Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at the ascending challenger to Aaron Donald's DT throne ...
In boxing, the cleanest way for a title belt to change hands is simple: The challenger knock outs the champion. Although the fight world officially recognizes a pugilist who swipes the belt by winning on points, in a sport rife with controversy, the triumphant contender can face skepticism if he doesn't drop the incumbent in resounding fashion.
In the NFL, it takes a series of spectacular showings to become the undisputed No. 1 player at a position. And it certainly helps to see the top dogs compete on the same field to fully appreciate when the contender has surpassed the belt holder.
This Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs (8-2) host the Los Angeles Rams (3-7), the football world will watch Chris Jones take the crown from Aaron Donald as the best defensive tackle in the game today. After sitting in the throne for years, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year will relinquish his title to an ascendant Pro Bowler who has taken his game to another level in 2022.
Jones leads all defensive tackles with nine sacks, including seven in the past five games (with at least half a sack in each contest). The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder has also notched 10 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits with a pair of forced fumbles. As PFF's highest-graded defensive tackle -- and No. 2 defensive player overall, behind only Myles Garrett -- Jones has earned rave reviews for his pass-rushing prowess and run-stopping skills. No. 95 has fully arrived as a bona fide game wrecker at age 28.
While Donald remains elite -- as evidenced by his 32 quarterback pressures and 13 run stuffs (both top-five marks among DTs by Next Gen Stats' count) -- the 31-year-old has started to show signs of slippage as the No. 1 player at the position. Donald's quarterback pressure percentage (9.9%, per Next Gen Stats) is his lowest in the NGS era, which began in 2016. This is part of a downward trend in which No. 99's pressure rate has steadily dropped since the 2018 campaign, when he won Defensive Player of the Year with a career-high 20.5 sacks. Donald, who currently has five sacks, is on a pace that would leave him short of double-digit sacks for the first time since 2016.
Now, to be fair, Jones' pressure percentage is also down this season (7.9%) from last (11.0%), but he's finishing the job with a 2.6 percent sack rate that trumps Donald's 1.5 percent mark. And the man has shown a knack for making the biggest plays in the biggest moments on the biggest stages. Need evidence? Let's go back to the latest edition of Sunday Night Football, after the Chiefs took a 30-27 lead over the rival Chargers with 31 seconds remaining. On the first snap of Los Angeles' ensuing drive last weekend, Jones destroyed a double team and sacked Justin Herbert. On the next snap, Jones again put Chargers LG Matt Feiler in a clown suit and applied immediate pressure on Herbert. Forced off his spot, Herbert threw up an ill-fated pass into coverage that was tipped and picked. Game over. That is how you close out a game.
In addition, Jones has shown more diversity to his play this season, overwhelming blockers with a mix of power and finesse that makes him impossible to contain at the line of scrimmage. Considering the Chiefs' top three edge rushers -- Frank Clark (who missed two games for suspension), George Karlaftis (who's in his first NFL season) and Carlos Dunlap (who signed a one-year deal in late July at age 33) -- have combined for 7.5 sacks, Jones' steady production as a "one-man show" certainly strengthens his case for DT supremacy.
Now, admittedly, it is hard to take the crown from Donald if the numbers remain close. After all, he's widely considered to be among the greatest defensive players ever. But the Chiefs' resurgence as a top title contender is extra fuel for Jones' fire. And a standout performance on Sunday could mark a changing of the guard at the position.
Given how well Jones and the Chiefs have played in recent weeks, I expect the challenger to deliver a knockout performance with the champion watching from the opposite sideline.
How does Vrabel keep doing this?
There is no question that Mike Vrabel is a good coach, but it might be time to place the Tennessee Titans' head man into the conversation among the very best in the game. Yes, he's still dying to win that first Super Bowl as a coach, but it is hard for me to find another coach who exceeds expectations as frequently as Vrabel does in Nashville.
Maybe some of the Titans' overachievement is due to the football world underestimating the talent, chemistry and tactics that help Vrabel's crew routinely chalk up wins as an underdog, but the reigning NFL Coach of the Year is not afraid to do whatever it takes to win a game. Whether that requires him to operate at a snail's pace while putting the ball in Derrick Henry's belly 30-plus times or trust Ryan Tannehill to transition from caretaker to playmaker in a pass-heavy plan or tweak the defense to take away the opponent's top player, Vrabel is a master strategist and tactician with a flexible approach that produces results. In his fifth season as an NFL head coach, Vrabel has never posted a losing record.
