Week 16 was dominated by two defenses who lit up the opposing offenses so completely that they barely needed anything from their own offenses to win the game. Players from those two teams litter our Team of the Week to the exclusion of strong performances by the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Danny Trevathan. On the flip side there isn’t a single player from either of the #1 seeds as both Carolina and New England put in arguably their poorest performance of the season so far in losing efforts. So who did make it? Well there are some familiar faces and some you couldn’t pick out of a line-up. We start with one who has surprised many this season…
Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Of all the teams to win the NFC East this season Washington were the one people had the hardest time seeing, but the emergence of Kirk Cousins has been a big reason that they are now the division champions. Sure, he took a knee at the end of the 2nd quarter when he meant to spike the ball but apart from that brain fart he was deadly. Cousins completed 67% of his passes as he sliced and diced the Eagles defense. What made his performance all the more impressive was the total lack of run game; The Redskins managed just 3.4 yards a carry all day.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
It may have only been 4.7 yards a carry on sunday for AP but it was as impressive as ever. He made 3 jump cuts in quick succession for the best 4 yard gain you’ll ever see late in the 1st quarter. He reversed field and created his own lane on one play and his touchdown came from winning an almighty collision with Jasper Brinkley at the goal line. The only reason he didn’t get more than 104 yards is that the game was so out of hand that by the middle of the 3rd quarter he was getting put back in the box ready for next week. There were a lot of hard yards for Williams in Baltimore. His blocking was inconsistent at best and non-existent at its worst and yet he managed 100 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground along with 53 yards on 6 catches as an outlet for Big Ben. DeAngelo Williams has been reborn with the Steelers and looks more like the 1,500 yard back from 2008 than he has done in a long time.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
Jones showed just what a professional receiver can do against Josh Norman. No fuss, no post-whistle nonsense, just quality play. Jones caught 5 passes on Norman for 80 yards. When it wasn’t Norman on him Jones was a monster, the main highlight was his catch over Luke Kuechly’s head for a 70 yard touchdown that would put the Falcons ahead for good and hang the first loss on Carolina. Marshall out-played what has been a strong Patriots secondary on Sunday. He hauled in 8 of his 10 targets for 115 yards and 2 scores as he physically dominated Logan Ryan and Daron Harmon. The majority of his catches were either jump balls or adjustments to the ball in flight, the most impressive being his first touchdown as he hooked a go route underneath Harmon to get position on a poor throw from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
Back to back Team of the Week appearances for Jordan Reed as he took apart the Eagles defense for 9 catches, 129 yards and 2 touchdowns. Reed split zone coverage over the middle for his first touchdown and then beat Kendricks with a hard stutter step before breaking across the field for his second. And it wasn’t just on his routes where Reed won against the Eagles, he has become a much better run blocker compared to this time last season. He’s no Witten or Gronkowski but is effective enough that it’s now a positive part of his game.
Trent Williams, Washington Redskins Tim Lelito, New Orleans Saints Weston Richburg, New York Giants Ryan Jenson, Baltimore Ravens Kyle Long, Chicago Bears
No, Williams wasn’t perfect against the Eagles. He allowed one sack to a Fletcher Cox bull rush but Cousins didn’t have any pocket to step into so I’m loath to pin that all on Williams. Outside of that one play though he was a rock for Washington. His performance was all the more impressive given that in 48 drop backs he only gave up that one play to a strong array of Eagles pass rushers. I can forgive some lax pass protection if I’m getting epic run blocking at the guard position, and that’s what Lelito did against the Jaguars. A few pressures here and there as he lacked a touch of quickness in pass protection but when the Saints ran behind him he produced nothing but brutal blocking at every level. A good day for Richburg was masked somewhat by a terrible day from the rest of the Giants offensive line. As Eli Manning got tossed around by pass rushers Richburg kept the top of the pocket as clean as possible. He helped burst open some space for Rashad Jennings early on but as the game got out of hand the running plays disappeared. Normally when I put a Baltimore game on I’ve got one eye on Marshal Yanda but this week it was quickly apparent that the Ravens other guard was having a stormer. Jenson was getting consistent movement in the ground game – including on the winning score – and getting to the second level with devastating effect. He pancaked a pursuing Ryan Shazier on a play in the 3rd quarter to put an exclamation point on his day. Long was a very good guard last season and the move to right tackle hasn’t been smooth and easy. Sunday was by far his best day though as he was almost perfect in pass protection – the main aspect of tackle play that has caused him problems – and was his usual strong self in the running game.
Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals Ian Williams, San Francisco 49ers Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams William Hayes, St. Louis Rams
Arizona’s defense killed Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night. The main offender was Campbell who’s first half display was truly dominant. He picked up 2.5 sacks on Rodgers – which amazingly didn’t lead the team – and was a crushing presence against the run. Campbell started the onslaught against Rodgers and by the time the rest of his teammates started getting home the damage was already done. Nose tackles rarely make our Team of the Week because their job is to make others look great. Very rarely will they do much other than absorb blocks and eat up space in the middle of the field. A handful will do enough to break out from that stereotype though, and Ian Williams looks like being the next one. While the rest of the 49ers are already thinking about their off-season plans Williams was dominating the middle of the field, making 6 tackles and batting a pass as he made very good players like Larry Warford look foolish. Aaron Donald might not have picked up a sack on Sunday but he was the first man to pressure Wilson on an incredible number of plays. He was simply too fast for the interior of the Seahawks line as he blew up play after play and forced Wilson into the arms of his team mates. He is THE dominant defensive force in the NFL at the moment and should be a shoe-in for a string of accolades at the end of the season. Normally it’s Robert Quinn who is embarrassing Seattle blockers and leaving Russell Wilson lying, but with Quinn on the shelf it was William Hayes who did the damage. 3 sacks, 6 QB hits and 4 tackles for loss and he dominated his edge all day with ease.
Akeem Ayers, St. Louis Rams Deone Buccanon, Arizona Cardinals Dwight Freeney, Arizona Cardinals
If you can’t tell already St. Louis’ front seven had a fantastic day against Seattle. Ayers got in on the sack action, picking up a half but his main contribution came in the open field. He scored the Rams first touchdown of the day when he scooped up a fumble, threw off would-be tacklers and rumbled his way 45 yards to the end zone. He batted away one pass, made some great tackles on the running backs and was a handful for blockers all day. The other dominant defense of the day was Arizona so it’s no surprise to see multiple players in our Team of the Week. Buccanon – a safety in college – is perhaps the smallest linebacker in the NFL but he holds his own against the run and is an enormous asset in coverage. He broke up one pass and was the main reason Richard Rodgers was held to just 1 catch for 2 yards on 3 targets as he blanketed the tight end for most of the day. He also got in on the fun with one sack. Listed as a linebacker these days and seeing limited snaps Dwight Freeney rolled back the years as he dominated on every play he had. 3 sacks and countless more hurries, he generated a fumble which was taken back for a score. He also drew 3 penalties as he effortlessly beat Don Barclay over and over. His spin move sack in the 3rd quarter was as fast and beautiful as ever.
Delvin Breaux, New Orleans Saints Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Lost in the awfulness of the Saints defense as a whole is an impressive rookie campaign from Breaux. On Sunday he allowed 2 catches all day while forcing 2 interceptions. The first getting his hand to a ball that eventually ended up with Bobby Richardson and the second he claimed himself. While the world falls in love with Marcus Peters and Ronald Darby we shouldn’t forget Breaux’s superb rookie campaign. Speaking of Peters, he had a stellar day as well. Allowing just 2 completions for about 20 yards all game he got his hands on 3 passes, one of which he held onto for an interception. He’s been marvelous throughout the Chiefs 9 game winning streak and deserves his Pro Bowl invitation.
Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals
A welcome return to the field and our Team of the Week for Smith as he showcased his talents all night. He made plays at the line of scrimmage and 30 yards away from it. He deflected one pass and read Eli Manning like a book before descending on a go route to Ruben Randle and taking it back the other way for 6. He may have missed out on the Pro Bowl due to injuries at the wrong time but he’s one of the best around at the moment. Nelson continued his excellent season with a stand-out display against the Broncos. He dominated the deep middle of the field as he broke up 2 passes – both of which he nearly intercepted. Then in overtime he kept the Bengals alive by laying out Owen Daniels at the goal line. Not only did he jar the ball loose for an incompletion but doing so while avoiding the helmet to helmet flag that many other safeties would take when presented with an old school kill shot opportunity.