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The Anatomy of a Game-Winning Play

Tyrann Mathieu has made some splashy plays already as a rookie, but it was something subtle he did that led to a fourth-down stop, sending the Cards to their first win of the season. He explains in his own words

Tyrann Mathieu has 13 tackles, a pass defensed and a forced fumble in two games since being selected in the third round

Tyrann Mathieu has 13 tackles, a pass defensed and a forced fumble in two games since being selected in the third round

TEMPE, Ariz. — NFL coaches often preach to their teams how the outcome of games can be determined by one or two plays, a point that played out repeatedly through the first two weeks, when a league-record 22 games were decided by a touchdown or less. One of them occurred last Sunday in University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals overcame an eight-point, third-quarter deficit then held off the Lions in the final two minutes for a 25-21 victory.

There were no shortage of key plays for Arizona, including Justin Bethel blocking a field-goal attempt midway through the fourth quarter to keep the deficit from reaching double digits, and Andre Roberts drawing a 31-yard pass-interference penalty with just over two minutes to play to set up Rashard Mendenhall’s decisive 1-yard touchdown run. Still, one of the more memorable moments occurred with 1:15 left, when the Lions faced a 4th-and-4 from their 43-yard line. A conversion would keep hope alive for only their second 2-0 start in the last six years. A stop would mean an Arizona victory.

The Cardinals got the stop when rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu tackled 11-year veteran Nate Burleson one yard short of the first down. The play lasted only six seconds on the game clock, but in real time it took nearly 160 hours, the week of preparation that led to the decisive moment. On Tuesday, Mathieu interrupted his studies for this week’s game against the Saints to dissect what was involved in the play and why he was able to prevail against an offense that ranked No. 2 in passing last season and a QB, Matthew Stafford, who has eight fourth-quarter comeback wins.

Mathieu leaned forward in his chair at the team’s training facility and slid his finger along the bottom of an iPad, forwarding a replay of the game to the decisive play. He could not have looked more comfortable, in his chair or on the screen. He wore black shorts, a sleeveless white T-shirt and a confident grin.

“I wouldn’t say that I KNEW the ball was coming to me,” he says. “But there was a high probability that they would target me.”

For starters, Burleson had advantages in experience, height (6-0 to 5-9) and weight (198 to 186). To that point in the game he also had caught seven passes in seven targets for 45 yards. Surely he could get four more and prolong the drive.

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Before the snap, the Lions shifted into an empty-backfield formation that featured two receivers on the left and three on the right, which is where Brandon Pettigrew was at tight end, Calvin Johnson was in the slot and Burleson was out wide.

We’ll let Mathieu take it from here:

They ran this route probably the entire game when I was out wide, so my whole thought process is, “They’re going to run Calvin away like they’ve been doing and try to get the ball quick on a slant route or drag route so he can outrun everybody, or they’re going to come to me backside." Earlier in the game these two guys (Johnson and Burleson) were closer to each other in this formation, so when I see Nate move farther out, I already know he’s trying to get back to the inside. My whole thing was that I’m just going to try to (disrupt) him at the line of scrimmage. I know he’s not going to go deep because I’ve got a deep safety back there, so I really just want to take away the inside and drive on the ball. 

We had pressure on so the ball had to come out quick. We were in man coverage, but I didn’t want to get right up on him at the line of scrimmage. He’s a crafty vet. He was pulling my arm and doing all kinds of things to me during the game and I wasn’t about to get into a mind game with him. I was just going to back off a bit, wait for him to come and try to press on me, then get my hands on him and redirect him.

My whole thing—and this was just from film preparation—he comes off the ball and he just gives you his chest (meaning he doesn’t use his hands to protect from being jammed in the upper body). I hadn’t played cornerback for almost two years, and those are fundamentals that don’t come back in a week. So the whole game before this I was press-bailing (one jab at the receiver, then turning and running with him) because I hadn’t gotten comfortable with press coverage yet. That’s probably what he thought I was going to do again. But this last play—it’s 4th-and-4 so you can’t press-bail. I had to man up.

I knew from my film study that he liked to give you his chest, but I didn’t try to jam him there the entire game. You have to save it for a special moment, because if you start pressing him at the beginning of the game and have success, he’s going to change up. But that was the perfect time because I hadn’t done it. I was in his face, but I hadn’t put my hands on him. But this was the perfect time. He wasn’t expecting it.

Burleson took a couple of steps off the line and, just as he was preparing to try to juke Mathieu, the heady safety jabbed both hands into Burleson’s chest, disrupting his route.

It actually kind of flattened his route. If he had been able to get up on me or I had been on the line and he got inside leverage on me, he could have easily caught the ball and stuck it out for a first down. I think Calvin was the primary receiver on the play, just because of the situation. But Patrick (Peterson, Arizona’s Pro Bowl cornerback) took the slant or drag away so fast that the quarterback had to go elsewhere. He wasn’t going to have time to look to his left, then come back to his right, so I figured the ball was going to come to me behind Calvin. Luckily I was able to make the play.