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:
— Have defensive coordinators discovered Patrick Mahomes‘ kryptonite?
— Why a former MVP might have to take a back seat for the good of his team.
— The player making an airtight case to be this season’s MVP.
But first, a look at why the league’s preeminent powerhouse could finish yet another season on top …
* * * * *
Defense wins championships.
If that age-old football maxim remains applicable to today’s NFL, you can go ahead and etch the New England Patriots onto another Lombardi Trophy.
I’m aware that’s not what most of the football world wants to hear five Sundays into the season, but I don’t know how many teams are capable of knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions with their defense playing at a level that reminds me of the early-2000s units which fueled a run of three Pats titles in four years.
Younger readers might not be too familiar with those New England teams that won with defense as the focal point; the early Bill Belichick squads led by Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and a handful of additional veterans in the rotation. Those defenses not only suffocated opponents with individual and collective physicality, but they rarely gave their opponents “freebies” on the perimeter. From minimizing penalties to keeping the ball in front of the defense to containing the ground game on early downs, those vintage Patriots teams made opponents earn their yards and points every single week.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Pats boast another spectacular defense. New England currently ranks first in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense, as well as No. 3 against the run. It’s all-around dominance. And the unit is doing all this without much star power on any level. That’s not a slight to the roster’s top defenders, but I don’t know if any of the team’s “blue” players on this side of the ball are household names. Sure, you might point to Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty, but the rest of the defense could walk through most airports in relative anonymity.
However, when you pop in the All-22 Coaches Film, you gain a greater appreciation for the Patriots‘ individual players — and how all the puzzle pieces fit together in New England’s D. With Belichick directing the group, the Pats feature a fairly straightforward coverage scheme from a variety of defensive fronts. But
The first thing you’ll notice when watching New England’s defense is that the Patriots use man coverage more than any other team in the NFL today. By featuring man so prominently within the game plan, the Pats are able to match up with every eligible receiver while also putting an extra defender in the box and keeping a deep-middle player. In theory, this enables New England to shut down RPOs, bubbles and quick passes by assigning defenders to each of the perimeter players (instead of areas in a zone). Additionally, the defense is instructed to play “top down” (defenders play on the receiver’s upfield shoulder to eliminate the deep balls), forcing quarterbacks to make more tight-window throws. This brings down a QB’s completion percentages and disrupts his overall rhythm as a passer.
“The Patriots have been a heavy man-to-man team for years,” a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. “They play old-school man coverage without switching against stacks and bunches. They work on it every day and the constant repetitions have helped them become masters at it. … Some coaches think man coverage is risky, but if you do it right, it’s the best coverage because you can handle everything and you don’t give the quarterback easy throws.
“It takes a lot of work to get all of the nuances down but when you’ve been doing it as long as them, your guys get comfortable in the coverage and they eventually begin to thrive in it.”
In New England’s 35-14 win over the Giants on Thursday night, the Pats’ defense mixed in some zone, but continued to suffocate opposing receivers with sticky man coverage. John Simon’s first-quarter interception came courtesy of Gilmore getting his hands on the ball while challenging Giants WR Golden Tate on a dig route. Snug coverage leads to deflections, which generate picks when defenders are committed to running toward the ball.
In the Giants‘ first drive of the third quarter, Daniel Jones and Co. marched into Patriots territory. Then, on first-and-10, New England showed a single-high safety look pre-snap. But when the play began, the Pats shifted into a two-deep zone, with Gilmore occupying the flat. The last-minute movement and switch to zone caught New York’s rookie quarterback by surprise, leading to a Gilmore interception on a ball that should’ve never been thrown into that area.
When it comes to getting after the quarterback, the Patriots employ a standard four-man rush with a few bluff-blitz plays to disrupt the opposing signal-caller’s rhythm in the pocket. The defensive line also understands how to execute a disciplined pass rush with defenders instructed not to rush past the depth of the quarterback in the pocket. New England wants quarterbacks to stay inside the pocket while under duress because the persistent harassment leads to turnovers if a QB lacks the poise and composure to weather the storm.
