Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Two teams nobody would want to face in the playoffs.
» A young defense that is quickly becoming one of the NFL's top units.
First, we take a look at the two teams that nobody would want to face come playoff time ...
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PACKERS AND STEELERS: Two sudden Super Bowl threats
Don't look now, but the Packers and Steelers are rounding into form as Super Bowl contenders. After both suffering through four-game losing streaks in the middle of the season, the perennial heavyweights have re-discovered their winning ways and each team has all of the pieces in place to emerge as the red-hot squad that sweeps through the postseason.
Looking back at the teams that have surged to the Super Bowl from outside of the No. 1 seed, they typically have three factors that make them a tough out in the playoffs:
1) Red-hot quarterback
2) Dominant pass rush
3) Explosive X-factor
We watched the Baltimore Ravens lean on this blueprint a few years ago when they rode Joe Flacco (11:0 TD-to-INT ratio in the four-game playoff run) and a playmaking defense (nine sacks and 10 takeaways in the postseason) to a Super Bowl XLVII title. We've also seen teams like the New York Giants follow a similar recipe to claim a pair of titles behind a sizzling Eli Manning and an opportunistic defense that peaked at the right time.
In Green Bay, it starts with the resurgent play of Aaron Rodgers. After getting off to an uncharacteristically slow start, the two-time NFL MVP has been sensational the last eight games. Since Week 7, Rodgers has posted a 67.9 percent completion rate, 22:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 108.2 passer rating. In addition, he has tossed at least two touchdown passes in eight straight games and thrown 137 passes without an interception -- the longest active streak in the NFL.
While we've come to expect that kind of performance from Rodgers, many wondered if the veteran quarterback could still carry the Packers' offense at this stage of his career without the presence of some kind of running game. Looking at the numbers, the Packers are 6-0 when they pass on fewer than 60 percent of their offensive plays -- but they have a dismal 1-6 mark when they pass on over 60 percent of their snaps. Thus, it was imperative for the Pack to find a viable option at running back to provide them with a credible ground game down the stretch.
Ty Montgomery has done his best to fill the void. The Packers' 6-foot, 216-pound weapon has become an imposing runner after entering the league as a receiver-kick returner from Stanford. Montgomery leads the team in rushing (222 yards) and sports an average of 5.7 yards per carry since Week 7. Combined with Rodgers' increased scrambling production (206 rush yards since Week 7), the Packers have just enough balance to keep teams from running the coverage-heavy schemes (Cover 2 Man) that slowed down the offensive juggernaut at the beginning of the season.
Considering his production and versatility, I started to point to Montgomery as the designated X-factor to watch, but the sudden emergence of Davante Adams as a dominant playmaker cannot be ignored. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound pass catcher has topped the 100-yard mark four times in the last eight games, and he boasts nine TD grabs on the season. With the third-year pro emerging as a legitimate WR2 opposite Jordy Nelson (and ahead of Randall Cobb), the Packers' receiving corps suddenly looks like a dangerous unit that can overwhelm any defensive backfield in the league.
For the Steelers, it is all about the explosive combined talents of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. The league's most dynamic set of triplets can score from anywhere on the field -- it is big-play ability that makes Pittsburgh the most feared offensive team in the tournament field. Whether it's a home run ball from Big Ben to AB or a nifty catch-and-run play from the NFL's most electric RB1, the Steelers' offensive diversity jumps off the screen when studying the All-22 Coaches Film. It's hard to find aother team that can stretch the defense with horizontal or vertical throws in the passing game, while also presenting a punishing smashmouth ground attack behind a crafty runner with a unique combination of balance, body control and power.
Simply put, it's hard to imagine how opponents will contain this three-headed monster down the stretch.
Looking at the passing game, it's not the route combinations or formations that pose the biggest problem -- it's the chemistry between Roethlisberger and Brown. These two have a mind meld that allows them to routinely deliver big plays on improvisation, as evidenced in this video clip:
Big Ben and AB are dangerous when operating off the script. Defensive coordinators can't account for those impromptu plays. There isn't a double team or bracket coverage that can contain Brown when Roethlisberger flees the pocket. Most importantly, there isn't a defense for the perfect ball. Whether it's the back-shoulder throw or the teardrop over the top of the defense, veteran quarterbacks routinely put the ball in spots where only their WR1 can make plays. Good luck, defense.
Here's what's really scary about these Steelers, though: Before a defensive coordinator can even think about slowing down Roethlisberger and Brown, he must come up with a plan to stop bell. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back is the straw that stirs the drink for the offense -- he must be contained if you want to have any chance of keeping this offense from lighting up the scoreboard.
Bell leads the NFL with a whopping 161.6 scrimmage yards per game -- currenly the second-highest single-season mark in NFL history, behind only Priest Holmes's 2002 campaign (163.4). Over the past four games, Bell has rushed for 620 yards, eclipsing 100 yards each time out. Bell was suspended for the first three games of the season, but since Week 4, he has accounted for 41.6 percent of the team's scrimmage yards and 57.5 percent of their offensive touches -- both NFL highs this season. Considering how Bell can impact the game as a runner or receiver (his 67 receptions trail only David Johnson among running backs), he is the X-factor who can push the Steelers over the top in January.
