hope to each and every member of the team, and their mere presence makes a difference in the outcome of games. And that's what Tannehill is doing for Tennessee.
LAMAR JACKSON: The throwback concept behind Baltimore's dominance.
When Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh boldly talked about his offense revolutionizing the NFL, few expected to see the team take the league by storm by turning back the clock to the 1980s. The Ravens are lighting up scoreboards by utilizing an offensive scheme loaded with read-option and triple-option concepts that would make Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne crack smiles while watching Lamar Jackson play peek-a-boo with defenders and execute option handoffs to Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards at the line of scrimmage.
Hall of Fame inductee Joe Gibbs copped to stealing the infamous "Counter Trey" from Nebraska while coaching the Redskins in the 1980s, but I don't know if there's been another team that's blended as many collegiate concepts into an NFL playbook as the 2019 Ravens. From Baltimore's clever utilization of veer option to the speed option to the RPO game, the offense that Jackson is directing is one that reminds me of watching the heavyweight tilts between Oklahoma and Nebraska back in the day.
Although I loved watching Turner Gill and Jamelle Holieway flipping blind tosses to the running backs on the option in the '80s, I couldn't imagine the option becoming a staple of an NFL offense, despite its inherent advantages, with teams being too concerned about the health of the quarterback to exploit the numbers game by utilizing option football. Now, though, the Ravens have become an unstoppable offensive force by relying on an old-school concept that's always struck fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators at every level.
"You have to play assignment football against the option," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "Your guys must play with discipline and attention to detail, or the option will carve up the defense."
The Ravens led the NFL with 210.5 rush yards per game and a 5.69 yards per carry average heading into Week 13. As of now, they're the first team to average 200-plus rush yards per game since the 1977 Chicago Bears, led by Walter Payton, and they're on the verge of surpassing Jim Brown's 1963 Cleveland Browns (5.74) with their robust yards-per-carry mark.
Think about that. The Ravens are in elite offensive company with a running game that's pummeling opponents with the option as the main entree on the menu. In 2019, the Ravens have used the option on 45.8 percent of their rushes while leading the NFL in rush yards (1,049), touchdowns (7), first downs (52) and missed tackles forced (32) on option runs through Week 12. In addition, the Ravens are averaging 6.2 yards per carry on option runs, which ranked third in the league through Week 12.
"The option evens up the numbers," said the ex-NFL defensive coordinator. "Most defenses don't account for the quarterback, so you get an extra defender in the box to act as the 'free' hitter. With the quarterback used as a legitimate runner, the 'plus-one' advantage disappears, and everyone must win their individual battle to neutralize a play.
"The option also changes the numbers equation because the offensive line will leave a designated defender or two unblocked and let the quarterback read them. By reading defenders instead of blocking them, the offense can use additional blockers on other guys to seal off the back side and create huge creases if the play isn't stopped initially ... This is why defensive coordinators hate defending option teams. There are too many things that can go wrong when your players aren't on the details."
Given the discipline and attention to detail required by defenders to stop the option, I'm not surprised to see the Ravens leaning on option plays in critical situations. The Ravens have used option runs or designed quarterback runs on 15 of 41 (36.6%) third- or fourth-and-short situations (when there are 3 or fewer yards to go), converting 11 of those 15 attempts for first downs (73.3%).
A deeper dive into those numbers reveals that the Ravens used the option on 10 of 15 third- or fourth-and-short runs, with a 60 percent conversion rate. The other five plays were designed quarterback runs, with a 100 percent conversion rate.
Wow! We recognize Jackson's special talents as the most explosive dual-threat quarterback to play in the league, but the Ravens' utilization of the option with No. 8 as the point man has made their offense indefensible in "gotta have it" situations. That's exactly what every offensive coordinator wants, but few have been willing to incorporate the option into the game plan to make it happen.
While I can't knock play-callers for avoiding an old-school tactic that seemingly puts the quarterback in harm's way, I believe astute observers are going to recognize what a little option football can do for the running game when they take a closer look at how the Ravens' running game has gone from good to great with a smattering of Nebraska and Oklahoma sprinkled in.
Jackson (876 rushing yards) and Ingram (778) are the fourth pair of teammates in the Super Bowl era with 750-plus rushing yards each through 11 games. Just look at the company they're joining:
Considering the Ravens have averaged 40.4 points per game since Week 7 while scoring 30-plus points and winning by 14-plus points in each and every game during that span, the rest of the league is paying closer attention to how Harbaugh's troops are pummeling the league with the running game that's deeply rooted in the past.
BROWNS' TURNAROUND: What's behind Cleveland's postseason push?
