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 the soap opera in Seattle …
Is this the end?
The chorus from one of my favorite New Edition songs is applicable to the drama engulfing the Pacific Northwest this week, with Russell Wilson potentially hitting Lumen Field for the last time in a Seahawks uniform.
The disappointment from the first losing season in the Wilson era and the fallout from last offseason’s soap opera have led to plenty of questions about whether No. 3 will run out of the tunnel again for the ‘Hawks following Sunday’s home finale against the Detroit Lions. With uncertainty and skepticism swirling around the franchise, the seven-time Pro Bowler felt compelled to address the situation with the media on Thursday.
“I know you guys asked Bobby (Wagner) about, could this be your last game, and this and that and all that?” Wilson said. “I know for me personally, I hope it’s not my last game (in Seattle), but at the same time, I know it won’t be my last game in the NFL.”
Wilson is the marquee asset for a 5-10 team that appears to need a rebuild, so it’s understandable why many view him as the trade chip that could bring back enough draft capital to truly begin that process. In a quarterback-driven league, a top-tier passer is worth a king’s ransom. By dealing the 33-year-old Wilson, Seattle could parlay the resulting riches into a roster reset, with an aim to get back to the “draft and develop” formula that produced nine straight winning seasons and eight playoff berths during the Wilson era.
But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is having none of that.
“Not for one reason at all am I thinking that we have to restart this whole thing and create a new philosophy and a new approach,” Carroll said this week during an appearance on ESPN 710. “I think we have the essence of what we need.”
As that sentiment pertains to Wilson specifically, I’m squarely in the coach’s corner. In terms of the rest of the roster … Not so fast, Pete.
In the first three drafts of the Carroll era, the Seahawks knocked it out of the park. From 2010 through 2012, Carroll, GM John Schneider and Co. selected Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Wilson, forming the foundation of a championship program. But since that three-year run of drafting excellence, Seattle just hasn’t picked anywhere near as successfully. And this isn’t just a fleeting trend — it’s been nearly a decade. The past nine drafts have produced a gem here and there (SEE: Day 2 receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett), but for the most part, returns have been slim.
So, with that as the backdrop, why would the Seahawks give up their most valuable piece to suddenly bet on their suspect draft acumen? Wilson is an elite quarterback, the most sought-after commodity in the NFL. They’re supposed to voluntarily flip that for the lottery tickets that are draft picks? And in case you haven’t begun your 2022 draft prep yet, this QB class looks far less appealing than recent crops.
This is why the Seahawks must continue to forge forward with Wilson as the franchise player. Upgrade the roster around him, so he can flourish as his athleticism wanes and his game changes in the back nine of his career. I know some quarterbacks are capable of playing into their 40s these days, but the Seahawks need to focus on a five-year plan, based on Wilson’s age and contract situation. The veteran has two years remaining on a four-year, $140 million deal. With an average annual salary of $35 million, the deal reset the market back in 2019, making Russ the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time. But of course, the market has passed him by in the years since. Despite a subpar, injury-riddled 2021 campaign from Wilson, the Seahawks need to sweeten the pot to bring the quarterback’s average annual salary to the $40 million mark that is the new standard for top quarterbacks. A contract extension/raise would not only help repair relations with Wilson, but it’d give the team more salary cap flexibility to acquire some of the established veterans that Seattle needs to close the gap on its division rivals in the difficult NFC West. To his credit, Carroll knows that latter part is a need.
“When you look around our division, and you look at when the Cardinals were really rolling and they had all of their guys going, they had a lot of star players on their football team. Like, National Football League star guys,” Carroll said this week. “The Rams looked like they were pretty loaded up as well. You could see it. The Niners have a lot of firepower.
“We like what we got, but you gotta admire what the other teams have and acknowledge the fact they got some great players over there, too. It’s been really balanced out.”
Seattle needs to upgrade a defense that has failed to play up to the standard established by the “Legion of Boom” during the team’s championship run. Based on their performance over the past few seasons, the Seahawks need to devote more resources to the pass rush and cornerback spots to ensure the team is able to play the style that Carroll prefers. While I presume Carroll would like to go star gazing to match his competitors, the Seahawks need more than just a player or two. So Schneider might need to get a little creative and snag some young veterans who could upgrade the defense in 2022. Energetic edge defenders like Emmanuel Ogbah, Derek Barnett and Charles Harris — all pending free agents — would certainly add some spice to a defensive front that needs some seasoning. At cornerback, Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett and Chandon Sullivan would be sensible free-agent signings for a team that wants to get back to playing rock-solid defense on the perimeter. Sure, the draft would be much cheaper, but the Seahawks have not been able to groom many suitable replacements on the island in recent years. It’s time to solve the issue by throwing some cash at young players with some NFL skins on the wall.
