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Jan 01, 2019

Tigers in the NFL: Weeks 16-17

By: Cole Little

There were milestones and statistical feats aplenty in the ranks of Tigers in the NFL during Week 16 of the 2018 slate. With the regular season nearing its conclusion, a wide variety of Clemson football alumni came up with clutch performances, including Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who nearly provided the Texans with a thrilling victory via a late touchdown drive.

Entering Week 16 as the one of the NFL’s leading quarterbacks in terms of manning the charge on game-winning drives, Watson capped off a marvelous performance with a go-ahead score on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that put the Texans ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles by one point with just over two minutes remaining. Unfortunately for Watson, who went 29-of-40 for 339 yards through the air, the Eagles manufactured the game-clinching drive thereafter to defeat the Texans 32-30 on a winning field goal.

In addition to scoring two passing touchdowns, Watson notched a season-high two rushing touchdowns as part of his eight-carry, 49-yard performance on the ground. Both rushing scores, which were five and six yards long, respectively, involved Watson careening out of the pocket from the shotgun formation and finding a seam into the end zone.

Watson’s touchdown throws were dimes, to say the least, and served as two of the flashiest touchdown passes of Week 16. The pair of touchdown heaves came on back-to-back drives in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The first six-point toss was an impressive cross-body throw that Watson completed to running back D’Onta Foreman after scrambling around in the backfield and avoiding pressure.

That 20-yard score was followed by a perfect 35-yard downfield hurl to wide receiver Vyncint Smith that Smith caught in the back of the end zone to provide the Texans with a short-lived lead. Watson finished the contest with a superb passer rating of 114.5 and a solid completion percentage of 72.5.

Helping Watson’s cause was Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who, despite battling an ankle ailment, was up to his usual tricks of making jaw-dropping catches and racking up receiving yards. Surpassing 100 catches for the season, Hopkins, who currently has 103 receptions to his name, hauled in nine catches for 104 yards.

The most impressive feat of the afternoon for “Nuk” came in the form of a difficult snag in the fourth quarter that was made with Hopkins warding off a defender and diving away from the coverage. Hopkins was able to scoop the football into his possession just before it touched the ground, thereby accruing a spectacular 14-yard reception.

Through 15 games, Hopkins amassed 1,425 receiving yards, which was the second-most receiving yards in the NFL. As a reward for his efforts, Hopkins was named to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his six-year career. Watson, who stood at 10th in the NFL following Week 16 with 26 passing touchdowns, was picked as a Pro Bowl alternate in just his second season on the professional circuit and could possibly find himself added to the AFC roster next month, should the opportunity present itself. More importantly for Houston, due the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week 16 loss, the Texans clinched a postseason berth, which means that Watson is slated to make his playoff debut in the coming days.

Sensational Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Adam Humphries achieved a notable milestone in Week 16, as the fourth-year pass catcher caught 10 passes to give himself a career-high 71 receptions on the season. Furthermore, the 10 catches matched Humphries’ single-game high for his career and marked the only time this season that Humphries tallied double-digit receptions in a game. Amassing 79 receiving yards for an average of 7.9 yards per catch, Humphries increased his 2018 yardage tally to 750, which was already a career-best figure.

For the Oakland Raiders, strong safety Marcus Gilchrist picked off a pass for the third time this season and returned the interception two yards. Gilchrist, who led the Raiders in interceptions on the year, made a leaping grab in a tight window in order to secure the flashy turnover. He also compiled six tackles, four of which were solo.

Keeping it in the secondary, Minnesota Vikings cornerback continued his recent stretch of quality play by attaining four solo tackles and two pass break-ups. Elsewhere, Green Bay Packers cornerback Bashaud Breeland and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh were credited with three tackles apiece. Furthermore, Sensabaugh disrupted two passes.

Up front, veteran Miami Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch recovered a fumble for the first time this season. Coming on an erroneous unforced fumble suffered by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the recovery was made by Branch in the midst of a scrum of players competing for possession. Branch was credited with half of a sack on the day to go along with his two combined tackles and the aforementioned fumble recovery.

Meanwhile, New York Giants inside linebacker B.J. Goodson moved beyond the 50-tackle mark with a six-tackle showing that increased his 2018 total to 56 tackles. One of Goodson’s six combined tackles on the afternoon was a tackle for loss. As for Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, he hit 50 tackles on the nose with three total tackles in the Falcons’ win over the Carolina Panthers. Jarrett had a couple of hits on the opposing quarterback in the victory, too.

On the flip side of the Falcons-Panthers matchup, Carolina kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who was recently signed by the Panthers, kicked what was the longest field goal of his stint in Charlotte at the time by sending a 50-yarder sailing through the uprights. Catanzaro went 1-for-1 on both extra points and field goals for a total of four points in the outing. Also of note, fifth-year offensive guard Brandon Thomas made his return to a 53-man roster in Week 16 after being promoted from the practice squad to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ gameday roster for the first time this season.

Week 17 saw more of the same from the Clemson alumni taking part in the NFL action, with several more statistically significant accomplishments coming to fruition to close out the regular season. Hopkins and Watson made history in a Houston victory that provided the Texans with their fifth division title in franchise history and the first such title with Watson under center. Speaking of firsts, Texans defensive tackle Carlos Watkins experienced one of his own in the pass-rushing department, and Giants running back Wayne Gallman Jr. introduced himself to the end zone for the first time this year as part of another first achieved by a Tiger in the NFL. All of that and more made up an exciting Week 17 that paved the way for nine former Clemson players on five active NFL rosters to partake in the upcoming NFL playoffs.

Even without throwing a touchdown, Watson produced one of his most efficient passing performances of the season in the Texans’ 20-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Going 25-of-35 for 234 yards through the air, Watson surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the season. On the ground, the second-year quarterback accumulated 66 rushing yards on 13 carries, including a five-yard rushing touchdown.

