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 how to repair a playoff hopeful's beleaguered offense ...
Is it time for Bears coach Matt Nagy to give up play-calling duties?
That's the question floating around the Windy City with Chicago's offense continuing to sputter. Although the team is in a prime position to snag a playoff berth with a 5-2 mark near the midpoint of the season, it is hard to consider the Monsters of the Midway legitimate contenders with a punchless offense that ranks 27th in the league in points per game (19.7). It's a credit to the stinginess of Nagy's defense that the Bears are the only above-.500 team among the six squads that average fewer than 20 points per game. The five other teams are a putrid 7-26 combined this season.
The Bears have regressed from a unit that averaged 26.3 points per game in 2018 (fourth best in the NFC) to one that has posted just 18.2 points per game since the start of last season. The drastic decline prompted Nagy to bench former first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky in favor of 2020 trade acquisition Nick Foles a month ago, but Foles hasn't provided the lift fans were hoping for, as Chicago has failed to reach 24 points in each of his four starts. In fact, the Bears could only muster a season-low 10 points in a lopsided Week 7 loss to the Rams.
Nagy acknowledged this week that he's considered relinquishing the play-calling to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, but added: "Right now, where we're at, that's not where we think it's at, but at the same point in time, I'll always continue each week to look at it."
While I certainly understand the concern over the Bears' offense based on its inconsistent passing game and almost non-existent rushing attack (84.1 rush YPG, ranks last in the NFL), I still believe Nagy is the best man to dig the offense out of the hole as the play-caller. The former Arena League quarterback was the driving force of the offense's resurgence during his first season on the job and he has enough weaponry at his disposal to get the unit back on track in 2020. Such a dramatic turnaround will require Nagy to conduct an intensive self-scout on his squad and play-calling tendencies, but it can be done if he enters the process with an open mind.
After taking some time to study the All-22 Coaches Film of the Bears, here are four things they can do to get back on track on offense:
1) Increase the tempo. Based on my review of the tape, Foles and the Bears play better when they are operating at a quicker pace. The quarterback appears to have a better feel for the game when he has more control of the offense at the line of scrimmage, and the faster tempo puts more of the responsibility on No. 9 to make things happen.
By utilizing the no-huddle approach, the Bears are able to get their quarterback into a rhythm by featuring more layups on the menu, leading to a string of completions that raise his confidence. In addition, the frenetic pace forces opponents into simplified looks that alleviates some of the pressure on the offensive line. Defensive coordinators are reluctant to dial up heavy pressure against a no-huddle offense due to communication concerns and potential mental errors. The reduction of blitzes should make it easier for the offensive line to sort out its responsibilities in pass protection to keep Foles upright in the pocket.
Operating at a faster tempo can also help to nullify the pass rush with defensive linemen unable to rotate in and out between plays. If the Bears rip off three or four first downs in a row, the pass rush could become a non-factor due to fatigue, giving the offensive line a chance to seize control of the line of scrimmage.
2) Cut out the cute plays. Nagy's innovative play calls are fun to watch from my couch. Sometimes his trickery disrupts the flow of the offense, though. The reverses, shovel passes and quick pitches show creativity, but the Bears are at their best when they stick to the basics. The lack of production from their misdirection and deception tactics frequently leaves the Bears behind the chains or completely destroys the rhythm of the drive.
Nagy has to resist the urge to play trick 'em football and focus on beating opponents with consistent execution from a smaller menu of plays. Whether it is throwing more quick passes to the perimeter against soft coverage or featuring a diverse screen game, the Bears can get better results by sticking to their core plays.
The thought of cutting back on the fun plays will certainly test the discipline and patience of an innovative coach, but Nagy must dial it back to have any chance of getting the offense back on track.
3) Find ways to let Allen Robinson make plays. The Bears have done a decent job of feeding Robinson -- he ranks fourth in the league in targets (70) and eighth in the league in receptions (44) -- but I wouldn't be opposed to getting him the ball even more, especially in spaces where he can make a play after the catch (he's averaging just 7.8 yards per target, ranking 74th in the NFL). It's hard for some creative coaches to prioritize players over plays, but Nagy can jumpstart the Bears' offense by simply putting the ball in the hands of his best players and letting them go to work. This is certainly easier said than done depending on the defense's tactics, but the Bears will score more points and produce more yards when their best players get more touches.
Surveying the roster, Robinson should be the top priority on the call sheet as the team's most dynamic playmaker. He is a natural WR1 with the size, strength and ball skills to dominate on the perimeter. Nagy must give him enough chances to make his mark in the passing game. Whether he tosses Robinson more hitches and curls on the outside to increase his touch count or encourages Foles to throw the back-shoulder fade to him whenever he spots a favorable one-on-one matchup, the Bears' top priority should revolve around getting No. 12 the ball early and often.
If Robinson can make a big impact as the team's No. 1 receiver, it will set the table for others to eat when opponents tilt their coverage in Robinson's direction. This will make the game easier for Foles while enabling Darnell Mooney, Anthony Miller and Jimmy Graham to make better contributions as complementary weapons.
