By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
The NFL has become a week-to-week league. The ups and downs of the season make it nearly impossible predict which teams are capable of making a title run. While Week 7 offered plenty of surprises, we finally saw a handful of teams separate from the pack with their performance against top squads.
After spending the morning watching tape and looking through metrics, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.
Three things liked
Seahawks return to their roots
Say what you will about the Seahawks’ decision to move on from Russell Wilson, but the team looks like a legitimate playoff contender despite a collection of castoffs and misfits playing prominent roles.
Pete Carroll has the 2022 ‘Hawks playing like the group that laid the foundation for the team’s championship runs in the early 2010s.
Geno Smith, in particular, has exceeded all expectations, with his efficient passing and playmaking skills complementing a dominant rush attack. The journeyman has not only surprised the football world; he has rewritten the existing narrative about his game with consistent performance and production over the past few weeks.
Smith has completed over 73% of his passes while posting an 11:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 107.7 passer rating. Based on what we’ve seen this year, it appears he is much more than just a game manager. He has not only made smart decisions with the ball, but he has made big-time plays when the Seattle offense has needed him to take on a bigger role within the game.
With Kenneth Walker steadying the ground attack as a hard-nosed workhorse runner with explosive speed and quickness, the Seahawks have been able to lean into a balanced offensive approach that that is eerily similar to the ground-and-pound game plans that helped the franchise become a perennial contender a decade ago.
Seahawks’ Kenneth Walker III runs all over Chargers defense
Kenneth Walker III rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns as the Seattle Seahawks cruised to a comfortable 37-23 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Tua makes a difference
After watching the Dolphins‘ offense struggle with the backups at the helm, naysayers should have a greater appreciation for Tua Tagovailoa as the team’s QB1. The third-year pro is the perfect pass-first point guard to direct a fast-break offense anchored by a pair of speedsters (Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill) on the perimeter.
With Tagovailoa wheeling and dealing from the pocket, Waddle and Hill combined for 160 receiving yards on 11 catches (18 targets) on an assortment of short and intermediate routes that showcased their speed, quickness, burst and open-field running games. The young gunslinger took advantage of his pass catchers’ superior skills by repeatedly hitting them on the move to allow them to create in space against defenders who were unable to track them down in the open field.
The combination of pinpoint throws and explosive runs after the catch enabled the Dolphins’ offense to stay on schedule, utilizing an efficient passing game that has the capacity to attack with vertical or horizontal throws. Tagovailoa’s ability to make quick decisions and deliver accurate throws makes it hard for defensive coordinators to craft an effective strategy to slow down the Dolphins’ high-powered attack.
Raiders skill players stand out
When the Raiders added Davante Adams to a lineup that already featured Pro Bowlers Josh Jacobs, Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, it was a fantasy footballer’s dream scenario. How could any defense possibly match up with a lineup with so much firepower on the perimeter?
After watching the Raiders tear up the Texans defense, it is apparent few opponents will have answers for dealing with the Oakland offense going forward. Despite missing Waller in Week 7, the Raiders’ aforementioned skill players combined for 305 scrimmage yards on 31 total touches.
Josh McDaniels directs the offense like a Madden player intent on getting the ball to his stars over and over again. The simple, yet effective, strategy helped the Raiders put up 400 yards of offense against a defense that has stymied plenty of opponents this season. Moreover, the “feed the pigs” strategy places the burden on the defense to match up effectively with a lineup that is loaded with talent.
After reviewing the game tape, it seems to me that Jacobs is certainly the centerpiece of the offensive plan. The fourth-year pro not only effectively runs between the tackles and on the perimeter, but he is a dependable pass-catcher out of the backfield with big-play potential in the screen game. McDaniels takes advantage of his skills by getting the ball to his RB1 early and often to set the table for the passing game by dictating coverage. If the defense positions an extra defender near the box, the passing game opens up with Adams and Renfrow feasting on one-on-one coverage.
If the defense refuses to utilize a “plus-one” strategy (with one more defender in the box than the offense has blockers), McDaniels will run Jacobs over and over until the running back eventually splits a crease on the way to the end zone.
While McDaniels is lauded for his offensive wizardry as a play designer, he deserves kudos for helping the Raiders get back on track by utilizing a simple strategy that any teenage gamer could employ. The Raiders are 2-4, but more wins are coming.
Three things I did not like
The Colts‘ pass-first strategy falters
Against the Jaguars in Week 6, the Colts were able to sneak into the win column behind a pass-first game plan that enabled Matt Ryan to throw the ball all over the yard against a defense loaded up to stop the run. Frank Reich’s attempt to replicate that game plan against the Titans produced an offensive dud that kept the Colts from seizing control of the AFC South.
