How the Lions and Seahawks were burnt by aggressive play in the secondary, what happened when the Patriots got caught napping—er, celebrating—and why Tony Romo deserves none of the blame for throwing a game-changing interception in a shootout with the Broncos
CINCINNATI — NFL games usually tip one way or the other very late because the talent level is so close between teams. We’ll certainly hit on the dramatic finish between the Cowboys and Broncos (and document why you shouldn’t just say, “Same old Tony Romo”), but we’re going to start with three games that got their biggest jolts in the third quarter.
We’ll lay out how overaggressive secondary play hurt the Seahawks and Lions against the Colts and Packers, but our first play comes from the defensive struggle between the Bengals and Patriots—and we’ll show you how quick thinking on the part of Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden set the stage for the only touchdown drive of the game (and likely a double-digit swing in the Bengals’ 13-6 victory).
New England at Cincinnati
Score: Bengals 6, Patriots 3
Time: 1:10 in the third quarter
Situation: 3rd-and-15 from the Cincinnati 2
Result: 28-yard completion from Andy Dalton to Marvin Jones
Bengals personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Patriots personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: The Patriots looked to be in glorious position to get this game turned around as the fourth quarter beckoned. After Bill Belichick made the decision to punt on 4th-and-2 from the 50, New England had the Bengals pinned at their own 7. Cincy completed a three-yard pass on first down, but an eight-yard sack by Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo set up a long yardage situation. With one more solid defensive play on third down, the Patriots were likely going to get the ball back in Bengals’ territory.
But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had other plans when he barked a mayday call into the helmet of quarterback Andy Dalton, who then got the Bengals into a hurry-up play to catch the Patriots napping as they celebrated the split sack between Kelly and Mayo.
“Our tempo wasn’t great all game and I had noticed that they were kind of slow getting set up too, so I thought we would try the quick snap,” Gruden told TheMMQB.com. “We had a good, solid play—two outside go routes with a middle read, and the back out in the flat if they were set in coverage, so it wasn’t like it was a terrible play. The big thing was to get our guys out there quickly and snap it and go. It slows down the rush; you might get a free one.”
After reviewing the coaches’ film from NFL Game Rewind, it’s still difficult to tell what coverage the Patriots were supposed to be playing—that's how unprepared they were at the snap. It appears that all of the Patriots’ defensive backs were out of position: cornerbacks Aqib Talib (31), Alfonso Dennard (37), Kyle Arrington (25) and safeties Devin McCourty (32) and Steve Gregory (28). Dennard was in the middle of the field at the snap but recovered nicely.
There are three explanations for the play. Either the Patriots were in quarters coverage (the three cornerbacks and McCourty split the deep part of the field into quarters) with Gregory playing a robber or lurker position (he’s a free player looking to read and rob the quarterback in the middle of the field); the Patriots were playing two-deep safeties with man coverage underneath; or the Patriots were playing man free with a robber (man coverage underneath one deep safety).
If the Patriots were in quarters, that means Arrington was the player at fault—he failed to get in pre-snap position to play over the top of wideout Marvin Jones (82). If the Patriots were in two-man, then Gregory and McCourty didn’t set up right and that gave the Bengals the opening they needed. If the Patriots were in man free robber, then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made a poor play call based on the down and distance.
My personal opinion is that the Patriots were supposed to be in two-man coverage—the same coverage as the previous play on the sack—and Gregory and McCourty failed to get into the right spot, and McCourty got picked on to his side.
In any event, the decision by Gruden to go hurry-up probably made the half-second difference between McCourty being able to dislodge the ball at the time of the catch, and being just a bit late.
“They weren’t lined up where they needed to and were taking a while to get set,” Dalton said. “I think it gave us that little advantage to make the play.”
A tip of the hat to Gruden for having the guts to make that call in that spot, which he said he had never done before.
“It’s a good tempo changer. Every team has them,” Gruden said. “I mean, we stole a lot of what New England does in the running game. Hats off to our guys getting out there and getting set. It was a big play in the game, obviously. A 98-yard drive that gave us the lead. That play was huge.”
