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:
But first, an examination of one of the game's emerging sack artists ...
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When the Atlanta Falcons announced their plans to move Vic Beasley to "SAM" linebacker in their base defense during the offseason, few observers discussed the potential impact of the move on the second-year player viewed as one of the top pass rushers in the 2015 draft class. To be frank, I thought any discussion over Beasley's position switch was a bit overblown, due to the fact that NFL teams are typically in a nickel or sub-package defense (five or more defensive backs) on 65 to 70 percent of their defensive snaps these days. Thus, I couldn't imagine how moving Beasley to a position on the strong side of the defense on early downs would fully unlock his potential as a pass rusher and playmaker.
Boy, was I wrong.
Beasley has absolutely wreaked havoc on opponents through the first seven weeks of this season to the tune of 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. I not only underestimated his potential to destroy opponents as a rusher, but I also failed to see the wisdom in the Falcons' decision to follow a league-wide trend that's helping a number of dynamic defenders deliver more splash plays off the edge. Instead of positioning an elite pass rusher on the quarterback's blind side -- which is typically on the defensive right, as most quarterbacks are right-handed and thus drop back facing the other way -- teams are beginning to put their primary pass-rush specialist on the left to allow him to exploit right tackles, tight ends and running backs in pass protection.
Don't believe me? Take a look at the top sack artists in the league today and you'll notice that most spend the majority of their time attacking the quarterback from the defensive right. From Von Miller to Khalil Mack to Michael Bennett to Cameron Wake and even J.J. Watt (when healthy), the most disruptive pass rushers in football are spending more of their time on the front side of the defense. This is a trick that I learned from John Fox during my time with the Carolina Panthers, when he positioned Julius Peppers at left defensive end. Fox did the same thing with Hall of Fame DE Michael Strahan during his time as Giants defensive coordinator.
Clearly, it's a tactic that can produce stellar results for a defense. Why?
The growing disparity in talent between left and right tackles has given defensive coordinators an opportunity to attack an inferior player at the line of scrimmage. Left tackles are not only the most athletic and polished pass protectors on the line, but most are technically sound and difficult to defeat on a consistent basis. Right tackles, on the other hand, are traditionally the better run blocker on the edge. Normally, they aren't as athletic and they're lumbering ways make them vulnerable in pass pro, particularly to speed rushers with explosive first-step quickness and an array of finesse moves.
Looking back at Miller's spectacular run through the 2016 postseason en route to MVP honors in Super Bowl 50, it's no coincidence that he was nearly unstoppable off the edge when teams didn't send multiple blockers in his direction. Miller's success undoubtedly prompted the Falcons to re-consider their plans with their young rusher, especially with Miller's former linebacker coach (Richard Smith) calling the Falcons' defense.
That brings me back to the original point about how the move to "SAM" linebacker has unlocked Beasley's potential. By rule, the "SAM" aligns over top of the tight end in an "Under" front. With the line shifted to the weak side, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Beasley gets a chance to take on a player who is about his size. This allows him to be a stouter presence against the run while also facing a weaker blocker on passing downs.
When the Falcons are in their "Over" front, Beasley is free to blitz off the open side against a running back, tight end or unprotected offensive tackle in pass protection. This is a mismatch for the pass rusher, who has outstanding first-step quickness and explosive athleticism. He can run around blockers with a pure speed rush or throw out a spin move or inside-swipe maneuver to get around the corner. Considering his superior athleticism, Beasley's ability to attack from the second level adds a dimension to the Falcons' defense, which still has plenty of room for improvement (as evidenced by its No. 26 overall ranking), particularly in the secondary (see: No. 31 pass D).
While Beasley's position switch has bolstered the Falcons' early-down defense and pass rush, I believe the team's decision to feature him at LDE in sub-packages has also paid huge dividends. Last season, the team used Beasley on both sides of the line, but he has played extensively on the left in nickel packages this year. This has enabled him to overwhelm right tackles in obvious passing downs from a "Wide-9" alignment (defensive end positioned on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder). With Beasley aligning well outside of the tackle, he is routinely able to race around the end before the blocker is able to kick-step and square up on him. This essentially leaves the quarterback naked in the pocket and vulnerable to big hits or strip-sacks from the explosive rusher.
When the tight end (Antonio Gates) releases downfield as part of the route combination, Beasley is able to take a sharper angle around the corner to attack Joe Barksdale with a shimmy-stutter-rip move to lasso Rivers in the pocket for a strip-sack that leads to a scoop and score for Adrian Clayborn.
