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:
-- One freakishly talented college player who has NFL scouts salivating.
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The New Orleans Saints' longtime chant perfectly captures my gut reaction to seeing Sean Payton's squad at the top of the NFC South standings nearly halfway through the 2017 campaign. Although I expected the Saints to be competitive, due to the presence of their MVP-caliber quarterback and savvy head coach, I didn't know if New Orleans had the talent or formula to overtake the last two Super Bowl runner-ups as the flag bearer of the division.
Let's be real: This was a team coming off three straight 7-9 seasons with a defense that's been trash for the last few years. Not to mention, the team traded away a star receiver (Brandin Cooks) and didn't appear to have enough firepower to compete with the heavyweights in the NFC.
After watching New Orleans stumble out of the gate with losses to the Vikingsand Patriots, I couldn't envision the Saints making a run at the division crown with the team lacking a plan or identity on either side of the ball. But something must've clicked after Week 2, because the Saints I've been watching in recent weeks not only look like potential division winners, but they could make a legitimate run in the NFC if they stick to the script.
Wait, we haven't even reached the midway point of this season and I'm already talking about New Orleans reclaiming its spot as a legit contender? Bear with me here. The Saints are using the same Super Bowl-winning blueprint that helped them hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2009 season. While I'm not ready to proclaim New Orleans the best team in the NFC, I do believe the Saints' decision to lean on a dangerous 1-2 punch in the backfield, a clutch quarterback and an aggressive defense could make this group a tough out in the postseason.
Now, I talked about the Saints leaning on their running backs in the offseason. I suggested that a three-headed backfield consisting of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara would conjure up memories of the 2009 RB corps (Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush) that anchored the league's sixth-ranked rushing attack as part of the NFL's top-rated offense at that time. I discussed how Ingram's versatility as an RB1 could help the team lean on a ground attack and screen game. In addition, I mentioned Kamara as the wild card of the rotation, capable of playing the role of Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles as the change-of-pace playmaker.
While I expected Peterson to fill in the gaps as a designated runner in short-yardage/goal-line/"turtle offense" (four-minute offense designed to run out the clock) situations, the veteran never quite found his niche with the team. His dismissal -- Peterson was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6 -- allowed the Saints to better define roles and clean up the rotation.
Ingram returned to his role as the team's RB1. He is the feature runner on early downs, with the bulk of his carries coming out of the dot position in one- and two-back sets. Ingram is at his best probing the defense between the tackles as a sledgehammer, but also flashes enough speed and quickness to turn the corner on outside runs. With the one-time Pro Bowl selectee also showing soft hands and precise route-running skills, the Saints use him on early-down passes -- particularly screens and checkdowns -- to exploit stacked defenses. Ingram has thrived in this role since Peterson's departure, with back to back 100-yard games in Weeks 6 and 7.
Kamara has emerged as a difference-making changeup back. He is the team's second-leading receiver (with 28 grabs) behind Michael Thomas, and his 6.3 yards-per-carry average jumps off the page. With his role increasing over the past three games, the rookie is beginning to torment opponents with his explosive skills as a hybrid playmaker. Payton has taken advantage of Kamara's versatile talents by lining him up all over the field as a quasi-receiver. Defenses are forced to play a game of hide-and-seek with Kamara, as he aligns in the backfield, slot or out wide in the team's spread formations. The constant adjustments have prompted some teams to treat No. 41 like a wide receiver and trot out sub-packages to enhance coverage. Given Payton's creativity and willingness to use a variety of squeeze and bunch formations to create run-heavy formations from various personnel groupings, Kamara's increased role has helped the Saints' offense become more dynamic and explosive in recent weeks.
"[Kamara's] a really good player," an NFC scout told me. "He is a better runner than some think and he brings a different dimension as a receiver. He can be a game changer in that offense."
With the rotation and responsibilities clearly defined between the team's top two backs, Ingram and Kamara have produced at a much higher level of late, averaging 41.5 touches and 227.0 scrimmage yards in the past two games, compared to 23.0 touches and 131.3 scrimmage yards over the first four games.
"We just want to take advantage of our opportunities," Ingram told reporters this week. "We come out and we prepare every single day like we're going to carry this team. When they call our number, we want to be able to be explosive and make a difference and be game changers for our team, make plays for our team and put us in positions to win. That's our focus. That's how we prepare every week. We just want to continue to build on that and help our team any way we can when our number is called."
Here's the funny thing about the emergence of the Saints' dynamic backfield duo: It has allowed the team to withstand pedestrian performances from its future Hall of Fame quarterback. Now, I know that goes against the narrative that's frequently trotted out, but the Saints' surging offensive performance has been keyed by their backs instead of their quarterback. Despite completing 69.1 percent of his passes over the past two games, Brees sports a 3:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span.
