Rookie Watch: Defense rules Week 3 as Ziggy Ansah, Kenny Vaccaro shine
History tells us that certain positions necessitate patience when it comes to rookies. Defensively, we are used to seeing young, dynamic pass rushers make an early impact, yet most of the high picks from the 2013 draft have struggled to find their legs. That all changed in Week 3 as defensive rookies shined for what seemed like half the league. Carolina had three defensive rookies star in the same game, while Arizona and New Orleans had rookies making impact plays in a head-to-head matchup.
Conversely, offensive players who had been thriving, or had flashed their potential, came up small in Week 3. Justin Hunter’s game-winning touchdown catch and Geno Smith’s 300-yard day are clear exceptions, but for the most part, it was the defense’s day in Week 3.
First-round defensive linemen: For Lions fans, it was about time. Their prized rookie defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah had two splash plays called back on penalties in as many weeks, but that all changed Sunday against the Redskins. Ansah, the fifth overall pick, abused the Washington offensive line, finishing with seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Miami’s Dion Jordan and Cleveland’s Barkevious Mingo — drafted No. 3 and 6, respectively — both flashed their estimable ability as Mingo wound up with four tackles and a sack, and Dion Jordan put pressure on Matt Ryan all afternoon. It was ultimately Jordan’s pressure that sealed the game for the Dolphins, moving Miami to 3-0. The Jets’ Sheldon Richardson also continued his strong play as a pass-rusher, getting a sack of EJ Manuel. And although this is the first time Carolina’s Star Lotulelei showed up in the sack column, Pro Football Focus has him as the top rookie through three weeks based on its grading system.
NFC safeties: We had seen the flashes of brilliance from both Kenny Vaccaro and Tyrann Mathieu, but when the two went head-to-head, it was as if they were dueling against one another. Vaccaro, New Orleans’ pliable, versatile safety, moved effortlessly from sideline to sideline, finishing with seven tackles and a pick of Carson Palmer. Not to be outdone, the Honey Badger finished with 10 tackles and an interception of Drew Brees. And while Carolina’s front seven was dominant against the Giants, safety Robert Lester was the beneficiary of the pressure on Eli Manning. Lester snagged an interception to go along with five tackles as the Panthers defense absolutely mauled the unsuspecting Giants in one of Week 3′s more surprising outcomes.
New England Patriots wide receivers: This was the game Patriots’ fans had been waiting to see all season. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson finally showed why Tom Brady and this offense had such high hopes for the rookies — although Brady’s tirade on the sidelines was a good indication that there is still work to be done. Ironically, the rookies were excellent on a day when Tom Brady was uncharacteristically off, bouncing throws at the feet of his receivers and even tossing a red zone interception. Thompkins and Dobson still combined for 10 catches and 93 yards with Thompkins securing a pair of touchdowns. When Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola get back from injury, the field will open for these rookies who may be coming of age at just the right time.
Honorable Mention: Kawann Short ,DT, Carolina Panthers; Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals;, Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills.
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: Austin’s performance through three weeks of the season can only be considered a disappointment. An explosive and dynamic player at West Virginia, Austin was supposed to invigorate the Rams offense with spice and game-breaking ability. Instead, he’s been held to a measly 6.6 yards-per-catch average. On Sunday against the Cowboys, Austin finished with six catches for 30 yards. His longest play was just nine yards — not exactly the big-play threat we’d heard about. Certainly the St. Louis coaching staff must bear some of the blame for Austin’s failures. It has to find better ways to get the rookie lightning plays in the open field. The leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year heading into the season is still struggling to find his place in the offense, but you have to believe his breakout is coming.
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers: It’s hard to imagine a more difficult start to a rookie left tackle’s season than to go from Aldon and Justin Smith to Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, then to Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Bakhtiari had acquitted himself nicely through two weeks, with the obvious, to-be-expected hiccups, but Week 3 was a disaster. Going against the Packers’ rookie, Johnson had seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and the game-ending batted ball on fourth down as the Packers attempted to drive for the winning score. And it’s not getting any easier for the rookie out of Colorado: He faces Ansah coming out of the team’s Week 4 bye.
Justin Pugh, OT, New York Giants: If it were a great week to be a rookie defender, it was a miserable week to be a rookie offensive tackle. Pugh, like Bakhtiari, was whipped constantly by Carolina’s pulverizing front. The former Syracuse standout allowed a whopping nine pressures, two sacks, two hits on Eli Manning and five hurries. Things weren’t any better in the running game where the Giants couldn’t establish anything off-tackle or on the edges, two areas in which David Wilson excels. Next up for Pugh? NFL sack leader Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and the relentless Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead. Get the ice bath ready for Eli now.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills: It wasn’t pretty for the Bills, yet Manuel avoided the back-breaking mistakes that often plague rookie quarterbacks. Manuel has just one interception in 108 attempts this season, a remarkable feat for a rookie, and as a result, he’s kept his team in every game through three weeks. Unfortunately, Sunday against the Jets, Manuel wasn’t able to make enough throws to get the job done, finishing with just 19 completions on 42 attempts. The do-or-die fourth down throw late in the fourth quarter was actually startling because it was incongruous with the player Manuel has been. Facing 4th-and-7, Manuel felt the blitz coming from his left side and instead of going to his hot receiver, threw a rainbow to the right side against Antonio Cromartie, the only Jets defensive back who played well Sunday. It was a rare risk for Manuel and it didn’t pay off.
Johnathan Franklin, RB, Green Bay Packers: It’s hard to put Franklin here considering that he came into the second half of Sunday’s game as the third running back on the depth chart — without a single regular-season touch to his credit — and ran for 103 yards on just 13 carries. An astonishing 75 of those yards came after contact — and Eddie Lacy was supposed to be the bruiser for the Pack. But playing for Mike McCarthy means you can’t turn the ball over — kick returner Jeremy Ross was cut Monday after a costly fumble — and Franklin’s fumble on 4th-and-inches deep in Bengals’ territory was the back-breaker for the Packers. It’s indicative of just how thin the margin for success is in the NFL, particularly against a good team on the road.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: A week after serving notice to the NFL that he was a force to be reckoned with, Hopkins failed to follow up on his dominating performance, tallying just six catches for 60 yards against the Ravens. More to the point, the Texans were only able to muster nine points and developed no continuity in the passing game. Hopkins remains the future of this passing attack, particularly with Andre Johnson again facing injury, but we’ll see how he holds up this season as teams begin to key on him as the focal point of the passing game.