Next Man Up: Conference Championships
In the course of a long NFL season, injuries inevitably pile up and depth charts are constantly tested. Whether a team survives these blows, or succumbs to them, depends upon the performance of its players on the bench. As coaches say, “next man up”.
Here are the backups who distinguished themselves in last week’s Divisional Round playoff games.
Divisional Playoff Awards
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Denver Broncos
If there’s one characteristic, perhaps the only one, that the Tim Tebow-led Broncos shared with Peyton Manning’s version, it was Denver’s depth in the backfield. After Willis McGahee went down with a leg injury in Week 11, Knowshon Moreno rejuvenated his career with 510 rushing yards in the Broncos’ final six games. When Moreno left Denver’s playoff game with a knee injury in the third quarter, it was Ronnie Hillman’s turn to step up. The third-round rookie had never had more than 15 touches in a game, but on Saturday he collected 103 total yards on 22 rushes and three receptions. Hillman’s longest gain was just 11 yards, but he consistently moved the chains with a patient, hard-running style. His five missed tackles were the most in a game by a Broncos running back since Willis McGahee earned six back in Week 2. On 2nd-and-5 with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter, Hillman powered through Corey Graham’s tackle for a crucial first down that was ultimately made moot by Joe Flacco’s heroics.
Survive or Succumb?
McGahee is getting up in age, but having Hillman and Moreno on the depth chart gives the Broncos some flexibility for the future at running back.
Honorable Mention: Bryant McKinnie, OT, Baltimore Ravens
McKinnie’s run-blocking was poor on Saturday, but the Ravens could live with it because he allowed just one quarterback pressure against a dangerous Broncos pass rush. He has a 97.5 Pass Blocking Efficiency in two games this postseason.
Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Last week I noted that Bruce Irvin’s 10.5 Pass Rushing Productivity mark this season was actually higher than Chris Clemons’ 9.6, albeit in significantly fewer snaps. After Irvin was on the field for an average of 44.5% of the Seahawks’ defensive plays this season, the Seahawks needed the rookie for 73.4% this week. With the added playing time, his production plummeted. Irvin managed just one quarterback hurry on 23 pass rushes for a lowly 3.3 PRP. The Seahawks tried him at both left and right end, but he wasn’t able to penetrate either side of the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line. As bad as he was against the pass, Irvin was even worse versus the run. Tony Gonzalez has never been regarded as a good blocker, yet he easily handled Irvin to earn the highest run block grade that we’ve given the tight end in four years. With 4:52 left in the second quarter, he turned Irvin upfield to open up the left side for a 33-yard gain for Michael Turner. In 18 snaps in run defense, Irvin didn’t earn a single tackle.
Survive or Succumb?
After draft junkies labeled him a reach selection, Irvin had a promising rookie season. However, if this game was any indication he is not yet ready to take the step from pass rush specialist to every-down defensive end.
Dishonorable Mention: Chris Kuper, G, Denver Broncos
Kuper admirably fought through an ankle injury to return for his first career playoff game. After a -7.4 grade, Broncos fans may wish he’d stayed on the bench. He allowed three quarterback pressures, was flagged for three holding penalties, and was embarrassed by the Ravens’ front seven in the running game.
Conference Championships Next Men Up
As teams try to make that final push for New Orleans, let’s take a look at some of the injuries and backups that could decide the outcome of this weekend’s Conference Championship games.
San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons
Cliff Matthews, DE, Atlanta Falcons
John Abraham’s ankle has been on the minds of Falcons fans since their star defensive end injured it in a meaningless Week 17 game. He suited up against the Seahawks, but was far from 100% and mustered just 15 snaps. Second-year defensive end Cliff Matthews picked up the slack with 47 snaps, more than twice his highest count in any other game this season. He was largely invisible, aside from three quarterback hurries, with one of those pressures coming when Russell Wilson rolled out into his direction. In the regular season, Abraham’s 10.7 PRP was sixth-highest among 4-3 defensive ends who played half their team’s snaps. Matthews actually earned a 9.7 PRP in 31 pass rush snaps this season, but Irvin has already shown us the danger of looking too deeply into small sample sizes. If Abraham has to sit again on Sunday, the Falcons pass rush will likely take a hit.
A bigger concern for Atlanta, especially after watching Colin Kaepernick gallop through the Green Bay Packers’ defense, should be how Matthews holds up in the ground game. Including last week, he has five tackles and two stops in 59 snaps in run defense this season for a 4.3% Run Stop Percentage. He’ll now be facing two tackles, Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, who ranked first and second among their peers with +25.0 and +14.1 run blocking grades, respectively. On 19 runs outside the tackles against the Packers, the 49ers gained 183 yards and three touchdowns. If Matthews is on the edge, he’ll face one of the toughest assignments this season against San Francisco’s zone-read option.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Michael Hoomanawanui, TE, New England Patriots
For the second year straight, an injury to Rob Gronkowski will handicap the Patriots in their quest for a Lombardi Trophy. It’s no secret that we consider the two-time Pro Bowler the best tight end in the NFL. Despite missing five games with an injury, Gronkowski had the highest grade of any tight end and was named to our All-Pro team. His 2.43 Yards Per Route Run was especially impressive, considering that the next highest mark for a tight end was a 1.89. And while his receiving skills bring all the publicity, his +8.6 run block grade shows that he’s equally productive without the ball in his hands. When Gronk left Sunday’s game, Michael Hoomanawanui came in and played 51 snaps in his stead. It’s a role he’s gotten used to, as he played in 59.4% of the Patriots snaps the five weeks Gronkowski recovered from a fractured arm. Hoomanawanui has proven himself to be an efficient receiver this season, with 1.79 YPRR and 21.8 yards per reception while catching all five of his targets. And his run blocking, while inconsistent, was good enough in Week 16 to earn him a Next Man Up “Best Offensive Sub” honorable mention. It was in the ground game where he made the biggest impact against the Texans. On both Shane Vereen’s first-quarter touchdown and Stevan Ridley’s third-quarter score, it was a Hoomanawanui block at the point of attack that opened the alley to the end zone.
Hoomanawanui will often find himself matched up with Ray Lewis on Sunday. While the Ravens’ captain has led his team with 20 tackles in the playoffs, and earned a +3.7 grade in run defense last week, he has been a liability in coverage. Peyton Manning targeted him eight times, completing all eight passes for 97 yards and four first downs. While the Ravens’ defense focuses on all of the Patriots’ other weapons, Hoomanawanui could find some space in the Baltimore secondary.
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