Panthers in the pros: NFL Divisional Playoffs

Kansas+City+Chiefs+running+back+LeSean+McCoy+%2825%29+runs+for+a+touchdown+on+a+pass+during+the+second+half+of+their+football+game+against+the+Oakland+Raiders+on+Dec.+1%2C+2019%2C+at+Arrowhead+Stadium+in+Kansas+City.+The+Chiefs+won%2C+40-9.+

Tammy Ljungblad, Kansas City Star | TNS

Kansas City Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy (25) runs for a touchdown on a pass during the second half of their football game against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 1, 2019, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Chiefs won, 40-9.

By Nick Carlisano, Senior Staff Writer

Panther football came to a close two weeks ago with a win over Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, but that doesn’t mean there’s not still plenty of football for fans to consume. 

Last weekend the National Football League playoffs kicked off, and it was quite the wild ride. Saturday saw the Houston Texans narrowly prevail over the Buffalo Bills in overtime in the first contest, while the Tennessee Titans knocked off the New England Patriots in shocking fashion to prevent a potential fourth straight Super Bowl appearance for New England.

In the NFC, a goal-line touchdown pass propelled the Minnesota Vikings over the New Orleans Saints in overtime and the Seattle Seahawks escaped Philadelphia with a victory over the Eagles.

And although Pitt’s football season is over, as of this weekend four former Panthers were still suiting up in the pros for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Tailbacks Dion Lewis and LeSean McCoy were standouts as Panthers and represented the Titans and Chiefs, respectively. Offensive lineman Brian O’Neill and cornerback K’Waun Williams squared off as members of the Vikings and 49ers, respectively.

To satisfy the void that the end of Pitt’s season has left, here’s a look at how the Panthers of the past performed on the big stage this weekend.

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans RB

The small, shifty Titans running back had himself a stellar two-year career at Pitt, following in LeSean McCoy’s footsteps. Lewis recorded more than 1,000 rushing yards in both 2009 and 2010 and scored 31 total touchdowns over his tenure as a Panther. He also put his pass-catching ability on display here and there, catching just more than 50 passes in two years. This dual-threat skill set defined Lewis’s stints with the Eagles and Patriots before he signed with the Titans.

However, the rise to stardom of Derrick Henry has caused Lewis’ role with the team to diminish. His snap count went down from 61% to 37% from last season to this year, and his touches and production dropped as a result. Lewis saw his carries diminish by nearly two thirds and failed to record even half as many catches as he did in 2018.

With Tennessee committing to the run and Henry morphing into an every-down back, Lewis hardly saw the field in his team’s upset victory over the Ravens. He managed to receive only seven snaps and didn’t touch the ball on any of them, serving as a mere decoy for his offense. Henry, meanwhile, received 30 carries and notched two catches as he single-handedly willed his team to the AFC championship.

With Henry’s usage in the first two playoff games, it seems unlikely that Lewis will step into a relevant role this season. With the exception of an injury, expect him to continue to see minimal snaps as the Titans ride Derrick Henry as far as he will take them.

Brian O’Neill, Minnesota Vikings RT

Pitt’s running game has been the focal point of its offense for as long as anyone can remember, and what rushing attack can have success without standout offensive linemen? O’Neill was an integral part of the Panthers’ dynamic ground game in his time at Pitt. He was an iron man that started 37-straight contests and seamlessly moved from right to left tackle between the 2016-17 seasons. His success earned him a first-team All-ACC selection in his final season before the Vikings drafted him with the 62nd overall pick.

O’Neill’s role in a successful rushing attack has carried over from the Panthers to the Vikings since he took over a few weeks into the 2018 season. Minnesota had one of the strongest run games in the league as Dalvin Cook finally stayed healthy and had a career year. According to Pro Football Focus, O’Neill has also been excellent at protecting his quarterback — he only allowed one sack this season.

O’Neill faced one of the toughest tasks of the season on Saturday in his team’s contest against the 49er’s suffocating defense. Facing off against No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa and the rest of the San Francisco front, O’Neill was beaten a few times by the pass rush and failed to generate any push for Cook to run behind.

Perhaps most notably, he was victim to an unnecessary roughness penalty on Bosa that many, including Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, are calling a dirty play. O’Neill left with a concussion and did not return.

K’Waun Williams, San Francisco 49ers CB

Williams had an impressive four-year career as a Panther cornerback from 2010-2013. The New Jersey native put up stats across the board in his time at Pitt and was one of the leaders of the team, earning him a selection as a senior team captain. Williams racked up 160 tackles, seven interceptions and broke up 17 passes over four seasons. Despite going undrafted, his versatility at defensive back earned him a tryout with the Browns, where he went on to play three seasons.

Williams now plays a key role as a member of one of the top defenses in the league. Now playing nickelback, he picked off two balls this year and made 38 tackles heading into the playoffs, but didn’t have much to do against the Vikings. Williams was on the field for 57% of defensive snaps but only managed to record one tackle as the 49ers front seven wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage.

Williams will now head to the NFC Championship game as the only former Panther in his conference this year to do so. Him and his team will have a tall task ahead of them facing off against future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packer offense.

LeSean McCoy, Kansas City Chiefs RB

The best tailback to come out of Pitt since Tony Dorsett, McCoy had an absurd career as a Panther from 2007-2009. “Shady” broke records left and right, receiving countless recognitions such as second team All-American and Big East Offensive Player of the Year. He put up almost 3,000 yards in just two seasons and found the endzone 36 times, a feat that broke Larry Fitzgerald’s record for scores in a player’s first two seasons at Pitt. His speed, agility and ability to cut on a dime made him an easy pick for the Eagles in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

McCoy landed in the Chief’s high-powered offense this offseason and stepped into a supporting role in a pass-heavy scheme. Father Time has started to get the best of him, but Shady still occasionally showed off his trademark jukes and burst over the course of the year. None of those skills got a chance to shine yesterday, though, as the Chiefs turned to Damien Williams for all of the work out of the backfield.

McCoy didn’t receive a single carry and wasn’t targeted in the pass game. Williams received the goal line green light, allowing him to score twice, and also caught a touchdown pass. The Chiefs simply have too much firepower on offense to find a role for a 30-year-old back out of his prime. There’s the possibility that Shady sees a touch here and there to spell Williams, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll certainly be satisfied with a ring if the Chiefs are hoisting the Lombardi Trophy come February.

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