Next Man Up
As much as we may not want to admit it, much of an NFL team’s fate comes down to a factor it has no control of: injuries. Every week key players lose their jobs, not because of bad performance, but because of bad luck. Some teams survive these blows, while others succumb to them. When coaches are dealt a critical injury, they often respond with an age-old football term: next man up.
When analyzing the best and worst performances from this week’s injury replacements, we’ll take a look at a rising star in Green Bay, a recurring disappointment in Chicago, New York’s boom-or-bust safety, and a dire protection problem in St. Louis.
Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers
When Sam Shields left the Packers’ Week 6 game against the Texans with a shin injury, Green Bay’s most-improved unit was suddenly at risk of derailment. After surrendering a league-worst 300 passing yards per game last season, the Packers had allowed an average of just 241 yards in the air through their first five games this season. Part of that improvement came thanks to Shields, whose 13.9 Coverage Snaps Per Reception was one of the best marks in the league. At 3-3 and still fighting to get back into the playoff race, Green Bay was suddenly forced to turn one of its starting cornerback spots over to a second-round rookie, Casey Hayward.
After two starts where he played nearly every snap for the Packers, Hayward hasn’t only filled Shields’ shoes; he’s been one of the best cornerbacks in football. Against the Rams, the rookie was targeted 10 times and surrendered just four receptions for 91 yards and an interception. Hayward one-upped himself against the Jaguars this week, allowing just four receptions for 29 yards in nine passes into his coverage. On the season, quarterbacks throwing at Hayward have gone 17-for-38 for 195 yards, zero touchdowns, and four interceptions. That equates to a measley 21.2 passer rating, the best mark of any cornerback in the league. And if that’s not impressive enough, Hayward has also taken over Charles Woodson’s slot coverage responsibilities after the veteran broke his collarbone last week. In 46 snaps as a slot CB against Jacksonville, Hayward allowed just nine yards.
Survive or Succumb? Despite his inexperience, Hayward has thrived with more responsibility. Green Bay hasn’t skipped a beat with him as a starter, and should still find playing time for him once Shields returns.
Devin Hester, WR, Chicago Bears
Stories of Devin Hester’s development as a receiver are the NFL’s version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Every summer, the Bears float rumors that they’re going to feature the dynamic returner on offense. And every fall, Hester struggles to keep up with receivers like Dane Sanzenbacher and Roy Williams. In his previous five seasons, Hester has averaged 513 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. Despite this underwhelming history, Hester felt emboldened enough this September to say, “It’s hard being one of the top electrifying players in the league and you’re not able to get your hands on the ball as much as you want.”
Since Alshon Jeffery broke his hand against the Jaguars three weeks ago, the Bears have answered Hester’s pleas by putting him on the field for 78% of their offensive snaps. Unsurprisingly, he has done nothing to reward their faith. On his 31 passing routes against the Panthers, Hester had only one catch for five yards on two targets. He dropped the other pass on 3rd-and-6, killing a Bears drive at midfield. In fact, Hester has botched three of the 17 catchable balls thrown his way this season, for an awful Drop Rate of 21.43. Hester’s skills as a returner are unparalleled, but his ability as a receiver continues to disappoint.
Survive or Succumb? The Bears’ defense has carried them the last couple of weeks, but they’ll need more offensive output as their schedule toughens. That will be difficult if they have to rely on Hester for significant snaps.
Stevie Brown, FS, New York Giants
Few defensive backs in the NFL embody the term “safety” as much as Kenny Phillips. In 2011, the Giants’ centerfielder allowed zero touchdowns, 232 yards, and less than two receptions per game. He’s been even better this season, surrendering just one catch for 14 yards in four starts, for an astounding 99.0 Coverage Snaps Per Reception. When Phillips went down with a sprained MCL against the Eagles in Week 4, the Giants turned to Stevie Brown. The journeyman backup has lacked Phillips’ consistency, but he’s made up for it with his playmaking.
Against the Cowboys, Brown gave up three receptions for 43 yards, but also tallied two interceptions and a fumble recovery. His most impressive takeaway came on Dallas’ first drive, when he tracked Tony Romo’s eyes and sprinted in front of Dez Bryant’s post pattern for the pick. However, Brown was late in closing on some underneath routes, allowing Miles Austin and Jason Witten to control the middle of the field. Brown has already surrendered 158 yards in just four starts this season, but his seven takeaways lead the NFL.
Survive or Succumb? Although it’s not the type of play that they’re used to from their free safety, the Giants have to be pleased with Brown’s ballhawking style. They’ll face a dilemma once Phillips is healthy enough to return, but I’m sure it’s a problem Tom Coughlin will love to have.
Joe Barksdale, OT, St. Louis Rams
Finding a reliable backup is tough enough, but what happens when your reserve also goes down? That’s the hurdle the Rams have faced these last two weeks, as both Rodger Saffold and Wayne Hunter were unable to suit up at left tackle. That left second-year lineman Joe Barksdale to make his first NFL starts. Though he held up admirably against the Packers, I mentioned that Barksdale could be overmatched against Chandler Jones in my Patriots-Rams preview. And boy, was he ever.
Whether he was run-blocking or pass-protecting, Barksdale was a liability against the Patriots’ defensive line. At the 6:15 mark of the third quarter, he attempted to seal off Kyle Love to the inside, but the defensive tackle shrugged him off to tackle Steven Jackson for no gain. With the Rams later facing 3rd-and-4 in the third quarter, Barksdale was so late getting out of his stance that he barely touched Jones as he flew by to sack Sam Bradford for a 17-yard loss. Altogether, Barksdale allowed four QB pressures on just 36 pass blocks.
Survive or Succumb? Saffold and Hunter have been shaky in their own right, but efforts like Barksdale’s are what turned Bradford from Rookie of the Year to a shell-shocked sophomore. The Rams need all the help they can get to protect their franchise quarterback’s blind side.
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