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 five defenses capable of winning it all ...
"Defense wins championships."
This age-old adage has been touted in meeting rooms at every level of football, but the NFL's transformation to a passing league has seemingly shifted the focus to offensive efficiency and explosiveness in the team-building process.
That said, while it is obviously essential to put points on the board, the teams that hoist the Lombardi Trophy are still -- for the most part -- the ones that also keep their opponents from scoring touchdowns in key moments. Of the last 23 Super Bowl winners, 16 fielded a defense ranked in the top 10 in points allowed. As a former defensive player who was a part of some championship-caliber defenses in Green Bay back in the mid-1990s, I am not surprised to see the correlation between scoring defense and championship success.
So, at the midway point of the 2023 season, which legit contenders boast defenses that can indeed win championships? With the trade deadline in the rearview, rosters are pretty much set. Therefore, this is a perfect time to spotlight the Super Bowl hopefuls with legit units on the less-appreciated side of the ball. Here are my top five:
Mike Macdonald's opponent-specific game plans continue to befuddle offensive coordinators around the league. The savvy defensive play-caller tailors his week-to-week strategies around the individual strengths of his players, ensuring that everyone's in the best position to make plays against each week's opposition. Whether it is Jadeveon Clowney looping around interior defenders on stunts, Kyle Van Noy attacking from the edge or as a standup 3-technique or Odafe Oweh creating chaos from the edges and various alignments on the interior, Baltimore has created a dominant defense utilizing a chameleon approach.
Moreover, these versatile player-deployment tactics have enhanced a clever scheme that mixes exotic blitzes with simulated pressures to keep quarterbacks guessing upon taking the snap. Considering how the Ravens match their coverage to improve their pressures, Macdonald's confounding schemes create enough mistakes and miscues to keep opponents from putting points on the board. It's not a coincidence that safety Geno Stone currently leads the NFL with five interceptions.
Despite the 49ers' recent defensive slump, the unit possesses enough blue-chip playmakers to truly guide Kyle Shanahan's squad to the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy. Although defensive coordinator Steve Wilks must adapt and adjust his schemes to accommodate an influx of new pass rushers (recent trade acquisitions Chase Young and Randy Gregory) on a front line that already features reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, the 49ers now have enough firepower to relentlessly attack quarterbacks from every angle.
With stellar linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw backing up the defensive line as fleet-footed disruptors with exceptional speed, quickness and instincts, the 49ers' defense condenses the field for runners and receivers attempting to generate chunk plays on off-tackle runs and horizontal routes. Once San Francisco's defensive backfield adjusts to Wilks' preference for man-to-man coverage, the Niners will be able to suffocate opponents with an attack-style defense that throws a blanket over offenses with its collective speed, quickness and physicality.
It's odd seeing the Chiefs winning low-scoring affairs with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, but the football world should expect to see more hard-hitting contests in Arrowhead Stadium with the Chris Jones-led defense setting the tone. The All-Pro defensive tackle headlines a fierce unit loaded with young, hungry defenders fresh off a Super Bowl win. The youthful exuberance has added a swagger to a defense that's long been overshadowed by Andy Reid's offense.
As the 2022 draft class continues to impose its will on opponents -- with George Karlaftis, Leo Chenal, Trent McDuffie, Bryan Cook and Joshua Williams taking turns producing splash plays all over the field -- the Chiefs are quietly transforming into a defense-led squad that's thriving with a complementary-football approach to winning games.
The Lions are more than the NFL's favorite "feel good" story, with Aaron Glenn's defense punching opponents in the mouth. The unit's ultra-physical playing style not only wears down foes, but also forces opposing blue-chip players to make business decisions in critical moments.
Whether it is Aidan Hutchinson relentlessly harassing quarterbacks in the pocket, Alim McNeill stuffing runners in the hole or Alex Anzalone and rookie Jack Campbell punishing foes at the second level, the Lions have a collection of blue-collar defenders with the capacity to change games with big hits or splash plays.
With the unit also featuring a hard-nosed defensive backfield full of instinctive playmakers with "hit, run and cover" capabilities -- including stud rookie Brian Branch -- the Lions have quietly constructed an elite unit that can suffocate opponents utilizing a simplistic scheme that enables defenders to play "fast and free."
Jacksonville's opportunistic defense specializes in creating takeaways, with turnover-obsessed defenders attacking the ball at every turn. The Jaguars emphasize knocking the ball loose with big hits and punch-outs. When you combine that mentality with an active zone scheme that has defensive backs eyeballing quarterbacks to pick off tipped or overthrown passes in their designated areas, the result is a league-leading 18 takeaways.
Considering how turnovers impact the outcome of games, the Jaguars have the potential to make a Super Bowl run on the strength of their takeaway prowess. That said, it is hard to depend on a lucky bounce to dictate a team's fate. Hence, Jacksonville tilts the odds in its favor by stuffing the run on early downs, thanks to a destructive and disruptive front defined by super-sized athletes with nasty demeanors (SEE: Josh Allen, Travon Walker and Roy Robertson-Harris).
As linebackers Foye Oluokun and Devin Lloyd punish defenders from sideline to sideline as rangy playmakers with exceptional instincts and anticipation, the Jaguars' defensive linemen set up the secondary for turnover opportunities with bang-bang hits and deflected passes. Given Andre Cisco's sticky fingers and Rayshawn Jenkins' scoop-and-score ability, Jacksonville's D routinely produces game-changing plays.
