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:
-- One purported Super Bowl contender that looks more like a pretender.
-- The draft class that lifted a franchise.
-- A star-studded defense that could fuel a title run.
But first, a look at what's behind the G.O.A.T.'s recent struggles ...
I hope Bruce Arians and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept their receipts on the Tom Brady purchase, seeing how the head coach appears to have a bit of buyer's remorse. Arians' critical comments on his offense's recent struggles reveal a lot about how he views his 43-year-old quarterback's play.
"We've got the guys open. We've just missed 'em," Arians told reporters earlier this week. "Other than the deep ball, I think he's getting confused a few times with coverage that might be causing some inaccurate balls, but I don't see it at all in practice. We're not missing the deep ball in practice, that's for sure, so it's just a matter of, on Sundays, hitting 'em."
Those comments might make the football world uncomfortable, since we rarely hear coaches openly criticize franchise quarterbacks, but Arians' remarks are a continuation of the spicy critiques that we've heard from him all season. He is unapologetic about assigning blame to the quarterback when the offense falters, consistently calling out Brady for his mistakes.
"[O]ffensively, it's just a matter of each and every week if the quarterback plays well or not," Arians said Tuesday night on his weekly radio show, via JoeBucsFan.com. "And our job is to make sure he's comfortable and let him play well."
Arians' words have created quite a stir among staunch Brady supporters, but the veteran coach is spot on with his assessment. The NFL is routinely called a "quarterback-driven league" for a reason: QBs are uniquely positioned to enhance or diminish their teams' ability to win games with their individual performance. And reviewing Tampa Bay's games this season, the Buccaneers (7-4) definitely ride or die on TB12's right arm. Check out how the signal-caller's numbers differ in wins and losses:
|Completion percentage||TD-to-INT ratio||Sacks|
|Brady in seven wins||68.1||20:2||5|
|Brady in four losses||58.8||5:7||10|
The negative plays (turnovers and sacks) from the veteran are quite problematic for an offense that's extremely reliant on the passing game, as Brady leads the NFL in pass attempts (433) and completions (280).
Brady's issues could at least partially be attributed to the design of the Buccaneers' vertical passing game. Arians' scheme prominently features the deep ball, with the quarterback encouraged to take the downfield shot whenever available. This high-risk/high-reward approach has helped the grizzled coach build some of the most explosive offenses in the league. That's why I'm not surprised Brady is averaging his most air yards per attempt (9.0) and highest deep-pass percentage (13.4) since Next Gen Stats began tracking these stats in 2016.
That said, Arians' ultra-aggressive system has always produced an uptick in turnovers. Andrew Luck (18 picks), Carson Palmer (22) and Jameis Winston (30) all posted career highs in interceptions during their first year in Arians' system. With Brady on a pace that could threaten his career-worst INT mark (14), the deep-ball emphasis has certainly exposed some flaws in his game.
Brady actually started the year with great efficiency in the downfield passing game, completing 11 of 22 deep attempts (20-plus air yards) during the first four games. But it's been quite a struggle since Week 5, with the quarterback completing just three of his past 36 deep shots -- and none of his last 22.
Given those struggles, Tampa Bay would be wise to feature a short-to-intermediate passing game to maximize Brady's talents as a rhythm thrower. TB12 remains one of the NFL's best passers to intermediate range (10-19 air yards), boasting a 66.7 percent completion rate (second in the league), 11.2 yards per attempt (eighth), nine touchdowns (tied for second) and a 123.1 passer rating (third). In addition, the Buccaneers' weapons are productive playmakers on catch-and-run concepts, as evidenced by Chris Godwin (938) and Mike Evans (878) ranking second and third in receiving yards on intermediate targets since 2019. Considering Antonio Brown's effectiveness as a possession receiver between the hashes and Rob Gronkowski's presence as a post-up option, the Bucs' personnel is ideally suited to play in a more controlled offensive attack.
That assessment matches what Brady's biggest supporters suggest while advocating for the Buccaneers to employ some of the concepts from the Patriots' playbook to boost the veteran's talents. Here's the thing, though: The Buccaneers have already turned over the offense to Brady, giving him the freedom to call the plays or tweak the game plan. According to Arians, the QB has significant input on which plays are featured prominently on the call sheet.
"We have Tom calling a lot of his own, or picking his own on the sidelines from the game plan," Arians told reporters this week. "So I don't think it's a confidence problem whatsoever. It's not lack of trust -- it's lack of continuity within the offense."
The lack of chemistry and execution from the offense falls squarely on the quarterback, and Arians is right to hold Brady accountable. The six-time Super Bowl champion joined the Buccaneers with the expectation that his arrival would change the team's culture. But Tampa really needs him to improve his own play down the stretch.
DINK AND DUNK
O-V-E-R-R-A-T-E-D: Don't believe the Green Bay Packers hype. Excuse me for seriously doubting that this Pack bandwagon is Super Bowl-bound, but it's hard to view the NFC North leader as the best team in the conference. Despite owning a win over the NFC's current No. 1 seed (the New Orleans Saints), the Packers have mostly racked up Ws over subpar squads on their way to 7-3.
I know Green Bay can't control its schedule or how opponents perform in their other games, but it's impossible to ignore the abysmal record of the Packers' vanquished foes. Green Bay has compiled seven wins against teams with a combined 28-44 record. In fact, the 2020 Packers have yet to beat a single squad that entered the game with a winning record. Now, good teams are supposed to whip inferior opponents, so Green Bay's taking care of business in this sense. But the organization's largely disappointing play against contenders is troubling.
