Next Man Up: Week 14
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”.
Context is key when putting an injury substitute’s performance in perspective, especially at this point of the season. Opponents matter. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond allowed just 20 yards on nine targets in place of Brandon Browner, but he was defending an Arizona Cardinals offense that couldn’t score on the Saskatchewan Roughriders right now. Stakes also matter. Jacksonville guard Eben Britton continued to disappoint with six pressures allowed on Sunday, but that doesn’t alter the fate of a Jaguars team that was already playing out the stretch. In these final weeks of the season, some bench players will need to face the toughest opponents with the highest stakes on the line. Here are those who were up to the task last week, and those who were not:
Best Offensive Sub
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants
The New York crowd was settling into an early panic after Elbert Mack’s 73-yard interception return put the New Orleans Saints up 7-0, but David Wilson immediately swung the momentum back in New York’s favor with a 97-yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. He finished with 227 yards on four returns, and is our No. 1 rated kick returner this season with a +9.6 grade. And with Andre Brown on injured reserve and Ahmad Bradshaw in the locker room with a knee injury, the rookie finally had the Giants backfield all to himself. Wilson ran for 100 yards and two TDs on just 13 carries, and showcased his speed and shiftiness with a 73.0 Breakaway Percentage and 76.3 Elusive Rating.
Survive or Succumb?
With Bradshaw possibly sidelined this week, the Giants could be counting on Wilson to step up again. This may be the point where his self-professed Hall of Fame career finally gets some legs.
Honorable Mention: Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Seven snaps is usually too short of a performance to earn a spot on this list, but Cousins’ late-game heroics against the Ravens may have saved his team’s season.
Worst Offensive Sub
Seth Olsen, G, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ offensive line is ranked 30th in Pass Blocking Efficiency, partly because only two of its members have started every game. Seth Olsen started at left guard in Week 1 and earned a -5.9 grade in three games before injuring his knee. Olsen found himself back in the starting lineup for Joe Reitz on Sunday, and unfortunately picked up right where he left off. He earned a -6.0 grade against the Titans, giving up seven QB pressures and generally making the Tennessee defensive tackles look like All-Pros. With 9:28 left in the 1st quarter, just as Andrew Luck saw T.Y. Hilton wide open down the right sideline on a blown coverage, Sen’Derrick Marks beat Olsen to the inside. Luck couldn’t step into his throw and the pass floated out of bounds, leaving the Colts with a punt instead of a touchdown. With 8:36 left in the fourth quarter, Luck again was looking deep for Hilton when Karl Klug beat Olsen for a QB hit. Overall, Olsen’s 86.5 PBE last week was dead last among all NFL guards.
Survive or Succumb?
Life for a rookie QB is tough enough without pressure in his face. I hate to think of what J.J. Watt could do to Luck if he’s lined up against Olsen this week.
Dishonorable Mention: John Skelton, QB, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals would love to at least use this lost season to assess Kevin Kolb’s future with the team. Instead, they have Skelton (-8.2 on Sunday) and Ryan Lindley making every defense look like the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Best Defensive Sub
Demorrio Williams, ILB, San Diego Chargers
The Pittsburgh Steelers had little reason to fear Sunday’s game against the Chargers. Charlie Batch had just beaten the Ravens in Baltimore, so surely Ben Roethlisberger would have no problem at home against Norv Turner’s dead men walking. Instead, the Chargers’ defense pressured Big Ben on 24 of his 48 dropbacks and held the Steeler running backs to 38 yards rushing. Demorrio Williams, starting in place of Donald Butler, recorded five tackles, three defensive stops, and two QB pressures in the first half alone before exiting with an injury. The Steelers ran nine times for 12 yards, and Williams recorded stops on two of those rushes. His hit on Roethlisberger with 7:43 left in the second quarter forced an incompletion and a Pittsburgh punt. Bront Bird entered the game for Williams after halftime, and intercepted Big Ben on the Steelers 17-yard line in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, the Chargers had a touchdown and a 24-point lead.
Survive or Succumb?
Scheduled to face the New York Jets in two weeks, Williams and Bird may not be finished meddling with the AFC wild-card race.
Honorable Mention: Philip Adams, CB, Oakland Raiders
It wasn’t enough for a win, but Adams held the Denver Broncos to 6 yards on five targets once he came in for Michael Huff. His diving end zone interception in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.
Worst Defensive Sub
Brendon Ayanbadejo, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
As I mentioned back in Week 9, Dannell Ellerbe’s great play has helped the Ravens survive the loss of Ray Lewis. However, Baltimore has not coped as well the last two weeks without him. The Washington Redskins’ read-option running game has made many a linebacker look foolish, but on Sunday Brendon Ayanbadejo wasn’t outsmarted as much as he was outmuscled. He was too often mauled by any offensive lineman who reached him on the second level. On Washington’s second play from scrimmage, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger pushed Ayanbadejo seven yards downfield, at which point Alfred Morris flew past the pair for a 20-yard gain. The play set the tone for a game where Ayanbadejo frequently met the ball-carrier well past the line of scrimmage.
Survive or Succumb?
Losing these last two games with Ellerbe on the sideline has set the Ravens back in the quest for a first-round playoff bye. Having to rely on Ayanbadejo against the Broncos this week could knock them out of that race altogether.
Dishonorable Mention: Dezman Moses, OLB, Green Bay Packers
As was the case when he played the Giants, Moses wasn’t as terrible as he was invisible, notching just one pressure and one assist in 71 snaps. The Packers simply can’t get Clay Matthews back soon enough.
Next Men Up
In preparation for this week’s games, here are three subs to keep an eye on:
Bobbie Williams, G, Baltimore Ravens
Marshal Yanda’s ankle sprain could rob the Ravens of their highest-graded offensive player. Williams earned a negative grade in three of his four spot starts this season.
Doug Legursky, C, Pittsburgh Steelers
Willie Colon re-injured his knee against the Chargers and could be placed on injured reserve for the third year in a row. Legursky’s 91.2 Pass Block Efficiency was the second-worst mark for a center last week.
M.D. Jennings, S, Green Bay Packers
Brandon Marshall wants Charles Woodson on the field, but he may have a tougher time beating M.D. Jennings, who has surrendered just 25 yards since taking over at free safety in Week 7.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete