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:
-- QB-coach combos on the spot to produce in 2021.
-- Is one NFL position about to get its first $20 million player?
But first, a look at an offensive revamp meant to help a Hall of Fame-caliber QB make one more Super Bowl push ...
Can you teach an old dog new tricks?
That's the million-dollar question in Pittsburgh, where offensive coordinator Matt Canada is introducing a new offensive scheme ahead of QB Ben Roethlisberger's 18th season at the helm.
The grizzled gunslinger already has a pair of Super Bowl wins on his résumé, but he's looking to add more hardware to his trophy case before calling it quits on a Hall of Fame career. Last season, Big Ben appeared to have a strong chance of capturing that third Super Bowl ring after guiding the Steelers to an 11-0 start while directing a quick-rhythm aerial assault that taxed opponents with a barrage of quick routes and short crossers.
The effectiveness of the approach thrust the veteran into the MVP discussion -- but the pass-happy game plan faltered down the stretch. Opponents clamped down on the Steelers' pass catchers and dared No. 7 to push the ball down the field. Without a credible running game to force opponents to alter their tactics, the Steelers were suffocated by defenses as Pittsburgh limped to a 1-4 record down the stretch and went one-and-done in the playoffs.
The disappointing finish prompted the Steelers to make several changes, including at offensive coordinator. The team didn't re-sign Randy Fichtner, who'd held the post since 2018, and elevated Canada, who spent 2020 as the team's quarterbacks coach, to the play-caller position. Not only will the move put a new spin on the Steelers' offense, but it is also expected to help the unit return to its blue-collar roots.
Team president Art Rooney "has sent out a very clear directive to (general manager Kevin) Colbert, to coach (Mike) Tomlin and then to me," Canada said earlier this month. "We want to be able to run the ball when we have to run it. That doesn't mean we're going to run the ball for X amount of yards in a game, all that matters here is winning.
"Our charge is to win the Super Bowl, and that's it. ... Every year you're trying to create a system to put your players in position to make plays, and to run the football certainly we'll use play-action as part of that. But that's not the only focal point we have. We're going to run the ball when we have to run it, and we're going to throw it when we have to throw it. After that, we're going to do everything we can to get our best players -- and we have a lot of really, really good ones -- in position to make the plays their talents direct us to."
Coming off a season in which Pittsburgh ranked dead last in rushing yards per game (84.4) and featured a 100-yard rusher in just four games, the Steelers needed to make strategic and personnel changes.
The release this week of veteran right guard David DeCastro (who said he needs ankle surgery) followed by the signing of Trai Turner capped a complete makeover of the offensive line, which will feature four new starters in the projected starting lineup. Despite their inexperience, the younger group is more athletic and has an opportunity to upgrade the play in the trenches, with the team more committed to the run. Turner (28), left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (23), guard Kevin Dotson (24), center J.C. Hassenauer (25) and right tackle Zach Banner (27) are better suited to play as people movers at the point of attack instead of retreating in pass protection. With a big, bruising back in rookie Najee Harris running behind the group, the Steelers should be able to get their ground game untracked, with Canada complementing straight-forward runs with nifty misdirections, jet-sweeps and constant pre-snap shifts.
Canada utilized this approach to create collegiate offenses in previous stops at Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Maryland. The creative, run-centric offenses befuddled defensive coordinators with constant shifting and misdirections while masking a downhill running game that hit opponents in the mouth. In fact, the Steelers utilized some of Canada's favorite concepts during last season's sizzling start before settling into a traditional approach that put too much of the offensive burden on Big Ben. That burden figures to be lighter with Canada taking over the reins.
"We have gone under center, we have shotgun, he has more motion," Roethlisberger said recently, describing Canada's offense. "But I feel like that is where the NFL is going right now, a lot of the jet-sweep motions and stuff. I can go under center -- I never said I didn't like it. We will be in the gun, we will move. Like I said earlier, we will throw a lot of different looks and schemes and things at people and see what works."