While Wagner just earned his eighth straight Pro Bowl bid, he wasn’t exactly his dominant self this year. And Jamal Adams clearly took a step back. If those two can return to form as top-notch playmakers, and Seattle can upgrade the talent around them, the Seahawks’ defense could quickly re-emerge as a solid unit that is capable of keeping the team in games with a five-star quarterback in place to close them out.
Of course, that quarterback is in the midst of his most disappointing professional season. Sure, the finger injury has probably impacted his accuracy and ball placement, but the team’s lack of offensive rhythm falls on his shoulders. Wilson just has not played on schedule. So offensively, the ‘Hawks need to do whatever it takes to help Russ get his groove back.
I think it starts with improving the ground game by seeking upgrades on the offensive line and in the backfield. Yes, Seattle has a pair of dynamic pass catchers in Metcalf and Lockett, but they’d be greatly helped by a more consistent rushing attack. If the Seahawks can get the running game going while retaining the explosiveness of the aerial attack, Wilson will be able to thrive in the kind of “less is more” offense that has put Aaron Rodgers in position to win back-to-back MVP awards.
A dark cloud has hung over Seattle all year long. But breaking up with the greatest quarterback in franchise history will only deepen the decline. With a new contract extension and some shrewd roster reconstruction, the Seahawks can patch up their relationship with Wilson and get back into contention.
Miami vise: Dolphins’ D fueling win streak
The Miami Dolphins (8-7) have reeled off seven straight wins behind a stifling defense that has to remind longtime Fin fans of the dominance demonstrated by the “Killer Bees” and the “No-Name Defense,” two celebrated units from the franchise’s storied past. While the current D lacks a catchy nickname, Brian Flores’ group has mastered a unique scheme that has the league buzzing about this team’s disruptive potential if it reaches the playoffs.
Since Week 9, the Dolphins’ defense leads the NFL in points per game (11.7), total yards per game (256.6), third-down percentage (28.6), red zone touchdown percentage (29.4) and sacks per game (4.7). Miami’s complete suffocation of opposing offenses has raised eyebrows across the NFL.
Flores’ ferocious unit first demanded national attention back in Week 10, when Miami completely dismantled Baltimore, 22-10, on the prime-time Thursday Night Football stage. Former league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens appeared to have no answer for the Dolphins’ ultra-aggressive blitzing. Others have been equally frustrated by Miami’s “bluff and bail” tactics, which force offensive coordinators to shrink their menus and put pressure on the quarterback to diagnose chameleon-like coverages under duress.
Seeing signal-callers attempt to decipher the puzzle created by Miami’s bold defensive approach is like watching a kid try to solve a Rubik’s Cube for the first time. Passers instinctively look to hot routes and sight adjustments to defeat the onslaught of pressure, but they’re frequently met with underneath defenders dropping into passing lanes. After a few miscues or near-picks destroy the confidence of the quarterback, the combination of pressure and coverage leads to a handful of bubble screens and quick passes that are quickly gobbled up by a collection of Dolphins defenders running to the ball like a pack of hungry wolves.
Reviewing the game tape from Miami’s winning streak, I was fascinated by the complex design but simplistic execution of a scheme that is built around a Cover 0 (all-out blitz) premise. The Dolphins align five defensive backs at 8 yards deep, with their eyes on the quarterback. Although Cover 0 normally puts the DBs in “blitz man” coverage, with each defender assigned to a man, Miami has incorporated some switch tactics to handle the picks, rub routes and crossers that are designed to exploit man-to-man. With the defenders also keeping their eyes on the quarterback to see when and where the ball is thrown, they react quicker to the throws and break on the ball like a base stealer swiping second off a pitcher with a slow wind-up.
Up front, the Dolphins create chaos by putting six or seven defenders at the line of scrimmage in various all-out-pressure looks to challenge the offensive line’s protection calls. The “plus-one” advantage of the front forces the offensive line to slide or squeeze the protection to shield a vulnerable gap, but it exposes the quarterback in another area. With the offense lacking enough blockers to pick up every potential rusher, the QB is basically guaranteed to take a hit from a free runner. As a result, most passers attempt to get rid of the ball in a hurry to avoid a crushing blow or a sack that puts the offense behind the chains.
Now, it would be easy for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators to counter those tactics if Miami only brought all-out pressures, but Flores complicates the equation by utilizing some simulated pressures that look like Cover 0 blitzes at the snap before transforming into four-man pressures with seven defenders in coverage. The Dolphins execute these tactics by instructing a couple of their potential rushers to read the offensive line before making a decision to rush or drop back into coverage. By attracting the eyes and attention of the O-line before dropping into coverage, the bluffing defender frees up another rusher to attack the quarterback through an unobstructed rush lane.
Flores utilized these tactics during his time running New England’s defense, but he has mastered the scheme in Miami with a bunch of ballhawks and athletic rushers at his disposal. The combination of personnel, scheme and courage has transformed the Dolphins’ defense into a stifling unit that no one wants to face. And it could make South Florida’s team an unlikely playoff participant after a horrible start to the season that had some questioning if the ultra-aggressive coach was the right man for the job.
