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:
-- Buffalo looks ready to snap playoff drought (seriously) behind inspired defensive play.
But first, a look at one rookie who has burst onto the NFL scene ...
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Whenever a rookie quarterback quickly thrives at the NFL level, scouts scurry to the film room to search for the secret to his success. Evaluators want to know if they overlooked a possible trait that led to the swift transition, or if the rookie QB's team simply built a system and supporting cast that helped him shine as an inexperienced field general.
Before I go over the tape study, though, I think it's important to recall how I viewed Watson as a prospect. As a 35-game starter with a 32-3 career record at Clemson, Watson was an ultra-cool competitor with a knack for taking his game up a notch in high-leverage spots. He routinely looked like the best player on the field in the Tigers' biggest games, including four College Football Playoff contests against traditional heavyweights: Oklahoma, Ohio State and Alabama (twice). Watson's confidence, poise and clutch playmaking popped off the tape, and it was easy to fall in love with his winning ways as a QB1.
As a mobile playmaker with a dynamic game, Watson excelled as a collegian with his arm and legs, inside and outside of the pocket. He tormented defenses with his nimble running skills on impromptu scrambles or designed quarterback runs, but typically relied on his athleticism to create big-play opportunities in the passing game. Unlike some dual-threat quarterbacks who prefer to use their legs first and foremost, Watson's running ability complemented a game that's built on his skills as a quick-rhythm passer.
To that point, Watson was effective at Clemson on bootlegs and sprint-outs, but he primarily did his damage as a catch-and-fire passer from the pocket. He was at his best throwing an assortment of quick passes (slants, hitches, quick outs and bubble screens) to the perimeter. Watson also shined when throwing seams, skinny posts and back-shoulder fades off quick play-action or rhythm drops, particularly from spread or empty formations. Although he was a little streaky with his accuracy at times, Watson repeatedly showed evaluators that he could pick apart defenses as a rhythm passer.
From a critical standpoint, Watson struggled with his turnovers and ball placement on intermediate/deep throws. He tallied 30 interceptions during his final two college seasons on an assortment of misreads and inaccurate throws. In addition, Watson was baited into poor decisions by pre-snap disguises and exotic coverages from savvy defenses. The alarming turnover rate led to questions about his judgment and ball security -- critical factors in the quarterback evaluation.
Fast-forward to his arrival in Houston. I worried about how Watson would fit in a Bill O'Brien system that chewed up and spit out veteran quarterbacks. The Texans started eight different quarterbacks in O'Brien's first three seasons at the helm, with the coach showing little patience for mistake-prone play. In addition, Houston's scheme wasn't necessarily quarterback-friendly, based on the complex post-snap reads that require the thrower and his pass catchers to be on the same page. Given all of the moving parts, I didn't believe the scheme was ideally suited to Watson's game and I didn't think O'Brien was flexible enough to tweak his scheme to suit his young QB1's talents. The coach had never shown that kind of flexibility before, so didn't think he was amenable to retooling his scheme around a rookie.
I was wrong.
O'Brien has not only revamped the Texans' offense to help Watson excel, but he has basically made the team's offense look like an NFL version of Clemson's attack. The Texans are running some of the staple concepts that were featured in the Tigers' playbook during Watson's college days and the young quarterback has flourished as a result. Whether it's the quick game from spread/empty formations or the designed quarterback runs near the goal line, the Texans have blended several college concepts into their traditional system. This has not only made Watson comfortable, but it has made the Texans a scoring machine.
Since Watson became the starter in Week 2, the Texans have the NFL's No.1 scoring offense, averaging 34.3 points per game. He has also thrust himself into the record books as the only rookie in NFL history with seven-plus touchdown passes and multiple rushing touchdowns in his team's first four games of the season.
Looking at the Coaches Film and studying Next Gen Stats data, Houston's aerial attack is definitely built around Watson's superb skills as a quick-rhythm passer. In the Texans' 57-14 blowout of Tennessee this past Sunday, the quick game accounted for 47.1 percent of his pass attempts -- on passes thrown in 2.50 seconds or less, Watson completed 15 of 16 tosses for 136 yards and three touchdowns. He compiled a 141.7 passer rating on those throws while displaying outstanding confidence delivering the ball to his receivers on catch-rock-and-fire passes.