The Patriots are a little unique in their approach, due to the versatility of their linebackers and edge players. With a stable full of hybrid players possessing diverse skills, the defense can use the likes of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Chase Winovich in a variety of roles that make it difficult for opponents to identify the designated rusher each week. Remember, each of the aforementioned guys has the capacity to rush from a stand-up position or a three-point stance.
“The Patriots want to challenge the discipline of your quarterback,” the former NFL defensive coordinator said. “Can he consistently make the tough throws? Is he accurate enough to fit the ball into tight windows? Can he make them consistently while being harassed in the pocket? They make your quarterback answer those questions with their tactics, and if your guy can handle the heat, they will fall apart in critical moments.”
The mighty Patriots are annoyingly good again, with a defense that’s the stingiest in the league. Although it’s not a flashy unit loaded with star-studded talent throughout the lineup, New England plays the right way, with a disciplined approach that could result in another ring.
DEFENDING PATRICK MAHOMES: Do opponents have a working blueprint?
Patrick Mahomes is widely viewed as an NFL superhero, having earned MVP honors in his first year as the Kansas City Chiefs‘ QB1. His spectacular arm talent and improvisational wizardry took the league by storm in 2018. But suddenly, it seems like defensive coordinators have discovered No. 15’s kryptonite. Well, actually, maybe they’ve just found a way to contain him somewhat.
Now, I know Mahomes’ gaudy numbers to start this season (65.6 percent completion rate, 366.2 passing yards per game, 11:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 114.7 passer rating) make it hard to say he’s doing anything but dominanting. But I’m here to tell you that the 24-year-old dynamo is struggling against man coverage.
Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the numbers …
According to Pro Football Focus, against man coverage, Mahomes is completing just 55.3 percent of his pass attempts with a 7.9 yards-per-attempt average, a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 87.4 passer rating. Against zone, those figures skyrocket: 77.2 percent completions, 12.0 yards per attempt, 8:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 150.0 passer rating. That’s the second-largest man/zone discrepancy in passer rating (62.1) and yards per attempt (4.1) in the NFL today.
This has encouraged more defensive coordinators to feature man coverage prominently in their game plans. The Lions and Colts, in particular, utilized defensive tactics with man coverage prominently featured on the menu.
“They played man coverage, they rushed with four people and they found ways to get pressure and to cover long enough,” Mahomes said in his postgame press conference following the Chiefs’ 19-13 loss to Indy last Sunday night. “For us, Detroit did it last week, (and) New England did it in the playoffs. We’re going to have to beat man coverage at the end of the day.”
Mahomes’ astute observations suggest there is a blueprint floating around league circles to stymie a high-powered offense that’s fueled by an explosive aerial attack. NFL coaches are admitted copycats, and you can see it in the way they’re suddenly defending K.C. According to PFF, Mahomes is the only qualifying quarterback to face man coverage on over half of his dropbacks (53.8 percent).
“Man coverage takes away the layups and forces quarterbacks to make more contested throws,” the former NFL defensive coordinator from the previous section told me. “If you’re playing bump-and-run, you’re challenging wide receivers at the line, which disrupts the timing of passing game.
“You’re also forcing the quarterback to make more tight-window throws with defenders playing snug on receivers all over the field. If the receivers are unable to create separation, the quarterback has to make pinpoint throws, and that’s hard to do with pressure in his face or the pocket collapsing around him.”
Part of Mahomes’ recent struggles with man coverage can be attributed to the Chiefs‘ injuries at wide receiver, including — most prominently — Tyreek Hill, who has played just a dozen snaps this season thanks to a clavicle injury in Week 1. Andy Reid says the three-time Pro Bowler will be a game-time decision for Sunday’s game against the Texans. His absence has undoubtedly been felt.
Hill is an unstoppable playmaking force on the perimeter, with the speed and explosiveness to blow past elite defenders on vertical routes or run away from coverage on shallow and deep crossing routes. Hill’s burst and acceleration make him a nightmare to defend, so defensive coordinators routinely lean the safety toward No. 10’s side. With Hill on the field, the Chiefs are far more effective against man coverage.