Why A.J. Brown is the Titans’ MVP
If you quizzed NFL observers on which Titans player is most essential to the team’s success, Derrick Henry would likely come back as the clear choice. The two-time rushing champ absolutely deserves credit for helping transform Tennessee (10-5) into a contender in recent years, but in my opinion, A.J. Brown is the straw that stirs the drink for the AFC South leader.
If my take surprises you, I’d recommend you closely examine how No. 11 impacts a big-play offense that masquerades as a unit built on a “3 yards and a cloud of dust” premise. Sure, Tennessee wants to pound opponents with an ultra-physical running game that features Henry as a sledgehammer, but this offense really lights up the scoreboard when Ryan Tannehill throws the ball down the field to a receiver whose contributions still appear to be underappreciated.
The Titans are just 1-3 in the four games Brown has missed this season (Weeks 4, 12, 14 and 15) and they averaged 17.5 points per game in those contests. They are 9-2 and average 26.1 points per game when he plays.
While Henry’s absence in the second half of the season has undoubtedly hindered Tennessee, the offense has been able to utilize a running-back-by-committee approach to keep the ground game churning without him. The Titans are averaging 128.7 rushing yards per game without Henry this season, about 20 yards fewer than they averaged with Henry.
Without Brown, however, the Titans’ aerial attack fell apart, with Tannehill unable to operate efficiently from the pocket. The veteran’s completion percentage (68 to 65.1), pass yards per attempt (7.8 to 5.8) and passer rating (89.2 to 79.1) declined without No. 11 on the field. Tannehill’s downfield passing numbers (throws of 10-plus air yards) show an even bigger disparity, with the QB’s completion percentage (55.8 to 30.9), yards per attempt (10.7 to 5.3), touchdown-to-interception ratio (4:4 to 1:4) and passer rating (89.4 to 25.5) plummeting without the explosive wideout on the perimeter.
“It’s huge,” Tannehill said last week, referring to what Brown’s return did for his confidence. “A.J. is a heck of a player. I have so much fun throwing the ball to him. He finds a way to get open, he’s big, he’s physical. He’s great with the ball in his hands and he makes plays on the ball. He’s everything you look for in a wide receiver and I have a ton of confidence throwing him the football. No doubt it was great to have him back.”
As a deep-ball specialist with outstanding catch-and-run skills, Brown adds a dimension to the Titans’ offense that effectively counters the loaded boxes and aggressive fronts that opponents must utilize to slow down a dangerous rushing attack, with or without Henry.
Mark Andrews, EVERY QB’s best friend
Whenever I pop on the television and watch the talking heads list the top tight ends in football, I am routinely surprised by the omission of one player: Mark Andrews. While I certainly understand the love for Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Darren Waller as standard-bearers at the position, it is time to put some respect on Andrews’ name, especially given his exceptional work this season with the Baltimore Ravens operating a timeshare at the quarterback position.
OK, I am exaggerating a bit, as Lamar Jackson has started 12 of 15 games. But his recent unavailability has thrust Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson into action with the Ravens fighting for a playoff spot. Despite the chaos, Andrews continues to put up big numbers as the team’s No. 1 option in the passing game. The fourth-year pro leads all Ravens pass catchers in targets (132), catches (93), yards (1,187) and touchdowns (nine). Considering Andrews also leads all NFL tight ends in receptions and receiving yards, while being tied for the TD lead, the two-time Pro Bowler clearly should be regarded as a premier playmaker at the position. Measuring 6-foot-5 and 256 pounds, Andrews is a crafty route runner with strong hands and outstanding ball skills. He is an exceptional seam runner with a nice feel for finding voids behind the linebackers and in front of safeties. The veteran is also effective in working over the middle on crossing routes and diagonals at intermediate range.
To the Ravens’ credit, they have asked Andrews to play a role that is similar to the one that made him a star at Oklahoma. He excelled as a designated playmaker in a scheme that featured an assortment of RPOs and play-action passes, with the big-bodied pass catcher running a variety of slants, seams and deep over routes in college. Baltimore features a run-heavy scheme with a complementary play-action passing game that incorporates RPOs and traditional play-action passes. Consequently, the tight end has built a strong connection with Jackson and become the No. 1 target. Andrews has earned the trust of his quarterback with his reliable hands and dependability as a playmaker.
But Lamar isn’t the only Ravens quarterback to lean on Andrews. Just look at the tight end’s continued production with Jackson sidelined for the past three games. During that span with Huntley and Johnson under center, Andrews has amassed 29 catches on 34 targets (85.3% catch rate) for 376 receiving yards and four scores. Andrews has topped the 100-yard mark in each of those games despite everyone in the stadium knowing No. 89 is the offensive centerpiece.
Simply put, Andrews is unstoppable — it doesn’t matter who is throwing the ball to him. And that’s why he must be mentioned in any discussion of the NFL’s top tight ends.