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 one high-profile player's encouraging bounce-back performance ...
The microwave mentality that raises expectations in the NFL makes it harder for coaches and executives to patiently wait for young players to develop. But the Cleveland Browns would be wise to give Baker Mayfield time to realize his potential as a former No. 1 overall pick.
I know the Browns' QB1 has drawn plenty of skepticism over the past year, but the 25-year-old has enough tools to win -- and win big -- in Cleveland. We were reminded of this during the Browns' prime-time victory over the Bengals on Thursday Night Football. Mayfield led Cleveland to touchdowns in five of their eight full drives, including three of the first four. This shouldn't be shocking to anyone who's followed the former Heisman Trophy winner; yes, he suffered a sophomore slump in 2019, but one year prior, he broke the rookie record for touchdown passes despite only starting 13 games. Mayfield has the skills -- and surrounding cast -- to succeed.
Despite his inconsistencies as a passer from the pocket in the NFL, Mayfield can flourish in the Dawg Pound with the pieces around him. The Browns have an A+ rushing attack with a pair of five-star backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) toting the rock behind a quintet of people movers at the point of attack. On the perimeter, Cleveland boasts a couple of catch-and-run playmakers (Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry) with the potential to turn short passes into long gains. In addition, the offseason acquisition of tight end Austin Hooper gives the offense a legitimate threat over the middle of the field.
With first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski implementing a run-heavy scheme featuring a complementary play-action passing game that creates plenty of big-play opportunities for the quarterback, Cleveland has the perfect combination in place, with a star-studded cast playing in a QB-friendly scheme. If Mayfield sticks to the script, manages the game and enables his weapons to make the plays, the Browns will win on the strength of their talent alone.
The Browns' 35-30 victory over Cincinnati showcased the formula that can get this franchise back on track after a 6-10 2019 campaign. Mayfield completed 16 of 23 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Chubb and Hunt combined for 210 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 32 rushing attempts (6.6 ypa). OBJ finished the night with 74 yards on four catches, including a 43-yard touchdown on a spectacular double-move go-route down the boundary.
"It builds an enormous amount of confidence," Mayfield said in the postgame. "With us not having the extended week to prepare. Just to come out here and execute whatever is called. You go out there and do your job and trust in that system that there's going to be holes. You establish that run game that I keep hitting on and taking care of the ball, you're going to have success. So I think it's going to build confidence for us and us playing complementary football with the defense. That's the scary part is if we start clicking and keep getting better, it's going to be a fun ride."
Prior to the win over Cincy, Mayfield hadn't been having much fun since his record-setting rookie year. He ranked second in the NFL with 21 interceptions last year (trailing only Jameis Winston's 30) and entered Thursday night's game with a 77.8 passer rating since the beginning of the 2019 season -- the worst mark among the 28 quarterbacks with 10-plus starts during that span. And in fact, he's now thrown a pick in eight straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Those numbers and Mayfield's inconsistent play on film led many observers to question his long-term potential as a franchise quarterback. Although I don't see (and never viewed) Mayfield as a generational talent, his plight reminds me a lot of Jared Goff's situation in Los Angeles. The two-time Pro Bowler went from so-called bust to Super Bowl starter with a five-star supporting cast and A+ play-caller elevating his game. While critics still hit Goff with the "game manager" label, he's turned around the Rams' franchise and joined the 30 Million Dollar Club by strictly adhering to the script crafted by Sean McVay.
Mayfield can enjoy a similar renaissance if he embraces the thought of becoming a managerial type of player for the Browns. That's not necessarily what any franchise quarterback -- particularly a former No. 1 overall pick -- wants to hear, but it could help Baker win more games and win over a front office when it comes to his long-term prospects.
DINK AND DUNK
The struggle is real against Washington's D-line. Kliff Kingsbury isn't wrong when he suggests that the Washington Football Team's defensive line gives offensive coaches "anxiety" during film study. The fears are certainly heightened in Arizona this week, with the Cardinals set to host that unit following its eight-sack tour de force in the WFT's 27-17 upset of the Eagles.
Pummeling Eagles QB Carson Wentz over and over last Sunday, Washington became the first team in NFL history to have five first-round picks, all drafted by the same team, each record at least a half-sack in one game. According to Next Gen Stats, the Football Team created pressure on 34 percent of Wentz's dropbacks (the fourth-highest rate in Week 1) and had five pass rushers register four-plus pressures (most in the NFL).
The havoc this group wreaks isn't surprising, given the premium draft currency Washington has sunk into the D-line, but the terror extends beyond Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Kerrigan. Matt Ioannidis, a fifth-round pick back in 2016, provides key contributions as a disruptive rusher on the interior. In fact, the squatty defender led the team with 8.5 sacks last season -- and opened up the 2020 campaign with a 1.5-sack effort.
