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:
But first, a look at how the rich just got richer in Seattle ...
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If the old adage is true about defense winning championships, we should expect the Seattle Seahawks to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.
This unit has been one of the NFL's best for years -- after ranking No. 1 in scoring defense for four straight seasons, the Seahawks finished third in 2016 -- but last week's trade for Sheldon Richardson was the cherry on top. The move to acquire the ultra-athletic DT from the New York Jets adds a disruptive interior defender to a D-line that's already loaded with high-energy playmakers. With Richardson in the fold, a whopping eight of Seattle's 11 defensive starters boast Pro Bowl credentials. I can't wait to watch this defense play in 2017, starting with Sunday's marquee matchup against the Packers in Green Bay.
Think about that: A unit that was already widely considered the premier defense in football just added a hyper-talented 26-year-old with the explosiveness and pass-rush skills to take over the game from the inside. Not to mention, Richardson is a versatile defender capable of lining up anywhere from nose tackle to defensive end in a three- or four-man front.
"Sheldon has a tremendous diversity in what he can do," Carroll told reporters on Monday following his team's practice. "He has really played all over the place. He has played inside at 3-technique, he has played nose, he has stood up, he has played end, they've dropped him in coverage. They've done everything with the guy because he's just an all-around, really good athlete and good football player.
"We'll start him off playing inside -- we've got to get him ready to play in a week's time -- then we'll see how things progress from there, as we always do."
Looking at Richardson's numbers from his first four seasons in the league, it is easy to get excited about his potential impact with the Seahawks. He has totaled 18 sacks, 40 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and 53 quarterback hits and 107 QB hurries. While those numbers speak to his impact as a pass rusher, Richardson is just as disruptive against the run. With Richardson on the field over the past four seasons, the Jets held opponents to 3.5 rushing yards per attempt, compared to 4.0 ypa when he wasn't on the field. That fits in nicely with a Seahawks defense that yielded just 3.37 rushing yards per attempt in 2016 -- the top mark in the NFL.
"He's a bad boy," said one of Richardson's former Jets coaches from the Rex Ryan years. "He can do it all. Whether it's stopping the run as a one-gap or two-gap player, or attacking the quarterback as an inside rusher, he is unstoppable when he is locked in and ready to play."
That last comment is important. Richardson's motivation seemed to ebb and flow in recent seasons, when he also encountered some legal issues. Additionally, his outspoken demeanor -- particularly recently, with his disparaging comments toward former teammate Brandon Marshall -- seemed to really get on Jets coach Todd Bowles' nerves. But his former coach during the Ryan years believes this trade is just what the doctor ordered.
"In Seattle, he's playing in a defense that fits his skills under a coach that will allow him to be himself, on and off the field," the coach told me. "Plus, he is playing with a bunch of guys that are competitive and hungry. He will be a beast for them because it's a great fit."
Indeed. On the subject of the scheme fit: The Seahawks' system is ideally suited to take advantage of Richardson's talents as an athletic pass rusher. In a one-gap scheme that encourages defensive linemen to stop the run on the way to the quarterback, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound defender will be able to play fast at the point of attack instead of reading and reacting at the line. This should help Richardson unleash the pass-rush skills that helped him notch 11.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons (under Ryan).
"He's at his best when he can play downhill," the coach told me. "If they turn him loose and let him play, he can single-handedly take over games as an inside pass rusher."
With that in mind, Seattle's pass rush will become more dangerous than ever in obvious throwing situations, with Richardson playing alongside Michael Bennett on the inside. The dynamic duo will command attention at the point of attack, leaving Cliff Avril and Frank Clark alone on the edges. With those two defensive ends both capable of winning with an assortment of speed-rush maneuvers that overwhelm lumbering offensive tackles, the Seahawks will always enjoy an advantage when they can get "four on five" (four-man rush against a five-man protection) at the point of attack.
"This will fit together really well," Carroll said Monday. "We should be good up front against the running game, which is always crucial to us, then we'll see how well we can build our pass rush. I like the mix that we have, this will make a really good matchup for Mike on the inside, with Sheldon on one side and Mike on the other. The combination of guys with Cliff, Marcus (Smith) and Frankie outside, that's a good matchup for us."
If Seattle does indeed generate the kind of pass rush everyone expects to see, the "Legion of Boom" secondary will become even tougher to throw on, with seven defenders dropping into coverage with their eyes on a panicked passer frantically trying to get rid of the football. The Seahawks routinely snag interceptions on tips or overthrows down the field. Constant pressure from the front four will help the team continue to win the turnover battle and rack up Ws.
