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:
— One player who’s cashing in on a contract year.
— Does Dallas have the NFL’s next great cover man?
— An elite quarterback in the making?
But first, a look at one of the biggest letdowns in opening month of the 2021 NFL season …
Every offseason, certain NFL players and units are widely touted as The Next Big Thing. Hype builds, groupthink takes hold, and before you know it, projection turns into proclamation. The Next Big Thing is suddenly THE Big Thing, even before the new season kicks off.
I’ve been around this league long enough to know that these summer hype trains should be met with a healthy suspicion. You can’t automatically assume a flashy player or unit will achieve full-scale dominance at the drop of a hat. The game is too hard, with adversity running too rampant, for that massive step to be a given from one season to the next. That’s why I am kicking myself for falling head over heels for the Washington Football Team’s defense during this past offseason.
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I caved in to the prevailing fanaticism, especially surrounding the WFT’s defensive line, which boasts four former first-round picks. Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen helped spark the 2020 team’s turnaround — from 2-7 in mid-November to 7-9 NFC East champs — and I believed the quartet was poised to impose its will on opponents in 2021 like some of the great defensive fronts in NFL lore. With thoughts of all-time units like the “Purple People Eaters,” the “New York Sack Exchange” and the “Orange Crush,” I was ready to buy all of the WFT stock. Shoot, I even wrote that Young and Sweat could break the single-season record for sacks by a duo: 39, set by the Vikings’ All-Pro tandem of Chris Doleman and Keith Millard in 1989.
Well, I was wrong.
Young, who entered the season with some Defensive Player of the Year buzz, has yet to record a single sack in three games, managing just one QB hit in the process. As a whole, Washington ranks 29th in scoring defense and 31st in total D. The unit is tied for 16th in sacks (six) and 22nd in takeaways (two).
To put it succinctly, Washington’s defense is the most disappointing NFL unit in this young season.
Studying the game tape from this past week’s 43-21 blowout loss in Buffalo — during which the Football Team yielded a whopping 481 yards — I was disgusted by the defense’s overall effort. A unit that appears to be loaded with a healthy mix of talent and tenacity was just mailing it in at times. NFL Media cohort Brian Baldinger took the D to task on a Twitter video that summed up my feelings about its play:
@WashingtonNFL v @BuffaloBills @JoshAllenQB the only surprise about the outcome is how the #bills didn’t score more v this #WFT effort. This isn’t how you play football in the #NFL. #BILLSMAFIA #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/BLPfHJjLcx
Washington’s defense is giving inconsistent effort, leading to the subpar results. Moreover, the Football Team’s lack of discipline is also preventing the hyped unit from playing the kind of defense everyone anticipated. Too many WFT defenders are playing “hero ball” instead of thriving as one-eleventh of a group committed to playing winning football for 60 minutes.
Call me an old man yelling at a cloud, if you’d like to. As a former player, I like seeing the game played the right way. But so does Washington’s head coach, Ron Rivera, who spent nine years as a Chicago Bears linebacker, winning a Super Bowl along the way.
“We got to mature together, we got to become a team together, got to play as a unit and play as positions,” Rivera said in the aftermath of Washington’s ugly loss in Buffalo, via the Washington Post. “The defensive line has to work together. The unit, pass rush and coverage, got to work together, stuff like that. Those are the types of things [that take time] when you got young guys out there, new guys out there together.”
An elite defense plays smarter, harder and faster than its opponent, while taking care of the little things. Washington’s D has to eliminate the blown assignments that result in explosive plays and/or easy scores. In addition, the front line must get on the same page when it comes to gap fits and pass-rush lanes. With a true shutdown defense firing on all cylinders, each D-lineman sticks to his assigned gap, as opposed to freelancing in an attempt to make more plays.
So, how do Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio right this ship? Well, first of all, they need to get full buy-in from their players. Efforts like the one we saw last Sunday are not acceptable. And to his credit, Young openly acknowledged that “something has to change.” Furthermore, the coaches might attempt to streamline the call sheet to remove some mental clutter that could be slowing players down. This is a common tactic when a unit’s slumping. It is all about finding a way to improve on the simple things, inherently solving the larger problems.
