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 two genuine juggernauts ...
The midseason mark is the perfect time to separate NFL contenders from pretenders. Admittedly, it's quite difficult to determine which teams are actually good in a season that's seen dramatic upsets on a weekly basis, with the most recent example being the Dolphins' 22-10 stifling of the Ravens on Thursday night. But generally speaking, the best squads are the ones that are consistent in all three phases of the game.
Sure, there is plenty of time for teams to shore up their weak spots and make enough improvements to surge up the charts, but I have been around the league long enough to know that the steadiest teams throughout the course of the season tend to be the ones that ultimately thrive in January and February.
That's why I am all in on the Super Bowl chances of the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans.
Despite injuries to star players and random issues that have forced Arizona and Tennessee to adjust and adapt to challenging circumstances, the Cardinals and Titans are the best teams in their respective conferences. Given how they've both performed over the first half of the 2021 campaign, no one should question either team's current grip on a No. 1 playoff seed. Regardless of anybody's preconceived notions, these are two bona fide title contenders.
Currently sitting atop their respective conferences, the 8-1 Cards and 7-2 Titans have a chance to take the shortcut to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI. Remember, the NFL changed the playoff format prior to last season, expanding the overall postseason field to 14 teams while granting only the two No. 1 seeds a first-round bye. For the Cardinals and Titans, automatic passage through Wild Card Weekend would not only give them additional rest, but it could help some of their star power return to action before the start of tournament play (see: J.J. Watt and Derrick Henry).
Before I get too far ahead of myself, though, let's focus on the here and now -- and why these teams are the NFL's best of the best at midseason.
The Cardinals are a unique outfit that combines a high-powered offense with a suffocating defense, enabling them to win games in a variety of ways. With Kyler Murray at the helm -- and possibly returning to the field Sunday vs. Carolina after missing last week's win over San Francisco with an ankle injury -- the Cardinals can explode for 30-plus points on any opponent utilizing Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid attack, which stresses the defense at every turn. DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore and Zach Ertz make it nearly impossible to match up with Arizona's pass-catching personnel in spread formations, but the unit retains some physicality and toughness with a heavy hitter like James Conner thriving in the backfield as a runner-receiver boasting an NFL-best 11 touchdowns.
As the team blends finesse with power on offense, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has quietly constructed a juggernaut on defense with the capacity to destroy blocking schemes with exotic pressures. Considering Joseph also has a number of hybrid defenders with diverse skill sets ( Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins and Budda Baker), Arizona can throw out a variety of tactics at opponents to snuff out their favorite offensive concepts. Most importantly, these Cards have an edge and grittiness to them that shows up in their hard-hitting style between the lines. If Joseph's charges are unable to out-scheme their opponents, they can beat them up with big hits and choke-outs down the field.
All in all, Arizona's well-roundedness is reflected in the fact that the team ranks top five in scoring offense, total offense, scoring defense and total defense. Not too shabby.
The Titans are also true contenders, relying on a rough-and-rugged playing style built on a hard-nosed running game and a "beat 'em up" defense. Although Mike Vrabel has built a team that feels like a throwback to the 1980s, Tennessee's old-school style works in a pass-centric league littered with teams embracing a finesse approach on both sides of the ball. The Titans' game plan in recent seasons has revolved around beastly back Derrick Henry, who's now on the shelf for the next month or two. Can Tennessee continue to thrive without its 247-pound freight train? I believe so.
Sure, this changes how the Titans normally do business, but the threat of running the ball between the tackles with an "RBBC" (running back by committee) crew that features Adrian Peterson, Jeremy McNichols and D'Onta Foreman is still enough to make opponents drop an additional defender into the box. Although the group's collective talent can't compete with that of "King Henry," it is all about the toughness and persistence displayed by Tennessee's offense as a unit. Vrabel wants to pummel opponents at every turn, and his team's dedication to the ground game is a testament to that mindset. The Titans repeatedly punch you in the mouth and force you to commit to stopping the run. Once that happens, they go for the jugular in the air game, with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones snagging balls from Ryan Tannehill on a variety of play-action passes.
Defensively, Tennessee wants to unleash the "goons" to thump runners and receivers all over the field. With a menacing front line featuring Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree, the Titans can get after the quarterback without bringing additional rushers from the second level. That said, defensive coordinator Shane Bowen does not mind dialing up pressure, either. Tennessee will mix and match blitzes with traditional coverage to keep opponents off balance. To pull this off, the Titans rely on a blue-collar secondary comprised of high-IQ playmakers with outstanding instincts and awareness. Safety Kevin Byard sets the tone as an instinctive traffic cop with the awareness and ball skills to feast on the errant throws forced by pressure. Tennessee's defensive approach is not always pretty, but this unit has found a way to make enough plays to chalk up wins against good teams.
