By: Barry Barnes, Founder
The NFL is down to its elite eight of their playoff bracket, and some NFL Regional Combine pioneers are primed to help their squad get to the league’s final four.
As Minnesota’s best offensive player, Adam Thielen is now at the top of the food chain. The Pro Bowl receiver is second in the NFC and fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,276. Thielen is the first Vikings pass catcher to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in eight seasons.
Moreover, Thielen is the first player from the NFL Regional Combine to exceed a 1,000 receiving yard season.
So, what does this mean for the second season?
At this point in the 2017 NFL campaign, Thielen’s outstanding season shows the New Orleans Saints that he is a force to reckon with. Come gameday, the Saints better have a plan against Thielen to strengthen their chances for a victory and to advance to the conference title game.
“He (Thielen) can do everything you want,” Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur voiced, according to Sidelines. “He can beat bump-and-run. He can separate during the route. And he catches the ball. But when you’re around him more, you get a feel for his intangibles — his character, his intelligence, his attitude, all the things that make a guy a really good player.
We ask him to block, to move around, and he’s a good matchup for us. He’s got it all, and he was able to put it out there for us.”
Some how, some way, the Saints will utilize defensive back Chris Banjo in their scheme to oppose Thielen. Banjo ventured through the RC in 2013 and, like Thielen, Banjo was a special teams standout who earned his way into the lineup.
Pittsburgh Steelers Alejandro Villanueva has kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright for Roethlisberger to deliver passes and paved the way for running back Le’Veon Bell to dominate the ground game.
Fortunately, Villaneuva’s work did not go unnoticed as the former Army Ranger and RC pioneer was recognized as a Pro Bowler.
Villaneuva will continue to be in Pro Bowl form knowing the big bad Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense will come to Heinz Field in attack mode. While the Jaguars got the best of the Steelers during the regular season, Villanueva will lead the way to make sure Week 5’s outcome will not duplicate the Jags previous success.
Steelers defensive back Robert Golden plays sparingly with the defensive starters, but head coach Mike Tomlin will find a way to get him involved. Golden is a special player.
Jags’ rookie wide receiver Keelan Cole finished the season as the team’s leader in receiving yards. Against the Buffalo Bills during Wildcard Weekend, Cole did not catch a pass.
The Jaguars will need a better effort from Cole as this contest will be extremely physical, and look for fullback Tommy Bohanon to make a play. He has been quiet lately.
As a foretaste for the Steelers/Jaguars heart-pounding matchup, winning the battle of field positioning will be paramount.
The Steelers have the answer in Berry.
Berry finished fifth in the league in forcing fair catches with 24. His hang time is clearly one of the best in the NFL, which assisted the Black and Gold to be one of the most efficient special teams in terms of coverage. Forcing the Jags to go the distance in the elements will play a major factor for the AFC North champs.
SPECIAL TEAMS ACES S KEMAL ISHMAEL AND LB KAMU GRUGIER-HILL
Kemal Ishmael created havoc against the Los Angeles Rams’ special teams during Wildcard weekend, including recovering a loose ball. Ishmael is a physical, aggressive defensive back who anticipates ‘the big play’ each time he lines up for a return for the Atlanta Falcons.
Kamu Grugier-Hill is Ishmael’s equal for the Philadelphia Eagles. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz uses Grugier-Hill for special packages, however, he is released to execute his explosiveness during special teams or in any position Schwartz needs him.
“They’re the guys that probably wouldn’t go into a game starting, but being able to get you out of a game,” stated Schwartz in late September. “Yeah, he’s (Grugier-Hill) a guy that could do it, and we were gassing him up on the sideline, getting him ready to potentially do that (play safety).”
Both players have the potential to help determine the critical element of field positioning which will help their clubs take the lead.