Given more time to develop chemistry and continuity as a front line in a defensive scheme directed by Jack Del Rio, the WFT's loaded unit should impose its will on NFC foes throughout the season.
Sound the alarms in Minnesota? After watching the Vikings surrender 364 passing yards and four touchdowns to Aaron Rodgers in a 43-34 loss to the Packers, SKOL supporters are justifiably worried about the team's secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings had three cornerbacks allow a passer rating when targeted north of 115. Mike Hughes (158.3), Cameron Dantzler (154.5) and Holton Hill (118.4) were absolutely torched by Davante Adams and Co., with Rodgers dropping dime after dime to open receivers. Adding injury to insult, Dantzler has been ruled out of this week's game in Indianapolis due to a rib injury.
The 43 points Minnesota allowed represented the most points scored on a team with Mike Zimmer on the staff since 2012. And the season-opening defeat marked just the second time the Vikings have yielded 500-plus yards of offense in the Zimmer era.
Perhaps the Vikings' defense isn't any good, but the Packers presumably benefitted from the presence of new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. The veteran assistant spent six seasons working alongside Zimmer in Minnesota, tutoring the Vikings' defensive backs. He likely shared some helpful intel with Matt LaFleur, allowing Green Bay's offensive play-caller to craft a plan that'd exploit the Vikes' scheme and young defenders.
The dismissal of Gray was part of Zimmer's plan to improve a struggling defense, but the move might've actually played a big role in Minnesota's first loss of the season.
Sean McVay goes back to the future. The Rams' retooled offense looked a lot like the version that took the league by storm in 2017. Apparently, the innovative fly-sweep motion/outside-zone scheme that befuddled defensive coordinators during McVay's rookie season with the Rams is back in style.
Against the Cowboys in Week 1, the Rams sent a WR in motion at the snap on 34 percent of their offensive plays (25 out of 72, per NGS). The threat of Jared Goff handing the ball to Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp or another Rams receiver in motion forces defenders to pause before pursuing the ball. McVay utilizes the conflict created by the action to create space for runners on inside- and outside-zone plays with the front line working in unison to move defenders off the ball.
With the Rams running the ball to and away from the direction of the motion, while also incorporating some bootleg passes and screens, the dizzying effect of the pre-snap motion eventually leaves defenders stuck in quicksand instead of chasing the ball. Add in a little tempo, and you have an offensive approach that could create problems for defensive coordinators around the league once again.
Aldon Smith turns back the clock. It's hard for NFL players to miss a year and return to the field in peak condition. (SEE: Bell, Le'Veon.) That's why Smith's comeback as an impact player in Dallas -- after four-plus seasons out of the league -- completely boggles my mind. The former All-Pro edge defender hadn't played a snap since November of 2015 prior to suiting up for Dallas in Week 1, but he looked like the best Cowboy on the field in the opener.
Smith led the defense with 11 tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and a pair of QB hits. The numbers jump off the stat sheet, but it's the effort, energy and power displayed by the soon-to-be 31-year-old that will really scare future opponents when they dig into the tape.
Smith is a heavy-handed defender with the strength and shock power to stone blockers at the line of scrimmage. And as a high-motor player with outstanding instincts and awareness, he is a terror against the run -- something that was on full display against the Rams. He played with fanatical effort in pursuing the ball all over the field. This kind of energy is exactly what coaches desire from a blue-chip player. Although he did record a QB takedown against a better-than-expected Rams offensive line, Smith will make his greatest contributions to the Cowboys as a tenacious run defender with pass-rush skills.
1) The new and improved Josh Allen. If it takes three years to determine whether a quarterback is a franchise-caliber player, the Bills should feel quite good about Allen's season-opening performance in the blowout of the Jets. The third-year pro posted the first 300-yard passing game of his career, directing a retooled offense with a crew of explosive playmakers handpicked to accentuate Allen's game as a dynamic weapon with big-time arm talent and dangerous running skills.
Allen's game isn't polished or refined, but he's been effective as an improvisational playmaker. He utilizes his size, strength and legs to pick up yards on designed quarterback runs and impromptu scrambles. Allen's escapability is a problem for undisciplined defenses focused on Buffalo's cat-quick receivers on the perimeter. Allen will scoot around the corner to exploit voids created by defenders retreating into coverage. Against the Jets, he piled up 57 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Still, while Allen's running skills add a nice dimension to the Bills' offense, the AFC East favorites won't become serious title contenders until he is a more consistent passer from the pocket. That's why Buffalo added Stefon Diggs to the lineup during the offseason, giving the aerial attack a true No. 1 option. The veteran is a polished route runner with A+ separation ability and sticky hands. He joins John Brown (speedster), Cole Beasley (chain mover) and tight end Dawson Knox (big-bodied pass catcher) to fortify a receiving corps that mitigates Allen's accuracy woes with the players' individual and collective skills.