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Seattle at Indianapolis
Score: Seahawks 25, Colts 17
Time: 4:22 in the third quarter
Situation: 1st-and-10 at the Seattle 29
Result: 29-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton
Seahawks personnel: Base 4-3/3-4 hybrid.
Colts personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
What happened: The Seahawks looked be in pretty good control at this point, but a great playcall by Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and sensational execution by QB Andrew Luck allowed Indianapolis to score a touchdown and inch closer to the Seahawks.
Wideout T.Y. Hilton (13) appeared to run a simple go route and just beat cornerback Brandon Browner (39), but it was more complex than that. While the Seahawks like to play press coverage on the outside, Hamilton must have seen something earlier that made him believe Seattle would play more zone on this play—which it did. It looks like the Seahawks played a three-deep zone with Browner and safety Earl Thomas responsible for the top two thirds of the field.
Hamilton called a perfect play—the old West Coast staple “all go special” or all go routes—that was meant to put stress on the deep coverage, which works if you can get good protection. Both Hilton and Reggie Wayne (87) ran verticals while Luck did a great job of holding the speedy Thomas in the middle of the field by looking right while he dropped back to pass. When Luck went back to his left to pass, Browner cheated toward Wayne, and that gave Hilton the only opening he needed to blow past Browner. Luck hit him in stride for the score.
“We knew Browner was going to keep his eyes in the backfield and that helped me out going down the sideline,” Hilton said. “Andrew put a great ball and I made the catch.”
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Detroit at Green Bay
Score: Packers 9, Lions 3
Time: 3:23 in the third quarter
Situation: 2nd-and-15 at the Green Bay 17
Result: 83-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones
Packers personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Lions personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: This was a very similar play to what we just described with the Colts; this was executed with two double posts trying to target the Lions’ Cover 2 (two deep safety) coverage. But the stage was set for this play earlier in the game, when the Packers receivers chatted with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“We had been telling him they had been playing Cover 2 a lot and the safety hadn’t been getting over to the outside receiver,” wideout James Jones said.
On this play, Rodgers checked the play and got the Packers into double posts on the top side of the field with Jones and Randall Cobb. Cobb, the inside receiver, wasn’t re-routed at all coming off the line, which allowed him to quickly get down the field. That caused Lions safety Louis Delmas (42) to shade toward Cobb—just as the Packers’ receivers had predicted—and left Jones wide open for a touchdown that gave the Packers an insurmountable 13-point lead.
“Randall did a great job getting up on the safety quick, influencing him in Cover 2,” Rodgers said. “James was screaming down the sideline and made a great catch, in the right spot.”
* * *
Denver at Dallas
Score: Broncos 48, Cowboys 48
Time: 2:04 in the fourth quarter
Situation: 2nd-and-16 from the Dallas 14
Result: Tony Romo pass to TE Gavin Escobar intercepted by LB Danny Trevathan
Cowboys personnel: 12 or (one back, two tight ends, two receivers)
Broncos personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: A lot of people want to hang this interception on Tony Romo, but I didn’t see it that way. It was a failure by the offensive line to protect adequately against a three-man rush, and a poor pass route by rookie TE Gavin Escobar.
On the line, left tackle Tyron Smith got bull-rushed by Adrian Robinson (57) at the same time that rookie center Travis Frederick (72) was beaten by Derek Wolfe (95). The push by Robinson caused Romo to step on Smith’s foot as he threw, which took some zip off the ball—let alone the fact that Wolfe was allowed to get right in Romo’s face. Allowing that kind of pressure against three rushers is inexcusable by the offensive line.
As for Escobar, he got out of his break at the 21-yard line yet wound up at the 25. By not sharply cutting parallel to the line of scrimmage, he allowed linebacker Danny Travathan to undercut the route and intercept the pass—a mistake the rookie acknowledged after the game.
“Probably should’ve flattened it off more, be more friendly to the (quarterback),” Escobar told the Dallas Morning News. “When I saw it coming out, I was trying to break it up. … I was trying to get over to the other side. I should’ve flattened it off more.”