The NFL playoff field is set — an eclectic mix of high-powered offenses (the Rams score a league-best 29.9 points per game) and stingy defenses (the Vikings allow a league-low 15.8 points per game), hotshot rookies (league rushing leader Kareem Hunt) and Hall of Fame locks who have been playing forever (Tom Brady), postseason regulars (Steelers) and teams that haven’t been to the playoff party in a long time (Bills).
Since they say defense wins championships, that means there are some defensive backs whose play will mean a lot in determining how the road to the Super Bowl is paved.
Here are six defensive backs from the AFC to watch in the NFL playoffs:
Malcolm Butler, CB, New England Patriots
The thing about going from being an underdog to being a champion is that expectations change. And if you don’t keep improving as those expectations grow, what used to be applauded can become seen as a failure.
Butler made himself famous when he snagged the goal-line interception that clinched New England’s Super Bowl victory in 2015. At the time, Butler was an undrafted rookie reserve whose big play was a total Rocky moment. The next season, Butler became a starter and was voted to the Pro Bowl. In Year 3, he helped the Patriots win another Super Bowl while being named All-Pro.
So going into this season, Butler faced the expectations of a legit star cornerback. And according to many observers, he’s been subpar. When he was an unknown, undrafted rookie, it would have been considered great for him to start for perhaps the best team in the league and put up 60 tackles to go with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Now that Butler is a star being held to star standards, those numbers weren’t good enough to avoid being described as erratic and disappointing by writers who cover the Patriots.
According to Pro Football Focus’ evaluations, Butler graded 48th overall among cornerbacks this season. In his previous two seasons as a starter, he was 25th and 22nd. Meanwhile, the Patriots finished the regular season 30th out of 32 NFL teams in fewest passing yards allowed, giving up 251.3 per game.
Despite the shaky secondary play, New England is 13-3 and has a first-round bye as the AFC’s top seed. None of the teams the Patriots might face in the divisional round (Chiefs, Titans, Bills) have particularly good passing offenses. But the Steelers are looming as a potential AFC Championship game opponent, and the NFC has some prolific passing teams that could make the Super Bowl.
In other words, Butler hasn’t had a great season by star cornerback standards, but he needs to step it up in the playoffs and play like the star he has become.
Joe Haden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
After eight seasons in the NFL and two Pro Bowl nods, Haden is finally making his playoff debut. In his first seven years with the Browns, Haden had never even been on a team with a winning record.
When the Browns surprisingly cut Haden in training camp last summer, the Steelers quickly scooped up their former AFC North rival. He quickly became one of Pittsburgh’s most important players as they secured the No. 2 seed in the conference.
In 11 games this season — he missed time with a broken fibula — Haden notched 20 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception. While he was out of the lineup, the Steelers struggled to replace him with rookie Cam Sutton and career backup Coty Sensabaugh. And when No. 2 corner Artie Burns was forced into being the No. 1 corner, he had problems with some of the league’s top receivers.
Haden returned to the field in Week 16, just in time for the Steelers’ defense to get back into rhythm for the postseason. After getting a first-round bye, Haden’s next receiver matchup could be anybody from the small and speedy Tyreek Hill (Chiefs) to the bigger and more physical Rishard Matthews (Titans).
No matter the opponent, Haden’s next game will be the first really important game of his NFL career.
A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
After spending his first three years with the Texans as a backup, Bouye broke out in his first stint as a regular starter in 2016. That happened to be a contract year, and Bouye happened to turn that into a five-year, $67 million deal with the Jaguars.
This season, Bouye was named a Pro Bowl starter, recording 53 tackles and six interceptions. He and second-year standout Jalen Ramsey (also a Pro Bowl starter) give the Jaguars the best corner tandem in the league, surpassing Denver’s Aquib Talib and Chris Harris.
Facing an already banged-up Bills offense in the AFC wild-card round, Bouye’s biggest challenge will likely come in the form of 6-foot-5, 245-pound receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Bouye is listed at 6-feet, 190 pounds. While Ramsey is bigger, Bouye is more polished and has playoff experience.
But if Jacksonville’s coaching staff decides to put Ramsey primarily on Benjamin, then Bouye can line up against a lesser-talented receiver and put his exceptional ball-hawking talents to use.
Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
After two stellar seasons to begin his pro career, Year 3 for Peters was defined more by controversy than his play on the field — a callback to his college days at Washington, when “character issues” almost overshadowed his talent.
In 2015, his junior year at UW, Peters was suspended and eventually kicked off the team. That made him one of the most polarizing players in his NFL Draft class, but the Chiefs gambled on him with the 18th overall pick.
Peters made that bet pay off, as he won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (the first DB to win it since Charles Woodson in 1998) and was a Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro pick in his second season. He was good again in 2017, racking up 46 tackles, four forced fumbles and five interceptions while helping the Chiefs win the AFC West title.
But Peters made more headlines this season for things that happened on the sideline and off the field.
As one of the first NFL players after Colin Kapernick to protest during the national anthem — Peters has vacillated between raising his fist, sitting on the bench, riding an exercise bike, or staying in the locker room during the song — Peters was at the forefront of the heated nationwide debate over athletes and political protests.
During a loss to the Jets in Week 13, Peters flew off the handle and threw a referee’s penalty flag into the crowd and got into an argument with a coach. For that, he was benched and the team later suspended him for a game. (Peters was suspended for a similar incident in college.)
But even those who would be hesitant to bring Peters into their locker room have to acknowledge his talent. Nobody in the NFL has had more interceptions than Peters (19) since his debut in 2015. Over the past 25 years, only Ed Reed and Richard Sherman had more interceptions in their first three seasons.
Adoree Jackson, CB, Tennessee Titans
Jackson was so good as a multi-dimensional threat at USC that he didn’t get enough credit for his skills in the bread-and-butter department of his primary position. He can return kickoffs and punts; he can catch passes as a receiver; he can run the ball. Whenever he touches the ball on defense, offense or special teams, he can score. What almost gets lost is that Jackson can be a shutdown coverage cornerback.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson ranked fifth among NFL corners this season in lowest catch rate on contested passes, at 28.6 percent. Jackson broke up 17 passes, forced three fumbles and made 70 tackles in his rookie year, helping Tennessee make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
In the wild-card round, the matchup between Jackson and Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill should be one of the most fun to watch this postseason. They are two of the fastest players in the league — both have legit track speed — and both can swing the momentum of a game with one play.
Micah Hyde, SS, Buffalo Bills
The prototypical NFL strong safety hits hard enough to be a linebacker, is strong enough to play close to the line of scrimmage and stop the run, plus fast and agile enough to cover receivers.
Hyde isn’t the prototypical strong safety — he’s that plus a little bit more. Not many strong safeties would be pegged to return kickoffs and punts, but Hyde was doing it regularly for the Packers during the first four years of his pro career, and he returned a few punts this season with the Bills.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Hyde was voted a 2018 Pro Bowl starter. He recorded 82 tackles, 13 pass breakups and five interceptions — all career-high numbers — while helping the Bills snap their 17-year playoff drought. ESPN’s Matt Bowen, who played safety in the NFL for seven years, called Hyde the best ball-hawk safety in the league this season.