Now officially past the midway point of the season and my awards handed point for the first half already, I wanted to look at some areas that aren’t talked about enough. Everybody likes to hand out their top five teams, individual players at a certain position or whatever. What I wanted to do is put out my five best on topics that aren’t heavily discussed, such as the best quarterback situations, offensive and defensive play-callers and most disappointing teams in the NFL right now. Not all of these can be described purely by numbers or what the eye-test tells you, but instead you have to check the background and analyze the tape, as well as considering who has been on the schedule for all these different squads.
Not surprisingly, the only undefeated team in the league in San Francisco is most frequently represented with a spot in five of the six positive team categories and three number one nominations. The Patriots are second with two of those top spots and another nomination, while the Saints reached the top three in three different categories.
Top five quarterback situations:
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Carolina Panthers
3. Baltimore Ravens
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. San Francisco 49ers
As the name might suggest already, this is not just a ranking of the five best quarterbacks in the league, but instead it Includes the entire depth chart of each team. So as good as Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have been, they won’t appear here since I don’t think Tim Boyle or Geno Smith should put them in the conversation. Instead some other teams might not field one of the elite signal-callers in the game, but their group of three gives them the edge.
After going back and forth, I ended up giving the Saints the top spot here. While you can certainly question Drew Brees’ lack of arm strength down the road last year, he has looked almost flawless in the only two games he started this year and that rest he got might even help him down the stretch. Filling in for him was Teddy Bridgewater, who I was convinced with early on since Sean Payton did not ask him to push the ball downfield at all, but improved with every start. And then New Orleans has their version of Mr. Do-It-All in Taysom Hill, who they put in on special teams and run certain packages with, but can also flat out play quarterback if you give him the chance to. The only reason I didn’t immediately go with the Saints number one is that they will probably lose Teddy for nothing, since he will get 20-25 million dollars per year in free agency, and that Drew is 40 years old.
The team I thought was really close to the Saints were their division rival Panthers. While it looked like one of the worst QB situations at the start of the year with Cam Newton looking like a shell of himself coming off shoulder surgery in the offseason and nobody with any real experience behind him, nobody might be set up better for the future in terms of different options than this group. Kyle Allen has been excellent taking over for Cam, going 5-1 as a starter with some big-time throws and consistent play on a run-first offense. I am also very high on their third-round pick Will Grier, who I had as my 75th overall prospect coming out of West Virginia. The confidence he plays with and how tough he is to put hands on inside the pocket make him a great developmental player. And then there’s Cam, who I have been critical of a lot in recent years and hasn’t looked like the MVP he is, but still has all the tools that made him one. With him headed to IR and his status still being up in the air to some degree, Carolina “only” landed at number two.
One of the crews I don’t hear a lot of people talk about is in Baltimore. The Ravens never used to carry three quarterbacks when Joe Flacco was still that sturdy, yet inconsistent presence. Lamar Jackson is the most exciting player to watch in football right now. His passing skills and command of the offense is vastly improved and just doesn’t give a damn who he is playing. Robert Griffin III has looked great in limited action these last two years and has certainly helped Lamar not get onto the same tracks as he did after that phenomenal rookie years. And the third guy is sixth-round pick Trace McSorley. He was a true gamer at Penn State, who can do a lot of the same stuff from an athletic perspective as those other guys can. He is pretty small and still needs time to learn, but you can do far worse as your QB3 than this young man, who earns crumbs.
Last week when I picked my midseason NFL award winners, I mentioned Gardner Minshew as one of my candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He had been outstanding for the Jaguars up to last weekend’s London game against the Texans, where he ended the contest with four straight turnovers. Of course everybody jumps on that performance, but before that game he was 4-3 as a starter with 12 touchdowns compared to one pick. However, it is all coming together somehow for Nick Foles to enter the action in the role he plays best – coming off the bench and going on a run, now in the AFC where that race for the second wildcard spot at least is wide open. Joshua Dobbs also deserves to be mentioned here. The former fourth-round pick by the Steelers is a former rocket science student with a rocket arm, who flashed every once in a while in Pittsburgh.
