Before the season began, this would have gone down as the dream final four for the 2013 season. The quarterback rivalry that has defined the past decade in the NFL in the AFC Championship Game, and the league’s best rivalry on the NFC side of things.
More importantly, though, these are the four best teams in the league, with a plethora of fantastic players on each roster. You already know all about the quarterbacks, and unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years you know all about great units like the San Francisco linebackers and the Seattle secondary. But what of the lesser known players on the roster? The players that have played an important role in their teams getting this far but haven’t necessarily got the credit for it.
In our Championship Game Secret Superstars preview, we’re highlighting a defensive tackle in Denver, a cornerback in New England, a defensive tackle in Seattle, and a backup linebacker in San Francisco.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
The story of the 2013 Denver Broncos will understandably focus on Peyton Manning’s record-breaking year, setting new high water marks for yards and touchdowns in a single season. Super Bowls aren’t won behind a high-powered offense alone, though, and while the Broncos’defense might not be the best in the league, it does boast some big performers at certain spots.
One such player is defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (+24.1), whose big season has come as somewhat of a surprise. A 2009 third-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Knighton had never finished a season with a PFF grade above +5.5 before arriving in Denver this year. So what made his 2013 so impressive?
The truth is that it was his all-around play, with Knighton one of just four defensive tackles to finish the year with a grade above +10.0 both against the run and as a pass rusher. With four sacks, five hits, and 25 hurries from 298 pass rushing attempts, his Pass Rushing Productivity Rating of 8.9 was tied for seventh-best among defensive tackles.
He also ranked in the Top 20 in terms of Run Stop Percentage, coming in at 7.2% with 19 of his 22 solo tackles from 263 snaps against the run resulting in a defensive stop. He was at his best in Weeks 15 and 16 with two dominant performances against the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans, as 2013 saw him quietly emerge as one of the better defensive tackles in the league.
Logan Ryan, CB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have made a name for themselves throughout all of their success in the past 13 seasons with their ability to find lesser known players to fill important roles on the field. Hardly surprising when you consider that they found their franchise quarterback in the sixth round of the draft, but their success in that regard hasn’t been limited to just Tom Brady, with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman leaping out as two other players who have been a big part of the team’s offense after arriving in New England in relative anonymity.
New England used a third-round pick in April’s NFL Draft on defensive back Logan Ryan (+4.9) and, after playing sparingly in the first quarter of the season, he has become a key part of the defensive back field as the season has gone on.
With just 91 yards after contact allowed from 31 receptions, an average of 2.94 per reception, Ryan has been a sure tackler, missing just two tackles all year with a Tackling Efficiency of 18.5, fifth-best among cornerbacks. He’s also been particularly good at making plays on the ball with five interceptions and six pass breakups from the 59 passes thrown into his coverage.
Ryan becomes even more important with the Patriots traveling to Denver on Sunday, and they’ll need him to be every bit of the player who has graded out at +1.8 or higher in three of his last four appearances when they take on Manning and the Broncos.
Tony McDaniel, DT, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks are as talented a team from top to bottom as any team in recent memory. From quarterback Russell Wilson all the way to standout special-teamer, Jeremy Lane, they have an embarrassment of riches throughout the roster, including a ridiculous 18 players with at least a small positive grade on their defensive line and in the secondary.
That includes defensive tackle Tony McDaniel (+16.1), who had seen just one positively graded season since 2008. 2013 was a huge year for McDaniel, finishing the year as our fourth-highest graded defensive tackle against the run in his first season in Seattle.
That shows in his Run Stop Percentage, where he again ranks fourth, coming in at 11.9% with 30 of his 34 solo tackles against the run resulting in defensive stops. He finished the regular season strong, with seven tackles stops in Weeks 16 and 17, however, he’ll be disappointed with his showing in Saturday’s win over the New Orleans Saints, with his lowest-graded performance against the run all year.
There’s no reason to think that was more than a minor blip yet, with his strong play throughout the year serving as proof of how good he has been.
Dan Skuta, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
When you think of the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers, you’d be forgiven for not going beyond the four main starters. There’s also depth there, though, with outside linebacker Dan Skuta (+8.7) stepping up in Aldon Smith’s absence and delivering a very solid season as a backup.
A 2009 undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State, he spent his first four seasons in the league in Cincinnati, playing mainly on special teams but seeing time at defensive end, linebacker and, believe it or not, fullback for the Bengals. There were signs that he could develop in Cincinnati, with a couple of notable games throughout his time there.
He flourished with a move to a 3-4 and to outside linebacker in San Francisco in 2013 and, while the 17 total pressures registered by Skuta might not seem like much, coming on just 96 pass rushing attempts they gave him a Pass Rushing Productivity Rating of 13.3, 11th among all outside linebackers regardless of the number of snaps played.
Obviously the 49ers are at their best when they have Smith rushing from that right side, but it’s at least comforting to know that they have a role player as good as Skuta to fill in during a game, and who has proved this year that he’s capable of starting when he’s needed.
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