Next Man Up: Divisional Weekend
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”.
The playoffs are underway and every injury looms large. Let’s take a look at which bench players flourished and flopped in the Wild Card round, and which could play a role in the outcome of this weekend’s Divisional games.
Wild Card Weekend Awards
Joe Lefeged, S, Indianapolis Colts
Tom Zbikowski’s return from injury did not give the Colts the spark they needed, as the veteran safety earned only 14 snaps and was caught flat-footed on Ray Rice’s 47-yard reception at the end of the first half. Second-year backup Joe Lefeged instead came in and had one of his best games as a pro. He allowed zero receptions in coverage and forced Joe Flacco to focus most of his throws outside the numbers. Lefeged was also solid in run defense, where his hustle and strip of Rice early in the fourth quarter swung the momentum back to the visitors. The second-year safety has been up-and-down in his young career, but performances like this could earn him more playing time when training camp rolls around.
Honorable Mention: Josh LeRibeus, LG, Washington Redskins
Kory Lichtensteiger tried to play through his sprained ankle but lasted only seven snaps against the Seattle Seahawks. In his stead, rookie Josh LeRibeus surrendered just one quarterback hurry in pass protection and earned a +1.1 run block grade.
Joe Webb, QB, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings hid Christian Ponder’s injury so well that it wasn’t even on my radar last week. But if the Green Bay Packers were unprepared for backup Joe Webb, they sure didn’t show it. Webb’s -5.4 grade was the lowest we’ve given a playoff quarterback in two seasons. The Vikings went for the home run often, as Webb threw nine passes over 20 yards past the line of scrimmage (Ponder, by comparison, had 36 such throws all season). However, Webb completed only three of those throws for 83 yards, with 50 of them coming on a late touchdown when the game was well out of reach. Webb also wasted the threat of Adrian Peterson, as he threw for just 24 yards and a 0.0 QB rating on the 12 plays that he used a play-action fake. Vikings fans have reason to worry about Ponder, but Webb’s performance makes it clear that an upgrade isn’t coming from within the roster.
Dishonorable Mention: Bradley Sowell, OT, Indianapolis Colts
Right tackle Winston Justice was benched after allowing three quarterback pressures in pass protection, but backup Bradley Sowell merely threw gasoline on the fire with two sacks and three quarterback hurries of his own.
Divisional Round Next Men Up
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
Bryant McKinnie, OT, Balitmore Ravens
Baltimore decided not to start veteran Bobbie Williams for the injured Jah Reid against the Colts, perhaps because they were fed up with his poor play and personal fouls the week prior. Instead, they shuffled their line and inserted Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. The 11-year veteran’s time in Baltimore has been contentious, but he stepped up in a big spot Sunday by holding Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to just one quarterback hurry in 26 pass-blocking snaps.
If he’s called upon again this week, McKinnie will face a much tougher challenge against Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The Denver Broncos’ pass-rushing duo combined for a sack, three quarterback hits, and 10 pressures in their Week 15 victory in Baltimore. Dumervil is our 10th-ranked 4-3 defensive end this season, with a 9.8 Pass Rushing Productivity, and Miller’s 86 quarterback pressures leads all linebackers and earned him consideration for our Defensive Player of the Year award. If McKinnie struggles to block them, then the Ravens may have to slide Michael Oher back to left tackle, where he earned a -3.4 run block grade against the Broncos in the regular season.
Keep An Eye On: Chris Kuper, G, Denver Broncos
Kuper may finally be over his nagging ankle injury, but should the Broncos automatically reinsert him into their starting lineup? Manuel Ramirez is 11th among guards with a 97.5 Pass Blocking Efficiency, and has two straight games without allowing a quarterback pressure.
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
Ricky Jean-Francois, DE, San Francisco 49ers
When naming Ricky Jean-Francois the Best Defensive Sub of Week 17, I applauded his stout run defense, but noted that he was not a playmaker against potent passing offenses (evidenced by his sad 2.0 Pass Rushing Productivity this season). It’s no wonder that, after Justin Smith left the field in Week15, Aldon Smith’s pursuit of the single-season sack record came to a screeching halt. In 14 games this season with Justin, Aldon racked up 65 pressures and a 11.9 PRP. In two games without Justin, Aldon has tallied a pedestrian five pressures with a 7.1 PRP.
If you can, go back to the 7:46 mark of the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ Week 12 matchup with the New Orleans Saints to see the Smiths’ patented stunt. Justin pushed the left guard and left tackle to the outside, opening up an alley for Aldon to rush inside for the sack. Fast-forward to Week 16, with 4:32 left in the first quarter and the Seattle Seahawks facing 2nd-and-goal. Aldon Smith tried the same stunt with Jean-Francois, but the left guard was able to stay with ‘RJF’ and leave the left tackle to pick up Smith. With the extra time, Russell Wilson fired a dart into the end zone for a 14-0 lead. There’s no knowing how long, or how well, Justin Smith can play through his injury on Saturday night. However, if the 49ers have to rely on Jean-Francois against the pass-happy Packers, then they could be giving some extra time to one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league.
Keep An Eye On: Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
Cobb caught just one pass for 7 yards last week in his return from an ankle injury. He caught nine of nine targets for 77 yards against the 49ers in Week 1, and will give Green Bay a boost if he’s healthier this week.
Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were the healthiest team going into the Wild Card round, but that changed quickly when Chris Clemons fell to the FedEx Field turf with a torn ACL. Only seven 4-3 defensive ends had more pressures this season than Clemons’ 59, and only three had a higher pass rush grade. Bruce Irvin’s 10.5 PRP is actually higher than Clemons’ 9.6, but the rookie has never played more than 65% of the Seahawks’ defensive snaps in a game this season, while Clemons averaged 84.3%.
Even if Irvin can maintain his production with increased playing time, who replaces Irvin as a situational pass rusher? Fellow rookie Greg Scruggs played exclusively as a defensive tackle until last week, when he registered zero pressures in 13 pass rush snaps as an end. Against two of the league’s better bookend pass protectors, Tyson Clabo and Sam Baker, the Seahawks may find it difficult to get to Matt Ryan without blitzing.
Keep An Eye On: John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons’ pass rush would be equally handicapped if they lost their best pass rusher. Cliff Matthews has a solid 9.7 PRP, but in less than a tenth of the snaps that Abraham has taken this season.
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
James Casey, FB, Houston Texans
If you love football enough to have lasted until the fourth quarter of the Texans’ Week 14 Monday Night drubbing in New England, you may remember analyst Jon Gruden lamenting Houston’s limitations without injured tight end Garrett Graham. It was Graham’s only missed game this season, but now a concussion could also keep him out of the rematch. Graham’s versatility is key for the Texans’ two-tight end sets– his 292 receiving yards this season pale in comparison to Owen Daniels’ 807, but he is a much superior blocker. Graham has surrendered just four quarterback pressures this season, and his +2.8 run block grade is the third-best of any Houston player.
Without him, fullback James Casey lined up as a tight end on 22 of his 50 snaps against the Patriots. Casey caught a 30-yard pass from this position to set up a third-quarter touchdown, but he earned a -0.6 run block grade. Graham’s absence and Casey’s struggles in the running game could explain why Houston sent only five of their 27 rushing plays outside the tackles. Vince Wilfork’s 8.7 Run Stop Percentage should be reason enough for Houston to avoid running into the middle of the Patriots’ defense. but improved blocking from Casey on the outside make a huge difference if Graham can’t suit up on Sunday.
Keep An Eye On: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Graham wasn’t the only tight end missing from this Week 14 matchup. Gronkowski played only 11 games and still had the highest grade of any tight end this season. Having him healthy this time around could create a whole new world of matchup nightmares for Houston.
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