These are the kinds of opportunities that the Falcons have created for Beasley by positioning him at left defensive end, but the 24-year-old's success is not solely due to his exploitation of inferior players. Beasley is an electric pass rusher with all of the traits typically associated with elite QB hunters. From his exceptional first-step quickness and closing burst to his natural dip-and-rip maneuvers and explosive spin move, he has enough tools in the toolbox to create problems for any blocker in a one-on-one matchup, particularly a heavy-legged pass protector with limited agility or lateral quickness.
That's why I don't believe Beasley's sizzling start is a fluke. He is too explosive and athletic for most right tackles, tight ends and running backs, and the Falcons' clever scheming has essentially guaranteed him plenty of one-on-one chances throughout the game. If the team's high-powered offense keeps putting 30-plus points on the board, Beasley could continue to rack up gaudy sack numbers as the designated closer on a defense that's built to play with a lead.
ASK THE LEAGUE: What's wrong with Brock Osweiler?
When the Texans signed Brock Osweiler to a blockbuster deal during the offseason, the football world wondered if the young passer was the missing piece to Houston's Super Bowl puzzle. But seven games into Osweiler's Texans tenure, the critics are out in full effect. Osweiler ranks near the bottom of the league in several major passing categories and looks nothing like the promising young talent who helped the Broncos hoist the Lombardi Trophy a season ago, going 5-2 as a midseason fill-in for Peyton Manning. With the football world wondering if the Texans (4-3) are experiencing a case of buyer's remorse, I thought it was the perfect time to reach out to some NFL personnel evaluators and get their thoughts on the matter. Here's what I asked:
NFC pro personnel director: "You have to figure out a way to make it right. He's not a $20 million quarterback, but you have to figure out a way to win with him. ... Maybe you take the ball out of his hands and let the rest of the team carry the weight."
AFC pro personnel director: "Even when he was with Denver, I just thought he was a guy. I think he's better than he's played, but only when he played within the confines of the offense. ... I don't believe he can take over a game with his mind and arm and carry a team. ... He was in a good spot in Denver because he had a support system, but not when the expectations are higher."
AFC assistant pro director: "I didn't think he was a franchise quarterback. I've always viewed him as an average starter who needed the right situation. He's talented, but the poise, pocket awareness and accuracy on short/intermediate throws bothered me. ... John] Elway and the [Broncos wanted to keep him, so he definitely has some tools to work with, but he needs a running game and to be able to utilize his mobility to be successful. ... In Houston, they are asking him to win games for them and he can't do that right now."
NFC scout: "I've never been a big fan. He's not a confident kid and constantly needs reassurance. I'm not surprised he ended up in Houston because he's always wanted it to be the 'Osweiler Show.' ... They need to follow the formula to help him. Lean on the running game and defense. Let him be a complement to that. That's how they can fix it."
NFC senior personnel executive: "He's so sorry that it's unbelievable. He can't play. ... I mean, he's a tall, athletic guy with a long release and decent arm talent, but he's not a good player. They paid him a lot for nothing."
In the NFL, quarterbacks are either "trucks" or "trailers." They can either carry a team to the championship with their individual talent or they must lean on the rest of the team to carry them to the winner's circle. Now, I know that's not what anyone wants to hear when they see their favorite team's quarterback cashing a hefty paycheck, but there are only a handful of signal callers who are truly $20 million guys or franchise quarterbacks. Although analysts, particularly former quarterbacks, will tell you otherwise, the overwhelming majority of QBs in the NFL are "trailers" who need the right supporting cast and system in place in order to take their respective teams to the Promised Land.
That's why we shouldn't be surprised that Osweiler has failed to live up to expectations. While he's in his fifth pro season, Osweiler only logged seven career starts as a pro prior to taking the reins in Houston. Now, that certainly doesn't excuse his poor play (8:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 71.9 passer rating), but it is important to remember that he is nothing more than a glorified newbie at this stage of his career, based on his experience. He simply hasn't had enough reps to "own" the position as a franchise player and his $72 million contract won't change that, no matter how much we gripe about it.
Thus, it's on the Texans to put their young quarterback in the right environment to succeed. To their credit, they've attempted to surround him with a cast of playmakers capable of alleviating the burden on him to carry the offense. Lamar Miller has the potential to spearhead a dynamic running game, and DeAndre Hopkins is a dominant WR1 with exceptional skills as a jump-ball specialist. Not to mention, rookie wideout Will Fuller has shown plenty of promise as a speed burner on the outside. In addition, the Texans have a talented defense in place, especially when three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt's healthy. All in all, this certainly appears to be similar to the situation he left in Denver, when he played alongside a pair of Pro Bowl pass catchers (Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas) and a suffocating defense sparked by an electric pass rusher (Von Miller).
