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:
-- How did the scouting community completely whiff on undrafted star Phillip Lindsay?
-- How a fading NFC playoff contender can snap out of a funk.
-- Why the Cowboys could have the last laugh this season.
But first, a look at some data that proves the ground game is alive and well in today's NFL ...
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If you're a devoted sportstalk radio listener, you've become quite familiar with the following proclamation in recent years:
The NFL is a passing league.
I certainly can't squash that notion -- the aerial evolution of this league is undeniable -- but I'm here to tell you that making a concerted effort to run the football is still the best way to consistently win games.
Now, I know that opinion is an unpopular one in many circles, particularly with the analytics crowd, but the numbers continue to back up my old-school belief that routinely pounding the rock is what matters most down the stretch.
Don't believe me? Just look at the following data ...
From Weeks 11-13, teams that ranked in the top half of the NFL in terms of run-play percentage posted a combined record of 32-13 (71.1 winning percentage). On the flip side, teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league in this category logged a combined mark of 12-31 (27.9). Digging a little deeper with the help of my editorial staff, I discovered that 11 teams ran the ball on at least 45 percent of their snaps during Weeks 11-13. Those teams' combined record? 23-7. That's a robust 76.7 winning percentage. And six of those teams -- the Ravens (who ran the ball a whopping 67.4 percent of the time during this span), Patriots (54.5), Texans (53.6), Seahawks (51.4), Cowboys (47.5) and Broncos (46.9) -- didn't lose a single game over the past three weeks. Considering that the teams that kept it on the ground on less than 40 percent of their snaps in Weeks 11-13 went a combined 11-29 (27.5 winning percentage), it is fairly obvious that consistently running the ball still equates to success in this league.
Now, I know the analytics crowd will immediately @ me suggesting that some of those numbers are inflated by the fourth quarter, when a team is ahead and intent on running out the clock. However, we crunched the numbers on the first three quarters, taking the final period completely out of the equation. Teams that ran on at least 45 percent of their snaps in Quarters 1-3 went 19-9 (67.9 winning percentage) in Weeks 11-13. Those that pounded it on 40 percent or less of their offensive plays? 12-22 (35.3).
It's this kind of analysis that explains why we've recently seen Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer openly pleading with his offensive coordinator to run the ball more in games. The ex-defensive coordinator understands the impact of the ground attack on a defense, and he simply can't understand why John DeFilippo abandons the run at times.
"The running game allows the offense to control the game and dictate the terms," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "Stopping the run is the No. 1 priority of every defensive coordinator in the game. They will drop additional defenders in the box to make sure teams can't run the ball. If an offense consistently hands the ball to the back, they can force defensive coordinators to call certain coverages, particularly eight-man fronts with single-high coverage, to take advantage of matchups on the outside.
"The threat of the run also makes play-action more effective because linebackers overreact to the sight of the ball being handed to the back and that creates big windows in coverage. The mere threat of the running game creates chaos. ... That's why good offensive coordinators focus more on rushing attempts than yards, because it is all about setting up bigger plays in the passing game with play-action and using a persistent running game to wear down the defense."
Think of the running game like a boxer's jab. You're not throwing the jab to knock the opponent out; you're using it to set up the big right-hand shots that lead to knockdowns. When you run the ball early and often, defenses have to respect any and all play fakes, thus spawning bigger plays in the passing game off play-action passes. The running game sets the table for devastating vertical strikes.
There's even more benefit to running the ball in today's game, with more teams gearing up their defenses to get after the quarterback. As defensive coordinators put more pass rushers, undersized linebackers and extra defensive backs on the field, they are leaving their units more vulnerable to the ground attack, particularly with offenses using more "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and "13" (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) personnel packages these days. The addition of more "bigs" on offense challenges undersized defenders to get off blocks and make tackles in space -- quite difficult, as most defenders in today's NFL have rarely been trained to take on old-school runs (power, counter and isolations) at the lower levels (high school and college), due to the proliferation of spread offense. With linebackers and defensive backs lacking the size, strength and knowledge to handle the physicality of the running game, teams committed to playing smash-mouth football enjoy a significant advantage in today's game (SEE: Baltimore, which has posted a 3-0 record since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback).
