Next Man Up: 2012's Biggest Losses and Best Subs
Throughout the season we’ve chronicled how multiple teams have had their Super Bowl hopes hampered by injuries, and now the New England Patriots can be added to that list. After Aqib Talib headed to the locker room early in the AFC Championship game, Joe Flacco completed all five of his passes into backup Marquis Cole’s coverage — including the decisive touchdown that stretched the Ravens’ lead to 15 points. Patriot rookie standout Chandler Jones could manage only two snaps due to injury, and Justin Francis notched just one QB hit in 27 pass rushes in his place. When New England needed them most, the Patriots’ ‘next men up’ did not rise to the occasion.
Though injuries can help explain a team’s failures, they certainly shouldn’t excuse them. Look no further than the past two Super Bowl champions, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants, and you’ll see two teams who were leveled by injuries but still succeeded because of their roster depth. How many analysts counted the Ravens out when Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles in the offseason, or when Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis both suffered major injuries in Week 6? With the 2012 season nearly in the books, let’s look back at those teams who couldn’t overcome their injuries, and those backups who kept their club’s hopes alive.
The Costliest Injuries of 2012
Just Missed The Cut
Jared Gaither, OT, San Diego Chargers
In five starts for the Chargers last season, Gaither surrendered just three quarterback pressures. However, as he struggled with injuries this season, Michael Harris stepped in and earned a dreadful 86.8 Pass Blocking Efficiency. That ranked dead last among all starting tackles.
Chris Gamble, CB, Carolina Panthers
Before his injury, Gamble surrendered a reception once every 20.5 coverage snaps. Captain Munnerlyn allowed one every 9.5 coverage snaps in relief.
Clay Matthews, 3-4 OLB, Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ pass rush went on life support during four weeks without Matthews, as Dezman Moses earned just seven quarterback pressures in that span and was completely invisible at times.
Now, on with the countdown…
5. Brian Orakpo, 3-4 OLB, Washington Redskins
During the 2011 season, Brian Orakpo emerged as one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. He earned 59 quarterback pressures and four batted passes, and his 12.2 Pass Rushing Productivity was fifth-best among all starting 3-4 outside linebackers. He picked up right where he left off this season, tallying four hurries, a sack, and a forced fumble in a game and a half. But a nagging pectoral injury returned and left the Redskins without their best pass-rusher for the rest of the season. Backup Rob Jackson played admirably in reserve, with four interceptions and just 35 yards allowed in coverage. However, he wasn’t close to the disruptive force that Orakpo was, with just 17 quarterback pressures and a 7.3 PRP. He was particularly ineffective down the stretch, with just one sack and one hurry in 69 pass rushes over his last four games, including no pressures in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. Washington is left to wonder if their playoff run may have lasted longer with a healthy Orakpo rushing Russell Wilson.
4. Sean Lee, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Since he was drafted in 2010, Sean Lee has steadily developed into one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. Seven weeks into this season, he was the Cowboys’ highest-graded defender and only NaVorro Bowman could claim a higher PFF grade at his position. Lee was an incredibly reliable run defender, with a 11.3 Run Stop Percentage and only two missed tackles in 56 attempts. However, his season was cut short in Week 8 with ligament damage to his foot, and veteran Dan Connor’s 7.5% Run Stop in reserve was a big downgrade. When Connor missed time with injuries of his own, Alex Albright stepped in and also struggled. He was partially responsible for three New Orleans touchdowns in the Cowboys’ Week 16 loss to the Saints, earning him our Worst Defensive Sub award. In Dallas’ season-ending loss to Washington, Connor and Albright tallied just two run stops on 48 combined run snaps, as Alfred Morris rushed for 200 yards and the NFC East crown. The Cowboys deserve credit for staying in the playoff hunt even without Lee, but his absence eventually caught up to them.
3. Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete inside linebacker in the NFL last season than Brian Cushing. His 13.9% Run Stop Percentage ranked third at his position, his 13.8 Pass Rushing Productivity was fifth, his 16.1 Combined Tackle Efficiency was tied for seventh, and he allowed a reception just once every 10.6 coverage snaps. A chop block from an offensive lineman tore Cushing’s ACL in Week 5, leaving the Texans with a hole in their front seven they never filled. Tim Dobbins chipped in with a solid 10.6% Run Stop Percentage, but he compiled just five quarterback pressures on the season and allowed a reception once every 7.9 coverage snaps. Houston’s linebackers rarely took advantage of having our Defensive Player of the Year on their front line. After Cushing, the highest-graded Texans’ linebacker this season earned a +0.1.
2. Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Lost in the excitement over Adrian Peterson’s amazing finish, many forget that the Vikings’ All-Pro running back wasn’t Minnesota’s best player in the first half of the season. Before a Week 9 ankle injury prematurely ended his season, Percy Harvin was a legitimate MVP candidate. His 60 receptions through the first eight weeks led the league, and a stunning 529 of his 667 receiving yards came after the catch. And that’s not even mentioning his league-leading 35.9-yard average on 16 kickoff returns. Without him, the Vikings’ receiving corps was a ghost town. None of Minnesota’s other wideouts gained more than 450 yards or two touchdowns. Christian Ponder threw for 8.36 yards per attempt and a 102.8 passer rating on targets to Harvin, but 6.87 YPA and a 73.7 rating on passes to the rest of Minnesota’s wide receivers. While Harvin’s 2.59 Yards Per Route Run was one of the best marks in the league, Jarius Wright was the only Vikings receiver to have a YPRR higher than 1.05. As magical as the Vikings’ playoff run was, how much further could Minnesota have gone if they had two of the NFL’s top offensive threats on the field?
1. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
The costliest injury of the 2012 NFL season actually occurred four months before training camps even opened, when Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon during an offseason workout in March. He was our highest-graded offensive tackle by a significant margin in 2011, and had the best single-game performance by a left tackle. His 97.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranked fourth among his peers, and his +13.1 run block grade was bested only by Phil Loadholt. Philadelphia signed Demetress Bell to take Peters’ place, but the former Buffalo Bill proved to be a massive bust. Bell didn’t earn the starting job in training camp, but was called into duty after the Eagles suffered even more injuries. He mustered a -24.6 grade in just over seven games before being permanently benched. He may have had the worst sequence by an offensive lineman this season, when, in Week 9, he committed two penalties and surrendered a sack in the span of four plays against the Saints en route to that week’s Worst Offensive Sub award. Bell surrendered 33 quarterback pressures in less than half a season, which was 12 more than Peters surrendered in all of 2011. King Dunlap steadied the ship in the second half of the season, but it was too little, too late for a team that saw it’s offensive line turn from strength to liability without Peters.
Click below to see the Best Subs of the 2012 Season
The Best Subs Of The 2012 Season
Dannell Ellerbe, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens may have missed Ray Lewis’ leadership during his absence, but Ellerbe made sure they didn’t miss his on-field production. His 24 pressures were the second-most by a Ravens linebacker, and his 47 defensive stops led the team.
Robert McClain, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Brent Grimes was our second-highest graded corner in 2011, but he lasted just 52 snaps this season before suffering an Achilles injury. McClain ensured the Falcons’ defense didn’t miss a beat, as his 0.88 yards per coverage snap was one of the 10 best marks in the league.
Stevie Brown, S, New York Giants
Few safeties provide the security of Kenny Phillips, who surrendered just 16 yards in 171 coverage snaps this season. However, Brown balanced some coverage lapses with a lot of big plays, snatching eight interceptions in 11 starts while Phillips was injured.
And now, the best subs of 2012…
5. Clint Boling, OG, Cincinnati Bengals
Last offseason, Cincinnati lost Nate Livings in free agency and signed veteran Travelle Wharton to replace him at left guard. But when Wharton injured his knee three plays into the Bengals’ first preseason game, they had to rely on second-year lineman Clint Boling to start for the rest of the season. The fourth-round pick’s 97.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranked in the top 20 of starting guards, and he showed great discipline with only one penalty all season. In a five-week stretch from Weeks 3 to 7, Boling surrendered just one quarterback pressure. If the 32-year-old Wharton returns to the Bengals next season, he’ll most likely have to do so as Boling’s backup.
