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:
-- Evaluating Heisman Trophy favorite and potential No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow.
But first, a look at the steely defense fueling a surprising playoff push ...
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If you're a longtime Steelers fan who can recall the teams of the 1970s, you might be experiencing a case of deja vu when watching the 2019 version of Pittsburgh's defense. Sparked by an athletic core of defenders with disruptive games and nasty dispositions, the Steelers are playing the kind of ball that evokes memories of the Steel Curtain units led by "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell and Mel Blount.
Although I'm not ready to anoint the present-day Steelers defense as the foundation of a budding dynasty like we saw in the '70s, there's no denying the pieces are in place for Mike Tomlin's troops to flex their muscles on opponents. This is a unit with five-star players at every level. Their individual and collective dominance pops when studying the All-22 Coaches Film.
For instance, Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave have combined for 12 sacks while anchoring a defensive line that's stuffing the run and harassing quarterbacks at every turn. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have quietly become the most disruptive pass-rushing tandem in the league. Dupree has set career highs in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (4) while teaming with Watt to rack up 22 combined sacks. Watt's 12.5 sacks are tied for fourth-most in the league, and his 29 QB hits place him in a tie for the league lead.
Rookie linebacker Devin Bush is the team's leading tackler with 88 stops (second-most of any rookie defender). The former Michigan standout has added more speed, athleticism and sizzle to the middle of the defense, providing a spark that's been missing since Ryan Shazier suffered his unfortunate injury in 2017.
In the secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden have become an elite ballhawking duo, utilizing instincts, awareness and ball skills to swipe errant passes. While Haden has been viewed as a top-tier defender at times during his 10 NFL seasons, he has been reborn in the Steelers' scheme. The veteran is back to performing like a CB1 on the island, exhibiting timely playmaking ability in the team's straightforward zone-blitz scheme. Fitzpatrick has emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, settling in as the team's center fielder following a trade from the Miami Dolphins after Week 2. The second-year pro has eight takeaways. He is the NFL's only player with five interceptions and more than 45 tackles. That's outstanding production for someone who didn't participate in training camp with his current squad and is still mastering the nuances of the playbook.
With so many guys playing at a high level, it's not surprising the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (48) and takeaways (33). In fact, they're on the verge of becoming the second team since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL outright in both categories. The last team to accomplish the feat? The 1974 Steelers, who capped the season off with a Super Bowl IX victory, the first of their six Super Bowl wins.
Based on the aforementioned metrics, this version of Pittsburgh's defense is on par with one of the legendary units of the 1970s. Think about that. While it remains to be seen if any of the current Steelers will eventually wear gold jackets, the pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely and opponents are discovering the challenge of facing a disruptive and dynamic unit.
Since Week 3 -- when Fitzpatrick made his Steelers debut -- the unit is allowing just 16.5 points and 189.7 pass yards per game while racking up 43 sacks (tied for the most) and 18 interceptions (the most) during that span. Additionally, Pittsburgh has held opposing quarterbacks to a 71.5 passer rating (second-lowest) over that stretch.
Breaking down the All-22 tape, the most impressive aspect of this defense has been its ability to create turnovers. The Steelers have been able to produce takeaways through persistent pressure and savvy coverage. With the front line capable of creating disruption while utilizing traditional four-man rushes, the constant harassment of the quarterback leads to errant throws from the pocket. That sets up defensive backs to tally interceptions on deflections and overthrows. It helps that Pittsburgh is playing a ton of zone coverage, which allows players in the back seven to keep their eyes on the quarterback. The Steelers have excelled at taking the ball away on deep passes (5 INTs, tied for first in the NFL) while also shutting down the seams (10 INTs on throws up the seams, second-most) and 10-plus yard pass attempts (11 INTs, third-most), per Next Gen Stats. Those numbers are complemented by outstanding production on tight-window throws (6 INTs, tied for second-most) and attempts in which Pittsburgh applied pressure (5 INTs, tied for second-most).
From a schematic standpoint, the defense's approach mimics the tactics from legendary teams of the past. Remember, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy learned what eventually became known as the Tampa 2 from his time as a safety for the Steelers in the 1970s and he passed down the zone-based scheme to Tomlin, who was an assistant on Dungy's staff with the Buccaneers in 2001.
This season, the Steelers have used more four-man rush tactics with stunts and twists backed by a zone-coverage concept. The heavy utilization of zone enables the defense to keep seven sets of eyes on the ball and reduces the offense's chances of a big play when defenders are in sync.
