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:
» With Matt Patricia in Detroit, who is the Patriots‘ new defensive play caller?
» Why Tyrann Mathieu chose Houston — and how the decision benefits him as a player.
» How J.R. Smith’s epic NBA Finals blunder impacts players in this league.
But first, a look at the top five committee backfields in the NFL today …
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I know this is a sore subject for fantasy football heads … but a recent comment by new Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur got me thinking about the committee-backfield approach ruling today’s NFL.
Sure, you have a handful of bell-cow backs carrying a full load as runner/receivers (SEE: Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt and Ezekiel Elliott), but the overwhelming majority of teams are leaning on RB duos or trios to steady their offensive attack. Although some of the NFL’s committees were created out of necessity, due to the lack of a marquee RB1, the vast majority of teams actually prefer featuring two or more backs in role-specific assignments designed to tax the defense all over the field. Whether establishing a rugged running game or fueling a dynamic aerial attack with mismatch exploiters out of the backfield, more offensive coordinators are leaning on multiple backs to anchor their respective offenses.
In Tennessee, the movement is in full swing, with Dion Lewis joining Derrick Henry to give the Titans an explosive 1-2 punch in the backfield. At first glance, the move not only pairs a splashy pass catcher with a rugged runner, but it also gives Tennessee a new-school offense with two backs sharing the workload.
“Until you get the pads on and really get going through preseason, I look at them both as 1A and 1B,” LaFleur said Tuesday, via The Tennessean. “I feel confident in both of those guys. They both bring a little bit different qualities to what they do. But I think we’ve got two really good backs that we’re excited about.”
LaFleur makes great points about wanting to wait a little bit before declaring one the starter. Either Henry or Lewis could establish himself as The Man when the pads come on, but you always want to keep the competition going as a coach. However, I believe the remark about Henry and Lewis bringing different skill sets to the position is an important one. Despite viewing his backs as co-starters, LaFleur has a vision for how each player can contribute to the offense and that will ultimately determine which back is on the field in certain situations.
Henry is a bulldozer with the size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), strength and power to wear down opponents as a hammer in the run game. He excels on downhill runs between the tackles that allow him to hit the point of attack with his shoulders square to the line. With Henry adept at running through arm tackles in the hole, the Titans have an ideal grinder in place to handle the dirty work in the ground game, particularly in short-yardage, four-minute and other must-run situations.
In Lewis, the Titans have a sneaky runner with an A+ set of skills as a receiver. Despite his diminutive size (5-8, 195), the eighth-year pro is capable of chewing up yards in a traditional RB role, routinely producing positive yards on an assortment of off-tackle, misdirection and delayed runs. That said, Lewis is at his best when utilized as a dual-threat playmaker out of the backfield. As a polished receiver with slick route-running skills and strong hands, Lewis overwhelms linebackers on option routes and swing passes out of the backfield. He also shines as the designated pass catcher on slow screens and slip screens. Lewis shows outstanding patience waiting for his convoy to reach the perimeter and flashes enough wiggle with the ball in his hands to solidify his role as the hybrid playmaker in the backfield.
With Henry and Lewis capable of owning their respective roles, the Titans can marry their running plays with complementary passes to keep defenders on their heels.
“First of all, it really all starts with our run game and having plays that play off our run game,” LaFleur said earlier this week. “I think that’s how we’re going to try to have a strong marriage between the run and the pass, so that to a defense it might look like, ‘Oh, here comes another run,’ and it’s a play-action pass off that run or whatnot.”