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, there's no disputing Osweiler's struggles as a passer (58.2 percent completion rate), but he is also adjusting to a new scheme and a different WR1. While Bill O'Brien will continue to tweak the system to suit Osweiler's skills, the transition from throwing to catch-and-run playmakers (Sanders and Thomas) to a jump-ball specialist has been a significant change. Hopkins is at his best when targeted on vertical throws that allow him to utilize his basketball skills to wrestle 50-50 balls away from defenders. Ironically, Osweiler struggles as a deep-ball passer, as evidenced by his 27.3 percent completion rate and 45.4 passer rating on throws that travel 15-plus air yards. Thus, the Texans need to find a handful of passing concepts that allow their QB1 and WR1 to play to their strengths. Whether it's incorporating more back-shoulder fades or skinny posts, Houston to get its top offensive weapons on the same page to spark an offense that's underperforming at this point.
Finally, the Texans' coaching staff and front office must ignore the outside noise and focus on putting Osweiler in the best position to succeed, instead of justifying his fat contract. If the team can keep him on a pitch count (30 passes or fewer) and treat him like a complementary player on an offense that has plenty of weaponry, this team can win an underwhelming division.
NEXT GEN STATS: Can Ty Montgomery key a Packers offensive revival?
It sounds crazy. A second-year pro who barely touched the field the first four games of this season sparking an offense that features a two-time MVP quarterback and a pair of former Pro Bowl receivers? But there is no disputing Ty Montgomery's value to the unit after watching him become the only player in the NFL this season to post back-to-back games of 10-plus receptions.
While everyone in Packerland has been waiting for the 2015 third-round pick to make his mark as an electric playmaker on the perimeter or in the kicking game, I don't think anyone expected Montgomery to make his contributions as a running back for the Packers. Sure, the 6-foot, 216-pounder played a variety of positions (QB, RB, WR, CB, S and PR/KR) as a high school standout, but he spent the bulk of his time at Stanford snagging passes and fielding kicks. In fact, as a prospect, Montgomery was viewed primarily as a return specialist after posting ridiculous collegiate averages (27.4-yard average on 91 career kick returns; 19.8-yard average on 12 career punt returns) while showing flashes of big-play ability as a catch-and-run playmaker for the Cardinal. Discussing Montgomery on and after draft day, Packers' officials described him as a bigger version of Randall Cobb and raved about his running skills, instincts, quickness and power.
When I studied Montgomery prior to the 2015 draft, I loved his combination of size, strength and explosiveness as a receiver/returner. He displayed rare power for a receiver with the ball in his hands and his rugged running style made him an ideal candidate to thrive as a return specialist as a pro. Naturally, I had some concerns about Montgomery's ability to play wideout after watching him struggle with drops during his final season at Stanford. He didn't look like a natural pass catcher and his inconsistency led me to question his long-term potential as an outside receiver.
That's why I have to tip my hat to Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett for carving out a role for the Montgomery when the offense desperately needed a spark. Sure, the injuries to James Starks and Eddie Lacy accelerated the move, but the team already was experimenting with Montgomery in the backfield as part of the "Big Five" package (a five-receiver set) that's been an occasional staple in the offensive playbook for years. During the 2007 and 2011 seasons, Green Bay used the package to spice up an offense that that needed some juice. The depth and talent available at receiver enabled the team to trot out more pass catchers and create mismatches all over the field. Surveying the team's current roster, the "Big Five" package allows McCarthy to tap into a young and talented receiver corps.
From a matchup standpoint, Green Bay's five-receiver set is a nightmare to defend due to the presence of five dynamic pass catchers on the field. In addition, the Packers have a pair of multipurpose threats in Montgomery and Randall Cobb capable of aligning anywhere on the perimeter or in the backfield as quasi-running backs. Thus, defensive coordinators must decide whether to put "dime" (six defensive backs) or "quarters" (seven defensive backs) on the field to best match up in the passing game while leaving the defense vulnerable to the run with so many "little guys" in the box.
Against the Cowboysand Bears, the Packers used their "Big Five" package on 25 total snaps (12 plays in Week 6; 13 plays in Week 7). Although the package didn't yield big results initially (Green Bay averaged 5.3 yards per play in Week 6 and 4.9 yards per play in Week 7), it has allowed the unit survive a spate of injuries at running back that has crippled the team's offensive balance. Without a credible threat in the backfield, defensive coordinators have used more man coverage (Cover 1-Free and Cover Two-Man) to disrupt the flow of the Packers' quick-rhythm passing game. This has forced Rodgers to make more tight-window throws, leading to his abnormaly low passer rating (91.7).
To combat these tactics, McCarthy has used the "Big Five" package and more hybrid spread formations with a wide receiver in the backfield. In the past, Cobb primarily occupied this role, but Montgomery has become the "A Back" for the Packers. In the last two games, he has aligned at running back on 66 offensive plays (22 snaps against Dallas; 44 snaps against Chicago) and given the unit a spark as a runner-receiver. Montgomery possesses the quickness to run away from linebackers or interior sub-defenders while running routes out of the backfield, which gives Rodgers an explosive outlet to target when coverage takes away his primary threat on the outside. In addition, Montgomery's combination of wiggle, burst and strength allows him to gobble up yardage on checkdowns delivered underneath coverage. These dump-offs are the kinds of chain movers the team didn't get with Lacy on the field.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from the past two games, it is apparent that Montgomery gives the Packers an effective counter to the coverage tactics opponents have been using. When originally aligned in the backfield, he has snagged 13 of 18 targets on passes thrown in his direction. The receiving yards have been modest (103 receiving yards, or 7.92 per reception), but the tactic has been enough to create a headache for opponents attempting to blanket the Packers' aerial attack with coverage-heavy scheming.
Speaking of counter tactics, the Packers' selective use of Montgomery as a runner on draws, delays and inside-zone plays has been effective (see: nine carries for 60 yards vs. Chicago). He has shown a knack for finding creases in traffic, which is likely due to his experience finding open seams as a returner. Check out the following clip from the game against the Bears. Montgomery takes a delayed handoff and bursts through the A-gap:
The 30-yard run showcases his patience, balance and body control as a playmaker between the tackles.
If Montgomery can continue to give the Packers solid production as a runner-receiver, Green Bay's sagging offense could get back on track by using a flexible package that accentuates the versatility and explosiveness of one of their young playmakers.
SPENCER WARE'S BREAKOUT: System guy or legit star?
Is it the player or the system?
While walking through the office at NFL Media, I was asked about Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware -- and whether his success was a byproduct of Andy Reid's scheme or his individual talents. My colleague wanted to know if Ware was "a real guy" or another running back who's being given an opportunity to shine in an RB-friendly system.
When I initially thought about the question, I wondered if he was onto something, based on the success backs routinely have enjoyed under Reid during his time with the Eagles and Chiefs. Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles put up big numbers as focal points of an offense that routinely put the ball in the hands of these shifty playmakers on the perimeter.
Although Reid ideally wants to operate a pass-first offense that features a quick-rhythm aerial attack, he routinely has tweaked his system to accentuate the talents of an explosive playmaker in the backfield. He will use a variety of off-tackle plays and sweeps to get his slippery runners to the edges, but he complements those with designer cutback plays that create seams on the backside. In the passing game, Reid uses a variety of screen passes to get the ball to his explosive runners in the open field. With most of Reid's backs possessing exceptional stop-start quickness and burst, the screen game is a way to generate big plays on high-percentage passes.
That's why it is so hard to determine whether Ware is an upper-echelon back or a product of Reid's offensive system. Studying the All-22 tape, I believe Ware is a rugged, downhill runner with a no-nonsense running style. He displays the strength and power to run through contact, but lacks the top-end speed and quickness to take it the distance. Normally, that would suggest that Ware would act as a "grinder" or short-yardage runner, but he already has posted three runs of 20-plus yards and two of 40-plus in 95 carries, which is a bit of a surprise for a runner without elite speed or burst.
Ware is a natural pass catcher with strong hands and excellent receiving skills. He catches the ball like a wide receiver, but is a wrecking ball when he gets to the open field. Thus, defenders reluctantly hit him on the perimeter, and their hesitancy allows Ware to produce big plays on "now" screens or circle routes out of the backfield.
Overall, Ware is a solid player with a nice set of skills as a runner-receiver. He is a capable three-down back with the potential to carve up defenses in a variety of ways. Although he lacks elite physical traits, Ware certainly has shown enough to be considered a quality starter in most systems.
Of course, there is a difference in being a quality starter and a blue-chip player in meeting rooms. (Blue-chippers are difference makers with the talent and skills to rank as top-10 players at their respective positions.) McCoy, Westbrook and Charles all ranked as blue-chip guys during their prime years with Reid, but I don't think Ware would earn that same designation if we polled league executives. Thus, I would have to rate him as a system player -- instead of a star -- in this evaluation.