Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 10:
1) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Keep moving Jones around to stop elite rushers.
The Kansas City Chiefs cruised through their schedule until the Indianapolis Colts came to town in Week 5. They were 4-0 and locked in a dogfight with the pesky Colts when their Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones limped off the field with a groin injury with 13:10 left in the third quarter. Jones didn't return to action for a month, and the Chiefs fell from the top of the AFC ranks to 5-3 without Jones. Once again, people clamored that the Chiefs' defense wasn't good enough to get to the Super Bowl. I admit, I was one of the doubters.
Last week when I showed up to announce the Vikings-Chiefs game, I was very skeptical that the Chiefs could contain the league's leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, and the red-hot Kirk Cousins. And the Chiefs would be without starting DE Alex Okafor and pricey free-agent acquisition Frank Clark. I thought Cook was poised for a career day, but that never happened. He was limited to 21 attempts for a pedestrian 71 yards with no touchdowns.
How did this happen?
Jones returned to action, giving the Chiefs a monster on the D-line who put up an eye-popping 15.5 sacks a year ago. Yet, in the absence of Okafor and Clark, Jones lined up mostly at defensive end. The Chiefs lined up the bigger, thicker bodies inside with Derrick Nnadi, Khalen Saunders, Mike Pennel and newly promoted Joey Ivie to man the tackle positions. Jones was used as a bigger body outside to create chaos against the Vikings' tackles and tight ends. When he earned his third sack of the season in that game, Jones was back in familiar territory lined up at defensive tackle. And on the Vikings' final play of the game with the score knotted at 23, it was Jones who collapsed the pocket on Cousins, leading to an errant throw. The Chiefs went on to win with a game-winning boot by Harrison Butker.
Going forward, Jones may go back inside to the position where he became one of the most feared interior rushers in the NFL. Yet, the Chiefs could decide to line him up outside -- like they did on 45 snaps against Minnesota -- if they need to go bigger on the defensive line to contain an elite rusher like Cook. It's also nice to know that Jones is a team player and that he can go outside to help contain an elite rusher because there are several coming up on the schedule, starting with Derrick Henry on Sunday. The other good news for Chiefs Kingdom is that they have the personnel to stop the run on the roster, and getting their entire D-line back healthy will only help Patrick Mahomesin his return as the Chiefs march toward January.
2) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Find a pass rush ... soon!
Monday Night Football gets a real midseason treat this week as the NFL's only undefeated team, the San Francisco 49ers (8-0), host a perennial NFC West nemesis, the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers are expected to get healthier with the anticipated return of offensive tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley. Every team is challenged with overcoming injuries throughout a long, arduous season, and the 49ers have done it as well as anyone while maintaining an unblemished record.
I mention the injuries because this Seahawks team has a major weakness -- the inability to affect the quarterback. Sacks put this into context for many viewers, but there are other metrics that show how much a passer is pressured. Through nine games, despite the lofty 7-2 record, Seattle's defensive line has amassed a grand total of nine sacks (28th in the NFL). Just last week, Jameis Winston dropped back 46 times(!) vs. Seattle and was rarely affected. In fact, both of Winston's sacks came by linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks, and both sacks were generated by near-max blitzes that featured a six-man pass rush. The Seahawks' secondary was exposed all game long as Mike Evans had a monster day hauling in 12 receptions for 180 yards and a TD. Some fantasy owners were elated I'm sure, but I doubt Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. were smiling after the game. Next up is the league's third-ranked offense led by Kyle Shanahan.
Clowney is best when he can freelance and use his rare combination of power and size to crash into offensive lines to create havoc. When talking to Norton prior to Seattle's Week 2 contest with Pittsburgh, he told me that it takes time to work a player and his strengths into a disciplined scheme. Clowney has been moved around and freelanced some but not like he did in Houston. He needs to do it more and the others around him should pay attention to the chaos Clowney can create and learn from him. This is one way that Seattle can begin to affect QBs starting with Jimmy Garoppolo on Monday night. If the Seahawks rely solely on blitzing two linebackers to create pressure against the 49ers, there will be too many receivers who can win one-on-one matchups against the 'Hawks' secondary. It isn't a good recipe to win -- despite the constant heroics of MVP candidate Russell Wilson.
I don't think there are any magic beans for the pass rush or major moves GM John Schneider can make right now to find a pass rush. Nine sacks in nine games is not good enough. Maybe Carroll's now-famous "Competition Wednesday" should be changed to "Pass Rush Wednesday," where all defensive linemen work tirelessly on pass-rush moves to win one-on-one matchups then immediately begin working on line stunts in an effort to get to the QB. If Seattle doesn't begin affecting the passer on a more frequent basis (starting with Monday night), the division will be won by the new kids on the block.
3) CLEVELAND BROWNS: Get Odell Beckham Jr. involved in the red zone.
I am headed to Cleveland this weekend to announce the Bills-Browns game. The Browns (2-6) have been awful at home this season, going 0-3, but they have a chance to turn their campaign around with a much-anticipated three-game homestand. In watching the first half of the season, I can't help but notice how pedestrian the star offseason acquisition, Odell Beckham Jr., has been. He doesn't look anything like the player we saw in New York, where he caught 44 touchdowns in 59 games in his first five NFL seasons. Maybe he left his Superman cape in Gotham, where every catch was replayed over and over and the highlights just kept rolling on every show. Maybe the Browns' detractors have slipped some Kryptonite into his many pairs of shoes. And maybe the chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield hasn't materialized yet.
Studying OBJ over the years, I know that he is as dangerous a red-zone wide receiver as there is. That is, if you actually use him in the red zone. The closer the offense gets to the end zone, the more dangerous he becomes, but he's been targeted in the red zone just four times this season (which amounted to one reception for seven yards and no touchdowns). OBJ's biggest asset is his blinding quickness. His ability to separate in man coverage helped make him an international star, but the Browns' offense has to allow him the space and own the belief that he is going to win.
It's time the Browns begin calling plays for OBJ in this critical part of the field if they want to begin to entertain their fan base and reverse the first-half blues. I thought the Browns might stop the hemorrhaging and start to play better football last week against the Broncos. However, after watching the game several times, I can see why the blues continued for Cleveland. On a third-and-3 in the third quarter, Dontrell Hilliard gained 2 yards to set up a fourth-and-1. Instead of giving the ball to Nick Chubb or OBJ on the ensuing play, Mayfield was stuffed on a run to the right and the Browns turned the ball over on downs. In the fourth quarter, OBJ took a pass from Mayfield over the middle and reversed field for a 39-yard gain. With another chance to stop the blues a few plays later on fourth-and-4, a pass to Jarvis Landry was broken up in the middle of the field while OBJ was seen throwing his left arm up in the air on a go route after easily beating the CB. The Browns went home with another L.
OBJ is a non-factor right now. He must become a factor if the Browns want to start winning games. He constantly looks defeated and that has to change. Confidence in a player comes with success, and even a small amount of success can mushroom quickly to the point where you feel like nothing can defeat you. I think using OBJ close to the goal line can help him excel. Buffalo is largely a zone team but will change it up from series to series. Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken need to draw up and work on plays this week that will exploit OBJ's quickness and be effective versus both man and zone defenses. Success will come if they focus on getting their star wideout involved and, perhaps, it can be the impetus to get the Browns to where many of us thought they should be back in August. Man, how long ago does that feel?