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 a player who's about to get his first taste of the spotlight ...
We have not reached a now-or-never moment for Jordan Love, but the pressure is on the second-year pro to show he is worthy of the Packers' investment. It's not Love's fault, of course, but Green Bay's decision to trade up for the quarterback in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft sparked a wave of drama that the franchise and its fans have endured for the last couple years.
I'm not sure anyone really knows if Love is ready for this stage. As Packers coach Matt LaFleur said this week, "Well, we'll find out, right?" We can recite his preseason statistics (completed 24 of 35 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown and one interception in two games this past August), but it is hard to assess how well he will perform in a regular-season game against the reigning AFC champions with a five-star quarterback on the other sideline.
Perhaps this is the perfect game for Love to make his debut. The Chiefs' defense has been one of the league's worst this season. Also, it's quite a coincidence that the Packers are facing Patrick Mahomes, whom Love was compared to as a prospect. And interestingly, Green Bay appears to be following a succession plan similar to the one that worked for Mahomes. The Chiefs kept their young quarterback on the sideline for all but one game of his rookie year, so he could learn how to play at the pro level behind the scenes. Andy Reid and Co. encouraged Mahomes to test the limits of his game in practice as the scout team quarterback throughout his first season to help him understand where to draw the line when assessing risk and reward as a playmaker. Daily practice reps against the starting defense helped accelerate the QB's growth and undoubtedly played a role in his sensational first year as The Guy, when he walked away with the MVP trophy.
Unlike Mahomes, Love's had an additional half season to watch and learn. But no, I am not going to proclaim him an MVP candidate without seeing the former Utah State star perform in a full regular-season game. That said, he steps into a situation that should allow him to flourish as a first-time starter. The Packers could be welcoming back LT David Bakhtiari and WRs Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling this week. And the receiving corps should also have Amari Rodgers and Randall Cobb available to create some layup opportunities in the WR screen game.
In the backfield, the Aaron Jones-AJ Dillon combination enables LaFleur to take some pressure off the young quarterback by featuring a ground-and-pound attack to set up a play-action passing game that emphasizes bootlegs and movement throws. This should create high-percentage pass opportunities for Love while also taking advantage of his athleticism on the perimeter. Keep in mind, Love excelled in this area during the preseason, and it would make the game easier for him by cutting the field in half with a series of high/low reads on the menu. In the dropback game, Love is most effective with the quick-rhythm passes that feature a mix of short and intermediate throws, particularly inside the numbers. He repeatedly delivered slants, seams and dig routes on time in August, and LaFleur would be wise to feature those routes early to get the young quarterback into a groove.
Another concept or series of plays that could help Love is the slow screen game on throws to running backs. By mixing in a few of these plays, the Packers can slow down the pass rush while also giving their quarterback an easy pass to complete. With these low-risk throws frequently producing big gains, Green Bay's plan should feature a number of screens to build up the confidence of a 23-year-old in a glaring spotlight.
While Sunday will absolutely be a huge test for Love, his play against the Chiefs should not determine his long-term fate with Green Bay. Brian Gutekunst believed in his talent enough to trade up for him, and the general manager must continue to take a patient approach with Love's development plan. We still don't know what the future holds for Rodgers beyond this season, but he had three years under his belt before he was handed the keys to the offense as Brett Favre's successor. It could take Love a little time to settle in as a potential starter for a team with enough talent to contend.
Whether Love's performance on Sunday is good, bad or just so-so, the Packers cannot let one marquee matchup alter their plans for a second-year pro viewed as the QB1 of the future.
JUSTIN HERBERT: Is book out on QB?
I know Los Angeles Chargers fans do not want to hear this, but the league might have figured out a way to slow down young star Justin Herbert. I am not ready to say this trend will continue for the rest of the season, but defensive coordinators seem to have a plan to flummox the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Studying the Chargers' last two games against the Ravens and Patriots, it appears opponents are utilizing more four-man rush tactics (with seven defenders in coverage) to disrupt the timing of the passing game. Defensive coordinators are featuring a mix of traditional four-man rush schemes and four-man simulated-pressure tactics to keep Herbert guessing in the pocket while throwing a blanket over the receivers on the perimeter. In addition, opponents are playing matchup zones and traditional spot-drop coverages to keep their eyes on No. 10 in the pocket, which allows defenders to make quicker breaks on his throws. The zone-heavy tactics also enable defenses to avoid some of the pick routes that have resulted in big plays for the Chargers' offense.
Keeping seven defenders in coverage gives the defense a numerical advantage against the run (by gaining an additional defender to fill a gap) and pass (two extra defenders against five eligible pass catchers) in critical moments. Also, the extra bodies not only cloud the picture for the second-year quarterback, but they allow teams to switch receivers on crossing routes and jam the middle of the field with cutters (defenders assigned to cut off crossers or lurk between the hashes to discourage throws over the middle).
The Ravens opted to feature more simulated pressures and matchup zones to confuse the young quarterback and disrupt the rhythm that had helped him post a 118.4 passer rating over the previous three games (300.3 pass yards per game, 7.6 pass yards per attempt and 11:0 TD-INT ratio) before their Week 6 matchup. With Baltimore placing a greater emphasis on the coverage instead of the rush, the defense was able to pester Herbert without putting a solid shot on him for most of the day.