When I talked to Tomlin at a youth football camp during the offseason, he gave me a tutorial on playing solid zone coverage from a defensive back's perspective and emphasized the importance of jams, re-routes and proper vision. When I study the Steelers' defensive backs, I can see the attention to detail on these fundamentals and it's reflected in the secondary's performance this season.
Moreover, I can see Tomlin's fingerprints all over the defense when I look at how its performing and the sequence of the play calls. Part of the success of the Tampa 2 philosophy stems from being able to defend the run without stacking the box with eight-man fronts. The Steelers have stacked the box (eight or more defenders) at the lowest rate in the NFL (2.9% of opponents' rush attempts) while surrendering only 3.8 yards per carry (fourth-lowest in the league), per NGS.
Tomlin's system is working, with the Steelers holding each of their last three opponents to fewer than 20 points and the team reeling off seven wins in its last eight games. There were plenty of skeptics when Pittsburgh lost Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending injury in Week 2 and gave up a first-round pick for Fitzpatrick a day later, but instead of fading away, the Steelers are in the thick of the playoff hunt heading into their Sunday night meeting with the Buffalo Bills. The resurgence was made possible by Tomlin's ability to construct a defense in the image of the great Pittsburgh teams of the past.
JOE BURROW: Evaluating the Heisman favorite's NFL potential
It might be a foregone conclusion that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow will walk away with the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, earning recognition as the best player in college football. However, I'm not necessarily convinced that the senior signal-caller is the best player in the 2020 NFL Draft class. Despite being penciled in as the QB1 on most analysts' boards in the media world, I'm pumping the brakes on the hype building around Burrow's prospects as a franchise quarterback -- and I think the NFL scouting community will also pause before anointing him as the next great prospect at the position.
Now, I know that Tiger faithful will take to Twitter to scold me for my reluctance to hand Burrow the crown, but I've been taught by Hall of Fame-caliber executives, general managers and coaches that the No. 1 overall spot on the board should be reserved for transcendent talents with the potential to revolutionize the league.
Sure, that's a lofty standard for any NFL prospect to meet, but the elites in the class should flash that kind of potential when we see them at their best.
To his credit, Burrow has certainly enjoyed a spectacular 2019 season with 4,715 passing yards and a 48:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio while posting an FBS-best 77.9 percent completion rate. He has played well in big games, with 1,827 passing yards, a 15:2 TD-INT ratio and a 78.6 percent completion rate against AP Top 25 competition.
Those impressive numbers are backed up by exceptional performance on tape. Burrow checks the boxes as an accurate passer with the capacity to throw with touch, timing and anticipation. He shows excellent pocket awareness and his sound judgment enables him to toe the line as a gunslinger without taking the unnecessary risks that lead to turnovers. As a standout athlete, Burrow is an underrated dual-threat playmaker with the elusiveness and running skills to carve up defenses on read-option plays or impromptu scrambles.
Keep in mind, Burrow was Mr. Ohio (top prep player in the state) in football and an all-state selection as a point guard in high school. He combines those multi-purpose skills with the knowledge and wisdom that comes with being a coach's son to control the game like a field general. Burrow leads his teammates like a veteran and NFL coaches will love his ultra-confident demeanor when they sit across from him in pre-draft interviews.
That said, I don't know if Burrow really stands out as a high-level, blue-chip prospect on the strength of his individual traits. While he grades out well as a passer, playmaker, and leader, I don't see a transcendent or generational talent when I study the tape. Scouts will rate his arm talent at a B-/C+ level. And despite his on-field exploits as a runner, I don't expect him to blow anyone away with his athleticism when he works out in front of scouts this spring.
Additionally, I have questions about the massive increase in his production from his junior to senior season as a starter at LSU. In 2018, Burrow completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 2,894 yards, 16 TDs and 5 INTs in 13 games (the same number he's played in '19). I'm sure that the natural maturation process helped Burrow develop a better feel for the game heading into his second season as a QB1, but it's hard to ignore the impact made by Joe Brady, LSU's first-year passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach.
The former New Orleans Saints offensive assistant (2017-18) and Penn State graduate assistant (2015-16) helped revamp the Tigers' passing game by melding some traditional NFL concepts with some run-pass option concepts that he learned from working with RPO guru Joe Moorhead at PSU in 2016. As a result, the Tigers' offense features more layups and wide-open deep shots with Burrow simply asked to put the ball within the zip code of a pass catcher from a star-studded cast of wide receivers.
