'Next man up' motto of battered teams

BY foxsports • November 21, 2011

As we wrap up the 11th week of the regular season, injuries — both serious and nagging — are a becoming a factor in the NFL.

The Houston Texans just lost Matt Schaub for the foreseeable future, if not the entire season. Now, news out of Chicago has Jay Cutler sidelined with a thumb injury for the rest of the regular season.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis missed his first start in 57 games on Sunday with a toe injury, and even if he does play on Thanksgiving, this is an injury that will bug him the rest of the season. Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones can’t seem to stay healthy after pulling both hamstrings, and receiver Laurent Robinson has had to step up big for the Cowboys offense while they wait for Miles Austin to get healthy again.

These are just a few examples, but you can see that having depth on your roster is becoming more and more critical as the season advances.

It was the title of one of my books, but right now, it becomes the mentality of all 32 teams as the physicality of an NFL season catches up with them: "Next man up."

This is the exact reason the depth chart is called just that, a depth chart. If the starter goes down, the No. 2 guy steps in as the next man up. It is definitely easier said than done, but a team's ability or inability to fill in for injured players can define its season.

The defending champions know this better than anyone.

The 2010 Packers utilized the next-man-up philosophy better than anyone last season as they found ways to replace Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and another 12 players who were placed on the season-ending injured reserve list.

Although the Packers are an extreme example, it got me thinking about the performances we witnessed Sunday. A number of players filling in for injured starters made a significant impact on their teams. The “next man up” top three performances of the weekend:

3. Vince Young, quarterback, Eagles

It wasn’t always pretty, and, in fact, it was downright ugly at times. Young came into the game against the Giants with only one pass attempt this season, and it was intercepted. Even so, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg showed early confidence in Young, as they came out throwing on the first three plays of the game. Young was short-arming and under-throwing his receivers for the majority of the first quarter, but he settled in and completed 23 of 36 passes for two touchdowns. Of those 13 incompletions, three of them were interceptions. So how did he make this list?

First and foremost, he led the Eagles to their fourth victory of the season and beat their most-hated divisional rival. But it was the way he led them to victory that landed him on this list. For a team that has consistently choked in the fourth quarter, it was Young who led the Eagles on an 18-play, 80-yard drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock and ended with a touchdown pass to put the Eagles up with just 2:45 left in the game.

Young found Riley Cooper in the end zone, a receiver who before Sunday hadn’t recorded a reception all season, to cap off the long, methodical drive. That is something the Eagles had yet to do with Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin.

2. Michael Bush, running back, Raiders

This isn’t much of a surprise, as we have come to see that Bush is a highly capable running back in his own right. Nonetheless, the Raiders have relied on him heavily the past three weeks while Darren McFadden has been sidelined and Sunday was no different.

In traditional workhorse style, he rushed the ball 30 times for 109 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Vikings. This capped off a three-game span in which he had 79 carries, an average of more than 26 attempts per game. Those carries produced 362 yards, which is impressive alone, but he also added seven catches for 138 yards in that time.

Bush is a different player than McFadden, but he is just as productive. Instead of running by tacklers, he runs right over them. He uses his huge, 245-pound frame to wear down the defense. By the end of the game, tacklers don’t want anything to do with him.

When McFadden does get healthy, this is going to be a heck of a tandem in the Raiders' backfield. Don’t be surprised when this pairing gets its own nickname like "Smash and Dash" and "Thunder and Lightning."

1. Kevin Smith, running back, Lions

In what may have been the most surprising performance of the entire weekend, the Lions’ Kevin Smith burst back onto the scene with more than 200 yards from scrimmage. For a team that is averaging only 101 rushing yards per game, he supplied 140 on the ground and another 61 through the air. This is the type of production the Lions have missed out of the backfield since they lost Jahvid Best to a concussion.

Smith was drafted by the Lions in 2008 but failed to receive a second contract after below-average performances and a bad knee injury. He was re-signed this month as a fill-in. That knee looked better than ever on Sunday as he eluded tacklers and showed a burst he hadn’t displayed since his rookie preseason games. He hit the hole hard and showed athleticism in the open field and gave the Lions the big plays they needed to claw back into this game.

Honorable mention: Mark Herzlich, linebacker, Giants

Herzlich not only made the first start of his professional career on Sunday night against the Eagles, but these were his first defensive snaps ever as an NFL player. This is a major accomplishment for a player who is two years removed from recovering from bone cancer that led to a metal rod being placed in his leg.

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