Arizona Cardinals hybrid linebacker Deone Bucannon is the best defensive player in the NFL you’ve probably never heard of heading into Sunday night’s NFC Championship Game that pits Arizona against the Carolina Panthers.
Why is he a “hybrid linebacker?"
It's because Bucannon is 6’1”, 211 pounds and plays inside linebacker. He’s built like a strong safety and has played strong safety, but he hits like a 260-pound machine.
Ask Green Bay Packers fullback John Kuhn what happens when Bucannon gets his hands on you, per this tweet by Brian Floyd of SB Nation:
That was just one highlight of many in Bucannon’s short career with the Cardinals.
It may seem perplexing that a 211-pound man plays as an inside linebacker in the NFL, but not many 211-pound men are like Bucannon.
He's quite different.
He’s not just a hard-hitting defender.
His numbers, per Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports 910 in Arizona, also tell you just how good he really is:
The Cardinals are going to need this version of Bucannon against the league’s best team and its pending MVP on Sunday night. Along with rejuvenated running back Jonathan Stewart, quarterback Cam Newton has made the Carolina Panthers one of the NFL's best offensive units.
According to Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, per Josh Weinfuss of ESPN’s NFL Nation, Bucannon won’t be shadowing Newton on Sunday:
Even with Bucannon not serving as a "spy" on Newton, his play will dictate the action. He’s a hybrid in every meaning of the word.
If you need him in pass coverage, he can fill the role, as he was a safety when he played at Washington State.
If you need his assistance in stopping the ground game and the underneath throws from Newton, you can watch the Kuhn highlight hit to see what he can do there. He’s not the most prolific run-stopper (grading out at 74.9 on PFF’s scale), but for a second-year player grasping a new position, he’s not too bad.
“He’s built like a bigger safety, he hits like a linebacker, but he can still cover guys,” Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said about Bucannon before the season began, per Adam Green of Arizona Sports. "He’ll be great for us against the teams that check the ball down to running backs a lot, because I’m sure he’ll be matched up with running backs and tight ends in the box.”
According to Pro Football Focus, via Green, Bucannon played 705 total snaps in his rookie season last year. That total was the fifth-most out of Arizona's defensive backs.
"He's extremely fast and physical," Arians said, per Bob Baum of the Associated Press (via Fox Sports). "When you have those combinations, like Tyrann [Mathieu], it really doesn't matter the size of the package. If you have the passion, the speed and the physicalness, you'll make plays."
Bucannon's impact will be a key for the Cardinals on Sunday night. Carolina torched the Seattle Seahawks—the league's best scoring defense in the last four years—for 31 first-half points last weekend (with an assist from its own defense).
A main factor in the Seahawks' inability to stop Carolina was their front seven. There was no penetration from Seattle's front, which led to a tougher role for its stud linebacking corps.
That won't happen when someone like defensive end Calais Campbell (87.9 on PFF's grading scale) is playing the way he is up front for Arizona. Even 35-year-old linebacker Dwight Freeney has been a problem for Arizona opponents off the edge.
He'll be all over the place on Sunday, but Bucannon's job will be much easier with someone like Campbell wreaking havoc against Carolina at the line of scrimmage.
Names like Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will dominate the headlines heading into Sunday—and for good reason. Newton's the soon-to-be MVP, Kuechly is the best linebacker in the game today, Palmer had an MVP-like season and Fitzgerald had a renaissance year for the only NFL team he's ever played for.
However, with two superb teams as evenly matched as Arizona and Carolina, it will be "the others" like Bucannon that help decide who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50.
His multifaceted game and overall playmaking in all aspects of defense will be a key factor as to whether or not we'll see Arizona playing on Super Bowl Sunday.