As the NFL rounds into the final week of what has been a tumultuous and eventful regular season, plenty of playoff spots and seeds remain up for grabs. The league has seen many of the same shifts this season as it usually does, with young talent flashing, older talent fading, and a few veteran stalwarts and surefire Hall of Famers continuing to cement their legacy. The Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, and Arizona Cardinals have all guaranteed themselves playoff spots headed into Week 18 thanks to various contributors old and new. Below are three players and a coach that have the potential to shape the results of the 2021 NFL Playoffs.
In my 42 years with NFL Films, I have never seen a better thrower of the football than Aaron Rodgers. His combination of processing before the snap, field vision, release quickness, velocity, touch when needed, and precise ball location are unmatched. One of the best stories I’ve heard about Rodgers comes from a Super Bowl winning coach who has coached him. He relayed a story that Rodgers once came off the field and told him what seven defenders had been doing on the previous play which left the coach incredulous.
Quarterbacks are expected to have functional knowledge of a defense on any given play, meaning they need to be able to evaluate what certain defenders in particular coverages are doing against a specific play. This often means that at best, quarterbacks are able to be aware of three or four defenders. To be aware of seven defenders and their actions on a play is unprecedented field vision and awareness, which Rodgers possesses. When watching tape the next day, the coach realized that each of the defenders had done exactly what Rodgers had described as he came off the field.
Rodgers has continued his lethality in attacking one-on-one coverage with efficiency and precision in 2021, constantly delivering big-time throws with perfect trajectories and precise ball placements. His ability to elevate the play of those around him is often overlooked. Green Bay has suffered myriad injuries to their offensive line and his understanding of how to camouflage, and compensate for offensive line concerns in one-on-one situations has been essential. In Week 16, he was able to prevent Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett from being a factor as an edge rusher despite backups at both offensive tackle spots.
Current Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a two time Super Bowl champion and has been coaching football since 1981. In 2018, the year before his role with Kansas City, he came to NFL Films every Monday and watched tape with me. The Chiefs defense – Week 17 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals notwithstanding – has come on very strong in the second half of the season and was the driving force of the team when the offense has struggled.
Kansas City is very defined with their defensive approach, running Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2. The Chiefs have played the highest percentage of Cover 2 of any team in the NFL since Week 8, using a lot of disguise and late movement to get to it. They often play the coverage out of dime with safety Tyrann Mathieu almost always the middle hole defender; Kansas City has played dime on more than 27% of defensive snaps this season. Spagnuolo’s defense has been aggressive and multiple with their pressure concepts this season and he has experimented with different nickel personnel packages. His unit has also played the most snaps of Cover 0 this year as he looks to present offenses with varied pressure looks depending on down and distance and field location.
Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Micah Parsons has not only been one of the best rookies from the 2021 Draft but has been one of the most impactful defenders in the league. Drafted as a middle linebacker, Parsons has lined up as a defensive lineman on over 40% of his snaps as he ranks sixth in the league with 13 sacks – just 1.5 shy of the rookie sack record. He has been used as an edge pass rusher, a pass rushing linebacker, stacked linebacker, a Joker, and second-level blitzer as Dallas constantly moves him around to leverage his pass-rushing ability. He has demonstrated explosive quickness, change of direction, and burst off the ball as he has rushed both outside and inside over the course of the season.
Parsons is already a big-time edge pass rusher thanks to his ability to convert speed to power, hand usage, balance, flexibility, closing burst and counter moves. Offensive tackles have had a difficult time handling him one-on-one and teams have chipped him throughout the season to try to slow his rushes. Parsons as a rookie showed that he is one of the best edge pass rushers in the league. He is also athletic enough to be used as a quarterback spy, particularly on 3rd downs, as he demonstrated in Dallas’ matchup with the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Taysom Hill in Week 13.
In a Week 16 victory over the Washington Football Team, Parsons’ versatility was on full display. He had snaps as a stacked linebacker, as a middle hole defender, and as an inside and outside rusher. The Cowboys also used him as a second level blitzer where his speed, velocity, and power create a significant mismatch for running backs in pass protection. His sack on the first play of Washington’s initial second quarter possession came on a blitz from a stacked linebacker alignment. Parsons was no match for left guard Ereck Flowers with his lateral quickness and explosiveness, taking down quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
The versatile sophomore Arizona Cardinals linebacker has started all 16 games so far, playing 92% of defensive snaps in 2021 after just 34% in his rookie year. He has stuffed the stat sheet with 100 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and four forced fumbles this year. The Cardinals have deployed him all over the field and out of various formations: on the ball in 5-2 fronts, off the ball as a linebacker in their sub nickel package, in the A gap in double mug looks, safety against 22 personnel, and matched up against tight ends against 11 personnel.
In Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys, Simmons was essentially the slot corner in the four man base front the Cardinals ran. His positional versatility has allowed Arizona to deploy a multitude of pressures and coverages, particularly out of double mug looks. With Simmons and fellow linebacker Jordan Hicks in the A gaps, the Cardinals at times blitz out of the look and at other times rush four and play zone coverage behind.
Certainly, there are other players and coaches who will have a significant impact on the 2021 NFL playoffs. These three players and one coach have particularly stood out to me based on tape study.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story