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 five of the most difficult game-planning assignments ...
With Halloween right around the corner, it feels like a perfect time to spotlight some of the dynamic players who keep opposing coaches up at night. You know, those guys who are an absolute nightmare to prepare for.
Now, since quarterbacks are the outsized focus of EVERY game plan, let's concentrate on the anxiety-inducing figures who don't line up under center.
Here are five game-planning nightmares at five different positions:
The NFL's transformation into a pass-centric league has put a premium on running backs with RB1/WR2 skills. McCaffrey is currently football's premier playmaker out of the backfield, possessing the speed and quickness to turn the corner out on the perimeter, as well as the strength and power to pick up dirty yards between the tackles. He's a stellar route runner with reliable hands and explosive catch-and-run ability. McCaffrey showcased spectacular all-around skills during his time in Carolina -- going 1,000/100 (rushing yards/receptions) in 2018 and 1,000/1,000 (rushing yards/receiving yards) in '19 -- but he feels even more dangerous in San Francisco.
With Kyle Shanahan making CMC the centerpiece of the 49ers' offense as a matchup nightmare, the 27-year-old has scored at least one touchdown from scrimmage in each of his last 16 games (postseason included). Whether attacking loaded boxes as a downhill runner or cooking linebackers/safeties on isolation routes from the slot or out wide, McCaffrey creates chaos for opponents unable to match up with his rare athleticism and agility in space.
The four-time first-team All-Pro keeps defensive coordinators up at night contemplating different strategies on how to slow down one of the most electrifying players in league history. Hill is averaging 108.8 receiving yards per game since arriving in Miami two offseasons ago, with few opponents having the horses to keep up with the potent playmaker in Mike McDaniel's scheme.
Whether Hill is racing across the field on jet sweeps, bursting to the sideline on escape motion to get a running start ahead of the snap or just blowing past defenders on an assortment of vertical routes and deep crossers, the eighth-year pro stretches defenses horizontally and vertically with unrivaled speed, burst and acceleration.
As a terrifying threat in the open field with the vision, elusiveness, strength and power to run around defenders or through arm tackles, Hill is a nightmare to deal with on the perimeter. Given the extraordinary challenges around crafting a game plan to limit his big-play production, Hill's a no-brainer pick for this list.
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is a freestyle specialist on the perimeter with the green light to run to open areas. The unpredictability of Kelce's routes and destinations makes it nearly impossible to draw up a game plan that neutralizes his impact on the Chiefs' offense.
Moreover, Kelce's synchronized improvisation with Patrick Mahomes keeps the pressure on defenders to "plaster" (i.e., stick with their assigned pass catchers during scrambles) No. 87 at all times or risk surrendering a big gain on a broken play or key down. With Andy Reid encouraging his top playmakers to play a two-man game of sorts, the challenge of defending the Chiefs' passing game drives opposing coordinators crazy ahead of matchups with the defending Super Bowl champs.
It is rare to find a 6-foot-4, 272-pounder with the athleticism to incorporate basketball crossover moves into his pass-rushing repertoire, but this is no ordinary specimen. Garrett not only brings elite size, speed and movement skills to the table as a dynamic pass rusher, but his imagination and creativity make him nearly impossible to handle at the line of scrimmage.
As Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz toys with opponents by moving No. 95 up and down the line to exploit mismatches, the rest of the league is scouring game tapes, attempting to come up with an answer for slowing down the ultra-talented former No. 1 overall pick. It's much easier said than done. Just ask first-team All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, who recently waxed poetic about Garrett, touting him as a Hall of Fame talent.
Given his game-wrecking ability and prolific production (82 sacks in 90 career games), Garrett is one of the most feared players in the league.
In his first two-plus seasons, the multi-talented athlete has taken the league by storm as a force of nature with explosive athletic traits and unique tools that overwhelm opponents at the point of attack. Parsons is a hybrid linebacker/pass-rushing specialist who can align anywhere along the defensive front. Consequently, savvy defensive coordinator Dan Quinn uses the 24-year-old to create and exploit mismatches at the point of attack. The tactics have worked well, with Parsons notching 31.5 sacks, 67 QB hits and seven forced fumbles in 39 NFL games.
Parsons is anything but a one-trick pony. When he's not getting after quarterbacks, the 6-3, 245-pounder with insane speed terrorizes runners and pass catchers as a sideline-to-sideline defender. Given his disruptive skills and destructive impact, Parsons' whereabouts must be monitored at all times.
Staley's fatal flaw? Bolts' D remains poor
Brandon Staley took over the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021, fresh off a spectacular season as the defensive coordinator for the crosstown Rams. The innovative defensive architect earned kudos for his scheme, tactics and personnel deployment on Sean McVay's staff, with the 2020 Rams finishing first in scoring D and total D. Moreover, the whiz kid was expected to elevate the Bolts into a title contender, with his creative approach meshing with a talented roster featuring multiple blue-chip players.