I'm not saying any of this to diminish what Burrow has accomplished as a player. He has improved from one year to the next as much as any quarterback that I've evaluated in recent memory, but it's not a coincidence that his completion percentage jumped 20 points and his touchdowns shot up by 300 percent(!) with Brady and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger teaming to update the Tigers' scheme.
If I'm working for an NFL team, I need to understand how the scheme changes helped elevate Burrow's game and if the same system will be needed for him to continue to perform at a high level in the pros.
While I've been around the game long enough to know nearly every quarterback is a "system QB," I think it's important to separate the talents of the player from the scheme when performing the evaluation. How much of the production is due to the quarterback's talents? How much of it is generated by the scheme? Can the quarterback play in another offense or is he tied to playing a certain way within a specific system?
When I study Burrow and his game, I see an outstanding college player, but at this time, I'm not ready to anoint him as the best prospect in the draft or the next great NFL quarterback.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Why the Packers' offense needs to revolve around Jones. If the Green Bay Packers are going to make a Super Bowl run, Aaron Jones must become the No. 1 option in the offensive game plan. Despite Aaron Rodgers' brilliance as a QB1, the Packers need No. 33 to dominate each game as a multi-purpose weapon for the team to survive the murderers' row of heavyweight contenders in the NFC.
I'm sure that statement will raise some eyebrows from Cheeseheads around the country, given the understandable reverence everyone has for Rodgers, but a quick glance at the numbers reveals everything that you need about Jones and his importance to the offense.
In the Packers' 10 wins, Jones has averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 107.9 scrimmage yards per game with 14 total touchdowns. In the team's three losses, Jones has mustered just 2.6 yards per carry and 41.7 scrimmage yards, with a single score.
Those numbers not only confirm the correlation between Jones' and Green Bay's success, but they also underscore the quiet ascension Jones has made to the top of the running back charts. The third-year pro is one of just three players with 1,200-plus scrimmage yards and 15-plus touchdowns (Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry are the other two), and his 15 scrimmage touchdowns are the most by a Packers running back since Ahman Green tallied 20 scrimmage touchdowns in 2003.
Reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film, it is easy to understand why Jones is such a headache for defensive coordinators around the league. Checking in at 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds, Jones is a whirlwind of speed, quickness and pop in a compact package. He can slip through cracks and creases with ease while exhibiting excellent stop-start quickness and acceleration in the hole. Jones' outstanding balance and body control enable him to run through contact and his understated toughness makes him a dependable workhorse when given significant opportunities as a runner.
In the passing game, Jones' soft hands and patience make him an ideal playmaker on screens. He understands the timing of the play and shows a tremendous feel for finding creases in the defense when he gets the ball on the perimeter. Jones' timing, patience and body control also stand out when he runs routes from out wide in empty formations against linebackers in space. He simply dances around overmatched defenders, deploying an assortment of moves that make him a lethal weapon in the aerial attack.
With that in mind, the Packers can't afford to forget about Jones when they're crafting their game plans down the stretch. He is their most explosive offensive weapon and needs enough touches in every game to impact the outcome as a playmaker. He's had four games with 150-plus scrimmage yards, which ranks as the second-most in the NFL behind McCaffrey (7), and he appears to play his best in big games (SEE: Green Bay's wins over Minnesota, Dallas and Kansas City).
When Green Bay selected Jones with the 182nd overall pick in 2017, I had a conversation with former Packers executive Eliot Wolf about the UTEP product and what he could add to the offense. He simply told me that Jones "had the juice" and he would give the attack a jolt with his playmaking ability.
As the Packers gear up to make a push at another Lombardi Trophy, Green Bay head coach/play caller Matt LaFleur needs to feature No. 33 in a major way down the stretch.
2) How the Rams got their groove back.What took them so long? That's the question I ask myself when studying the All-22 tape of the Los Angeles Rams' offensive resurgence over the past month. After appearing to employ some kind of load-management plan designed to preserve Todd Gurley in the first half of the season, the Rams have thrown caution into the wind and consistently put the ball in the hands of their best player. And the results, quite predictably, have been good.
Since Week 11, Gurley has averaged 21.0 touches and 95.0 scrimmage yards per game, boosting those figures from 14.9 and 63.6 over the first 10 weeks of the season. The Rams have won three of their last four games, with No. 30 eclipsing 100 scrimmage yards in each of the victories, reflecting his value as the team's top offensive player.