"Guys don't know how to get off blocks," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "Defenders aren't taught how to take on blockers in the hole in college because there aren't many teams using a fullback or playing old-school ball on that level. Not to mention, there aren't many teams playing that way in the pros.
"When defenses face a team that runs it right at you with a lead blocker or jumbo personnel on the field, it can be problematic, because guys don't know how to deal with it."
That's why defensive-minded head coaches like Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick have increasingly relied on the running game this season, despite most of the league skewing toward a pass-heavy approach. With a few offensive gurus like Sean Payton also reaping the benefits of running the ball early and often, it is only a matter of time before observers realize "ground and pound" is far from dead. In fact, it remains a highly effective way to stack up Ws.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) How did everyone miss on Phillip Lindsay? According to many, functional running backs come a dime a dozen in the NFL. But don't let Phillip Lindsay's stunning success trick you into thinking that all undrafted free-agent running backs are created equal. Here's the truth:
The Denver Broncos' RB1 is a franchise player with the ball in his hands -- and all 32 teams missed on the Colorado standout during the 2018 pre-draft process.
Although you'll hear some area scouts claim they knew Lindsay would make it in the NFL after he finished his collegiate career as Colorado's all-time leader in scrimmage yards (4,849), no one -- and I mean no one -- expected the 5-foot-8, 190-pounder to make such an immense impact on the league in Year 1.
Remember, we are talking about a player who wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. That's why general managers, college scouting directors and area scouts around the league should be revisiting their notes and reports to determine how they completely whiffed on the most unexpected Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in recent memory. Yes, Saquon Barkley is the current front-runner for the hardware, but don't count out Lindsay just yet. I mean, look at his production ...
Despite not starting until Week 8, Lindsay is on the verge of cracking the 1,000-yard mark (937 rush yards in 12 games), while challenging Jamaal Charles' single-season record for yards per carry (6.38) with a striking 6.08 mark. If that's not enough to impress you, Lindsay is on pace for 1,249 rushing yards, which would be the most by an undrafted rookie in NFL history. (Dominic Rhodes currently holds the record, having racked up 1,104 rush yards in 2001.)
Nearly 340 prospects took part in the 2018 combine. How was this guy not even invited to Indianapolis to work out in front of a legion of general managers, personnel directors and scouts?
Honestly, I don't know how the football world completely missed on Lindsay, based on his production as an RB1 in a major conference. As the Buffaloes' RB1, Lindsay posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the Pac-12, including a 1,474-yard campaign as a senior that saw him notch 14 rushing touchdowns, as well as 23 receptions for 257 yards and an additional score. And he actually scored more total touchdowns (17) and posted loftier receiving numbers (53 catches for 493 yards and a TD) in his junior season.
Considering Lindsay's well-rounded resume as a runner/receiver, I decided to take a peek at his collegiate tape, to see if he showed the same explosive game that we see in the NFL today. At Colorado, he flashed good quickness, balance and body control as a runner. He showed better-than-anticipated strength and power as an inside runner, while also displaying B+ burst on outside runs. With the undersized playmaker putting solid receiving skills on tape, he certainly looked capable of at least carving out a role as a third-down/change-of-pace back in an "RBBC" (running back by committee) situation on Sundays.
"You know, he's a guy that we were looking at him in the sixth and seventh round," Broncos GM John Elway told Orange and Blue 760 on Tuesday. "He was in our backyard and we were recruiting him and hoping to get him as a CFA (college free agent) and were fortunate to do that."
To their credit, the Broncos signed Lindsay based on a solid workout at his pro day that included a reported 4.39-second 40-yard dash and a 35.5-inch vertical jump. Although they might've viewed him as an intriguing prospect, the Broncos drafted two other running backs: Royce Freeman in the third round, David Williams in the seventh round. Thus, Lindsay's ascension to the RB1 spot obviously wasn't by design, but rather a surprising stroke of luck for the team.