RAVENS' WINNING FORMULA: Time to lean on reinvigorated defense
One of the biggest challenges facing every NFL head coach is matching his team's playing style with the talents of his personnel on an annual basis. While every leader has a vision for how he wants his team to operate on each side of the ball, the best coaches routinely adjust their schemes and tactics to give their squad the best chance to win on each and every Sunday. That's why I'm curious to see how Ravens head coach John Harbaugh will approach this season in Baltimore.
Harbaugh's defensive stars are clamoring for the team to lean on the D and running game, while employing conservative offensive tactics -- despite the presence of a Super Bowl MVP quarterback and a handful of explosive playmakers on perimeter.
"I believe that our team doesn't have an ego," Weddle told reporters this week. "We want to win; we're tired of losing. I'm tired of losing. It irks me every day that I didn't have a chance in the playoffs. That's not me, it's not what I'm about. Even if [the offense does] have a problem, I don't care if they have a problem. It's the way we're going to win.
"Play great on defense, play unbelievable special teams, and play solid on offense -- that's going to be the secret for us to win. Don't turn the ball over, create turnovers, play sound defense, no big plays, and it's shown. Whoever we're playing against, it doesn't matter."
I don't disagree with Weddle's assertion. Great defense, turnover-free football and a ground-and-pound offensive approach still bears fruit in today's pass-happy league. Thus, I think the Ravens would be wise to heed his advice, based on the re-emergence of a championship-caliber defense in Baltimore.
Now, I know some of you will think I'm being a bit presumptuous in saying such things about the Ravens' defense. But the additions of a hard-hitting safety (Tony Jefferson), a veteran cover corner (Brandon Carr) and four defensive draftees within the first three rounds (Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser, Chris Wormley and Tim Williams) to a group that finished seventh in yards allowed a season ago could help the unit rise to the top of the charts in 2017.
The new-look Ravens D certainly looked like a heavyweight contender in the preseason, surrendering a grand total of 32 points while ranking No. 1 in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. Yeah, just the preseason. I know. But while the preseason generally isn't an accurate gauge on how a team will perform during the regular season, you can certainly get a feel for a roster's talent, chemistry and continuity when the 1s are on the field. After watching Baltimore's starters in preseason action, it's apparent that the defensive backfield upgrades will allow the Ravens to play tighter coverage, giving the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback. Baltimore's spectacular preseason work resulted in the Ravens holding opposing quarterbacks to a 46.6 percent completion rate and a 51.8 passer rating. Those numbers not only led the NFL, but they were well below the typical efficiency marks for passers in the preseason.
With the Ravensranking eighth in rushing offense (117.0 yards per game) and finishing with a plus-2 advantage in the giveaway/takeaway battle during the preseason, the team finished with an unblemished 4-0 mark. While the preseason record doesn't count, the performance matters -- and the Ravens' success behind the defensive-minded approach should prompt Harbaugh to take a closer look his complementary football plan.
But here's the problem: Baltimore's offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, is a pass-first play caller with little regard for a ground-and-pound approach.
"I don't know if he can play it safe," a former NFL assistant coach who has worked with Mornhinweg told me. "He loves to throw the ball all over the yard and it doesn't really matter the situation or circumstance.
"He's a pass-first play caller and I don't know if he can or will change."
Part of Mornhinweg's pass-first philosophy stems from his background as an assistant under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. The Super Bowl-winning coach is one of the godfathers of the West Coast Offense, which essentially uses the short passing game to replace the running game in a ball-controlled offense. Mornhinweg took note of the blueprint and implemented offenses that skewed toward the pass in his run as an offensive coordinator with 49ers, Eagles and Jets, as well as during his head-coaching tenure in Detroit.
Since 2012, Baltimore has employed five different offensive coordinators: Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell, Gary Kubiak, Marc Trestman and Mornhinweg, who took the reins midway through last season. Although each of the play callers attempted to build a dynamic offense around the right arm of Joe Flacco, the unit has failed to consistently move the chains or put up points behind an air-based attack. To that point, the Ravens' offense didn't exactly light it up under Mornhinweg following the firing of Trestman last October. During Mornhinweg's 11 games as the primary play caller in 2016, the Ravens ranked 18th in scoring (22.6 points per game) and 17th in yards (352 yards per game). While the longtime NFL coaching veteran was expected to make the offense more balanced, the Ravens finished the season with a lopsided pass/run ratio: the most passing attempts in the NFL (679) and the third-fewest rushing attempts (367).