Considering L.A.'s recent success with Gurley as a featured player, you have to wonder why the team would give him fewer than 20 touches in each of his first eight games of this season. Was Gurley ailing? Were the Rams trying to turn the offense over to Jared Goff after signing him to a record-breaking contract extension? Did Sean McVay subconsciously move away from the Rams' bread-and-butter after being spooked by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII? Those are the questions I'd love to ask McVay, even if his answers would be off the record.
When I studied the Rams' offense a month ago, I believed McVay's arrogance and Los Angeles' shaky offensive line play could be significant factors in Gurley's reduced production. I thought C.J. Anderson's success as an RB2 late last season might've prompted the offensive wizard to overvalue the system over talent heading into the 2019 campaign. That sentiment might've led to the team's insistence on a running back rotation, with Gurley sharing the load with Malcolm Brown on a 65:35 ratio early in the season. The commitment to the rotation led to some odd instances where Brown was on the field in critical situations, including red-zone and goal-line plays.
When I asked a Rams coach about Gurley's decreased playing time earlier in the season, he assured me that the running back was healthy and the substitution pattern was by design. The Rams apparently wanted to keep No. 30 fresh for the stretch run, having seen him seemingly fade in the last few months of this past season after shouldering a heavy workload in 2017 and '18. Although I certainly understood their thought processes when it came to preserving their best player, I also believed Gurley was the key to the Rams' offense. The system doesn't work without him prominently featured in the game plan.
The early-season results only confirmed that last intuition, and I'm surprised that it took the Rams until "win or go home" time to rediscover the importance and value of the former top-10 pick. Please know that statement is not meant as a dig at Goff, but defensive coordinators around the NFL have always viewed Gurley as the Rams' true motor.
"He makes their offense go," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "It starts with him in the running game and he is the carrot that they dangle to set up the play-action pass. When he gets his touches, you have to center your game plan around containing him as a runner and receiver. That lets the other guys get going because you're focused on Gurley."
The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year is indeed an explosive talent with a unique set of skills that make defensive coordinators cringe at the thought of slowing him down. Gurley has the size, strength and power to blow through potential tacklers on inside runs, while also flashing the speed and quickness to turn the corner on edge runs. He is at his best executing off-tackle runs in the Rams' zone scheme, when he has the option to "bend" (cut back), "bang" (attack in the hole) or "bounce" (take the ball around the edge).
In 2017 and '18, L.A. was able to lean on the outside-zone running game out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) with a variety of pre-snap motions and shifts (fly-sweep action was heavily blended into the equation). The Rams stayed in the personnel grouping on nearly every snap and dared defensive coordinators to come up with an answer to their three-receiver package.
By the end of 2018, though, defenses appeared to catch on to the Rams' approach, and this culminated in a Super Bowl LIII loss where Los Angeles managed just three points. The Patriots beat up on the Rams' receivers on Super Bowl Sunday, and stacked the line to stop the running game. With that tape (and New England's game plan) circulating rapidly around the league during the offseason, the Rams' offense hasn't had the same sizzle or pop for much of this season.
Fast-forward to Weeks 13 and 14, though, and the Rams have not only gotten back to basics by prominently featuring Gurley, but they've put him in more run-heavy sets with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WRs) on the field. Remember, the Rams enjoyed some success at the end of 2018 with 12 personnel, and reviving the grouping in 2019 has added some muscle to the running game. During the past two weeks, with Gurley carrying more of the load, the Rams have been in 12 personnel on 47.6 percent of their offensive snaps, averaging 5.9 yards per play, 9.1 yards per pass and 4.3 yards per rush out of the grouping. Those are noticeable increases from the team's 12 personnel figures over the first 12 weeks of the season: 14.4 percent usage, 4.5 yards per play, 7.2 yards per pass, 3.2 yards per rush.
"It is a challenge defending 12 personnel packages," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "If they align tight ends on each side of the line, the formation is balanced and you force the defense to defend eight gaps. This creates problems for teams that employ split-safety coverages because it forces them to drop one of those safeties near the box or there is an open gap or the edge is free. If they begin to use wing formations with both tight ends on the same side, it leads to additional problems at the line of scrimmage and a missed alignment can lead to a big play. The offense can also use one of those tight ends as a fullback and align in two-back formations.
"Now, you have to make decisions on whether you want to leave your base defense on the field or play nickel against 12. Base could be better against the run, but you're vulnerable against the pass. Nickel is better against the pass, but you're overmatched against the power-running game. ... Overall, 12 is a headache to defend if [your offense has] the right personnel to present a variety of looks."
With the Rams putting the ball in the hands of their best player in more run-heavy formations, McVay's offense is beginning to look scary again heading down the stretch.