Against the Jets, each member of the corps thrived in his respective role. Diggs finished with eight catches (on nine targets) for 86 yards while running the full route tree. Brown tallied 70 yards and a touchdown on six catches (10 targets), executing an assortment of screens and catch-and-run routes. Beasley added 58 yards on four grabs (seven targets) via a handful of routes between the hashes. And Knox nabbed a pair of 10-plus-yard catches (on three targets) to fuel scoring drives. The crew's diverse skills enabled Allen to get into a rhythm and enjoy one of the best performances of his career.
That said, the game still featured a number of misfires from the third-year pro, as well as two lost fumbles -- things that make quarterback coaches cringe. But Allen's ability to thrive in a carefully crafted offense designed by a creative coordinator with a college background (Brian Daboll) should help Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane feel pretty good about their QB1 going forward.
2) Can Cam keep it up? The Patriots gave the football world a glimpse of their redesigned offense with Cam Newton at the helm in Sunday's 21-11 win over Miami. The run-centric scheme looked nothing like the system utilized by the team for two decades with Tom Brady under center. And it certainly appeared that Josh McDaniels swiped a few pages from an old Auburn playbook while also borrowing concepts from past Panthers game plans that made Newton the league MVP a half-decade ago.
From the QB power-read to the QB sweep, the Patriots dusted off a few of Newton's favorite concepts as part of a ground-and-pound approach that helped the unit amass 217 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 42 attempts. The new QB1 contributed 75 rushing yards on 15 carries -- including 40 yards and two touchdowns on seven designed runs -- as the focal point of a game plan that featured runs or play-action on 52 of the Patriots' 63 offensive plays.
Considering Newton's heavy workload and injury history, it's understandable for observers to wonder if this approach is sustainable. Despite his prolific running skills -- Cam ranks first all time in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (60) and third in rushing yards (4,881) -- the 10th-year pro is coming off a series of injuries that significantly limited him over the past two years. Plus, he's 31 in a league that rarely sees running quarterbacks grow old.
Those concerns are valid, but utilizing Newton as a runner is the best way to maximize his skills as a QB1. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is a physical player who feeds off the energy created by his runs. Newton tends to settle down after a few early runs, which explains the Patriots' decision to run him on two of their first three offensive plays in Week 1. With the nerves and butterflies out of his system, the three-time Pro Bowler typically settles in as a passer.
Against the Dolphins, Newton was at his best throwing off play-action. According to Next Gen Stats, he connected on 88.9 percent of his play-action passes with a robust yards-per-attempt average of 11.0 and a 112.5 passer rating. Compare those numbers to his figures on plays without play-action: 70 percent completion rate, 5.6 yards per attempt average, 83.7 passer rating. The Patriots combined slants, skinny posts and digs with play-action fakes to exploit the voids created by aggressive defenders reacting to the threat of the run. In addition, the game plan featured a few bootlegs and misdirections to take advantage of Newton's athleticism on the perimeter.
Last season, the Ravens ran the ball or utilized play-action on 70 percent of their offensive snaps, fueling Lamar Jackson's transcendent MVP campaign. After watching Newton dazzle as an MVP-caliber playmaker in an offense with a similar approach (runs or play-action on 82.5 percent of the offensive snaps), the Patriots should continue to build around their QB1's unique game.
Go ahead and hand Jamal Adams the hardware right now. I know we're only one game into the season, but I'm already quite tempted to crown Adams the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. Hear me out, people: After all, this is the "Hail Mary" section ...
The All-Pro safety's impressive debut against the Falcons showed everyone the spectacular impact he can make as the centerpiece of the Seahawks' defense.
The fourth-year pro tallied 12 tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and two QB hits as the designated playmaker in the box vs. Atlanta. Those numbers certainly fall in line with what you would expect from a top-tier defender with a versatile game, but we've never seen Pete Carroll utilize a Seahawk quite like this. Adams was a true Swiss Army knife in Week 1, aligning as the deep safety on 37 snaps, in the box on 30 snaps and in the slot on nine snaps, per Next Gen Stats. Most impressive: The Seahawks played to his strengths as a box-area defender with pass-rush skills. Adams logged 46 coverage snaps, 20 snaps on run defense and 10 pass rushes against the Falcons. He generated a QB pressure on four of his 10 pass rushes -- that 40 percent pressure rate led the NFL in Week 1 (among players with at least 10 pass-rush snaps). Adams' impact as a rusher stands out in a big way. Of the seven instances in which a defensive back has recorded four or more pressures in a game since 2016, Adams accounts for three of them.
While Adams' former defensive coordinator, the Jets' Gregg Williams, said last month that the star safety might be "bored" in the Seattle's scheme, Carroll has dusted off some of the concepts that he utilized at USC to transform Troy Polamalu into a defensive force almost 20 years ago. With Adams showcasing similar skills as a designated playmaker, don't be surprised if he joins the Hall of Famer as a rare DB recipient of the Defensive Player of the Year award.