Given how New Orleans is now able to win without needing its QB1 to have his "A" game each week, the team is more balanced -- and quite possibly, more dangerous down the stretch. Of course, the Saints can still count on Brees to bail them out of jams as one of the best closers in the game -- SEE: 29 career fourth-quarter comebacks -- but the 38-year-old passer doesn't have to single-handedly carry the offense to get this team to the winner's circle.
New Orleans' emerging defense is also alleviating pressure on No. 9. After being viewed as the laughingstock of the league for the past couple seasons, the Saints' D is beginning to contribute to the team's return to prominence. The Saints have held opponents to 17.0 points per game over the past four outings, while producing 10 takeaways and three defensive scores. Those numbers are well off the figures the unit posted during the first two weeks of the season: 32.5 ppg allowed, zero turnovers. While most defensive coordinators would radically overhaul their system following a poor start to a season that was preceded by a couple of years of disappointing play, Dennis Allen has stayed pretty consistent with his approach. The Saints are a high-pressure team prone to sending five- and six-man pressures from all over the field. They started the season blitzing at a high rate (Allen sent five-plus rushers on 32.4 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps during the first two weeks of the season) and have taken it up a notch since. The Saints blitzed on 43.0 percent of their defensive snaps during their four-game winning streak, which is the third-highest percentage in the league during that span.
"I think what happens is when you have success with that, then you're able to call those a little bit more and put a little bit more pressure on the quarterback," Allen said, via ESPN.com. "So that's really a result of the play of our players and the communication of our players and understanding what their responsibilities are."
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film of New Orleans' most recent games, I actually believe the defense's success is due to improved player performance, as opposed to scheme tweaks. The Saints' stars have been playing like stars -- and their dominance has sparked the entire unit. DE Cam Jordan, rookie CB Marshon Lattimore and S Kenny Vaccaro have played like All-Pros in their respective roles. Jordan has keyed the team's high-pressure approach with five sacks, four passes defensed and a pick-six.
Lattimore and Vaccaro have helped the secondary hold quarterbacks to a 53.6 passer rating over the past four games. Most impressively, each defender has delivered a handful of splash plays: Since Week 3, Lattimore has a pick-six, a forced fumble and three passes defensed, while Vaccaro's racked up three interceptions, six passes defensed and a fumble-recovery TD.
MARTAVIS BRYANT DRAMA: Honestly, the Steelers receiver isn't wrong
Martavis Bryant drew the ire of the Pittsburgh Steelers when he voiced displeasure with his role on the team via social media, leading to the wideout's benching for Sunday's game in Detroit. The third-year pro not only came off as another diva pass catcher with a "me first" attitude, but he committed a cardinal sin when he took a shot at fellow receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in an Instagram post. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mike Tomlin's decision to discipline his young receiver for his public transgressions, I believe No. 10 has a valid point when he gripes about his role on the squad.
Bryant should be a featured player on an offense that's capable of lighting up the scoreboard like an elite "Madden 18" player, and if the Steelers aren't going to maximize his talents as a big-play specialist, there are plenty of teams who could use a 6-foot-4, 211-pound playmaker with speed to burn and a knack for highlight-reel catches.
Before you come at me with Bryant's tenuous status in the league due to prior substance-abuse violations, I know he is a slip-up away from facing a banishment from the league. Despite his status, I believe he has the talent to be a top-20 receiver and the Steelers should find a way to get him the rock on the perimeter to add another dimension to the offense.
Remember, Bryant was one of the NFL's most explosive players prior to his year-long suspension in 2016. He averaged 21.1 and 16.5 yards per catch, respectively, in his first two seasons, while scoring 14 touchdowns in his first 21 career games. In addition, Bryant had 10 receptions of at least 40 yards during that span, emerging as one of the league's best home run hitters.
Given Bryant's impact and production as a designated big-play specialist as a youngster, I expected Pittsburgh to set off fireworks when he rejoined an offense that already featured the NFL's most dynamic running back (Le'Veon Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown) on the perimeter. With Ben Roethlisberger adept at getting the ball to his playmakers, the Steelers' attack appeared to have it all.
That's why I was shocked when Pittsburgh's attack stumbled out of the gate this season, averaging just 19.8 points per game over the first five weeks. Although the unit has seemingly turned it around -- at least somewhat -- in recent weeks, Bryant has been a non-factor in the passing game. He had just three receptions for 30 yards over the past two games, trying to find a role in an offense that's increasingly leaning on Bell and Brown.
"Right now, defenses aren't really selling out to stop Bell and Brown," a former NFL offensive assistant told me. "As we get closer to the stretch run, defensive coordinators will make a concerted effort to take away those guys, and that's when you'll see Bryant's big-play ability make a difference. He is the one who can win consistently on the back side, so it's only a matter of time before he becomes a factor again."
