At this point in the NFL season, the injuries are really starting to pile up, even for teams who remained relatively healthy through the first two months. The last few weeks have been particularly devastating for some teams, with the Baltimore Ravens at the top of the list. Their rookie fourth-round running back stepped into a bigger role this week with Justin Forsett injured, but he wasn’t the only rookie to show out with extra playing time. Chris Tripodi takes a look at Week 11’s impact first-year talents.
Javorius Allen (RB-Bal)
For the second straight season, the Ravens drafted a big running back in the fourth round to add depth behind a smaller, injured veteran. Last year, it was Coastal Carolina’s Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 6-0, 225-pound back who slotted in behind starter Ray Rice.
This season, Javorius “Buck” Allen from USC was drafted as insurance for Justin Forsett, who emerged after Rice’s release in 2014. With Taliaferro on injured reserve and Forsett breaking his arm early in Sunday’s win over the Rams, Allen carried the load for Baltimore, rushing 22 times for 67 yards and catching five passes out of the backfield for 48 yards.
Allen had some nice moments in the second quarter after replacing Forsett, most notably a 17-yard run that accounted for most of his 28 yards on seven first-half carries. On an off-tackle run to the right, Allen did a nice job recognizing the overpursuit of the Rams defense, cutting back inside into open space and finishing the run with authority by lowering his shoulder and running over safety Rodney McLeod for five extra yards.
That play was a nice change after Allen was to slow to recognize a similar overpursuit on his first carry of the game in the first quarter, where he gained four yards after trying to run through a closing hole on the right side. If Allen had recognized the opening sooner, an indictment on his poor vision and instincts as a runner that were evident on his USC film, he could’ve had a bigger gain.
The power Allen showed on his big 17-yard run is an important part of the rookie’s game, and he’s difficult to bring down with weak tackle attempts and in crowded spaces. The former Trojans star also showed an acumen for beating first contact in space, easily shedding low-tackle attempts from smaller corners on multiple second-half receptions.
In fact, most of Allen’s yardage in the second half came through the air, as he had as many negative runs (two) and he had runs over five yards. He showed off his versatile skills out of the backfield, making catches away from his body and quickly turning upfield after securing possession. Allen showed the receiving ability to adjust to low passes without losing momentum and finished receptions violently after building up a head of steam.
While he didn’t have many impressive second-half runs, there simply weren’t many holes to run through against a solid St. Louis run defense. His longest run after halftime went for nine yards on a handoff from the shotgun, with Allen hitting the hole up the middle and breaking free of an ankle tackle from defensive tackle Michael Brockers to get the Ravens into field-goal range. It took multiple Rams to bring him down on his ensuing three-yard run, which set up the game-winning kick.
Allen was most effective in space and with a head of steam at the second level Sunday, and with Forsett being sent to IR along with quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens will need to utilize him heavily as a receiver out of the backfield with Matt Schaub taking over under center. Finding running lanes shouldn’t be much of a problem against the porous Browns and Dolphins defenses over the next two weeks, and Allen played well enough in a tough matchup to give Baltimore confidence he can handle the bulk of the touches out of the backfield going forward.
J.J. Nelson (WR-Ari)
With Michael Floyd sidelined by a hamstring injury, the fastest player at the NFL combine got his chance to play a meaningful role for the Cardinals. Fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson out of UAB played 38 snaps in Sunday’s win over the Bengals and put his 4.25 speed on display, catching four passes for 142 yards and a touchdown on six targets.
The 5-10, 160-pound speedster’s day didn’t get off to a great start, as he was the intended target on Carson Palmer’s second interception of the first quarter. Nelson broke open in on a post over the middle between the Bengals’ zone coverage over the middle, but Palmer expected him to continue his route down the field, which led to an easy pick for safety Reggie Nelson.
That miscommunication was forgotten after Nelson converted a 3rd-and-16 on the following drive, as the diminutive rookie made a big 23-yard catch for a first down. Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey was in position underneath on Nelson and the pass looked like it was intended for John Brown, but Nelson showed good awareness to stop his route and come back to the ball while Rey kept flowing towards Brown.
That play gave Palmer some increased confidence in Nelson, as he tried to squeeze a pass to the rookie in triple coverage during a two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter. The ball was tipped by the underneath linebacker, however, and Nelson was helpless as Rey closed for a big hit, which Nelson was fortunately able to get up from.
With the Cardinals down 14-7 in the third quarter, the pair connected for a 64-yard touchdown. Nelson blew by Darqueze Dennard’s short zone coverage at the line of scrimmage and the Cover 2 safety was focused on the left sideline, giving Nelson a clear path to the opposite side of the field. Palmer’s throw was on the money as Nelson reeled in the pass at the 10-yard line and kept Reggie Nelson at bay long enough to finish the score.
