We know on and off the field, the playoffs will be dominated by the conversation around quarterbacks. How those passers play will overwhelmingly impact team success and shape the outcome of the playoffs. So while we’ll spend a lot of time on those guys, let’s focus on some non-quarterbacks who could make a sizable impact in the postseason. This isn’t necessarily the best non-quarterback on these teams, but players whose contributions could play a meaningful role.

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2022 Playoffs record: 26-10 (72%)
Super Bowl record: 25-10 (71%)

Zac Taylor, HC, Cincinnati Bengals

Ok, so we’re already cheating a little bit here because the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals matters because of how he controls how often the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals gets used.

Over the past two weeks, the Bengals have relied heavily on the pass and it’s worked out pretty well. Joe Burrow threw for 971 yards and 11.4 yards per attempt in Weeks 16 and 17 as the Bengals combined for a pass rate 17% over expected on first down and 15% over expected overall, per rbsdm.com. Through Week 15, the Bengals threw 7% below expectation on first down and 2% below expectation overall. Over those two weeks, Burrow has averaged 0.52 EPA per play, TruMedia, which led all quarterbacks. The next best quarterback sat at 0.35. 

Cincinnati can also use that volume to get the most out of their explosive plays. Even as the passing game has hit its peak, the Bengals have relied more on those big plays than consistent down-to-down efficiency. For as high as Burrow’s EPA has been over the past two weeks, he ranks seventh among quarterbacks in success rate. 

Against the Chiefs in Week 17, the Bengals did so much of their damage on go routes, which doesn’t leave a high completion probability, but they worked out fairly well. 

 


Burrow finished the season with the highest on-target rate on throws of 20+ air yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. Having those one-on-one situations on the outside, allows the Bengals to keep deep shots as part of their quick game. When Burrow releases the ball under 2.5 seconds, 8.3% of his throws travel at least 20 air yards, the fourth-highest rate in the league.

The Bengals are likely to go by how much Taylor allows Burrow to take over. We’ve seen it with some of the top teams in the AFC and now against the Raiders — a team that ranks 21st in pass defense DVOA and 10th against the run — it could be the key to Cincinnati’s first playoff win in 30 years. 

A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans

No player changes the structure of the Tennessee offense more than A.J. Brown. It’s not just that the Titans are better with Brown on the field, but the way Ryan Tannehill plays completely alters. With Brown, the Titans push the ball down the field more and Tannehill is quicker with his passes.

Ryan Tannehill with and without A.J. Brown, 2021

SplitEPA/DBComp%aDOTYPAPlay-action%Att within 2.5sec
w/ A.J. Brown0.0968.5%8.067.9129.9%51.6%
w/o A.J. Brown-0.0965.4%6.475.7628.1%58.1%

*data provided by TruMedia

At its best, the Titans offense runs on in-breaking routes of play-action. That’s where Brown wins most often and has been a go-to for Tannehill, especially this season. Among 57 players with at least a 15% target share on the season, Brown was sixth in yards per route run.

Brown gives the Titans a big physical target in the middle of the field, which has been necessary without other options throughout the season. That also highlights part of the problem for the Tennessee offense. Without other legitimate threats on the outside (Julio Jones could get an honorable mention in this space), the middle of the field has been more clogged for Brown.

Last season, Brown averaged 6.1 yards after the catch per reception. This season, while getting targeted about a half-yard further down the field, that yards after the catch figure has been cut to 3.94, which ranks 37th among those 57 players with at least a 15% target share. Still, Brown being able to make those plays over the middle is what has often made the Titans offense run in 2021.

Trevon Diggs, CB, Dallas Cowboys

Diggs has been a polarizing player to talk about this season and that’s exactly why he’s here. It’s impossible to talk about Diggs without his interception total. The man can pick off a pass. But a problem for Diggs and the Cowboys defense can be the other plays.

Among 91 cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps, Diggs ranks 90th in yards allowed per coverage snap according to data from Sports Info Solutions. That obviously is not great. But the interceptions do matter and we can factor those in.

Pro-Football-Reference has a formula for Adjusted Yards that incorporates touchdowns and interceptions. Even using that formula, which significantly adjusts for interceptions as the equivalent of -45 yards, Diggs still ranks 48th. Compare that to a corner such as J.C. Jackson of the New England Patriots, who has been targeted often (83rd in targets per coverage snap) but doesn’t give up many big plays and his interceptions keep him ranked eighth in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap.

The sustainability question for Diggs’s interceptions is more for 2022 and beyond but it comes into focus in the short sample of the playoffs when one big play either way can shift the entire outlook of a game.

Opponents have not been afraid to target Diggs and have even tried to take early advantage of his aggressiveness. Take the early double move the Arizona Cardinals ran with A.J. Green on a third-and-long that went for 42 yards on Arizona’s opening drive in Week 17.

Volatility that brings high-level upside can be a positive in the playoffs. Balancing those high leverage plays with down-to-down consistency has been the story of Diggs’s season so far. 

Rodney Hudson, C, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona brought in a number of veterans in the offseason and there might not have been a more important addition than center Rodney Hudson, who was brought in for a third-round pick. (J.J. Watt is also up there, with a return for the playoffs possible.) 

Hudson’s presence on the offensive has helped with protections both pre- and post-snap. When Hudson was out in the middle of the season, Kyler Murray had a slight drop in play. Murray has averaged 0.12 EPA per dropback with Hudson on the field and 0.01 without him. The timing of Murray’s dropbacks was also thrown off in both in the quick game and extending plays. With Hudson on the field, 57.2% of Murry’s pass attempts happen within 2.5 seconds of the snap. Without Hudson, that was 52.2%. With Hudson, 35.9% of Murray’s dropbacks extended past three seconds and that dropped to 32.3% without him.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Hudson had the second-lowest blown block rate among 38 centers with at least 400 snaps and one of three with a blown block rate under 1%. Hudson was also one of five centers in that group without a holding call — and the only center with a sub-1% blown block rate and no holdings.

On 148 combined snaps against the Los Angles Rams this season, Hudson had just one blown block — a 0.6% blown block rate — which came on a run. The Rams do move Aaron Donald along the defensive line, so the responsibility of blocking the league’s most dangerous defender was not solely on his shoulders.

Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This might be one of the most obvious inclusions here, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Last season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rode a stacked and healthy lineup to a Super Bowl victory. Luck, among other things, has not been on Tampa Bay’s side this season and Evans will enter the playoffs as the last receiver standing from a three-wide set that entered the season as one of the league’s most dangerous groups.

With all three of Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown on the field this season, Evans was third in the pecking order with a 16.2% target share and 1.07 yards per route run, per TruMedia. In the small sample of Evans routes without both Godwin and Brown on the field, Evans’s yards per route run jumped to 2.92 (though only on a 12.4% target share). 

The Buccaneers are still trying to figure out how to replace Godwin inside (that just might be Rob Gronkowski, who has been the go-to in that scenario). Tyler Johnson has flashed and had a 13.3% target share without Godwin on the field (second on the team), but just 1.1 yards per route run.

For the Tampa Bay passing offense to sustain throughout the playoffs, Evans might have to be relied upon to up his volume while keeping his non-Godwin/Brown efficiency. It’s back to an alpha role he hasn’t completely taken over in a while. For a long time, the Buccaneers had to rely on Evans, and Evans alone, to make a play. He still has a little more help on the field now, but he should be the top target for Tom Brady and this passing game throughout Tampa’s playoff push.

Adrian Phillips, S, New England Patriots

The Patriots always tend to figure out how to get the most out of their secondary. Perhaps there has been no better example than the play of Adrian Phillips. Phillips spent six years with the Chargers as a part-time defensive player and core special teamer (a Pro Bowler in 2018) but he’s emerged as a key piece of the New England defense this season.

During the regular season, Phillips played 82% of the defensive snaps and moved all around the defense. Per PFF, Phillips aligned for 38.4% of his defensive snaps in the box, 15.9% at the line of scrimmage, 13.5% in the slot, and 13.4% as a deep safety.

New England has played 74% of its defensive snaps in nickel and another 17% in dime this season. With Phillips able to play well downhill and in coverage, the Patriots can still match up well against multiple offensive personnel groupings no matter how many defensive backs are on the field. 

Phillips’s ability to play well all over the defense helped open up things for other players on the defense. The Patriots were also able to run some three-safety looks with Phillips, Devin McCourty, and Kyle Duggar on the field at the same time. Per TruMedia, on 478 plays with those three all on the field, the Patriots allowed 4.66 yards per play. Only one defense all season allowed under 5.0 yards per play. 

Few safeties in the league played coverage against tight ends better than Phillips. Among 33 safeties with at least 10 targets against tight ends, Phillips’s 1.1 yards allowed per coverage snap was the best in the group, along with a 23.1% completion percentage allowed, per SIS.

Byron Pringle, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

After a strange start to the season, the Kansas City passing offense eventually rebounded. Even at the high points, opposing defenses have been using more resources to focus on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. That’s consistently left an open opportunity for another pass catcher to play a big role, but the Chiefs have struggled to find a player to fill that void.

Since the Chiefs’ Week 12 bye, Pringle has been the third-most target player on the team with a 14.1% target share, per TruMedia. Over the past three games, Pringle leads the Chiefs in targets. Those targets have been hit or miss, but the big plays have been huge. That’s been especially true on deep passes.

Pringle tied with Mecole Hardman for targets on passes of 20 or more air yards during the regular season. Pringle ran fewer routes and had more production when he was targeted. His 5.23 yards per route run on deep routes was just slightly behind Hill’s (5.57) and well adobe Hardman’s (3.82).

Over the final stretch of the season, Pringle had some more work in the short game, second on the team for targets between 1-10 air yards behind Kelce since the bye. He also had some red zone work, which resulted in two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16.

Any of the Kansas City receivers could potentially play this role — including Demarcus Robinson — but Pringle has been in the position to do so throughout the regular season. The Chief can and have won relying on their two star receivers, but having that third option in the offense would bring a whole new dynamic to the offense.

Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers haven’t had Jaire Alexander on the field since Week 4, but he should be ready to take the field for the playoffs. Green Bay’s defense has been inconsistent this season but the Packers have strung together an average pass defense that ranked 15th in DVOA. That came with a mixing of cornerbacks that included rookie Eric Stokes, Chandon Sullivan, Kevin King, and Rasul Douglas

King has already been removed from his early-season starter role, but the addition of Alexander allows the Packers to both keep a fresh defensive back rotation and push the rest of those corners down a spot in responsibility. The question, of course, is exactly how that rotation will be set, especially on the outside.

Over the second half of the season, Stokes has stayed to mostly one side of the field after moving around earlier in the year. He ranks 46th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap among 90 corners with at least 300 coverage snaps. Getting there as a rookie is an impressive feat but he’s likely to be the player replaced most often by Alexander on the outside.

Douglas and Sullivan have been stellar in coverage. Douglas has played outside opposite Stokes and ranks sixth in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap, thanks in part to five interceptions. Sullivan has played in the slot and ranks 10th.

Last season, Alexander ranked 23rd in AYa/CS and had the lowest completion rate allowed (40%) among cornerbacks. Alexander’s immediate impact could be huge for a pass defense that has the potential to get better and will likely face a gauntlet of good passing offenses throughout the NFC playoff bracket.

Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams-Odell Beckham pairing didn’t have the smoothest takeoff but Beckham has worked his way into the structure of the offense and has regained a bit of his form with two fewer touchdowns scored in eight games with the Rams than in two and a half years with the Browns.

Beckham was supposed to be a luxury when he initially signed in Los Angeles but Robert Woods’s torn ACL made Beckham take on a bigger role. Over the past few weeks, that role has turned into trust for Matthew Stafford to target the receiver in high leverage situations. On the Rams’ final drive against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, Stafford went to Beckham for a big fourth-and-5 conversion and followed that up on the next play with a connection for a seven-yard touchdown that won the game.

Since Beckham’s first full game with the Rams in Week 12, he has the third-highest target share in the league on third down (34.3%), per TruMedia. Beckham has as many targets on third down (22) as he does on first and second down since Week 12.

Part of that comes from more man coverage on third downs. On early downs, 90% of Beckham’s routes have come on some type of zone coverage. On third down, that drops to 57.1%. It’s easier to be on the same page on those plays with Beckham still able to beat corners one-on-one. Some of the miscommunications between Stafford and Beckham have come on those early downs.

Getting on the same page on early downs could help cut down on some of the bad Stafford plays, but Beckham’s addition has already been a positive one in some of the biggest moments.

Micah Hyde/Jordan Poyer, S, Buffalo Bills

So we’ll cheat again here at the end with two players for the Bills because it’s nearly impossible to talk about one of Buffalo’s safeties without the other. This has been the best safety duo in the league on one of the league’s best defenses. 

The defense will be key because the offense will rise and fall with Josh Allen. Allen finished the season ninth in EPA per dropback but it took a winding road to get there. There were a few big games, but also eight with negative EPA. The Bills want to be a pass-heavy offense and they ranked third in neutral early down pass frequency, per rbsdm.com,

Buffalo’s defense also ranked 32nd in Variance by Football Outsiders, but the unit still finished the season first in DVOA overall and against the pass. A big reason has been the safety play. Per SIS, the Bills split between a two-high (55%, 11th) and single-high alignment (43%, 18th) pre-snap with a similar spit in their post-snap rotation. Buffalo runs a two-high coverage 42% of the time, which ranks sixth among defenses.

Those split-safety coverages have aided the best deep passing defense in the league. Buffalo has allowed just 7-of-35 passes of at least 20 air yards to be completed against them in 2021, easily the lowest rate in the league. Opposing offenses averaged 6.1 yards per attempt on deep throws and just 15 yards per game.

The coverage on the backend has helped the rest of the secondary, especially since the injury to Tre’Davious White. Since White’s injury, the Bills have used a two-high shell 57% of the time (10th) with a two-high coverage 43% of the time (ninth). Buffalo has also stayed as one of the heaviest man coverage teams (ninth) as corners Levi Wallace (11th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap) and slot corner Taron Johnson (fourth) have stepped up.