4. Corey Graham, CB, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ unexpected run to the Super Bowl seems even more improbable when you realize they’ve done it without arguably their best defender. Webb was our fourth-highest graded cornerback in 2011 and was making a case as the most complete cornerback in the game this season. Before he tore his ACL in Week 9, Webb’s seven defensive stops were third at his position and his 16.8 coverage snaps per reception ranked fourth. Amazingly, he allowed just three receptions on 92 coverage snaps when defending the slot. The Ravens hoped to turn to 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith to step in for Webb, but he struggled with injuries of his own. That put the onus on Corey Graham, and the veteran backup did not get off to a good start. He allowed 76 yards and a 69.2% completion rate to the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders while often looking overmatched. I noted that he would need to improve against tougher opponents when I gave him our Worst Defensive Sub award in Week 10, and he certainly did. He allowed just 271 yards and a 66.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage in the final seven weeks of the season. Andrew Luck targeted Graham 13 times in their Wild Card matchup, but completed only six of those throws, with two passes defensed. Graham then grabbed two interceptions against the Broncos, including the overtime pick of Peyton Manning that set Baltimore up for their game-winning field goal. It’s safe to say that the Ravens would not have reached the Super Bowl if Graham hadn’t stepped up when they needed him.
3. Brad Jones, ILB, Green Bay Packers
The Packers lost one of their defensive leaders for the season when Desmond Bishop tore his hamstring in their first preseason game. Bishop’s play was a bit unbalanced in 2011. His 10.9% Run Stop and 11.5 Pass Rushing Productivity were both excellent marks, and his 17.6 Combined Tackle Efficiency was one of the highest in the league for his position. Yet he was torched in coverage — the 568 yards he surrendered were the third-most allowed by any inside linebacker. D.J. Smith proved to be a capable but inconsistent replacement before suffering his own knee injury in Week 6. Brad Jones was thrust into the starting lineup in his place and grabbed the opportunity by the horns. His +8.9 grade this season was the 10th-highest for an inside linebacker, and his 9.2% Run Stop was solid. More importantly, he surrendered just 273 yards in coverage, helping to shore up a pass defense that was much-improved this season. He was an integral part of the Packers’ playoff push, recording 21 tackles and 12 run stops in the final three weeks of the regular season. With his contract expiring, the 26-year-old Jones now ranks as one of our top inside linebackers available in free agency.
2. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos
A priority for the Broncos this offseason was upgrading their cornerback spot opposite Champ Bailey. They released Andre’ Goodman after he surrendered nine touchdowns last season, including three in their playoff loss to the Patriots. Denver then signed Tracy Porter, and the former Saint made an immediate impact with a game-clinching pick-six against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. But he also surrendered a touchdown in each of his first three games, and then went out in Week 5 with symptoms of a seizure. Second-year undrafted free agent Chris Harris Jr. was the next man up, and played so well that he never let go of the starting job, even when Porter returned. Harris became our fifth-highest graded cornerback this season, allowing 472 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions for a 66.5 quarterback rating on throws into his coverage. The 0.91 yards per coverage snap that he surrendered was one of the 10 lowest marks among starting cornerbacks. And to top it off, he was one of the best run-defending cornerbacks. His 16 defensive stops on running plays and 5.2% Run Stop were both the second-best at his position, trailing only Antoine Winfield. Harris’ breakout season should give the Broncos hope that there will be life in their secondary after Bailey retires.
1. Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers
I’ve already touched on the improvement that Green Bay’s secondary made this season, something that seemed unlikely when they lost Sam Shields and Charles Woodson for a big chunk of the year. However, it’s also unlikely that a second-round rookie draft pick would become one of the best defenders of 2012. Casey Hayward allowed 456 yards and no touchdowns in coverage this year, while grabbing six interceptions. Quarterbacks had a 31.1 passer rating when targeting him, the lowest mark of any cornerback in the league. And don’t think Hayward wasn’t challenged. He was targeted every 5.9 coverage snaps, yet allowed a reception just once every 13.1 snaps. His 44.6% completion rate was the third-best at his position. His best game came in Week 11 in Detroit, when he faced seven targets from Matthew Stafford but allowed just one reception for six yards, while intercepting one pass and batting down another three. He earned our Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and a spot on our PFF All-Pro team for his slot defense. He was lined up there on 52.0% of his pass snaps, and allowed just 0.80 yards per snap, the second-best mark in the league. When looking back on the 2012 season, no player in the NFL exemplified the ‘Next Man Up’ mantra as much as Hayward.
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