The All-22: Under-the-radar stars of NFL playoff divisional round
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 divisional round, there are four players making incredible contributions to their teams without the top-tier name-checks.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC): New England LB Jamie Collins
When star linebacker Jerod Mayo went down for the season due to a torn patellar tendon in Week 6 against the Bills, many thought that the Patriots' defense would not recover. Mayo has been a stalwart performer for the Patriots when healthy since he was selected in the first round of the 2008 draft, and in the first full game without him in '14, New England's defense gave up 218 rushing yards to the Jets in a close win. Bill Belichick's usually stout defense was on the field for over 40 minutes and got pushed around to an embarrassing degree.
However, Belichick had a plan -- as he usually does. The plan involved linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, and though Hightower replaced Mayo as the team's starting left inside linebacker, it has been Collins who has become the star of that group. Mayo's importance to the team was magnified, because Belichick loves to draw up advanced blitz and stop concepts for his inside guys, and Collins has responded with aplomb. The second-year man from Southern Mississippi racked up four sacks, six quarterback hits and 16 quarterback hurries in the regular season, along with 52 total stops and an ability to cover that netted him two interceptions.
As Belichick recalled on New Year's Eve day, Collins' appeal was clear -- he's a player who can do many different things, and there are few teams who employ multi-dimensional players better or more consistently.
"Looking at him coming out of college you wouldn’t say that he was overly proficient in any of those areas. But I think you could see a lot of improvement in his play over the course of the year," Belichick said. "He's certainly grown in these two years ... he’s a smart player. He’s handled all the communication things that we’ve asked him to do. He’s got a lot of different assignments. He can go from anywhere from rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field. He’s a versatile player that can handle a lot of different responsibilities and assignments and the communication that goes with that."
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, whose team will deal with Collins in the divisional round on Saturday, echoed Belichick's endorsement.
“This guy is a budding star. He’s a guy that we really liked a lot at Southern [Mississippi]. I know [Belichick] went down there personally and worked Jamie out, and just did a great job evaluating him as a player and fitting him into their scheme. A lot of scouts didn’t know where to play him; that was the hang-up with him. But [Belichick] did, and he’s one of the top young players in football.”
This play against the Bills in Week 17 illustrates all of Collins' assets -- speed, power, and effort. Collins (No. 91) blows through the line on a delayed blitz, disregards the iffy pass protection provided by running back C.J. Spiller, rights himself to sack Kyle Orton after hitting the ground and recovers the fumble he caused in the scrum.
And here, against the Packers in Week 13, Collins does it again. He zooms through the line, wrestles the running back (this time, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy) to a different part of the field, and makes the play (another sack/fumble) with sheer effort as Aaron Rodgers first draws away from Collins and then moves back into a buzzsaw. Rodgers recovered this fumble, but the point was made. Watch how Collins times the snap, which is a crucial part of pressure against a great quarterback with mobility and a quick release.
This Week 6 interception of an Orton pass intended for receiver Marquise Goodwin at the start of the second quarter shows Collins' ability to match quick-twitch reaction time with on-field intelligence. He's in his usual position here, and he drops into coverage because he doesn't bite on the playfake to running back Fred Jackson, who stays in to block. Instead, Collins is free to drop and anticipate, which he does perfectly.
Belichick talks about how defenses have changed, with teams playing more nickel coverage as a base concept, and how linebackers have had to adapt as true half-field defenders. With his versatility and physical gifts, Collins has fit the bill tremendously, and he's as important to this defense as anyone who puts on a Patriots uniform.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX): Seattle DE Michael Bennett
The Seahawks' defense certainly gets its share of well-deserved praise; it carried the team to the Super Bowl title last season, and became the first unit to lead the league in point allowed three years in a row entirely in the post-merger era (the Minnesota Vikings did it from 1969 through '71).
The Legion of Boom secondary has its admirers, and most know the tandem of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright as one of the more estimable linebacker duos in the NFL. However, one of Seattle's prime movers on that side of the ball hasn't received the kudos he deserves, and it's primarily because he's not easily pigeonholed. Bennett plays and gets pressure all over the defensive line -- he will line up outside the tackles, as a standard end, as a LEO end and as a pass-rushing defensive tackle on a serious number of snaps every year.
And in all those gaps, Bennett is as adept at creating pressure as anyone -- in the 2014 regular season, he led all players listed as 4-3 defensive ends in Pro Football Focus' charting with 73 total pressures -- seven sacks, 13 quarterback hits and an astonishing 53 hurries. To put that in perspective, J.J. Watt had 54 hurries this season. Not that Bennett is on Watt's level -- nobody really is -- but as an every-gap player in a four-man front defense, he's just as unique. Head coach Pete Carroll loves to find unique players and make the most of their attributes, but even he was surprised by what Bennett has brought to the team since Seattle signed him before the 2013 season.
