After two weeks in the National Football League it is hard to determine trends or tendencies, but one can either develop some concerns or positive vibes when reviewing this small sample size of an NFL season. Here is what has jumped out to me as a former GM in the league that might just be getting the attention of other insiders around the NFL.
Early kudos should go to two defensive coordinators who have successfully gotten their units out of gate with some eye-popping numbers and an aggressive attack philosophy. The Carolina Panthers are allowing 44 yards per game (190 yds) less than the second stingiest defense. Combine that with only allowing 46 yards per game on the ground give cause for some early smiles in Charlotte. However, that’s not the only numbers that stand out with second year defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s defense. The Panthers have a league-leading 10 sacks and are allowing only 25% of third downs to be converted. Their front seven is developing a reputation that is old school if nothing else.
Carolina’s last two number one picks are both playing a big part in this early success. Defensive lineman Derrick Brown was a choice that told me Matt Rhule knew what he was doing. Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer followed that pick up in 2020 by selecting highly sought-after corner JC Horn with their first choice in 2021. Horn had his first career INT last week in a drubbing of the New Orleans Saints. Spending first round capital on players who play premium positions is not only smart on the field but it also allocates salary cap dollars to impact positions on your books off the field as well. That’s Team Building 101.
The other defense that has jumped out at me is in the Bay Area and is run by former NFL LB Demarco Ryans. Ryans has a front seven that are coming off the ball from varied alignments and personnel groupings, making it difficult for opposing offensive linemen to block. The Philadelphia Eagles have, when healthy, a very good offensive line. However, the confusion and relentless attack by the San Francisco 49er defense with a variety of pressure schemes overwhelmed the Eagles at times.
The 49ers forced the Eagles to abandon an almost too cute run game plan. Ryans has coached his defensive players up front to get in a sprinters stance and attack with a physicality that can’t be taken for granted. Eagles QB Jalen Hurts was on the run for most of the day because of the 49ers defensive pressure. A lesser athlete at QB is going to struggle vs this unit in the future.
San Francisco’s Inside linebacker, Fred Warner, has become an integral part of what they do on defense and early on should be under consideration for defensive player of the year honors. However, the real unsung heroes in the 49ers defensive unit are two lesser known players — DT’s DJ Jones (6th round in 2017) and Kentavious Street (4thround in 2018). Both are big men with power, but they both also have quickness and can consistently hold the point of attack, allowing all of the other parts of the defense to operate smoothly. What Jones and Street have done thus far can’t be measured by numbers, but them controlling line play is crucial to allowing their teammates to make plays.
It’s not a surprise that the Baltimore Ravens lead the league in rushing, but their average of 220 yards per game over the first two weeks is crazy high. My question comes in the form of looking ahead. Two things need to happen for this success on the ground to be sustainable? Lamar Jackson must continue to stay healthy and their coaching staff must continue to expand and build off that successful run game, predicated on rushing yards by the QB.
We saw this in New England last year. A QB-designed run game had very little room to grow and evolve after the initial shock and awe of Cam Newton running down the throat of a defense. NFL seasons are long and in the second half of these seasons, it’s all about coaching adjustments. The QB-designed runs have limits. You can only overload your offensive alignment so many times. Eventually defenses adjust. Tendencies are soon discovered.
It’s the improv style of Jackson that should give Ravens fans hope. His spontaneous and explosive athleticism is the Ravens best option of offense currently. It was said by some that defensive coordinators had figured out Jackson last year. For my money, I don’t agree. His movements, his decisions and the results of his rare athletic ability can’t be planned for short of not rushing the QB at all and sitting back on your heels which would create a whole other set of problems for a defense. It’s human nature for coaches to scheme with an attack style defense, yet that strategy plays right into Jackson’s hands. Sure, I’d like to see Baltimore’s passing game evolve, but with their current injuries on the perimeter combined with below average tackle play is making them very one-dimensional right now. All of this puts the health of said QB front and center for Head Coach John Harbaugh going forward. Doing cart wheels into the end zone (like he did Sunday night) adds to ones anxiety and just might be slightly reckless for Jackson, if you know what I mean.
I have grown weary of the Chicago Bears and the narrative of the team’s questions at quarterback. HC Matt Nagy is coaching for his job. He does not want to live with the errors and growing pains that come with playing a rookie QB. He thinks Andy Dalton can best secure his future in Chicago. Right or wrong, his agenda may be different from what’s best for the franchise and their long-range play. Bears fans finally have hope but as some wise souls have said, “Hope is not a plan”. What the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are going through with their rookie QBs, the first two picks in the last NFL Draft, can best be described with the old adage of FAIL-FORWARD-FAST. There is no doubt that both of these organizations will be better off in the long run for playing Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson respectively now, but getting them valuable experience NOW comes with a current price. The big difference is that both Urban Meyer in Jacksonville and Robert Salah in New York are in Year 1 of their head coaching jobs and have not used up the good will of their fans and ownership. They can both afford the time and mistakes that go with training a young QB. Nagy does not have that luxury in Chicago.
How about this? The Pittsburgh Steelers are dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, only averaging 57 per contest thus far. It’s almost unpatriotic as I roll my eyes. Steelers QB Big Ben Roethlisberger is also taking a beating (and has an injured pectoral muscle already) for the ages by having to endure leaky pass protection. This combination will not do much for Roethlisberger, whose career almost ended but is now on life support. It sent me back to ask how this could happen. The Steelers are currently the fifth worst team in the entire league on offense with an average of 291 yds per game. I love RB Najee Harris (their first-round pick), and, as a group, the Steelers have developed wide receivers that are in the top five in the league.
We all have talked about the Steelers rebuild of an offensive line, but the hiring of an inexperienced and unproven offensive coordinator might prove their undoing in 2021. First-year OC Matt Canada is now calling the shots with just one year of pro football experience (2020 QB coach w/ Steelers) backed up by three one-year stints in college (2016- Pitt, 2017-LSU, 2018- Maryland), none of which produced a prolific offense. Sure, he has other stops on his resume but none at the level he now occupies. I have never been one for on-the-job training at the NFL level. If the real business world adopted the hiring policies of some NFL teams their stock would plummet based on low consumer confidence. I sense a similar fate here but at minimum, I’m going to HOLD this stock before making a decision.