Breaking down tape to analyze and explain the most critical plays of the week, including a key fourth-down conversion in the Dolphins' upset of the Patriots and the play that ended the Saints' comeback hopes
'Tis the season for postseason berths, both secured and unrealized. Week 15 saw the Lions, Broncos, Bengals, Cowboys, Saints and Eagles fall flat on their faces with playoff positioning on the line. We’ll take a look at how the Rams’ pass rush thwarted New Orleans’ last gasp in St. Louis, and how Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins showed he’s a work in progress against the Falcons in a meaningless but highly entertaining affair in Atlanta. But first we’ll start in Miami, where the Dolphins out-executed the Patriots on fourth down to prove coach Joe Philbin was right to go for broke.
New England at Miami
Score: Patriots 20, Dolphins 17
Time: 3:05 remaining in the game.
Situation: 4th-and-5 at the Miami 45-yard line.
Result: Screen pass for six yards from Ryan Tannehill to Charles Clay.
Dolphins personnel: "02" or "Joker" (no backs, two tight ends, three receivers)
Patriots personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: After picking up 11 yards on a Tannehill pass to Brian Hartline on 3rd-and-16, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin had a big decision to make: go for it on fourth down, or try to gain field position by punting, knowing he had all three timeouts remaining with the two-minute warning. Actually, Philbin had already made the decision to go on fourth down provided the third-down play picked up at least half the distance.
"We knew we had to score points against these guys," Philbin said. "We felt like, ‘Look, if we don’t make it, we have to hold them to a field goal,’ knowing they were going to get good field position. Not that we couldn’t get a takeaway or something else, but at worse we could hold them to a field goal and have an opportunity. So really it came down to that."
The Dolphins decided to run a screen to tight end Charles Clay (42), who flexed out of the backfield to receiver and was picked up by rookie cornerback Logan Ryan (26) as the Patriots were playing press man coverage across the board. That meant safety Devin McCourty (32) had to rotate down, taking tight end Dion Sims (80) in the slot, and leaving Steve Gregory (28) as the lone safety.
The play calls for Sims to block down on Ryan, right tackle Tyson Clabo to fire out and block McCourty and for center Mike Pouncey (51) to pick off middle linebacker Dane Fletcher (52). It was perfectly executed, except for the throw. Tannehill had to throw wide because end Rob Ninkovich (50) fired up the field and got a hand in the throwing lane. But Clay made a great catch, got his footing and charged up field.
"We usually want to hit it a little quicker," Tannehill said. "He had press coverage. (Ninkovich) came to my face with his hands up, so I had to throw it around him, which brought him backwards. That’s one thing you don’t want to do. Just a great effort by Charles being able to make the catch, first and foremost."
With the play well blocked, Clay was left one-on-one against Gregory with the game on the line. The safety contacted Clay at the 48-yard line—two yards shy of the first down—but couldn’t bring him down. Clay sidestepped the tackle and lunged forward, making the crucial first down by one yard. Six plays later, the Dolphins scored to take the lead for good.
"That was a player’s play, they all participated in that and made that work and certainly a critical play in the game," said offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. "That could have very easily been a dead play. It’s a play that they made work and got us in a position where we could win the football game."
New Orleans at St. Louis
Score: Rams 27, Saints 16
Time: 2:00 remaining in fourth quarter.
Situation: 3rd-and-3 at the Atlanta 8-yard line.
Result: Incomplete pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston.
Saints personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Rams personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: After trailing 27-3 earlier in the fourth quarter, the Saints had a chance to get within a field goal if they could score a touchdown on this drive, with a playoff berth and virtual lock on the NFC South at stake.
The Rams had great coverage throughout the play, with Colston (12) and Lance Moore (16) each being bracketed in either slot. That left Brees to go to either the outside receivers, or to tight end Jimmy Graham (80).
The Rams decided to drop defensive end Eugene Sims (97) out of his tackle position into coverage against Graham. Sims provided good coverage, but the play was there to be made to Graham. However, the problem, as it had been all game, was in the Saints’ protection (left tackle Charles Brown had been benched earlier in the game).
Despite having just a three-man rush, left end Chris Long (91) easily bullrushed backup right tackle Bryce Harris and into the throwing lane Brees should have had to Graham. That forced Brees to leave the pocket and roll to his right as right end Robert Quinn (94) was in pursuit after beating normal right tackle Zach Strief, now playing the left side. Brees, who had another player in his face as he released the ball, had no options. The Rams had terrific coverage for the entire 4.82 seconds. A missed 26-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley on the next play ended the Saints’ comeback hopes.
"We were in the red zone six times," Brees said. "Six times and you come away with sixteen points, that’s not us. That can’t be us if we want to play well and win.
"You have to give a lot of credit to (the Rams), their defensive front, their pass rush and they got after us a little bit today. But, for me, you still have to operate, you have to find a way to get completions and get first downs, move the football and be efficient. There’s no excuses, and you can’t give yourself any."
Washington at Atlanta
Score: Falcons 27, Washington 26
Time: 18 seconds left in the game.
Situation: Two-point conversion attempt at Atlanta's 2-yard line.
Result: Incomplete pass from Kirk Cousins to Pierre Garcon.
Washington personnel: “10” or Jet (one back, no tight ends, four receivers)
Atlanta personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: With Kirk Cousins making his second career start after Robert Griffin III was benched for the rest of the season, Washington was dealing with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm.
While Cousins did a lot good things in this game (64.4 completion percentage, 381 yards and three touchdowns), he also had moments where he showed his lack of experience. This two-point try with the game on the line—a tough spot for any quarterback—was one of those moments.
To start, with four down linemen and one linebacker for the Falcons, it sure looked like an inside run for Roy Helu was the best option, but it’s unlikely Cousins would have that kind of authority. Coach Mike Shanahan, though, could have called timeout (you can see him right next to the official at the 2-yard line). But Shanahan liked the look.
"I thought we had the right defense, so we went for it," he said.
The pass concept was for Josh Morgan (15) to pick cornerback Desmond Trufant (21), who was covering Garcon (86), and open up a pass in flat. But because Trufant had outside leverage on Garcon, that made it very tough for Morgan to pick him.
Despite that, Cousins had two openings to throw the ball. Morgan was left open after the pick, and Garcon had a step and the entire right corner of the end zone open if Cousins pulled the trigger. He didn’t, and by the time he did, Trufant had recovered and knocked the ball away. It’s a play Cousins is confident he would make with more experience.