The shift to more under-center play is significant, because it leads to more play-action pass opportunities. Big Ben's ability to play the hidden-ball trick with his back to the defense means the Steelers should be able to sneak more receivers down the field behind linebackers stepping forward to stop the run. Jet-sweep action from under center will also add another dimension to the offense, forcing defensive ends and outside linebackers to slow down to defend the edges. As a result, there will be fewer defenders in pursuit when Harris attacks between the tackles on downhill runs.
Last season, the Steelers ran the ball just 373 times, with Roethlisberger registering 608 pass attempts -- tied for the second-most attempts in a season in his career. The toll of the pass-heavy approach robbed the 39-year-old veteran of his fastball at the end of the season. Moreover, it left the Steelers punch-less in the postseason, with a one-dimensional offense that lacked power and pop at the line of scrimmage.
With a new play-caller combining a smoke-and-mirrors approach with an old-school offense, the Steelers might be able to help Big Ben make another title run in the twilight of his career.
QB-coach duos under most pressure
There is nothing like the pressure of expectations in the NFL. The Super Bowl or bust mentality that permeates the league routinely puts head coaches and quarterbacks squarely on the hot seat heading into the regular season.
This year, the offseason QB carousel has raised expectations for several franchises around the league, with the QB1 and head coach shouldering the responsibility for the team's performance. Fair or not, these tandems will face consequences if their teams fail to deliver when it matters. Given some time to survey the landscape, here are the five quarterback-head coach combos facing the most pressure heading into the season:
It's Super Bowl or bust for the Rams after they shipped out Jared Goff as part of a deal with the Lions for Stafford. With Goff's 42-20 record (and a Super Bowl appearance) in four seasons under McVay representing the bar, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of Stafford and McVay to capture a Lombardi Trophy. Considering the 13th-year pro has zero playoff wins and only four winning seasons on his resume, the Rams' quarterback shuffle is a roll of the dice that could backfire on a team looking to make good on its current competitive window.
Jackson has posted a 30-7 career regular-season record and claimed an MVP award in 2019 while dazzling as an electric dual-threat playmaker. But questions persist about his pocket-passing ability after observers watched the Ravens' run-heavy offense fizzle in three straight early playoff exits. With Jackson and Co. underperforming in the postseason, the pressure is mounting on Harbaugh to diversify the offense to give the Ravens a better chance of advancing in the tournament. Will the Super Bowl-winning head coach stick to the unorthodox script that has made the Ravens perennial title contenders in the Jackson era? Or will he scrap the plan in favor of a traditional approach that could produce better results in the postseason? The outcome of the decision could make or break the Ravens' next few seasons.
Perhaps a change of scenery and a familiar voice will help Wentz recapture the magic that made him an MVP front-runner with the Eagles in 2017. The veteran quarterback steps into a Super Bowl-ready offense in Indianapolis, with a beefy line and an underrated set of perimeter playmakers boasting big-play potential. In addition, Wentz is supported by an elite defense that stymies opponents and easy scoring chances with turnovers. If Reich -- who served as Wentz's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia in 2016 and '17 -- can get the veteran quarterback to embrace his role as a game manager on a team that is built to make a run, the Colts could surge to the top of the AFC as the most complete squad in the league.
The duo is entering now-or-never territory heading into the fourth season of Gruden's rebuild. With the Raiders sporting a 19-29 record and zero playoff appearances since Gruden took over in 2018, the pressure is mounting on Carr and his coach to orchestrate a breakthrough in 2021. The quarterback has certainly done his part to keep the team pointed in the right direction, producing three straight 4,000-yard seasons while improving his efficiency and reducing his negative plays. The results have made the Raiders respectable -- but Vegas needs more from the QB1 to go from good to great in the tough AFC West. Given Gruden's reputation for offensive wizardry, the grizzled head coach needs to dig into his bag of tricks to add some sizzle to an offense that needs to explode if the Raiders hope to overtake their division rivals.