Tennessee’s new RB tandem could be the backbone of a retooled offense that’s more dynamic and explosive in 2018. Better yet, the Titans could boast the top running back duo in the game by the end of the season. Though Henry and Lewis have a ways to go to top the terrific twosome headlining my rankings just below. Here are my top five committee backfields heading into 2018:
1) Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints: This record-breaking pair has already earned the “G.O.A.T” moniker from me, based on some eye-popping production in 2017. That was the best season I’ve ever seen from a running back duo. In fact, it was the best season anyone has ever seen: Kamara and Ingram each amassed 1,500-plus scrimmage yards — a first, for RB teammates, in NFL history. While the numbers are certainly jaw-dropping from No. 41 and No. 22, it’s the all-around skill sets that make them the game’s top duo. Both playmakers are capable of running between the tackles or on the edges, while also displaying soft hands and precise route-running skills. Not to mention, each guy can carry the offense by himself, if and when the need arises. And that will be the case for Kamara in September, when Ingram will serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. With Drew Brees leaning more and more on his running backs to help him ignite the Saints‘ high-powered offense, Kamara and Ingram clearly deserve top billing here.
2) Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons: The Dirty Birds’ dynamic duo features a pair of explosive playmakers with home-run potential from anywhere on the field. In 2016, this electric tandem helped spark the Falcons‘ run to Super Bowl LI, with Freeman and Coleman taking turns torching defenses on the perimeter. Remember, the duo combined for nearly 2,500 scrimmage yards and 24 total touchdowns as the Falcons‘ 1-2 punch behind MVP Matt Ryan. Despite seeing their production fall off a bit in 2017, I still strongly believe in the potent playmaking abilities of Freeman and Coleman. If Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can fully tap into their talents, Freeman and Coleman will push for the No. 1 spot on this list.
3) Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans: Credit Titans general manager Jon Robinson for giving Marcus Mariota a pair of weapons in the backfield that will make life easier for him as a franchise quarterback. Henry and Lewis will alleviate some of the pressure on No. 8’s shoulders to carry the offensive load as a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Henry brings a no-nonsense running style that punishes defenses. The 2016 second-round pick spent much of his first two seasons spelling DeMarco Murray, but he has strong 1,000-yard potential in 2018 as the Titans‘ rugged workhorse. Lewis is a versatile playmaker with crafty skills as a runner and receiver. He shows spectacular stop-start quickness with the ball in hands, which makes him a dangerous weapon in the open field on swings, screens and checkdowns out of the backfield. Considering Lewis’ underrated running skills between the tackles, the Titans have a devastating combination to throw at opponents.
4) Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears: For a team that won just five games in 2017, the Bears have plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the new season. And a lot of the positive vibes spawn from this 1-2 backfield punch, which gave opponents fits last fall. Howard has eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two NFL seasons, exhibiting a one-cut running style that is ideally suited for rugged runs between the tackles. Cohen is a 5-6, 181-pound jitterbug with explosive stop-start quickness and wiggle. He routinely makes defenders miss in tight quarters and is nearly impossible to snag in the open field. As a designated receiver out of the backfield, Cohen exhibits Darren Sproles-like playmaking ability, but he is more polished and refined as a pass catcher. Considering Matt Nagy’s experience working with versatile playmakers in Kansas City, the Bears‘ backfield could be a treat to watch in 2018.
5) Rex Burkhead, James White and Sony Michel, New England Patriots: Despite lacking a marquee name in the backfield, the Patriots‘ collection of playmakers deserves a spot on this list, due to the group’s ability to create headaches for defensive coordinators around the league. Burkhead and White are interchangeable runners/receivers with crafty running styles and polished receiving skills. Both guys are not only capable of wearing out linebackers on an assortment of slick route-running moves, but they are also sneaky runners with enough strength and power to pick up the tough yards between the tackles, particularly on short-yardage runs. Michel has yet to play an NFL down, but he is a five-tool player with the speed, power, running skills, route-running ability and hands to dominate the game on the perimeter. Although his role hasn’t been determined, he could thrive as a Kevin Faulk-like playmaker with more sizzle to his game. Now, you’ll notice that I didn’t even mention Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee. Talk about backfield depth! But yeah, while I’m confident Burkhead, White and Michel will be prime contributors in 2018, I’m not sure what kind of roles Hill and Gillislee will have. Don’t be surprised if one of them ends up on the chopping block.
PATS’ NEW DEFENSIVE PLAY CALLER: Who is Brian Flores?
That question has been floating around the football world since the 37-year-old New England Patriots linebackers coach assumed play-calling duties for a defense that doesn’t have an official defensive coordinator. Sure, the former Boston College linebacker made the rounds on the head-coaching circuit this offseason, but few know much about his coaching style or tactical mastery.
That’s why everyone is paying close attention to the Patriots‘ defensive performance at minicamp, to get a better feel for how he will put his stamp on the unit.
Flores, who has held several positions with the Patriots since joining the team in 2004, is well-respected around the league for his communication skills, attention to detail and teaching prowess. I had some recent conversations with some of Flores’ former co-workers, and they raved about his “intelligence” and “intensity” as a coach. They also talked about his understanding of personnel based on his scouting background. When I talked to a former Patriots player about Flores, he told me that the no-nonsense leader was a “solid coach” who will do a good job running the defense. Although the former player reminded me that the D will probably look like the rest of the Patriots‘ defenses under Bill Belichick, with a few minor tweaks, it goes without saying that a new defensive play-caller will add his own flavor to the game plan, right?
“Well this is gonna sound like a Bill Belichick-coached team,” Flores told reporters last month. “Tough, smart, dependable, that can play under pressure. That’s been a good formula. I’ll go with that one.”
I certainly can’t knock the new defensive play-caller for delivering the perfect Patriots response, but he’s really trying to keep a low profile while taking on more responsibilities.
“This is a team game, you know what I mean? It’s hard for me to think that I would put my imprint on anything,” he added. “It’s a team imprint. That’s my feeling on that. It’s hard to say, ‘your personal …’ No, it’s a team imprint. This defense will become what it becomes as a team. Not because of me or because of anyone. It’ll be because of the guys in that room, building from right now, into the OTAs, into training camp, into the preseason games. Building and building and building. It’ll be a team imprint, I’ll say that.”
With Flores offering little insight on how New England’s defense will play under his guidance, I thought it was telling that Dont’a Hightower suggested the unit would be more aggressive with the new play-caller taking the reins from Matt Patricia, who’s now head coach of the Detroit Lions.
“Matty P and Flo are somewhat the same, but a little different at the same time. With the play calling we’ve gotten so far, I definitely feel like we’re going to be more aggressive,” Hightower told reporters this week, via ESPN. “Things are a little bit more simple, but it’s still a little bit different, and guys are learning bits and pieces of the defense. But so far, so good. A lot of guys that have come in from different organizations, like AC (Adrian Clayborn), he’s picked it up and we’re able to run with it and we’re able to play a lot faster.”
Looking at the current composition of the Patriots‘ defense, it appears Flores has the personnel in place to morph between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense based on matchups. He can easily use a four-man front with Trey Flowers and Clayborn on the edges or he can swap out the interior defenders and insert Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers into the lineup as stand-up edge rushers. With a pair of big, thick linebackers (Hightower and Kyle Van Noy) capable of thriving in 3-4 or 4-3 schemes and a solid core of nickel defenders (Jason McCourty, Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung) capable of playing man-to-man, the Pats are poised to win with a straightforward defense that prioritizes substance over sizzle and pizzazz.
When Hightower suggests the defense is simpler, it leads me to believe New England will play faster, with a lack of mental clutter and a clear understanding of roles/assignments. With Flores reportedly urging his players to pay close attention to the details on the field (flying to the football, creating turnovers and playing with physicality/toughness), the Patriots might look like an old-school version of Belichick’s defenses from yesteryear.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Chiefs creating more opportunities for pass rushers. The NFL is a players’ league, but good coaches recognize the value in building their scheme around the talents of their top playmakers. Whether it’s tweaking the scheme to accentuate their individual strengths as players or putting them in the ideal position to make plays, the best coaches in the game find a way to elevate their players by carefully manipulating the chessboard to create more big-play opportunities.
That’s why my ears perked up when I heard the Kansas City Chiefs could unleash their pass rushers using a matchup-based system this season. According to linebackers coach Mike Smith, the Chiefs will move around their two best pass rushers to exploit the biggest mismatch on the opponent’s offensive line.
“If there’s a tackle that’s big and a little bit slower, Dee [Ford] has got one of the best get-offs in the league,” Smith said. “He’ll line up on him. If the tackle is a little bit smaller, Justin [Houston] will go tear him up a little bit. That’s kind of what we’ll do.”
Although the Chiefs’ tactical strategy makes sense on paper, I’m a little surprised the defense hasn’t taken this approach prior to 2018, particularly with the Pro Bowl players (Houston and Tamba Hali) who have dotted the roster for years.
“That’s the thing I’ve talked to Justin about the most because he likes to line up on one side,” Smith said. “We have to get our best player on their worst offensive lineman, wherever that may be, and that’s how you should be on defense, period. If it’s a coordinator, you break it down, but you just can’t get comfortable on one side. He has to be able to cross the line, and that’s what we do.”
Now, we’ve seen other players step outside of their comfort zones to increase their odds of creating splash plays, but Houston has been reluctant to leave his left outside linebacker position since he entered the league as an early third-round pick (No. 70 overall) in the 2011 draft. I certainly can’t fault him for his initial reluctance to leave a spot where he has amassed 69.5 career sacks over seven seasons, but we’ve seen other top pass rushers move around to exploit matchups. Khalil Mack, Cameron Jordan, Michael Bennett, J.J. Watt and others have moved around in recent years to blow up offensive lines around the NFL from various alignments. In fact, one of the Chiefs‘ biggest rivals (Los Angeles Chargers) has used a similar approach to free its top two pass rushers (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram) off the edges.
With that in mind, it makes complete sense for Houston to welcome the opportunity to attack opponents from anywhere on the line.
“I want to be able to attack the weakest link,” Smith said. “Every (opponent) is different. Everybody’s left tackle isn’t All-Pro. Everybody’s right tackle isn’t All-Pro. So wherever’s the weakest link — if it’s the guard, center or even tackle — I want to be on the weakest link.”
This is exactly what the Chiefs had in mind when contemplating the change this offseason.
“We’ve got to get our best player on their worst offensive lineman, wherever that might be,” said Smith.
With a pair of pass rushers like Houston and Ford at their disposal to harass opponents in the AFC West, the Chiefs‘ new plan could help the defense rediscover the nastiness that made them one of the top units in football a few seasons ago.
2) Tyrann Mathieu honing in on safety position. Jack of all trades but the master of none?
For all of the love and adulation observers have thrown at All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu for his unique game and position flexibility, it appears his versatility has been a bit of a gift and a curse for the diminutive playmaker.
“This is why I chose to play for the Texans,” Mathieu said. “[In Arizona], I had a lot on my plate. I couldn’t really focus on really one position. I think a lot of times coaches may ask me to strictly rely on my instincts, but am I really getting better at football? I think those were questions I needed to answer, and I think Romeo [Crennel] answered those questions for me.”
Wow! I would’ve never guessed that Mathieu would suggest that he hasn’t improved as a player due to his responsibilities as a Swiss Army knife in the secondary, but the veteran certainly makes solid points about being unable to fully develop his game due to constantly bouncing around from safety to cornerback to nickel corner to linebacker during his Cardinals career.
Although his production and performance suggested that he was a spectacular chameleon in the backend with 41 passes defensed, 28 tackles for loss and 11 interceptions in 66 games, the veteran believes the constant movement prevented him from maxing out his talent at one position.
“I played four or five different positions, I had four or five different responsibilities and I never could really perfect one craft. I think right now, for me, it’s just committing to safety, playing safety the best way. From there, like I said, the game plan kind of dictates, too, where I’ll line up.”
Naturally, the Texans would like to tap into his skills as a hybrid playmaker, but getting their top free-agent signee settled in as a free safety could help the 24th-ranked pass defense surge up the charts. The Texans gave up a league-worst 17 completions of 40-plus yards, which speaks to the team’s need to find a safety with the range and awareness to close the middle of the field. Mathieu has the potential to fill that role, but he hasn’t really played the position on a full-time basis since entering the league.
“I haven’t really played the safety position,” Mathieu said. “I’ve played it in the past, but I haven’t really practiced it. So that’s been an adjustment for me, [but] it definitely helps me slow things down. Just focusing on one position, trying to be the best at that rather than just being good at everything. So I think it’s important for me to just embrace it like I have been and just trying to continue to grow as a safety.”
To that point, Mathieu certainly can improve as a center fielder in the middle of the defense. As a natural ballhawk with exceptional instincts and anticipatory skills, he quickly reads and reacts to the eyes of the quarterback, leading to a number of deflections and big hits between the hashes. However, he can produce more turnovers if he has an even better feel for reading routes from the middle of the field. Whether it’s fully understanding how opponents will attack the coverage or how various quarterbacks will throw the ball to certain areas of the field based on their respective strengths as players, the veteran can hone in on a few fundamentals to help him become a better playmaker as a safety. Not to mention, he can work on taking proper angles to the football on deep balls thrown along the boundaries or down the seams (hash marks).
“I just want to prove my point that I’m one of the best safeties in this league,” Mathieu said. “Obviously, I had some setbacks, I had some challenges, and I try to take those challenges head-on. … I’m really trying to just come here with a clean slate; it’s a fresh start for me, and [I’m] just trying to prove my point again.”
3) Matt Nagy educating young Bears about situational football. NFL coaches are always looking for ways to motivate and educate their players. Coaches will routinely show their team video clips of random critical errors from other teams to facilitate discussions about situational football. With the NBA Finals in full swing, I’m not surprised Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy used J.R. Smith’s blunder in Game 1 as a teachable moment for his squad.
Mitchell Trubisky told NFL Network’s “Inside Minicamp Live” earlier this week that Nagy showed the Bears the final few moments of that game to emphasize the importance of “situational awareness” in critical situations. From understanding time and score to realizing how many timeouts are left to knowing the rules of the game, it is important for all players to understand what is taking place between the lines at all times.
“The best teams are masters of situational football,” said a former NFL defensive coordinator. “You have to make sure your players understand what’s going on in various situations and drill them on those scenarios routinely throughout OTAs and training camp. … You can’t assume that you know how to react to situations under pressure. You have to teach them how to react.”
Looking back at my own NFL career, I vividly remember Marty Schottenheimer taking us through a number of late-game scenarios during my time with the Kansas City Chiefs. We frequently discussed how to handle two-minute drills, Hail Mary passes, intentional safeties, victory formation and other situations that could come up at the end of games. In addition, we would walk through how to react to punts after safeties, free kicks and other random scenarios that rarely occur in regular-season games.
When I talk to current or recently retired NFL players, they talk about ending Saturday practices before game day with the “final eight” plays, going over those late-game situations that could decide the contest under pressure. Those eight plays typically include a Hail Mary, clock-stopping sideline pass (think Minnesota Vikings’ TD pass in the Divisional Round of last season’s playoffs), victory formation (kneel down), last play and field-goal attempt with fewer than 10 seconds remaining, clock-killing scenario from the punt team, sideline-pass defense and a few other random instances.
“It’s annoying to go through these same plays and scenarios each week, but I’ve seen those plays work under pressure,” said a former NFL player. “You have to practice for those situations and hope everyone remembers what to do when the lights come on.”
When I think about the team commonly linked to superb situational football, it always goes back to the New England Patriots due to their flawless execution in critical moments. From TB12’s ability to master the clock in end-of-game situations to the team’s understanding of various late-game scenarios, including managing timeouts on defense, the Patriots are light years ahead of the league in terms of their situational football preparation.
“Everyone talks about it but the Patriots are committed to it,” said the former NFL defensive coordinator. “They emphasize it in their meetings and run through those same scenarios on the field. They also ‘pop quiz’ their players to make sure they know exactly what’s going on whenever they step onto the field.”
With Nagy using a basketball blunder to educate his young team on the importance of being locked in at the end of the games, the Bears head coach is attempting to raise the individual and collective football IQ of a team that needs to learn how to win.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.