Watson completed an assortment of slants, hitches and sticks to his pass catchers out of spread and empty formations vs. Tennessee. With the Texans clearing sight lines for the quarterback through the wide alignments of his receivers, Watson was able to identify and exploit the coverage with quick laser throws. This is the same concept that he used at Clemson to pick apart ACC defenses for three years, so it's sensible for the Texans to incorporate the scheme and help him find his rhythm as a pocket passer.
While some would suggest that Watson's Week 4 performance was a one-game aberration, it is important to note that he has completed 20 of his 21 quick passes over the past two games. Considering that he has completed 47 of 67 passes for 584 yards -- with six touchdowns, three interceptions and a 108.1 passer rating -- during that span, I would expect the Texans to continue utilizing the "dink and dunk" method until opponents find a way to eliminate the layups.
The Texans have also stolen pages from Clemson's playbook to enhance their running game, particularly down in the red zone. I noticed the team running more zone-read plays with Watson keying the edge defender before electing to hand the ball off on an inside run. In addition, the team has added some designed quarterback runs that have given the team a plus-one advantage at the point of attack. With most defenses failing to account for the quarterback in the running game, the selective use of QB runs eliminates the advantage of loaded boxes. Thus, Houston's running game has seen a spike in production since the rookie stepped in as the QB1, as the Texans have averaged 155.3 rushing yards in Watson's three starts.
With increased ground production leading to more attention from opposing defensive coordinators, the Texans' play-action passing game has flourished. DeAndre Hopkins, Bruce Ellington and Will Fuller have made second-level defenders pay for overreacting to play fakes on a variety of seam routes and deep crossers. Once again, these are the same routes that helped Watson torch defenders as a collegian.
Now, the Texans and Watson must be prepared to deal with defenses adjusting to their new playbook, as teams get more film and hone in on their tendencies. It typically takes about four games for defensive coordinators to compile enough data to make a comprehensive scouting report. Thus, Sunday night's Chiefs-Texans game -- which will be Watson's fifth game (and fourth start) -- should be quite interesting.
Considering how Watson has feasted on quick passes and short throws (10 yards or fewer) over the past two games while also showing spectacular playmaking skills as runner, the 4-0 Chiefs better be prepared to deal with an athletic point guard who boasts a diverse skill set and feels right at home in his college-style scheme.
BILLS DEFENSE: Cohesive unit can snap everlasting playoff drought
It typically takes about eight weeks to separate the contenders from the pretenders, but based on the 3-1 Buffalo Bills' defensive efforts, you should pencil them in as a playoff squad.
I know, I know: It's a little premature to anoint a franchise that hasn't been to the postseason since the 1999 campaign as a playoff shoo-in, but elite teams -- particularly defense-oriented squads -- exhibit dominant qualities early in the season.
Whether it is the ability to produce takeaways at an astounding rate or suffocate high-powered offenses with a disciplined scheme and fanatical effort, a championship-caliber defense imposes its will on opponents with a style that pops off the game tape. After watching the Bills' defense put a chokehold on three playoff-caliber opponents during the first quarter of the season, I believe first-year head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have assembled one of the best team defenses that I've seen in years.
While there are a handful of defenses with sexier, more star-studded lineups, I don't know if there is a better marriage between players and scheme than what I've seen in Buffalo. No disrespect to the fine work being done in Denver, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Cincinnati, but no one is playing better team D than the Bills. The coaches have put an emphasis on playing as "One Eleven" (all 11 defenders playing as one cohesive unit) and it shows in Buffalo's relentless pursuit of the ball. The Bills' defenders hit, run and chase like a pack of wolves, yet they are a disciplined bunch with a remarkable attention to detail.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I was blown away by the consistent alignment, gap integrity and coverage leverage displayed by the unit. The Bills rarely appear out of place prior to the snap and there aren't many voids available when opponents run or pass. The run defense, in particular, was impressive, with defenders controlling their assigned gaps and taking on blocks with the proper shoulder to force runners to the unblocked defender. The thorough understanding of their gap responsibilities and assignments reflect a well-prepared team that's capable of taking information from the board to the field.
I'm certainly not surprised by their superb attention to detail, based on the backgrounds of the head coach and defensive play caller. McDermott and Frazier are regarded as excellent teachers with a strong emphasis on clear communication and simplicity.
"I'm of the opinion and philosophy suited with 'less is more,' " McDermott said this week, via the team website. "Giving the players very clear lines to play. Giving them a set of rules, putting them in a position to be successful, working to their strengths -- and when things break down in a game, which they often will, they have rules to fall back on. I just believe that clear expectations, clear lines and letting the players go play and have fun."
