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 upgraded quarterback play in the Steel City …
I’ve never seen Big Ben play better football.
That was the key takeaway scribbled in my notebook while studying Ben Roethlisberger’s film from this season. Despite playing just six quarters last year and then undergoing major elbow surgery that led to concerns about his effectiveness as a passer at an advanced age, Roethlisberger’s on track to set career marks in completion rate (currently 69.1), touchdown-to-interception ratio (11:1) and passer rating (109.1) in his 17th NFL campaign.
Think about that: A 38-year-old quarterback returning from a season-ending injury is putting up personal bests while directing an undefeated squad that’s rounding into form as a Super Bowl contender.
Big Ben has been outstanding operating as a pass-first point guard from the pocket, dropping dimes to his talented cast of pass catchers on the 5-0 Pittsburgh Steelers. The former high school basketball star — seriously, the guy averaged 26.5 points, nine rebounds and five assists as a senior at Findlay High (Findlay, Ohio) — pushes the pace while efficiently putting the ball in the hands of his playmakers in ideal positions to create big gains in space.
Although his yards-per-attempt average of 7.1 doesn’t jump off the page, it is part of a ball-control strategy that enables Pittsburgh to dictate the terms to opponents. And while Big Ben has hit on some deep shots — mainly to rookie revelation Chase Claypool — he’s been more devoted to an assortment of horizontal routes at short and intermediate range. This is sensible, given that Roethlisberger’s fresh off major surgery on his throwing arm. Moreover, the catch-and-run system utilized by the Steelers is a perfect fit for the wide receivers in the lineup.
Studying Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, I’m impressed with everyone’s ability to run with the ball in his hands. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Claypool are all effective at turning short passes into first downs. Each has the capacity to make the first defender miss; this enables the Steelers to lean into small ball after featuring a bombs-away aerial attack for years.
Tight end Eric Ebron gives the Steelers a dependable chain mover between the hashes with some sneaky playmaking ability. The former Pro Bowler still flashes splash potential as an athlete, but the Steelers have featured him as an underneath target in their quick-rhythm passing game.
Shot plays to Claypool aside, Roethlisberger’s at his best working within the 20-yard box at this stage of his career. As an older passer with waning arm strength, he is following in the footsteps of Drew Brees and Tom Brady: embracing efficiency over big-play hunting. The drastic change in his approach will lead to some concerns about his ability to stretch the field, but stringing together completions and first downs ultimately leads to touchdowns in today’s game.
By embracing a different approach, Big Ben has enabled the Steelers’ offense to play a complementary style that matches their championship-caliber defense. With quarterbacks ultimately judged by their ability to chalk up Ws on the resume, Pittsburgh’s QB1 is playing at his best with a less-is-more style that makes his team difficult to defeat.
DINK AND DUNK
Why it’s (rightfully) Tua time: My heart goes out to Ryan Fitzpatrick following his benching in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, but the Miami Dolphins needed to make this move to further their mission of eventually hoisting the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy. The team could’ve continued with the veteran journeyman in an attempt to take the AFC East, but inserting the rookie signal-caller into the lineup now gives Miami the best opportunity to grow into a true Super Bowl contender.
Brian Flores has consistently stated that he will make any and all decisions with the long-term interests of the team in mind. By naming Tua the QB1, the second-year head coach ensures that the No. 5 overall pick receives the bulk of the reps in walkthroughs, practices and games. The move also enables Miami to begin the process of customizing this offense to the southpaw slinger’s game. Coordinator Chan Gailey will get a chance to craft a playbook that enhances Tagovailoa’s skills, and the front office will be able to get a better idea of exactly what is needed in the supporting cast to elevate the 22-year-old’s game.
It was wise for Flores and Co. to make the move at the outset of the bye week. It’s a natural break in the schedule that provides Tagovailoa with enough time to fully prepare for his debut start, which will come at home on Nov. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. In addition, the off week is the perfect time for coaches and scouts to re-evaluate their team to determine which schemes and players should be featured down the stretch.
The Dolphins took many by surprise with this seemingly abrupt move, but the rationale makes sense for a franchise that has yet to legitimately compete for a Super Bowl title this millennium.
The Ravens get richer: Credit GM Eric DeCosta and the Ravens for adding an explosive pass rusher to a defense that’s already tied for second in the league in sacks (22). The philosophy of building “strength on strength” doesn’t resonate for some franchises, but with the trade for Yannick Ngakoue, Baltimore’s loading up to take down the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs if they see them again in the playoffs.
Although this will be Ngakoue’s third team in three months, the rapid movement is not an indictment of his game. Ngakoue has been one of the NFL’s most productive pass rushers since entering the league as a third-round pick in 2016, ranking fourth in QB pressures (225) and third in forced fumbles (16) during this span. As a disruptive pass rusher off the edge in 2020, he’s tallied five sacks, five tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles in six games, while adding 14 QB pressures.
