NFL1000 Week 12 Notebook: You Won't Believe What Tom Brady Is Doing This Season
Thanksgiving Day's triple-header established the Vikings as the team to beat in the NFC...until the Philadelphia Eagles welcomed the Chicago Bears into Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday and reminded everyone that they deserve to be considered the NFL's best team with their 31-3 victory. Meanwhile, Tom Brady was dicing up Miami's defense on the way to a New England Patriots 35-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, making it clear that anyone who wants to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of this season must go through the 9-2 defending champs.
The view at the top is becoming clear. One floor below, things are more complicated.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, owners of the league's best scoring defense, found themselves on the wrong end of a close loss to the Arizona Cardinals and former Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The Atlanta Falcons got back on track with an enormous showing from receiver Julio Jones, but it came against Tampa Bay's defense, which has been a vacation for opposing offenses for most of the season. The Seattle Seahawks outlasted the San Francisco 49ers, and head coach Pete Carroll must be haunted by the fact that his team could be 9-2 instead of 7-4 if Blair Walsh could make a few field goals every now and then.
Perhaps the most compelling game in Sunday's slate was the Los Angeles Rams' 26-20 win over a New Orleans Saints team that had won eight straight games after an 0-2 start, even though New Orleans was without standout cornerback Marshon Lattimore and fellow corner Ken Crawley. The Saints kept it close with the efforts of running back Alvin Kamara (who should get a few Offensive Player of the Year votes), but the 8-3 Rams have established that they're anything but a fluke under first-year head coach Sean McVay.
At the bottom of the spectrum, there were the Denver Broncos and their ever-spinning quarterback carousel. More on that shortly.
It was an action-packed Week 12 in the NFL—the first in nearly two months in which no team had a bye—and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape in every game.
Lead scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive line: Ethan Young
Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
Here's what our scouts found most fascinating during Sunday's Week 12 action.
You Won’t Believe What Tom Brady Is Doing This Season
We're running out of things to say about Tom Brady's greatness. What else can you come up with when a guy has proved himself to be the best quarterback in league history through multiple offensive schemes and with so much roster churn since the century began? It's far more interesting to focus on new, young quarterbacks, and we'll just assume that Brady is lighting it up against whatever defense he's facing.
But what Brady is doing this season is worthy of specific praise. He lost Julian Edelman, his most reliable option receiver, for the entire season to a torn ACL in the preseason, so he had to find ways to connect with new targets like receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Rex Burkhead. In addition, a re-emphasis on the deep passing game in 2017 had led to more five- and seven-step drops. That means Brady is throwing through more pressure—and is getting sacked more often—than he was over the last few seasons in a more quick passing game that was implemented to hide flaws in New England's offensive line.
At age 40, Brady sloughs off the changes as if they're nothing. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 227 yards, four touchdowns and one interception against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday as the Pats moved to 9-2 with a 35-17 win. That puts him with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions on the season.
Brady's quarterback rating of 111.7 leads the NFL and is the third-best of his career, behind his historic 2007 season (117.2) and last season, when he had a 112.2 rating, 28 touchdown passes and just two picks. Per the team's Twitter feed, Brady's 26th touchdown pass of the season gave him the most for a quarterback above the age of 40, breaking the mark set by Brett Favre and Warren Moon.
It's Week 12.
How is Brady able to elude Father Time? His regimen shows in his mechanics, which are as consistently optimal as you will ever see from any quarterback, and in his ability to refine and adjust his game to the targets around him. Cooks has become his new deep threat on vertical routes in which the young receiver can use his straight-line speed to beat one-on-one matchups. He had a one-yard touchdown pass to Burkhead against the Dolphins in which Burkhead aligned to the left slot out of the backfield and ran a quick out route beyond the coverage of linebacker Chase Allen. It was just one more example out of the hundreds in Brady's career where the game plan predicated a mismatch, and Brady knew exactly what to do with it.
It also helps when Brady has a healthy Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdowns against the Dolphins. But there isn't any one reason for Brady's greatness or how he's able to play as well as he ever has at this age. The only constant throughout his NFL career has been Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and everyone who comes into his orbit becomes a better player by the experience.
You may be experiencing Tom Brady fatigue. But it's worth appreciating what he's doing this season—and as long as he continues to play—because you'll never see something like this again.
— NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Paxton Lynch Clearly Isn't the Answer in Denver, Must Address QB in Offseason
It's weirdly ironic that a team run by one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history finds itself with one of the least effective quarterback battles in recent years. But that's the situation Denver Broncos executive vice president and general manager John Elway created. Trevor Siemian's benching led to Brock Osweiler's benching, which led to the 2017 debut of Paxton Lynch against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
As has been the case with just about everything regarding quarterbacking and the Broncos, it did not go well. Lynch completed nine of 14 passes for 41 yards and an interception against a defense that hadn't picked off a pass all season heading into Sunday. Worse still, Lynch hobbled off the field with an ankle injury on a rollout in the third quarter. He was seen on the sideline in tears, which leads the casual observer to believe that the injury may keep him out for a while.
If that's the case, it's yet another hit for a team that can't seem to put average and below-average quarterbacks in a position to succeed. Lynch needs game experience if he's ever going to do anything of note at the NFL level. He played just three games in his rookie season last year, starting two, and a shoulder injury delayed his time on the field this season.
When I watched tape with Lynch just before the Broncos selected him with a first-round pick in 2016 out of Memphis, I had serious concerns about his ability to see the field and react quickly enough to what he was observing. He had the arm and mobility to make plays as long as things were schemed open for him—something that's common among young quarterbacks—but he wasn't ready for prime time then, and he isn't now.
The interception Lynch threw Sunday against Oakland was a perfect example of where he is in his progression, and how far he has to go. With seconds gone in the second quarter, the Broncos had the ball at the Oakland 1-yard line after a deep wheel route to running back Devontae Booker was first ruled a touchdown, then placed one yard out. Lynch rolled to his left at the snap and tried to throw the ball to tight end Virgil Green with his body out of whack and his physical momentum gone. By the time Lynch threw the ball, Green was bracketed by three defenders, and the corresponding tip drill resulted in an interception by veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Green had a good release off the line, and had Lynch thrown the ball a tick earlier, he had an open target.
Lynch may never be more than a backup at the NFL level. It's also possible that no current quarterback on the Broncos roster has the ability to propel the team forward. Lynch's career has been hampered by injury and it may be again, but that doesn't diminish the Broncos' still-present need to find their franchise quarterback. Odds are, they'll have to go off the reservation to do so.
— NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
What Happened to Marcus Mariota?
Both the Tennessee Titans and their quarterback entered 2017 with a great deal of promise and expectations. Marcus Mariota was coming off a strong 2016 season that placed him among the league’s best in terms of Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, a mark of 7.14 that placed him eighth in the league. Mariota was also nearly perfect in the red zone last year, completing 34 of 54 passes for 18 touchdowns and nary an interception.
This season, however, Mariota has not lived up to expectations.
Heading into Week 12, Mariota was coming off one of his worst statistical performances, when he threw four interceptions last Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The four turnovers propelled him to 10 on the season, placing him among the league leaders in that category.
He hasn't been much better in terms of ANY/A and red-zone splits. Mariota entered Week 12 ranking just 24th in ANY/A, with a mark of 5.63 which is well below the number he posted last season. He has struggled in the red zone this season as well, completing only 17 of 30 passes and three touchdowns heading into Sunday.
Mariota likewise struggled against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12. He completed 17 of 25 passes for just 184 yards, a touchdown and two more interceptions to bring his season total to 12.
Mariota's ball placement has seemed off this season, which is likely contributing to his dip in production. However, Titans fans had to be encouraged Sunday when Mariota hit Delanie Walker on a smash concept for a touchdown, showing precision touch and placement for the score. That play came in the red zone, so the combination of execution and placement might give Tennessee fans a reason to keep believing in their young quarterback as the 2017 season heads into the final few weeks.
— NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield
Have the Panthers Figured Out How to Use Christian McCaffrey?
It appears that the Panthers spent time during their bye week evaluating how they use their first-round pick, Christian McCaffrey. They had been force-feeding him the ball in unimaginative ways that were ineffective. It was too predictable, and McCaffrey became a high-volume target who yielded low production, causing the offense to suffer.
But against the Jets, the Panthers went away from the obvious screens and jumbo personnel runs between the tackles that were shut down with ease. Instead, they showed some creativity with how they used McCaffrey. They used him more like how the Saints have been using Alvin Kamara or the Redskins have used Chris Thompson.
