Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment spotlights five teams to keep a close eye on this offseason …
Already one of the NFL’s banner franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers are suddenly a subject of even greater fascination. In fact, I see Pittsburgh as the most interesting team in the NFL this offseason.
Whenever a two-time Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Fame quarterback exits the stage, it kicks off a new era for a franchise. For Pittsburgh, which just went 9-7-1 and lost on Super Wild Card Weekend, Ben Roethlisberger‘s departure will give Mike Tomlin an opportunity to re-establish the culture of a team that has been a perennial contender throughout the head coach’s tenure.
There will be plenty of conversation about how the Steelers plan to replace their iconic signal-caller, but I’m most interested in a different aspect of this reboot. Suddenly, Tomlin has the opportunity to take the franchise back to the blue-collar approach that helped bring six Lombardi Trophies to Pittsburgh. Under the leadership of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin, the Steelers have always been at their best with the defense leading the charge. This franchise rose to prominence behind the “Steel Curtain,” with a collection of Hall of Famers choking out opponents at every turn — and the Steelers retained the same kind of feel well beyond the glorious 1970s. Each of Pittsburgh’s six Super Bowl titles has been fueled by a defense that ranked in the top five in scoring defense and total D. The unit’s exceptional performance during Dick LeBeau’s era overlapped Tomlin’s arrival and emergence as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history (SEE: 15 seasons, zero losing records).
Keeping that blueprint in mind, it looks to me like Pittsburgh is taking a “back to the future” approach. With Teryl Austin assuming coordinator duties and Brian Flores coming aboard as a senior defensive assistant, the Steelers have created an impressive defensive think tank that could alter the unit’s identity going forward. While I do not expect Pittsburgh to curb the aggressiveness that has long been associated with this team, the creativity that Austin and Flores provide could result in a more diverse approach to playing high-pressure defense.
Austin, who spent the last three seasons in Pittsburgh as a senior defensive assistant and secondary coach, takes the defensive reins from Keith Butler. Austin previously served as defensive coordinator for the Bengals and Lions. He is a proponent of combining multiplicity with simplicity. Essentially, he wants to show the offense an illusion during the pre-snap phase before shifting into a simple defense that enables his players to perform at a breakneck pace after the ball is snapped. The constant movement and disguises can befuddle quarterbacks young and old. It’s hard to get a bead on what is coming from a defense that refuses to play like a collection of toy soldiers.
Flores, meanwhile, brings the experience of a former head coach/defensive coordinator who is well-versed in “snowflake” game plans that change from week to week. As a defensive play-caller, Flores’ units toggled between man-heavy concepts and static zone coverages, based on matchups and how he wanted to neutralize key personnel. At times in Miami, he employed a Cover 0-based scheme that mixed blitzing and bluffing to keep quarterbacks dazed and confused in the pocket. (Remember the Dolphins’ Thursday night drubbing of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens back in November?) A barrage of blitzes from safeties and slot corners in sub-packages made life miserable for opponents attempting to run the ball to the edges or throw it from the pocket against Flores’ Fins. In addition, the blitz-and-bluff tactics kept offensive coordinators from utilizing their entire playbook. With a smaller menu of plays at their disposal, quarterbacks had difficulty attacking Flores’ defense down the stretch last season, allowing Miami to win eight of its final nine games.
If the Steelers are able to mesh these creative, exotic schemes with a stout personnel group headlined by Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh’s D can compensate for an offense that’s forced to break in a new starting quarterback — quite possibly one with limited experience. Whether the Steelers’ QB1 ends up being Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, a draft addition or a veteran acquisition, the offense will likely aim to be more balanced, with second-year coordinator Matt Canada utilizing more of the “smoke and mirror” designs that were staples of his high-powered collegiate offenses. That said, Pittsburgh has to upgrade an offensive line that disappointed last season and could lose Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor in free agency. Not to mention, the Steelers need more firepower on the perimeter, particularly with wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington set to hit the open market. At the end of the day, it seems like RB Najee Harris will again have to handle much of the heavy lifting until the rest of the unit is ready to take on more of the offensive load.
All of that leads back to Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Co. carrying the team with defense. The Steelers’ old-school approach might not help casual fans win their fantasy football championships, but it could allow Tomlin to quickly rebuild a title contender in the Steel City.
With an offense set for an extreme makeover and a defense that appears to be in the midst of a schematic shift, Pittsburgh’s approach to free agency and the draft will be captivating. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that longtime personnel czar Kevin Colbert is retiring in May, so you’d figure he’ll be looking to make some lasting contributions in these final months.
Like I said above, the Steelers head into this offseason as the NFL’s most interesting team. Which other organizations will I keep a close eye on in the coming months? Here are four more …
The never-ending Aaron Rodgers soap opera will keep the football world glued to TVs and phones as the four-time MVP decides whether to play, retire or demand a trade this offseason. The cryptic social media messages and smug interviews have left everyone inside and outside of the Packers organization wondering whether or not No. 12 will run out of the tunnel at Lambeau Field in 2022.
If the thought of losing a franchise quarterback isn’t enough to keep Matt LaFleur and Co. up at night, how about the potential of watching an all-world receiver walk out the door, too? With Davante Adams‘ contract up, the Packers either need to sign the first-team All-Pro wideout to a blockbuster deal or slap the franchise tag on him.
The uncertainty surrounding Green Bay’s top two players is compounded by a collection of additional free agents the Packers must re-sign or replace to keep the NFC’s back-to-back No. 1 seed as a top-notch contender in 2022 and beyond. Given the begging and pleading and salary-cap maneuvering general manager Brian Gutekunst must do to keep the band together, the offseason drama in Green Bay figures to be must-see TV.
A series of shrewd moves gave the Eagles control of the 2022 NFL Draft with three first-round picks. Now GM Howie Roseman must decide how to utilize his power to rebuild his squad into a title contender. If he believes Jalen Hurts is the Eagles’ quarterback of the future, he could upgrade the talent on the roster by utilizing a “draft and develop” strategy that enables the core of the team to grow together and eventually compete for titles.
If Roseman has doubts about Hurts’ long-term potential, Philadelphia could attempt to parlay the picks into a blue-chip quarterback — Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson (legal situation pending) — to make an immediate run at the title. Considering the last two Super Bowl champions made a series of aggressive moves to build championship rosters, the Eagles might be compelled to roll the dice in an attempt to swiftly vault to the top of the NFC.
Roseman has shown a fearless approach to team-building in the past, but the football world is paying close attention to see if the Eagles’ general manager will play it safe this offseason or go for broke.
After watching the Jaguars completely implode during Urban Meyer’s brief stint as head coach, everyone’s waiting to see how a former Super Bowl champion can rejuvenate a downtrodden franchise with a quarterback who was universally hailed as a generational talent during last year’s pre-draft process.
Doug Pederson is a proven quarterback whisperer, based on his success with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles in Philadelphia — not to mention some early tutelage of Jalen Hurts. Consequently, Trevor Lawrence could make a significant jump in his second pro season. Pederson has shown a willingness to build a system around his QB’s strengths, and that adaptability could help the Jaguars climb back to respectability if the team can add some more pieces around the young signal-caller.
It is quite rare for a team fresh off back-to-back winning seasons to move on from its head coach, but the Dolphins are hoping Mike McDaniel can take the franchise to another level. Observers are curious about McDaniel’s plans for helping Tua Tagovailoa maximize his talents as a potential franchise quarterback. Can a version of the Shanahan system enable the Dolphins’ QB1 to become a more consistent playmaker from the pocket? Moreover, will a scheme change unlock the efficient passer who lit up the SEC as a college football standout?
The football world wants to know if holdover defensive coordinator Josh Boyer can keep the unit playing at a high level without Brian Flores and former defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander assisting in the game-planning and play-calling. Boyer has emphatically told everyone within earshot that he called the shots during last season’s strong finish. Now he will really get a chance to show observers that he deserves that credit.
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