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Sport Secret superstars of the divisional playoffs

05:40  11 january  2020
05:40  11 january  2020 Source:   touchdownwire.usatoday.com

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Every NFL postseason has its share of surprise performers. Whether it’s Otto Graham in the Browns’ first year in the NFL schooling the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 championship game, or L.C. Greenwood — perhaps the least-known member of the Steel Curtain front four — racking up four sacks against the Cowboys in Super Bowl X, or then-Bills backup quarterback and current Colts head coach Frank Reich authoring the biggest comeback in NFL history against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 wild-card round, or Washington running back Timmy Smith shocking the Broncos with 204 rushing yards in Super Bowl XXII, it’s just as likely that the most important postseason performance comes from a guy whose name you’re not familiar with just yet.

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This postseason is no exception, and there are all kinds of potential stars you might not know who are mere hours away from their breakout performance. Here’s one potential secret superstar for each of the eight divisional round teams this weekend.

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Minnesota Vikings: DE Danielle Hunter

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In the 2019 regular season, only Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith had more total pressures than Vikings end Danielle Hunter’s 88 per Pro Football Focus, but it seems that Hunter’s name is rarely dropped when it’s time to discuss the league’s best pass-rushers. The 6-foot-5, 252-pound LSU alum was also overlooked in the 2015 draft — considered more an athlete than a pure football player, Hunter lasted until the 88th overall pick in the third round. 16 defensive ends and outside linebackers were selected ahead of Hunter in that draft, and only Kansas City’s Frank Clark (43.0) has come close to Hunter’s 54.5 career sacks.

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Hunter also put up 1.5 sacks in Minnesota’s 26-20 wild-card win, including this sack of Drew Brees and forced fumble which greatly impacted the Saints’ chances of winning. Watch Hunter beat Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk — one of the best at his position in the NFL — with an inside move after aligning wide and forcing Ramczyk into his arc, and you’ve seen just one part of Hunter’s expansive and effective skill set.

Over the last four seasons (he started just one game and just 420 total snaps in his rookie season), Hunter has totaled 55, 68, 67, and 92 (including playoffs) total pressures, making him far more consistent than his detractors thought he would be. And with 175 career stops and 38 stops in 2019 alone, he’s a better run defender than most imagine when it’s time to do that. He’ll be a thorn in the side of San Francisco’s offensive line from the 49ers’ first offensive series on Saturday afternoon.

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Previous Vikings secret superstar: Safety Anthony Harris

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

San Francisco 49ers: DE Dee Ford

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In March, the 49ers gave Ford a five-year, $85 million contract with $20.5 million fully guaranteed and $45 million in injury protection after Ford led all edge defenders with 83 total pressures with the Chiefs in 2018. With that and the second overall selection of Nick Bosa in the 2019 draft, the reformation of San Francisco’s pass rush was complete. And when Ford and Bosa were on the field at the same time, it was very hard for opposing offenses to deal with. But Ford has missed all but four defensive snaps since Week 11 with a hamstring injury, and the 49ers’ pass rush has gone downhill in his absence.

Per NFL Research, San Francisco had a pressure rate of 36.3% with Ford, and 22.7% without. The 49ers had a sack rate of 16.3% with him, and 5.4% without. Their touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 3/4 to 20/8. The ability of Robert Saleh’s defense to get pressure without blitzing has been greatly affected by Ford’s absence, as has Bosa’s pressure production. The defense has also been racked by injuries to linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt, and the defense’s overall effectiveness has dropped to disturbing levels of normalcy.

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It is estimated that Ford, Alexander, and Tartt will all return for San Francisco’s divisional round tilt with the Vikings, and that would be huge news for a defense that can’t afford any more backslides.

What makes Ford so dangerous around the edge is a speed that most offensive tackles just can’t deal with. Here, Ford (No. 55) orbits Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein and causes a Jared Goff fumble that Havenstein has to scramble to recover. Minnesota’s vulnerable offensive line should expect similar challenges.

