After all the excitement of celebrating the return of football, Week 1 is in the books. As is standard for the NFL, it was a week filled with big performances, big letdowns and plenty to be dissected.
Here though we’re not going to talk about Peyton Manning’s record-tying seven touchdowns, or Anquan Boldin’s big game in San Francisco. We’re not even looking at how the AFC North managed to finish Week 1 with an 0-4 record. Here, our Secret Superstars series will reveal four performances that flew under the radar each week. It might be a player who shone on a limit number of snaps, or maybe someone at an unfashionable position. Either way, we’ll attempt to highlight them and give them the credit we feel they deserve.
This week we’re focusing on an undrafted safety in Denver, a right tackle plucked from the street in Oakland, a backup running back in Houston and a fullback in Tennessee.
Duke Ihenacho, S, Denver Broncos
After going undrafted out of San Jose State in 2012, Duke Ihenacho (+3.0) signed with Denver as a free agent. His first season in the league included more transactions than tackles, with the Broncos cutting, re-signing and adding him to the practice squad on multiple occasions. Word began to surface that he might be pushing for a starting spot in the summer, however, and he found himself starting the team’s final three preseason games. Highlighted by an impressive performance in Denver’s second preseason game in San Francisco, where he made three tackles resulting in a defensive stop, Ihenacho made the starting spot his own.
That leads us to Thursday night where, just a year after entering the league undrafted, he found himself starting for a team many have predicted to go all the way in 2013. The Ravens weren’t afraid to go after him in coverage in the game, targeting him no less than seven times. However, while he allowed four receptions, they went for a total of 26 yards. He would add two quarterback hurries from the seven times he went after Joe Flacco, but it was against the run where he really stood out. Playing 21 snaps in run defense, three of his five tackles resulted in a defensive stop, giving him a Run Stop Percentage of 14.3%, tied for the highest among all safeties.
Tony Pashos, OT, Oakland Raiders
If you were following our coverage of the final cuts by every NFL team recently, you’ll know how surprised we were to see Tony Pashos (+3.6), not make the roster in Washington after a fantastic preseason. Often unheralded, Pashos has made a career as a journeyman offensive tackle last 10 years now and, after stints in Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Cleveland, looks ready to provide the Raiders with a high quality right tackle. That, of course, depends on them realizing how well he played and allowing him to keep the starting job — but after a performance like this, we’re hopeful.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, Pashos had a perfect game in pass protection, with no penalties and zero pressure given up. That gave him a Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating of 100.0, a feat matched by just five other offensive tackles in Week 1. While the Raiders ran the ball either side of him on just three occasions throughout the game, he didn’t look out of place as a run blocker either. After an impressive preseason, Pashos showed he can still play on Sundays. Hopefully, after a performance like this, he’ll retain the starting job and get the opportunity to repeat this type of effort. If he does, Washington are going to feel foolish for letting him go.
Ben Tate, HB, Houston Texans
Apparently Texans running back Arian Foster wasn’t thrilled with the way the carries were split in San Diego on Monday night. However, if Ben Tate (+1.6) can produce this type of performance on a regular basis, Foster may find the former second-round draft pick further eating into his work load as the season goes on. This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Tate, with the former Auburn Tiger rushing for 950 yards in his second year in the league back in 2011 but, after seeing his opportunities limited to just 67 carries last season, he appears to be much more in the Texans plans this year — if Monday night is anything to go by of course.
With an Elusive Rating of 80.8, trailing only three other running backs who saw at least 25% of their team’s carries, he forced two missed tackles on eight carries. By comparison, Foster failed to force any missed tackles from 18 carries, though he did force two as a receiver. When it came to Yards After Contact, Tate again left his teammate trailing, averaging 4.44YAC per attempt, compared with Foster’s 1.67. Take a look at the play he makes on 2nd-and-9 with 5:07 left in the first quarter, cutting inside to force a missed tackle from Chargers safety Eric Weddle, and you’ll see why he’s making a case for more carries.
Collin Mooney, FB, Tennessee Titans
Nothing says Secret Superstar like a fullback! By far the least fashionable position in the NFL these days, many teams now don’t even have a place for a traditional fullback on their roster, opting instead to go for an extra tight end to give them another option in the passing game. They’ll always have a special place in our heart here at PFF though, and the Tennessee Titans put theirs to good use in their Week 1 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In college Collin Mooney (+3.2) set the record for most yards in a single season at Army with 1,339, but it’s unlikely he’ll be doing too much of that in the NFL if Sunday is anything to go by. Instead, he looks to be a key cog in a Titans running game that was revamped this offseason. Though they didn’t run the ball particularly well on Sunday — despite their persistence they averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 42 attempts — that wasn’t on Mooney, who didn’t have a negatively graded block all game. Watch the block he puts on Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu on 2nd-and-6 with 13:14 left in the third quarter, sealing him inside and driving him to the turf and you’ll see what we mean. Entering the league as a free agent last year, ending three years in the Army after graduating from West Point, Mooney looks set to stick around for a while.
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