FOX Sports NFL Analyst
The season is five weeks old but coaches are just now discovering the identity of their squads.
Despite countless hours spent on the practice field during the offseason, training camp and the preseason, coaches do not really know what they have until they see their teams play in real games.
The tactics and strategies that some coaches thought they would be able to employ have been scrapped in favor of game plans that are better suited to the personnel that they have in front of them. The same could be said for the plans many coaches made around the team’s superstars and some of their marquee offseason acquisitions (free agents, trade acquisitions, draft picks) who were expected to be the centerpieces of their squads.
A miscalculation or improper scheme fit could force team builders and play designers to tweak their respective systems to put their best players in optimal playmaking positions. With injuries also threatening to ruin some of the best-laid plans, coaches are constantly adapting and adjusting their formulas to coax the best performance out of their teams.
After reviewing the games from Week 5, I have a better understanding of the contenders and pretenders in this league. In addition, I have some thoughts on which players could surge to the top of the charts as the new playmakers to watch. Let’s get to it.
FIVE THINGS THAT LOOKED GOOD
1. Justin Herbert
is ready to wear the crown
"Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye!"
It is time to proclaim Justin Herbert as the new King of the Quarterbacks in the NFL. I know fans of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes will take me to task for anointing the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback as the No. 1 player at the position, but it's time to give the second-year pro his due.
Sure, Herbert’s scintillating performance against the Cleveland Browns (398 pass yards, four pass touchdown, and rushing score) might have prompted a little recency bias, but it's hard to ignore the consistent excellence that we are seeing from Herbert each week.
Whether it is the pinpoint ball placement on a wide array of throws or the subtle artistry of his playmaking prowess at the position, Herbert is putting on a weekly show that provides us with a blueprint of what a franchise quarterback should look like. From his statuesque build to his dynamic athleticism and five-star arm talent and exceptional football IQ and leadership skills, Herbert is exactly what general managers and head coaches want at the position.
He is a rare quarterback with the capacity to play the game like a carefree gunslinger while exhibiting the discretion of a field general. Herbert’s ability to turn up or down his game depending on the circumstances reveals wisdom and maturity that exceeds his experience in the league. Moreover, it demonstrates an innate feel for the position that encourages Brandon Staley and Co. to trust him in critical situations.
While the numbers might not support my proclamation of Herbert as the new QB King, my eyes tell me that it is time to hand the Chargers quarterback the crown and allow him to sit on the throne as the new ruler of the NFL.
2. Antonio Brown
is still an elite player
Imagine having a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver slotted as the WR3 in your lineup. That is the luxury that Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians enjoys with Antonio Brown slotted in as the third receiver in the team’s "11" personnel package (one RB, one TE, three WRs).
The four-time All-Pro is taking advantage of his seeding in a lineup that also features a pair of all-stars on the outside (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) to reestablish himself as a premier pass-catcher in the league. On Sunday, Brown served up an eye-opener with a seven-catch, 124-yard effort that also included a pair of scores. The spectacular performance was his second 100-yard outing of the season and a thrilling exhibition of crafty playmaking from a veteran receiver.
Brown tore up the Miami Dolphins’ defense with a throwback performance reminiscent of his vintage years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, when he posted six straight seasons with 100 catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards. He might not reach those marks in Tampa, but he remains a blue-chip player with potent playmaking skills on the perimeter.
3. Najee Harris
is as good as advertised
The analytics world might have hated the Steelers’ selection of Harris in the first round of the 2021 draft, but the Alabama product is exactly what this offense needed.
The rookie running back possesses the dynamic RB1/WR2 skills that remind me of the Steelers’ offense with Le’Veon Bell as the centerpiece. Although Harris’ playing style is more traditional than the unorthodox game of the former All-Pro Bell, the combination of running and receiver skills that the rookie offers enables the team to play "small ball" with Ben Roethlisberger on the field.
The assortment of quick-rhythm throws (swings, screens, option routes) and off-tackle runs to the running back has alleviated the pressure on No. 7 to carry the offense. With Harris finding his way as a runner against the Broncos (23 carries, 122 rush yards and a score) behind an improving offensive line, the Steelers were able to dictate the terms and control the game.
If Harris continues to anchor the offense as a workhorse with diverse skills, the Steelers might make a late-season run.
4. Don’t sleep on Davis Mills
It's hard to imagine a quarterback with 11 collegiate starts making an impact as a rookie, but Davis Mills is showing us why the Houston Texans might view him as the quarterback of the future.
The third-round pick completed 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards and three scores in an impressive performance that showcased his immense talent and potential. Mills tore apart a New England Patriots scheme that not only flustered the GOAT a week ago but has made others, particularly rookies, melt in the fire.
The Stanford product attacked the Patriots’ tactics with a barrage of quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly before the pass rush collapsed the pocket. In addition, Mills threw the ball repeatedly over the middle of the field on a variety of in-breaking routes on slant, digs and glance routes that enabled the Texans’ receivers to run away from man coverage.
The decisiveness and confidence that Mills displayed while attacking coverage was a bit of a surprise based on his play against the Buffalo Bills (11 of 21 for 87 yards with four interceptions) and Carolina Panthers (19 of 28 for 168 yards with a touchdown). With Mills' light seemingly coming on against the Patriots, the Texans should be encouraged by the quick acclimation to the pro game from their third-round pick.
5. Davante Adams
is still No. 1
If there was any doubt about Adams’ spot as the best receiver in the league, the All-Pro receiver left no doubt with his sensational play against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The veteran Green Bay Packer tallied 11 catches, 206 receiving yards and a score (on 16 targets) working against a variety of coverages on the outside. Adams slipped past Bengals’ defenders on a combination of slants, digs, crossers and stutter-post routes that showcased spectacular route-running skills. Utilizing a combination of stutter steps, hesitation moves and push-pull tactics to create space from defenders, the All-Pro pass-catcher is nearly impossible to guard in space.
If defenders are able to remain in close proximity, Adams’ exceptional ball skills and sticky hands enable him to snag 50-50 balls with ease. The scales tip so heavily in Adams' favor when he is covered that Aaron Rodgers is willing to target him in any situation.
Considering how Adams has a knack for turning those chances into first downs and touchdowns, No. 17 remains the undisputed No. 1 receiver in the game.
FIVE THINGS THAT LOOKED BAD
1. The Detroit Lions
’ defense needs to learn how to finish games
The Lions are a few failed two-minute situations away from posting a winning record at this point of the season. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and the Lions’ defense have failed the team in late-game situations, including game-winning drives by the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings.
The common trend in each situation has been an inability to call a coverage that works for Lions defenders in key moments. Against the Ravens, Detroit played an umbrella coverage that kept the ball from flying over the top of the defense but left holes at the intermediate range.
Glenn switched up his approach against the Vikings by going with man coverage to have tighter coverage on the perimeter to force throws into smaller windows. The tactic backfired when Kirk Cousins was able to find Adam Thielen on a pair of 20-yard passes that moved the Vikings into field-goal range.
The heartbreaking moments have created more misery for Lions fans, but the new defensive coordinator and his players will take some valuable lessons from these losses as they grow into a playoff contender.
2. Sam Darnold
serves up a stinker
For all of the progress that Darnold has made with the Panthers, the questions persist on whether he is really a franchise quarterback. The concerns will only escalate after watching the third-year pro struggle Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Darnold completed 21 of 37 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown but tossed three interceptions and took three sacks in a losing effort. The miscues not only undermined a defensive performance that was good enough to earn a "W," but it could prompt Matt Rhule and Joe Brady to reconsider how much they put on the quarterback’s plate going forward.
While Darnold has topped the 300-yard mark in three of the past four games, he also has six interceptions and 13 sacks during that span. The mistakes are troublesome for a player with a history of faltering under pressure.
Sure, it is only one game and every quarterback is entitled to a stinker, but the Panthers need to keep a close eye on their QB1 to make sure the turnovers are not the start of a trend.
3. The kicking woes around the league will force coaches to change tactics
If you thought kickers were disliked in locker rooms around the league, the disdain will reach epic proportions after the league-wide struggles this week.
In Week 5, there were 12 missed field goals and 12 failed extra points for a total of 24 unsuccessful kicks. The 12 missed PATs tied the record in the Super Bowl era (Week 11, 2016), and there is still Monday night's game left to play.
The Bengals-Packers game featured five missed field goals in the final eight minutes of the game (final two minutes and 12 seconds, plus overtime), with veteran Mason Crosby and rookie Evan McPherson taking turns misfiring from intermediate and long-distance.
The repeated misfires highlighted the frustration that coaches experience when making late-game decisions on whether to go for it on fourth-down situations or trust the kicker to knock it through the uprights in a high-pressure situation.
The scattershot production from kickers around the league will make coaches reconsider their play-calling sequences to see if they can enhance their odds with the game on the line. From utilizing more aggressive third- and fourth-down calls to playing for touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, the kicking woes around the league will certainly impact how coaches approach the game going forward.
4. The Giants’ Big 3 limps to the sideline
It's hard to win games with all of the weapons on the field, but it is nearly impossible to scratch out a W with a short-handed lineup that robs the offensive play-caller of the QB1, RB1 and WR1. That’s why I am not surprised to see the New York Giants leave Dallas with their fourth loss after Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay left the game with various injuries.
Without having to defend a credible threat at quarterback or a pair of dynamic players on the perimeter, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was able to tweak his game plan to limit the Giants’ options. Although Kadarius Toney enjoyed a big day on the perimeter (10 catches and 189 yards on 13 targets), the rookie was unable to produce enough explosive plays as a one-man show to impact the outcome of the game.
Joe Judge and his staff cannot eliminate injuries, but the staff must come up with a better Plan B that enables them to remain competitive without their A-Team.
5. It is time to hit the panic button in Kansas City
The Chiefs have been able to make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances with Patrick Mahomes and Co. carrying a porous defense to the party. That formula will not work in 2021 with the defense leaking oil like a jalopy.
