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 tandem with its sights set on dominating at a historic level in 2021 ...
I love to hear players call their shots in training camp when asked about their personal and team goals. Some observers view the bodacious predictions as bulletin-board material that perks up the ears of opponents, but I believe the bold forecasting gives us a better chance to understand a player's mentality heading into the season.
The most recent example: Washington Football Team defensive end Montez Sweat, who recently revealed he has his eye on making history in 2021.
"We talk about it all the time, breaking records and stuff like that," Sweat told reporters earlier this week. "I personally want to go get the combined sack record that the guys got back before. We talk about it all the time."
The record for single-season sacks by a duo (39) was set by the Vikings' All-Pro tandem of Chris Doleman and Keith Millard in 1989. Doleman registered 21 sacks with Millard tallying 18 quarterback takedowns on a defense that finished with 71 sacks and ranked No. 1 in total D. The Minnesota front four (Doleman, Millard, Al Noga and Henry Thomas) collected 59.5 sacks that year in Floyd Peters' attack-style defense, which prioritized rushing the passer over everything.
As lofty a goal as it is to try to top what those players accomplished, I wouldn't dismiss Sweat's sentiment. Keep in mind that Washington finished with the sixth-most sacks in the NFL last season (47) despite not having a single defender record more than nine sacks. Sweat (9.0) and Chase Young (7.5) led the way, with Tim Settle (5.0), Daron Payne (3) and Jonathan Allen (2) pitching in as key contributors. Although the efforts of the inside defenders are critical, the team's electric young edge rushers are the game changers with the capacity to help the team repeat as NFC East champions.
"We're both dynamic players. That's all," Sweat said. "We got two dynamic players on one line. You can make things happen."
The presence of Sweat and Young gives defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio a pair of first-round talents to build game plans around. The combination of speed, quickness and athleticism on the edges enables the WFT to attack and exploit opponents that lack elite offensive tackles on the edges. With Allen and Co. capable of winning one-on-ones on the inside, the advantages tip in Washington's favor on passing downs.
Remember, Del Rio has previously coordinated defenses with elite pass-rushing tandems on the edges. He directed a Panthers unit that featured Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker and also led a Broncos defense that showcased Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on the outside. The wily defensive play-caller maximized their talents with creative scheming and elevated their respective games with pass-rush designs that consistently created one-on-one matchups on the front line.
In Washington, Del Rio has enough weaponry at his disposal to dictate the terms to the offense and exploit weak links on the O-line. Whether he moves Young or Sweat around or relies on Allen, Settle, Payne or Matthew Ioannidis to beat up suspect interior blockers, Del Rio has a collection of talent and depth that leads to sleepless nights for offensive coordinators preparing to play a dynamic WFT defense that has the capacity to win with four at the line of scrimmage.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick poised to lead a more productive Washington offense in 2021, the defensive line should get more opportunities to hunt against opponents chasing points. Don't be surprised if Del Rio's crew takes down a few sack records along the way.
TOP FIVE PASS-RUSHING DUOS
With Montez Sweat's aforementioned bold goal in mind, I thought it was the perfect time to survey the league for the best pass-rushing duos in the game. Here are my top five:
Pairing the three-time Defensive Player of the Year with another credible pass rusher will always guarantee a spot on the list. Donald not only destroys pass protection from the inside but his athleticism, explosiveness and relentless energy enable others to feast off one-on-one matchups. Floyd has emerged as one of the best complementary pass rushers in the game by relying on his first-step quickness and non-stop motor to wear opponents down. With No. 99 commanding most of the attention on the front line, Floyd posted double-digit sacks (10.5) for the first time in his career last season.
It is too hard to separate the top two pass rushers for the Buccaneers with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles utilizing a blitz-heavy approach that gives any defender with pass-rush ability an opportunity to chase the QB. Barrett and Pierre-Paul are a deadly combination off the edge with their complementary pass-rush skills (Barrett relies on speed and quickness; Pierre-Paul utilizes a power-based approach with rugged pass-rush maneuvers) giving offensive tackles problems on the edges. White is the Buccaneers' wild-card pass rusher from the second level. He exhibits impeccable timing and explosive power shooting through gaps on a series of designated blitz pressures that overwhelm opponents and bust pass protections at the line of scrimmage.
The WFT duo ranks as the most athletic edge tandem in the league. Sweat and Young are built like superheroes and their pass-rush skills showcase their superpowers (speed, athleticism, power and burst). Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is not afraid to unleash them on an assortment of stunts and games that enable them to utilize their superior first-step quickness and movement skills against lumbering offensive tackles. Considering the young pass rushers are still figuring out how to access all the tools on their tool belt, the rest of the league should be wary of the disruptive tandem in D.C.
