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 key to Seattle's turnaround over the past two weeks.
But first, a look at an explosive offense that should be getting even more respect ...
* * * **
Now, I know the football world has everyone under the impression that the Chiefs and Rams are the only innovative offenses with explosive perimeter playmakers, deadly accurate gunslingers, and masterful play-callers, but the Saints have comparable weaponry and a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback at the helm. With a crafty play caller who has a Super Bowl win on the resume controlling the game from the sidelines, the Saints are one of the few teams capable of putting a 40-spot on any defense in the league.
Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers: The Saints rank fourth in total offense (418.2 yards per game) and third in scoring (34.2 points per game). In addition, the Saints rank among the top 10 in red-zone efficiency, big plays, yards per play and sacks allowed. That's the kind of offense that wins in the NFL, particularly when the rules have tipped the scales in favor of high-powered offenses with dynamic perimeter playmakers and accurate quarterbacks.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it's easy to see that the Saints are one of the most challenging offenses to defend based on their ever-changing personnel and the spectacular play of their quarterback. Despite operating out of "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs) on most (55.8 percent) of their offensive snaps, the Saints have shown tremendous diversity, using 13 different personnel groupings in four games (the Rams have used just three). From trotting out "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) to using some formations that feature six offensive lineman with a running back, two tight ends and a wide receiver or one running back and three wide receivers, the Saints' constant shuttling of personnel in and out of the game can make it hard for opposing defensive coordinators to properly match up with the team's stars.
For all of the praise and adulation coach Sean Payton receives as a play designer, it's his ability to create big-play opportunities for his top talents that separates him from others. Through clever alignments and diverse formations, Payton routinely puts his top players in prime positions to get the ball. Look no further than Michael Thomas' spectacular production as proof of this premise.
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound pass catcher has spent more time in the slot in 2018 after spending the bulk of his time out wide during his first two seasons. Thomas is averaging 10 catches and 111.2 receiving yards operating primarily as a slot receiver in the Saints' offense. Although his yards per catch average has dipped slightly (down to 10.6 yards after averaging 12.1 during his first two seasons), Thomas has made a bigger impact on the passing game as a glorified "Y" receiver for the team.
"As he's become more and more adept to what we're doing, his route tree has expanded because there are certain routes in the slot that you might run that you wouldn't run out wide," Payton recently said. "So the route variables, and then also what you're trying to do versus a certain coverage."
Naturally, it is easier to get the ball to No. 13 when you have one of the most accurate passers in NFL history throwing the rock. Brees, who ranks first in league history with a career completion percentage of 67.1, is effective targeting receivers to every area of the field, as evidenced by the numbers below.
Brees by target location this season:
Left: Completed 41 of 55 passes; 74.5 percent completion rate; 8.4 pass yards per attempt; 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio; 105.3 passer rating.
Middle: Completed 38 of 49 passes; 77.6 percent completion rate; 7.4 pass yards per attempt; 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio; 111.0 passer rating.
Right: Completed 43 of 55 passes; 78.2 percent completion rate; 8.6 pass yards per attempt; 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio; 132.7 passer rating.
Brees, who is also this season's completion percentage leader (75.8) is coming off a season where he set the single-season record for completion percentage (72.0) as an efficient dart thrower from the pocket. As the third-leading passer in NFL history, Brees remains one of the elites at the position due to his ability to work the field on an assortment of dink-and-dunk passes and timely seam throws inside the numbers. With the Saints also mixing in a number of play-action throws with intermediate and vertical routes on the outside, Brees relentlessly attacks the defense at every level.
With that in mind, Mark Ingram's return from suspension this week should add even more spice to an offense that's already sizzling through the first four games of the season. The two-time Pro Bowl selectee is one of only four players to rush for 1,000-plus yards in 2016 and 2017 (joining Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Jordan Howard). He is coming off a season with 12 rushing touchdowns (tied for third-most in the NFL) and a solid average of 4.9 yards per carry.
That's quite an addition to an offense that currently features one of the most dynamic playmakers at running back in Alvin Kamara. The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year is averaging 22.8 offensive touches, 152.8 scrimmage yards, and 1.5 touchdowns through four games. Kamara is the first running back since Matt Forte in 2014 to have at least five receptions in each of his first four games of a season. Most impressively, he is the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards through his 20 career games.
Think about it this way: If the Saints are averaging 34.2 points and 418.2 total yards per game with Kamara as the RB1, imagine the fireworks we could see with No. 41 and No. 22 on the field as a tandem. The Saints not only have the ability to run the same offense with either running back on the field but they can use their screen and checkdown game to pick apart defenses. With the play-action passing game also available, the Saints' playbook is wide open with the dynamic duo on the field.
JAGUARS VS. CHIEFS: How Jacksonville can slow down Mahomes and Co.
If there is a defense out there that can slow down the Kansas City Chiefs' red-hot quarterback, it's the Jacksonville Jaguars and their collection of alpha-dog defenders. They'll get the chance when the two teams meet in Kansas City on Sunday. The bodacious crew from Duval County not only has the necessary pieces to disrupt Patrick Mahomes' rhythm but it can match up with the NFL's most explosive playmaking unit on the perimeter, too.
I know it's hard to envision a defense slowing down an offense that's averaging 4.5 touchdowns per game (most in the NFL) behind a quarterback with 14 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions through four games, but the Jaguars have been the NFL's best pass defense since 2017 with No. 1 rankings in yards per attempt, passing touchdowns allowed per game and passer rating allowed during that span.
Part of the Jaguars' defensive success can be attributed to their persistent pass rush. Jacksonville ranked No. 2 in sacks in 2017 and remains one of the top pass-rushing squads with a 31.4 pressure rate (fourth-best). Although the team is tied for 12th in the league with 10 sacks, the disruptive nature of Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler could be an issue for the young quarterback.
If the Jaguars remain disciplined and only rush to the depth of the quarterback's drop, they can contain Mahomes and force him to throw from a collapsing pocket instead of watching him complete improbable throws on the run. The Denver Broncos were able to generate pressure on No. 15 in Week 4, but wide-angle rushes left some escape routes, which enabled Mahomes to create explosive plays on impromptu scramble tosses. If the Jaguars can win with three- and four-man rushes and a controlled approach, the team can certainly make Mahomes uncomfortable in the pocket.
If Ramsey gets the nod against Hill, the All-Pro corner will enjoy a size advantage over the 5-foot-10 playmaker, but the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver/returner is the most explosive athlete on the field. Despite being held to fewer than 60 scrimmage yards in back-to-back games, Hill is a threat to score from anywhere on the field as the ultimate big-play weapon. No. 10 has 13 touchdowns that have covered at least 50 yards, which is well ahead of the pace set by the record holder in the category, Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice (he finished with 38 touchdowns of 50-plus yards, scoring them in his first 16 seasons).
That said, the Jaguars must have a plan for dealing with Kelce on the perimeter, too. The NFL's most dynamic tight end aligns all over the field from out wide to the slot as a quasi-wide receiver. He is a rare "Y" capable of taking a bubble screen to the house while also splitting the seam on vertical routes between the hashes. No. 87 can create mismatches against linebackers and safeties, which is problematic for most teams.
However, the Jaguars have linebackers who can match up with Kelce -- Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are capable of running with the Pro Bowl tight end all over the field. In addition, the Jaguars have the option of using Ramsey as an eraser, if No. 87 begins to have his way between the hashes. Jags defensive coordinator Todd Wash has used his top cover corner in this role before and he could keep this option at the ready in his back pocket when making his game plan.
Remember, the Jaguars have been one of the best teams defending tight ends with top-10 rankings in receptions allowed (fifth), receiving yards (tied for second) and receiving touchdowns (tied for 10th) since 2017. In the first two weeks of this season, they held top tight ends like Rob Gronkowski (two catches for 15 yards) and Evan Engram (two catches for 18 yards) to modest production.
Andy Reid will certainly have a bag of tricks ready to throw at the Jaguars, including some fly-sweep tactics that create uncertainty and hesitation. He could tap into Sammy Watkins' playmaking ability if he is available (he was limited in practice on Thursday with a hamstring injury) or put the ball in the hands of Kareem Hunt on a collection of touches from the backfield.
"If I am speaking about weapons, yes, and how they use their guys," said Ramsey, per my colleague James Palmer. "Probably the top offense that I have played in my NFL career. They do a good job of getting guys the ball who can be dangerous with it."
That said, the Jaguars have the collective team speed and athleticism to match the Chiefs player for player, but it will take a disciplined and coordinated effort from the pass rush and coverage to get the W. If the Jaguars can keep contain and force the Chiefs to play small ball, they could extinguish a red-hot offense that has set the league on fire.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Dallas finally taps into Ezekiel Elliott's skills as a hybrid. I don't know why it took the Dallas Cowboys four regular-season games to figure out the team's winning formula involves using Zeke as a runner and receiver, but Jason Garrett should remind offensive coordinator Scott Linehan the attack is at its best when it fully runs through No. 21.