Washington needs to get its defense back on track if it hopes to return to the playoffs. That should begin this Sunday in Atlanta, where the Football Team will face a struggling Falcons offense. Rivera and Del Rio have the experience and expertise to turn things around, but I am taking a wait-and-see approach before touting WFT’s defense as a force to be reckoned with. Chalk it up to a lesson learned.
The Football Team’s defense isn’t the only disappointing unit early on in the 2021 campaign. Here are two more groups failing to meet expectations:
Ben Roethlisberger and Co. look nothing like contenders on offense, ranking 26th in yards and 28th in scoring. Big Ben appears to have lost the battle with Father Time, as the 39-year-old no longer has the arm strength to push the ball down the field, thus wasting a receiving corps that looks pretty imposing on paper. With the offensive line lacking chemistry and continuity, Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to run the ball to alleviate the pressure on No. 7. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada must take a long, hard look at the X’s and O’s to see if he can develop a recipe that enables the offense to successfully run through rookie RB Najee Harris instead of a quarterback who’s lost his fastball.
What in the name of Pete Carroll has happened to this unit? The “Legion of Boom” is a distant memory. The Seahawks’ defense is struggling mightily yet again, and the head coach does not appear to have the answers to stop a slide that has Seattle ranked dead last in total defense. Perhaps it is a personnel issue, with the team simply lacking the pass rushers and cover guys to get the job done, but Carroll’s ‘Hawks have typically found a way to play great defense with misfits and cast-offs in the starting lineup. While some observers would suggest the team’s scheme has gotten stale after a long run of success, the simplistic tactics help defenders play fast and free on the perimeter. If Carroll cannot get into the lab and concoct a formula to right the defense’s wrongs, the Seahawks will stay mired in the cellar of an NFC West loaded with playoff-caliber teams.
MIKE WILLIAMS: WR breaking out to break the bank
Well, it’s too late for me to offer up fantasy football advice, but Mike Williams is clearly one to watch as a breakout performer this season. The fifth-year pro isn’t an unknown commodity, as a former top-10 pick, but he’s spent most of his career as the Los Angeles Chargers’ other receiver. With the start he has enjoyed in 2021, though, Williams is showing he’s much more than just Keenan Allen’s sidekick.
Through three games, Williams leads the Chargers in catches (22), receiving yards (295) and touchdown grabs (4). Those numbers all rank top 10 in the NFL, to boot. The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder has torched defenses on the back side of Los Angeles’ spread formations, winning on a handful of isolation routes (slants, digs and back-shoulder fades) against one-on-one coverage. Williams’ connection with second-year QB Justin Herbert, particularly on the back-shoulder fade, is nearly unstoppable due to their ability to anticipate and adjust to coverage. Whether because of the precise ball placement of the throw or the subtle power moves made by the big-bodied pass catcher, defenders cannot make a play on the ball. Moreover, Williams creates enough separation to consistently snatch 50-50 balls along the boundary.
With the emerging star also wearing defenders out on in-breaking routes, the Bolts have been able to incorporate some concepts that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi learned during his time with the Saints. As well-researched fantasy fiends were aware, Lombardi foretold this in the summer.
“As much as this offense will resemble New Orleans, he plays the ‘X’ and the ball has always kind of found the ‘X’ receiver in this offense,” Lombardi said of Williams back in June. “I think that there will be some natural production that comes his way because of the nature of the offense.”
In New Orleans, Michael Thomas occupies the “X” position or split-end spot. While injuries have sapped his performance of late, Thomas posted three straight seasons with 100-plus catches from 2017 through ’19, topping the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first four seasons as the “X” in the Saints’ offense. Williams probably won’t reach the heights of Thomas’ top production with Allen on the opposite side of the field, but he’s getting plenty of chances to make his mark as a blue-chip playmaker.
And Lombardi’s new scheme has entered Williams’ life at the perfect time, as the wideout’s in the last year of his rookie contract. With this emergence as a potential WR1, the free agent-to-be is poised to cash in next offseason. Williams turns 27 next week, giving him plenty of value on his next deal. The Chargers need to prepare to write a big check or lose their budding star to a team looking to place him in a leading role.
TREVON DIGGS: Does Dallas have a true CB1?
I do not know if NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors come with a plaque, trophy or game ball, but Trevon Diggs might want to clear more room in the trophy case for the awards that are on the horizon. The second-year pro is playing at an all-star level, thrusting him into the mix as a potential top-five cornerback.