Here we are in Year 3 of the Staley regime, though, and his Chargers are 2-4, struggling to stay in playoff contention. There's been plenty of discussion about the inconsistent production from Los Angeles' Justin Herbert-led offense, but the bigger problem has been an underachieving defense. Under Staley, the Bolts have never finished above 20th in scoring defense or total defense. And the unit could be hitting a new low this season, currently ranking 25th in scoring D and 31st in total D. Considering L.A.'s defense features routine Pro Bowlers Joey Bosa and Derwin James, as well as a collection of hard-nosed defenders that includes a former Defensive Player of the Year (Khalil Mack), the disappointing performance from a group that appears exceptional on paper has been one of the biggest surprises within the football community.
Given the defense's dismal performance in this past Sunday's loss to the division-rival Chiefs -- with Kansas City headliners Patrick Mahomes (424 passing yards and four touchdowns) and Travis Kelce (12 catches for 179 yards and a score) going bonkers -- it is fair to wonder if Staley can fix the unit before it's too late. After all, the Chargers' slow start has many talking about the head coach's job security -- or lack thereof.
After reviewing the game tape, I just do not think Staley's scheme gets the most out of the talent on hand. The coach prefers a split-safety system with the deep cover men positioned far away from the line of scrimmage to eliminate the explosives in the passing game. In addition, Los Angeles' cornerbacks play soft on the perimeter to take away vertical throws while conceding short-to-intermediate routes on the outside.
The "bend, but don't break" premise that Staley prefers is designed to play the odds that an offense cannot drive the length of the field without imploding due to a self-inflicted errors (penalties, negative plays or turnovers). But opponents have been successfully dinking and dunking their way down the gridiron, partially due to the Chargers' inconsistent tackling in space. In addition, opposing offenses have been able to generate big plays against the Bolts by attacking the intermediate areas of the field on various catch-and-run concepts.
With the Chargers lacking the personnel to hold up in man-to-man and the discipline to play zone, quarterbacks are feasting on a defensive backfield that looks overmatched and overwhelmed on the perimeter. Staley has attempted to reshuffle his personnel (benching and eventually trading former big-ticket free-agent signee J.C. Jackson) and adjust his coverage preferences, but his tweaks have yet to pan out. Opponents continue to zip up and down the field, and Los Angeles has been unable to slow down the plus quarterbacks and aerial attacks on the schedule.
Theoretically, the Chargers' pass rush should minimize some of the secondary's issues by forcing opposing quarterbacks to swiftly get rid of the football, but Bosa and Co. just have not generated consistent pressure. Outside of a monster six-sack day from Mack against the Raiders, L.A.'s standout pass rushers generally have not gotten the job done at the point of attack.
Without a consistent pass rush or an elite secondary, the Chargers have been left to hope for off days from opposing quarterbacks. Those wishes have gone unfulfilled, though, as passers continue to tally completions on easy throws to the outside. Los Angeles ranks dead last in passing yards allowed at 310.0 per game; for context, Jacksonville ranks 31st at 273.9 and Denver's 30th at 257.4. The stunning efficiency (68.3% completion rate) and explosiveness (8.8 yards per pass attempt) from opposing signal-callers spawn serious concerns about Staley's ability to adapt.
Moreover, outsiders wonder why the creative defensive play-caller refuses to take away the opponents' top threats with double-teams or bracket coverages to force foes to play left-handed in key moments. The Patriots have utilized this tactic for years to neutralize opponents. Staley should consider stealing a page from Bill Belichick's book to help a suspect pass defense mask its flaws.
Though Los Angeles' rush defense is also a concern, Staley's scheme encourages opponents to run because fewer explosive plays happen on the ground. By deploying light boxes and two-high coverage, he will concede 4-yard gains to take away the deep balls that fly over the top of the defense.
Rich get richer: How Byard boosts Eagles
Credit Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman for making another trade with Tennessee to put his squad in better position to go on another Super Bowl run. A year and a half after acquiring star WR A.J. Brown from the Titans, the Eagles received safety Kevin Byard in exchange for S Terrell Edmunds and 2024 fifth- and sixth-round selections.
As a prolific ballhawk with outstanding instincts and awareness, Byard leads all safeties in interceptions (27) and passes defensed (59) since 2017, his first season as a full-time starter. Earning a pair of first-team All-Pro honors along the way, Byard has exhibited a knack for producing turnovers that tilt the odds in his team's favor.
Though the 30-year-old has not recorded a single pick or pass breakup this season, Byard's intelligence and superb instincts will upgrade a Philly secondary that is slated to face a handful of capable quarterbacks down the stretch of the regular season (Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Brock Purdy and Geno Smith) -- and he'll obviously play a big role in the Eagles' presumed postseason venture. From anticipating and communicating potential adjustments to settling down the defensive backfield after a big play, Byard's experience and expertise will be quite valuable to a unit mixing youngsters with veterans in marquee spots.
All that said, Byard is not the playmaker he once was during his prime. In Year 8, the veteran has lost a little speed and quickness, which shows up when he is expected to play over the top from the deep middle. However, he makes up for his loss of quickness by taking deeper alignments and relying on his instincts to anticipate plays in his area. With astute film study and game preparation, Byard still plays faster than most of his younger counterparts in critical moments.
Currently ranked sixth in total defense, Philadelphia has done a fine job mixing a new generation of playmakers with established stalwarts on that side of the ball. But for a defense always seeking a competitive edge, this addition of a graybeard in the deep middle made perfect sense for a franchise looking to get right back to Super Bowl Sunday.