Don't get me wrong: Elliott has certainly been a major part of the 2018 Cowboys' offense. Not only does he account for 41.3 percent of Dallas' scrimmage yards, but he also has earned 51.2 percent of the team's total offensive numbers -- a league-leading figure higher than David Johnson (47.6), Todd Gurley (44.5) and Christian McCaffrey (43.9). But it's the way the 'Boys have fed him the ball for much of his career that leaves something to be desired. Unlike those aforementioned backs, Elliott has rarely been asked to run receiver-like routes from the backfield, out wide or in the slot. In fact, the majority of his touches in the passing game spawn from screens and checkdowns, as evidenced by his average of 1.4 air yards per target, per Next Gen Stats.
I know the 2016 NFL rushing champion is a dynamic runner with a powerful style that is conducive to a steady diet of plunges between the tackles, but I believe the Cowboys have miscast him as a one-dimensional playmaker for most of his time in Dallas, despite the fact that he has displayed soft hands and superb route-running skills. In 29 career games, Elliott has just 73 catches. Considering 14 running backs finished with at least 50 receptions in 2017 alone -- including the likes of Le'Veon Bell (85), Alvin Kamara (81), McCaffrey (80) and Gurley (64) -- the Cowboys haven't given their RB1 enough chances to impact the air game.
That's why I was encouraged by what I saw when I popped in the All-22 Coaches Film from Dallas' 26-24 win over Detroit this past Sunday. Elliott was not only involved in the passing game, but the Cowboys moved him around to take advantage of his underrated receiving skills. While he still snagged a few screens, including a 38-yard touchdown, Elliott made the play of the game when he caught a 34-yard pass on a fade route from the slot to set up the game-winning field goal. The nifty deployment put Elliott on Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis in a one-on-one matchup in space -- a big advantage for Dallas.
For a team in desperate need of more big plays in the passing game, the decision to expand Elliott's role as a pass catcher is a sensible one. Having showcased his all-around skill set in a Week 4 performance that saw him rack up a career-high 240 scrimmage yards, Zeke is more than capable of making his mark as an RB1/WR2 in an offense that finally maximizes his talents as an explosive hybrid on the perimeter.
2) Seahawks rediscover their winning blueprint. There's no disputing Russell Wilson's impact as a franchise quarterback, but the Seattle Seahawks are a much better offense when the team operates with a run-first premise. I know this thinking runs counter to the pass-heavy approach pushed by quants in the analytical world, but the proof is in the pudding in this instance.
Seattle started this season with two losses. In those games, the Seahawks threw 69 passes and ran the ball just 38 times. During his midweek press conference back in Week 3, Pete Carroll shouldered the blame for this warped play calling.
"Yeah, I would tell you that my -- I'll just take it -- my impatience a little bit, you know," Carroll said back on September 20, via Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News Tribune. "Figuring that we should be on the board more than we had and just got to throw the ball up more than I want to. I'm over that. Both games were so close throughout. We were close enough we could have done whatever we wanted to all the way down to the end of it. I just got a little bit impatient, threw the ball a bit more than we needed to.
"And so, you look back and that's with limited opportunities because we weren't converting, it just kind of works together. I'm just owning up. But that's what I would say is the issue with that. I need to be a little less impatient. I'm a little bit, tend to be that way, you know?"
Patience is indeed a virtue. Since Week 3, the Seahawks have run on 56.6 percent of their offensive snaps, with a running back topping the 100-yard mark in each contest (Chris Carson rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries in Week 3, while Mike Davis finished with 101 yards and two scores on 21 carries in Week 4). With the team averaging 36.5 rushing attempts and 142.0 rushing yards during this span, Carroll and his staffmates have shown a greater commitment to the running game -- and the Seahawks have won two games, evening their record at 2-2.
The lopsided run-pass ratio is certainly not a part of the Seahawks' winning formula established under Carroll, who has always suggested that a 50-50 run-pass ratio is ideal. This is part of the championship-winning blueprint Carroll followed at USC: Six of his seven Trojan teams from 2002 to 2008 ran the ball on at least 50 percent of their offensive snaps.
Carroll's Seahawks have been at their best when favoring the ground game over the aerial attack. The team ran the ball on well over 50 percent of their offensive snaps in the 2012, '13 and '14 seasons, when they averaged 12 wins per season and hit a pair of Super Bowls (winning one). Granted, Wilson was viewed as a "game manager" at that early stage of his career, but the commitment to the running game, particularly with Marshawn Lynch, played a huge role in creating the blue-collar identity of a championship squad.
Fast forward to 2018, and particularly these last two weeks: A renewed commitment to the running game gives the 'Hawks a chance in a pass-happy league. The team can lean on Carson or Davis as single-game workhorses, with rookie first-rounder Rashaad Penny coming out of the bullpen. Although most teams would prefer to lean on an established RB1, the Seahawks see value in an "RBBC" (running back by committee) approach, with game circumstances dictating which runner receives the bulk of the carries.