Rounding out the top five are the 49ers, who many would have picked as the worst QB situation in the league just two years ago. They traded for Jimmy Garoppolo midseason and ended up winning their final five games after going 1-10 up to that point. Being picked as a darkhorse team last year, Jimmy tore his ACL early on and had several mediocre showing to start 2019. In last week’s Thursday Night game at Arizona he finally showed that he can take over games if the run game can’t get going. With how the market has evolved, that 100-million dollar contract doesn’t look that huge any more and they have him secured until 2022 now. Nick Mullens had that incredible debut against the Raiders last season, when nobody even knew who he was, and multiple teams inquired about him at the trade deadline accordindly. Finally, San Francisco was competitive in all but one of C.J. Beathard’s five starts last season. The former third-round pick out of Iowa has been at least serviceable for them in a backup role.
Top five rushing attacks:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Oakland Raiders
5. Minnesota Vikings
Next up: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts
Unlike a lot of other categories, this one aligns pretty well with the league leaders in terms of rushing yards. However, you can not simply look at the totals or averages of singular players, since you have to consider who these teams have faced and how much of the running success has been due to the featured running back. Game script dictates the amount of carries and one big run on a sweep or reverse can influence the numbers easily.
Right back with San Francisco, only now they own the top spot in this category. This group has everything needed to be a great ground-and-pound team – the offensive line, tight-ends and fullbacks who get after it, talented backs and the most creative run-game designer in Kyle Shanahan, who will make another appearance in this article later on. While the core of this rushing attack is the inside- and outside zone scheme, they are the best at counter off that with whams, counters and several lead-plays. The loss of fullback Kyle Juszczyk was a big one and San Francisco has been without their two starting tackles for a couple of weeks now, but Shanahan has done a masterful job hiding those weaknesses by handing some of those duties to his tight-ends used as H-backs and finding different ways to protect the edges. That duo of Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida challenges for the top one in the NFL and their speed has led to several big plays, but it seems whoever the Niners put in there has success.
Just behind them are the Baltimore Ravens, who are coming off a 210-yard rushing performance against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Right now they are leading the league with over 200 a game and the top mark of 5.5 yards a carry. There is probably only one bigger offensive line than what they have with a grizzly vet in Marshal Yanda and a young set of tackles in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown. You see that size wear opposing teams down, especially when you have guys like Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards running North-and-South with an attitude. What makes this run game special however is their quarterback Lamar Jackson. He seems to be the best athlete whenever he steps on the field and not only is his speed to the edge extremely tough to prepare for, he is so slippery in the open field that defenders rarely get a clean shot at him. The pure threat of him pulling the ball has opened up a lot of room on the inside. Greg Roman is one of the best run-game designers and he has come up with creative schemes all year. As the season goes along I also expect rookie Justice Hill to get more opportunities, since he brings another dimension to them with how explosive he is.
Did you see those holes Ezekiel Elliott ran through on Monday Night? I know the Giants aren’t very good, but nobody has invested more into the interior of their defensive line in recent years and Dallas just blew them off the ball. They are the only team with four top-50 picks on the O-line and had there been no fake reports on La’el Collins coming out of LSU, he would definitely been another one. Unlike most people think, the Cowboys don’t use a lot of heavy personnel and allow defenses to stack the box all the time. They are mostly in 11 and 12 personnel to keep opponents honest and then let that group up front go to work against almost even numbers. They are excellent at getting movement on double-teams and passing them on in the zone game, but can also run power and get those tough yards when needed. Zeke became the highest-paid running back this offseason for a reason and while he looked a little slow early on, he has gone over 100 yards rushing in his last three games. Dak Prescott can easily rip off 20-yarders off zone-read plays or be a weapon on the goal-line himself and Tony Pollard is a nice complement to go with their star back.
Not a lot of people might think of them in that way, but the Raiders have actually become a smashmouth running team behind a monstrous O-line and a dynamic rookie back. When you look at a starting five between Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson and Trent Brown, you get a total of 1680 pounds when you put them all together. Trent Brown in particular is just a massive human being at 380 himself and those guys up front are setting the tone for them. Oakland uses multiple tight-ends on almost half of their offensive snaps and they are one of the few teams to actually utilize a fullback in an oldschool fashion, even if he isn’t on the field a lot, and they like bringing in those extra offensive linemen, especially at the goal-line. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard have had an impact, even though it was primarily as pass-catchers, but the crown jewel here is who I said was Offensive Rookie of the Year in Josh Jacobs. The former Alabama stud is just outside the top five in terms of rushing yards and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. With him leading the way, the Raiders are tied for fifth in first-down percentage through the run, they have seven runs for 20+ yards and three of 40+.