In the running game, the Panthers ran McCaffrey more regularly out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), spreading out the defense and leaving just six defenders in the box. That gave McCaffrey more space to work with. He ripped off a 40-yard run from this look, running an inside zone to the right out of the gun with Newton holding the back-side defensive end with his running threat. McCaffrey showed off his patience in the hole, allowing his blockers to work up to the linebackers and open up a hole for him. He then burst through and cut back across the deep safety on his longest run of the season by far.
Carolina kept up its creativity with McCaffrey in the passing game, too. The Panthers did a good job isolating him one-on-one in coverage with a linebacker and allowing him to run a choice route. On 4th-and-3 on their opening drive, McCaffrey lined up in the backfield to the right of Newton. Two receivers stacked together on the outside, one went vertical and one broke inside to isolate McCaffrey on a linebacker. McCaffrey squared up his defender and then quickly broke outside as Newton found him to convert for a first down.
Later in the game, McCaffrey motioned from the backfield to the outside, stacking behind a receiver. The receiver ran vertical, leaving McCaffrey one-on-one again. Like before, he broke outside on a choice route and was wide open, but Newton overthrew him under pressure.
He also lined up as a receiver at times, and the Panthers showed some imagination with route combinations. In the second half, McCaffrey lined up as the inside receiver of a trips set to the left. The two outside receivers broke inside on slant routes to create traffic while McCaffrey ran a wheel route. Newton's throw was off target, but McCaffrey was open and the intent of the play-calling was much better.
— NFL1000 RB scout Mark Bullock
Keenan Allen Has Developed into the NFL's Best Route -Runner
When discussing the NFL's best wide receivers, Keenan Allen's name rarely comes up. He just doesn't get the respect or the publicity that some of the other top receivers around the league do. But when he is on the field, he produces as well as any other receiver you can name. What makes him so dominant for the Los Angeles Chargers? He possesses a skill that is among the most elite at his position: route running.
Over the past two games, Allen has tallied more than 330 yards receiving against the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. At just the age of 25, Allen is enjoying the best year of his career. With five games left, Allen already has 927 yards and four touchdowns. Provided he can stay healthy, he should exceed 1,300 receiving yards for the first time in his career.
Allen doesn't have superior athleticism and injuries have slowed him over the past several years, but he thrives because of his route running. His ability to win out of the slot and as an outside receiver makes him one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. His size and hand strength allow him to beat press coverage, but his diverse route tree forces defenders to play on their heels at all times.
One example of this was Allen's 42-yard touchdown against the Cowboys in Thanksgiving Day in a 28-6 blowout win. With 9:58 left in the game, Allen showed his mastery of timing and angles in short spaces as the inside slot man to the left side in an empty formation. He got leverage outside against cornerback Orlando Scandrick at the snap, passed Scandrick upfield and ran a perfect intermediate out route. He then juked past two Cowboys defenders to find the end zone.
— NFL1000 WR scout Marcus Mosher
Halapoulivaati Vaitai Is Successfully Replacing Jason Peters
In the wake of the Jason Peters injury, the City of Brotherly Love was panicking. How could the Eagles replace their All-Pro left tackle? Trade for Joe Staley? Call about Duane Brown? Kick Lane Johnson over to the left side? The Eagles decided that none of the above solutions were the way to go, instead trusting 24-year-old backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The results have been mixed, but the Eagles have done a tremendous job of playing to Vaitai's strengths and giving him support since he has been in the lineup. And as a result, the Eagles offense has continued to chug along as strong as ever.
Philadelphia has changed a few things up with its blocking stylistically since Peters went down. With the new trio of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement offering so many different looks out of the backfield, the run game has gotten a lot more diverse, which has been huge for Vaitai. This new ground game diversity has allowed him to get in space and onto to the second level, where he shines. And despite the fact the Eagles' main backs don't innately seem like outside runners, they have been thriving in these looks because of how much they suit their line. When you allow backs with their level of physicality to get cleanly downfield and to the second level, good things happen.
It hasn't all been roses for Vaitai though, and he has put up some bad reps on tape at times. He's struggled with more physical speed-to-power bull-rushers. He got worked by Leger Douzable that way a few weeks back. While Vaitai has always struggled with hat-on-hat strength, and that is the only tool Douzable can flash, you likely won't stick around long if you get beat consistently by a guy like that. Vaitai's pre-snap ability in pass protection could use some work as well, as he gets his set direction wrong a lot more than he should, which puts him behind the eight ball on these reps.