WAIT, WHAT ABOUT THE DALLAS COWBOYS' DEFENSE?
Micah Parsons and Co. are an intriguing unit with enough playmakers to make the list, but disappointing showings against league heavyweights (specifically, the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5) put Dallas on the waiting list for now. While Parsons, Stephon Gilmore and DaRon Bland can produce game-changing plays at any moment, the Cowboys' inconsistent run defense and pass rush make it hard to depend on the unit coming through down the stretch.
Perhaps defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can continue to pull a rabbit out of the hat when it comes to shutting down opponents without one of the premier playmakers in the game on the perimeter (Trevon Diggs). Considering the big-play receivers throughout the NFC, though, the absence of Pro Bowl cover corner could keep the Cowboys out of the late stages of the NFL's playoff tournament.
Robert Saleh: Early Coach of the Year
The NFL Coach of the Year award routinely goes to the individual who has overcome the longest odds to field a playoff contender in an ultra-competitive league. With that being the case, Robert Salah must be the front-runner for the award at this midway point, based on the New York Jets' success following Aaron Rodgers' devastating Achilles injury.
Despite losing the four-time MVP quarterback on the fourth snap of his Jets tenure, the team has climbed over the .500 mark with three straight wins, including a huge upset of the mighty Philadelphia Eagles. Pretty amazing, considering New York's offense currently ranks 26th in scoring and 30th in yards. The Jets have been outscored 129-126, and yet here they are at 4-3, squarely in the playoff race.
The Jets' ability to navigate adverse circumstances suggests Saleh not only kept the team together after a gutting injury, but he has gotten everyone to buy into a complementary-football approach that was not expected to be a part of the winning blueprint before this highly anticipated season kicked off.
Shortly after Rodgers' injury, I outlined how the Jets could win without their freshly minted franchise quarterback. The blueprint focused on meshing the three phases (offense, defense and special teams) to alleviate the pressure on Zach Wilson as a young, uncertain quarterback stepping back into a role that appeared to overwhelm him early in his career. To his credit, Saleh threw his unwavering support behind the 24-year-old signal-caller while building up the rest of the team by challenging everyone's competitive spirit. Moreover, he tweaked and adjusted the Jets' winning recipe to help his squad stay competitive in games. Saleh has helped the Jets register four come-from-behind wins, as New York has trailed in every game. In fact, since his arrival in 2021, Saleh has guided the Jets to seven wins in games where they trailed by 10-plus points.
The resilience and toughness displayed by the Jets are a testament to the messages delivered by Saleh in meeting rooms. He has seemingly eliminated the excuses the football world tried to create after No. 8 clutched his Achilles in the season opener. Despite encountering additional injuries to Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed and Alijah Vera-Tucker, among others, the enthusiastic head coach has found a way to win by convincing his charges they are good enough with or without some of the blue-chip players on the roster.
As a head man doing the most with the least, Saleh deserves midseason Coach of the Year recognition.
The secret of A.J. Brown's success
When the Eagles acquired A.J. Brown in a 2022 draft-day trade, the wide receiver was regarded by many as a catch-and-run specialist who excelled due to his superior bulk and strength on the perimeter. He had been a dynamic playmaker for the Titans, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark twice in his first three pro seasons despite operating in a run-first offense. But few observers viewed him as a top-five receiver. Even if his new contract extension (four years, $100 million, with $57 million in guarantees) paid him like an elite player, Brown was expected by many to share WR1 duties with DeVonta Smith.
Now, 25 regular-season contests into Brown's Eagles tenure, anyone who slept on his game and potential owes him an apology. With his unique set of skills, Brown has evolved into an electric, unstoppable force, snagging 148 receptions for 2,435 yards and 16 touchdowns since the beginning of the 2022 season. Exhibiting exceptional ball skills and RAC (run-after-catch) ability with the ball in his hands, he's added a vertical dimension to the Eagles' passing game while continuing to excel on the catch-and-run concepts (slants and crossing routes) that made him a nightmare to defend in Tennessee. In the Eagles' RPO-based passing scheme, which features running plays with complementary isolation passing routes attached to the concept, the big-bodied pass catcher routinely destroys one-on-one coverage to produce explosive plays.
Opponents also struggle to defend the Eagles' potent running game, which has quarterback Jalen Hurts and Co. executing an assortment of zone-read concepts. The challenge of bracketing Brown (not to mention Smith) puts defensive play-callers in a bind in crucial moments. How do you defend a top-five receiver while loading the box to stop a power-running dual-threat QB with MVP-caliber skills?
That's the million-dollar question, and it has seemingly gone unanswered. The Eagles have created the perfect storm with a unique run-pass scheme accentuating the talents of the quarterback and his primary pass catcher. Brown just set an NFL record by logging his sixth straight game with 125-plus receiving yards
Most teams don't have the personnel to contain Hurts with a light box -- nor do they have the kind of shutdown corner who can neutralize Brown using size and strength. Consequently, the Eagles' No. 1 receiver will continue to dominate opponents, flourishing in Nick Sirianni's scheme and cementing his status as one of the game's most devastating weapons.