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 five recently dealt stars providing a boost to their new teams' title hopes ...
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The NFL trade deadline has come and gone with a number of veteran players swapping addresses in the weeks leading up to this past Tuesday's cutoff date. Given some time to reflect on the moves with the potential to have the biggest impact on a team's title hopes in 2019, here are my top five trade acquisitions from the deals made leading up to the deadline:
1) Emmanuel Sanders, San Francisco 49ers: Despite the Niners' relatively easy run to an unbeaten record, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch acquired Sanders from the Broncos, acknowledging the need for a No. 1 receiver on an offense that had been bludgeoning opponents while leaning primarily on a creative running scheme and an old-school mentality. That is, until Thursday night, when Jimmy Garoppolo went off for 317 yards and four touchdown passes, connecting with Sanders seven times for 112 yards and a score in a 28-25 win over the Cardinals. While that performance was a warning shot from Jimmy G to defensive coordinators across the league, I still expect that as the 49ers inch closer to the postseason, opponents will sell out to stop the run and force Jimmy G to win the game on the strength of his right arm. Sanders gives the 49ers' QB1 a polished route runner with exceptional separation skills and dependable hands to target in critical situations. Moreover, he enables Shanahan to put his pass catchers in the right roles to maximize their talents. With Sanders positioned as 1a and tight end George Kittle pegged as 1b in the pecking order, Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, and Deebo Samuel can settle in as complementary weapons in a passing game that suddenly has more pop on the perimeter.
2) Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams: The struggles of the Rams' offensive line dominated the headlines during the team's slump (three straight losses from Weeks 4 to 6), but the inconsistent play on the defensive perimeter was a growing concern for a squad fighting for its life in the highly competitive NFC West. Ramsey gives the Rams a lockdown corner with the size, skills, and mentality to suffocate WR1s in a defense that's built on coverage and pressure. If Ramsey can re-emerge as the preeminent cover corner in the league, the Rams could remain a viable contender in the short- and long-term (I'm assuming the team will give him the contract he's seeking before he reaches free agency in 2021) with No. 20 installed as a critical building block on a team built on star power.
3) Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens: It should be considered a good move whenever a team acquires a two-time Pro Bowl corner in the middle of his prime, particularly when that corner possesses the ball skills and instincts to seamlessly transition to the defense. That's why the move to add Peters to the lineup should be celebrated despite his troubles on the island with the Los Angeles Rams. Peters gives the Ravens another ballhawk in the secondary to complement Marlon Humphrey and Earl Thomas. If John Harbaugh can keep Peters locked in on his work, the Ravens' secondary could go from good to great with playmakers positioned all over the field.
4) Mohamed Sanu, New England Patriots: The retirement of Rob Gronkowski left the Patriots without a big-bodied pass catcher over the middle of the field. Sanu will team with Julian Edelman to handle the dirty work between the hashes while offering Tom Brady a big target to find in the red zone. As a big slot receiver with good strength and reliable hands, the veteran should be able to thrive as a box-out specialist on option routes against nickel and dime defenders. Although Sanu doesn't add speed or explosiveness to the Patriots' WR corps, he could become a valuable weapon as a chain mover in a ball-control offense.
5) Michael Bennett, Dallas Cowboys: Don't let Bennett's recent travels as a journeyman overshadow his value as a pass-rush specialist. The former Pro Bowler remains a disruptive playmaker off the edge and his Super Bowl experience could help a team with lofty aspirations realize its potential. As a rotational player joining a defensive line with a handful of Energizer Bunnies on the frontline, Bennett's savvy and pass-rush prowess could make him a key contributor on a defense that's designed to create disruption at the point of attack.
LAMAR VS. PATS: Blueprint for stopping the Ravens QB forthcoming?
Defensive coaches around the league can't wait to see what trick Bill Belichick has up his sleeve for Lamar Jackson when the New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday. The 300-game winner is universally regarded as the brightest defensive mind in football, and his game plan against the Ravens' QB1 could become the blueprint that everyone copies to slow down an emerging superstar directing a unique run-heavy offense that's gashing teams on a weekly basis.
Belichick is a Jedi Master when it comes to stymieing young quarterbacks with a 21-0 record (including playoffs) against first- and second-year QBs since 2014. Moreover, he's held the youngsters to a 21:28 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 66.3 passer rating while prompting them to see ghosts with a dizzying array of zero blitzes, simulated pressures and traditional coverage.
