NFC defensive backs to watch in the NFL playoffs

Ronald Darby

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 NFC to watch in the NFL playoffs:

***** *****

Ronald Darby, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Following two better-than-solid seasons with the Bills to begin his pro career — including being named Pro Football Focus NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 — Darby seemed on the way to stardom in Buffalo.

Then this past summer, the Bills surprisingly traded Darby to the Eagles in an effort to upgrade their offense. In his first game with his new team, Darby injured his ankle and missed the next nine weeks. By the time he returned, the Eagles were on a seven-game win streak. Working a new player into the starting lineup when a team is on a roll can be a challenge, even if that player is very talented. Fortunately, the Eagles won their first two games by blowout with Darby back in the mix, and finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

In eight appearances Darby has totaled 34 tackles, nine pass breakups and three interceptions.

Darby’s highlight of the season came in Week 16, when he picked off Raiders QB Derek Carr in the final minute of the fourth quarter to set up Philadelphia’s go-ahead field goal. That victory clinched the top seed and a first-round bye for the Eagles.

Next up for Darby and the Eagles will be a matchup with a formidable offense; either the Rams led by RB Todd Gurley, the Saints led by QB Drew Brees, or the Panthers led by QB Cam Newton. Darby’s presence will be especially crucial since the team’s No. 2 corner, Jalen Mills, has been banged-up and struggling in recent weeks.

***** *****

Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith, FS, Minnesota Vikings
The closest thing the NFL has currently to Troy Polamalu is a hard-hitting, ball-hawking defensive hell-raiser who makes plays all over the field. In one series, Smith can be in the backfield bringing down a running back, dislodging the football from a tight end across the middle, then intercepting a pass deep down the field or making a touchdown-saving tackle.

Smith, a Notre Dame product, is a two-time Pro Bowler who many fans and media believe was snubbed in this year’s voting. He racked up 78 tackles, 12 pass breakups, five interceptions and 1.5 sacks, leading a Minnesota defense that allowed a league-low 15.8 points and 275.9 yards per game.

Smith showcased a lot of his arsenal in the Vikings’ 16-0 win over the Packers on Dec. 23, when he had a team-high eight tackles and two interceptions. It was Minnesota’s first shutout since 1993.

“I’ve had some good safeties in my time, but this kid is instinctive, tough, physical, great kid, smart, great leader,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters after the Green Bay game. “There are so many adjectives you could say about him.”

*****

Lamarcus Joyner

Lamarcus Joyner, FS, Los Angeles Rams
Viewers of the HBO series “Hard Knocks” might remember Joyner as the mercurial, hot-headed, undersized defensive back who was talented enough to be the X-factor on the Rams’ defense but was just as likely to not make the team due to getting in his own way.

This season is Joyner’s fourth in the league and his first as a full-time starter. While he missed four games with a hamstring injury, in 12 appearances he’s made 49 tackles, nine pass breakups and three interceptions, including a pick-six in L.A.’s season opener. Joyner allowed a 32.5 passer rating on plays in which he was targeted, according to Pro Football Focus, the fourth-best among NFL safeties.

Joyner mostly played safety in college at Florida State, but due to his size (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) he had exclusively played slot cornerback in the pros prior to this season.

“We came in, we watched the film from the year before and we said, ‘This guy’s one of our best players and he only played half the time — what should we do?'” Rams first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was quoted recently. “We said, ‘Well, let’s play him all the time then.’ It sounds simple, but he’s too good a player not to be on the field, in my opinion. And he thought the same way. I saw ‘Hard Knocks.’ I think he felt the same way.”

Finally given a chance to play his natural position, Joyner helped the Rams’ defense improve from 23rd in the league last season (24.6 points per game) to 12th this season (20.6). He also helped the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season, and win its first division crown since 2003.

In L.A.’s wild-card playoff game against the Falcons, Joyner and the rest of the Rams’ secondary will be tested by Atlanta’s big-play passing game — led by QB Matt Ryan, and receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu — plus a pair of running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that can get into the secondary and make tacklers miss.

***** *****

Marshon Lattimore

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints
The Saints had two of the four rookies that made the 2018 Pro Bowl roster: Lattimore, and running back Alvin Kamara. Lattimore gave New Orleans all they could have hoped for out of the No. 11 pick in the draft. This season he’s recorded 43 tackles, 18 pass breakups and five interceptions, including a pick-six.

Lattimore and Kamara have also made strong cases for the NFL’s Defensive and Offensive Rookies of the Year, respectively. If Lattimore takes the defensive trophy, he would be the second defensive back to earn the award in three years, following the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters in 2015. Before Peters, the last defensive back to win Defensive Rookie of the Year was Charles Woodson in 1998.

But Lattimore might be most well-known now for one play he accidentally made. In the Saints’ Dec. 24 win over the Falcons, Lattimore was a step behind Atlanta receiver Marvin Hall and dove as Hall let a pass squirt out of his hands. With Lattimore sprawled out on his stomach, the ball landed on his backside, where it stayed for a long few seconds before Lattimore was able to twist his body and secure the catch. And thus, the “Butt Interception” was born.

The Saints are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season, but this New Orleans team isn’t like the ones you’ve grown used to watching in the Drew Brees era. This year’s team was successful by relying on its running game — Kamara and RB Mark Ingram both made the Pro Bowl — and defense, which ranks 10th in the league in fewest points allowed.

***** *****

Daryl Worley

Daryl Worley, CB, Carolina Panthers
It seems like the Carolina defensive backfield — and even the defense in general — has been searching for an identity ever since All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman was inexplicably let go by the front office before last season.

Worley, a third-round pick out of West Virginia, was one of three corners taken by Carolina in the 2016 draft — along with James Bradberry and Zack Sanchez — that the franchise appeared to be counting on to replace Norman and provide depth in the secondary.

In his second season, Worley has become a regular starter (opposite Bradberry) while splitting time with Kevin Seymour. In recent weeks, Worley has been getting praise from the Panthers’ coaching staff for the improvements he’s shown.

Worley has made 64 tackles this season to go with 10 pass breakups and two interceptions. An encouraging sign for the Panthers is that some of Worley’s best games have come against the team’s toughest competition. He had a season-high nine tackles and an interception against the Vikings; he also had solid games against the Falcons and Saints.

***** *****

Keanu Neal

Keanu Neal, SS, Atlanta Falcons
Neal hits hard. Hard enough to separate man from football.

The second-year safety out of Florida set a new NFL record this season, when his eighth career forced fumble gave him the most forced fumbles by a defensive back in their first two seasons.

Neal also finished 13th in the NFL in tackles during this regular season, making 116 stops. That ranked second among defensive backs, just six tackles behind Dolphins safety Reshad Jones.

Already being compared to the likes of Kam Chancellor, Neal looks like the kind of player who can anchor Atlanta’s defense for the foreseeable future. In the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss last season, he made a team-high 13 tackles. He’ll be a vital part in Atlanta’s wild-card playoff game plan to neutralize Rams’ star running back Todd Gurley.

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