The All-22: Unsung heroes of the NFL's wild-card matchups
The postseason may be for the star-laden teams, but no squad makes it to the Super Bowl without a serious contingent of underrated players -- those "glue guys" who may not get the recognition they deserve, but make the necessary plays. And in this year's wild-card round, there are four players making incredible contributions to their teams without the top-tier name-checks.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers: Carolina OLB Thomas Davis
When talk turns to the Panthers' linebacker corps in a defense that has played in a resurgent fashion of late, the first and last subject is generally Luke Kuechly. Fair enough, as Kuechly has been one of the better players at his position since the team selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft. But Thomas Davis has a more compelling story, and the nine-year veteran is playing at a fairly torrid pace himself.
Davis is the only player in NFL history to return to the field after tearing the same ACL three times -- and he's operating at a level that belies that injury history. This season, the 30-year-old Davis has 100 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the NFL's fifth-best 4-3 outside linebacker, and he's tied with Oakland Raiders rookie Khalil Mack with 48 stops, good enough for seventh in the league. Davis isn't thrown at often, but he's proven that he has the speed and agility, as well as the short-area quickness, to cover when required.
Kuechly is the more athletic player, and he runs the defense, which allows Davis to go from sideline to sideline and bring the wood, something he's done exceptionally well throughout his career.
“That’s why I think they make such a good combination, is that touchdown understands, he gets it, and he follows Luke’s lead,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera recently said. “And I think that frees [Davis] up to really run and do the things he does really well.”
In Carolina's 13-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, Davis had 10 tackles and two stuffs on the day. Looking back, the tape shows that he was all over the place -- making Seahawks stars pay whenever they took the ball in his general vicinity.
Seattle has third-and-13 with 14:00 minutes left in the first quarter, and Russell Wilson throws a comeback route to Doug Baldwin, who's covered by Davis in the slot. Davis shows outstanding route recognition and closing speed, limiting Baldwin to an 11-yard play and the end of the drive.
With 1:31 left in the first half, Davis displayed his outstanding ability to read the play and adapt. Here, he peels off the crossing route run by Seahawks tight end Luke Willson, handing Willson off to Kuechly, and bears down on running back Robert Turbin on a quick swing pass. The play goes for two yards.
But if you want real closing speed -- the kind you wouldn't expect from a 30-year-old player with three major knee procedures -- watch this quick pass to Baldwin with 11:54 left in the game. Davis starts the play spying Wilson from the A-gap, and when Wilson throws a quick screen to Baldwin, Davis takes off like a scalded dog and makes the stop when Kuechly misses.
For Davis, the motivation to keep playing at this level, and through all the pain, is simple -- you only get so many chances at the big prize.
"There's so much I can't get back," he recently said about this season, and his career. "Now that we're making a run at the playoffs, I have to appreciate every moment. And I have to get my teammates to do the same."
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts: Bengals safety George Iloka
Transitioning from Mike Zimmer to Paul Guenther as the Bengals' defensive coordinator wasn't as efficient as the team would have liked. When he became the Vikings' head coach for the 2014 season, Zimmer took an amazing defensive acumen with him, and Guenther -- who designed a lot of Cincinnati's blitz packages as an assistant from '05 through '13 -- took a while to get his squad back on the beat. But that's turned around recently, and the Bengals are playing better on that side of the ball, just in time for the playoffs.
Cincinnati finished the regular season ranked seventh against the pass in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and the work of safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka is a big part of that. While Nelson can play effectively everywhere from the box to deep, Iloka has become one of the better coverage safeties in the league. According to PFF's metrics, no free safety has been tougher against the pass this season -- Iloka has allowed an amazing 18.4 opposing quarterback rating -- 12 receptions on 31 targets for 176 yards, three interceptions and no touchdowns -- in 1,136 snaps. Only four safeties have seen the field more this season, and to lock things down to that extent with so many chances for failure is truly impressive.
Even when you do complete a pass in Iloka's area, you generally pay for it. Here, against the Titans in a 33-7 Week 3 win, Iloka brings tight end Delanie Walker down on a pass from Jake Locker, causing a fumble recovered by end Robert Geathers.
Here's a nice coverage adjustment against the Falcons in Week 2 -- Iloka moves out to the deep safety position, and as cornerback Leon Hall covers receiver Harry Douglas in the slot, Matt Ryan fails to adjust to the coverage switch, and Iloka has an easy pick.
In a general sense, the Bengals are doing great things with zone coverage -- they completely befuddled Johnny Manziel with a series of zone pressures in a 30-0 Week 15 win, and this zone blitz against the Steelers last Sunday is as effective as any you will see. Result -- a deflected pass and a busted play. Guenther knows how to put his players in the optimal positions for success.
“Last time they came out with good energy," Iloka said this week of the team's return to Indianapolis for the wild-card round -- a place where the Colts shut them out, 27-0, in Week 7. "They came out real intense – the fans were behind them. For us and any team, when you play on the road, you want to come out early with energy to get their fans out of it. After that, it just turns into a football game and it’s kind of the best team wins most of the time. Obviously, we’re going to have to try to come out there and stop the run first and foremost and then limit the big throws so hopefully we put our team in a good position to come out with a big victory.”
It's a different defense now, but Iloka has been playing at a postseason level all year.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB Pernell McPhee
In a somewhat similar manner as Thomas Davis, McPhee gets overlooked because everyone's playing attention to Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Again, fair enough, because Suggs and Dumervil have 29 sacks between them, but McPhee is the hidden catalyst of that front seven, and he has been through all sorts of personnel changes.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, McPhee started his NFL career playing left and right defensive tackle, moving to end at the conclusion of his rookie season. When the Ravens took their second Super Bowl title in the 2012 season, McPhee got 543 snaps at left and right end. He moved to left and right outside linebacker as the Ravens' schemes changed, and he became a more featured player in 2014, amassing 7.5 sacks in 540 snaps.
McPhee's versatility makes him such an interesting and effective player -- he can legitimately line up anywhere along the front seven and bring more than credible pressure. And at 6-3 and 278 pounds, McPhee has the size and power to face up against anyone in the run game.
“[He is] smart," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of McPhee in October. "We’re blessed with a bunch of intelligent football players – he being one of them – and so you can do some things with guys when they know how to play football. They don’t memorize what you tell them to do. They understand what you’re trying to do. When you tell them, ‘Here’s how you want to attack these guys, and here’s what we want,’ rather than, ‘OK, I have to be in the A gap on this call,’ he understands why he has to be in the A [gap]. It’s just an understanding. Not only McPhee, but we have a bunch of smart, smart football players.”
None of that intelligence would make a bit of difference if McPhee couldn't take advantage with all kinds of physical attributes. Here, against the Colts in Week 5, McPhee takes Andrew Luck down with a stand-up look over center.
That's one way to bring pressure -- from the nose tackle position. How many defensive linemen do you know who can show such technique in that position, and beat an offensive tackle the caliber of Cleveland's Joe Thomas on the outside, as McPhee does in Week 17? This is McPhee in a wide-nine position, and when Thomas is late to set his stance to the outside, McPhee makes him pay.
McPhee would be a valuable enough player if he just had power against the run, but this play -- also against the Browns last Sunday -- is a great example of how well McPhee shoots gaps. Terrance West thinks he's going to get outside in a max-protect run formation, but McPhee has other ideas.
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: Detroit OLB DeAndre Levy
Among players deserving of Pro Bowl selections without actually receiving one, it's tough to argue for too many players above Levy. In 2013, he picked off six passes in a defense that required its linebackers to be more opportunistic in front of a sub-par secondary. Now, with first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin redefining Detroit's pass defense and making it one of the NFL's best, Levy has been turned loose to stop the run, to blitz for pressure, and to roam free across the field. Few are more effective.
“He’s been an outstanding performer," head coach Jim Caldwell said of Levy as the regular season came to an end. "His running to the ball and making plays has been something that’s really made a difference. He’s part of that run-stopping outfit up front that’s been exceptional and I think obviously, some of that’s tied in to the fact that they often times have to spend a little bit more time on those down guys. When they do, it gives him a free run where he can really get to the ball and he’s a guy that’s instinctive, tackles well and is tough.”
Levy finished the 2014 regular season with 151 tackles, an impressive number for a player who is technically listed as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but who you'll see all over the formation.
Here, against the Vikings in Week 6, he lines up in a blitz package between right guard and right tackle, and effectively demolishes the entire side, taking the blocking back with him to the quarterback. That's where you see Levy's burst, technique, and transition ability.
When the Lions face the Cowboys in the wild-card round, they'll have to manage TE Jason Witten. Here, against the Giants in Week 1, Levy shows how he deals with tight ends -- with coverage outside the formation, he comes back inside to jump on an underthrown route from Eli Manning to Larry Donnell.
But the way in which Levy has been most impressive this season is as a pure run-stopper, and there aren't many linebackers in the NFL who combine pass coverage and stout run-stuffing at his level. In Detroit's Week 17 loss to the Packers, RB Eddie Lacy carried the ball 26 times for 100 yards. But on the six carries in which Levy was the primary tackler, Lacy gained just 13 yards. Here, Lacy gains two yards as Levy shoots through to make the tackle, bouncing off tackle David Bakhtiari and stopping things before they could start.
Against Dallas' outstanding power-zone run game, Levy will have to play at his best.