While this year’s three-game sample size is not enough to solidify his spot among the best of the best at the position, it is hard to exclude a CB with six interceptions over his last eight games, including one in each game this season. In the past month, Diggs has shown off a refined game built on superb technique, instincts and ball skills. The former wide receiver has quickly become one of the league’s premier ballhawks by mastering subtleties like the hash-split rule and “key the three (step)” techniques that enable him to anticipate routes and throws in his direction.
In addition, Diggs has relied on his experience as a former wideout to turn errant throws into interceptions by simply catching the ball. The skill most NFL players should have mastered when they played on elementary or middle school playgrounds is the difference between being a good and great playmaker on the island. Five-star cover corners routinely take the ball away, which is absolutely critical, based on the immense impact turnovers have on the outcome of games.
“A receiver faking it as a D-back,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of Diggs, via the Dallas Morning News. “He plays that ball and makes those special plays. And obviously, he’s not only got talent, but by the way, he’s worked to get in position to make those plays. He’s a difference-maker.”
“He’s in a zone, matchup-wise,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said after Monday’s blowout win over the Eagles. “The guy has got phenomenal hand-eye coordination. Just the way he breaks on the ball, he’s got as fine of hands that I’ve seen in a long time.”
We saw those traits at play in a pick-six of former Alabama teammate Jalen Hurts on Monday, but Diggs’ impact extends beyond his takeaway prowess as a ballhawk. He has shown promise as a lockdown corner, taking on traveling duties against star receivers Mike Evans and Keenan Allen. In those battles, the young corner held his own while displaying a no-flinch demeanor that suggests he is built for those challenges. Most importantly, Diggs’ strong performance in each matchup showed Cowboys coaches, including defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, that he could handle the responsibilities and pressure associated with playing as a true CB1. Diggs has been dominant in press coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, with a 31.3 passer rating allowed (third-lowest in the NFL, min. 25 press coverage snaps) and giving up zero TDs.
If Diggs continues to shine as a ballhawk and lockdown defender, the young Cowboys corner will see more accolades head his way.
JOE BURROW: The swagger is back in Cincy!
If it’s true that most players make the biggest developmental leap in Year 2, the AFC is on notice: Joe Burrow is an elite quarterback in the making, and the Bengals are building an offensive juggernaut around No. 9’s talents.
While I may be a prisoner of the moment after watching Burrow shred the Jaguars in a 24-21 comeback win on Thursday Night Football, the second-year pro checks all of the boxes as a franchise player. From his point guard-like skills as a distributor to his football IQ, confidence and leadership abilities, Burrow oozes “QB1” traits on the field.
Moreover, he plays with a championship swagger that is infectious and inspiring to his teammates. Burrow is a thermostat leader with the capacity to change the temperature in the room with his energy and toughness.
Against the Jaguars, Burrow put on a show that reminded me why he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns. The scintillating performance featured Burrow turning his game up a notch in the second half (253 pass yards and two touchdowns) to help the Bengals overcome a 14-point deficit.
Reviewing the game tape, Burrow won the cat-and-mouse game against Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen with his command of the offense, particularly in the Bengals’ empty formation package. Burrow utilized a version of the empty set that featured the running back and tight ends aligned on the outside of the Bengals’ three receivers on opposite sides of the formation. The tactic enabled the young quarterback to quickly identify the coverage (if linebackers are aligned on the outside of the formation against the running back and tight end, it signals man coverage; if cornerbacks are positioned on the outside, the defense is in a zone-based coverage) and exploit the defense’s choice.
Burrow patiently picked apart Jacksonville’s defense with a barrage of short throws that kept the Bengals’ offense on schedule and frustrated a D that could not get a critical stop. Against man coverage, the ultra-confident playmaker took his shots downfield to Ja’Marr Chase and others to take advantage of favorable matchups on the outside.
Seeing Burrow direct the Bengals’ offense like a symphony conductor, I felt like I was watching him guide LSU’s offense during his Heisman Trophy-winning, national championship campaign. The second-year pro was unstoppable and unflappable back then, and he is beginning to regain his superpowers with the Bengals after a season-ending knee injury spoiled his rookie season.
Considering the chronic cellar-dwellers are sitting at 3-1 with Burrow finding his game and rediscovering his swagger, the rest of the AFC should pay close attention to the Bengals’ emerging star under center.
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