"Mike has been a really good player -- what a great pickup for us," Carroll told me on Tuesday. "He’s been so active. He’s brought us a real style of play. This is a classic guy that we talk about -- he has a uniqueness about him. We’ve tried to place him to amplify that. He can play end and he can play tackle and he can rush from anywhere on the field."
That became especially true when defensive tackle Brandon Mebane was lost for the season in early November to a hamstring injury. Veteran Kevin Williams and second-year man Jordan Hill stepped in to fill in, but Hill is now out for the playoffs with a calf injury, and that could have the Seahawks looking to throw Bennett back into that five-tech tackle position -- because he has an unusual knack for creating havoc inside for a man his size (6-4, 274 pounds). And as Carroll said, this is all about technique.
"He’s an extraordinarily savvy player," the coach said. "He senses what’s going on. He has a kind of feel for plays and blocking schemes that allows him to take advantage of getting in the crease and avoiding and slipping a block, crossing a down block and things that take years to teach players. He’s got a real knack for that. We allow him to have some freedom to do those things because otherwise, you’d restrict him and he would be a 280-pound guy that might be getting knocked around. He gives you problems because he doesn’t give you a good target and that’s because of his awareness. He’s got terrific quickness to do too to do that."
One of the more unusual ways in which Bennett has brought pressure in recent weeks comes out of a formation created by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Bennett will line up outside the tackle, close in formation to another defender (usually defensive end Cliff Avril) and stunt off the snap. When Seattle does this on one side, and puts two linebackers on the other with a similar stunt package, offensive line confusion has generally been the result. Here's a Bennett sack of Mark Sanchez in Seattle's Week 14 win over the Eagles -- you can see Bennett (No. 72) and Avril lined up outside over right guard Andrew Gardner and right tackle Lane Johnson. The idea of this formation is to turn a guard into a tackle from a pass protection reaction standpoint, and Gardner doesn't do too well taking the bait. One little rip move, and he's done.
"Well, we know that Mike is going to slip some blocks at times," Carroll said, when asked how Bennett's sound technique allows freedom in the defensive structure. "He’s going to take the opportunity to penetrate. He had a great one last week. He hit him in the backfield early in the game when he released on a play. He sensed a play was going away and he took a shot within his gap control, so we allow him to do those things. Some guys we wouldn’t trust to do it at the right time. Mike has great sense about how to maximize those opportunities."
The play Carroll refers to happened with 8:49 left in the first half of Seattle's regular-season finale against the Rams. Bennett read something pre-snap that had him shooting between the right tackle and right guard as if he were a linebacker on a blitz, and he stopped running back Tre Mason for a four-yard loss as the blocking went away from him. The speed it takes to make this play is highly unusual for a man Bennett's size.
Bennett is one of the better defensive linemen in the league when it comes to splitting and timing gaps in blocking, but he's also got the pure strength to stand up against multiple blocks and still make stops. Watch this play in Week 8 against the Panthers, who Seattle will face in the divisional round this Saturday. Bennett takes on a double-team and beats it, then rips past tight end Brandon Williams, to take Jonathan Stewart down after a three-yard gain.
Stewart, who has had to deal with Bennett each year in Bennett's current iteration as a Seahawk, and formerly when Bennett was with the Buccaneers, minced no words when asked about his value to any defense.
"Just how agile he is for his size," Stewart told me. "Him and Cliff Avril -- the way they’re able to get off the ball and get to the quarterback is obviously, something you’re aware going into a game. Those guys are great players."
Indeed, and it's time for Bennett to get his due recognition as one of the more unique defenders in the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX): Green Bay DE Mike Daniels
This isn't the first time I've touted Daniels as an underrated asset to Green Bay's defense, and I'm certainly not alone -- most of those in the know will tell you that the versatile Daniels has been a key part of the Packers' plans in sub packages for a while. The 6-1, 292-pound lineman dropped to the fourth round of the 2012 draft because many teams didn't know where he'd fit. But he's been great as an end in Green Bay's base packages and as a tackle on passing downs. Blessed with the strength to move men 40-50 pounds heavier than he is and the technique to move around them, Daniels came into this season as one of the NFL's more intriguing defensive players.
Safe to say, he's lived up to that promise. In the 2014 regular season, Daniels logged career highs in total snaps (696) and starts (16; eight at left end and eight at right end). He put up 5.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 24 hurries, making him one of the more disruptive base 3-4 ends in the game.
Neither head coach Mike McCarthy nor quarterback Aaron Rodgers were surprised by Daniels' ascent; they both called it before the season even began.
"Mike is one of the all-time attitude-type players that you just love having on your football team," McCarthy told me in early September. "He’s one of the individuals that’s here year-round, working out, just can’t get enough of it. His passion, his love for football, and his work ethic -- it all just lines up and this is the result."
