The All-22: Marvin Jones, Corey Liuget among hidden gems for the AFC's wild-card teams
In our last All-22 article, the focus was one Achilles heel that could upend each division leader. But now that the playoffs have started, everyone's 0-0, and everything's hunky-dory, it's time to flip the narrative to the positive, and take a look at one player on each wild-card team who could surprise in the first round of games. We'll start with the AFC.
Cincinnati Bengals: Receiver Marvin Jones
The Bengals redefined their offense by selecting receiver A.J. Green in the first round and quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft. Green has been Dalton's security blanket ever since, and he's firmly established himself as one of the NFL's best receivers. But in 2013, a second-year receiver by the name of Marvin Jones started to make his own mark as a real weapon. A fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Cal, Jones repaid the Bengals' faith in him by catching 10 touchdown passes this season, and none were more impressive than the 16-yarder he caught in the first half of Cincinnati's 34-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday.
We've already chronicled that one, but Jones came within a pass-interference penalty of making an even more spectacular scoring play in the Ravens game. With 13:40 left in the game, the Bengals had first-and-10 at the Baltimore 15-yard line. The score was tied, 17-17, and Dalton went up top for Jones, who had beaten cornerback Jimmy Smith in the end zone for what had the potential to be an impressive leaping touchdown catch. However, Smith was all over Jones on the play, and the resulting penalty put the ball at the Baltimore 1-yard line. Dalton punched it in on the next play, but Jones had once again established himself as a real threat -- especially given the fact he almost managed to make this catch despite Smith's best (and most illegal) efforts.
The Chargers' porous pass defense will have its hands full not only with Green, but with a second receiver in Jones who has shown graphic improvement in his sophomore season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive lineman Tyson Jackson
When the Chiefs selected Jackson in the first round of the 2009 draft, they were transitioning between 3-4 and 4-3 concepts, and it took a while for the 6-foot-4, 295-pound LSU alum to make a real impact. He's done so as an end in Bob Sutton's defense this year predominantly as a run-stopper, but he can also break free at times to provide pass pressure. His first of two sacks against the Washington Redskins in a 45-10 Week 14 win exhibited Jackson's impressive motor and unwillingness to give up on the play even when the quarterback -- in this case, Robert Griffin III -- is making him work hard for it.
The Redskins had first-and-10 at their own 47-yard line with 2:46 left in the first half. Jackson was lined up as the strong-side end between right tackle Tyler Polumbus and tight end Logan Paulsen. Griffin ran play-action to running back Alfred Morris and rolled right. He kept rolling right, looking for targets, and Jackson chased him down despite the fact that he had first moved to Griffin's left, reacting to Washington's slide protection. From there, it was up to Jackson to chase down one of the league's fastest players -- which he did for a one-yard loss out of bounds.
On his second sack of the day, Jackson was taken outside and behind the pocket at the snap, but shot back up as Griffin rolled around. Jackson won't always look like a speedster, but he's got the ability to make effort plays. That makes him an underrated threat in the postseason -- especially against Indianapolis' offensive line in the wild-card round. Jackson had three tackles and two run stops when the Chiefs and Colts met in Week 16.
Indianapolis Colts: Linebacker Jerrell Freeman
In 2012, first-year Colts general manager Ryan Grigson hauled in all kinds of talent in the draft, and he added an important defensive player outside of that draft in linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Freeman had played for the Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, had a cup of coffee with the Tennessee Titans in 2008, and ran with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League from 2009 through 2011. He started 15 games for the Colts in 2012, amassing 90 tackles, two sacks, and an interception. This season, he's been even more effective, with 83 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and two interceptions -- including one against that Titans franchise that had once released him.
Last time Freeman suited up against the Chiefs team that the Colts will face in the wild-card round, he won the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week award in Week 16. In that game, he had five tackles, forced a fumble, racked up a sack, and intercepted Alex Smith. It's the interception that may be most worthy of focus, because it illustrates how much more effective Freeman has been in coverage this season.
With 10:02 left in the game and the Colts up 23-7, Kansas City had the ball at the Indianapolis 15-yard line. Freeman was lined up on the strong side of the formation, shadowing tight end Anthony Fasano from the snap. Fasano tried to shake Freeman out to the numbers, but it didn't work -- he covered like a veteran, and made a great play on the ball. One would assume that the Chiefs will be watching Freeman very closely in the rematch.
San Diego Chargers: Defensive lineman Corey Liuget
There's no question that the Chargers made the playoffs this season in spite of their defense -- and yes, that blown call in the Chiefs game didn't hurt, either. San Diego's defense ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for the season, and outside of safety Eric Weddle, just about everyone on that side of the ball has underperformed. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget, selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft, has had an up-and-down year. But when he's on, Liuget can provide inside pressure and stop the run with effectiveness. The sack he picked up last Sunday in San Diego's overtime win over the Chiefs showed off Liuget's strength, speed, and technique.
Now, it should be said that this sack came against a Chiefs team resting most of its starters, as it had already wrapped up the fifth seed. Still, Liuget impressed. The Chiefs had second-and-5 at their own 40-yard line with 9:55 left in the first quarter, and Liuget was lined up between left tackle Donald Stephenson and left guard Rokevious Watkins. At the snap, Stephenson leaked out to deal with linebacker Melvin Ingram, leaving Liuget on Watkins. He gave Watkins a great rip move and headed with good speed to sack quarterback Chase Daniel. Liuget has six sacks, nine quarterback hits, and 23 hurries this season, and the Chargers will need his best if they're to match wits with the Bengals this weekend.