That said, Lindsay's success confirms the inexact nature of the draft. The undersized runner lacked ideal physical dimensions, but his performance, production, consistency and competitiveness should've prompted evaluators to value those traits over the cookie-cutter measurements demanded by some.
"He's a guy who is an underdog and plays with a chip on his shoulder, and that's what I like about him," Elway said, via the Mile High Report. "I think that his size was the one thing that was his drawback, but you look at his heart and you look at his ability and the speed."
With Lindsay quickly becoming a household name at the position, he could change the way scouts evaluate, grade and draft running backs going forward. Instead of focusing primarily on the measurables, evaluators should concentrate more on skills and potential scheme fits when grading the position. If the prospect checks off enough boxes in the skills department (explosiveness, cutting ability, balance, body control, wiggle, strength, power, explosiveness, hands and route-running ability) and displays a style that meshes with the scheme, he always has a chance to be a star. Lindsay's unexpected emergence is just the latest proof.
2) Can Ron Rivera fix the Panthers' defense? We will soon see if the two-time NFL Coach of the Year can find a solution for what ails Carolina's leaky defense, as the eighth-year head man dismissed a couple of defensive assistants -- and swiped the call sheet from his current defensive coordinator -- this week.
Now, I certainly understand Rivera's desire to turn around his "baby" after seeing his defense struggle mightily during the Panthers' current four-game skid, but the decision to fire Brady Hoke (defensive line) and Jeff Imamura (assistant secondary/cornerbacks) while demoting coordinator Eric Washington puts the burden squarely on the head coach's shoulders to turn around a defense that's fallen from the ranks of the elite in 2018.
"In watching and looking, this puts me in the middle of everything as far as the defense is concerned," Rivera told reporters at his Monday press conference. "I have a bit of experience at play calling and putting defenses together. It's an opportunity for me to work even closer with him (Washington) to help him out as we go forward. Y'all got to remember your first time doing something. You weren't perfect and somebody had to help you. That's really what I'm here for."
I get it. Rivera was an outstanding defensive coordinator during his stints with the Chicago Bears (2004-06) and San Diego Chargers (2008-10). He directed defenses that specialized in creating turnovers and pummeling quarterbacks in the pocket at each spot. With visions of scoop-and-scores, pick-sixes and strip-sacks dancing around his head, Rivera wants to get his defense back to its playmaking ways after watching the unit force only one turnover in the past four games. Considering his defense also ranks tied for 21st in sacks (with 29 in 12 games), Rivera has to quickly fix two key aspects of his defense to keep the Panthers' playoff hopes alive down the stretch.
Part of the defense's problem could be attributed to the constant turnover at the play-caller position. The Panthers have been through three defensive coordinators over the past three seasons and each change brings about a few tweaks to the system.
For instance, Sean McDermott (DC from 2011-2016) was a little more conservative with his approach, despite his Jim Johnson roots (the late Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator was known for his exotic blitz schemes), while Steve Wilks (2017) was an ultra-aggressive play caller with game plans steeped in blitz pressures. Although each coach called the game in a different manner, their extensive experience and knowledge of secondary play and pass coverage allowed them to create schemes that perfectly matched the pass rush with the coverage. In addition to their collective understanding of the passing game, they understood how to plug second-level defenders into the right games to snuff out runs.
On the surface, the understanding of coverage and pressure doesn't seem like a big deal, but for a new defensive coordinator with a background deeply rooted in D-line play, it could take a while to fully understand how to mesh the combination.
"You have to call the game from back to front in today's NFL," said the former NFL defensive coordinator from the opening section of this piece, a man with 20-plus years of experience in pro football. "With teams passing more than ever, you need to understand coverage and gap fits from the second level, and build your scheme with that in mind. The pass rush must match the coverage or you have holes everywhere and you're vulnerable to certain runs and passes. ... The coordinator has to be able to tie it all together (run fits, pass rush and coverage) on every call to make sure the defense is sound and solid. If you don't put the puzzle pieces together correctly, you will give up big plays all over the place strictly due to a bad play design."