"They're all different," Carroll said of his running backs earlier this week. "They all have well-rounded ability -- they can catch, they can block, as well as run. They're all just different styles, different makeups. As always, we're trying to figure out that uniqueness and use it to its best."
I'm not ready to tout the Seahawks as playoff contenders based off back-to-back wins against marginal teams (Dallas and Arizona), but I do believe their recipe for success could make them a tough out for defenses ill-equipped to play old-school football at the line of scrimmage.
3) Tom Brady, master of the paper cut. Brady will ultimately go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Yes, this is largely because of the five Super Bowl rings, three MVPs and countless other accolades. But his absolute mastery of the "dink and dunk" game should serve as a blueprint for any young passer hoping to achieve excellence at the position.
The Patriots quarterback just offered up another fine effort against the Colts on "Thursday Night Football" -- the kind of game that could serve as teaching tape in 31 quarterback meeting rooms around the league. Brady completed 34 of his 44 pass attempts for 341 yards with three touchdowns. While he did show that he's human with a pair of interceptions, the overall performance was a classic display of a quarterback carving up a defense with a surgeon's precision. Brady patiently attacked the underneath areas of coverage with an assortment of quicks, screens and checkdowns near the line of scrimmage. He routinely released the ball within two seconds of receiving the snap, which nullified Indy's pass rush and put the ball immediately into the hands of the Patriots' receivers in space.
While the quick-rhythm passing game has been a staple of New England's offense for nearly two decades, it's still quite impressive to witness the patience and discipline exhibited by Brady while running a scheme with a number of small-ball concepts. TB12 routinely opts for the checkdown instead of forcing the ball into tight coverage. To play this cat-and-mouse game effectively, the quarterback must be willing to hit running backs and slot receivers over and over until a defender becomes jumpy and abandons his assigned area to make a play on an underneath route, thus leaving a void for Brady to target a wide-open receiver at intermediate range.
"Brady wants to work between the numbers at short and intermediate range," a former AFC East defensive coordinator told me. "He will work the quick game and screen game all day long if you let him. ... He isn't afraid to put the ball in the hands of his playmakers and let them do all of the work. ... He will test the patience and discipline of your defense by taking what you give him over and over. That's how he plays."
From a personnel standpoint, the Patriots have surrounded TB12 without enough "RAC" masters to torment defenses with this paper-cut approach. Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson are effective screen playmakers due to their backgrounds as punt returners. Each has enough wiggle and shake to make defenders miss in the open field, resulting in first downs on simple tosses. Meanwhile, James White is one of the best screen and checkdown playmakers in the game today. He is not necessarily a dynamic weapon with the ball in his hands, but he is effective getting from Point A to Point B in the open field. Plus, he is a dependable pass catcher with soft hands and superb route-running skills. With 12 receiving touchdowns since 2016 (the most by a running back in this span) and four 10-plus reception games during this period, White is a trusted playmaker on the perimeter.
Josh Gordon isn't a catch-and-run specialist, but he is a big-bodied vertical playmaker capable of opening the field for others with his presence. While he continues to make an impact as a downfield receiver from outside, he will take coverage away from Rob Gronkowski and the shifty pass catchers running wild on horizontal routes.
These factors bring me back to why young quarterbacks and their team builders should consider copying No. 12's approach in the twilight of his career. Brady understands the strengths and weaknesses of his supporting cast, and he tries to get each guy the ball in spots where he can succeed. With his full complement of weapons available in Week 5, Brady directed 62.5 percent of his targets to pass catchers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. During the first four weeks of the season -- when New England was missing some of the aforementioned pieces -- only 45.9 percent of Brady's throws covered fewer than 5 air yards. As a result, TB12's overall efficiency and effectiveness were down, due to more downfield targets on the play sheet.
The Patriots have helped Brady regain his mojo by featuring more "21" personnel sets (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs) in recent weeks. The emergence of Sony Michel as a productive workhorse runner (43 rushes for 210 yards with two scores over the past two games) has helped the veteran find Gronk and Gordon off play-action.
"The offensive line is doing a great job, but the way [Michel] is running the ball just helps the play-action out hugely," Gronkowski said on the "Thursday Night Football" postgame show. "I caught a couple play-action passes today and it's all because of that reason. The way he runs the ball, the linebackers have to respect it, so it's huge to be part of this offense."
If you're going to succeed in the NFL as a quarterback, you have to be able to effectively attack the field from every angle. Brady has been able to do it for years by using an assortment of quicks, screens and play-action passes to carve up defenses. With Thursday night's showing serving as teaching tape for aspiring quarterbacks and team builders, the G.O.A.T. has provided a blueprint that should be replicated.