Secret Superstars: Divisional Round
Widely regarded as the best weekend in the NFL season, the Divisional Round of the playoffs failed to deliver the same excitement as the previous week, with neither the San Diego Chargers or the New Orleans Saints able to complete their attempted comebacks, and the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers failing stay close enough to even attempt one.
Still, the weekend did bring us some big performances from big time players, with Peyton Manning tying his previous high grade in a playoff game and Cameron Jordan and Michael Bennett having huge showings on the defensive line. It wasn’t just the players you know all about who had impressive performances, however, with four Secret Superstars stepping up for their respective teams.
Your Divisional Round edition of Secret Superstars features a rookie offensive tackle in New Orleans, a linebacker and cornerback in New England, and a defensive lineman in San Francisco.
Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
Though they saw their season come to an end at the hands of the Seahawks, New Orleans did at least get the best performance so far from their expected left tackle of the future, Terron Armstead (+4.4).
After the mauling left tackle Charles Brown took at the hands of St. Louis Rams Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn in Week 15, the Saints made the switch to Armstead, whom they drafted out of Arkansas – Pine Bluff in the third round of last April’s NFL Draft. After a baptism of fire in Week 16 against Greg Hardy and the Carolina Panthers, he turned it around with a strong showing the next week. That performance against Tampa Bay was impressive, but not as impressive as how well he played on Saturday night in Seattle.
With a perfect Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating of 100.0, Armstead completely shut out opposing defenders as a pass blocker. It was the first time he’s achieved that in his short career, made all the more noteworthy given how talented a defensive line it came against. However, his big day wasn’t just limited to his play as a pass blocker, with Armstead contributing solidly against the run too. That included his block on linebacker Bobby Wagner on 2nd-and-4 with 2:00 left in the third quarter, where he got to the second level quickly to ensure Wagner wasn’t getting near running back Mark Ingram.
When all was said and done, Armstead was close to a mistake-free game, with just one negatively-graded play throughout. More importantly for the Saints, they look to have found themselves someone who will be a key contributor in 2014 and beyond.
Tony Jerod-Eddie, DE, San Francisco 49ers
As has been the case for the past few years, there’s plenty to get excited about on the San Francisco defense. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald continue to perform well on the defensive line, while they boast our two highest-graded inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
As important as they all are, they were also buoyed by a solid showing from reserve defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie (+2.3) in Sunday’s win over the Panthers. An undrafted free agent a year ago, Jerod Eddie has become an important part of the 49ers’ defensive line rotation, playing 428 defensive snaps throughout the regular and postseason after playing just 10 snaps in his rookie year.
A brief glance at the boxscore won’t tell you much about how well he played with the sack on 1st-and-10 with 7:11 left in the game serving as his lone statistical output. However, he also had a big impact in one of the most important sequences of the game, as the 49ers stopped the Panthers at the goal line. On 3rd-and-Goal with 14 seconds left in the first quarter he got the better of left guard Travelle Wharton, forcing running back Mike Tolbert to go airborne, where Willis was able to keep him out of the end zone.
Jamie Collins, LB, New England Patriots
As the New England Patriots took care of the Colts with the kind of methodical performance we’ve come to expect from them, they did so with two big performances from a pair of defensive players. The first was Jamie Collins (+7.4), who delivered an inspired performance well beyond anything else we’ve seen from the second round draft pick in his rookie year.
Eased into the line up in his first year in the league, Collins had to wait until Week 14 before he was even playing 50% of the team’s defensive snaps. In Saturday night’s win, though, he was on the field for all 66, putting forth one of the better performances by a linebacker all year.
He graded positively against the run, in coverage and as a pass rusher but it was his versatility that showed the most, with Collins seeing snaps at outside and inside linebacker, in the slot, and even covering outside receivers.
His sack, two hits and two hurries from just nine pass rushing snaps gave him a Pass Rushing Productivity Rating of 36.1, including blowing past running back Donald Brown for a sack on 2nd-and-8 with 3:05 left in the third quarter. His play of the game came on 1st-and-15 with 12:55 left in the fourth quarter. Stepping in front of the pass by quarterback Andrew Luck after taking a deep drop into coverage, Collins was able to return the ball inside Colts 20-yard line, setting up the touchdown that gave the Patriots a 21-point lead.
Alfonzo Dennard, CB, New England Patriots
The second Patriots player to step up was Alfonzo Dennard (+4.0), who featured as a Secret Superstar as a rookie last year. A seventh-round pick out of Nebraska in 2012, Dennard established himself as a starter for most of the 2013 season, though he failed to find similar success to that of his rookie year at times. That changed on Saturday night as he celebrated the third playoff game of his young career with his highest graded game so far.
Targeted 10 times in coverage, he did allow a big play in the form of the touchdown to LaVonn Brazill on 1st-and-10 with 4:43 left in the first quarter, but generally came out on top throughout the contest. His two pass break-ups were impressive enough, but he added two interceptions too.
The first of those came on 3rd-and-2 with 13:53 left in the first quarter. Getting good contact in press coverage, he was able to cut the route off, with Luck forcing the throw despite the good coverage. Not content with that, Dennard came close to returning it for a touchdown, with only a diving tackle by Luck stopping him from reaching the end zone.
Follow Gordon on Twitter.