The Cardinals’ Nelson showed he could be effective on short passes as well, taking a quick slant on 3rd-and-14 and turning it into a 36-yard catch-and-run. Stopping on a dime after securing the catch, Nelson made Dre Kirkpatrick look silly as the corner whiffed on an ankle tackle before watching Nelson tack on extra yardage down the sideline.
Palmer’s increasing trust In Nelson was evident as Arizona started the game-winning drive from their own 15-yard line. On 1st-and-10, Nelson got separation on a 15-yard in route and Palmer found him for 19 yards to get the big drive started. While it wasn’t the sharpest break at the stem of his route, Nelson’s incredible quickness helped him get open for the big play.
Floyd may not return to the lineup in Week 12, as hamstring injuries tend to linger, particular for speedy receivers. In the meantime, Nelson gave the Cardinals every reason to feel confident in his ability to fill in as their No. 3 receiver, and he’s obviously jumped Jaron Brown on the depth chart. A Week 12 matchup with the 49ers might give Nelson another chance to show off his game-breaking skills and natural ability as a receiver against a burnable secondary.
Ben Heeney (LB-Oak)
Aldon Smith’s year-long suspension created a big hole in Oakland’s defense, and the Raiders relied on their fifth-round pick out of Kansas to fill it Sunday against the Lions. Heeney had been scarcely used this season, but played 38 snaps and responded with seven tackles (five solo) and a sack.
Heeney was very involved in the first half and helped keep the Lions of the end zone on the game’s first possession. A pick play opened up a flat route to running back Ameer Abdullah, but Heeney recognized his teammate getting caught up and sprinted out to chase down Abdullah, who fell down and allowed Heeney to make the play. The play would’ve been a touchdown if Abdullah stayed on his feet, but Heeney showed nice recognition to get out there in the first place.
As a cover linebacker, Heeney got good depth on his drops and stayed in close coverage against receiving threats like Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. The depth he got on a pass play late in the first quarter took away the passing lane to receiver Lance Moore and forced Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to leave the pocket and scramble. Not only did Heeney force the scramble, but he closed quickly to the sideline to force Stafford out of bounds after just five yards.
Heeney did a nice job finding his assignments in man coverage and even lunged for a nice pass breakup in the second half after a slight bite on a play-action pass. The rookie recovered quickly to find Tate and hit him within five yards of the line of scrimmage to throw off his route before making a play on the ball.
The rookie linebacker’s sack came late in the second quarter, as Heeney blitzed from middle linebacker and used a nice stutter step-rip combo to beat the guard and bring down Stafford for a five-yard loss. His instincts and downhill speed were also on display later in the game, as he slid up to after feeling an incoming block from the tight end and shot forward to bring down running back Theo Riddick.
Heeney did overpursue Abdullah on one of his tackles and although he recovered to make the tackle nine yards down the field, he would’ve been in position to stop the play a lot sooner if he had stayed home in the middle of the field.
A third-round prospect on the Draft Insider board, Heeney showed the instincts, tenacity and pursuit skills that had us so high on him. The rookie did nothing to keep himself from seeing more of the field next week in Tennessee and could be playing himself into a big role with the team for next season as well. The Raiders have drafted well over the past few seasons, and Heeney is another example of that for a team on the rise.
Adrian Amos (S-Chi)
An early fifth-round pick of the Bears out of Penn State, Amos has started the entire season in Chicago. The safety has been one of the top defensive rookies this season despite pedestrian numbers, but turned in his best game on the stat sheet this season Sunday against Denver with seven tackles and a sack.
Amos was relatively quiet for most of the first half before making a big impact on the final drive of the second quarter. He showed good awareness and downhill ability coming off deep coverage to close on a short pass to tight end Owen Daniels, avoiding a lead block on his way to making a solid open-field tackle.
Shortly after, he stayed home on a play-action pass before closing on Vernon Davis after working through a couple of other defenders, putting him slightly behind in coverage. Later on the drive, he laid a monster hit on Davis coming up from safety, knocking the veteran tight end to the ground with force after a short catch.
Amos also prevented one of Demaryius Thomas’ patented screen passes from going for good yardage, shooting up to wrap up Thomas and drag him almost 10 yards before forcing him out of bounds after just a three-yard gain. Not many defensive backs have the strength to manhandle a big receiver like Thomas like that.
The rookie safety added his first career sack on the second play of the third quarter, coming in unblocked on a safety blitz to nail an unsuspecting Brock Osweiler from the back side. On a 3rd-and-9 in the red zone two drives later, Amos closed quickly for a wrap-up tackle on slot receiver Jordan Norwood, setting up a 4th-and-1 from the 2-yard line that Denver would fail to convert.
Overall, Amos did exactly what he’s been doing all season and played a very solid game on the back end. The rookie showed off his sure tackling, closing speed, pursuit ability and tough, aggressive nature at 6-0, 218 pounds. Amos has yet to be exposed in deep coverage as many expected and as long as he continues to keep plays in front of him, his NFL future looks very bright.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.