In the course of a long NFL season, injuries inevitably pile up and depth charts are constantly tested. Whether a team survives these blows, or succumbs to them, depends upon the performance of its players on the bench. As coaches say, “next man up”.
It’s Christmas, the time of the season when every game and snap is magnified for those NFL teams still hoping to secure a playoff berth. It’s in these games that a single injury can decide whether a team is playing in January or watching from home. Here are the players who did, and didn’t, step up last week to help their team’s playoff chances.
Best Offensive Sub
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Tasked with keeping the Redskins’ improbable playoff push alive while Robert Griffin III healed, Kirk Cousins was under the biggest spotlight of any backup we’ve seen this season. At first, it seemed like the moment would get the best of the rookie, as his interception on his second drive was an unwise throw into traffic that led to a 7-0 Cleveland Browns lead. But he made up for it before the quarter was over with a beautiful bomb on a bootleg that took Leonard Hankerson over the top of the coverage. Much of the credit goes to the Redskins’ staff for putting Cousins in a position to succeed, as they used play action on 50% of his drop-backs and threw only one sideline pass that travelled more than 10 yards downfield. However, the rookie also took advantage of those opportunities, completing 15 of 19 attempts for a league-high 233 yards and two touchdowns when using a run fake. More importantly, he stepped in to lead a team in the middle of a playoff chase and got a win on the road that they desperately needed.
Survive or Succumb?
A quarterback who scrambles as much as Griffin does is bound to miss games, but the Redskins can now be confident when they have to call on Cousins again.
Honorable Mention: Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning isn’t the only Bronco making a comeback this year. Since Willis McGahee went down in Week 12, no running back has had a higher PFF grade than Knowshon Moreno.
Worst Offensive Sub
James Brown, G, Chicago Bears
Thanks to a litany of injuries and poor play, the Bears had already started and benched three left guards by the time Week 15 rolled around. Against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, James Brown became the fourth. He earned a -3.2 run block grade and surrendered three pressures on just 16 pass-block snaps. On three separate occasions a negative Brown play helped kill a Chicago drive. With 5:07 left in the first quarter, facing 2nd-and-9 near midfield, Brown whiffed on a run block that allowed B.J. Raji to drop Matt Forte for a 3-yard loss. On the next drive, with the Bears facing 3rd-and-5, Clay Matthews easily beat Brown inside on a stunt to sack Jay Cutler. Brown was taken out of the game for Chris Spencer, but returned in the fourth quarter when Spencer had to relieve the equally-overmatched Gabe Carimi at right guard. Using the same stunt, Matthews promptly beat Brown again to set up 3rd-and-24. Brown’s 82.8 Pass Blocking Efficiency was second-lowest among all guards last week.
Survive or Succumb?
The Bears have run out of options on their offensive line. Unless their reserves step up, they’ll be left blaming their health for another second-half collapse.
Dishonorable Mention: Kelvin Beachum, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers
With Marcus Gilbert on IR and Mike Adams still injured, Beachum surrendered five QB pressures to Anthony Spencer and the Dallas Cowboys’ front-seven.
Best Defensive Sub
Byron Maxwell, CB, Seattle Seahawks
With Brandon Browner serving a suspension, and Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond both out with injuries, the Seahawks had to scrape the bottom of their secondary’s depth chart last week. Yet Byron Maxwell’s lock-down coverage ensured their defense didn’t skip a beat against the Buffalo Bills. While Richard Sherman struggled with Stevie Johnson, Maxwell allowed just one reception for 15 yards against the other Bills receivers. And the one occasion when Buffalo isolated Johnson against Maxwell, with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter, the second-year corner batted away Ryan Fitzpatrick’s deep pass. Maxwell’s 41.0 coverage snaps per reception ranked second among all cornerbacks in Week 15.
Survive or Succumb?
Maxwell will face bigger challenges than T.J. Graham and Brad Smith, but this type of performance from their fifth-best corner has to make the Seahawks feel good about their defensive depth.
Honorable Mention: Alex Albright, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
After Ernie Sims became just the latest Cowboys inside linebacker to leave with an injury, Albright contributed in all facets of the game with a 13.3 Run Stop Percentage, a QB hurry, and just 13 yards allowed in four targets in pass coverage.
Worst Defensive Sub
Jayron Hosley, CB, New York Giants
The Giants’ questionable secondary would have had a tough time containing Atlanta’s talented receiving group even when healthy. So you can imagine the concern when New York ruled out it’s most productive cornerback, Prince Amukamara, leaving rookie Jayron Hosley to start against Roddy White and Julio Jones. After struggling all season as a nickelback, Hosley did not respond well to the increased playing time. Matt Ryan threw seven passes into his coverage, completing six of them for 121 yards and a touchdown for a 158.3 passer rating. With 3:52 left in the first quarter, Hosley bit hard on a pump fake to free Harry Douglas for a 37-yard completion down the left sideline. The rookie recovered at the start of the third quarter, when he batted away a bomb to White. But that ultimately only delayed the inevitable. Three plays later, Jones easily beat Hosley on a slant to pick up a first down. And the following play, Jones simply outran Hosley on a fly route for a 40-yard touchdown. On the day, Hosley surrendered a reception every 4.48 coverage snaps, the highest rate of any cornerback in Week 15.
Survive or Succumb?
The Giants need Amaukamara back soon, because Hosley is a big liability for a team that has little margin for error left these final two games.
Dishonorable Mention: Josh Victorian, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
In the first start of his career, Victorian surrendered seven receptions for 88 yards on nine targets. Ike Taylor can’t come back soon enough.
Next Men Up
In preparation for this week’s games, here are three subs to keep an eye on:
Ricky Jean-Francois, DT, San Francisco 49ers
David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers
DeCastro earned a +2.2 grade in his first start for Willie Colon, but he draws a tough matchup this week against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Geno Atkins.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Baltimore Ravens
If Torrey Smith isn’t cleared from his concussion, that will likely lead to more snaps for Jones. His 1.54 Yards Per Route Run is middle of the road for wide receivers.
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