Despite the headlines each of their offenses continue to receive, I believe the Green Bay and Pittsburgh defenses are huge reasons why these teams can make extended runs during the postseason. Each unit has righted the ship after some midseason struggles to re-emerge as solid units. The Packers have held their last three opponents to 12 points per game and helped the team enjoy a plus-7 margin in turnover differential. Although their pass rush hasn't heated up to this point, the presence of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers off the edges is sufficient enough to disrupt the timing and rhythm of a quarterback attempting to lead a late-game charge from the pocket. The Packers are 7-1 this season when allowing fewer than 30 points. With an offense that's returning to form, Green Bay's D doesn't need to be dominant to engineer a run -- just steady.
In Pittsburgh, the defense is beginning to take shape behind a pass rush that's starting to wreak havoc. Since Week 9, the Steelers lead the NFL with 23 sacks. This ability to create consistent pressure has helped Pittsburgh hold its last four opponents to 12.5 points per game. With a unit that does it by committee (13 players have combined for 31 total sacks), the Steelers can throw a number of pitches at the quarterback until the right combination gets a strikeout. Considering how the Steelers' offense can force opponents to play catch-up, the presence of a persistent pass rush could be the tipping point for their championship dreams.
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NEXT GEN STATS: Is Janoris Jenkins a top-five corner?
While everyone touts Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman and Josh Norman as elite corners in today's game, it's time to include Jenkins in the discussion as one of the VIPs at the position. The 5-10, 198-pounder has been nothing short of sensational as the Giants' CB1, as evidenced by his 17 passes defensed and three interceptions in 13 games.
Granted, that's the kind of production that evaluators expect from a big-money corner, but many casual observers didn't expect Jenkins to thrive in the shutdown-corner role. In fact, the move widely was viewed as a "boom or bust" signing by analysts worried about his penchant for surrendering big plays during his time with the Rams.
Although Jenkins certainly pushes the envelope as a playmaker, he has always displayed exceptional footwork, instincts and ball skills on an island since entering the league as the 39th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. I fell in love with his skills when I was exposed to Jenkins for a week at the Senior Bowl, and he has continued to show flashes as a "see ball, get ball" playmaker on the perimeter.
"Jenkins is a big-time playmaker," an NFC pro personnel director told me. "Sure, he gives up some plays, but there is value in having a guy that can come up with timely turnovers. Plus, he's competitive and courageous when facing top guys. He isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with guys in big games."
Looking at Next Gen Stats from Jenkins' 2016 campaign, I would say that pro personnel director nailed it when it came to assessing the 28-year-old's game. He has absolutely smothered WR1s and the numbers tell the story. Here's how Jenkins has fared against some top players this season:
» Week 4 vs. Stefon Diggs: 4 targets, 2 receptions for eight yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 56.3 passer rating against.
» Week 5 vs. Jordy Nelson: 4 targets, 2 receptions for 29 yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 74.0 passer rating against.
» Week 7 vs. Kenny Britt: 5 targets, 2 receptions for 29 yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 59.6 passer rating against.
» Week 10 vs. A.J. Green: 7 targets, 4 receptions for 30 yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 67.6 passer rating against.
» Week 12 vs. Terrelle Pryor: 5 targets, 1 reception for 14 yards, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 39.6 passer rating against.
» Week 13 vs. Antonio Brown: 4 targets, 4 receptions for 40 yards, 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 147.9 passer rating against.
» Week 14 vs. Dez Bryant: 6 targets, 1 reception for 10 yards, 0:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 0.0 passer rating against.
With the numbers clearly making Jenkins' case as an elite corner -- at least outside of the game against Antonio Brown, who routinely beats just about any CB -- I turned to the tape to crosscheck this notion. Since top corners are judged by their performance against Pro Bowl-caliber players, I wanted to see how Jenkins held up against Bryant before confirming his status as an elite player. Looking at the Coaches Film, I noticed that Jenkins followed Bryant all over the field, except in the slot, during both of their games. He lined up opposite the Cowboys' WR1 on 64.1 and 69.4 percent of the plays, respectively, in Week 1 and Week 14. Jenkins held Dak Prescott to a 0.0 passer rating on throws in his direction. Talk about a shutdown corner ...
From a playing standpoint, Jenkins displayed impressive skills in press and off coverage during both games against the Cowboys, exhibiting a keen understanding of leverage and downfield positioning. Jenkins effectively utilized his help (linebackers and safeties) while taking away Bryant's best routes (slant, skinny post, dig and back-shoulder fade). Most importantly, he disrupted Bryant's timing and route running while frustrating the temperamental pass catcher with his suffocating tactics.
Keep in mind: Jenkins was on the coverage for both of the Prescott's interceptions last Sunday, and he knocked the ball out of Bryant's hands for a fumble with the game on the line. Considering how corners are judged by their ability to snuff out top pass catchers, Jenkins' performances against Bryant and others should put the Giants' CB1 in the conversation as one of the game's very best at the position.