Still, I wanted to take a look at the All-22 Coaches Film and Next Gen Stats, in an attempt to figure out why Bryant hasn't been much of a factor to this point. I wanted to know if the big, athletic speedster had lost a step during his year away from the game and if his game still suited the Steelers' scheme. In addition, I wanted to uncover why Big Ben and Bryant haven't been able to connect on the deep ball that once made them a lethal combination.
Looking at the tape, I didn't notice a big drop-off in Bryant's explosiveness or physical ability. He still displays the burst and acceleration to blow past defenders on vertical routes, while also showing outstanding balance and body control getting in and out of breaks. In a Steelers offense that features a number of vertical routes and catch-and-run concepts, Bryant is the ideal big-play weapon on the back side of a proven WR1.
Next Gen Stats data backs up that assertion, based on Bryant's separation numbers. He ranks 13th in the NFL (out of 85 receivers with 20-plus targets) with a 3.08-yard separation average at the target. On downfield passes, Bryant ranks 10th among receivers with at least 10 deep-ball targets (20-plus air yards) -- his 2.18-yard average separation places him just behind Brown (2.25) on the list. Thus, he remains one of the best deep threats in the game.
If that is the case, why isn't he putting up eye-popping numbers in Pittsburgh attack that's supposed to terrorize opposing defenses? It's simple. Bryant's quarterback is no longer the deep-ball passer that he once was. Big Ben's suspect accuracy has impacted the team's most explosive big-play threat. Just look at the numbers ...
Roethlisberger has 36 deep-ball attempts, with a league-high 12 falling into the "wide open" category (defined as 3-plus yards of separation). However, he has only completed 25 percent of those attempts, which makes him the second-worst QB in this category among qualified players. Taking an even deeper dive into those numbers, Big Ben is 0-for-4 on "wide open" attempts to Bryant.
"We've had opportunities with deep balls that were just missed, whether it was me overthrowing him or it's the Chicago game where he slows down a little bit or this last game where he doesn't see the ball coming out of my hand," Roethlisberger told reporters on Tuesday. "There are plays to be had. We just have to make them."
Ben is right. There are plays to be made and the Steelers need to find a way to put Bryant in a position to make them.
Although Steeler teammates and coaches might disagree with Bryant's approach to asking for the ball, he's not wrong in requesting a bigger role on an offense that will need his playmaking ability to make a run in the AFC.
THE NEXT GREAT NFL BACK: Penn State's Saquon Barkley has it all
If you happen to have a little time to check out some college football this weekend, you might want to devote a few hours to the Penn State-Ohio State battle to see the NFL's next great running back at work.
Penn State's Saquon Barkley is a hybrid playmaker with the running skills of an RB1 and the pass-catching skills of a WR2. Not to mention, he is an exceptional kick returner with a knack for putting the ball into the paint.
As the only player in the FBS with at least 250 rushing, receiving and kick-return yards, Barkley certainly has the attention of scouts as a triple-threat with the capacity to score from anywhere on the field at any time. The Penn State star's explosiveness, versatility and productivity make him a hot commodity in draft rooms around the league.
"He's special,' an NFC scout told me. "He's got all of the traits that you look for at the position. Plus, he has a little juice (speed and explosion) that separates him from others. He could be a monster at the next level."
Over the summer, I had a chance to hang around Barkley during "The Opening" at Nike headquarters, as he and a handful of college stars worked as counselors at the camp. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior put on an impressive showing in the speed and conditioning workouts directed by NFL combine workout guru Tom Shaw. From his spectacular balance and body control to his overall explosiveness as an A+ athlete, Barkley has unique traits and movement skills for a big back with a tank build. He moves around like a diminutive change-of-pace running back, yet he possesses the size and rugged mentality to be an effective grinder between the tackles.
"It's uncommon for a big back to have the kind of 'pop' that Barkley shows in drills," Shaw told me at the event. "He has an impressive combination of speed, quickness, and power.
He's one of the most explosive athletes that I've been around in years."
Looking at the All-22 tape from the past two seasons, Barkley's rare skill set jumps off the screen when he totes the rock for the Nittany Lions. He is one of the few runners capable of executing a splashy jump-cut at the line of scrimmage before powering through multiple defenders in the hole. Barkley's balance, body control and short-area burst remind me of a young Frank Gore -- but he delivers it in a 230-pound package.
As a receiver, Barkley exhibits soft hands and polished route-running ability on the perimeter. He is such a dynamic playmaker in the passing game that he should receive touches from the backfield, slot or out wide to take advantage of his skills against overmatched linebackers and safeties in space. Considering how David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell impact the game as quasi-receivers on the perimeter, Barkley's versatility should pique the interest of creative offensive coordinators looking for a hybrid playmaker with game-changing skills in the backfield.
That's why the NFL scouting community will pay close attention to how Barkley performs against an Ohio State defense that's loaded with pro-caliber talent and coached by a former NFL head coach (Greg Schiano). If he looks like the most dominant player on the field, evaluators will have no problem anointing him as one of the future franchise players in the college game today.