In mid-November, plenty of teams are discussed as Super Bowl contenders, but I have a really hot take: The two teams currently holding the No. 1 seeds are the top teams in their respective conferences.
NFL trend: The return of the big back
Perhaps it is merely a coincidence, but it looks like bigger is better in today's NFL, particularly when it comes to the running back position. A quick glance at the current top five rushers suggests the league is back to playing big-boy football with heavyweights coveted in the backfield.
Derrick Henry (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), Jonathan Taylor (5-10, 226 pounds), Nick Chubb (5-11, 227 pounds), Joe Mixon (6-1, 220 pounds) and Ezekiel Elliott (6-foot, 228 pounds) are the top five RBs in rushing yards, with each tallying 600-plus rushing yards while also averaging at least 4.2 yards per carry and accounting for at least 30 first downs on the ground. With each also logging at least 15.6 attempts per game, the league could be trending back toward the presence of a workhorse runner with the size, strength and stamina to carry the load as an RB1.
Sure, there are plenty of scat backs who are anchoring their respective team's rushing attacks. But honestly, there is a difference between tackling a 200-pounder and a big-bodied bruiser between the tackles. Alabama head coach Nick Saban once told me, "There is a reason why they do not schedule title fights between heavyweights and lightweights." Yep. That's due to the significant advantages bigger fighters would enjoy over smaller ones in the ring, from raw size and length to pure punching power.
The same is true on the football field, with offensive coordinators drawing up blocking schemes designed to force cornerbacks and safeties to tackle running backs on the perimeter. As a player, I remember going up against the Oilers with Eddie George serving as their RB1. Jeff Fisher's team would instruct the wide receivers to block the safeties and dare the unblocked cornerbacks to tackle the 6-3, 235-pounder in space. The game of chicken was not only a test of courage, but it required me to rely on technique to make solid tackles on a big, physical runner building momentum as he turned the corner. Making a ton of tackles on that kind of back over 60 minutes is not fun, and plenty of coaches are playing party pooper by forcing a bunch of cover corners to embrace the physical part of the game. Remember: League rules have reduced padded practices and limited contact within workouts in recent years, making it harder for defenders to prepare for collisions against punishing runners looking to deliver blows.
With more teams featuring big backs in the running game, the size and strength advantages will continue to make life miserable for defensive backs around the league.
A secret weapon no more: Man-match coverage
It does not take long for great ideas to circulate around the league with coaching staffs co-opting strategies from winning game plans. The Broncos' success against the Cowboys' No. 1-ranked offense in Week 9 will undoubtedly lead others to copy their pressure tactics and coverage schemes.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Broncos' 30-16 upset, I believe the man-match scheme that Denver head coach Vic Fangio utilized to slow down the Cowboys could show up on game plans around the league. The scheme, which was popularized by Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, is a matchup zone with defenders assigned to play MEG coverage (an acronym for man coverage everywhere they go) on outside receivers, with slot defenders playing man coverage on all vertical and outbreaking routes while switching on in-breaking routes like shallow crossers and digs (deep square-ins). In addition, a hole defender is positioned over the middle of the field. In theory, a defender delivers his assigned receiver to the hole player and replaces the hole player in the middle when he makes a switch. The tactic plays out like a matchup zone in basketball, with defenders switching on picks and down screens to eliminate backdoor layups.
The beauty of man-match is that is appears complex to the quarterback, but is relatively simple to execute. The defense can feature different hole players (linebackers or safeties) depending on the matchup and the pre-snap disguise. As a result, the picture becomes a little fuzzy for quarterbacks attempting to diagnose a coverage that looks like old-school man-to-man.
Against the Cowboys, the Broncos played the coverage to perfection, with Fangio content to feature a four-man rush with seven defenders in coverage. With a plus-two equation against the pass (seven defenders vs. five eligible receivers), the Broncos were able to protect the post with a deep-middle defender while assigning another defender to sit in the hole. Fangio switched up the designated hole and post defenders to keep Dak Prescott guessing, while also putting his players in the best position to leverage receivers running across the field. Given the extra bodies roaming between the hashes, the veteran quarterback was forced to make low-percentage throws to receivers outside of the numbers or down the field.
The clever strategy not only frustrated No. 4, but the extensive utilization of man coverage enabled the Broncos to put extra defenders near the box to contain Dallas RBs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, too. With defenders assigned to cover tight ends and running backs, the Broncos were able to get a free hitter to the ball with crack-and-replace principles (receiver blocks a defender and the coverage defender fills the gap as a replacement) complementing their gap fits.