From a schematic standpoint, the Panthers are primarily a split-safety coverage team (Cover 2 and Quarters) with a mix of man coverage sprinkled into the game plan. They will use a variety of pre-snap disguises to bluff blitzes, but they've traditionally relied on a four-man rush to pressure the passer with maximum coverage in the back end. When the defensive line wreaks havoc at the point of attack, the tactics work well because the safeties can protect the linebackers and cornerbacks over the top to limit big plays.
Over the last four games, the Panthers haven't won their one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage or in space. Mario Addison, the team's top pass rusher, has only registered a half-sack during the losing streak. Kawann Short and Julius Peppers have also been neutralized, combining for just three sacks during that span. Without a disruptive pass rusher affecting the timing of the passing game, quarterbacks have been able to exploit favorable matchups down the field, particularly on the perimeter against James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Adams.
Just look at these passer-rating-allowed numbers from Weeks 1-9 compared to those from Weeks 10-13, per Next Gen Stats:
-- Bradberry: 97.0
-- Jackson: 68.1
-- Munnerlyn: 84.0
-- Adams: 90.8
-- Bradberry: 137.5
-- Jackson: 144.4
-- Munnerlyn: 100.9
-- Adams: 158.3
That shocking slide coincides with the defensive line's failure to pressure the passer or contain the run. According to Next Gen Stats, the Panthers posted a 32.4 percent pressure rate (second in the NFL) and allowed 13.2 percent of rushes for 10-plus yards during Weeks 1-9, compared to a 21.1 percent pressure rate (25th) and a 16.5 percent allowance rate of rushes of 10-plus yards in Weeks 10-13.
Those numbers are startling, but they pale in comparison to the poor execution and performance that shows up on the tape. The Panthers are blowing routine "banjo" calls (defensive backs exchange coverage responsibilities against stacked or bunch alignments) in man coverage, while also showing a lack of awareness in zone. Not to mention, defensive backs are failing to plaster their receivers on scramble drills, leading to big plays on broken-play tosses from mobile quarterbacks.
Based on the tape, it is not a surprise the team has allowed an NFL-worst 10:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 125.2 passer rating during the four-game skid.
That said, Rivera can certainly turn things around as the defensive play caller, but he will need to simplify his plan and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Instead of trying to trick quarterbacks with a variety of exotic pre-snap disguises and tricky coverages, he will likely use a more generic approach to help his defenders get aligned and play faster. I would expect the Panthers to play more zone, particularly Cover 2, to get the ball in front of the defense. He will spend more practice time working on the details of the coverage and urge his defenders to run to the ball and make solid tackles.
Meanwhile, Rivera has instructed Washington to devote the bulk of his time to the front seven to improve their overall play at the line of scrimmage. Given the team's woes against the run, Rivera and Washington have to fix the gap-control issues that have allowed runners to squirt through the line for explosive gains. Look for Rivera to use only a handful of the Carolina's best stunts and games to eliminate any confusion and allow his front-line players to come off the ball aggressively.
In addition, he will work with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson to make sure they are fitting in the proper gaps within the box. Carolina's linebackers always flow fast to the ball, but they work with the defensive line to eliminate all of the available holes at the line of scrimmage. If the Panthers can win against the running game, they can force more long-yardage situations and attack the quarterback with the rush.
If the Panthers are going to make a playoff run in 2018, it will be on the back of an underachieving defense that sparks a dramatic turnaround. With Rivera intent on grabbing the call sheet, we will soon see if he can match personnel with scheme to get better execution and results.
3) The Amari Cooper effect in Dallas. Remember when every talking head chastised Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys for giving up a first-round pick for Amari Cooper before the trade deadline in late October?
Looks like America's Team is enjoying the last laugh, with the two-time Pro Bowler sparking an offensive resurgence that has catapulted the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East. Cooper has steadied a shaky franchise quarterback with his presence. He has also helped Ezekiel Elliott become a more dangerous playmaker, and played a major role in creating an offensive identity that could make the Cowboys a dangerous out in the postseason.