The sack numbers dipped for Jones and Clark in 2020, but box-score scouting fails to fully acknowledge the disruptive impact created by the Chiefs' pass-rush duo. Jones is a monstrous interior defender with heavy hands and sneaky quickness. He has the capacity to bully his way past interior blockers or rely on a few finesse maneuvers (arm-over) to win his one-on-one battles on the inside. Clark is a cat-quick pass rusher off the edge with a high-revving motor. He produces countless sacks off second and third effort, refusing to quit on plays. However, head coach Andy Reid said before the start of training camp that the Chiefs would "keep tabs" on Clark's situation, as the seventh-year veteran is facing charges after being arrested twice in separate incidents this offseason.
Perhaps including Jones and Watt on this list is a bit of a lifetime achievement award, but it is hard to dismiss a tandem that has combined for 198 career sacks and 11 seasons with at least 10 QB takedowns. Now, Watt is currently on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a hamstring injury, while Jones has reportedly requested a trade. If Watt and Jones do remain healthy and teammates in 2021, I believe the two pass rushers over the age of 30 could serve up some vintage performances with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph tapping into his creativity as a blitz designer.
DWAYNE HASKINS: Steelers' future QB1?
The Steelers might have found their franchise quarterback of the future in Dwayne Haskins.
I know the thought of a player who has already been dismissed as a draft bust emerging as Ben Roethlisberger's heir apparent will take his biggest detractors by surprise, but the NFL is all about system fit, and Haskins appears to be a perfect fit for the Steelers.
From his big arm and classic dropback playing style to his underrated football IQ, Haskins' game works in Pittsburgh. Despite questions about his work ethic and leadership skills, the third-year pro has made a positive impression on his coaches, and he assimilates into an environment that has been built on toughness, consistency and accountability since the days of Chuck Noll.
"He's working hard every day and he's doing a great job communicating with players and coaches, working with a myriad of receivers and things that he does," coach Mike Tomlin said Monday after practice. "He's putting good days on top of good days, so it's been a good process. But I'm not looking to measure growth relative to where he was two weeks ago. I'm just expecting everybody to get better throughout this process."
Part of Haskins' initial success can be attributed to Tomlin and his staff embracing the young quarterback despite the narrative surrounding his game and character. The Steelers' straightforward approach has brought out the best in Haskins, and the staff has noticed his growth.
"He's grown by leaps and bounds," Tomlin said of Haskins earlier this month. "He does a good job of communicating with coaches, with players, gaining an understanding of what we're trying to do schematically and his role in it, gaining a rapport with the receivers specifically, trying to do the things that we want him to do in the drill work that we do. We've made an emphasis that drill work is football-like, but not necessarily football, and so we have certain things that we emphasize under those circumstances. I think he's done a nice job of that. I think a lot of guys have."
Against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night, Haskins took another step toward securing the Steelers' QB2 job. He led the second-team offense to four scores (three touchdowns and a field goal) while completing 16 of 22 pass attempts for 161 yards with a 22-yard touchdown toss to Anthony Johnson. Haskins' patience and poise directing the offense continues to impress as he mixes fastballs and changeups from the pocket. The 15th overall pick of the 2019 draft has a strong understanding of the Steelers' offense, and his steady play under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada suggests that the team's environment works for him.
That said, Haskins' two-preseason-game stint should be kept in perspective when evaluating the level of competition that he has faced. But the Steelers should be encouraged by his growth and overall consistency as a player. If Haskins continues to perform at this level, the Steelers might have found their quarterback of the future in a former first-round castoff.
PATRIOTS: QB battle heating up?
The battle between Cam Newton and Mac Jones will continue to heat up if the rookie strings together a few more performances like the one he put up Thursday night against the Washington Football Team.
The first-round pick displayed impressive poise, confidence and command while leading the Patriots' offense to six points on five drives. Although the scoring total falls below the Patriots' standard, Jones' efficiency as a passer could entice the coaching staff to give him a chance to eventually run with the No. 1 unit during the regular season.
In his preseason debut, Jones connected on 13 of 19 passes for 87 yards without an interception or touchdown. (For his part, Newton completed 4 of 7 passes for 49 yards, no TDs and no INTs on two possessions.) Jones delivered the ball on time and on target to his receivers on the perimeter and even showcased a feathery touch on a 34-yard pass attempt that skipped off Kristian Wilkerson's fingertips. Jones' methodical approach included a handful of checkdowns and underneath throws to receivers who were second or third options in the route progression.
The rookie's willingness to dump the ball off to safety valves reveals a maturity about his game that coaches love to see in young quarterbacks. In the third quarter, Jones continued to display strong leadership skills, instincts and awareness while directing the Patriots' no-huddle offense. From his communication skills to situational awareness, the rookie was calm and composed throughout the organized-chaos period.
Jones will need to quicken his clock as a processor against No. 1 units from future opponents. Although he eventually got the ball out of his hands before the pocket collapsed, aggressive fronts will take advantage of his hesitancy and force him into poor decisions. If Jones can speed up his clock while still processing the initial reads and complementary options, he will be able to remain aggressive but smart as a playmaker from the pocket.
Considering he entered the league with just 17 collegiate starts under his belt, Jones' debut should leave a positive impression on a coaching staff looking for an answer under center.