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 one franchise that's CLEARLY on the rise ...
Everybody loves a Cinderella story. That's why football fans from coast to coast are gravitating toward the Detroit Lions. This is a feel-good story with an undeniable rags-to-riches quality that people can rally around.
Remember: Detroit is one of four active NFL teams (alongside Cleveland, Jacksonville and Houston) that has never made a Super Bowl. The Lions have just ONE playoff victory since winning their last NFL championship in 1957. They haven't won a division title since 1993, before the NFC North was even a thing. (Detroit finished atop the NFC Central in that season.) Currently in its 94th NFL campaign, this organization has never even enjoyed back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.
Long story short, this hasn't exactly been one of the league's banner franchises. And yet, going back to last November, the Lions have put together a spirited 13-3 run. This isn't just an inspiring blip, either.
This Detroit team is for real.
Head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes have transformed a longtime also-ran into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And they've done so by assembling a roster full of talented players with blue-collar attitudes. The Lions not only reflect the gritty pride of the Motor City, but they are a tenacious, tough-minded group with the capacity to play bully ball against the heavyweights in the league.
Everyone remembers Campbell's epic introductory press conference, when he passionately talked about building a team that would "bite a kneecap off." Clearly, the former NFL tight end was looking to build a hard-nosed squad in his own image, but a lot of people just laughed at Campbell's colorful language, failing to take him seriously. Consequently, Detroit's execution of championship-caliber complementary football has exceeded expectations.
In jumping out to a 5-1 start to take sole possession of first place in the NFC North, the Lions rank in the top 10 in scoring, total offense and total defense. In fact, the team is thriving in all three phases, with one-time Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox regularly flipping the field with his booming kicks. Moreover, Detroit is evolving into a championship-caliber outfit that can win in various ways.
Offensively, the Lions have become a scoring machine under Ben Johnson. The savvy coordinator, who's sure to be a hot head-coaching candidate in the offseason, has coaxed a spectacular resurgence out of Jared Goff. Coming to Detroit in the Matthew Stafford trade, Goff has played lights-out football over the past 17 games, completing 391 of his 578 passes (67.6 percent) for 4,473 passing yards with 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions. During this prolific stretch, he has exhibited the poise, playmaking and production expected from a former No. 1 overall pick.
"He's playing at a very high level," Campbell said this week to the assembled media. "He's making the throws that are there, he's seeing the field, and he's exactly what we need and he's doing exactly what we're asking him to do. But I've said this before: He is an evolving quarterback. He's developing, he's been developing and he just keeps getting a little bit better, little bit better."
Goff's performance has been bolstered by a strong supporting cast that includes Pro Bowl wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, second-round rookie Sam LaPorta and a top-five offensive line that bludgeons opponents at the point of attack. The Lions' massive O-line overwhelms all comers with its size, strength and physicality while setting the tone for the rest of the team with a nasty disposition. As a unit that engages in bully-ball tactics with violent finishes at the end of blocks, the offensive line has become the lifeblood of an attack that knows how to close out games via a run-centric approach that produces teaching tape on the four-minute offense. Running back David Montgomery, who relocated from Chicago to Detroit in free agency this past offseason, had emerged as a devastating hammer before he was sidelined by a rib injury in this past Sunday's 20-6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions will undoubtedly miss him in this weekend's trip to Baltimore, but their fabulous front still gives the run game a platform for success.
With the Lions' stout ground attack enhancing a play-action passing game that enables Goff to target intermediate voids in the defense, the 29-year-old quarterback has been able to seamlessly shift from game manager to playmaker, based on circumstances.
Meanwhile, the defense has become a salty group, with local product Aidan Hutchinson leading the way. Last year's No. 2 overall pick out of Michigan has been as good as advertised. He's a high-energy edge defender with superb pass-rushing skills. In his first 23 NFL games, the 6-foot-7, 268-pounder has racked up 14 sacks, seven passes defensed, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Hutchinson has also totaled 70 tackles (with 13 for loss) and 23 QB hits as the designated playmaker on the defense.
As opponents begin to focus on slowing down the ultra-athletic pass rusher, the Lions' scrappy secondary has thrown a blanket on opponents on the perimeter. A healthy mix of veterans and youngsters has enabled the unit to match up with aerial attacks via various zone concepts. A "bend, don't break" approach has eliminated the opposition's explosives, with the Lions intent on keeping the ball in front of the defense.
Though defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn -- another name to watch on the head-coaching carousel -- keeps it simple with his tactics and strategies, the instincts, awareness and football intelligence are on full display with savvy defensive backs of all ages, ranging from big-ticket free-agent addition Cameron Sutton to second-round steal Brian Branch. A scheme that allows DBs to keep their eyes on the quarterback has enabled the team to play faster and eliminate the extra yardage that can be accumulated on catch-and-run concepts. In addition, the vision on the passer has helped Detroit contain running games, with more defenders available to react to the leaks at the point of attack. This obviously will be key on Sunday, when the Lions will be tasked with containing Ravens star Lamar Jackson.
An underdog franchise rounding into form as a legitimate title contender, Detroit is a fairy tale you should believe in.
