Ever feel like the season passes too quickly? It seems like only yesterday we were getting ready for the season opener, yet here were are about to reach the halfway point of the regular season. By now we know which players are dominating the competition this season, as highlighted by our Midseason All-Pro Team.
While the All-Pro Team is reserved for the best of the best, your weekly dose of Secret Superstars is here to highlight those players who shined in limited roles or took advantage of an increase in snaps.
This week we’re highlighting a pair of offensive linemen in Indianapolis, a Chiefs defensive lineman providing a bright spot, a Tampa Bay cornerback eager to prove he can fill in for some suspended stars and, for the second straight week (though not the same player), a Chicago defensive tackle exploding into life.
Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach, OG, Indianapolis Colts
Is it cheating to use two players here? Perhaps, but I just couldn’t give credit to one over the other after Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach came out of Week 8 as our third- and fourth-highest graded guards. Bouncing between teams, McGlynn has been up and down this season, though the past three weeks he has gradually played better. Linkenbach, meanwhile, has struggled since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2010, with most of his play coming at offensive tackle, yet has excelled in his last two starts at left guard.
While neither was a liability of any form as a pass blocker on Sunday, giving up just two hits and two hurries between them, it was in the running game that they really made an impact. On runs to the gap either side of McGlynn, the Colts averaged 7.5 yards per carry. That number dropped a little on runs either side of Linkenbach, but they still averaged 6.5 yards per carry there. Considering the Colts’ running backs weren’t breaking any tackles on those runs, that highlights just how good a job they both did. Linkenbach was particularly effective going up against impressive Titans rookie defensive tackle Mike Martin on 1st-and-10 with 12:09 left in the second quarter. Turning him at the line of scrimmage, he was able to drive him down the line and open up a huge hole for running back Vick Ballard to ease his way through.
Ropati Pitoitua, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
There wasn’t much in the way of positives for Chiefs fans after Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders — something that has been the case for much of the season. However, lost in the shuffle between the injury to Brady Quinn, and questions being asked of how well the team uses Jamaal Charles, was the impressive play of defensive end Ropati Pitoitua. In his second year as part of the Chiefs’ defensive line rotation, he had yet to do much of merit, with only a scattering of solid performances mixed in with some disappointing ones.
On Sunday, however, his play was impressive enough for us to take note. Seeing 12 snaps as a pass rusher, he came away with a hit and a batted pass which, while not at the level of J.J. Watt, still works out at a disruption of some form once every six snaps — albeit on a very limited sample size. He was better still against the run, finishing the game with a Run Stop Percentage of 13.0%, with three of his four solo tackles resulting in defensive stops. His play against the run was highlighted by the way he dominated Raiders’ left guard Cooper Carlisle on 1st-and-10 with 21 seconds left in the opening quarter. Knocking him backwards to the ground at the snap, Pitoitua was able to meet running back Darren McFadden and make the tackle for no gain.
Nate Collins, DT, Chicago Bears
With a team that’s rolling at 6-1, the highlight of the Bears’ roster for me right now is the defensive line. After seeing teammate Henry Melton make an appearance here just last week, Nate Collins decided to force his way into the action. An undrafted free agent in 2010, Collins made little impact as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, playing just 173 snaps last season, which wouldn’t have given many Bears fans much excitement upon seeing him on the field.
Sunday marked his first action with the Bears, and he proceeded to explode with by far the best game of his career. Taking advantage of a poor game by Carolina Panthers left guard Amini Silatolu, he registered two quarterback hurries from 19 pass rush attempts. He gave the struggling guard more problems again in the running game. Finishing the game with a Run Stop Percentage of 13.3%, he had two defensive stops from his three solo tackles on 15 plays against the run. One such play was on 2nd-and-10 with 2:17 left in the first half. Beating Silatolu to the inside he was able to make the tackle for a short gain. It was the first snaps he’s seen as a Bear, but if he can keep playing like that even more are sure to follow.
Leonard Johnson, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Buccaneers fans would be forgiven for looking up at the sky and cursing at their cornerback situation. After seeing their top cover man suspended — Aqib Talib — it looks like teammate Eric Wright could soon follow with a suspension of his own. What should give them some hope, however, is just how well undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson stepped into the line-up on Sunday. Johnson, out of Iowa State but not selected in April’s NFL Draft, had seen action in just two games and had just one pass thrown his way heading into Week 8.
Starting the game as the team’s third cornerback, he saw the most action of his young career and, for the most part, looked up to the challenge. Targeted seven times by Minnesota Vikings signal-caller Christian Ponder, he surrendered four catches for 49 yards. Impressively however, all three passes that weren’t complete were as a result of Johnson making a play on the ball, as he recorded one interception and two pass breakups — with one of those breakups very nearly becoming an interception itself. Lined up on the outside against wide receiver Percy Harvin on 3rd-and-6 with 1:51 left in the second quarter, Johnson grabbed at the ball as it reached Harvin. Falling backwards as he did, he was unable to pull the ball in before his foot stepped out of bounds, but it was an impressive play to deny Harvin the reception nonetheless.
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