"He really took a jump between years one and two, and we expect him to take another jump between two and three," Rodgers added. "He’s a talented guy. He’s a leader and he doesn’t have your prototypical defensive line body; he’s a little shorter, but he makes up with it with a really high motor. He’s a tough guy, he can get off blocks, shed blocks, rush the passer well. He uses his hands pretty effectively. He’s the guy that gets our defense going."
Like Bennett, Daniels brings a strength/speed combo to the field that is unusual for his size. Here, in Green Bay's Week 17 win over the Lions, Daniels (#76) absolutely exhausts Detroit left guard Rob Sims on the way to a sack of Matthew Stafford that essentially killed any last-ditch efforts the Lions may have wanted to try.
And here's end Mike Neal and Daniels making sport of the blocking efforts of left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Dan Connolly, respectively, in Green Bay's Week 13 win over the Patriots. Perhaps the Cowboys, who the Packers face this weekend, should put more than one guy on Daniels in obvious passing situations -- left guard Ronald Leary has been surprisingly consistent in pass protection this season, but a little help never hurts.
Daniels can chase and close against the run, too -- here he is in the Packers' season opener against Seattle, shrugging off the comical cut-blocking attempt put forth by Seahawks right tackle Justin Britt, and moving with quickness across the field to stop Marshawn Lynch for a two-yard gain.
I hypothesized in September that if Daniels ever had a season with 700-800 total snaps, the Packers could have a Pro Bowler on their hands. That didn't quite happen this season, but Daniels has played consistently at that level.
It may be a stretch to call Harris underrated at this point -- in the last month, he signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension with a $10 million signing bonus, and was named to his first Pro Bowl. But given the versatility Harris displays on the field, what he's come back from, and how he's not frequently listed among the NFL's best cornerbacks in casual conversation, it might be time for a refresher course. Harris suffered a torn ACL in Denver's divisional-round win over the Chargers last January, but showed no ill effects in the 2014 season -- in fact, he was more versatile and important to the team than ever.
The undrafted fourth-year defensive back out of Kansas played 1,004 snaps in the regular season, allowing 46 receptions on 89 targets for 356 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 47.8 opponent quarterback rating, per Pro Football Focus' metrics. And in the slot, where he's been amazing since he came into the league, Harris was by far the league's best -- he allowed 20 catches in 32 targets for 143 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a 59.8 opponent quarterback rating. Green Bay's Casey Heyward finished second in slot opponent quarterback rating with 70.5 (tied with Pittsburgh's Brice McCain) and only Indianapolis' Vontae Davis had a lower overall passer rating. Given the difficulties most cornerbacks have in alternating between the slot and outside, the Broncos were essentially getting two cornerbacks in one. Or maybe more.
"He's played really not only left, right and in the slot as a nickel but he's also played some safety," Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Harris last week. "He's done a little bit of everything. Guys that are tough and smart with the way he approaches and studies the game and the way he performs -- it just allows you a lot of flexibility. [He] is a great asset for our defense."
Harris, who has allowed just one passing touchdowns in the last two seasons total, was one of the Broncos' better personnel moves, when you consider where he came from and what he's accomplished. He was ranked 30th in NFLDraftScout.com's rankings for his position in the 2011 draft class, and they had him listed as a free safety.
"You look at what Chris did last year and one of the things that kind of goes unsung is the fact he’s probably been the fastest guy to ever come back off an ACL," Broncos EVP John Elway said at the Dec. 15 press conference announcing Harris' contract extension. "You look at what he did, the time that he spent this offseason, to get healthy and be ready to go, and be ready to start the regular season. I’m not sure anybody has ever come back as fast as he’s come back, so that kind of tells you what kind of guy he is.”
One of the on-field attributes that makes Harris the kind of guy he is, is the kind of closing speed you need to eliminate yards after catch -- this is crucial for any slot corner who will frequently face receivers with openings up the middle on intermediate routes. Here, Harris (No. 25) stops 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin in Denver's Week 7 win over San Francisco. Boldin takes a quick screen from Colin Kaepernick out of bunch left, and before Vernon Davis can even start to block, Harris has taken Boldin down for a one-yard loss.
Harris and batterymate Aqib Talib will have to deal with Colts speed receiver T.Y. Hilton this weekend in the divisional rematch of Denver's Week 1 win. In that game, Harris once again showed his ability to close on this seven-yard comeback from Andrew Luck to Hilton. All cornerbacks give up plays, but the great ones know how to limit the damage.
I love this interception of a Kyle Orton pass to Robert Woods in Denver's Week 14 win over the Bills, because Harris has outside position at the snap, but he rounds and cuts off the route at the last second. That's a great combination of quickness and route awareness.
Harris won the Broncos' Ed Block Courage Award this season for his recovery from that ACL Injury, but even without that story in place, Harris deserved all kinds of kudos for expanding his game, while retaining the things that made him so valuable in the first place.