Don't look now, but the Cleveland Browns are re-emerging as playoff contenders thanks, in part, to an offense that's finally discovered its identity. After flirting earlier this season with a spread offense designed to help Baker Mayfield sling the ball around the yard to a host of playmakers on the perimeter, Freddie Kitchens has gone back to basics by featuring a run-first approach complemented by an efficient play-action passing game while utilizing a variety of heavy sets (multiple tight end formations). It's not a coincidence that the team has won three straight games and can get back to .500 with a victory over the Steelers on Sunday.
Although I'm surprised it took Kitchens half the season to discover the right recipe to bake a winning cake, I believe the rest of the league knew the Browns had the ingredients to become an explosive offense. After all, the team has a young quarterback (Mayfield) with a polished game from the pocket and a rugged running back (Nick Chubb) with home-run potential. With a pair of established pass catchers (Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry) joining forces to form the most dynamic 1-2 punch on the perimeter and a wild-card playmaker (Kareem Hunt) in the dugout, the Browns are a Madden player's dream squad on paper.
However, a team needs to flow the right way to maximize its potential, and Kitchens finally made the Browns a blue-collar offense with Chubb (and Hunt) leading the way. Now, I know everyone believes No. 6 needs to be the epicenter of the offense based on the "It's a quarterback-driven league" narrative, but Chubb is second in the league in rushing (1,117 yards) and on a pace that could lead him to top the 1,600-yard mark by the end of the season. The second-year pro is a hard-nosed runner with a combination of strength, power and short-area quickness that makes him hard to deal with on inside runs. Chubb has a knack for pinballing off defenders at the point of attack, which makes him very hard to stop in the third and fourth quarters when fatigue sets in. With Hunt adding a little sizzle as a change-of-pace back, the Browns have a dynamic duo in the backfield that creates matchup problems for defensive coordinators when they're on the field at the same time.
Moreover, the threat of each runner forces defenses to stay honest, creating opportunities for Mayfield to exploit in the passing game. The analytics crowd might not want to hear this, but the legitimate threat of the running game has made the Browns' play-action passing game more lethal. Kitchens has seized on that point by dialing up more play-action passes of late.
Since Week 9, Mayfield has used play-action on 40 percent of his dropbacks, which is tied for the highest rate in the NFL (with Baltimore). He has posted a completion percentage of 73.3, a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 125.3 passer rating on those throws. That's a significant improvement from the 65.1 percent completion rate, 3:5 TD-to-INT ratio and 78.3 passer rating Mayfield posted during the first eight weeks of the season when the Browns used play-action on just 26.6 percent of their dropbacks.
What's made the difference?
Well, the Browns' renewed commitment to the running game and heavy formations has prompted defenses to alter their approach. Instead of playing coverage with defenders fixated on slowing down Beckham and Landry, defensive coordinators are being forced to drop extra defenders into the box to contain Chubb (and Hunt) on the ground. The Browns have forced opponents' hands by increasing their utilization of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) in recent weeks. Against the Dolphins in Week 12, the Browns trotted out their 12 package on 37.3 percent of their offensive snaps after featuring the personnel grouping on only 21.5 percent of their offensive plays during the first 11 weeks of the season, per Next Gen Stats. Considering the Browns have used 12 personnel on 28.9 percent of their offensive plays during their last three games, it is apparent the team has made it a priority to get more "bigs" onto the field to create matchup problems at the point of attack.
"I believe 12 personnel is the hardest personnel grouping to defend," said the former NFL defensive coordinator who is quoted earlier in this piece. "If one of the tight ends is an effective slot receiver or out-wide player, you have to treat him like a receiver and put (the) nickel on the field. This makes you vulnerable against the run if they condense the formation and play power football. If you stay with your base package, you could be in trouble if they spread the formation with the tight ends or running backs aligned out wide.
"You also need to have a plan to deal with the balance sets (tight ends on each side) and the wing sets (two tight ends on the same side) that create gap integrity problems at the point of attack. ... With defenders forced to think so much about the run, the play-action passing game creates problems through alignment and assignment."
When I spoke to Kitchens about multiple tight end formations at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, he told me that he had all kinds of fun stuff ready to go in his 12 and 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs, 0 WRs) packages. We discussed the challenges those packages pose to the defense, and he assured me the Browns would be able to exploit weaknesses on the ground or through the air with the team's heavy personnel on the field.
Keep in mind, the increased utilization of heavy formations makes it harder for opponents to double-team Beckham and Landry. That only enhances the Browns' big-play potential in the passing game.
While it took Kitchens a while to figure out how to properly blend the ingredients on his offense, he has discovered that mixing the running game with heavy formations and a dash of play-action could help the Browns feast on opponents down the stretch.