That production jumps off the stat sheet, but Ngakoue’s quickness, burst and tomahawk chop are what caught my eye in film study. He is such a natural speed rusher, with the requisite twitchiness and explosiveness to blow past defenders. The veteran can pass rush from a three-point stance or an upright position, which makes him an intriguing chess piece for Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale to utilize in a variety of exotic personnel packages. Whether he is utilized as a fifth rusher in a “5-0” look (five pass rushers aligned at the line of scrimmage) or featured on the edge in a four-man rush (with seven defenders in coverage), Ngakoue’s athleticism and skill add another dimension to Baltimore’s defensive package.
1) Tompa Bay? Defense emerging as Buccaneers’ strength. If you’re attributing the Bucs’ rise to contender status completely to Tom Brady, you’re not paying attention to the emerging bully on the other side of the ball. Todd Bowles has shaped Tampa Bay’s defense into the best in the business by matching an aggressive scheme to a rock-solid lineup with multiple blue-chip playmakers at every level.
The results have been spectacular, with the unit leading the league in total yards per game allowed (282.0) and rush yards per game allowed (64.3) while ranking tied for second in takeaways (11) and sacks (22). The Buccaneers are the second team in the last 20 years to have 10-plus takeaways, 20-plus sacks and allow fewer than 70 rush yards per game in their first six games. Considering the 2008 Steelers also accomplished this feat on the way to winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Buccaneers are legitimate Lombardi Trophy hunters behind their ultra-aggressive defense.
Studying the All-22 Coaches’ Film from Tampa’s most recent games, the perfect marriage between scheme and personnel really stands out. The unit’s personnel enables Bowles to attack opponents utilizing a coverage or pressure approach, with an assortment of four-man rushes, simulated pressures and blitzes. Bowles deploys a mix of man and zone coverages behind the pressures. The multiplicity of the Buccaneers’ scheme — combined with exotic pre-snap disguises and post-snap movement — leads to hesitation, confusion and questionable decisions from opposing quarterbacks. This uncertainty plays into the hands of a defense that features five-star playmakers all over the place.
Losing run-stuffing DT Vita Vea to a broken leg in Week 5 was a definite hit, but the defensive front is still plenty talented. Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh have taken turns harassing quarterbacks off the edges and up the gut. The trio has combined for 11.5 of the team’s 22 sacks by taking advantage of the free runs or favorable one-on-one matchups created by Bowles’ high-pressure scheme.
Devin White and Lavonte David have cleaned up on the second level, as sideline-to-sideline defenders with A-plus instincts, speed and athleticism. Bowles’ aggressive deployment of his linebackers as pressure players has resulted in the Bucs registering 109.5 negative plays (22 sacks, 46.5 tackles for loss, 30 passes defensed and 11 turnovers), with White and David setting the pace.
Bowles’ best work, though, has been with the young secondary. The former NFL defensive back has been able to teach a collection of rookies and young pros (Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Antoine Winfield Jr., Jordan Whitehead and Sean Murphy-Bunting) a variety of complex coverages and intricate pre-snap disguises that befuddle opposing signal-callers. With the quarterback unable to distinguish Tampa’s traditional zones from aggressive zone dogs and snug man coverage, the sacks and turnovers have come in bunches.
The Buccaneers were expected to contend for a title behind TB12 and a dynamic offense, but they could swipe the Lombardi Trophy with a defense that’s thriving in an ultra-aggressive scheme maximizing blue-chip talent.
2) A Comeback Player of the Year sleeper? When San Francisco signed Jason Verrett to a one-year deal during the 2019 offseason, the team rolled the dice hoping the oft-injured one-time Pro Bowl corner would regain his all-star form with better health. After the veteran landed on IR for the fifth time in his six-year career, though, it appeared the 49ers had crapped out with their gamble. But San Francisco re-signed him this past April, and now the team is reaping the rewards.
The seventh-year pro has not only worked his way into the Niners’ starting lineup, but he has displayed the exceptional cover skills that thrust him into the conversation as one of the top young cornerbacks in the game back in 2015. On 218 snaps and 11 targets, per Pro Football Focus, Verrett has surrendered just four catches for 24 yards with no touchdowns, good for an opponent passer rating of 7.0 — the lowest mark of any qualified corner in the league. The stingy numbers are quite impressive, considering Verrett’s string of injuries to his lower body (2016, torn ACL; 2017, knee injury; 2018, Achilles tear; 2019, patellar sprain). It is rare for cornerbacks to retain their athleticism, agility and explosiveness after a series of health setbacks, but the veteran still displays the twitch that stood out when I evaluated him at TCU. Verrett’s stop-start quickness and closing burst are top-rate, and he combines his superb movement skills with an advanced football IQ that enables him to anticipate routes in his area.
Reviewing the All-22 Coaches’ Film from the 49ers’ recent games, Verrett’s leverage, positioning and awareness jump off the tape. He is a perfect fit in the team’s zone-based scheme, which places a premium on instincts and route recognition. The veteran runs routes better than receivers and his growing confidence is pushing him back into CB1 status.
If Verrett can avoid the injury bug and continue to build on his solid performances on the island, he should emerge as one of the front-runners for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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