This season, we've seen him blow the minds of second-year QBs Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen with game plans that kept them guessing at every turn. The Patriots' performance against Darnold, in particular, illustrates how the defensive mastermind can frustrate young quarterbacks with his confusing pre-snap disguises, post-snap movement and exotic blitzes.
Here's the thing, though. Jackson isn't Darnold and his role as the Ravens' offensive conductor puts him in a better position to succeed against the Patriots than Darnold. I know the Ravens' QB1 will have plenty of skeptics this week given Belichick's resume against young quarterbacks, but Jackson's running skills pose a unique challenge to the Patriots coach.
No. 8 enters the contest with three games of 100-plus rush yards on the ledger, and he averages a whopping 82.3 rush yards per game. Although the Patriots haven't allowed a quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a game in the Belichick era, Jackson's combination of speed, elusiveness and burst makes him a nightmare to try to contain in the open field. He slips out of would-be tackles with his wiggle. Plus, his explosive acceleration enables him to outrun angles and routinely turn the corner on sweeps and option plays.
With the Ravens enhancing his playmaking ability by featuring an assortment of option runs on the menu, the Patriots have the unenviable task of trying to stop a five-star dual-threat quarterback and a stable of hard-nosed running backs plunging between the tackles. The combination has been too much for most opponents, as the Ravens lead the NFL in rushing (204.1 yards per game) and rank second in scoring offense (30.6 points per game). Additionally, they are among the league leaders in explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards and receptions of 20-plus yards).
Cam Newton: 262.5 pass yards per game; 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 128.2 passer rating; 53.0 rush yards, 2-0 record
Russell Wilson: 296.0 pass yards per game; 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 124.0 passer rating; 20.7 rush yards; 2-1 record
Deshaun Watson: 238.5 pass yards; 3:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 76.5 passer rating; 40.5 rush yards per game; 0-2 record
The three new-school quarterbacks have a combined 17:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 109.9 passer rating and average of 35.6 rush yards per game vs. Belichick. It's an impressive set of numbers against a defensive wizard with a reputation for frustrating passers with his schemes and tactics. This track record is a big reason why I wouldn't dismiss Jackson's chances against the Patriots. While Belichick could focus on limiting his impact as a runner by crowding the box, he has to determine whether to play man or zone against the most explosive dual threat at the position since Michael Vick.
If the Patriots stick to their normal script and play man coverage on nearly two-thirds (62.4%) of their defensive snaps, they might suffocate the Ravens' passing game but they could open the door to No. 8 running wild on scrambles. He rushed for a career-high 152 yards against Cincinnati in Week 6 with the team opting to play more man coverage in an attempt to stop the Ravens' option game.
Jackson's offensive explosion against the Bengals wasn't a surprise given his career production against man coverage. He averages 14.3 yards per rush when scrambling against man coverage (compared to 7.1 yards per rush against zone coverage) with a 53.3 percent first-down conversion rate (40 percent conversion rate against zone coverage). Compare those numbers to the NFL averages since 2018, and you'll see that Jackson's scramble production far exceeds the league output against man coverage (8.9 yards per scramble). Defenders in man coverage are unable to keep their eyes on the quarterback while chasing their assigned players, which leads to bigger gains when Jackson flees the pocket.
With that in mind, defensive coordinators have routinely reduced the amount of man coverage featured in the game plan in hopes of keeping No. 8 confined to the pocket. He produces scramble production against zone coverage (the aforementioned 7.1 yards per scramble) at about the league average (6.9 yards per scramble), which is a win for defenses based on the Ravens' propensity to generate big plays against man.
The Patriots could elect to go that route and put the onus on Jackson to string together completions in the passing game. Although Jackson has shown the football world that he's an improved passer, Belichick could make him prove it time and time again by daring him to consistently hit open receivers in voids between defenders. Based on Jackson's struggles on out-breaking throws, you could see the Patriots jam the middle of the field and try to force the second-year veteran to complete throws outside the numbers.
While those tactics would certainly reduce Jackson's impact as a scrambler, it could make the Patriots more susceptible to the read-option game and the RPO package that helps him in the passing game. Against zone defenses, RPOs enable the quarterback to target a designated second-level defender to determine whether to run or pass. Jackson is not only experienced and efficient with these concepts and throws due to his time at Louisville but they keep him in his comfort zone while creating more uncertainty for defenders in space. The defense has to react instead of attack (man coverage allows defenders to aggressively run toward their assigned players) and the hesitation could lead to big plays on the ground or through the air.
