Every postseason has unheralded heroes. And when the games become more important, those contributions from under-the-radar players can often make the difference between contention and elimination. With that in mind, and the divisional playoffs in sight, here's one player from each of this weekend's games we think could have a major impact for the first and second seeds in each conference.
Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett
When the Seattle Seahawks signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Michael Bennett to a one-year, $4.8 million deal on March 15, it was an under-the-radar deal that should not have been. Bennett was undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2009, and he was actually released soon after he was signed by Seattle that year -- he was one year too early for Pete Carroll, and the coaching staff at the time didn't know how best to use him. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Bennett, and it took him a couple of years to find his groove. In 2012, Bennett was one of the NFL's best pressure defenders -- per Pro Football Focus, he amassed 14 quarterback hits and 48 quarterback pressures in 985 snaps in 2012, ranking sixth among 4-3 defensive ends in PFF's Pass Rush Productivity metric. Bennett was just about as valuable for the Seahawks in 2013, ranking ninth in PRP with 8.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 39 hurries.
However, and as we detailed in September, Bennett's real value is that he can being pressure from anywhere along the line -- from wide-nine end to one-tech nose tackle. Thus, the man Seattle originally acquired to be a situational swing tackle became one of the most important players for the NFL's best defense.
“He had shown versatility that he could play inside and outside, but I didn’t appreciate how constant he is effort-wise," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said back then. "I didn’t have that sense about him watching him on film, but he is a relentless football player. You love guys like that — he’s going to get everything out of every play. He takes some chances. He’s a risk taker in his rushes, in his playmaking, and in the running game. He’ll make some mistakes at times, but he’s also going to make some huge plays. I think it’s the intensity that he brings; we were surprised at that. That shows up and that’s a great asset.”
When Seattle beat the New Orleans Saints 34-7 in Week 13, Bennett didn't register a sack -- but his pressures helped the Seahawks' defense force Drew Brees into no completions on eight attempts of 15 yards or more. And it was his pressure of Brees with 13:53 left in that game in which he beat right tackle Jahri Evans -- perhaps the league's best player at his position -- that showed how Bennett doesn't need quarterback takedowns to make a difference.
The Saints had fourth-and-10 from the Seattle 32-yard line and down 34-7, they were just trying to make anything happen. Bennett first lined up straight over Evans, and then moved out to right tackle Zach Strief. At the snap, he gave Evans a head-on charge with a bull move, and then slipped around to rush to Brees. Strief was dealing with end Cliff Avril, so he was no help. Bennett's pressure forced Brees to unload early to tight end Jimmy Graham near the end zone, but this was basically a punt. Linebacker K.J. Wright had Graham dead to rights, and safety Kam Chancellor was coming over to help with coverage. Brees and his offensive line had best keep a sharp eye on Bennett during Saturday's divisional playoff rematch.
Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris
Over the last two seasons, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris has been one of the more versatile, effective and unheralded pass defenders in the NFL. In 2012, his 68.2 opponent passer rating ranked second on the team, just behind Champ Bailey's 67.3. And when you're in the same ballpark as a future Hall-of-Famer, that's not bad for a second-year undrafted free agent. Harris was especially effective in the slot as a nickel defender, which is a big deal on a defense facing offenses passing more than usual to play catchup with Peyton Manning. In the slot, Harris gave up a 60.0 opponent rating, and allowed 29 catches for 269 yards on 51 targets. Only Green Bay's Casey Hayward was more effective in the slot.
Harris continued his excellence in 2013, despite the fact that Bailey was dealing with injuries through most of the season and Denver's overall pass defense regressed as a result. He allowed a 65.6 passer rating on 393 slot snaps, and didn't give up a single touchdown while registering three interceptions. He also upped his game on the outside, allowing a 64.9 rating overall.
What makes Harris so good in the slot is that he understands quick route concepts, and he can react immediately to receivers who reverse course in short, open spaces. He'll be a big part of Denver's defense as the Broncos try to get past the San Diego Chargers this Sunday. In Week 10 against the Chargers, he repeatedly frustrated receiver Eddie Royal in the slot with deflections and stops as Philip Rivers tried to forward drives with short passes. That started pretty early in the game -- Harris had a great breakup of a pass from Rivers to Royal with 10:37 left in the first quarter.
San Diego has second-and-15 from its own 44-yard line. Royal motioned from left to right and tried to fake Harris out by bailing outside after a quick slant inside. Harris was too quick and read the route too well, and he batted the pass away.
The Broncos won that Week 10 game, 28-20, but lost their only home game of the season to the Chargers, 27-20, five weeks later. In anticipation of Sunday's game, Harris still feels the sting of that loss.
