X-Factors  

 

Steelers' Worilds, Jets' Maybin among Week 15 X-factors

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Most of the attention going into games is on the stars, but lesser-known players often end up being the difference-makers. Here are a few players who could have a big impact in Week 15:

Chris Harris and Jonathan Wilhite, Broncos, CBs: A spate of injuries to their veteran defensive backs will force the Broncos to thrust several young defenders into prominent roles. Harris and Wilhite, in particular, will see significant time as a part of a nickel package that will be tasked with the responsibility of slowing down the Patriots' second-ranked passing offense. Their ability to maintain coverage on Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker will have a major impact on whether the Broncos are able to keep the game close enough for Tim Tebow's late-game heroics. If they are able to limit the big plays and tackle well in space, the Broncos could be primed for an upset win that would vault them into serious consideration in the AFC.

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Aaron Maybin, Jets, OLB: If you want to know why the Jets defense is beginning to flex its muscle, look no further than the emergence of Maybin as a disruptive force. He has sparked the unit with his speed off the edge, while amassing six sacks and four forced fumbles in situational duty. With Michael Vick posing a significant threat with his improvisational playmaking skills, Maybin needs to be a factor to keep the Eagles from generating big plays in the passing game. If he can knock Vick around early in the contest, the Eagles will have to abandon their bombs-away tactics and rely on their screen game to produce points.

Jared Gaither, Chargers, LT: It is not a coincidence that the Chargers have started to play better since Gaither entered the starting lineup at left tackle. He has been outstanding in pass protection, but faces stiff competition with Terrell Suggs poised to wreak havoc off the edge. Though he has some familiarity with Suggs from his time in Baltimore, Gaither's ability to hold up in isolated matchups could be the deciding factor. If he is able to keep Suggs from harassing Philip Rivers in the pocket, the Chargers should be able to produce the explosive passing plays that have been a hallmark of their offense in recent years.

Kevin Smith, Lions, RB: Most of the attention heading into this game will focus on Ndamukong Suh's return to the defense, but Smith could emerge as a bigger story due to his ability to provide balance for the Lions offense. He has the potential to exploit the Raiders' porous run defense between the tackles, while also giving Matthew Stafford an explosive weapon to target in the screen game. If Smith can finish with 100-plus yards from scrimmage on 15-18 touches, he could open up the field for the rest of the Lions' playmakers.

Jason Worilds, Steelers, OLB: The one-game suspension of James Harrison puts the pressure on Worilds to serve as the designated rusher off the edge. He has shown flashes of brilliance over the past month (three sacks in past three games), but he must take his game to another level to harass Alex Smith in the pocket. Given the 49ers' recent issues in pass protection, Worilds could have a breakout performance on a national stage Monday night.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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