Less is more: Why Cleveland's D rocks
After watching the Cleveland Browns' defense bully the bullies in a 19-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, coaches across the league have undoubtedly been scouring the All-22 film to see how Jim Schwartz and Co. pulled it off. The thorough dismantling of an offensive juggernaut that had just hung a 40-burger on the Dallas Cowboys one week prior -- and has pummeled countless defenses over the past two seasons -- put the spotlight on a unit that ranks first in total defense and fifth in scoring defense.
Moreover, as Cleveland prepares for this Sunday's game at Indianapolis, it has thrust the Browns' ultra-confident defensive coordinator back into the spotlight for the work that he has done in transforming an underachieving unit into arguably the league's best defense.
After studying the tape, I believe the brilliance behind Cleveland's defensive success has been Schwartz's simplistic approach, which has allowed the longtime NFL coach to maximize the group's rich individual and collective talents. While the viral clips of Myles Garrett executing basketball-like crossover maneuvers before blowing past blockers on pass-rush attempts have drawn hearty laughs from casual observers, the elite game-wrecker's moves symbolize the fast-and-free nature of a defense that encourages players to have fun between the lines.
Running a defense that employs a matchup-driven premise combining a Wide-9 front with an assortment of man-to-man coverage schemes, the Browns are stifling opponents because their blue-chip talents are winning their matchups all over the field. Schwartz has put his best players in favorable situations, allowing them to utilize their superior speed, athleticism and explosiveness to win each down.
By featuring a Wide-9 front with the defensive ends positioned significantly outside of opposing offensive tackles, Schwartz has given Garrett, Za'Darius Smith and Ogbo Okoronkwo a runway to attack with speed and quickness off the edge. The threat of the speed rush puts blockers in a bind when attempting to kick-slide with depth to cut off the defender. Garrett and Smith have exploited overaggressive blockers with slick inside maneuvers to harass quarterbacks with constant penetration and pressure.
Schwartz has enhanced the scheme by allowing his elite players to pick and choose which blockers to attack at the line. Garrett and Smith, in particular, will move inside to work over an overmatched offensive guard at the point of attack. With few interior blockers capable of dealing with either decorated pass rusher's speed, power and explosiveness, the unrestrained approach enables the Browns to routinely notch individual wins, which obviously fuel larger team success.
The matchup premise has also worked well in the defensive backfield, with Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson suffocating receivers on the perimeter. The talented trio challenges wideouts at the line of scrimmage with a series of bump-and-run techniques that disrupt the rhythm and timing of the passing game. Cleveland's cover men boast superb footwork and quickness, allowing the Browns to also mix in some off coverage to eliminate the deep ball while remaining sticky on receivers all over the field.
With a versatile collection of safeties (Grant Delpit, Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod) in place, Schwartz will deploy some three-safety looks to spice up a scheme that features blitzes and simulated pressures from every angle. Hyper-versatile linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah also factors in here. As the blitzes and stunts force opponents into individual battles across the board, the isolation tactics produce stunning results due to the Browns' superior talent.
In a league that typically lauds brilliance in the X's and O's, Schwartz has turned Cleveland into a defensive monster by creating and exploiting favorable matchups with his Jimmys and Joes.
Speed & space: Miami's electric run game
If you are looking for offensive innovation, there is no better place to start nowadays than with Mike McDaniel's high-powered attack in Miami. In this space last month, I discussed the Dolphins' new passing-game cheat code -- a creative motion that gives Tyreek Hill a running start to attack defenders on vertical routes and crossing patterns -- but McDaniel has more than a few tricks up his sleeve in the ground game, too.
With Miami currently boasting the NFL's top rushing offense -- a ground attack that's outpacing the next-closest team by more than 30 yards per game -- the rest of the league is trying to crack the code on the schemes that have helped the Dolphins produce multiple 100-yard rushers and completely separate from the pack. That said, it is hard to replicate what Miami is doing without a track team on the perimeter and in the backfield.
Good luck emulating the speed and explosiveness of the Dolphins' top playmakers (Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert and rookie De'Von Achane, who's now on injured reserve after a jaw-dropping start to his NFL career). With defensive coordinators forced to respect the big-play ability of Hill and Waddle on vertical and horizontal routes, there is more space available for rushers on off-tackle runs that play off a variety of pre-snap motions. With all of the dangerous moving parts creating hesitation for second-level defenders attempting to diagnose downhill runs, jet sweeps, orbit tosses and reverses, Miami's backs are hitting their heads on the goalpost on long open-field jaunts.
Although complementary motions and fakes have long been utilized at all levels of football, the Dolphins' speed poses an extraordinary challenge to opponents attempting to stymie this electric offense. If a defender aligns in the incorrect gap or takes a poor angle, basic runs that typically produce 5-yard gains for most teams turn into explosive plays and touchdowns for Miami.
The Dolphins' combination of speed and space creates chaos for opposing defenses. McDaniel is showing the football world that it is nearly impossible to defend the deep ball, protect the sidelines and clog the middle with 11 defenders when the offense has burners in place at basically every skill position. Opponents do not have enough bodies or athleticism to match Miami's personnel, and McDaniels' motion-heavy schemes exploit those advantages. I'll be fascinated to see how the Philadelphia Eagles approach this well-oiled machine in this weekend's epic clash on Sunday Night Football.
While others will attempt to replicate the Dolphins' pre-snap motions, jet sweeps, reverses and general gadgetry, they will soon discover that the key to the offense's success is an abundance of world-class speed.