In man-coverage snaps played with Hill over the course of his brief career, Mahomes has completed 63.5 percent of his passes with sparkling figures in yards per attempt (9.9), TD-to-INT ratio (20:3) and passer rating (126.3). Without Hill in man-coverage snaps, those numbers plummet to mere mortal levels: 55.5 percent completions, 8.0 yards per attempt, 3:1 TD-to-INT, 85.9 passer rating.
“Hill plays at a different speed,” the former NFL defensive coordinator said. “You have to respect his speed and playmaking ability or he will put points on the board. That threat alone changes the way you call defenses when he is on the field.
“You limit the one-on-one chances that you give Hill because you know he can run past most of your guys. … You have to pick and choose your moments when to single up when he is in the game. He’s too explosive.”
That’s why I’m not quite ready to say defensive coordinators have discovered the kryptonite to neutralize Mahomes’ superpowers. Despite opponents’ recent success utilizing man coverage, I need to see if those tactics continue to stifle the Chiefs‘ offense with a healthy Hill on the field. If multiple teams are able to keep the explosive wideout in check while playing more man coverage on the perimeter, Mahomes might need to consult his Justice League friends to come up with a fix to an emerging problem.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Cam must take backseat to McCaffrey when he returns. I don’t believe Kyle Allen is a better player than Cam Newton, but I’m convinced the Carolina Panthers‘ offense has improved with Newton out of the lineup because No. 1’s absence has enabled head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner to make Christian McCaffrey the unquestioned focal point of the team’s attack.
In a quarterback-driven league, we don’t often consider an RB1 the driving force of an offense, but it is apparent that No. 22 makes the Panthers go and he should remain the primary focus whenever Newton returns to the lineup.
This might seem like a Captain Obvious statement to some based on McCaffrey’s emergence, which began last season and has soared to a new level in 2019, as he’s currently the NFL leader in rushing yards and scrimmage yards. But don’t underestimate how difficult it is for some coaches to shift the offensive emphasis to a running back-centric approach when a franchise quarterback is still in place. It’s hard for some signal-callers to relinquish control after being the driving force of the offense for years.
Remember Newton jokingly suggesting Turner had McCaffrey in his fantasy league after No. 22 rushed for 128 yards and tallied a team-high 10 catches in Week 1?
“I think coach has got C-Mac up for fantasy this week,” Newton said. “He picked C-Mac for fantasy. I should have went over and seen who he was drafting in his league. That’s probably why we aren’t doing deep passes. He should pick me first quarterback.”
Now, I’m not suggesting there was any true malice behind Newton’s comments, and I certainly can’t read his mind. However, I can’t help but wonder if the statement might have been a passive-aggressive attempt to let his coaching staff know that he should remain the focal point of the offense. I’ve been around the game long enough to understand how tough it can be for offensive coordinators to muster up the courage to change the offensive emphasis when they have an established QB in the building. The QB1 is accustomed to the offense flowing through him and he might balk at a play call in a critical situation if it’s designed to put the ball in the hands of a different playmaker.
That’s why there was some second-guessing in Week 2 when McCaffrey got the ball on a direct snap from the Wildcat formation in a fourth-and-1 situation with the game on the line and Newton on the field. While the foot injury Newton aggravated during the game could have played a role in the play call, the Panthers‘ decision to put it in the hands of their RB1 instead of their QB1 certainly raised eyebrows at the time, especially when it didn’t produce a winning result, as McCaffrey was stopped short of a first down on the play.
Looking back at that play four weeks later, though, I have to say it’s hard to argue with putting the ball in the hands of your best player in that critical situation. Yes, McCaffrey is undoubtedly the Panthers‘ franchise player right now, as he’s displayed in particularly strong fashion while Newton recovers.
