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 emerging superstar who could make history this season ...
Perhaps I should have paid closer attention to Justin Jefferson's bold proclamation during the summer:
"I'll say, after this year, I'll be the best receiver in the NFL," the Minnesota Vikings receiver told Complex's Kameron Hay in July. "I definitely have to give it to Davante Adams as of now, (with) him being so crazy and dynamic on the field. His route running is crazy, so I definitely have to give it to him right now. But I'm pretty sure, after this year, it's going to be me."
Talking the talk indeed. But it's not like Jefferson hasn't walked the walk. The Vikings wideout racked up an NFL-record 3,016 receiving yards over his first two seasons, earning a pair of Pro Bowl bids in the process. And one game into Year 3, Jefferson has done nothing but further his case as a serious contender to the WR throne. In fact, with new head coach/offensive play-caller Kevin O'Connell delivering on an offseason promise to make Jefferson the Cooper Kupp of Minnesota's offense, the 23-year-old could be poised to become the NFL's first 2,000-yard receiver.
To repeat: It's only a one-game sample size. But Jefferson looked like an unstoppable force in the season-opening 23-7 win over the Green Bay Packers. The third-year pro finished with a career-high 184 receiving yards and a pair of scores on nine catches against a defense loaded with five-star talent. Jefferson dazzled with elite route-running skills and rare spatial awareness. He constantly found open voids in the Packers' zone, as Kirk Cousins repeatedly targeted him, especially in the first half, when Minnesota raced out to a 17-0 lead behind Jefferson's two touchdowns.
So, what makes Jefferson so absurdly effective? From a schematic standpoint, O'Connell has certainly implemented some tactics that he learned from his time spent with Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams, utilizing a variety of pre-snap motions and shifts to help his WR1 find favorable matchups.
Against the Packers, Minnesota employed some version of pre-snap movement on 48 percent of their offensive plays, per Next Gen Stats. Jefferson was featured in motion on seven snaps, with six pass attempts and four targets on those plays. The heavy utilization of motion was similar to how the Rams moved Kupp around last season. The triple crown winner was motioned on 197 snaps over the course of the regular season -- an average of 11.6 motions per game, per NGS. This helped the Rams create free releases and easy catches for their No. 1 receiver. Minnesota's rookie head coach implemented a similar blueprint last Sunday, helping Jefferson shake free from coverage and basically avoid top-tier corner Jaire Alexander.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson snagged nine passes without having to win a single rep against Alexander: two catches for 85 yards vs. S Darnell Savage; two catches for 41 yards vs. S Adrian Amos; two catches for 11 yards vs. CB Rasul Douglas; one catch for 22 yards vs. LB Quay Walker; one catch for 20 yards vs. CB Eric Stokes; and one catch for 5 yards vs. OLB Preston Smith. O'Connell's creative scheming not only enabled Jefferson to face inferior defenders on the perimeter, but it made it easier for the wideout to find the soft spots in the zone. With the Packers unwilling to utilize Alexander as a "travel" corner to match up with Jefferson, O'Connell won the power of the pen with his subtle tactics.
O'Connell swiped another page from the Rams' playbook in featuring more three-receiver sets. By putting more wideouts on the field, the Vikings were able to create more space for Jefferson, moving him around the formation. As a versatile playmaker with the skills to line up in the slot or out wide, Jefferson gives O'Connell a dangerous weapon to deploy in a variety of roles to create big plays on the perimeter.
Looking ahead to how the Vikings could expand Jefferson's role as defenses begin to home in on O'Connell's game plan, I would expect to see more motions in and out of bunch formations against teams utilizing man coverage. The combination of movement and cluster alignments creates natural picks that will help Jefferson avoid tight coverage. In addition, the increased utilization of double motions will also challenge the discipline of defenders tasked with keeping up with No. 18. The constant movement will make it harder to utilize automatic checks designed to put the defense in the best play call and crowd Jefferson in coverage. Moreover, the motions will lead to more vanilla looks from opponents.
With Minnesota featuring a quarterback and wideout who feast on generic schemes, O'Connell's schematic approach could help Jefferson top the 2,000-yard mark -- eclipsing Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964 yards -- while making the Vikings' offense a nightmare to defend.
No Daboll, no cry: New Bills OC shines
The Buffalo Bills' mission to secure the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy got off to a blazing-hot start in Week 1 -- and it happened with a first-time play-caller at the helm of the offense.
Ken Dorsey is a former Miami Hurricanes star and NFL quarterback who spent the past three seasons as Buffalo's quarterbacks coach. (He was also the team's passing game coordinator in 2021.) When Brian Daboll left the offensive coordinator post to take over as head coach of the New York Giants during the offseason, Dorsey was handed the keys to a Ferrari.
Dorsey is now tasked with helping Josh Allen and Co. build upon the Bills' spectacular showing in recent seasons. Over the past two years of action, Buffalo ranks top five in the NFL in scoring, passing and third-down conversion rate. Working under Daboll since being selected by the Bills with the seventh overall pick in 2018, Allen emerged as an MVP-caliber playmaker who flashed gold-jacket potential while directing an offense that was creative and explosive.
One week into the post-Daboll era, it appears Dorsey has found a way to keep things rolling by adding a few tweaks to the scheme. Although the first-year offensive coordinator kept the Bills in their traditional "11" personnel package (one back, one tight end and three receivers), Buffalo featured a number of spread formations, cluster alignments and empty sets to exploit favorable matchups on the perimeter in the season-opening blowout of the defending champion Rams. In addition, Dorsey mixed in some read-option plays and designed quarterback runs that kept Los Angeles' defense on its heels.