At number five I gave the Vikings the nod. This after they ranked 30th in rushing yards last season and were in the conversation for the worst O-lines in the league. This was very close with the other four I mentioned since they all have really good offensive lines and/or elite backs. However, so does Minnesota. Dalvin Cook together with Christian McCaffrey is right at the top among Offensive Player of the Year candidates, as he is leading the league in rushing yards, while averaging 5.1 yards a carry and having and being tied for first with six runs of 20+ yards. However, even when Alexander Mattison has come in, the Vikes haven’t really skipped a beat, since he brings similar explosion and a violent running style to the table. Their turnaround can be accounted to a healthy Dalvin, but also a vastly improved O-line and an outstanding run-game coordinator. The selection of center Garrett Bradbury in the first round out of N.C. State has made a huge difference since he allows them to put Pat Elflein at guard and gives them flexibility with his athleticism and ability to reach D-linemen. Kevin Stefanski definitely deserves some credit as well, but I attribute a lot of their success to Gary Kubiak coming over and really teaching the zone run game.
Top five pass rushes:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Carolina Panthers
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. New Orleans Saints
Next up: Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams
This is a category very near and dear to my heart. People believe the total number of sacks are the only thing you should look at, but a lot of that can be attributed to different blitz packages and a lot of opposing coaches won’t allow that pass rush to get home by getting the ball out quickly or keeping more guys in protection. The Patriots for example are second in the league with 32 sacks so far, but I would credit the scheme more here with that cover-zero blitz New England loves to run and confuse young quarterbacks with. When you look at a basic four-man rush, I think they are not quite in the top five.
Instead I am going with San Francisco for another number one spot here. It took the Niners forever to actually get that pass rush going after investing four straight first-round picks and another big contract into their defensive line. It has finally finally paid off for a defense that is tied for third with 30 sacks and ranks second in total defense as well as points allowed. Nick Bosa is the clear favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year with the way he has come into the league as a grown man and dominated games, but this group is really deep. The most money has gone to Dee Ford, who was top three in total pressures last year and was traded for in the offseason. On the inside they have DeForest Buckner, who is one of the quietest superstars we have in the NFL. Then there’s Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, who were labelled as busts just last year, but have given them inside-out versatility and good pressure. They also have lesser known guys such as Ronald Blair, D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day making an impact. Overall there are six defenders with multiple sacks due to the way they collapse the pocket and all the games they run up front.
Second is the team that actually leads the league in sacks (34) – the Carolina Panthers. San Francisco’s D-line might be the best, but the deepest might go to this team. Even without a disruptive force like Kawann Short, the interior of that front is incredible with Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler, who are all above two sacks right now. Off the edge they have Mario Addison leading the way with six QB-takedowns and another contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year in Brian Burns, who I loved coming out of the draft because of his burst and bend around the corner. Rotating in at those spots they have lesser-known guys, such as Marquis Haynes, Christan Miller and Efe Obada, who have all provided pressure for them. Outside of Shaq Thompson on a few occasions, Carolina rarely blitzes their linebackers and they have still been a nightmare for any quarterback because of the way they can cover in zone behind that pass rush. The Panthers love those T-E twists, who they even run on both sides at times and get some free at high frequency.
Next up is a team that has lost almost 90 percent of their offensive production and has not really done anything special on that side of the ball, but somehow they stand at .500 only a game out of a Wildcard spot. The Steelers defense has quietly been really good after being atrocious for large stretches of 2018. I still don’t like their personnel on the back-end outside of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has been playing at an All-Pro type level, but that front has been kicking ass. After somewhat of a down-year for Cam Heyward last season, he has come back to being one of the best power-rushers on the inside and he proved that by pushing Quenton Nelson back into Jacoby Brissett’s leg and taking him out of the game. I thought Stephon Tuitt overtook Cam last year in terms of the best down-lineman on that team, but together they are now at eight sacks on the season. The best player on that entire team to me however might be T.J. Watt, who right now is Pro Football Focus’ highest graded edge defender. Being in a contract year has also pushed Bud Dupree to new heights, who hadn’t been playing up to his first-round potential. What makes them special is they have edge guys who can turn tight corners and the push up the middle to not allow QBs to step up in the pocket.