With Newton on the sideline nursing his injury, it has been easy for Turner to transition the offense to a No. 22-led unit with Newton’s backup, Allen, positioned in a supporting role. That’s not a knock on Allen. There’s just no denying the former undrafted free-agent signee is in more of a game-manager role as the team’s QB1. Despite his unbeaten record in 2019 (3-0), he has averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt with a 1:0 TD-to-INT ratio over the past two games. In addition, he has coughed up three giveaways and taken six sacks during that span, which isn’t quite indicative of franchise-caliber play at the position.
That said, the Panthers are undefeated with Allen as their QB1. They’re averaging more points (29.3 to 20.5), more yards (385.0 to 347.5) and sport an improved third-down percentage (41.7 to 32.0) since Newton left the lineup and the team placed a greater emphasis on getting the ball to McCaffrey, who has responded by putting up historic numbers that have thrust him squarely into the MVP race.
McCaffrey’s 866 scrimmage yards are the second-most through a team’s first five games of the season since 1950 (he trails only Jim Brown, who had 988 in 1963). His production through five games also compares favorably to the last three running backs to win the NFL MVP award:
McCaffrey (2019): 136 touches, 866 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns.
Adrian Peterson (2012): 109 touches, 499 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns.
LaDainian Tomlinson (2006): 136 touches, 581 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns.
Shaun Alexander (2005): 115 touches, 605 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns.
With that in mind, the best-case scenario for the Panthers is to have a healthy Newton return to action with an open mind toward playing a complementary role on offense. I know it is hard to expect a former MVP to take on a managerial position in an offense that was originally designed for him to transition from being a dual-threat to a traditional pocket passer. Considering Newton’s struggles as a passer, though, the Panthers might even want to consider utilizing him in his original capacity as a unique offensive weapon who will tote the rock and worry less about his long-term prospects as a traditional quarterback.
That suggestion might sound crazy based on Newton’s injury history, but he’s not good enough as a pocket passer to follow the Tom Brady or Drew Brees plan to age gracefully at the position. With a contract that runs through the 2020 season, the Panthers would be wise to play him like the single-wing threat that he was in his prime while continuing to build the offense around their franchise player at running back.
2) Russ for MVP? I know it’s too early to name an MVP for the 2019 campaign, but if Russell Wilson continues to play at this level, he has to walk away with the hardware at the end of the season. The five-time Pro Bowl selectee leads the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (12:0) and passer rating (126.3), while ranking second in completion percentage (73.1) and third in pass yards per attempt (9.0).
Think about that. Wilson is the league leader in passing touchdowns (12) despite playing in a run-first offense (only two teams that have played five games have attempted fewer passes than Seattle) that averages 30.8 rushing attempts a game (fourth-most in the NFL). Not to mention, Wilson’s completion percentage and yards per attempt position him as a contender to become the second quarterback in NFL history to finish a season with a 70-plus percent completion rate and an average of nine-plus yards per pass attempt. The only QB to accomplish the feat — Joe Montana in 1989 — posted those marks during a season in which he captured the NFL MVP and Super Bowl XXIV MVP awards.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I’m impressed with Wilson’s poise, awareness and overall playmaking ability. The veteran consistently makes spectacular plays from the pocket and on the fringes. Most importantly, he doesn’t take unnecessary risks but at the same avoids falling into the timid, game-manager trap that prevents some quarterbacks from thriving as playmakers.
The Seahawks‘ QB leads the NFL with a 52.3 percent completion rate on deep passes since the start of last season. He also ranks first in passer rating (132.6), yards per attempt (17.6) and TD rate (19.3%) on deep passes over the span. In addition, Wilson leads the NFL in “dimes” (completion traveling 30-plus air yards into a tight window that consists of less than one yard of target separation) with 20 since the beginning of the 2018 campaign.
That’s the kind of production and dominance you would expect from an MVP candidate. Considering Wilson is ringing up big numbers while playing in an offense that limits his opportunities with a run-heavy emphasis and lacks a true No. 1 receiver on the perimeter, it is time for No. 3 to finally get the respect he deserves as an MVP-caliber player thriving in his assigned role.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.