Frazier echoed those sentiments on SiriusXM Radio's "Late Hits" with Alex Marvez and Bill Polian during the summer, saying that he was "from a school where sometimes less is more."
"We don't want to complicate things for our players at all in what we're trying to get accomplished," Frazier said. "We really want our players to be able to play fast and they have adopted very well to the 4-3, and also some of the terminology that we've introduced them to.
"All the players, they all want to play fast. They want to be able to, 'Just put me in a position, Coach, and let me go.' "
Studying the the All-22 footage, I was impressed with the Bills' ability to use a variety of coverages while maintaining their scheme simplicity. The defense primarily employs Quarters and Man-Free (Cover 1) as its staple coverages, while mixing in some Cover 2, 2-Man and Cover 3, along with zone blitzes. This diversity gives the quarterback a lot to think about, especially when it is combined with clever pre-snap disguises by the secondary. The Bills' pre-snap movement has been well-coordinated in each game, which makes it hard for even veteran signal callers to decipher if the defense is bringing additional defenders from second level.
Here's the thing: The Bills are moving around and bluffing like madmen, but honestly, they use four rushers on most downs. They have rushed four defenders or fewer on over 70 percent of their defensive snaps. Thus, they are electing to play coverage over pressure in most instances.
To that point, Frazier let the football world know over the summer that the Bills would prefer to sit back in coverage and lean on a four-man pass rush to harass the quarterback. When discussing Bills DE Jerry Hughes' potential impact in the team's new scheme with Polian -- a six-time NFL Executive of the Year -- Frazier talked about the importance of being able to generate a pass rush without blitzing.
"You know the importance of having a guy who can rush the passer without you having to blitz all of the time," Frazier said to Polian on SiriusXM. "I really believe that Jerry is going to give us that off the edge."
Looking at the Bills' personnel, you would think that the front line would be all about former All-Pro DT Marcell Dareus, but the enigmatic defender has barely contributed to the team's success. The bulk of the pass-rush contributions have come from Shaq Lawson, Lorenzo Alexander and Hughes, with safety Jordan Poyer making special appearances from time to time as a second-level rusher.
While Hughes has notched 10 sacks in a season twice during his previous seven NFL seasons, he and his crew aren't regarded as household names by any stretch of the imagination. That's why I'm so impressed with the marriage between a simplistic scheme and a group of blue-collar players. The clear-cut scheme enables the worker bees to play fast and free at the point of attack. That's reflected in how hard the unit flies to the ball and how consistently Buffalo finishes with 11 defenders within close proximity to the ball carrier or pass catcher when the whistle blows.
This brings me back to the Bills' solid pass coverage and how the secondary is backing up a rock-solid front with steady play in the back end. The Bills are holding opponents to a 61.4 percent completion rate and a 64.1 passer rating. In addition, they've yet to surrender a completion of 40-plus yards while snagging six interceptions.
Poring over the tape of the Bills' secondary in action, I can't help but notice their attention to detail in coverage. If they're playing Cover 1 (Man-free) with a safety lurking in the middle, the slot defenders are consistently positioned on the receiver's outside shoulder to funnel throws to the help defender. In their zone concepts, the cornerbacks bail or backpedal with enough cushion to take away the deep routes, while also being close enough to drive on any short or intermediate throws. The discipline, alignment and positioning displayed by rookie Tre'Davious White, E.J. Gaines, Shareece Wright and Leonard Johnson could serve as teaching tape for young football players.
In fact, the entire defense plays with an enviable knowledge of situational football, understanding how everyone is expected to fill a role on each and every play. When you see an entire unit committed to playing smart football, you can attribute that to preparation and practice habits.
"We practice these situations a lot more than we have in the past," Bills defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said, via NYup.com. "When we get out there, it feels a little bit more comfortable than it did in the past. To be honest, with this team, we attribute our success to preparation. I think we prepare a lot differently. Coach McDermott keeps us on our toes in team meetings. He'll call you out in team meetings and ask a random question about the offense. You have to know the situation and know what the offense is thinking. He just tries to make the game a little slower for us."
EAGLES BACKFIELD: Committee approach perfect for this Philly team
Fantasy football fanatics hate committee backfields, but a divided workload has helped the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles soar to the top of the NFC East. Now, I know the season is only four weeks old and that many elite offenses through the years have featured a workhorse stud in the backfield, but a diversified running game is akin to an MLB pitcher stymieing a hitter with a variety of pitches that paint the corner of the plate.
