Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment covers:
- How Sean Payton and Vance Joseph brought the Broncos back from the dead.
- What is “the first 15”? Explaining the strategy behind an opening script of plays.
But first, a primer for the scintillating Sunday showdown in Philadelphia that could be the Game of the Year …
Philadelphia (10-1) and San Francisco (8-3) are not just the top two seeds in the NFC playoff picture — they are the two best teams in football. And both star-studded squads aim to be the bully on the block. Consequently, Sunday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field is a true clash of the titans.
Adding to the intrigue: There is no love lost in this emerging rivalry, with plenty of banter back and forth between the players. 49ers WR Deebo Samuel added fresh fuel to the fire earlier this week when he refused to retract an offseason jab at Eagles CB James Bradberry.
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Coming from a scouting background, I love watching these teams do battle because they provide a blueprint for how championship organizations should be constructed in the 2020s. Moreover, it is an opportunity to see two of the NFL’s heavyweights lock horns in a regular-season tilt that could be a preview of next month’s NFC Championship Game. After all, Philly and San Fran faced off on Championship Sunday this past January.
So, in anticipation of this spectacular bout — which could definitely be the best game of the regular season — I’d like to explore three key areas that define both of these powerhouses.
To be a bully on the block, you must dominate the trenches. Championship teams own the line of scrimmage. The 49ers and Eagles both take pride in crushing their opponents at the point of attack.
San Francisco has forged a large part of its identity behind a spectacular defensive front that bludgeons opponents at the line. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa dominates the headlines, but the recent addition of 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year (Chase Young) to a D-line that also features Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave makes this unit a destructive force that few opponents can handle. With productive veterans like Clelin Ferrell coming off the bench as key role players, the Niners attack opponents with waves of disruptors, overwhelming foes over the course of 60 minutes.
Philadelphia has constructed an imposing defensive front of its own, with Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and a host of young defenders (chiefly, Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis) making plays. The Eagles roll over opponents with a deep and talented rotation that relentlessly pursues the ball and hunts quarterbacks on critical downs.
While the Eagles’ defensive front sets the tone, the offensive line currently separates this team from the rest of the pack. Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Cam Jurgens and Lane Johnson possess the strength, power, explosiveness and athleticism to knock defenders off the ball or latch onto would-be tacklers in space. As a unit that excels on gap-scheme and zone-based runs in front of a dynamic quarterback (Jalen Hurts) and versatile group of running backs (including big-play specialist D’Andre Swift), the offensive line sets the stage for the Eagles’ punishing ground game. Considering how the rushing battle frequently decides the outcome of games, don’t be surprised if Philadelphia’s O-line vs. San Francisco’s D-line is the definitive matchup on Sunday.
The 49ers and Eagles have stockpiled their respective lineups with dynamic playmakers to separate from the competition. The 49ers, in particular, have put together a roster with several top players at a number of positions. RB Christian McCaffrey, TE George Kittle and FB Kyle Juszczyk are regarded among the “best of the best” at their respective positions, while Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are exceptional receivers boasting spectacular skills with ball in their hands.
San Francisco’s offense poses serious problems for defenders in one-on-one matchups. Kyle Shanahan excels at putting his top playmakers in favorable positions that enable them to significantly impact the game’s outcome, whether via the creative running game that features every possible skill player touching the ball or a deceptive aerial attack that utilizes the threat of the run to create big-play chances from anywhere on the field.
The Eagles counter with an offensive lineup that features one of the league’s most explosive receiving duos (A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith) catching passes from an MVP-caliber quarterback (Hurts). The combination has produced fireworks, with Brown and Smith emerging as co-WR1s capable of dominating games on the perimeter. As complementary weapons with the size/strength (Brown) and speed/skill (Smith) to consistently win their one-on-one battles, these two devastate opposing secondaries. With each pass catcher showing strong hands and exceptional ball skills, Hurts is not afraid to give his playmakers chances on 50/50 balls.
While the passing game dazzles with Brown and Smith setting the pace, the Eagles’ bread is buttered on the ground. Philadelphia utilizes an option-based attack to keep defenders befuddled at the point of attack. Hurts is the maestro as a ball-handling magician with a running style that mixes physicality and finesse. The fourth-year pro has 37 career rushing touchdowns — including 11 in 2023 on various quarterback keepers, option runs and sneaks — making him a huge point-scoring threat in the red area. Swift enhances the running game as an explosive back with home run speed. His off-tackle running skills and wiggle in space have added a new dimension to the Eagles’ rushing attack this season. Though he is a bit of a boom-or-bust producer, the offseason trade acquisition is a potential game changer with the ball in his hands.
On paper, this matchup would not appear to be close, based on draft pedigrees and NFL experience, but Brock Purdy and Hurts are both certified ballers with impressive résumés as QB1s.