BUCS' DEFENSE: The real reason for Tampa Bay's playoff push
Shhh! I'm about to let you in on a little secret that's largely gone unnoticed on the national stage.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has quietly grown into one of the NFL's top units under first-year DC Mike Smith.
Now, I know the Bucs have started to garner buzz over their playoff hopes, but most of the attention goes to rising offensive stars Jameis Winston and Mike Evans. Truth be told, though, Tampa Bay has crept into playoff contention because of a defense that looks like a heavyweight contender under the ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach.
Since Week 10, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and rank third in total defense (299 yards per game). Over the past eight games, the defensive front has come alive and registered 21 sacks. And on the season, Tampa is tied for the most takeaways in the NFL with 25.
Those numbers are certainly eye-popping when glancing at the stat sheet, but it's what I've noticed on tape that leads me to believe the Buccaneers are on the verge of reclaiming the dominance that made them one of the top defensive teams for nearly a decade from the late 1990s through the early 2000s.
From a personnel standpoint, the Bucs have not only assembled the right pack of wolves to hunt quarterbacks and ball carriers, but they matched them with a coach and scheme that allows defenders to play fast and loose from snap to whistle. Smith has installed a flexible 4-3 scheme that uses a variety of pre-snap looks and disguises to confuse quarterbacks, yet it features only a handful of different coverages that are fairly easy to digest for young players.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from last week's 16-11 win over the Saints, I noticed that the Buccaneers constantly switched between single-high-safety and two-deep-safety disguises before moving into the opposite coverage. For instance, Tampa would align with a deep safety in the middle and the corners positioned at about 8 yards away from the line of scrimmage before rotating into a standard Cover 2 coverage with the safeties responsible for the deep halves and the CBs playing as a flat-corner players based on a "2-1" read (corners adjust their coverage based on the route of the slot or No. 2 receiver).
The Buccaneers also would show a two-deep coverage during the pre-snap phase before dropping a safety down into the curl/flat area or the hook zone, so they could roll into a three-deep coverage. While the constant shifting and movement confuses the opposing QB, the coverages (Cover 2, Cover 3, Quarters and Man-Free) are straight from a high school playbook. Thus, young defenders are able to quickly master the nuances of the coverage with minimal reps (see: Vernon Hargreaves' promising performance in Year 1). In addition, the simple concepts allow explosive athletes to play without hesitation. Considering the spectacular athleticism displayed by linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, the simple scheme allows Tampa Bay's second-level defenders to play like big-game hunters.
"They are pretty fun to watch on tape," a former NFL scout told me. "They do a great job of running to the ball, and I don't know if I've seen a better tackling team on the perimeter."
After watching a few of the Buccaneers' games, I completely agree with that assessment. They do a great job of getting runners on the ground, and the limited YAC (yards after contact) allows them to put dink-and-dunk offenses in long-yardage situations when the catch-and-run plays don't yield big gains.
Looking at the Coaches Film, I also was impressed by the collective discipline of the defensive backfield. The cornerbacks did a really good job of keeping the ball in front of the defense despite using a variety of techniques at the line of scrimmage. Whether they were executing press, bail or off at the snap, Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes and Hargreaves were playing with "top down" positioning throughout the route. This eliminates the deep ball and forces quarterbacks to settle for underneath throws. With the Buccaneers intent on making teams drive the length of the field on a series of short throws, the disciplined approach has been one of the reasons why the defense has drastically improved since the beginning of the season.
To pull off these tactics, the Bucs have placed the burden on the defensive line to create a pass rush without blitzing. Tampa Bay has blitzed on just 25.5 percent of their snaps. That's well below the league average (30.5), which suggests the Buccaneers are comfortable leaning on their front four to get after the quarterback.
"It starts with [Gerald] McCoy," said a former NFL player familiar with Smith and the Bucs. "He creates chaos at the point of attack. Plus, the rest of the unit is healthy and beginning to flex their muscles at the line."
McCoy's dominance stands out on tape. He's tied with Aaron Donald for the most sacks (seven) among defensive tackles. McCoy uses a terrific combination of strength, power and athleticism that overwhelms blockers at the line. With a quick first step and a swift arm-over maneuver, McCoy slips past lumbering offensive guards. And with McCoy creating instant penetration up the gut, Robert Ayers and Noah Spence are able to corral quarterbacks off the edge. Spence, the 39th overall pick in last April's draft, has notched 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, looking like the disruptive force that many expected when the Buccaneers selected him in the second round.
How does that kind of pressure impact the game? Turnovers. The constant harassment of opposing quarterbacks forces throwers to get rid of the ball quickly, leading to errant passes. With the Buccaneers' defensive backs playing with vision on the quarterback and maintaining "top down" positioning, Tampa Bay racks up interceptions off tips and overthrows. Boasting 14 takeaways since Week 10 (most in the NFL), the Buccaneers' defense is giving the team a decided advantage in the most important statistic in football.
If play is sustained down the stretch, the Buccaneers' defense could finally get its due as one of the best units in football.