The Cowboys' stinker against the Broncos will undoubtedly lead their future opponents to scour the tape looking for tactics that could hurt Dak and Co. going forward. Do not be surprised if you see more teams feature a little man-match coverage to keep the Dallas offense under wraps.
Howell vs. Pickett: Takeaways from QB showcase
While many NFL fans spent Thursday night tuned in to the Dolphins' upset of the Ravens, much of the scouting community was watching a pair of quarterback prospects battle it out in Pittsburgh. North Carolina's Sam Howell and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett squared off in an ACC matchup that allowed NFL talent evaluators to check out what could be the cream of the QB crop in the 2022 draft class.
Howell has long been hailed as one of the leading QB1 candidates, showcasing his talents as a quick-rhythm passer who possesses pinpoint accuracy and outstanding anticipation ever since his freshman year in 2019. The 6-foot-1 1/4, 220-pound signal-caller (school measurements) tosses the ball around like a pass-first point guard running the fast break. Part of his success a season ago was fueled by blue-chip talents at each of the perimeter positions. He took advantage of playing with NFL draftees at running back (Javonte Williams and Michael Carter) and wide receiver (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome) to ring up 3,586 pass yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
This year, the gunslinger's numbers are down with a new supporting cast that is just beginning to figure out how to play at a high level. Howell got off to a slow start while pressing to make big plays. This was evident in the Tar Heels' season-opening loss to Virginia Tech, when he completed 17 of 32 passes for 208 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. That performance sent his stock tumbling as he fell short of expectations and evaluators wondered if he could get it done without NFL-caliber talent around him.
Since that point, Howell's play has improved, as he has shown off more athleticism and running skills with the ball in his hands. While he is not a Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen clone, the junior has flashed enough mobility to play in a movement-based scheme as a pro. He could thrive in the type of offense that has enabled Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield to showcase their skills.
Against Pittsburgh on Thursday night, Howell put together a solid outing. He threw the ball with touch, timing and precision while facing an ultra-aggressive defense that put persistent pressure on him within the pocket. The constant harassment resulted in five sacks, but the Tar Heels' QB1 did not crack under the pressure. Howell's toughness and grit should earn him a few points when scouts review the tape and assess his overall performance. While the stat line (22 of 33 passing for 296 yards with two touchdowns and an interception) could be considered modest by college football standards, he flashed enough ability as a pocket passer to confirm his status as a potential top pick next year should he choose to move on to the next level.
As for Pickett, he's the hottest quarterback prospect on the board, having led the Panthers into ACC title game contention. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound fifth-year senior has been on fire this season, connecting on 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,517 yards with 32 touchdowns and four interceptions.
In his fourth season as a full-time starter, Pickett has a tremendous feel for the game. His dramatic surge in production this year will lead to questions about whether he's a one-year wonder, but we need to accept the fact that it is possible for a quarterback with a 38:24 touchdown-to-interception ratio from 2018-2020 to improve dramatically as a senior when the game slows down due to experience and expertise.
As a rhythm throw with B+ arm strength, Pickett is like an off-speed pitcher who has mastered the art of painting the corners with his ball placement. He wins downs due to his accuracy, and old-school scouts will certainly give him high marks for his consistency in pounding the strike zone.
Against North Carolina, Pickett showed his potential as a rhythm passer in a ball-control offense. Pickett connected on 25 of 43 passes for 346 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He started the game with a series of throws that enabled the Panthers to run out to a 17-point lead. Pickett attacked the defense from the jump and his aggressiveness was rewarded with an early cushion that put the Tar Heels in a hole.
From a scouting perspective, I thought Pickett's first-half performance was exactly what you wanted from an emerging QB prospect. In addition, the Panthers' star displayed the intelligence, awareness and focus that future starters need to succeed in big games.
The second half featured a few mistakes, including an interception that set up a game-tying Tar Heels TD drive in the fourth quarter, but Pickett's response in overtime let the scouting community know that he was not afraid of the moment or the pressure of having to deliver in a big spot. Those traits are significant in the evaluation process. He completed a pair of passes -- one for a TD -- and ran for a first down in the extra period, exhibiting confidence and poise that could earn him high marks come draft season.
I am not quite ready to lock Pickett in as a first-round pick, but I can certainly see why some are touting him as the Joe Burrow of the 2022 class. He's an experienced player with an intriguing set of tools, and that could give him a chance to succeed as a starter in the league.