While Cowboys haters cringe at the idea of this team making noise in the playoffs, Cooper has absolutely elevated the play of his teammates. This is what Jones envisioned when he made the move and it's also what Dallas' owner was alluding to recently when he compared Cooper's effect to Michael Irvin's impact on the franchise's championship teams from the 1990s.
"Well, I think I'm going to go back to Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin. Emmitt had a lot of his runs where he wasn't touched for the first 3 or 4 yards," Jones said. "It's because (Troy) Aikman and Irvin had them backed off, and they knew if they didn't stay back, then Aikman, Irvin and (Jay) Novacek would take them right down the field. Well, Cooper has done that for us. We got to keep them back off. When we do, then Zeke can basically have the kind of days we want him to have as a running back. So, it's a balance thing -- it always has been."
Like it or not, Jones was absolutely spot-on with his assessment of Cooper's impact on the offense. A quick glance at the numbers validates the owner's decision to add the explosive pass catcher to the mix at midseason.
Since adding Cooper in Week 8 (the team's bye week), the Cowboys have improved in points per game (from 20.0 to 21.4), total yards per game (320.0 to 348.8), pass yards per game (183.1 to 224.2) and third-down percentage (31.9 to 48.5).
Not to mention, Prescott and Elliott have seen their individual games surge with Cooper on the field. For instance, Prescott's completion percentage (from 62.1 to 72.8), pass yards per game (202.4 to 251.8), touchdown-to-interception ratio (8:4 to 6:1) and passer rating (87.4 to 105.9) have all significantly improved since Cooper joined the squad, per Next Gen Stats.
Digging deeper into the stat sheet, Prescott has completed 75 percent of his throws directed to Cooper, while posting an average of 10.6 yards per attempt, a 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 123.3 passer rating. By comparison, Prescott has only completed 65.7 percent of his throws to the Cowboys' other receivers, resulting in an average of 6.9 yards per attempt, an 11:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a 92.0 passer rating.
Part of No. 4's success targeting Cooper can be tied to the pass catcher's explosiveness and superb route-running skills. Still just 24, he can separate from tight coverage out of breaks and his expansive repertoire of releases makes him tough to jam at the line of scrimmage. With Cooper also displaying explosive running skills with the ball in his hands, the Cowboys have a real No. 1 receiver and it's made a world of difference in the passing game.
"Cooper has reset the pecking order in the passing game," the aforementioned former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He has allowed Michael Gallup and Cole Beasley to return to their natural roles as No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. He has also given Prescott a solid option to lean on as a No. 1 receiver. ... They were missing that earlier in the season, but you can see what a difference it makes on their offense. They are a different team with Cooper on the field."
Elliott has also benefited from Cooper commanding attention on the perimeter. Zeke is averaging 155.8 scrimmage yards per game, including 106.2 rushing yards per game, since No. 19 joined the team. Considering his numbers prior to Cooper's arrival (113.4 scrimmage yards per game, including 88.4 rushing yards), Elliott should thank the Cowboys' new WR1 for lightening the boxes with his presence.
To that point, the Cowboys have featured more "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) packages since Cooper arrived to stretch opponents with a three-receiver look. The team has used "11" personnel on 68.2 percent of their offensive plays from Weeks 9-13, compared to just 52.7 percent from Weeks 1-8. The increased utilization of three-receiver sets has reduced the number of stacked boxes Elliott has faced. Defenses have used stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) on just 2.7 percent of Elliott's rushes in "11" personnel, compared to 46.5 percent in all other groupings.
Granted, the Cowboys featured "11" personnel prior to Cooper's arrival, but Elliott's production has increased in the three-receiver set since Cooper joined the fold. No. 21's rushing yards per attempt have increased from 4.1 to 5.8 and his percentage of 10-plus-yard runs has soared from 11.9 to 20.4. With the Cowboys using "11" on exactly 50 percent of Elliott's rushing attempts since the trade, the increased production speaks volumes about Cooper's impact on the running game and Elliott himself.
The Cowboys certainly took a risk when swapping a first-round pick for Cooper, but an NFC East title could be the reward for their bold move.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.