Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at one wildly impressive rookie ...
The best quarterbacks in the NFL can adjust to the adjustments opposing coordinators throw at them throughout the season. The chess match between passer and defensive play-caller makes for an interesting watch, particularly when a rookie immediately shows the ability to adapt to the ever-changing league landscape.
As I look at C.J. Stroud's seamless transition from No. 2 overall pick to week-defining star, I am blown away by the young signal-caller's rapid ascension. The Ohio State product has exceeded expectations as a first-year starter for the Houston Texans, exuding the confidence and composure of a 10-year veteran with a Super Bowl ring. Most importantly, Stroud has flourished as a franchise quarterback on and off the field, displaying the talent of a Pro Bowler and the leadership skills of a champion for a team that was expected to languish in the cellar in 2023. Halfway through the regular season, Houston is squarely in the playoff race at 4-4. DeMeco Ryans deserves immense credit for hitting the ground running in his debut campaign as a head coach. And the Ryans-Stroud combo looks poised to lift this franchise back up after a rough stretch of seasons. Shoot, the Texans are already one win away from posting their highest win total since 2019! And it sure looks like they have the most coveted commodity in the NFL: a true franchise quarterback.
Eight games into his professional career, Stroud ranks third in passing yards per game (283.8), third in yards per attempt (8.1) and fourth in passer rating (102.9), boasting an astonishing 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Let those numbers marinate a bit. The 22-year-old passer who spent the pre-draft process fending off questions regarding his cognitive processing skills has been torching NFL defenses with surgical precision, having just shredded the Buccaneers for a rookie-record 470 yards and five touchdowns in a thrilling come-from-behind win. Stroud has elevated an unheralded cast of playmakers on the perimeter with jaw-dropping throws into tight windows. The anticipation, awareness and accuracy are unexpected for a first-year player acclimating to the speed of the pro game and the complexities of NFL defenses.
Perhaps we should have known Stroud would be a real one when Ryans effusively praised the rookie over the summer.
"The thing that has impressed me the most is his dedication to being as best as he could possibly be," Ryans said, via On3. "He puts the work -- and not only when he's here, of course. Everybody does that. That's given. But what you see about CJ, the work that and the preparation that he does when he's not here. He's a true football junkie. He loves football, always watching football, always asking for extra cut-ups from our coaches. I'm just impressed with the mental part of him and just how much he loves the game of football."
It is rare for an NFL coach to wax so poetic about a rookie quarterback before even watching him perform in a pro game, but the first-time head coach sensed that he had a special player on his hands after seeing Stroud practice in minicamps and OTAs. Fast-forward to the middle of the 2023 regular season, and the entire football world appreciates how Stroud has quickly mastered subtle nuances of the game, enabling him to perform at a superstar level.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing, though, which is actually part of the allure.
After taking the league by storm in his first four games as a Texan -- making professional quarterbacking look easy with a 100.6 passer rating -- Stroud hit a rough patch in Weeks 5-8. Over that three-game span (Houston had a bye in Week 7), Stroud's passer rating sat down at 84.8 and the Texans sputtered, with the team losing two of three games. But that's what made last Sunday's megastar showing in Houston's 39-37 win over Tampa Bay so impressive.
It appeared the book was out on the rookie and the league had adjusted to his hot start. Then Stroud adjusted to the adjustment and eviscerated Todd Bowles' aggressive pressure schemes. Stroud learned from his struggles against some veteran-laden defenses and bounced back in a major way, completely flummoxing an experienced Tampa Bay D. Whether having his squad attack with pressure or sit back in coverage, Bowles could not disrupt Stroud's rhythm. The numbers speak for themselves: Connecting on 30 of his 42 passes (71.4 percent), Stroud averaged a whopping 11.2 yards per attempt, completing passes to seven different receivers, with three of them eclipsing the 100-yard mark. As the cherry on top, Stroud guided the Texans on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the game's final minute to log the win.
During this debut campaign that has Stroud as the heavy favorite to take home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, the youngster has shown off the full arsenal. From the pinpoint passing to every quadrant on the field to timely impromptu playmaking on the move, he's displayed every tool on the utility belt. But the resiliency and adaptation that Stroud showcased might be the most important trait of all. This is a tough league. Failure happens. But that ability to overcome setbacks and thrive again is what the great ones possess.
AFC North race: Ranking four contenders
You expect all NFL coaches and players to tout their respective divisions as the league's toughest. But John Harbaugh's assessment of the AFC North from earlier this week is tough to disagree with.
"This is a great division," the Baltimore Ravens coach said on Monday. "There's no doubt it's the best division, it's proven."