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Tennessee Titans: EDGE Harold Landry III

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It didn’t take long for former Boston College edge man Harold Landry to impress me once the Titans selected him in the second round of the 2018 draft — by his third regular-season against the then-Super Bowl champion Eagles, he had done enough to merit a writeup. Limited to 4.5 sacks and 34 total pressures in his rookie season, Landry put on a bit of weight for the 2019 season, adding counter moves to his repertoire, and it paid off in 2019. Under the radar in a Tennessee defense known more for its secondary, Landry put up nine sacks and amassed 56 total pressures as a major part of Dean Pees’ game plan.

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That defense will be tested to the extreme by Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on Saturday evening, but if he keeps his discipline together, Landry has the speed and agility to at least make things slightly more difficult for Jackson and Baltimore’s seemingly unstoppable offense. This adjustment from pressure to coverage against the Eagles in 2018 was a sign of that ability.

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Though Jackson presents sterner tests than any other rusher in the league when he turns on the jets, it will be fascinating to see how Landry faces off against him — as a passer to be pressured, and as a rusher to be adjusted to and (perhaps) taken down.

Previous Titans secret superstar: Safety Kevin Byard

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Baltimore Ravens: OLB Matthew Judon

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(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

No defense blitzed more than the Ravens did in 2019 — in fact, it wasn’t even close. Baltimore sent more than their base line at the opposing backfield on 54.9% of its snaps; the Buccaneers finished second by blitzing on 43.4% of their snaps. The Ravens are able to blitz so often because they’re so locked in with their secondary, they also do so because they don’t have an obvious snap-to-snap pass-rusher who can affect opposing blockers with sheer athletic talent. But Matthew Judon is the closest to that the Ravens have.

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Selected in the fifth round of the 2016 draft out of Grand Valley State, Judon has developed into Baltimore’s primary purveyor of quarterback pressure, especially with the offseason departures of Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs. He totaled a career-high 62 pressures in 2019, making his first Pro Bowl, and he’ll need to be on point against the Titans, who have one of the NFL’s best passing offenses since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota in Week 7.

This sack of Deshaun Watson in Baltimore’s 41-7 Week 11 win over the Texans didn’t come on a blitz per se; instead, it was Judon’s (No. 99) patience on a mush-rush in which he was focused just as much on keeping Watson in the pocket as he was on taking Watson down that made the difference. Judon also forced a fumble, recovered by outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

So. as much as the Ravens do blitz, and as much as that does help Judon, he’s also capable of using his athleticism to prevent big plays against the league’s best quarterbacks.

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Houston Texans: RB Duke Johnson, Jr.

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(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Selected by the Browns in the third round of the 2015 draft out of Miami, Johnson has never gained more than 410 rushing yards in a season, which he did with the Texans after he was acquired last August for a conditional fourth-round pick. The original idea, per Houston head coach Bill O’Brien, was for Johnson to get all the touches he could handle. That didn’t really happen on the ground — he just just 83 rushing opportunities despite the fact that he averaged 4.9 yards per carry — but as was the case in Cleveland, Johnson also proved to be an estimable receiver out of the backfield. He caught 44 passes on 62 targets for 410 yards and three touchdowns this season, and per Sports Info Solutions, only Oakland’s Jalen Richard and Dare Ogunbowale of the Buccaneers had more air yards among running backs than Johnson’s 49.

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In an offense friendlier to his talents, Johnson might have the potential to have an impact similar to the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey or Austin Ekeler of the Chargers. But he will be able to make a difference in this offense against the Chiefs on Sunday, either as a receiver or as a rusher. The Bills could tell Kansas City all they need to know about Johnson’s underrated ability to move through gaps and break tackles — this 19-yard run in the wild-card round is compelling evidence.

Previous Texans secret superstar: Receiver Will Fuller V

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Kansas City Chiefs: CB Charvarius Ward

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(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Evaluating cornerbacks by their interception totals is just as futile an endeavor as evaluating pass-rushers by their sack totals. You have to see the whole picture with cornerbacks — the schemes they’re in, how they’re asked to shadow receivers, and how much help they get from safeties and linebackers. Because if you look at Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward, a second-year undrafted guy out of Middle Tennessee State, and you look at his two career interceptions — both in the 2019 season — you might make the mistake of thinking that he’s just another guy in just another secondary.

Not so in either case. In the second half of the 2019 season, the Chiefs’ defense has turned from liability to strength. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a lot to do with that. Based on my own film study, “monsterback” Tyrann Mathieu has everything to do with it. But Ward has been highly prolific this season, both in the frequency and effectiveness of his appearances.

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Ward (No. 35) may not have an interception since Week 6 against the Texans, but he’s become one of the most important kinds of defenders any team can have — the island cornerback who can shut down speed receivers on vertical and boundary routes. His ability to take receivers up the chute without safety help gives Mathieu and Kansas City’s other safeties tremendous freedom, as shown on this incompletion from Aaron Rodgers to receiver Marquez Reshard Valdes-Scantling (No. 83) in Kansas City’s 31-24 Week 8 loss to the Packers. This is everything you want from a cornerback who has to break down passing plays alone — he establishes outside position, matches Valdes-Scantling’s movement, and never gives him a chance to catch the ball.

Ward allowed three catches on four targets for 32 yards, no touchdowns, and that one interception the last time the Chiefs and Texans squared off; he could be even more of a challenge for Deshaun Watson and his crew this time around.

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Seattle Seahawks: DT Poona Ford

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(Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Ford first caught my attention when he was named the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, and the Texas alum was somehow not invited to the 2018 scouting combine despite outstanding performances at both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. Ford looked especially snappy in Mobile, but the disrespect continued through the 2018 draft when Ford was not selected. No matter, though — he wound up in the perfect place for his skill set along Seattle’s offensive line. Switching primarily between one-tech nose tackle and three-tech defensive tackle looks, Ford recorded half a sack, 10 total pressures, and 28 stops in his second NFL season, turning himself into a primary cog in a defensive line that will be tasked with stopping a Packers rushing attack that ranked fourth in the league in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics.

Ford can rumble on the inside and bull through blockers, but movement skills make him exceptional in his specific roles. There are few better examples than that one half-sack, which came against the 49ers in Week 10. Here, Ford (No. 97) and tackle Jarran Reed (No. 91) run an inside game in which Reed pursues Jimmy Garoppolo through the pocket, and Ford nimbly moves with Garoppolo to author the takedown with Reid as his aide.

Green Bay running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams should keep their eyes out for Ford in unsuspected places; he’s been surprising people for years.

Previous Seahawks secret superstar: Safety Quandre Diggs

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Green Bay Packers: DT Kenny Clark

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(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

It will come as no surprise that Aaron Donald led all interior defensive linemen this season with 80 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus, because he’s Aaron Donald. But who finished second? That would be Kenny Clark, the fourth-year man from UCLA who the Packers selected in the first round of the 2016 draft. Clark finished the 2019 regular season with 62 total pressures, a career high, and when he’s on the field with edge-rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, it’s very difficult for opposing offensive lines to know where their focus should go. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lines Clark up everywhere from head-over nose tackle to defensive end, but Clark does his best work shaded to one side of the center or guard, where he can shoot off the snap quickly, use his estimable power to rag-doll enemy blockers, and terrorize opposing quarterbacks and running backs. As Clark also tied for second in the league with 31 run stops with Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett (behind only Miami’s Davon Godchaux), you know he’s also one of the league’s best inside threats when it comes time to shut down a run play.

This sack of Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in Week 15 shows the effectiveness of one of Pettine’s favorite alignments — put Clark (No. 97) at a three-technique spot, have Za’Darius Smith (No. 55) as a stand-up pass-rusher over the center, and it’s a race to the quarterback.

Seattle’s depleted offensive line will have its collective hands full with this.

Danielle Hunter | Dee Ford | Harold Landry III | Matthew Judon |

Duke Johnson, Jr. | Charvarius Ward | Poona Ford | Kenny Clark

Touchdown Wire editor Doug Farrar previously covered football for Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, the Washington Post, and Football Outsiders. His first book, “The Genius of Desperation,” a schematic history of professional football, was published by Triumph Books in 2018 and won the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Nelson Ross Award for “Outstanding recent achievement in pro football research and historiography.”

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a group of people standing on a stage in front of a crowd: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) celebrates a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 5, 2020.

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