Dorsey's experience working with Cam Newton as the Panthers' QB coach from 2013 through '17 had to serve him quite him well when it came to building a system around Allen. Newton (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and Allen (6-5, 237) have similar physical dimensions, running skills and playmaking ability. Dorsey should continue to sprinkle in some of the tactics from his old Carolina playbook to help Buffalo's QB1 flourish.
(Before you @ me regarding Allen's superior passing skills, it is important to remember that, before Newton's injuries began to mount, he was no slouch through the air, logging a 35:10 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 99.4 in his MVP season of 2015.)
In Buffalo, the presence of Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Dawson Knox, Jamison Crowder and Isaiah McKenzie among Allen's targets should make it easier for the aerial attack to continue to evolve under the new offensive coordinator. The individual and collective skills of Bills pass catchers will enable Dorsey to maximize mismatches on the perimeter based on each guy's superpowers: Diggs' route-running brilliance, Davis' big-play potential, Knox's quickness and route-running skills and Crowder/McKenzie's quickness and run-after-the-catch skills from the slot.
In Buffalo's season-opening win at SoFi Stadium, we had a chance to see how Dorsey could tap into each of their abilities to move the ball down the field. From Diggs cooking Rams star Jalen Ramsey on a variety of isolation routes to Davis slipping past defenders on subtle double moves on the perimeter to McKenzie whipping a slot defender on a slant, the Bills' wideouts put on a clinic against Los Angeles' talented defense.
Although the non-Allen ground game was somewhat limited in Week 1, the running back committee featuring Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and James Cook has promise, based on each player's complementary skills. If they can provide enough balance for Buffalo to move away from Allen operating as a single-wing quarterback, the offense will be tougher to defend down the stretch.
The Bills shook up the football world with an impressive performance against the defending world champs, and Dorsey shined under the bright lights, looking like he has the creativity and adaptability to help the offense get over any humps that might arise this season.
Can Lance-led 49ers break Seattle spell?
Styles make fights.
The saying's been around forever in boxing. The basic concept: When you have two opponents with contrasting styles, the more skilled fighter doesn't always win. It's something that can apply to football, as well.
Sunday in Santa Clara, we will get a chance to see if Pete Carroll can continue his mastery over Kyle Shanahan when the Seahawks square off against the 49ers in a divisional bout that has an early "make or break" feel for the home team.
The 49ers are not only 2-8 against the Seahawks in the Shanahan era, but Seattle has swept San Francisco in each of the past two seasons. And this time around, the Niners are tasked with reversing this trend behind a young quarterback under immense pressure.
Trey Lance connected on just 13 of 28 pass attempts for 164 yards and an interception in the stunning Week 1 loss at Chicago. Although he added 54 rushing yards on 13 carries, the lackluster performance reignited the Jimmy Garoppolo conversation within the fan base. Granted, the game was played in a monsoon, but that fact hasn't prevented Lance skeptics from airing their grievances all week.
While it is far too soon to pull the plug on the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the second-year pro needs to play better for this offense to maximize its potential. A dual-threat playmaker with exceptional physical tools, the 49ers' new QB1 has added a dimension to the offense as a power-running quarterback with the potential to rumble between the tackles or scoot off the edges on a variety of read-option plays or designed runs. Last week, he executed six designed runs and seven scrambles against a fast Bears defense in a driving rain. According to Next Gen Stats, Lance's seven scrambles were the most by a 49ers quarterback since Colin Kaepernick's seven in Week 12 of the 2016 season. The heavy rushing workload is part of a trend in which Lance has averaged 7.3 designed runs (27.7 rush yards per game) and five scrambles (30.3 rush yards per game) in his three starts.
Against Seattle, though, the 49ers' QB run game could truly meet its match.
Last season, Seattle finished above league average in defending designed quarterback runs and scrambles. Carroll's 2021 Seahawks held opponents to just 2.5 yards per game on designed quarterback runs (ranking second in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats) and 12.0 scramble rush yards (tied for 12th). The collective speed and quickness of the Seahawks' front line neutralizes swift quarterbacks attempting to scoot around the corner on designed and impromptu runs.
If San Francisco's quarterback running game is bottled up, Lance's passing woes are magnified, particularly as an intermediate passer. The 22-year-old is the only quarterback with zero touchdown passes on intermediate throws -- 10 to 19 yards -- since 2021 (min. 25 attempts). Related note: Jimmy G has 10 touchdown passes on such throws since 2021, seventh-most in the NFL.
Part of Lance's issues in Week 1 could be attributed to George Kittle's absence due to a groin injury. The Pro Bowler is one of the best in the business at his position, and his presence allows the 49ers to attack the middle of the field. With Kittle sidelined, the Bears were able to pay closer attention to Deebo Samuel on the perimeter.
Furthermore, Kittle sets the edge in the ground attack with his outstanding blocking skills, and re-establishing a dominant running game is key to Lance's development. If the 49ers are able to run the ball effectively, it reduces the amount of pressure Lance faces on passing downs, as the defensive line and linebackers are forced to respect the threat of the run before attacking the quarterback. Considering how Lance has struggled against pressure (SEE: a career 35.6 passer rating against pressure, per NGS), the combination of runs and play-action passes would minimize one of his biggest weaknesses.
As of Friday, Kittle is questionable for Sunday's game. Even if the tight end is back, though, Lance will need to face his demons against a Seahawks defense that has traditionally played well against the 49ers. Carroll has a knack for crafting game plans that befuddle athletic quarterbacks, and his track record against the San Francisco suggests he has Shanahan's number.
In a huge early-season contest for the 49ers, Shanahan will need to build a game plan that creates easy throws for his quarterback while leaning into Lance's skills as a runner. In addition, the creative play designer must execute the plan while keeping the Niners' top playmakers heavily involved in the action. While that is easier said than done, it's necessary to keep a lid on a budding quarterback controversy in the Bay Area.