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Establish the Fun: AJ Brown is an And1 mixtape at WR

It’s that time of the week again! Welcome to Establish the Fun, where football is fun and I would love to continue establishing that!

We’re almost to the playoffs, which feels like an absolutely wild thing to say. This season has flown by, and with the playoffs rapidly approaching, it’s time for the best players to make the biggest plays of the season.

So with that, let’s get into another week of Establish the Fun, starting with AJ Brown and the Philadelphia Eagles.

AJ Brown is a walking And1 Mixtape at WR

Do y’all remember Slamball? The game where people played basketball on trampolines and it created epic poster moments like these?

Well, AJ Brown has brought Slamball to the NFL, and has become an above the rim deep threat for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Take this into perspective: through 13 games with the Eagles, AJ Brown is averaging 0.65 Expected Points Added per target on passes of 15 air yards or more downfield and has six touchdowns this season. In all of 2021, Brown had a 0.19 EPA/target in the same parameters, and only two touchdowns.

His ability to become the dynamic deep threat for the Eagles, as well and be the YAC machine he was in Tennessee (6.11 Yards After Contact/catch this season, compared to 3.69 YAC/catch) has turned him into one of the five best receivers in the NFL this season, and against his former team he put his new skill on full display.

On his second touchdown against the Titans, Brown runs a go route as a part of the Eagles Flood concept. The first inside receiver closest to the end of the LOS runs a bubble route, while the second receiver runs an out route. The Titans are in man coverage with no safety deep. Jalen Hurts identifies this after the run action and immediately finds Brown for the contested catch touchdown.

Watch what AJ Brown does though, it makes this a really high level touchdown. He uses late hands, meaning that he brings his hands up to catch the ball almost as the ball gets into his close vicinity. DBs are taught to play through the hands, to wait until the receiver shows his hands to go and play the ball. If the DB plays it late, then there’s a good chance the ball is getting caught. Then, if you look at the end zone angle, Brown has got the DB trapped against his body. That way, only two things happen: a touchdown, or pass interference. In this case, it’s a touchdown.

His first touchdown was just hilarious. The Eagles run a mirrored out-and-up concept on the outside, and the Titans DB to Brown’s side is playing catch technique. This means instead of backpedaling, he’s waiting to react to the route and “catch” what Brown is running. However, Brown runs an out and up, and instead of catching an out route, the Titans DB is catching Brown running full speed through him. This is like watching Zion Williamson rip a ball from a defender who just got a rebound, it’s almost kinda demoralizing.

On top of that, he can still do the YAC things he normally does over the middle of the field. He’s 11th in the NFL in routes run over the middle of the field among WRs, and on those targets he’s generating a 0.34 EPA/target. He’s dominating every level of the field, and the Eagles offense allows him to shine in those moments.

On this play, the Eagles line up Brown as the isolated receiver in a two back formation. The Eagles send the back to Brown’s side in motion towards the other side of the field and run a 4-strong concept, meaning there are four passing targets on one side of the field, but in the Eagles case only three of them are out in the formation. Brown runs a backside dig, and because the Titans bring a corner blitz, Brown finds an opening in the intermediate level of the defense.

The Eagles offense is so difficult to beat because of games like Sunday. The Titans are one of the best teams in the league at stopping the run, so rather than running into a brick wall they went over the top of the defense and blew the Titans out. Brown is a matchup nightmare, and could continue to see more targets when the Eagles play the Giants.

The art of route pacing, featuring Davante Adams

The Raiders Davante Adams experiment has been…interesting to say it nicely. Las Vegas is 5-7 and there were many games where Adams was phased out of the offense. However, the Raiders are riding a three game win streak, and in those three games Adams has 392 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the big play machine that we all thought he would be.

With the potency of the Raiders run game, it’s no surprise that Adams is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and second in Yards per Route Run with 2 backs in the game. However, that’s not what stood out about Adams in the Raiders 27-20 victory over the Chargers. What stood out was Adams’ pacing on these routes, how he would go slow to fast instantaneously, leaving unsuspecting DBs in the dust.

He’s not the fastest or most explosive receiver in the NFL, but he just knows how to time his explosive moments. It’s like when Doc Hudson taught Lightning McQueen how to drift on dirt in Cars. Doc might not have seemed the fastest, but he beat Lightning because he knew when to use his speed and acceleration.

On this play, the Raiders are running Dagger. The receiver next to Adams is running a go route to try and clear out the safety, and the receiver closest to the line of scrimmage runs an over route to clear the LB. Because Adams is running the Dig portion of Dagger, he has to break inside, as the route is an in-breaking route.

The Chargers are in Cover One, and outside corners in Cover One are taught to have inside leverage, because the safety can’t help you. So, let’s recap: Adams has to get inside on a corner with inside leverage. Pretty tough task.

Adams takes the outside release, and looks like he slows down before bursting back inside. This pretty much leaves the corner eating grass while Adams catches the ball for a big gain.

One of Adams’ touchdowns was on a filthy stop-and-go route that sees him use this pacing again to get the Chargers DB out of phase, then goes up and gets this touchdown. Watch how he gets the DB to commit even for a split second, then blasts past him. Clinical.

He’s also using this pacing on shorter routes that are meant to be tendency breakers for the Raider offense. On this play, the Raiders are in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE) and after a Mack Hollins motion the Raiders send Hollins on a hook route, and Adams starts out running an over route. This is potentially a play on a crossing route concept, because as soon as Adams slows down, he bursts back out and creates a bunch of separation off of the pacing. He got the corner to overcommit to getting on the over route, only for the route to never be run.

Adams is on another level right now, and for the Raiders to possibly backdoor their way into the playoffs, they need Adams to continue playing at the level he’s at right now. He’s truly playing in takeover mode, and on Thursday against the Rams, they need him to continue to take over.

The McCaffrey Express

When the 49ers traded for Christian McCaffrey, it was easy to see why.

Another chess piece for the grand chessmaster himself to use in his offense, with QB Jimmy Garoppolo pulling the strings.

Well, take Jimmy out of the equation. The Niners QB broke his foot and will be out until deep in the playoffs, leaving Brock Purdy as the starter. The Niners aren’t dead yet though, because if players like McCaffrey can take over, they can win a lot of games.

Against Miami, McCaffrey took over in the receiving department. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, but if you take a LB off the field the Niners can grind you into dust on the ground.

The Dolphins tried having a linebacker on McCaffrey early in the game, and yeah that didn’t work at all. McCaffrey is averaging 2.2 Yards per Route Run, the highest among RBs with 40 targets or more, so he’s not just catching dump offs. He hits Duke Riley with a stop and go and leaves him in the dust for a 33 yard gain.

Shanahan gives McCaffrey a lot of leeway in his routes, giving him a lot of option routes like Deebo Samuel, where he can use his agility and short-area burst to separate from defenders. Here, he leaves a Dolphins defender in the dust with a whip route against man coverage that’s easy money.

The luxury of having a player like McCaffrey is that you can flip it out to him in space and he can do the rest. The Niners do that here on a screen, catch the Dolphins in man again, and it brings about a big play.

On McCaffrey’s receiving touchdown, they actually ran the exact same concept the play before, Miami played the same coverage and it was an incompletion. George Kittle motions across the formation, creating three receiving threats to Purdy’s left. Kittle and McCaffrey run a trail or follow route—the Chiefs run this a lot with Travis Kelce, and the Niners are using it with their RB.

Kittle shields the LB with his drag route, and McCaffrey follows him into the void that was left. The DB to that side can’t get over the top of it because Aiyuk is to that side, and it creates a walk in touchdown. Both the incompletion and TD are here, watch the difference Kittle makes and how it changes the result.

With Garoppolo out for the foreseeable future, the Niners need their best players to continue playing in takeover mode. This includes McCaffrey, who will continue to cause headaches for defensive coordinators.

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