Last year, the Titans finished at 12-5 despite missing Henry for the final nine games of the regular season. The run-centric squad did not skip a beat without the back-to-back rushing champ, as D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard picked up the slack in Henry's absence, allowing Tennessee to surprisingly claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
This year, Vrabel lost his best pass catcher (A.J. Brown, via trade) and best pass rusher (Harold Landry, via injury) before the season even kicked off. Then Tennessee went out and lost its first two games, including a 41-7 beatdown in Buffalo in Week 2. In addition, Tannehill's been banged up, missing two games with an ankle injury. And yet, the Titans have run off seven wins in the last eight games, with the lone loss being an OT defeat at Kansas City with rookie Malik Willis at quarterback, completing just five of his 16 passes. Now sitting at 7-3 with Cincinnati coming to town on Sunday, Tennessee owns a commanding three-game lead in the AFC South.
The Titans have been riding Henry, who again leads the league in rushing with 1,010 yards through 10 games, while also relying on a defense that has held opponents to 17 or fewer points in six of the past seven contests. The unit has steadily improved despite bringing in a number of replacements (DE Mario Edwards Jr., CB Terrance Mitchell and S Andrew Adams) in the middle of the season. The veterans have seamlessly transitioned into their respective roles, helping spark a defensive improvement that has keyed Tennessee's resurgence.
"We're just a plug-and-play team where it's like everyone's held to the same standard," two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard told reporters prior to the team's Week 11 win in Green Bay. "Everyone's held to the same standard. Backups prepare like starters. They get asked questions in the meeting rooms like starters, so when they get in the game, there's no drop-off."
That is a huge credit to the culture established by Vrabel. Tennessee is a "no excuses" outfit that finds ways to win regardless of circumstances; a tough-minded, gritty squad that reflects the personality of its coach.
With Vrabel helping his squad exceed expectations yet again, the Titans' head man deserves serious consideration to become the first coach since Joe Gibbs (1982 and '83) to win back-to-back Coach of the Year awards.
Roseman's aggressiveness fueling Philly
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman might have spent some of his formative years working at an ice cream shop, given his knack for scooping up blue-chip players who were available due to other franchise's salary-cap decisions.
I am not quite ready to compare A.J. Brown, James Bradberry and C.J. Gardner-Johnson to all-time classics like rocky road, mint chip or cookies & cream, but the Eagles' offseason additions have unquestionably added flavor to Philadelphia's roster. The veterans have excelled in their designated roles so far for the team with the best record in the league.
In fact, the 9-1 squad did not have a glaring weakness on paper until injuries recently exposed a defensive line that was soft against the run. Roseman quickly patched the hole by signing veteran DTs Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to add some much-needed muscle and experience to the rotation. Although Joseph and Suh are in the twilight of their respective careers, the decision to add the certified ballers is part of a strategy that has helped the Eagles re-emerge as a title contender this season.
Part of the team's resurgence is directly tied to Roseman's ability to manage the salary cap and stockpile draft picks to barter with teams looking to deal assets. The Eagles' war chest has enabled the team to be aggressive in securing top players at marquee positions.
The acquisitions of Bradberry (signed to a one-year deal after the Giants released him in a May salary dump) and Gardner-Johnson (acquired via trade in August after his extension talks with the Saints broke down) have given the Eagles a top-notch defensive backfield with ballhawking ability. With another salary cap scoop-up (Darius Slay, who was traded to Philly in 2020 after the Lions wouldn't meet his contract demands) locking down one side of the field, the Eagles lead the league in takeaways (21) and are tied for the lead in interceptions (13).
Bradberry and Slay, in particular, are rare finds as ballhawks offering outstanding instincts and technique diversity. Although the defenders possess different strengths (Slay shines in man-to-man coverage; Bradberry excels in zone), the Eagles have found a way to blend their skills in a multi-faceted scheme that challenges quarterbacks and pass catchers.
Gardner-Johnson has settled into his new role as a center fielder after thriving as a nickel defender with the Saints. The fourth-year pro leads the NFL in interceptions (6) but also has registered a sack and four tackles for loss. Gardner-Johnson's awareness and diagnostic skills have helped the Eagles' defensive backs become the turnover bandits that perfectly complement a disruptive defensive front.
As for Brown, he is the weapon the Eagles' offense needed to help Jalen Hurts in his second season as a full-time starter. So, Roseman signed him to the contract extension he sought after landing him in a draft day deal with the Titans. As a big-bodied playmaker with strong hands and electric running skills, the one-time Pro Bowler is the perfect WR1 to anchor a passing game that is built on run-action concepts. The ultra-physical pass catcher excels at doing the dirty work between the hashes on slants, crossers and digs. In addition, Brown is a jump-ball specialist with a gift for coming down with go routes and fades along the boundary.
With Brown adding size to a receiver group that already featured speed and explosiveness (SEE: DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins), the Eagles surrounded their young quarterback with perfect pieces to foster his growth.
Moreover, Roseman placed the cherry on top of a handcrafted, championship-caliber sundae that is loaded with flavor.