The Patriots took a slightly different approach to keep Herbert and the Chargers' passing game under wraps. Bill Belichick deployed more two-deep zone featuring a mix of their traditional man-free coverages with a four-man pass rush and an occasional five-man pressure. Although New England's approach was slightly different than Baltimore's, the constant switching in a man coverage with some zone principles enabled the Patriots to handle the crossing routes without getting picked off by receivers crisscrossing all over the field.
With Herbert's numbers dropping dramatically while facing those tactics over the past two games (209 pass yards per game, 5.7 pass yards per attempt and 3:3 TD-INT ratio), the Chargers are certain to face similar game plans going forward. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi needs to come up with some answers to help L.A.'s young quarterback rediscover his magic. Whether it is a renewed commitment to the running game or adding more screens to the call sheet, the Bolts must force opponents out of these looks to help Herbert find success against the copycat game plans that are on the horizon. How well the Chargers counter these tactics will determine whether they're contenders or pretenders this season.
STEELERS: Rookies sparking turnaround
If you are in the scouting business long enough, you will begin to identify which types of prospects fit the profile for some organizations. The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the teams with a clear vision of who can play for them, and when they select an "OKG" (our kinda guy), it usually works out well for the player and team.
Looking at the Steelers' bounceback effort after a 1-3 start -- winning three straight to get over .500 -- it is apparent that the team's 2021 draft class has not only energized the squad but it has enabled the team to get back to its roots as a blue-collar outfit. Although the Steelers have had draft-day misses like everyone else, the franchise has remained a consistent contender, particularly in the Mike Tomlin era, due to a draft-and-develop approach that has built winning teams with homegrown talent.
If you ask any NFL general manager or head coach about his team-building approach, each will spit out a version of the OKG philosophy. But few stick to the principles like the Steelers. Since back in the days when Chuck Noll was piling up four Lombardi Trophies, the Steelers have been all about acquiring tough, hard-working players with ultra-competitive demeanors. While the size, speed and production might vary, the team's best draft picks typically check off the boxes as hard hat and lunch pail guys.
This year, the decision to draft running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore Jr. has helped the offense turn back the clock and rebrand itself as a smashmouth unit. Although new offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spiced things up with exotic pre-snap shifts and motions -- including fly motion with receivers faking speed sweeps at every turn -- Pittsburgh needed to return to a ground-and-pound approach to take some of the pressure off 39-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger to carry the offense.
Harris was expected to add a spark as a big, hybrid back with A+ skills running and receiving. He reminds me of Le'Veon Bell, although his playing style is vastly different from the former All-Pro. That said, Harris' presence has given the Steelers the ability to utilize a ball-control offense that meshes a powerful running game with a dink-and-dunk aerial attack. The rookie is on pace for 401 touches (311 carries and 90 receptions) this season, which means he's in line to join Hall of Fame inductees Eric Dickerson (441 in 1983) and Edgerrin James (431 in 1999) as the only players with 400-plus touches in their rookie seasons. With Harris seeing his rushing attempts increase in each of Pittsburgh's past five games, he is the key to the Steelers' revamped offensive approach.
Freiermuth has quietly emerged as a key piece of the offensive puzzle with 22 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns in seven games. The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder has converted 15 of his 22 catches into first downs as a designated chain-mover for Big Ben. The big-bodied tight end excels when posting up, utilizing his superior size to box out smaller defenders between the hashes.
Lastly, the contributions of Green and Moore on the offensive line cannot be overlooked. The starting rookie duo has steadily improved each week, and the offensive output has surged as a result. It is not always pretty, but the offense has been effective, giving the Steelers a chance to climb back into playoff contention.
With Pittsburgh's rookie class thriving and sparking a surprising turnaround, the Steelers' decision to add more OKGs to the lineup could make them a consistent problem for opponents.
DEEBO SAMUEL: A lesson for scouts
If you want to identify a wide receiver prospect with the potential to pop as a pro, you should investigate if they have experience as a kick/punt returner at the high school and/or collegiate level. That is one of the lessons that I learned from Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Holmgren during my time playing for him with the Packers and working with him as a scout for the Seahawks.
He told me a receiver with an extensive background as a returner would possess ball skills, running ability and toughness. Those traits were essential to thrive in the West Coast offense that he learned from legendary coach Bill Walsh in San Francisco. The 49ers' attack featured Jerry Rice and John Taylor on the perimeter. Although Holmgren was smitten with Rice's talents and playmaking prowess as a WR1, he had a soft spot in his heart for Taylor and his ability to transform short passes into the long gains utilizing some of the skills that he developed as a premier punt returner.
Watching the modern-day Niners play, I am sure Holmgren, now retired, would have loved to craft game plans around Deebo Samuel's talents. The third-year pro has become one of the NFL's premier receivers while also emerging as the No. 1 option in San Francisco's passing game. He just broke Rice's franchise record for the most receiving yards through seven games with 819, and he leads the league with an average of 117 receiving yards per game. Hopefully we get a chance to see him add to that total on Sunday against the Cardinals, but he's questionable with a calf injury.
While I love several things about Samuel's game, it's his dynamic playmaking ability with the ball in his hands that separates him from others. He combines top-notch speed, strength and power with exceptional vision, balance and body control to waltz through defenses as a catch-and-run specialist. As a former All-American kick returner at South Carolina, Samuel turns every touch into a return, with the 6-foot, 215-pounder scooting around or running through defenders on the perimeter. Those spectacular skills have helped Samuel gain the second-most YAC (yards after catch) with 416.
With Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill -- who both have experience as returners -- also ranking among the top five in receiving yards, my old boss might have been onto something when he advised me to never overlook the value of return skills when scouting top pass catchers.