Decisive Moments: Game-Winning TDs Shouldn’t Be This Easy

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We saw different ways to win a game in the fourth quarter in Week 12. We saw great quarterback/receiver combinations (the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and the Panthers’ Cam Newton and Steve Smith) set up last-second victories with clutch conversions that moved the chains. And we saw the Titans execute the easiest game-winning throw and catch that you’ll ever see against the Raiders.

But first we’ll start in Kansas City, where two relatively minor technique issues by the Chiefs gave Philip Rivers and the Chargers the miniscule room needed to win one of the season’s most thrilling games.

San Diego at Kansas City

Score: Chiefs 38, Chargers 34

Time: 31 seconds left in the game

Situation: San Diego’s ball, 2nd-and-15 at the Kansas City 26-yard line

Result: Philip Rivers 26-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Seyi Ajirotutu

Chargers personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

Chiefs personnel: Seven defensive backs (sometimes called “Penny”)

What happened: The Chargers used a 3x1 set with three receivers to the wide side of the field, and TE Antonio Gates to the right. Seyi Ajirotutu (16) was the boundary receiver, with Vincent Brown (86) and Keenan Allen (13) lined up inside him. Allen ran a post and Gates crossed underneath crosser, allowing Ajirotutu and Brown to run two verticals at the deep safety, Quintin Demps (35).

Peter Aiken and Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Peter Aiken and Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Chiefs committed two minor technique problems that allowed this touchdown to happen. First, cornerbacks Sean Smith (27) and Brandon Flowers (24) didn’t reroute the receivers at all as they came off the line of scrimmage. When I covered Nick Saban during his tenure with the Dolphins—he’s one of the best defensive backs coaches in football—he always had his cornerbacks stick an arm into the chest of a receiver before playing trail technique. However slightly, it alters the offense’s timing, and it can be enough to fully disrupt a play like this. With no reroute, the receivers were allowed to quickly get on Demps, who had to respect both vertical routes.

The second (and worse) problem was that Demps failed to get proper depth. Backing off another four yards would have allowed him to attack either vertical route in downhill fashion, meaning quicker. But because he was so shallow, Demps took a flat route to the ball and was too late.

Demps took the blame for the play after the game on Twitter. “Please, do not give Sean Smith a hard time, fans,” he said. “That play was on me!”

That’s true, but you could also question the coverage employed by defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. The Chargers had no timeouts left, so giving up a throw in the field of play wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Playing with three deep safeties instead of what turned out to be one in reality would have been a better option.

“I thought it was a great throw on (Philip Rivers’) part,” coach Andy Reid said. “They say it’s a game of inches; we were off by an inch right there on the coverage. We had a man over the top of him and a man underneath him and Philip hit it right in the right spot.”

* * *

Tennessee at Oakland

Score: Raiders 19, Titans 16

Time: 15 seconds left in the game

Situation: Tennessee’s ball, 3rd-and-goal from the 10-yard line

Result: Ryan Fitzpatrick game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright

Titans personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

Raiders personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)

What happened: This was about the easiest game-winning throw and catch you’ll ever see from this distance.

The Raiders only rushed three players, so Ryan Fitzpatrick had a wide-open throwing lane. Kendall Wright (13) ran a simple 7-yard out as CB Tracy Porter (24) sunk into a zone, while Justin Hunter (15) ran a go to clear out CB Phillip Adams (28). Fitzpatrick made a good throw to Wright’s inside shoulder that turned him around and led him right into the soft spot of the zone.

“Zone coverage,” Porter told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was playing my assignment, and they made a good throw between me and the cornerback into a short window.”

Raiders coach Dennis Allen also absolved Porter.

“Tracy was fine,” Allen said. “It’s a tough route versus the coverage that we were in. I thought they did a good job of executing. But if I had it to do over again, I would have been more aggressive right there and come after them. So put that one on me.”

Not rushing the passer or getting physical with the receivers was the problem. But the truth is that neither of the cornerbacks played it well. Porter should have been more aggressive with the receiver closest to him once the routes started to develop. And Phillips could have been much more aggressive and driven harder at Wright.

Game-winning touchdown throws shouldn’t be this easy.

* * *

Dallas at New York Giants

Score: Cowboys 21, Giants 21

Time: 3:56 left in fourth quarter

Situation: Dallas’s ball, 3rd-and-7 at their own 23

Result: Tony Romo 19-yard completion to Dez Bryant

Cowboys personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

Giants personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)

What happened: One of the Giants’ safeties rolled down over the top of TE Jason Witten to indicate Cover 1 (man coverage underneath one deep safety). This left Antrel Rolle (26), who is normally a safety but was pressed into slot corner duty when Trumaine McBride got injured, one-on-one against Dez Bryant (88).

At the snap, Rolle did a nice job getting physical with Bryant and sniffing out the pick play from WR Miles Austin (19). Romo had two options on the play: the slant to Austin (higher percentage) or deep to Bryant. Romo chose the tougher throw. Rolle also did a nice job of staying over the top of Bryant. Romo threw to the back shoulder of Bryant, who made an incredibly difficult catch while falling away from the ball. Rolle’s coverage was tight, and it was just a tremendous play by Bryant in a huge spot. The catch was the first of several clutch plays on a drive that led to the game-winning field goal as time expired.

“I think there were a couple times where we were right there and I know that there were a couple times on Dez that I was in perfect coverage and Tony was able to just put the ball in places,” Rolle said. “I was able to hit the ball but it didn’t come loose. You have to give your hat to them, I think Tony made some exceptional throws and I think Dez did a great job in holding onto the ball even when I was punching at it.”

* * *

Carolina at Miami

Score: Dolphins 16, Panthers 13

Time: 2:33 left in the fourth quarter

Situation: Carolina’s ball, 4th-and-10 at its own 20

Result: Cam Netwon 19-yard pass to Steve Smith

Panthers personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

Dolphins personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)

What happened: Despite having one timeout and the two-minute warning left, Panthers coach Ron (Riverboat) Rivera pushed all the chips into the middle of the table by going for it deep in his own territory.

“We got to do it. We got to do it,” Rivera said of the gutsy decision after the game. “You know, this (Ryan Tannehill) is a very elusive quarterback. He showed it. He ran the ball very well. He gives them another threat. Just when you think you have him hemmed up, he breaks a big play.”

The Panthers’ fourth-down play was mostly a good throw and catch from Cam Newton to Steve: Newton delivered the ball well, and Smith did a great job catching and spinning away from the oncoming hit from safety Chris Clemons (30).

“(Newton) stepped up and made a good throw,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “Steve Smith ran a good breaking route. It was a good play.”

But the Dolphins also could have played it better given the down and distance. The call by defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was solid; it looked like Cover 3, after showing a pre-snap look of Cover 2 or quarters with Clemons playing a robber role, meaning he is free to roam the middle of the field, read the quarterback and make a play. Base on their study, the Dolphins had to be expecting Newton to go to either Smith (89) or tight end Greg Olsen (88). That meant Clemons had to read Newton and split the difference between those two receivers. Newton only gave a cursory glance at Olsen. Clemons should have driven harder at Smith once Newton looked his way. But he had his eyes in the backfield too long and was late to deliver a hit or jump the route. Cornerback Brent Grimes also didn’t help matters by giving too much cushion to Smith, and failing to get out of his break fast enough to drive on Smith.