"You always need to have at least two running backs that can carry the ground game," a former NFL vice president of player personnel told me. "It's hard to keep one guy healthy, so you always need to have a backup runner to offset some of that workload. Plus, you would like to have the ability to change gears on offense with a different running back in the game. Ideally, you would like the No. 1 guy to be a big, physical runner with workhorse capability. He can handle most of the dirty work, with the No. 2 guy acting as the change-of-pace player or the third-down specialist with a role that geared more towards the passing game. If you have a No. 3 guy, he should be more like the No. 1, with a game that's more suited to playing as a workhorse or run game-oriented back."
In Philadelphia, Doug Pederson has found the right running back concoction to steady an Eagles' offense that relied too much on Carson Wentz's heroics from the pocket in the past. Since a Week 2 loss in Kansas City, the Eagles have leaned on a three-man RB rotation that gives LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement designated roles. Although Darren Sproles' season-ending injury certainly impacted the decision to feature the aforementioned trio, I believe Pederson made a concerted effort to alleviate the burden on his talented second-year passer.
Despite Wentz's outstanding talent and potential as a playmaker, it is hard for a young quarterback to carry a playoff-caliber team throwing 35-plus times per game. Defensive coordinators feast on inexperienced quarterbacks forced into one-dimensional game plans by throwing all kinds of exotic fronts, pressures and coverages at them. Quarterbacks will see more split-safety coverage (two high safeties in two-deep or Quarters) with light boxes (equal number of defenders to blockers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage) when opponents don't have to respect the run. In addition, receivers will see more Cloud (Cover 2) or Trail (2-Man) coverage on the outside with a safety playing in the deep half to that side. Thus, the big-play opportunities shrink in the passing game.
During the Eagles' Week 2 loss -- in which Philly's RBs ran the ball just 13 times -- it wasn't a coincidence that the offense faced more "2-Man" and max coverage concepts. Although Wentz posted a 300-yard game, he completed just 54.3 percent of his passes (25 of 46 for 333 with two scores and a pick) and the offense barely reach the 20-point mark. This was part of a two-game run to open the season that saw the Eagles call just 33 runs compared to 85 passes. I don't know much, but I do know a 3:1 pass-to-run ratio is probably not conducive to winning a lot of games with a young quarterback.
That brings me back to the committee-backfield approach we've seen the Eagles employ over the past two weeks. Blount is the big, physical runner with the size, strength and power to wear down the defense with an assortment of inside runs. The eighth-year pro has become the lead runner in the rotation after failing to get a carry in the Chiefs game. Blount has rushed for 203 yards on 28 carries (7.25 yards per carry) over the past two weeks, exhibiting a punishing running style that sets the tone for the offense.
This is exactly what the team expected from the veteran when they signed him in the offseason.
With Blount serving as the hammer in the backfield, Philadelphia's offense displays more physicality and toughness in key moments.
In Smallwood, the Eagles have a shifty scat back with the speed and quickness to create big plays on the perimeter. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and is a crafty route runner in space. Pederson has raved about Smallwood's pass-catching ability in the past, and his production as a change-of-pace back over the past two weeks (22 rushes for 105 yards and a score; five receptions for 54 yards) suggests he's settled in quite nicely as a Sproles-like playmaker.
Clement might be viewed as an afterthought in the rotation by outsiders, but an Eagles official told me he might be their "best running back" when all is said and done. Now, I know that will be hard for some to digest, but the undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin is a rugged runner with a no-nonsense style that makes him an ideal weapon as a closer at the end of games. In the 26-24 win over the Chargers last week, Clement served in that role as he collected three first downs on the team's final drive to run out the clock. Although his final numbers didn't jump off the stat sheet (10 rushes for 30 yards), the responsibility given to the rookie suggests the team wholeheartedly believes in his ability as a potential RB1.
"He's been a real bright spot since we got him," Pederson said to the assembled press after the game. "He's one of those guys who runs aggressively and hard."
The Eagles' RB committee has keyed a resurgent running game that suddenly ranks third in the NFL. Most importantly, the team's productive ground game has helped Philly control the clock (the Eagleslead the league in time of possession) and play keepaway from opponents. Last year, we watched the Cowboys claim the NFC East with a similar formula -- albeit with a one-man show at RB1 (Ezekiel Elliott) -- alleviating the pressure on another young quarterback. If the Eagles continue to get strong contributions from their three-headed monster, Philadelphia could snatch the division crown with a young QB1 playing a complementary role.