If Nagy played for the Cubs or the White Sox, he would step into the batter's box with two strikes on his quarterback scorecard following the failures of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles in the Windy City. Given another chance to fix the Bears' quarterback woes with an ultra-talented prospect in his fourth season on the job, Nagy must plot out a course that will enable Fields to develop while the team makes a playoff run. Whether that plan features a "wait-and-see" approach, with the first-round pick standing on the sidelines while Dalton serves as a veteran bridge, or a staged quarterback competition that enables the youngster to earn the job, Nagy must ace this decision if he is to keep the franchise headed in the right direction. Otherwise, he could find himself standing in the unemployment line by the end of the season.
JAMAL ADAMS: The NFL's next $20 million man?
The $20 million dollar club has become the NFL contract version of the Madden 99 Club, with spots reserved for the game's most elite players. The non-quarterbacks collecting per-year dough in this range are not only regarded as the best players at their respective positions, but they are game changers with gold-jacket potential.
While the aerial obsession across the modern NFL has opened the door for pass catchers, pass protectors, pass rushers and cornerbacks to enter the VIP section of the club, the doormen have yet to usher a safety past the velvet ropes. But that might change in the very near future. With Jamal Adams heading into the last year of his rookie contract, the 25-year-old is seeking a blockbuster deal to reflect his impact as a three-time Pro Bowler and blue-chip playmaker.
Before you @ me suggesting Adams is not worth $20 million per season due to positional value, it is important to note that the Seahawks viewed him as a pass rusher when they sent two first-round picks to the Jets as part of a broader deal for his services.
"That's all instincts, really," coach Pete Carroll said, via ESPN, shortly after acquiring Adams. "It's instinct and savvy and just his general attitude. He's really an aggressive player. I thought one of the best blitzers I ever coached was Lawyer Milloy, and it was all about his attitude and it was just his attack mentality. You see that very much in Jamal."
Adams certainly did not disappoint in 2020, generating 9.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 26 pressures in just 12 games. He led the Seahawks in each of those categories, while setting the league's single-season sack record for a defensive back. Considering the Seahawks rushed Adams on nearly 20 percent of opponents' dropbacks, per ESPN, the 6-foot-1, 213-pounder should be viewed as a pass rusher in a safety's body. That distinction is important, given that nine of the 10 defenders averaging $20 million per season right now are pass rushers. (Rams CB Jalen Ramsey, per Spotrac, is the only exception.) Although Adams' pass-rush production (16 sacks and 27 QB hits since 2019) falls short of the lofty standards set by the likes of Aaron Donald (26 sacks and 52 QB hits since 2019), Joey Bosa (19 sacks and 58 QB hits) and Myles Garrett (22 sacks and 36 QB hits), the safety could wage a strong argument that he's been as impactful in this area as Demarcus Lawrence (11.5 sacks and 26 QB hits) and Frank Clark (14 sacks and 29 QB hits) over the past two seasons.
Adams' detractors will point to his lack of ball production (two interceptions in four NFL seasons) and questionable cover skills as concerns, but three-time Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker signed a four-year, $59 million extension in 2020 with zero picks on his résumé at the time of his deal. Given Baker's status as the second-highest-paid safety in football today -- averaging $14.75 million per season, Budda now trails Justin Simmons, who averages $15.25 million on his new deal -- Adams' paltry interception total should not overwhelm all other factors when building a contract based on impact and value.
Studying Adams' game over the years, I have frequently compared him to Troy Polamalu as a box-area playmaker. A first-team All-Pro in 2019 and second-team All-Pro in 2020, Adams stuffs the stat sheet like the Hall of Fame selectee, and his ability to create chaos near the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher should add some bonus points to his total score.
Considering how often the Seahawks' defense failed to generate a consistent pass rush prior to Adams' arrival -- and given the immense draft capital the 'Hawks gave up to acquire the safety -- Seattle understands No. 33's value as a playmaker and appears willing to write a big check to keep him in the fold.
"We want him to be a long time, for sure," general manager John Schneider said before the 2021 NFL Draft this past April. "He's a great player. We're glad we made the trade to get him, and he's going to be a very important part of our future."