Given all of the risks associated with lining up against Baltimore -- whether it's in man or zone coverage -- the rest of the league will closely watch the Sunday night game to see how the Jedi Master believes Jackson and the Ravens' offense should be defended.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) One key to Eagles re-emerging as division favorite. If Doug Pederson wants to help the Philadelphia Eagles return to their lofty perch in the NFC East, he needs to make the running game the driving force of the offense. Despite the presence of a young, dynamic quarterback with an MVP-caliber game, the Eagles' running game is the key to the team's success, and the gutsy head coach needs to put the ball in the belly of his running backs to mask the Philly's deficiencies while playing to its strengths: the offensive line and a collection of running backs with complementary styles.
I know the running backs weren't atop most observers' lists when citing the strengths of the team prior to the season, but the combination of the talented front five and a rugged runner enables the Eagles to control the game and dictate the terms if Pederson puts the game on their shoulders.
Think about that. This Eagles team is built around the $128 million quarterback, but even he recognizes the importance of leaning on the ground game. Most importantly, he understands the offensive line is really the strength of the team and how their collective dominance in the running game can set the table for the rest of the offense.
"We just want to establish the line of scrimmage," Wentz said. "The big guys up front that we have, that's one of their biggest strengths, establishing the line of scrimmage. And I think everything else that we do from the play-actions, the bootlegs, the nakeds, all of that stems from those guys controlling the line of scrimmage."
Sure, the Eagles' play-action passing game and their movement package (bootlegs and naked bootlegs) can certainly create explosive plays, but the running game should be the bread and butter of their offensive plans. After all, the Eagles are 3-1 when logging 30 or more rushing attempts this season. They've averaged 33.5 carries and 150.3 rushing yards in their four wins, with most of their production generated on runs directed between the tackles.
The Eagles' inside running game is arguably the most effective in the NFL with the team leading the league in yards per attempt (5.1) and 10-yard-plus run percentage (13.7%) on runs between the tackles, according to Next Gen Stats.
Jordan Howard sets the pace with an average of 4.5 yards per rush on inside runs, which ranks eighth in the league among qualifying runners (min. 10 inside rushes). The former Pro Bowl running back possesses the size (6-foot, 224 pounds), strength and power to run through contact while also displaying the vision and sneaky elusiveness to slip through cracks at the line of scrimmage. I don't know if Pederson forgot that Howard was one of only 11 running backs with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards in each of the past three seasons (2016, 2017 and 2018), but he has increasingly leaned on the veteran over the past few weeks.
Since Week 4, Howard has logged 75 carries for 344 yards and five scrimmage touchdowns. Considering he only has 443 rushing yards on the season, the recent commitment to No. 24 should become a top priority with the Eagles looking to end a 36-game streak without a 100-yard rusher -- the longest active drought in the NFL.
Miles Sanders has emerged as the team's big-play specialist as a change-of-pace back. The 5-11, 211-pound rookie is the most explosive playmaker on the roster outside of DeSean Jackson, and his burst is a problem for defenders in the open field. Sanders has accounted for seven of the Eagles' 10 longest plays, giving the offense some much-needed juice. The second-round pick is one of 11 players to have at least 250 rushing yards (294) and 250 receiving yards (274) through the first eight games of his career since 1990.
Remember, this is a team without a lot of speed on the perimeter with super-sized pass-catchers dotting the starting lineup, so Sanders' speed, quickness and wiggle add a much-needed dimension to the offense. With No. 26 showing home-run potential on inside zone runs and draws/delays, the Eagles would be wise to give him more opportunities and touches in the running game.
The increased workload will not only enhance their chances of generating a big play, but it also helps the Eagles rely on a more possession-centric approach that will limit their defense's exposure. If the Eagles commit to logging 30-plus rushing attempts in each game, they will limit their defense's reps and provide Jim Schwartz with an opportunity to play with the odds tilted in his favor.
"The running game can put pressure on the opposing team in a few different ways," said a former NFL defensive coordinator during a conversation this week. "The physicality and brutality of the running game wear down a defense over time. If the offense can stay on the field and consistently run the ball, it will eventually lead to big plays in the late stages of the game when the defense gets tired.