A concerning trend has emerged in recent years: Aaron Rodgers and his top-heavy supporting cast struggle to scratch out wins against stout defenses. Since 2017, Rodgers is 6-12-1 against top-10 scoring defenses (rank at the time of the game), including a 1-2 mark this season (defeated San Francisco; lost to Tampa Bay and Indianapolis). Rodgers has posted OK numbers in those contests (64.3 percent completion rate, 243.9 pass yards, 28:12 TD-to-INT ratio and 90.4 passer rating), but the Packers' inability to truly control these games with their offense has exposed a suspect defense.
Speaking of defense, Mike Pettine's troops are allowing 25.8 points per game this season -- if that average stands, it'll be the worst figure for Green Bay since 2013. After finishing last season with the highest pressure rate in the NFL (33.0%), the Packers have failed to consistently heat up opposing quarterbacks, who boast a robust 101.8 passer rating against Green Bay. The 2019 Packers ranked seventh with 25 takeaways. This year? They're tied for 30th with just nine.
For a team widely hailed as a Super Bowl contender, Green Bay's noticeable flaws make it more of a pretender as we head into the stretch run.
New Orleans Saints' 2017 draft class is the gift that keeps on giving. The "draft and develop" model is universally viewed as the best way to construct a championship roster. Team builders enter draft season intent on identifying a handful of young prospects with the capacity to emerge as blue-chip players. If a general manager acquires enough blue-chippers through the draft in consecutive years, the group becomes the nucleus of a team that has a chance to compete for the title each and every season. That's why I'm fascinated by the impact of New Orleans' 2017 draft class on the team's re-emergence as an annual title contender.
Remember: The Saints logged three straight playoff-free, 7-9 seasons from 2014 through '16. But since the 2017 draft, they're 45-13 -- and currently positioned to snag a fourth straight NFC South title, as well as the No. 1 playoff seed. The collective results speak for themselves, but New Orleans' 2017 draft haul is really impressive when you break down all of the individual achievements.
The Saints swept 2017 Rookie of the Year honors, with RB Alvin Kamara earning the nod on offense and CB Marshon Lattimore on defense. Kamara has continued to establish himself as the ultimate offensive weapon, having just become the first player in NFL history with 500-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. The electric back's well on his way to a fourth straight Pro Bowl bid, too. Meanwhile, Lattimore's earned two Pro Bowl nods and is widely viewed as one of the top young cover corners in the game. These two players would comprise a stellar draft haul on their own, but New Orleans' 2017 class goes much deeper.
Ryan Ramczyk has become one of the very best right tackles in football, having earned first-team All-Pro status in 2019 and second-team honors in '18. Safety Marcus Williams has tallied 13 interceptions and 28 pass breakups in 56 career games. Middle linebacker Alex Anzalone is a heat-seeking missile with 114 tackles in 32 career games. And then there's defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who's enjoying a true breakout season with an NFL-high 9.5 sacks.
If you ask general managers and scouts about successful drafts, most will tell you that nailing the first couple rounds is the realistic goal. The Saints made seven picks in 2017; outside of sixth-rounder Al-Quadin Muhammad, every selection hit. Six highly productive players in one class -- that's prolific. Not coincidentally, New Orleans re-emerged as an annual contender, further validating the "draft and develop" philosophy around the league.
The real reason why the Los Angeles Rams are true title contenders. Looking for a dark-horse Super Bowl contender? Look no further than the Rams -- not for the reason you might be thinking.
While Sean McVay's wizardry and the team's electric offense have fueled title hopes in previous seasons, it's the Rams' emerging defense that gives this group a legitimate chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. Under the direction of first-year coordinator Brandon Staley, the defense has quietly become one of the top units in football. Since Week 4, the Rams rank second in the NFL in points per game (17.3, just behind Pittsburgh's 16.6 mark), while leading the league in total defense (257.3 ypg), pass defense (178.0 ypg) and yards per play (4.2). Those numbers certainly jump off the stat sheet, and highly impressive performances from the unit's stars should further drive title talk. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey are playing like five-star talents worth every bit of the quarterback money they're earning as the best players at their respective positions.
Donald is a one-man wrecking crew on the front line. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time first-team All-Pro is a destructive force with a non-stop motor and a combination of strength, power and fitness that makes him nearly impossible to block. Staley has accentuated Donald's playmaking skills by moving him around to exploit favorable matchups. In addition, he has featured some movement schemes at the point of attack to take advantage of Donald's exceptional first-step quickness and burst. Opponents have countered with double- and triple-teams, but that hasn't stopped Donald from getting to the quarterback. With nine sacks, he's just a half-sack off the NFL lead. And with all of the attention that No. 99 commands, Donald's teammates reap the benefits. In his first season with the Rams, Leonard Floyd's enjoying a career year with seven sacks.
Ramsey has made his mark in the secondary, manning the "star" position in Staley's defense. The league's premier shutdown corner has become an even more diverse playmaker under his new DC. Ramsey has not only locked down elite pass catchers on the perimeter (check out his work against guys like DK Metcalf and Mike Evans) -- he has been the queen on the chessboard in Staley's multi-faceted scheme. The creative defensive coordinator has moved him around to maximize his talents as a big, physical defender with a high IQ and supreme instincts.
With Donald and Ramsey playing like LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Staley's star-centric system, the Rams could bring yet another championship trophy to Los Angeles.