Despite completing 33 of 44 passes for 243 yards, Ryan tossed a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six, that put the Colts behind the eight-ball. In addition, the pass-first approach minimized Jonathan Taylor’s opportunity to impact the game. Taylor was still effective yesterday (10 carries for 55 yards), but the Colts did not give the former NFL rushing champ enough attempts to take over the game. This morning, we also learned that Ryan sprained his shoulder and Sam Ehlinger will start for the remainder of the season.
The lack of carries not only let the Titans off the hook from defending a dynamic runner with big-play ability, but forced Ryan to rely on a collection of unheralded receivers who are not capable of consistently winning one-on-one matchups. In a game that is often decided by the best players making more impact plays than their opponent, the Colts failed to play to their strengths — a ground-and-pound attack.
The Buccaneers offense is broken
I do know what is going on in Tampa, but the Buccaneers offense looks nothing like the explosive unit that was expected to lead a title run. Tom Brady and Co. have not shown the chemistry and continuity that is expected of a veteran-laden squad.
Against the Panthers, the Buccaneers made countless execution errors that prevented them from putting six points on the board. From Mike Evans‘ early-game drop to the offensive line’s inability to block the Panthers’ front on running plays, the lack of execution shows a lack of focus from a unit that was viewed as the strength of the team.
Tom Brady’s Bucs embarrassed 21-6 by Panthers in Week 7
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were handed another loss, this time by the Carolina Panthers. Skip Bayless discusses what percentage of the blame TB12 deserves for the Bucs’ Week 7 loss.
While Brady is certainly not playing at his usual gold-jacket level, the seven-time champ is good enough for the Buccaneers to win if everyone else brings their A-game. The supporting cast needs to play better or the Buccaneers will find themselves on the outside looking in when it is time for the postseason.
The Packers wideouts are not good enough
It takes a while for young players to learn how to play in the NFL, but the Packers need a handful of young wideouts to develop in a hurry. Maybe the development will happen quickly over the next few weeks, with their lessons learned from mistakes and miscues leading to more success down the road. But Aaron Rodgers cannot single-handedly lead the Packers into the playoffs without reliable pass-catchers on the perimeter.
Against the Commanders, the Packers could not win on the outside against basic coverage. Romeo Doubs, in particular, could not escape the clutches of Commanders defenders in a series of one-on-one matchups in key moments. The rookie was stymied at the line of scrimmage or blanketed down the field with Rodgers counting on him to win his matchup. The suffocation on the outside eliminated the four-time MVP’s primary target on a few plays and forced him to go elsewhere with the ball.
Moreover, the rookie’s lack of success placed a spotlight on the Packers’ need to find a dependable No.1 receiver in the passing game. Whether it is Allen Lazard stepping up to take on more responsibility or signing a free agent (Odell Beckham, Jr.?) off the streets, the Packers need to find a premier playmaker at wideout to help Rodgers and this offense find their groove.
After Week 7, here’s my take on the league’s top 10 teams.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (6-0)
The NFL’s lone unbeaten team returns to action next week against the Steelers after enjoying the bye week.
2. Buffalo Bills (5-1)
The Packers are next up for the current AFC No. 1 seed. The showdown against Aaron Rodgers and Co. is another opportunity to showcase their talents as the NFL’s most complete team.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
After a resounding win on the road against the 49ers, the Chiefs are rounding into form as one of the heavyweights in the AFC.
4. Minnesota Vikings (5-1)
With their division rivals falling apart, the Vikings are not only in the mix to snatch a division crown but are creeping into contention for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
5. New York Giants (6-1)
The G-Men have become the masters of winning ugly games. With Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley emerging as a formidable rushing tandem, the Giants have utilized a creative running game to bludgeon their opponents between the tackles.
6. Dallas Cowboys (5-2)
Dak Prescott’s return did not change the Cowboys’ winning formula. The big-money quarterback embraced his role as a game manager this week while complementing a dominant running game and dynamic defensive effort to chalk up a win against the Lions.
7. New York Jets (5-2)
Gang Green continues to win behind an opportunistic defense loaded with blue-chip talent. The Jets are still a work in progress, but this team is rounding into form as a playoff contender.
8. Tennessee Titans (4-2)
The rough and rugged Titans are quietly evolving into a dark-horse contender in the AFC behind a disruptive defense and dominant running game.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (4-3)
Joe Burrow has adjusted to defensive tactics that slowed down the Bengals’ high-powered offense early in the season. The ultra-cool quarterback is back in attack mode, utilizing the deep ball and an assortment of RPOs to carve up opponents over the past few weeks.
10. Baltimore Ravens (4-3)
Despite a series of up-and-down performances, the Ravens are beginning to play to their identity as a blue-collar squad. With the defense making gradual improvements, the Ravens’ old-school formula (strong running + solid defense = wins) could make them a tough out down the stretch.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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