NFL Playoff Scenarios: 8 Defensive Studs Who Can Dominate Wild Card Round
The Wild Card Round of this season's playoffs features some explosive offensive talent. But rather than the likes of Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, it will be the talent on the other side of the ball that determines the outcome of these first postseason games.
There are a number of defensive studs, young and old, who hold the key to their respective teams' chances of success.
Here are the eight defensive stalwarts capable of leading their team to a victory in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Bengals vs. Texans: Domata Peko, NT
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The Bengals have to snuff out the threat posed by the Houston Texans' zone-based running game and place the game firmly in the hands of the inexperienced T.J. Yates.
The best way to disrupt the stretch plays favoured in the Texans zone scheme is to penetrate the line of scrimmage.
Hulking Cincinnati nose tackle Domata Peko has the strength and ferocity to overpower the Texans blockers and get into the backfield.
The 6'3", 322-pounder plays with tremendous aggression, strength and leverage. If he can routinely move the pocket and shoot the gaps, Mike Zimmer's defense may be able to shut down Arian Foster.
Bengals vs. Texans: Jonathan Joseph, CB
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Former Bengals standout Jonathan Joseph will be the key man for the Texans defense against his former team.
The Bengals may look to take advantage of the heavy use of one-on-one coverage favoured by Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
That means going deep to rookie sensation A.J. Green. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft has the size and straight-line speed to stretch any defense.
But Joseph is an excellent proponent of man coverage. His athleticism, instincts and timing are all first rate.
If Joseph wins his individual duel with Green, he will probably ensure the Texans' passage into the next round.
Lions vs. Saints: Nick Fairley, DT
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Rookie Nick Fairley can outshine his more notable counterpart Ndamukong Suh, by regularly collapsing the pocket and pressuring record-setting New Orleans Saints triggerman Drew Brees.
It has been a frustrating debut campaign for Fairley, one interrupted by a litany of nagging injuries. But the 6'3", 291-pound ex-Auburn star has the explosive power and first-step quickness to wreck the Saints' high-octane offense.
Fairley showcased his skills against the Saints in their Week 13 matchup. The young lineman got to Brees several times and was a constant threat before succumbing to yet another injury.
If Fairley stays healthy, his ability to quickly shoot the gaps and prevent Brees from stepping up will be vital for the Lions defense.
Lions vs. Saints: Roman Harper, S
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No coverage scheme will likely stop Calvin Johnson, so aggressive Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will probably rely on multiple blitz packages to hammer Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
That should present plenty of opportunities for playmaking safety Roman Harper to get hits on Detroit's passer.
Harper has overtaken the Arizona Cardinals' Adrian Wilson as the best blitzing safety in the game. Williams routinely sends the six-year veteran from all over the field.
The Lions will have to try and keep the game close against Brees and company. But if Harper can cause some turnovers, the Saints could build an unassailable lead.
Falcons vs. Giants: John Abraham, DE
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Greybeard pass-rusher John Abraham will be the key man for an Atlanta Falcons defense that must get to Big Blue signal-caller, Eli Manning.
Abraham must pose a consistent threat and enable the Falcons to harass Manning, without having to resort to heavy blitzing.
The Giants destroyed the Dallas Cowboys' blitz packages in the season finale and remain one of the league's better teams at beating additional rushers.
With Manning's quick decision-making and release, combined with the big-play capability of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, the Giants are just too dangerous on the blitz.
To make matters worse, the Falcons are not a good blitz team. Defenders don't always time the blitz well, and when they do come free, they frequently fail to bring down the quarterback.
But the Falcons can rely on a resourceful and active front four, and Abraham is the cornerstone of the group.
The veteran pressure specialist remains one of the finest technicians in the game. If Abraham can routinely take advantage of the G-Men's weakness at offensive tackle, he could hurry Manning into some decisive turnovers.
Falcons vs. Giants: Chris Canty, DT
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After having watched the Giants' pass rush wreak havoc on the Cowboys offense, the Falcons will likely rely on their power running game to stay away from the pressure and keep Manning off the field.
The Giants will need underrated defensive tackle Chris Canty to spearhead their run defense. He must generate plenty of push and be a disruptive presence at the interior of the line of scrimmage.
Canty is a capable and stout run defender, and he will be the key to forcing battering ram-rusher Michael Turner to the edges of the Giants defense and into the waiting arms of Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka.
With Atlanta's blocking schemes certain to concentrate on the awesome Jason Pierre-Paul, Canty should have plenty of one-on-one opportunities to exploit on the inside.
Steelers at Broncos: Lawrence Timmons, LB
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Lawrence Timmons could be the ideal weapon for the Steelers' legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to use to dismantle the Denver offense.
Timmons is an outstanding all-round linebacker. Lining up most often as an inside linebacker, Timmons possesses the smarts and athleticism to also pose a threat as an edge-rusher in the Steelers' fire-zone schemes.
His blitz skills can help make up for the injury problems that have affected the production of normally prolific duo James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
His primary jobs will be to help take away the inside power running of Willis McGahee and marshal underrated tight end Daniel Fells.
Timmons can play a prominent role in taking away the support structure for Tim Tebow and forcing the scrambling ace into trying to beat the league's best defense by himself.
If that happens, Pittsburgh's defenders are well coached and technically sound enough to subdue the running ability of Tebow and stifle the Broncos' main route to the end zone.
Steelers vs. Broncos: Elvis Dumervil, DE
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Elvis Dumervil can destroy the Steelers' hopes of a return to the Super Bowl by terrorising a suspect offensive line and getting to Ben Roethlisberger.
Pressuring Roethlisberger and keeping the game close will be the keys to a Broncos victory. Dumervil has the skill set to be a matchup nightmare for the Steelers offense.
The 5'11", 260-pound speed-rusher can take advantage of the shaky left side of the Steelers' front five and disrupt the timing of the dangerous Pittsburgh passing game.
San Francisco 49ers rookie Aldon Smith had a monster game in Week 15, attacking the left side of the Steelers line.
Dumervil has the explosive first-step quickness and a wide range of pass-rush moves to create similar havoc in the playoffs.
Focus Will Be on Defense in Intriguing Wild Card Weekend
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This Wild Card Weekend poses many questions for the defenses involved. Will the Bengals be able to take advantage of the Texans injuries and avenge their last gasp loss from Week 14?
Can the Texans defense possibly have enough left to carry the team for another week? Will either defense be able to make a stop in the Lions-Saints game?
Many will be anxious to see if Tim Tebow can rebound from his mini slump and produce some famous heroics against the battle-tested Steelers defense.
After being torched by Drew Brees in Week 16, the Falcons secondary will need to be at their best to even stand a chance against Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Offense has gotten most of the wild-card combatants into the postseason—but it is defense that will determine which four teams advance and which four will miss out.