While some of Hurts’ accolades were noted in the previous section, the 2020 second-round pick is a rare find as an explosive runner with significantly improved passing skills. From his rhythm throws on RPOs to his high-arcing deep balls that fly over the top of the defense, the 25-year-old has become an unstoppable weapon in the pocket as a mobile playmaker with the capacity to win working on or off the script.
Purdy walks onto the NFL gridiron as the underdog, based on his relative youth and former status as “Mr. Irrelevant,” but opponents have quickly discovered the 49ers’ second-year starter is an assassin with exceptional passing skills. Purdy doesn’t wow you with natural arm talent, but he can still make every throw in the book with superb touch, timing and anticipation. Though most of his completions come on in-breaking routes at various depths, the 23-year-old will attack any area of the field if he spots an open window. With Shanahan also frequently generating big-play opportunities through creative play-action passes, the underrated playmaker carves up opponents unable to disrupt his timing and rhythm within the pocket. Going against defenses that must defend the most dynamic and inventive running game in the league, the 49ers’ QB1 can change the game’s momentum with his savvy play from the pocket.
If you can’t tell, I’m absolutely thrilled for this showdown on Sunday. It will be a playoff atmosphere at the Linc, and I can’t wait to see who comes out on top.
Denver’s revival: A coaching masterclass
After stumbling out of the gate to a 1-5 start that included a humiliating 70-20 loss to the Dolphins, the Broncos were a league laughingstock. Critics delighted in resurfacing Sean Payton’s blistering summertime commentary on the previous regime in Denver. With defensive coordinator (and former Broncos head coach) Vance Joseph also feeling the heat for his unit’s abysmal performance, the naysayers were feasting on the team’s misery.
But something strange happened on the way to another lost season in the Mile High City: The Broncos did an abrupt about-face.
Bringing a five-game win streak to Houston for this Sunday’s intriguing showdown with C.J. Stroud and the 6-5 Texans, Denver is squarely in the playoff race with a 6-5 record of its own. And Russell Wilson is starting to look like the efficient playmaker who enticed the franchise to mortgage its future on a mid-30s quarterback with a Super Bowl pedigree.
So, what happened? How did the Broncos turn things around without radically overhauling the roster or scrapping the schemes that failed to produce positive results at the beginning of the season?
Payton and Joseph did not wave a magic wand to make the Broncos’ woes disappear. They emphasized their best players’ strengths while minimizing their weaknesses through strategic tweaks and adjustments. In addition, they put the most trustworthy players on the field and benched or dumped the guys who did not buy into the scheme or standard.
As veterans with decades of coaching experience under their belts, Payton and Joseph remained patient and trusted their approach when assessing the team’s slow start. They were not afraid to make personnel changes to ensure the plays called were executed with the discipline and attention to detail expected by the staff.
While some coaches would pause before removing a big-money player from the lineup, Denver demoted and eventually released high-profile edge rushers Randy Gregory and Frank Clark. Meanwhile, Damarri Mathis, a second-year pro who started 11 games as a rookie and the first six games of this season, hit the bench in Week 7. Essang Bassey, another young corner who received regular burn in the first three weeks of the season, was cut in early October. Those decisive moves were about establishing and maintaining a high standard while building trust within the unit. Great defenses operate as one, with 11 players committed to executing their assigned roles within the scheme. If one or two players freelance in an attempt to make “hero” plays, the lack of discipline can produce poor gap control and/or blown coverage, resulting in big plays for the offense. With more reliable and dependable players (Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper and Nik Bonitto on the edges; Fabian Moreau and Ja’Quan McMillian in coverage) plugged in, the defense has improved due to better execution from a group of guys who trust in each other’s willingness to buy into the details and demands of the team.
As a result, the Broncos have allowed just 16.5 points per game since Week 6, ranking third in the NFL in that span. They’ve also surged to the top of the league leaderboard in takeaways with 22 on the season — and a whopping 15 of those have come in Denver’s last four games.
Payton has orchestrated a similar turnaround with his new franchise quarterback, utilizing a little hard coaching to help Wilson rediscover his winning ways after a disastrous debut season in Denver. The veteran coach publicly called out his quarterback when his turnovers and shoddy huddle operation disrupted the game’s flow in a narrow Week 2 loss to Washington. Whereas some coaches go out of their way to avoid confrontations with a veteran quarterback, Payton was not afraid to challenge his field general to improve his performance when he fell short of the Pro Bowl standard expected from a player commanding $245 million on a five-year deal.
In addition to hitting his QB1 with some tough love, Payton has scaled down the menu to ensure Wilson is playing the hits as a playmaker. Simply put, the offensive guru asks Wilson to run plays that suit his skills as a mobile threat. The Broncos are running various bootlegs and movement concepts that put Wilson on the edge with simple high-low reads to diagnose. The plays are plucked straight from a high school playbook, but they work for this signal-caller in this offense.