The Jaguars are tied with San Francisco with 30 sacks and while are not looked at in that way anymore, this is still one of the most ferocious front fours in the league. Two years ago we all called them Sacksonville and a lot of analyst said they were the best defense in the league. What most people don’t seem to understand is that they are still mostly the same group. Of course they just traded away one of the two best corners in the league in Jalen Ramsey, so the entire unit won’t be quite the same, but the talent on that defensive line might be even better. Calais Campbell is still a force to be reckoned with, Jannick Ngakoue has developed into one of the top young guys coming off the edge and Dawuane Smoot even has four sacks off the bench. Josh Allen has been remarkable as a rookie, giving them the ability to kick Calais back inside and having two speedster off either side, like they did when rotating Dante Fowler in. The guy they really need to take another step is Taven Bryan who they drafted last year to replace Malik Jackson eventually, but he is more of a flash-player with tremendous potential at this point.
At number five I went with a team that is mostly known for their stars on offense, but actually have won games primarily with their defense. The Saints have always been looked more at as an explosive team, but they have actually turned into a ground-and-pound offense with a suffocating defense for the most. Their defensive front is up their with the very best due to their ability to stop the run but also get after the passer. They have “only” registered 24 sacks on the season, but they have held three teams to under ten points and made the Bears look like absolute garbage on offense until the last few minutes, when the game was pretty much out of reach. Since that opening schedule of Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff and Russell Wilson, the only quarterback to go above 250 yards against them actually was Mitchell Trubisky, who danced around 100 until about six minutes left in the game. Cam Jordan has been an All-Pro type player for a while now, Marcus Davenport is really coming along in his second year and Trey Hendrickson is a nice rotational piece with inside flexibility.
Top five secondaries:
1. New England Patriots
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Buffalo Bills
4. Carolina Panthers
5. Green Bay Packers
When it comes to secondaries, most people only think of the two starting corners and safeties, but you have to look into who a team is actually playing in the games. Some of those Seattle-style cover three teams play more base and nickel packages, but there are also teams with multiple fronts and personnel packages, who throw out six or seven DBs primarily on third down. At the same time not every team runs the same types of coverages and put their defenders in one-on-one coverage situations.
At the very top you have to go with New England. They might be second in the league in sacks and have a great trio of linebackers, including Jamie Collins who I said was my favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, but the strength of this unit is the defensive backfield. Nobody gives their guys in more man-coverage duties and expect them to study gameplans quite like this team. Stephon Gilmore is probably the best corner in the league right now and unlike most years when the Pats bracketed the number one option in the passing game and had their top corner in a favorable matchup against #2s, with him they actually leave him on an island with a lot of the premiere wideouts. In his tenth season Devin McCourty is the most experienced guy in this system and he has seemingly been in the right spot every single time, as he leads the NFL in interceptions. However, you look past those guys and see three safeties with about 150 percent of the snaps combined, Jason McCourty still playing at a fairly high level and the formerly undrafted Jonathan Jones showing tremendous hustle already when he punched that ball out of Nick Chubb’s hands a couple of weeks ago. The other member of that group that I am really high on is J.C. Jackson. He might get a little handsy at times, but I love his physicality and competiveness.
Next up I have a secondary that has been hampered by injuries for large stretches and has had some struggles already, but now has really hit their stride. Baltimore’s trio of corners in Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters is as good as it gets. It didn’t take Peters very long to make impact, as he was the first defender to pick off Russell Wilson this season and took that one all the way to the house. Marlon Humphrey has absolutely been a top three corner this year, not only smothering receivers from the line, but also forcing four turnovers and most recently getting that scoop-and-score against the Patriots. And while Jimmy Smith hasn’t played a lot this year, we have seen the impact of him in or out of the lineup historically and the numbers are pretty drastic. Even though Earl Thomas seems to have lost a gear compared to his time in Seattle, the Ravens utilize him more around the line of scrimmage and as a blitzer, while still breaking up passes by anticipating different patterns. They might have lost Tony Jefferson for the year, but he had not been playing particularly well anyway and the combination of Chuck Clark and long-time chess piece Anthony Levine has worked out pretty well for them.
The Bills have had one of the most underrated defenses for a while now. With the way they made Tom Brady look like a few weeks ago, I feel like they are starting to get the recognition they deserve, but I still don’t believe that people actually know the names om the backs of those jerseys. They have built a really strong D-line through the draft and their two linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano can just fly around, but like New England, the thing that really makes this unit go is the back-end. It all starts with what might be the best safety tandem in the league right now, when you look the highly instinctive Micah Hyde, who brings a ton of versatility to the table, and Jordan Poyer, who is one of the most secure tacklers out there and always shows up around the ball. Third-year man Tre’Davious White has quickly become of the best zone corners in the game. He has come up with three picks, one of them sealing the Bengals game and another one at the goal-line against Miami, when his team was down by five and turned things around after that. Despite bringing in former first-round pick Kevin Johnson from Houston, it has been former walk-on and undrafted free agent Levi Wallace, who not only became a starter for the premiere program in college football at Alabama, but has now played over 90 percent of the snaps for Buffalo. Their primary nickel Taron Johnson had one of the lowest marks on yards allowed per coverage snap in the slot last season.
