Next Man Up: Wild Card 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”.
Yesterday, I handed out my weekly awards for the best and worst subs of Week 17. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the injuries and backups that could decide the outcome of this weekend’s Wild Card matchups.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
Barrett Ruud, ILB, Houston Texans
Texans fans were dismayed enough when defensive captain Brian Cushing was lost for the season in Week 5, but Houston’s linebacker ranks have only thinned further since. Darryl Sharpton hit the injured reserve list this week, and now it looks like Tim Dobbins is doubtful to suit up Sunday. Dobbins has a sub-par 6.4 Pass Rushing Productivity and gives up a reception every 8.3 coverage snaps, but he earns his paycheck with a 10.6 Run Stop Percentage that ranks 12th among all inside linebackers with as many snaps.
If Dobbins can’t suit up, the Texans will look to Barrett Ruud to take his place. A starter for six years in Tampa, Ruud has since become a journeyman who’s played sparingly for Houston this season. Ruud collected a -18.2 grade in nine games for the Tennessee Titans last year, the fourth-worst mark among inside linebackers. He missed 10 of his 68 tackle attempts and was regularly pummeled by blockers on the second level. BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 15.9 Elusive Rating is one of the lowest in the league, but he could do more damage in the open field if Ruud is out there.
Keep An Eye On: Taylor Mays, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Mays earned an honorable mention for Best Defensive Sub last week, and his 11.4 Run Stop Percentage is one of the best marks for a safety this season. If Chris Crocker’s quad injury keeps him out, Mays will need to avoid giving up the big plays that chased him out of San Francisco after his rookie season.
Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers
Marcus Sherels, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Of the players who may not suit up this weekend, none would be more missed than Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. In a fantastic renaissance season, the 35-year-old’s 7.3 Run Stop Percentage led all cornerbacks, and his +25.5 PFF grade was second only to Seattle’s Richard Sherman. He lined up against a slot receiver on a league-leading 328 snaps and surrendered just 337 yards and no touchdowns. The Vikings will struggle to replace that versatility if Winfield’s fractured hand again forces him to the sideline. After Winfield aggravated his injury on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers feasted on Marcus Sherels for nine completions and 162 yards, 87 of which came when the third-year backup was covering the slot. With 2:44 left in the third quarter, Jordy Nelson ran right past Sherels for a 73-yard completion that brought the Packers back into the game.
Randall Cobb had 63 catches from the slot this season, second only to Wes Welker. If he returns from his own ankle injury while Winfield is stuck on the sideline, the Packers could have a huge mismatch to exploit.
Keep An Eye On: C.J. Wilson, DE, Green Bay Packers
Jerel Worthy’s rookie season ended prematurely with a knee injury against the Vikings, and the Packers will distribute his snaps equally among a number of their defensive linemen. Wilson played more snaps on Sunday than he had since Week 7 and had three run stops to earn the highest grade for any Packer defender.
Indianapolis Colts @ Baltimore Ravens
Jeff Linkenbach, G, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ left guard spot has been a revolving door of disappointment all season, and it looks like that concern will carry over into the playoffs. Starter Joe Reitz has not practiced all week after being kicked in the head against the Houston Texans. Reitz’s -3.7 run block grade and 95.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency weren’t helping his rookie quarterback much, but his replacement’s numbers have been even worse.
Filling in at both left guard and right tackle throughout the season, Jeff Linkenbach has a -7.8 run block grade and 92.8 PBE. In his last start at left guard, versus the Detroit Lions in Week 13, he surrendered three quarterback hits and three hurries. Linkenbach also surrendered six pressures in his only meeting against the Ravens last season, and will need a better effort this time around to keep Andrew Luck upright.
Keep An Eye On: Billy Bajema, TE, Baltimore Ravens
Vonta Leach was the only Ravens player not to practice on Thursday, and knee and ankle injuries could force our All-Pro fullback to miss his first game since 2006. Bajema has lined up at fullback on 35 of his 133 snaps this season, but his -3.6 run block grade is miles behind Leach’s production.
Seattle Seahawks @ Washington Redskins
Josh LeRibeus, G, Washington Redskins
An ankle injury sidelined Kory Lichtensteiger midway through the Redskins’ division-clinching victory and has kept him out of practice all week. The left guard has done a good job of protecting Robert Griffin III this season with a 97.0 PBE, but his -12.7 run block grade is the worst of all Redskins linemen. The book is still out on Josh LeRibeus, whose 22 snaps in relief last week were the first of his career. The rookie backup would love to improve upon Lichtensteiger’s performance in the running game, but he’ll face a big challenge in Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane… only Henry Melton and Geno Atkins had a higher Run Stop Percentage than Mebane’s 9.7 mark this season. In a season defined by rookies stepping up in big moments, the Redskins may need to rely on one more on Sunday.
Welcome Back: Brandon Browner, CB, Seattle Seahawks
After reaching deep into their cornerback reserves the last few weeks, the Seahawks are remarkably healthy right now and will get their starting corner back from a suspension. Browner allowed a reception every 13.1 coverage snaps this season, the ninth-best mark at his position.
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