With the Broncos also showing a renewed commitment to the ground game, the team has lightened the load on the quarterback by reducing his pitch count to keep him right around 30 pass attempts per game. Payton also utilizes the threat of the run on play-action passes to create voids at intermediate depth (12-to-15 yards), courtesy of over-aggressive linebackers. This creates easy throws that have improved Wilson’s confidence and helped him regain the efficiency that made him a winning quarterback in Seattle, as evidenced by his 68.3 percent completion rate, 20:4 TD-to-INT and 103.4 passer rating through 11 games under Payton.
These tweaks have thrust Denver — which has the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL at seven seasons, trailing only the Jets (12) — back into postseason contention behind an efficient offense that perfectly complements a rapidly improving defense. Given that the team has already eclipsed last season’s win total (five), this new Broncos coaching staff deserves major credit for getting a proud franchise back on solid footing.
Art of scripting plays: ‘First 15’ explainer
As we head down the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs, everything goes under the microscope. The bigger the game, the sharper the focus, with football fans and analysts constantly digging deeper into the details of competition.
Offensive game-planning is a topic that’s always ripe for discussion, but it seems like in December and January, we all pay closer attention to how attacks operate right off the rip in each contest. Everyone has heard about “the opening script” or “the first 15,” but what exactly do those phrases signify? That’s a perfect subject for us to explore in this space.
Back in my playing days, as a young Green Bay Packer under the direction of head coach Mike Holmgren, I was fascinated by how the Bill Walsh disciple carefully scripted plays to help Brett Favre get off to a fast start each week. But it wasn’t that simple, as Favre wasn’t the only player on Holmgren’s mind — he also wanted to give his top playmakers touches to immediately get each of them into the flow of the game. And lastly, the savvy schemer used the opening script as a fact-finding mission to ascertain vulnerable areas of the defense that he could exploit later in the game. Let’s start with that last part first …
Sitting in the initial install meetings each week, with then-Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis leading the instruction, it was always interesting to hear how the coaching staff planned to use the first 15 plays to set the table for complementary calls that could produce explosives later in the game. The subtle utilization of pre-snap shifts and motions to force a reaction from the defense enabled Holmgren, Lewis and Co. to predict how the opposition would respond later to a similar action with a different concept.
In addition, the first-quarter chess match between Holmgren and the opposing defensive coordinator was about discovering if the opponent was staying true to its identity based on the four-game film breakdown used to build the game plan in the first place — or if the day’s adversary was taking a different approach. This assessment helped Holmgren adjust in the second and third quarters before playing the fourth quarter like its own 15-minute game.
While “the first 15” was partially constructed to help the offensive play-caller diagnose opposing strategy and determine how to proceed for the rest of the game, Holmgren also knew the importance of feeding his key cogs, like I said before. The offensive guru always strived to get his most important players off on the right foot. He wanted them fully involved from the outset, playing with confidence and conviction.
For Favre, in particular, Holmgren would solicit feedback from the quarterback to ensure he was comfortable with the plays on the menu. If Favre did not like the concept or could not fully grasp the reads or progressions, Holmgren would throw the play out. Plays don’t work if players don’t believe in them. Holmgren wanted his best player to play fast and free, and he was willing to tailor the game plan around the quarterback’s strengths. To that point, he also wanted the playmakers to get involved in the action immediately. He had a portion of the call sheet specifically dedicated to wide receivers Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman, making it a point to give them touches within the first two drives of the game to get them into a rhythm.
So, how closely do play-callers stick to the predetermined script when the bullets start flying? Is it all just lip service that’s frequently abandoned if the game starts differently than anticipated or the down-and-distance calls for something different?
Well, it obviously varies from team to team and game to game, but from what I’ve observed, the best operations routinely stick to the script. Sure, certain game situations can force the play-caller to briefly ad lib, but I believe the best coaches get back on schedule as soon as possible. After all, “the first 15” are the plays you’ve repped all week; they’re what the players are most comfortable with. And that’s crucial in the early portions of games, when players are still settling in and nerves are high. The confidence that comes from familiarity cannot be overstated.
Those Packers teams I played for in the mid-1990s were loaded with fine offensive minds. Beyond Holmgren and Lewis, the coaching staff included guys like Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg, Mike Sherman and Gil Haskell. All of those men passed down the opening-script strategies that I experienced firsthand to their future colleagues at organizations across the league. We weren’t the only team that approached the beginning of the game like this, of course, but I believe Holmgren was one of the savviest practitioners of the art. So it’s fun to think about how broadly his approach to play-scripting spread through the rest of the NFL.
Hopefully that gives you better perspective on this fascinating mind game within the game. Because as the weather cools down and the games heat up, you’ll certainly hear pregame (and early-game) chatter about “the first 15.”
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