A secondary that seemingly isn’t getting the recognition it deserves due to their strong front-seven is the one of the Carolina Panthers. Everything plays together for this entire defense, with the pass rush complementing the back-end and the coverage forcing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer. The Panthers were the most zone-heavy defense in the league last year and while they still run those schemes primarily, you have to understand how it works. They do use some two-high looks and use the length of their corners to allow them to get hands on balls that were supposedly thrown over their head – an incredible leaping pick by Donte Jackson comes to mind. However, they run a lot of cover-three, which leaves those corners pretty much one-on-one on the outside with those deep third responsibilities. Jackson’s speed and jumping ability to contest catches are incredible, while James Bradberry has been used more against those big wideouts in the NFC South and beyond, which he has really limited when you look at the numbers. Tre Boston has been kind of a journeyman safety up to this point, but he has played some of his best ball as a member of Carolina, as the only guy with 100 percent of the defensive snaps. And then there’s Eric Reid, who was out of the league through the first quarter of the season due to his political stance, but has been one of the more well-rounded safeties out there since returning to the league.
Rounding out the top five is the team has invested more draft capital into their secondary than any other team in the league recently. Over the last three years the Packers have used five combined first- and second-round picks to acquire help on the back-end. It started with Kevin King out of Washington, who they now like to use against big-bodied pass-catchers for the most part. In 2018 they drafted two more corners in Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. While Jackson’s lack of pure speed has made Green Bay try him out at safety and be a special teams contributor primarily, Alexander truly is the star of the bunch. I had him as my 12th overall prospect because of what a fluid athlete he is and the fact I thought he could be a true shutdown corner, which through his short time in the league he has pretty much developed into already. This year the Pack selected Maryland safety Darnell Savage, who was another one of my favorite prospects out because he just flies around the field like a missile and you almost hold your breath whenever he is around the field. The additions of the Smith brothers up front to revitalize that pass rush has been crucial, but what could make this defense special is that backfield, now also with former Bear Adrian Amos to give them a veteran presence and consistently good play. Mike Pettine loves to bring pressure in all varieties and mix up zone and man looks on the back-end. Now he has the crew to actually get it done.
Top five offensive play-callers:
1. Kyle Shanahan
2. Sean Payton
3. Sean McVay
4. Josh McDaniels
5. Andy Reid
Next up: Frank Reich, Greg Roman and Jon Gruden
Moving on from the players, I now want to look at the premiere offensive coordinators and play-calling head coaches in the league. To me what defines great coaches when it comes to that area is what they can do with what they have. Everybody has to consider what they have at hand in terms of personnel and then game-plan according to the opposing defense. A lot of people can draw up all kinds of cool plays, but they also have to be able to teach those, adjust to who they face and string plays together.
At the top of the list right now has to be Kyle Shanahan. As an OC he made Matt Schaub a Pro Bowler in Houston, helped RG3 win Rookie of the Year in Washington and orchestrated a top ten scoring offense in NFL history with Matt Ryan earning MVP honors. Kyle has moved on to San Francisco and after two years of irrelevancy due to injury problems and a lack of offensive personnel, he has his team rolling with an 8-0 record. Like I said already, nobody is better at keeping defenses off balance with all kinds of different run scheme of those zone looks. But it’s what he has built around that that makes this offense so tough to stop. All those bootlegs and waggles, tight-end screens, throwbacks to the running schemes and crossers he gets wide open off booting the other way forces defenses to defend the entire length and width of the field. We have seen him just carve up opposing teams that use simple coverages, such as those cover-three based defenses, where he can manipulate responsibilities and creates open targets off deep crossers. He rotates his backs through and uses multiple receivers in ways that utilize their strengths. The Niners only scored less than 20 points in that mudfest at Washington when nobody could do anything and they put a 50-burger on one of the best defenses out there in the Panthers. All that despite his quarterback playing mediocre for most of this strength and not having an established number one receiver, which he now has in Emmanuel Sanders, who has already made his presence felt.