But there are positive to build on. His ability in space has helped this new-look run game, and his active feet allow him to mirror in pass protection and defend his outside hip against even the quickest of edge-rushers. Eagles fans should be happy with how he's performed as a starter so far. The Eagles will need him to continue his steady play to make a deep playoff run.
— NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young
Everson Griffen Is Leading Vikings' Stellar Defense
Everson Griffen was not a significant starter for the Minnesota Vikings until he was a fifth-year veteran and a 26-year-old pass-rusher. In that 2014 season, after recording just one start from 2010 to 2013, he posted a 12-sack year, a career high for him to this date.
Since then, the former fourth-round pick has been to two Pro Bowls and signed a $58 million contract extension this summer. To say the least, Griffen is both one of the most successful mid-round pass-rushers and one of the most successful late-bloomer pass-rushers that the NFL has had come through its doors in a decade.
Griffen, who will turn 30 in a month, may be having the best season of his career in 2017. He has recorded at least one sack in nine of his 10 games played for a season total of 12 sacks, tying his 2014 peak. With five games to go, Griffen is tied with Arizona's Chandler Jones at the top of the 2017 sack list. For reference, Atlanta's Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season.
If you haven't been able to catch Griffen this year, it's time. His two-sack game on Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions helped propel the Vikings to a 9-2 record, the second-best mark in the league. On top of quarterback Case Keenum's surprisingly looking respectable, one of the major reasons Minnesota is doing so well this season is its defensive line, led by Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and most importantly Griffen, a top-five DE.
— NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda
Reggie Ragland Living Up to Potential in New Home
The inside linebacker spot next to Derrick Johnson has been a revolving door for years. From James-Michael Johnson to Josh Mauga to Ramik Wilson, the Kansas City Chiefs have been incapable of finding anyone to hold down the fort next to Johnson. The Chiefs made a trade for Reggie Ragland in late August to hopefully solve that issue. Though he did not start the season, Ragland has come on strong the past couple of weeks.
The Buffalo Bills selected Ragland with a second-round pick in 2016. Unfortunately, Ragland tore his ACL in the August before his rookie season. A new coaching regime then came to town in 2017, and Ragland was subsequently shipped off. His major injury and poor fit in Sean McDermott's defense made it a logical decision for Buffalo to send him packing.
Over the past two weeks, Ragland has been a bright spot for a declining Chiefs team. He has led the team in tackles two weeks in a row, racking up nine tackles in each performance. Additionally, Ragland has recorded four tackles for loss over the past two weeks: one versus the New York Giants and three against the Buffalo Bills.
Ragland looks healthy and confident, much like he did at Alabama. He is back to being an aggressive, sound between-the-tackles linebacker. That said, Ragland is not very helpful in coverage situations, but that was the case when he came out of college. It was to be expected, even at full strength.
Now fully recovered from injury, Ragland looks like the quality starter he was drafted to be. He is no world-beater, but he is a reliable two-down player next to Derrick Johnson the Chiefs have been missing.
— NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen
Casey Hayward Is the Best Cornerback No One's Talking About
The Los Angeles Chargers have had a tumultuous season, starting 0-4 and suffering season-ending injuries to star cornerback Jason Verrett and two starting guards. Shockingly, they've recovered and sit at 5-6, just one game back in the AFC West, and momentum is on their side for the home stretch. As seen on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys, one of their most talented playmakers is cornerback Casey Hayward.
The former Green Bay Packer has been fantastic in his two seasons with the Chargers, but he's solidified himself as an elite corner this year. Hayward's last two weeks have been incredible, as he's logged three interceptions and an additional two pass breakups. This past week, he took on the challenge to shadow the No. 1 receiver (in this case Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant), a task he's rarely done. The results were excellent, as he allowed just one reception for 10 yards in man coverage.
Per my charting, Hayward's play has been stellar all season with the exception of one game; Week 5 against the Giants he allowed five receptions for 118 yards and the only touchdown of the season in man assignments. Outside of that one game, his cumulative production has been outstanding, as he's allowed just 14 receptions on 40 targets for 193 yards.
The 5'11", 188-pound corner has shown the ability to play press against strong receivers who win at the catch point, such as Kelvin Benjamin and Dez Bryant, and also speedsters like Terrance Williams. He's also quick and fluid enough to react while in man and zone, as well as in the slot. While most corners his size have a clear weakness in scheme and alignment, Hayward has become masterful with technique, efficiency and versatility.
— NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton