Who are these guys helping NFL teams?
Nov. 22, 2014
J.J. Watt tears it up on defense.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady tear up defenses.
Same old same old in the NFL, you say? Then you aren't paying much attention.
Across the NFL, while many superstars are doing their thing, a wide range of obscure players are having a major impact.
Not just on the offensive line, where anonymity is a given, but even at high-profile positions such as linebacker and running back. Step up and take a bow Justin Forsett, Chris Borland and Connor Barwin.
Grab some applause Mike Adams, Brandon Marshall (the Denver linebacker version) and Mohamed Sanu.
Soak in some praise all of you blockers for the Cowboys and Chiefs. You've earned it.
From Barwin's versatility in Philadelphia to Borland's rapid ascent in his rookie year in San Francisco, there are "Who Dats" in lineups across the NFL playing important roles.
"I think Connor has a great feel for just the game," Eagles coach Chip Kelly says of the six-year veteran having the best season of his career.
"I think he's a very, very intelligent player, but he's also got some overlap. He was a great basketball player (at Cincinnati). I think he's got an understanding, got a real good sports mind, he understands how things develop and how things are going ... to stay a step ahead in terms of where it's going to go."
Where Barwin has gone is to the top of the NFC sacks ledger with 10 1-2, trailing only Chiefs LB Justin Houston's 12 for the league lead. Barwin's performance is a big reason why the Eagles are tied with Dallas atop the NFC East at 7-3.
With DeMeco Ryans hurt, Barwin has really turned up his game. In a 45-21 victory against Carolina, he sacked Cam Newton 3 1/2 times.
"I think I'm a better player than I was last year," Barwin says.
Impossible to argue with that.
Same for Forsett, who has plugged a huge hole in Baltimore. The Ravens lost Ray Rice, of course, first to suspension before they released him. Bernard Pierce did not pick up the slack, but Forsett sure did.
In fact, he's already outdone Rice's production from 2013 with 721 yards rushing, has scored five touchdowns, and his 5.4-yard rushing average is tops among running backs.
All that from a guy who is with his fifth team in his seventh season.
"I feel like the sky's the limit," Forsett says. "We still can improve in some areas. I know I can improve in some areas. I just want to push this thing as far as I can go."
Sometimes, players get pushed into the lineup because of lack of production by those ahead of them. Or because of injuries to teammates.
Not much could have been expected of Borland this year in San Francisco because he joined perhaps the best linebacking group in the NFL.
Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks weren't going anywhere, Aldon Smith was serving a nine-game suspension but was being counted on to step back in and be a pass rushing force. Dan Skuta had displayed playmaking skills whenever he got on the field, and there was hope that All-Pro NaVorro Bowman would recover from a ghastly knee injury suffered in the NFC title game and play sooner rather than later.
Borland bided his time, and now that he's a regular, the third-round pick from Wisconsin is exceeding all expectations.
"It's a lot easier when you have veterans in front of you and behind you," Borland says. "They help guide you so you can go out there and just play.
"I think it's a luxury to play with guys like that. This is an established defense, and it's a blessing to be part of it."
Justin Smith, who has seen just about everything in his 14 pro seasons, lines up on San Francisco defensive line without worrying who is behind him: Willis, Bowman, Aldon Smith. He's found he doesn't have to worry about the kid wearing No. 50, either.
"He's come in and made plays every game," he says. "He's got to be in the running for defensive rookie (of the year)."
Adams has been around for 11 seasons and is with his fourth team, the Colts. His six takeaways this season, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries, are tied for the NFL lead.
"Turn the ball over, that's the main goal that when we go into games, that's what we tell ourselves," Adams says. "That's what we drill in each of our heads as a defense."
What gets drilled into the heads of fans each and every week is a lot of bluster about the big stars of the game. Sometimes, it's a good idea to take a look at the "Who Dats?"
Coaches and general managers already know who they are.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Schuyler Dixon contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL