Secret Superstars: Divisional Playoffs
After a lackluster opening to the playoffs in the Wild Card round, the weekend widely regarded as one of the best in the sports year didn’t disappoint. With an instant classic in Denver, the comeback that nearly was in Atlanta and Colin Kaepernick’s highlight reel heavy performance in San Francisco, there were plenty of talking points from the divisional round of the playoffs.
That’s not news to you though, you spent your weekend consuming football from every angle and you probably saw those highlights countless times. So what about those lesser known players that gave their team the edge in a way that got our attention?
Like last week we’re again taking one Secret Superstar from each game in the divisional round. Here’s who made the grade this week.
Justin Bannan – DT, Denver Broncos
While the Denver Broncos’ season came to an end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, the play of defensive tackle Justin Bannan impressed us, as he reverted back to his early-season form against one of his former teams. A fifth-round draft pick out of Colorado back in 2002, Bannan has produced some under-the-radar performances throughout the five seasons we have been grading players. This season he has had just four negatively graded games yet, for much of the season, he failed to show much beyond average. That changed on Sunday, however, as he turned in his best performance of the season.
As a pass rusher Bannan registered just one hurry from his 17 pass rushing snaps, giving him a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of just 4.4. He did, however, manage to bat down a pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on 1st-and-10 with 51 seconds left in the first overtime period, giving him two total disruptions on the day. Where he really excelled though was against the run. Playing 31 snaps in run defense, Bannan made five solo tackles, with all five resulting in a defensive stop which earned him a Run Stop Percentage of 16.1%. He got the better of left guard Kelechi Osemele throughout the game.
T.J. Lang – OG, Green Bay Packers
As the Green Bay Packers crashed out of the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, there isn’t too much you can say to lift the spirits of Packer fans at this point. One aspect of the game which was impressive however, was offensive guard T.J. Lang’s play, particularly as a pass blocker. In a season that saw him start at left guard and right tackle in Green Bay, Lang’s year can be best described as up and down, with both his best and worst performances of the year coming at right tackle. On Sunday we saw Lang put in his second-best game of the year at left guard.
With a Pass Blocking Efficiency rating of 100.0, he was one of five guards to have a perfect game in pass protection over the weekend, shutting down 49ers pass rushers on all of his 43 pass-blocking snaps. As a run blocker he had a mixed day, with three positively graded plays cancelling out two negatively graded ones. That shouldn’t take away from a day that saw him perfect in pass protection however, the third time this season he has achieved such a feat.
Zach Miller – TE, Seattle Seahawks
Another player who shone in a losing effort was Seattle Seahawks tight end Zach Miller, who gave the Atlanta Falcons’ defense problems all game long in Sunday’s early matchup. A second-round draft pick back in 2007, Miller’s performances had been on the rise toward the end of the season, but, in racking up 142 receiving yards, he had more yards through the air in one game than he had in the previous five contests combined.
Despite running just 12 routes from the slot, it was here he was most effective, pulling in receptions on all five of the passes thrown his way for 85 yards, good for a Yards Per Route Run average of 7.08. His good work wasn’t limited to the slot however, as he picked up both a touchdown and a nice diving catch on 2nd-and-10 with 1:37 left in the first half from a standard tight end position.
Shane Vereen – HB, New England Patriots
In the weekend’s final contest provided a stage for another New England Patriots player to show his versatility, with second-year running back Shane Vereen stepping up with a three touchdown performance that put the Houston Texans to the sword. A second-round draft pick a year ago, Vereen had struggled to make much of an impact this season, apart from his 83-yard touchdown catch against the New York Jets.
That changed on Sunday however, as he became a big part of the Patriots’ game plan. Seeing six passes thrown his way, compared with just 10 total in the regular season, Vereen pulled in five receptions for 83 yards and two scores, forcing a missed tackle and averaging 16.6 yards per catch in the process. As a runner he may not have forced any missed tackles, but he still averaged 5.9 yards per carry, including an average of 2.9 yards after contact per carry, while running for another score. His third touchdown of the game was also his most impressive, beating linebacker Barrett Ruud downfield to haul in a perfectly thrown pass by quarterback Tom Brady on 1st-and-10 with 13:13 left in fourth quarter, ultimately sealing the game.
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