“Even from the first game -- I go back and watch the first game -- they run the same plays they ran the second game," Harris said of the Chargers on Friday. "We just didn’t execute it right. Every team, they’re going to hide it and try to get back to the same play. But we just have to be aware of what they like to do. Even from the first game, we shut some of the stuff down, but they still came back and ran it again the second time. We just didn’t execute it right.”
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short
"You think you know, but you don't know, and you never will."
Jim Mora's famous rant always comes to mind when I grievously misevaluate a college player in his transition to the NFL, as I did with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short. When I watched Short's 2012 tape, I saw a 6-foot-3, 300-pound lineman who at times had the strength and burst to make plays past offensive lines, However, I also saw a player who was trucked by more powerful linemen and tended to give up on plays far too often for my liking. When I finished my evaluation of Short, I pegged him as a third-day player who would struggle to make an impact in the NFL.
Fortunately for the Carolina Panthers, general manager Dave Gettleman was far smarter. Gettleman went into the 2013 draft eager to reinforce Carolina's defensive line, which he did with authority by selecting Utah's Star Lotulelei in the first round, and doubling down on Short in the second. Gettleman referred to "Hog Mollies" in mid-April when talking about the kinds of defensive tackles he wanted.
“Big men allow you to compete," he said. So we’re certainly going to look at the big Hog Mollies. We have an interest in those guys. Those big guys are line-of-scrimmage changers.”
Short has proven to be that type of player at the next level. Carolina uses him in a rotation to keep him fresh, and the results have been impressive -- 1.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 24 quarterback hurries and 20 stops over 528 snaps in his first regular season. Short hasn't registered a sack since Week 5, but the more you watch tape, the more you see the value of quarterback disruption -- and Short can bring that without sacks. He did so against the Saints in Carolina's 17-13 Week 16 win by prompting an early throw from Brees to Jimmy Graham that led to a Luke Kuechly interception with 4:34 left in the third quarter.
The Saints had third-and-10 from their own 36-yard line. At the snap, Short took left guard Ben Grubbs from the three-tech position and pushed toward Brees, who had moved to the right. When Brees stepped up in the pocket, Short was waiting for him along with end Greg Hardy-- and Kuechly was undercutting Graham's route with perfect timing.
New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan
The New England Patriots have suffered through roster attrition on both sides of the ball this season, and the fact that they enter the 2013 postseason with a 12-4 record and the AFC's second seed is a tribute to the job that Bill Belichick has done with his charges. As much as Tom Brady has defined New England's offense in a difficult season, Belichick has done one of his best jobs as a defensive mastermind by mixing veteran and young players to form a defense that has been required to pull more of the weight than in recent years.
One player who has proven worthy of Belichick's trust in a big hurry is rookie cornerback Logan Ryan. The Rutgers alum had anywhere from a second to fifth-round grade among various media analysts, and there were some who simply wondered who Ryan was when New England jumped with the 83rd overall pick. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, and without overwhelming trail speed, Ryan had learned to use his intelligence and instinct to make himself faster in a football sense. And he thrives in Belichick's complex defenses from the start. Ryan's 53.3 quarterback rating allowed is the NFL's second-best this season -- only Seattle's Richard Sherman has made life more difficult for enemy signal-callers. Ryan has allowed just 27 catches in 53 targets for 372 yards, with five interceptions and three touchdowns. In addition, he's a fine blitzer from the slot -- he understands how disguise coverage looks and read plays to anticipate when it's best to peel off and go after the quarterback.
"I think that was a big strong point of Logan’s," Belichick said of Ryan's football acumen on Dec. 23. "He was a very productive player in college. I think that a lot of the league-wide, a lot of the interest and the grades on him were high relative to his production. I think probably what hurt him a little bit was his 40 time at the combine [4.53], just in terms of where he was drafted.
"But as we’ve seen this year throughout the year, it’s not only ball skills but I’d say an awareness or an instinctiveness, if you will, in terms of when to look for the ball, having an awareness of the ball being thrown and near his location and anticipating routes and being able to react to those routes sometimes a little bit before the ball is thrown and in some cases, maybe if he’s reading the quarterback a little bit before the receiver can get into his breaks. He’s had a number of plays like that, both in games and throughout the year in practices where you see his awareness and his instinctiveness, his understanding of the passing game and kind of getting that little one half step, split-second jump on the play. That’s shown up. He’s got good ball skills and good hands. I don’t think that’s ever been a question. But I think it’s that awareness and instinctiveness that’s obviously so hard to teach but it’s something that he just naturally does."
Ryan's best day in coverage came in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, when he picked off two of Joe Flacco's passes in a 41-7 thrashing of the defending Super Bowl champs.
The first of those two interceptions came with 8:28 left in the first quarter, when Ryan followed Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones across the field and caught the ball one-handed after linebacker Dont'a Hightower deflected it. This is one of Ryan's primary assets as a player -- again, he isn't going to outrun any speed receiver by 10 yards, but he knows how to keep close coverage.