Divisional Playoffs Fun Facts
• The last season that defensive back Quentin Jammer (+2.4) graded out positively was back in 2008 and even then his grade was just barely in the white. So it came as no surprise that when he reached free agency in the offseason that he did not get many offers. The new economics of the current salary cap where quarterbacks take up a huge amount of space, coupled with low fixed costs for young players, has really squeezed the middle class of the NFL. Add to that a glut of defensive backs on the market and a veteran like Jammer faced an uncertain future. But when Charles Woodson surprised everyone by turning down the Broncos to take a potentially, due to incentives, more lucrative deal in Oakland, Jammer was headed to Denver to try to transition into a safety.
Everyone remembers the meltdown that occurred in the playoffs against the Ravens, but last season, the strength of the Broncos defense was its secondary. The group had five players with significant playing time grade positively for the regular season. CB Champ Bailey led all cornerbacks in regular season yards per coverage snap, while CB Chris Harris earned our fifth-best overall cornerback grade. In the offseason, Denver added free agent CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the team, with the thought being that Harris would become the permanent slot corner.
A preseason Lisfranc sprain to Bailey postponed those plans. Bailey ended up missing 11 games during the season so Harris (+13.4) resumed playing both out wide and in the slot, grading out as a top-10 corner excelling in pass coverage. When Bailey re-emerged in Week 17, he did so as the full-time slot corner, leaving left cornerback duties to Harris.
Late in the third quarter of the Divisional Playoffs, Harris left the game with a torn left ACL, which has ended his season. He left with the Broncos holding a 17-0 lead. He was replaced by Jammer and in the fourth quarter, his old teammates went after him.
After making a single catch through three quarters, Keenan Allen was targeted twice against Jammer in the fourth and made both catches. One was for a 16-yard touchdown while the other was a crucial 49-yard reception on 4th & 5. Jammer also gave up a 30-yard catch to Eddie Royal. Jammer ended up as the only Bronco to grade in the red last week.
So the question is, where will Bailey play against New England? Do the Broncos feel that he is ready for a full-time role on the outside or will he remain in the slot? If he mans the outside, that could mean that we would see rookie Kayvon Webster (-3.9) playing the slot, with a cast on his right thumb. If Bailey remains in the slot, then that could mean more of Jammer out wide. The Patriots have been running the ball a lot more recently, but you would have to think that Bill Belichick would draw up a game plan that would target Jammer deep. Remember, it was just last season when the Broncos were eliminated by the Ravens due to the deep ball. In that game, Bailey gave up five catches on seven targets for 128 yards and two touchdowns while Rahim Moore gave up two catches on three targets, the most memorable being the 75-yard touchdown caught by Jacoby Jones.
But more importantly, we’ve seen Jammer and Webster play against the Patriots this season. Back in Week 12, the Broncos had a 24-0 lead at the break. On the last play of the half, Tom Brady threw up a Hail Mary and Rodgers-Cromartie was hurt on the play and didn’t play in the second half. So while the Patriots were booed off of their home field at the half, they outscored the Broncos 34-7 in the second half and in overtime with Jammer and Webster on the field. For the game, the two defensive backs would give up 11 catches on 14 targets for 84 yards and a touchdown.
But that first half should give Denver hope that if Bailey is able to play at a Rodgers-Cromartie-type level they should be all right. On Wednesday, Bailey said that the Broncos were still putting together the details of their defensive plan, but that he would be willing to play wherever he was needed. When asked if he was physically ready to play out wide, he avoided the question by reiterating his position that he would be willing to play wherever he was needed.
• Now if the Patriots do decide to go run heavy on Sunday, the Broncos will have to try to stop them without three members of the front seven who played against New England back in Week 12. LE Derek Wolfe was placed on injured reserve, ending his season, as he was unable to return from seizure-like symptoms. Wolfe last played in that Week 12 game. Von Miller (+40.3) and Kevin Vickerson were the other two starters who played in that game but are now on injured reserve.
• Speaking of running the ball, in Week 12 Knowshon Moreno (+8.7) rushed for 224 yards while no Bronco had over 50 yards receiving. Peyton Manning (+43.3) threw for 150 yards, which was his lowest total for the season. In fact, he threw for more than that in two of his three preseason games. Here’s a question, did the Broncos see something on video that made them think that they could run the ball or was it more a function of them racing out to a big lead due to New England turnovers, and trying to take the air out of the ball? We shall see.
• The Patriots placed MLB Brandon Spikes (+9.8) on injured reserve last week, ending his season. And while special teamer Dane Fletcher (-1.4) was expected to inherit the extra snaps, it was instead rookie OLB/DE Jamie Collins (+10.2) who played all 66 defensive snaps in Saturday’s Divisional Round win over the Colts. He was credited with six tackles (three solo), three quarterback hits, a sack, a pass defended, and a downfield interception that he returned 20 yards. He also recorded two quarterback hurries and four stops. And while WLB Dont’a Hightower earned the second highest defensive grade of the game, finishing with five tackles (four solo) and four stops, Collins was the superior play. So once again we learn that you play a Patriot linebacker at your own peril.
• Leading up to last week’s Divisional Playoffs, Seattle WR Percy Harvin was practicing in full. He was expected to play against the Saints, though maybe on a snap count, with the added responsibility of running back kicks. Seattle immediately targeted Harvin, running two of its first three plays for him, leading us to think that his hip was fine, and that he could be a major factor in the game. But a hit from Saints S Rafael Bush seemed to daze Harvin. He was sent to the locker room but returned on Seattle’s next series. Harvin then took another big hit near the end of the first half and was in obvious pain as he was helped to the locker room. He finished the day with three catches on four targets. As of Thursday, Harvin was still going through concussion protocol and hasn’t practiced.
• Seattle SAM backer K.J. Wright (+2.7) returned to practice on Wednesday. A solid player who would probably be on someone’s fantasy playoff roster if he were healthy, Wright has been out since Week 14. If he does play on Sunday it will probably be on a snap count, which would make him a pretty desperate play.
• 49ers CB Carlos Rogers (-3.0) returned to a limited practice on Wednesday. Rogers went down with a hamstring injury in Week 17. Already considered a potential cap casualty for next season, Rogers was reportedly almost cut going into this season. And while Rogers says that he plans to suit up for the NFC Championship Game, it’s unclear if he’d even be returning to an every-down role. Perrish Cox has taken over in the slot in the playoffs, grading out with a (-1.2) and showing improvement over the two games. However, if Rogers is able to play, it would definitively provide more depth for the 49ers. On paper, the NFC Championship is starting to look more and more like a defensive struggle. So take the over, they will probably defy all expectations and turn this into a shootout.
Ashe started his writing career at the now-defunct CNNSI in Atlanta. He moved on to CNN Domestic where he joined his first fantasy football league. He writes about sports and politics when he isn’t checking the waiver wire.[/am4show]