"Teams with strong running games also put pressure on the opposing offensive coordinator because it shrinks the game and reduces the total number of plays in the game. With fewer overall possessions in the game, some offensive coordinators will lose their patience when they have the ball because they're worried about not getting the ball back. ... This makes them one-dimensional and much easier to defend. ... That's why a good offense can be your best defense."
The Eagles' running game hasn't always been the focal point of the offensive plan this season, but the renewed commitment to a ground-and-pound approach could help the team re-emerge as a top contender in the NFC.
2) Vikings' "big boy" approach fueling win streak. If you want a graduate-level education in "big boy" football, you should pay close attention to the Minnesota Vikings' offense and the clever designs of coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak. The Vikings are not only bludgeoning opponents with an old-school offense straight from the 1980s, but they are quietly emerging as an offensive juggernaut with a balanced attack that keeps defenders guessing on every snap.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Vikings have used two or fewer wide receivers on 77.1 percent of their plays this season. That's the highest rate in the NFL and more than twice the NFL average (36.4%). If that's not enough to make defensive coordinators stay up at night, the diversity of the Vikings' personnel groupings will certainly make most coaches scratch their heads when crafting game plans to defend an old-school offense that features running backs and tight ends instead of speedy pass catchers on the perimeter.
In a league in which the majority of teams are utilizing 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) as their base package, the Vikings lead the league in 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) rate (25.8%), 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR) rate (12.4%) and 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR) rate (11.8%). With the Vikings averaging 7.4 yards per play in 21 personnel (third-most in the NFL) and 7.7 yards per play in 13 personnel (second-most in the NFL), it's easy to see why the coaching staff is committed to relying on the "bigs," particularly with NFL defenses increasingly stockpiled with undersized linebackers and pass rushers inserted into the lineup to defend the spread offenses that have become the norm.
"It's a smart approach," said the former NFL defensive coordinator quoted earlier in this piece. "Teams have built their defenses with stopping the passing game in mind. We're seeing more pass-rush specialists and run-and-chase linebackers on the field. Those guys are great in space, but they don't have the size, strength or know-how to take on blocks and properly fit their assigned run gaps. That's why you're seeing more teams use multiple tight end sets this year. ... They want to run the little guys off the field by running directly at them. If they can't hold up at the point of attack, you'll start seeing the long runs and big plays in the running game."
To that point, the Vikings have been generating a number of big plays on the ground, particularly when running to the outside. According to Next Gen Stats, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison each rank within the top five in big-play runs with seven-plus defenders in the box when running outside. Cook, the NFL's leading rusher, has 530 rush yards and 14 10-plus yard runs with seven or more defenders in the box on outside runs. He leads the NFL in both categories. Mattison has been just as effective on perimeter runs against seven-plus-defender boxes. He has 219 rush yards (fifth-most) and nine rushes of 10-plus yards (tied for third-most) against seven-plus defender boxes on outside runs.
"Good offensive coaches are exploiting the challenges defensive coaches face with limited practice time and hitting," said an NFC offensive consultant. "With limited time to work on tackling, block destruction and run fits, offensive play-callers can exploit the weakest link on the front seven. ... These young guys haven't taken on lead blockers in high school or college so they don't have any idea how to handle the big guys blocking them in the hole. Defensive coaches can teach them on the board and in the film room but without those reps on the practice field, they don't know how to handle it. That's why you're seeing the running game return to prominence, and it's why more teams are doing it from heavy formations."
The Vikings' utilization of heavy formations has not only anchored their ground attack, but it has helped the coaching staff create an explosive passing game that ideally suits its franchise quarterback. Kirk Cousins has always been at his best utilizing play-action, but luring more defenders into the box has enabled him to push the ball down the field more effectively. No. 8 has the most pass yards (1,070), pass attempts (118), completions (85) and touchdowns (12) against seven-plus-defender boxes while averaging 9.0 air yards per attempt. That's a concerted effort to take deep shots from run-heavy formations, which has helped the Vikings become a more explosive passing game with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen routinely torching defensive backs in man coverage.
The Vikings have climbed their way back into the thick of the NFC race by turning back the clock and relying on an offense that features "bigs" all over the field. With defenses increasingly designed and constructed to defend the passing game and three-receiver sets, the Vikings will continue to win with teams ill-equipped to stop "big boy" football.