With all four teams at least two games over .500 and currently holding a playoff slot, how can you argue with the man?
"It would be just terrible if everybody was not a good team in our division," Harbaugh quipped.
Though Harbaugh's Ravens sit atop the division with a 7-2 record, the Bengals, Browns and Steelers are all nipping at Baltimore's heels with 5-3 marks. And the next three weeks provide a divisional round robin of sorts, with AFC North showdowns aplenty:
Given all these the high-stakes rivalry bouts on the horizon, this is the perfect time to analyze each team within the league's best division to surmise how the AFC North could shake out. After scouring the tape, here is my pecking order, along with one strength and weakness for each team.
NOTE: All betting lines -- listed next to each team's record -- are courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook and are current as of 7 p.m. ET on Friday, Nov. 10.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: As I touched on last week, the Ravens' top-ranked scoring defense could carry the squad to the championship rounds without major contributions from the offense. Defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald has tailored an ultra-aggressive scheme around the unique talents of his top players without exposing their deficiencies. In addition, he has turned up the heat on opponents with clever blitz tactics and simulated pressures that leave quarterbacks dazed and confused in the pocket. With a collection of ballhawks and turnover bandits roaming the field, Baltimore's defense can tilt the field and quickly change any game's momentum with a big play.
POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Despite the recent success of Baltimore's offense and the re-emergence of Lamar Jackson as an MVP candidate, the questions about the unit will persist until it flourishes in the postseason tournament. Clearly, the Ravens are still getting used to first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken's scheme. The passing game, in particular, must be a factor because future opponents will undoubtedly look to take away the running game and force Jackson to rely on a talented but inconsistent receiving corps. If Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor cannot deliver when it counts, Baltimore could fall short of its lofty goals despite the roster's immense talent and potential.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Joe Burrow is a force multiplier with an infectious swagger that gives the Bengals enough confidence to overcome any challenge. The gunslinger has fully recovered from his calf injury, exhibiting the pinpoint accuracy and tight-window throwing prowess that separates him from others. Moreover, his connection with the star-studded playmakers on the perimeter (Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd) gives Cincinnati the ability to hang 40-plus points on any opponent.
POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: The Bengals' defense continues to make strides, but the unit still ranks as the weak link in the team's potential championship chain. As defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo attempts to blend a collection of young defenders into the lineup with a handful of veteran studs with championship-level experience and expertise (SEE: Logan Wilson, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard), the defense is experiencing growing pains that could derail a possible championship run. Although the timely turnovers and impactful splash plays (sacks, tackles for loss, passes defensed) make up for the shoddy execution, the defense must coalesce for the Bengals to retain the division crown for a third straight year.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has assembled a dynamic defense with the talent and scheme to completely overwhelm opponents. The Browns' destructive front and fleet-footed secondary wreak havoc on foes unable to handle a rare combination of speed, power and strength. In addition, the unit's nastiness and physicality result in persistent beatdowns that make quarterbacks, rushers and pass catchers want to curl up in the corner and hide. With few offenses possessing the offensive line to neutralize Myles Garrett and Co. and the explosive playmakers to challenge Denzel Ward and his secondary mates, the Browns' D is the nightmare that no one wants to confront.
POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Deshaun Watson has yet to come anywhere near living up to his fully guaranteed, $230 million contract. The veteran has struggled with accuracy, consistency and playmaking since his arrival last season. Moreover, Watson's limitations have prevented Cleveland from expanding an offense boasting firepower on the perimeter. Perhaps the veteran can rediscover his all-star form, but the Browns will not maximize their potential until they get better quarterback play.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Credit Mike Tomlin for finding ways to win with a flawed team. The future Hall of Fame coach has relied on his stingy defense and opportunistic offense to piecemeal wins on an assortment of turnovers and timely big plays. The Steelers' overall grit and resilience -- combined with a disruptive defense -- have helped the team chalk up Ws despite serious limitations. With T.J. Watt and Co. capable of holding down opposing attacks, the Steelers simply need a big play or two from the scattershot offense to climb the ranks as a playoff contender.
POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Amazingly, Pittsburgh sits at 5-3 despite being outgained on the yardage front in every single game. The Steelers' offense has struggled to move the ball and put points on the board under the direction of coordinator Matt Canada. The much-maligned play-caller has been unable to create a consistent flow with Kenny Pickett in the former first-round pick's sophomore season. While some play designs have been problematic, the blocking at the point of attack and overall execution suggest Pittsburgh's issues extend beyond the play-calling booth. Until the offense finds its groove and rhythm, the Steelers will have a tough time scratching out wins against elite competition down the stretch.