4) Stick with the run. While the Bears rank dead last in rush yards per game (84.1), Nagy can't abandon the running game. He needs to threaten the defense with enough runs to prevent opponents from sending heavy pressure at Foles or loading up in coverage. The Bears are currently operating with a 65:35 pass-run ratio and the pass-centric approach exposes the weaknesses of the team. The offensive line isn't good enough to consistently protect the quarterback when he's constantly dropping back. The overexposure for Foles ultimately leads to too many turnovers and miscues.
Nagy must exhibit more patience with the run despite the pedestrian results because it still can enable the Bears to control the tempo and dictate the terms to the defense. Perhaps he takes a more spontaneous approach with the running game and calls runs on random downs (second-and-medium or second-and-long) to see if he can pop a big gainer against a defense sitting on the pass.
From a personnel standpoint, David Montgomery (3.7 yards per carry, one rush TD) needs to be more effective as the RB1. He's not getting it done as a lead back and the Bears have to determine how to best utilize him to get at least moderate production from the ground game. Cordarrelle Patterson has been effective in some spots, but it is too easy for the defense to detect how he'll be used due to the small selection of plays in which he touches the ball.
As tempting as it might be to air it out, Nagy can't turn every game into a seven-on-seven competition and expect better results.
DINK AND DUNK
Xavier Rhodes' renaissance: If you haven't paid close attention to the Colts' defense, you're missing out on one of the most impressive bounce-back campaigns in recent memory. After falling from the ranks of the elite due to a dismal 2019 campaign, Xavier Rhodes is performing like a Tier 1 player with a chance to reclaim his crown as the league's premier shutdown corner.
Through six games, Rhodes is holding opponents to a 44.4 percent completion rate (better than Jalen Ramsey's 53.1 percent and Stephon Gilmore's 55.6 percent) while tallying eight passes defensed and a pair of interceptions, per Next Gen Stats. Most impressively, the former All-Pro has reemerged as an eraser while transitioning into a new scheme that's placed a greater emphasis on zone coverage than the man-heavy system that showcased his talents as an aggressive bump-and-run corner during his seven seasons with the Vikings.
The quick acclimation to the Colts' Tampa 2 scheme could be attributed to Rhodes' experience as a rookie in a similar system under then-Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. Colts defensive backs coach Alan Williams was a part of the Vikings' coaching staff that tutored Rhodes during his rookie season. Their reunion and the return to a familiar system have enabled the veteran to focus on the basics in repairing his game.
From footwork to hash-split awareness and route recognition, Rhodes has been able to refine his fundamentals while playing in a scheme that enables him to rely on his experience and instincts to make plays. With the veteran comfortable and playing at a high level, the Colts' defense is benefitting from the reemergence of a shutdown corner settling in on the island.
Trade boosts the Lions' playoff chances: Credit Bob Quinn for making a big move before next week's trade deadline to help his defense. The embattled general manager sent the Cowboys a conditional sixth-round draft pick in exchange for defensive end Everson Griffen. The four-time Pro Bowl selectee gives coach Matt Patricia a veteran player to fortify a front line that has struggled to get to the quarterback.
The Lions are tied for 28th in the league in sacks with eight. Defensive ends Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara have combined for six of those sacks, but Detroit needed another playmaker to beef up the front line and enhance the defense's chances of winning with four-man rushes. Enter Griffen, who has tallied 2.5 sacks and 12 hurries in seven games this season.
As a dynamic pass rusher with the capacity to play inside or outside, Griffen gives Patricia a queen on the chessboard to create and exploit mismatches at the line of scrimmage. The 32-year-old remains one of the league's better pass rushers with a game built on speed, quickness and a non-stop motor. Griffen overwhelms blockers with a speed rush and hesitation spin move that reminds me of four-time NBA MVP LeBron James driving to the hole.
With most offensive tackles unable to withstand Griffen's relentless approach, the veteran routinely notches sacks on extra-effort plays. Given that the Lions have been able to hang tough with opponents while lacking a consistent pass rush, the addition of an energetic rusher could push them over the top as a contender for a playoff spot down the stretch.
Much-needed help is on the way for Seahawks: Like the Lions, Seattle filled a major void this week, acquiring Carlos Dunlap via a trade with the Bengals. The 11th-year pro gives Pete Carroll a proven pass rusher to insert into the lineup at the Leo position. Moreover, Dunlap gives them a long, rangy athlete with the requisite traits to play on the edge.
"Carlos has been a very, very consistent player for a long time," Carroll told the media after the move was announced, per the Seahawks' official website. "He's always been fast, always been athletic, he still moves his feet well and gets off the rock and knows exactly how to play the spot that we want to play him in. Really it was exciting to share that with him, he was concerned to know how we would play him at all, so that was good for him to hear.
"... This is an outside guy, he's classically what you're looking for as an edge rusher. ... There are always times you're mixing schemes and you're doing things to disguise stuff and all of that. He's got the ability to (move inside) but that's not what we're bringing him here to do."
The Seahawks desperately needed an edge rusher to add some firepower to a defense that's tallied just nine sacks in six games. The lack of pressure from the front four prompted Carroll to utilize All-Pro safety Jamal Adams as the Seahawks' designated pass rusher early this season. The fourth-year pro relentlessly attacked quarterbacks from a box alignment on a variety of five-man pressures off the edge. Despite the successful results (Adams notched two sacks and three tackles for loss in the first two games of the season), the Seahawks needed a front-line presence to fill out their lineup, particularly with Adams being sidelined with a groin injury for the past three games.
Dunlap heads to the Pacific Northwest with 82.5 career sacks and seven straight seasons with at least 7.5 sacks on his resume. Although he hasn't posted double-digit sacks since 2015 (when he recorded 13.5 sacks and 34 QB hits), he has tallied at least 21 QB hits in each of the last four seasons. If Dunlap gives the Seahawks a persistent presence off the edge, he will undoubtedly boost a defense that is on pace (479.2 yards allowed per game) to finish as the worst in the Super Bowl era.
1) Is Davante Adams the league's best route runner? If you asked my NFL Network colleague James Jones for his list of the NFL's best route runners, he would undoubtedly include Adams in the conversation. Jones might be influenced by his love of the Green Bay Packers, but I can't dispute his opinion after taking a long, hard look at Adams' game this season.
The seventh-year pro is like Picasso on the field, painting masterpieces with spectacular route-running skills. Adams works defensive backs with an array of releases that puts them on their heels before leaving them in the dust with an assortment of tricks at the top of his routes. The crafty receiver displays extraordinary stop-start quickness, balance and body control getting out of breaks. His consistent separation reflects his combination of athleticism and superb technical skills.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from Adams' 13-catch, 196-yard effort against the Houston Texans, I was blown away by the three-time Pro Bowler's ability to get open against any coverage. Whether facing man or zone, Adams found a way to create space from defenders. He not only displays a keen sense of timing but understands where he fits in the route progression. He patiently sets defenders up with a little extra shake-and-bake when he knows he is the second or third read in the progression and it will take Aaron Rodgers more time to find him down the field.
Adams' mastery of that subtle tactic (patience) combined with his vast array of moves makes him a hard matchup, particularly with coach Matt LaFleur moving him around the formation to create more opportunities for him to touch the rock. The Packers will feature No. 17 in the slot or out wide in the spread and empty formations to isolate him on specific defenders while also avoiding brackets and double coverage from opponents. The diverse alignments make it hard for defensive coordinators to get a bead on his whereabouts and enables Adams to enjoy free access all over the field.
Given more space and freedom to showcase his artistry as a route runner, Adams is solidifying his spot as a top-five receiver.
2) Who is Dallas' new QB1? Ben DiNucci is still an unknown to most on the national scene despite making his NFL debut in relief of the injured Andy Dalton last week. The James Madison University product did create a buzz in scouting circles leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, though, and he's about to be introduced to a national audience with the rookie preparing to start in place of Dalton, who remains in the concussion protocol, for the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder finished his career with the Dukes as the Colonial Athletic Association's Offensive Player of the Year after leading the FCS in completion percentage (70.9) while amassing 4,010 yards (3,441 pass yards; 569 rush yards) and 36 total touchdowns as a redshirt senior. The Pittsburgh transfer compiled a 45:18 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 69.7 percent completion rate in 29 games with the Dukes. DiNucci added 16 rushing touchdowns while flashing intriguing skills as a dual-threat playmaker from the pocket.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from his time at JMU, the Cowboys' seventh-round draft pick is a capable quick-rhythm passer with a fast release and quick processing skills. He played the game like a blackjack dealer at a Las Vegas casino, dealing the ball to pass catchers on the perimeter. Despite his ability to thrive as a rhythm passer from the pocket, he adds an element as an improvisational playmaker. DiNucci has an uncanny ability to elude pass rushers while identifying and connecting with receivers down the field. He racked up score after score on a variety of impromptu slip-and-slide throws and scramble tosses near the red zone.
DiNucci's athleticism and improvisational skills add a dimension to the offense with his potential to execute the QB run game. He is an effective zone-read runner with a knack for pulling the ball at the right time, particularly near the goal line when defenses are keying on the running back. With DiNucci displaying credible running skills to complement his raw arm talent, he has the potential to become a unique playmaker with the capacity to throw to either side of the field on the move.
From a critical standpoint, DiNucci's improvisational skills and aggressive mentality can make him a bit of a wild card as a playmaker. He has a tendency to hunt for big plays, and that can lead to turnovers as a pro. As a small-school standout, he was able to get away with some throws that will become pick-sixes in the NFL. He must curb those throws to have success in his new role.
As the temporary starter in Dallas, DiNucci could add some spice to an offense that's struggling with a patchwork offensive line. If he can resist the urge to make hero throws under duress, the rookie has more than enough talent to win games with a five-star supporting cast on the perimeter and in the backfield. That's easier said than done, but we will get a chance to see DiNucci make his mark against the Eagles this weekend with the division title still very much up for grabs.