Right behind him we have one of the OGs when it comes to play-designer and game-planners. Sean Payton is best known for the way he can motivate his troops and how fired up he gets during games, but he deserves all the credit in the world for the preparation he puts into every game and what kind of a tough team he has built around him. Drew Brees has been amazing throughout his career, but a lot that success has to go to his coach to some degree. Payton is the best at creating lay-ups to his number one receivers in the short to intermediate range, which is a big reason why Michael Thomas is on pace to break the NFL’s all-time records for reception in a season. In addition to that his team has finished fifth and sixth respectively in rushing offense these last two year and his screen game might be the best in the game as well. He doesn’t care if people know he is stealing either, like those goal-line screens with a receiving motioning into a bunch set and how he countered that with a fake and corner route off it to beat the Eagles with their own medicine last year in a genius move. The Saints are now 7-1 despite being without the league’s all-time leading passer for most of it and Alvin Kamara missing a couple of games himself.
At number three there is another Sean, who was everybody’s darling less than a year ago as that new, young offensive coach. After being schooled by Bill Belichick (as so many do) in the Super Bowl when his team was held to only three points, and not looking quite the same this year, the Rams HC doesn’t seem to get the same recognition he used to, but he is still one of the more clever minds out there. McVay comes from the Shanahan tree and has built his offense around the zone run game, with jet sweeps and a multitude of play-action concepts off it to keep defenses honest. To me the reason why this offense is “only” eight with 26.8 points per game is due to the porous offensive line and a Todd Gurley who simply isn’t the same guy he was just a year ago. With the loss of Pro Bowler Rodger Saffold in free agency and a few injuries along the line, this group up front has struggled mightily. Ahead of their bye week, that O-line was ranked only ahead of the then-winless Dolphins according to PFF. Gurley is only averaging 3.9 yards a carry without a single run over 40 yards. If not for a few cheap touchdowns at the goal-line he would be the biggest fantasy bust at less than 500 total yards. Still the offense is somehow top ten in terms yards, points, first downs and completions of 25+ yards. That is largely due to creativity of the guy calling the shots, best displayed by that long touchdown to Cooper Kupp off a reverse flea-flicker in London.
The least discussed name among offensive play-callers probably is this guy up in New England. Josh McDaniels has done it for a long time despite one not so successful stop as head coach in Denver and almost taking over the gig in Indianapolis, before pulling himself out that job at the last moment. Once again, Tom Brady has been unbelievable during his two decades in the league and I don’t think there is much of a discussion anymore if he is the GOAT, because he has simply accomplished more than anybody else, but a lot of the success especially later on has a lot to do with that Patriots system keeping him young. Not a lot of people run this type of system, because it is hard to really define and even tougher to teach. New England uses the highest amount of different personnel packages and can change their look up on every single snap. Last year they went back to being more of a power-run game with James Develin clocking the second-highest percentage of snaps for a fullback behind only Kyle Juszczyk, but with him on IR and no elite run-blocking tight-end like Gronk, they have needed to go back to more spread looks. They love to roll out empty sets and create mismatches with their backs in the passing game, set up easy YAC-opportunities for their receivers underneath and I can not even count the number of cheap first downs they have picked up on screens to James White and those other guys over the years. I know the defense is the big story for the Pats this year, but with a somewhat declining Brady and no real threats on the outside, they are still somehow scoring 30 a game.
And then I want to give another guy love, who has done it for a long, long time. Andy Reid first became a head coach before this millennium even started. He coached some of the great Philadelphia offenses throughout the year, which made it to four straight NFC Championship Games, before doing the same in Kansas City with Alex Smith. However, I don’t think he has ever had as much fun as he now has with Patrick Mahomes taking the calls. Until the reigning MVP went out three weeks ago, no team in the league even came close to the amount of vertical concepts they ran. Reid can fall in love too much with the pass game and forget about his backs, but that combination of aggressive playcaller with maybe the most talented pure passers is absolutely lethal. Even without his QB however, the offense has put up points – 24 versus the Packers and 26 against the Vikings with Matt Moore under center. The way he uses smokes and mirrors through motions and jet sweep fakes, use speedsters to deceive the defense and simply the put the ball to his playmakers in space has been second to none throughout the years. What sets those top four apart a little from Reid is that as incredible as he has been as a play-designer, his offenses have kind of stalled late in the year at times once D-coordinators got the hang of things and that those other guys excelling at game-planning for their respective opponents.