With that in mind, it's fair to wonder if Mornhinweg can change his approach. But he should. Remember: Flacco missed the entire preseason with a balky back. And Weddle isn't the only team leader calling for a more ground-based approach.
Based on the numbers, the Ravens would be wise to shoot for 120-plus rushing yards each week. During Harbaugh's previous nine seasons with the team, Baltimore has gone 49-11 (.817 winning percentage) when surpassing that mark.
If Mornhinweg can buy into the notion of playing a conservative style that puts the onus on the running backs and offensive line to lead the way, he could help the Ravens' emerging defense assert its dominance in tightly contested games that are decided in the fourth quarter.
PLIGHT OF THE BUCS & DOLPHINS: Sixteen games with no break
With the NFL postponing the Buccaneers-Dolphins game until Week 11 due to Hurricane Irma, these teams face the unenviable task of playing in 16 straight weeks during the regular season. While the safety of patrons, players and coaches led the NFL to make the decision, the last-minute schedule change will make it harder for each of these young squads to make a legitimate run at the playoff berth this season. Since bye weeks began in 1990, five teams have had Week 1 off, with only the 1992 Dolphins finishing with a winning record and playoff berth.
The coaching staffs of Tampa Bay and Miami will need to spend this week mapping out a four-month plan that allows them to roll through the peaks and valleys of the regular season without a break. From a practice standpoint, coaches must determine how often they want their players to put on the pads and get some physical work in team drills. (With just 14 fully padded practice days at their disposal due to the latest collective bargaining agreement, all NFL coaches carefully aim to schedule those contact days to help their team obtain an edge while also providing players with enough rest and recovery time throughout the season.) In addition, Bucs and Dolphins coaches will need to consider planning more "shells" (helmets/shoulder pads) and "T-shirt" (helmets/jerseys) practices to preserve the players' legs.
"It's going to be tough on coaches to figure out how to best prepare their guys from a contact standpoint," a former NFL head coach told me. "You have to give the young guys enough work (contact) to develop them, but you don't want to beat up the vets. ... If the team is mature enough to handle non-contact practices with an emphasis on tempo and mental prep, you can use those sessions to prepare for games without taxing the body. But it really depends on the composition of your squad.
"With a young squad with playoff potential, I would probably bang (hit) a little more at the beginning of the season and taper it off down the stretch. It's not ideal to lose the bye week, but I think you can work around some of the challenges with a smart plan."
I think the challenge will ultimately fall on the shoulders of the strength and conditioning staffs of the Buccaneers and Dolphins. With the assistance of GPS monitoring systems, nutrition and sleep experts, these folks will need to work with the football staff to craft practice plans and weightlifting/conditioning sessions that keep the players in peak form heading down the stretch.
"This is going to be a tough deal for the entire staff," an NFC strength and conditioning coach told me. "You have to pay close attention to workload management. You have to stay on top of GPS, player surveys, sleep and nutrition. Coaches must be proactive to keep the guys at their best because if they start going into the tank, there's no escape hatch.
"The biggest challenge for coaches will be adjusting after a tough game, particularly on the road. West Coast trips are tough for Florida teams because of the condensed schedule, and wear and tear from the trip affects the players' bodies. In normal circumstances, you have to modify the schedule to account for that, so I would expect those staffs to make more adjustments with their players on an extended grind."
After reviewing each team's schedule, I'm a little concerned about the Dolphins' ability to navigate through the first half of the season without a break. The team will open the season with a West Coast tilt (at Chargers) and a road game in New Jersey (vs. Jets) before heading overseas to play in a London (vs. Saints). That's a tough travel schedule to start a season where there aren't any stopping points to reset and readjust if the team gets out of the gates slowly.
The Buccaneers don't have the travel grind to worry about at the start of the season, but the reshuffled schedule will force them to play six road games in eight weeks during the middle of the season (Oct. 15th through Dec. 3rd). Although the slate features some winnable games on paper, Dirk Koetter's young squad will need to hold its own during this tough stretch to be in a position to play meaningful games in December. If the Bucs can play at least .500 ball during the eight-game run, Tampa Bay should have a chance to get to 10 wins and a snatch playoff berth with a strong final quarter.