Like he did all season long, Watson showed no fear when escaping the pocket on Sunday, consistently fighting for yards after contact and making the most of each of his runs. In the second quarter, Watson juked a defender on a keeper and dove across the goal line for his fifth rushing score of the season, thereby providing Houston with a lead that it did not relinquish.

The 66 rushing yards that Watson tallied moved him beyond the 500-yard plateau, making him just the third player in NFL history to amass 4,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a single season. Furthermore, Watson, who threw for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns in all, became the first to ever record at least 4,000 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, 25 passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in one season. The 551 yards on the ground and five touchdown carries are both single-season records for a Texans quarterback.

Hopkins, in the meantime, chose a fitting week to catch a season-high 12 passes, as he continued to add to his long list of accolades and put his finishing touches on one of the greatest seasons experienced by a wide receiver in Texans history. The 12 receptions, which was the NFL-leading mark in Week 17, matched Hopkins’ previous career high and brought Nuk into a tie with future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson for the single-season franchise record for catches with 115 in all.

As if Andre Johnson was not good enough company, Hopkins also joined Hall of Fame wideouts Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice, as well as six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, to become one of just four wide receivers to rack up at least 1,500 receiving yards, 100 receptions and 11 receiving touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. Hopkins broke the 1,500-yard barrier with a 147-yard showing in Week 17, which included a game-long 43-yard catch that came on a perfectly placed pass from Watson on a scoring drive in the fourth quarter.

Along with the career-best 115 receptions, which were the third-most in the NFL in 2018, Hopkins accrued a career high of 1,572 yards to finish second in the NFL in receiving yardage. On top of that, Hopkins was second in the league with 98.2 receiving yards per game and fifth in the league with 11 receiving touchdowns. However, Nuk’s most impressive statistic of the season might be the number zero, as he was targeted 163 times this year and suffered zero drops, which is a highly impressive accomplishment.

By coming up with the Week 17 win, the Texans finished the regular season at 11-5 to complete their worst-to-first turnaround in the AFC South and become the first team since the 1992 Chargers to start the season off 0-3 and go on to win a division title. The stellar play by Hopkins and Watson down the stretch factored heavily into the Texans earning the AFC South crown, as Hopkins recorded over 100 receiving yards in each of the last three games, while Watson avoided throwing an interception in each of the last six games.

Watson was not the only second-year former Tiger to perform at a high level this season, with Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams making his presence felt by hauling in 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams’ 10th score came in the season finale, in which Williams led his team with five receptions and 65 receiving yards. The touchdown occurred on a three-yard pass that was hauled in by Williams, who made a sliding catch in the end zone for six points.

Williams frequently went to the ground in the process of completing several circus catches in the Chargers’ 23-9 triumph against the Denver Broncos. While Williams commonly uses his 6-foot-4-inch frame to make spectacular leaping grabs, on Sunday, the athletic pass catcher went low for a couple of acrobatic snags.

As for Humphries, he finished off his career year with a well-balanced outing in Week 17. The fourth-year man corralled five receptions for 66 yards and also had two punt returns for nine yards. With 76 catches, 816 yards and five touchdowns to show for himself in 2018, Humphries established new career highs in nearly every major receiving category.

One week after surpassing 50 tackles, Goodson surpassed 60 tackles by tallying five combined tackles to close out the season with 61 total tackles to his name. The third-year linebacker also came up with the first fumble recovery of his career when he nabbed a loose ball and returned it seven yards. In 2018, Goodson obtained 44 solo tackles, 17 assisted tackles, two interceptions and half of a sack, all of which are career highs.

On the opposite side of the ball for the Giants, Gallman scored the first rushing touchdown of his two-year career, which was also his first touchdown of any kind in the 2018 slate. Sidestepping a defender, Gallman burst into the end zone for a two-yard go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Gallman ran the ball six times for 23 yards and also procured a seven-yard reception.

Watkins made quite the splash while playing in his fourth game of the season. Entering the contest with zero sacks at the professional level, Watkins made a habit of disrupting the backfield while on the field and was credited with three combined tackles, including his first career sack. Speaking of sacks, third-year Buffalo Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson went out with a bang in a dominant season-ending performance. The pass rusher experienced the first multi-sack game of his career with two sacks, including a strip sack that resulted in a turnover. Lawson finished the season with 30 combined tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

Two erstwhile Clemson Tigers stood out on special teams in Week 17, as Catanzaro topped his 50-yard field goal from a week prior by kicking a 51-yarder between the goalposts. “Catman” went 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts and 3-for-4 on extra-point attempts for a total of nine points on Sunday afternoon. In his four games with the Panthers this season, Catanzaro was a perfect 5-for-5 on field goals and was not too shabby on extra points, either, as he went 7-for-8 on point-after tries. In the return game, Breeland produced his most effective output of the year with five kick returns for 111 yards, including a career-long 38-yard return. In addition to averaging 22.2 yards per kick return, Breeland obtained two solo tackles over the weekend.

Elsewhere, Branch and Sensabaugh concluded their seventh seasons in the NFL on high notes, with each veteran coming up with two solo tackles apiece. Branch, who totaled 25 combined tackles and 1 ½ sacks on the year, amassed three total tackles, including one tackle for loss, and one hit on the quarterback in his final game of 2018. Complementing his pair of solo tackles, Sensabaugh was credited with two pass break-ups for the second consecutive game. Sensabaugh compiled 40 solo tackles and six pass disruptions this season, both of which were the second-highest such marks of his career. Also of note, rookie Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Dorian O’Daniel registered two solo tackles and half of a tackle for loss. With four tackles in total during Week 17, O’Daniel finished his debut NFL season with 34 combined tackles.

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