Top five defensive schemers:
1. Bill Belichick
2. Don ‘Wink’ Martindale
3. Dean Pees
4. Sean McDermott
5. Mike Pettine
Next up: Wade Phillips, Vic Fangio, Mike Zimmer and Robert Salah
With this group of men it is all about making offenses work. These defensive coordinators and coordinating head coaches can game-plan for their specific opponents on a weekly basis to take away what they do best, force them to adjust what they do and then find out how to counter the way offenses want to attack them mid-game. Whether that may be finding the right personnel packages, aligning the front, confusing the quarterback with coverages and just teaching defensive assignments to keep opponents from moving the ball and scoring points against them.
Even after more than three decades as a defensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL that dark lord up in New England is the very best defensive coach in the game. As everybody always says, he takes away what you do best as an offense and he is masterful with his halftime adjustments, but is also how he teaches different techniques and the way his players have everything in their repertoire to execute specific gameplans. It starts with what he demands from each position group – he wants defensive linemen that can hold their ground in the run game and either two-gap inside or keep their contain on the edge, he is looking for big linebackers to fill gaps in the run game and take advantage of those smaller third-down backs in protection and he asks his defensive backs to be able to play pretty much every coverage while looking for physical boundary corners who can play press-man. Because of that he can use multiple fronts depending on their matchups, play a lot of six DB packages, make blitzes dependent on the amount of guys in protection and just completely change their approach during games. Everything is detailed and run with perfection pretty much as good as it gets. I know they just got 37 points hung on them by Baltimore, but that is kind of the only weakness I see with this defense – they are not as big up front as they have been in recent years.
Next up is the guy who’s team just handed BB and the Patriots their first loss of the season. After Dean Pees retired as DC in Baltimore before returning for that job in Tennessee, former linebacker coach Don ‘Wink’ Martindale took over play-calling duties. Like his mentor this defense excels due to the multiplicity they show every week. While they don’t quite have the same amount of fronts they run, they like to involve everybody in their blitz packages and run a bunch of coverages behind it. The Ravens can play big with almost 1000 pounds by their three down-linemen in Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Brent Urban, which makes them almost impossible to run against, but they can also leave Williams and Pierce on the field in nickel packages with two outside linebackers lining up wide. In the secondary they keep you honest with single- and split-safety looks and then roll them high and low, play combo-coverages or use one of those safeties as a robber. What has kind of become Martindale’s staple is putting seven defenders at the line of scrimmage and bring as many as all of them, but also as little as three or four and playing coverage behind it. Their problems have really come when they are missing one of their highly paid big guys up front and they are much better when having cornerback Jimmy Smith in the lineup.
At number three is that former DC of Martindale, who I just talked about. I have always been a big fan of Dean Pees, who kind of is one of the original guys to run that hybrid scheme with a base 3-4 front, but a bunch of different odd and even alignments to confuse blocking schemes. Not a lot of people may think of them that way, but the Titans right now are allowing only 18.3 points per game and these last two have been the only matchups, in which they have allowed more than 20 points per game. They are also tied for sixth in total takeaways (14) and third down percentage (33.6), even though, even though their offense is bottom ten in most offensive categories. What Pees is really good at is giving opposing quarterback obvious pre-snap looks and then completely changing things up as the ball is snapped, such as lining his free safety up in the middle of the field, but then bringing him down at the snap and letting his corners sink into cover-two or showing a five-man rush with his two outside linebackers on either edge, but instead bringing both inside backers and dropping the outside guys into the respective hook-zones. Tennessee has a D-line they can rotate through, one of the best inside linebacker tandems with Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans, corners who can re-route their guys and stay on the hip pocket and highly versatile safeties led by Pro Bowler Kevin Byard. That’s how they led the Patriots to ten points at home last year and gave the Browns a rude awakening in the season-opener.