Against the Bills, the Chiefs’ defense surrendered 24 points on 24 offensive plays in the first half, as part of a disappointing effort in which the unit gave up 436 yards. The Bills finished with a whopping 8.1 yards per play average as they were able to do whatever they wanted against Steve Spagnuolo’s troops.
If this was an isolated incident for the defense, I would not be as concerned but this has become a weekly adventure for a unit that ranks at or near the bottom of the league in the major statistical categories (total yards, rush yards, pass yards and scoring defense).
It has been a combination of mental mistakes, poor execution, reckless play-calling and underachieving personnel.
With the miscues on full display for the football world to see, the Chiefs have started to lose some of the invincibility that made them the most feared team in the league. Time is still on Spags’ side, but the long-time defensive play-caller will need to dig deep into his bag to find a solution to help the defense reverse its fortunes.
MY TOP 10 TEAMS
1. Buccaneers: Tom Brady and Co. turned it up a notch against the Dolphins with an impressive all-around effort that showcased the team’s firepower on both sides of the ball.
2. Bills: After an impressive statement win against the Chiefs, the Bills are the frontrunners in the AFC. Josh Allen is playing at a high level, but it is the stingy defense that could spark the Super Bowl run that Western New York has been waiting on since the 1990s.
3. Cardinals: It is time to view Kliff Kingsbury’s squad as a legitimate contender in the NFC. The spunky unit showed its versatility by relying on an ultra-aggressive defense to chalk up win No. 5 with the offense mired in quicksand for most of the day.
4. Chargers: Justin Herbert’s skills and Brandon Staley’s guts have the Chargers sitting atop the AFC West. The Bolts have a legitimate chance to emerge as a title contender in a crowded AFC.
5. Cowboys: Like it or not, America’s Team is rounding into form as a Super Bowl contender. Mike McCarthy has an unstoppable offense at his disposal with the weaponry to win games utilizing a variety of styles.
6. Rams: Matthew Stafford’s takeover of the Rams’ offense has resulted in more drop-backs and fewer play-action passes. The team is winning, but the offense is still discovering its identity. That could be a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
7. Packers: Good teams find ways to win when they do not have their A-game. Aaron Rodgers helped the Packers hold off a pesky Bengals’ squad to chalk up their fourth win of the season.
8. Browns: Kevin Stefanski will kick himself for failing to keep his foot on the gas when the Browns had a chance to close out the Chargers. Cleveland is still one of the best in the AFC, but dropping a tough one on the road could come back to bite them in the end.
9. Ravens: Lamar Jackson needs a win Monday night to keep the Ravens atop the AFC North and remain a co-No. 1 seed in the AFC.
10. Bears: Don’t look now but the Bears have crept back into playoff contention since Justin Fields took the helm. The rookie quarterback has not put up big numbers, but the team has surged since he was installed as QB1. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence but No. 1 provides the team with hope as a five-star athlete with big-time potential.
WEEK 4 GAME BALLS
MVP: Josh Allen, Bills
Allen claims the award this week after leading the Bills to a huge statement win on the road. The MVP runner-up in 2020 accounted for 374 yards of total offense and four scores while playing like a single-wing quarterback for the Bills. The fourth-year pro’s incredible playmaking skill as a dual-threat keeps defenses on their toes and makes it nearly impossible for defensive coordinators to craft game plans that limit Allen's impact.
Offensive Player of the Week: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
Brady must have a deal with Father Time that enables him to turn back the clock a few Sundays each year. TB12 put up 400-plus yards and five touchdowns against the Dolphins. The seven-time Super Bowl winner showed the football world that he is still capable of making every throw in the book against a defense that was unable to cover the Buccaneers’ explosive playmakers.
Defensive Player of the Week: Trevon Diggs
The league office should start etching Diggs’ name on the Defensive Player of the Year award after the second-year pro picked off his sixth pass of the season. Diggs continues to display impressive instincts, ball-hawk skills and awareness as a cover corner thriving in a scheme that enables him to play free and loose on the island.
Rookie of the Week: Ja’Marr Chase
If Chase keeps running past defenders at this rate, the Bengals’ rookie pass-catcher could emerge as the best big-play threat in football by the end of the season. With a 19.8 yards per catch average and five scores already on his résumé, the LSU product is as good as advertised as a WR1 with big-play potential.
Unsung Hero: Chase Claypool
Claypool quietly posted a 100-yard day as the Steelers’ emerging No. 1 receiver. The receiver snagged five catches for 130 yards with a score while utilizing his superior size-speed combination to overwhelm a Broncos’ secondary that has blanketed opposing aerial attacks this season.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports and regularly appears on "Speak For Yourself." He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and is a cohost of the "Moving the Sticks" podcast.
Source : https://www.foxsports.com/stories/nfl/buckys-breakdown-justin-herbert-davante-adams-soar-patrick-mahomes-cant-carry-chiefs-defense4337