Sunday’s slate of NFL wild-card action will feature the three best rookie quarterbacks in the league, but don’t expect the games to be all about the signal-callers.
The Seattle Seahawks boast the No. 4 defense in the NFL, and while the Baltimore Ravens have had a disappointing year on the defensive side of the ball, Ray Lewis is back in the fold for the Ravens defense.
Washington is ranked No. 30 in the league in passing defense, but the Redskins’ No. 5 rush defense will cause problems for Marshawn Lynch and a Seahawks offense that hasn’t asked Russell Wilson to air it out much this year.
Sunday’s action will feature some good defensive football, and it all starts with these players.
Ray Lewis: LB, Baltimore
Lewis missed 10 games this year with a torn triceps, but coach John Harbaugh expects Lewis to be ready to play against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday (via ESPN).
Lewis is prepared to retire at the end of the season after a 17-year career that will certainly land him in the Hall of Fame. He’s the most intense player in all of football, and he’ll be ready for a game he hopes will not be his last.
Lewis’ presence was missed by Baltimore, which finished the regular season No. 20 against the run. Lewis provides an added element of toughness in run support, and will also reclaim his role of field general and leader of Baltimore’s defense.
With so much at stake for Lewis and the Ravens, he’ll be fun to watch on Sunday. Expect Lewis to have a big impact on Andrew Luck and the Colts offense.
Chris Clemons: DE, Seattle
Clemons racked up 11.5 sacks this year for the Seahawks but tackling Robert Griffin III won’t be his main focus on Sunday.
Washington has produced a strong rushing attack with Griffin and rookie running back Alfred Morris. Morris’ hard-nosed running between the tackles has set up Griffin in the play-action passing game all season. While Clemons probably won’t see a lot of action in run defense, he will play a vital role in stopping Griffin.
Griffin is especially deadly when he can get outside the tackles. In a 4-3 front like Seattle’s, Clemons’ job is to keep contain on opposing quarterbacks and limit their ability to get outside of the pocket. If Griffin tries to scramble to Clemons’ side of the field, he’ll be the first line of defense.
If Clemons does his job, his work probably won’t show up on the individual stat sheet, but his contributions will go a long way in containing Griffin and securing a victory for the Seahawks.
Darius Butler: CB, Indianapolis
With cornerback Jerraud Powers on the shelf for the season and an already porous passing defense, the Colts need Butler to step up on Sunday.
Butler has been one of the Colts best pass defenders this season, leading the team in interceptions with four. He’s also second on the team in passes defended, and he’ll have his work cut out for him in defense of Torrey Smith.
The Ravens haven’t been a prolific passing team this year, but they also haven’t featured Ray Rice enough to limit Joe Flacco’s pass attempts. If Flacco airs it out on Sunday, he’ll likely have to look Butler’s way on many occasions.
Not only did Butler defend the pass well this year, but he also made plays with the football in his hands. Butler took two of his four interceptions back for touchdowns, and in a game that could come down to ball security, one big play from Butler could change the complexion of this game.
London Fletcher: LB, Washington
Fletcher is another familiar name who has made familiar plays all season long.
Washington’s pass defense was solid in the second half of the season, and Fletcher was a big reason for that. Even at 37 years old, he still made solid contributions in both pass and run defense.
Fletcher finished the regular season with 139 tackles, three sacks, five interceptions and 11 passes defended, all at the inside linebacker position. Washington’s 3-4 front allows Fletcher a lot of room to roam, and he’s been one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL in pass defense.
While the Redskins’ main concern will be stopping Marshawn Lynch on Sunday, Fletcher will have some opportunities to sit in man coverage and defend against Russell Wilson in the passing game. He’s instinctual and savvy, and Wilson could be in trouble if he looks over the middle of the field too often.
Sunday, Jan. 6 Schedule
The full playoff schedule can be viewed here.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens: 1:00 p.m. ET (CBS)
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins: 4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)