A critical look at the moments that turned the Bears, Bills, Texans and Saints into winners (and the Vikings, Panthers, Titans and Bucs into losers) on Sunday
It was another crazy week in the NFL, as eight of the 15 games played through Sunday night were decided by four points or fewer. To go a bit deeper inside the games, we’ll take a look at four crucial plays that decided some of the closest contests.
Some of the points we’ll discuss:
- How the Vikings got too cute against the Bears and have only themselves to blame for falling to 0-2.
- How the Panthers learned a valuable lesson: that communication is often more important than physical ability in the secondary.
- How a failure in his mechanics led to Titans quarterback Jake Locker blowing a critical play that should have delivered an upset win over the Texans.
- And that without a heads-up play by Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, Drew Brees and Co. might never have gotten back on the field to beat the Buccaneers.
Minnesota at Chicago
Score: Vikings 30, Bears 24
Time: 16 seconds in the fourth quarter
Situation: Chicago’s ball, 3rd-and-10 at Minnesota’s 16
Result: QB Jay Cutler 16-yard touchdown pass to TE Martellus Bennett
Bears personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Vikings personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: Extremely curious call by Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams given the situation—if it was executed correctly. “They’re not going to like what they see on film,” Cutler said after the game. “It was two-deep (safety coverage), they should’ve had a pretty good play to defend it.” But the Vikings never got into their two-deep coverage, and that put cornerback Chris Cook on an island with no hope of rescue.
Instead of playing their usual Cover 2 (two deep safeties), one safety, Jamarca Sanford, lined up between the left end and tackle, showing blitz. The other safety, Harrison Smith, was barking out calls to the right of Cutler, putting four defensive backs on a side where there are only two receivers. Cook (20) realized he was all by himself against tight end Martellus Bennett (83) and receiver Earl Bennett (80)—and possibly running back Matt Forte if he released—and motioned for Smith to help. Sanford didn’t retreat very far, and Smith didn’t get there in time. That put Cook in a bind: should he stay with Earl Bennett, running up the seam, or sink to Martellus Bennett, running a wheel route to the pylon after he and Bennett switched (crossed) off the line? Cook tried admirably to play both, and would have made the play if not for a terrific back-shoulder throw and catch from Cutler to Martellus Bennett for the game-winning touchdown.
“The play is designed to try and squeeze the corner, and open up an outside lane,” Bears coach/play-caller Marc Trestman said. “And if he squeezes to cover the wide receiver then the outside lane is available. It was going to be a tight throw anyway. The coverage was right for the play. But still, they had to execute the play.”
The coverage was right by the Vikings, but because they were consumed with bluffing Cutler into believing it was another coverage, the Vikings ended up outsmarting and burning themselves. “The corner got a little sneaky, came down with Earl (Bennett), and the safety stayed tight too, gave us a shot,” Cutler said.
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Carolina at Buffalo
Score: Panthers 23, Bills 17
Time: 6 seconds in the fourth quarter
Situation: Buffalo’s ball on Carolina’s 2-yard line
Result: QB E.J. Manuel 2-yard touchdown pass to WR Stevie Johnson
Bills personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Panthers personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: The Bills lined up in a 3x1 set with receivers Chris Hogan (15) and Johnson (13), and tight end Scott Chandler to the left of Manuel, and receiver T.J. Graham to the right. The Panthers showed an all-out blitz, so it was going to be man-to-man coverage across the board. Cornerback Josh Norman (24) was opposite Hogan, and D.J. Moore (20) was in the slot with Johnson. Moore motioned for Norman to be prepared to switch if they ran any sort of pick route. Johnson heard Moore and thought the play might be doomed. “The defender was yelling, ‘Check the corner, check the corner,’ to the outside guy,” Johnson said after the game. “Listening to the defense, I thought the guy was going to jump out later, but he didn’t.” Norman told reporters after the game that he didn’t hear the check. The Bills ran a smash concept, with Hogan running an in-breaking route and Johnson a corner to the pylon. The Panthers were in the right position, with Moore ready to drive on the crossing route, but Norman didn’t switch to take Johnson. If Norman did, he might have intercepted the pass.
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Tennessee at Houston
Score: Titans 24, Texans 24
Time: 1:14 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Tennesse’s ball, 3rd-and-1 at its own 29 (the 2nd-down marker on the screen was a mistake)
Result: QB Jake Locker incomplete to WR Kenny Britt
Titans personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Texans personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: This is the type of play quarterbacks and receivers dream about. Game in the balance, the defense coming with an all-out blitz and the cornerback is playing off coverage. If the quarterback can get a clean look against pressure, it doesn’t get any better than this.
That’s precisely the situation that Locker and Britt (18) found themselves in against the Texans. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips brought the house with a cover-zero blitz, leaving just four players in man coverage. Both safeties vacated the middle of the field and came blazing into the line as Locker called for the snap with 12 seconds left on the play clock. Since the Titans were using the silent snap count—the quarterback gives a signal and then the ball is snapped—the Texans were able to time the snap well as both safeties came barreling into the line. Still, it was picked up beautifully as running back Chris Johnson took out safety Shiloh Keo in Locker’s passing lane.
Despite having a clear picture and a clean pocket as Britt ran a shallow snap route with cornerback Jonathan Joseph about five yards off, Locker rushed his throw. Instead of stepping toward Britt, Locker stepped to the sideline, which caused his front shoulder to fly open in that direction as well. When the front shoulder of a quarterback flies open, that usually leads to a high pass. Locker’s throw was not even catchable for the 6-foot-3 Britt. If it was, he might have scored a touchdown since there were no defenders in the middle of the field.
One of the most important qualities for an NFL quarterback is the ability to stand firm in the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver the ball on target. Locker didn’t on Sunday, and he’s going to have to prove that ability if he’s going to continue to be the Titans’ starter. (The Texans, in case you missed it, won 30-24 in overtime.)
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New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Score: Buccaneers 14, Saints 13
Time: 1:56 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Tampa Bay’s ball, 3rd-and-6 at New Orleans’ 32
Result: RB Doug Martin 3-yard rush
Buccaneers personnel: Tank (two backs, two tight ends, one receiver
Saints personnel: Base 3-4
What happened: The Saints had just taken their final timeout, so if the Buccaneers had converted this third down, the game would have been over and Saints quarterback Drew Brees never would have gotten a shot to drive the field for a game-winning field goal. Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan had to strike a balance between making sure the clock would run after the play with staying aggressive enough to get a game-ending first down. The play Sullivan called—a counter toss—was a very good call, and it would have done the job had left outside linebacker Junior Galette (93) followed the flow of the play like a majority of NFL players normally would.
The design was very good, and so was the execution by Tampa Bay. The initial movement of the play was away from Galette: Martin took a step to his left, and the fullback blocked that way and even the right guard pulled to that side. The entire front seven of the Saints flowed to that side, except Galette. He must have read quarterback Josh Freeman coming out from center to the right, or quickly saw Martin come back to the right. Whatever Galette’s key was, he was spot on. He took two steps up the field in perfect position with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage. When Freeman pitched the ball to Martin, Galette sprinted outside of Martin to force him back to the inside. The slight adjustment allowed the Saints’ pursuit players to make a tackle three yards short of the first down.
The play is predicated on Galette being fooled by the run action and being sucked up inside. If that happened, the play would have gone for a first down because the Bucs had the rest of the play blocked reasonably well. But because Galette stayed home, he blew the play up and gave Brees a chance to put the Saints in scoring position. Even more amazing is that Galette, despite getting a piece of Martin’s leg and being the key to the play, wasn’t even credited with a tackle.