With my next nominations I went with the guy whose defense has been one of the top five in the league for the last two year. Sean McDermott arrived in Buffalo in 2017 together with Brandon Beane, coming over from Carolina, and they have completely turned around that roster and the culture. They have parted ways with several highly paid veterans and brought in quality free agents, but mostly built through the draft. That’s how this defense has come together as well. Their two starting corners were drafted and picked up as UDFAs, they selected their starting nickel, both inside linebackers, their starting 3-tech defensive tackle and a couple of rotational guys. Unlike the other names I already talked about, the Bills don’t have a super versatile scheme with a bunch of fronts and personnel packages, but instead they are very good and making small adjustments according to their opponents. They either have four D-linemen with their hand in the dirt or an outside backer in an over front, two linebackers with 83 and 100 percent of the snaps respectively and four defensive backs all being on the field for at least 94 percent of the plays. What makes McDermott special as a defensive coach is not necessarily the way he can confuse offense, but instead how well everybody seems to know tendencies and their assignments. They primarily run gameplan-specific zone coverages, where their defenders do a great dropping into areas to take away the staples of the opposing passing game and are highly effective at reading the receiver patterns.
And finally I want to give Mike Pettine some love. I said before last offseason that the Packers should retain their defensive coordinator no matter who they bring in as their new head-coach, because I saw a plan in what he does and the way he coaches defense. All he needed was some more pieces of personnel to really succeed. For the first time in forever Green Bay under general manager Brian Gutekunst went out and spent a bunch of money in free agency to bring in outside linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith as well as safety Adrian Amos from the division rival Bears. They also drafted Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Maryland DB Darnell Savage to add to a secondary that I already talked about being filled with a bunch of young talent. What Pettine does best is at is cutting his pass rushers loose and scheming guys free, which has led to career years for the Smith “brothers”, who have combined for 16.5 sacks. He lines them up all over the front and makes it tough for opposing to decipher who is actually coming from where. The Packers are very effective at messing with protection schemes without having to bring a lot of blitzes, outside of Savage from the slot a couple of times a game. Outside of the way he changes up his 3-4 looks, he likes to play matchups behind that in the secondary, where he tries to utilize his coverage-guys in roles they excel it. The ones real weakness for the Packers recently has been their run defense, which comes from the lack of strong play on the interior. If they do a better job clogging up those lanes, this defense could be good enough to go to a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers.
Two bonus lists:
Top five offseason acquisitions:
1. Za’Darius Smith
2. Nick Bosa
3. Jamie Collins
4. Gardner Minshew & Nick Foles
T.-5. Mark Ingram
T.-5. Tevin Coleman
This group only concerns players who were added throughout the offseason. So this disqualifies the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Emmanuel Sanders and others.
The best acquisition to me has been Za’Darius Smith, whose 8.5 sacks lead the way for a very opportunistic Packers defense that has recorded 22 sacks and 14 takeaways. Right behind him I have another edge rusher in second overall pick Nick Bosa, who I already labelled the Defensive Rookie of the Year for being the biggest piece in the 49ers turnaround to being the league’s best D-line. At number three I have Jamie Collins, who I mentioned as one of the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year for the way he has stuffed the stat sheet for the league’s top-ranked defense. Fourth I have the combination of free agent Nick Foles and sixth-round Gardner Minshew. Even if Foles only played a couple of series for Jacksonville, they have had excellent QB play for the most part and now feel confident to return to their original starter at 4-5. And at number five I have a tie between the RB1s on the top two rushing offense. I didn’t think Mark Ingram would take such a high share of the workload for Baltimore, but he has given that offense a hard-nosed attitude and some great play. Tevin Coleman on the other hand started as part of a three- to four-man backfield and after his first stint with Kyle Shanahan, he has now become their top option at the position.
Top five disappointing teams:
1. Atlanta Falcons
2. Cleveland Browns
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Chicago Bears
5. New York Jets
Next up: Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Chargers
This is a less positive category obviously. I didn’t have Miami or Washington at the top since nobody expected those teams to really be in any type of playoff contention and were labelled by many as tanking teams due to the decisions they made through the offseason.
Atlanta to me is the team that has really underperformed. This team still had a lot of the pieces from their Super Bowl run, but the defense has been absolutely atrocious, the highly talented offense has only turned it on in the second half a lot of times and Dan Quinn is pretty much out of there. The Browns were probably the most hyped team over the offseason, but the offense has had no identity despite all that talent at the skill positions and the defense is 30th in run defense. For the Bengals there might not have been very high expectations, but for them to be the only team with no wins despite some other teams publicly being accused of tanking. Fourth on my list are the reigning NFC North champion Bears, who refused to run the ball despite having maybe the worst passing game and the defense has suffered from being on the field too much. And finally I have the Jets. After Sam Darnold came back from mono, they gave the New York fanbase some hope with that win over the Cowboys, but they have followed that up with a beatdown against the Patriots and a loss to the formerly winless Dolphins. Yikes.