Week 1 Keys to Victory
Cincinnati at Chicago
Score: Bengals 21, Bears 17
Time: 8:06 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Chicago’s ball, 1st-and-10 at Cincy’s 19
Result: Jay Cutler throws a 19-yard touchdown to Brandon Marshall
Bears personnel: Regular (two backs, one tight end, two receivers)
Bengals personnel: Base 4-3
What happened: When Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall saw Bengals linebacker James Harrison covering Marshall in the slot, I’m surprised they didn’t false start out of excitement. They were probably even more thrilled when Harrison showed for all to see that he was blitzing Cutler, meaning one less man in coverage. It would have been a mismatch for Harrison to cover Marshall even with help from safety Reggie Nelson. It became a no-brainer for the Bears to attack Nelson (5-11) going one-on-one against Marshall (6-4).
“I didn’t understand (the coverage),” Marshall said after the game. “Fourth quarter, with a safety on me one-on-one, I can only ask for that and dream about that.”
This was really quite simple. With Alshon Jeffrey and Marshall aligned away from the tight end, it resulted in man coverage, and a simple smash concept was easy pickings for the Bears. Jeffrey, the outside receiver, ran a hitch (in-breaking route) at about six yards, while Marshall ran a corner route. A smash route concept is the two routes in combination (some refer to just the hitch as a smash, but I like to refer to the overall concept). Nelson tried to play outside leverage against Marshall to force the route toward the single-high safety, George Illoka, but Marshall crossed Nelson and forced him to turn around, making the play even easier. Cutler, who didn’t have a defender within six yards of him despite the Bears not keeping an extra sixth blocker in against the five-man pressure, made the play interesting with a slightly late throw. Cutler said his read progression was tight end Martellus Bennett (doubled), then Jeffrey in the flat and finally Marshall, which is strange. Usually the corner route with Marshall is the first read.
“Marshall was one-on-one in the corner, which you love to throw,” Cutler said. “I put one up for him. Wish I could have thrown it sooner so he might not have had to take that hit, but he did good job of catching it, clutching it.”
The Bengals were likely supposed to check out the blitz and into a different coverage. But missing these kinds of audibles certainly happens from time to time, especially in the first game of the season. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer probably would have preferred to call a timeout, but Cincy had spent their final one a few plays earlier. Just a rough stretch for the Bengals.
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Seattle at Carolina
Score: Seahawks 12, Panthers 7
Time: 2:14 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Seattle’s ball, 2nd-and-10 at Carolina’s 37
Result: Marshawn Lynch runs for 14 yards
Seahawks personnel: “12” personnel, or “Ace” (one back, two tight ends, two receivers)
Panthers personnel: Base 4-3
What happened: Who said the read-option won't survive because edge defenders will put a hurting on quarterbacks? This play is a perfect example of how read-option teams can fool the defense and keep the QB clean.
On a basic read-option play, the quarterback reads an unblocked edge player, an end or linebacker. But the read-option at the college level is far more advanced; they’ve been reading other players (interior linemen) for a few years. The Redskins did this some last year, and with this play, the Seahawks have shown they will do it as well this season.
Thanks to a formation that puts the two tight ends wide and the receivers in the slot, the Panthers’ two outside linebackers have left the middle of the field, leaving only middle linebacker Luke Kuchley (59).
At the snap, Seahawks left guard James Carpenter slips to his right and inside first-round defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, avoiding him completely. Quarterback Russell Wilson reads Lotulelei, who charges up field, and gives the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch. Carpenter now has Kuechly in his sights on the second level. Lynch easily sidesteps Lotulelei, who freezes because he’s worried about Wilson taking off. Beast Mode then runs through the gap Lotulelei has vacated and works off Carpenter’s block of Kuechly, and the game is over. The play could have been even better if receiver Golden Tate showed any interest in run blocking.
This was the Panthers’ final shot. They had burned their timeouts and were hoping to use the two-minute warning to set up a third-and-long. The Seahawks had other ideas thanks to a tough-to-defend wrinkle in the read-option.
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Green Bay at San Francisco
Score: 49ers 31, Packers 28
Time: 3:26 in the fourth quarter
Situation: San Fran’s ball, 3rd-and-4 at its own 41
Result: Colin Kaepernick completes a 15-yard pass to Vernon Davis
49ers personnel: “11” or Posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Packers personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: With outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) and Nick Perry (53) on the line with two linemen, the Packers had a four-man front. Since Brad Jones (59) was the only inside linebacker on the field, along with six defensive backs, cornerback Jarrett Bush drew coverage against 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.
This is a really nice route concept by 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman against the Packers’ man coverage. By motioning Davis into the backfield, it becomes much harder for Bush to cover Davis. Roman also seemed to take well-timed advantage of Matthews’ aggressiveness toward the read-option on this play.
The play looks like a read-option, but it’s a play-action pass; you can tell because running back Frank Gore never even looked for the ball. But since it looks like the read-option, Matthews comes barreling at Kaepernick at the snap, only to get taken out of the play by Gore’s block. Not sure if Matthews had the option to get a piece of Davis on his way by, but it would have been helpful if he wasn’t so aggressive, recognized it was a pass and made contact with Davis as he crossed the formation. The Packers were playing man coverage in the secondary, so this was basically their only hope of stopping the play outside of Bush making a superhuman run at and tackle of Davis in the open field. That’s far from a strength for Bush: he’s a special teams hero.
In any event, the play is largely over at the snap. Two clear-out routes to the top of the formation and a free release by Davis left no one in the flat. Bush gets caught with his eyes in the backfield, and it took him 1.4 seconds after the snap to start running toward Davis. That’s way too late. Kaepernick and Davis had an easy toss and catch for a first down that was more crucial than the subsequent 4th-and-2 pass to Anquan Boldin that sealed the 49ers’ victory.
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Oakland at Indianapolis
Score: Colts 21, Raiders 17
Time: 1:12 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Raiders’ ball, 1st-and-goal at Indy’s 8
Result: Quaterback Terrelle Pryor is sacked for a 16-yard loss by outside linebacker Robert Mathis
Raiders personnel: “11” or Posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Colts personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: Everyone is still talking about the 19-yard, game-winning touchdown run by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, but there was still 5:20 remaining in the game when the Raiders got the ball back. And they marched down the field thanks to quarterback Terrelle Pryor hitting on passes of 41 and 21 yards—the latter coming on 4th-and-9—to get inside the Colts’ 10-yard line with 1:50 left to play and a timeout to spare. The Colts were reeling when defensive coordinator Greg Manusky dialed up a nifty pressure with the game on the line.
Indianapolis showed blitz as both linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) and safety LaRon Landry (30) crept up to the line. Just before the snap, outside linebacker Robert Mathis (playing end in the nickel defense) made a key adjustment when he slid to his left to play head-on with left tackle Khalif Barnes.
At the snap, neither Freeman nor Landry rush—both are in man coverage against tight end Mychal Rivera and running back Darren McFadden, respectively. But someone does rush: linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (52), who was playing behind Mathis.
Right defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois does a great job of blasting the gap between center Stefan Wisniewski and left guard Lucas Nix, consuming attention from both. Meanwhile, Mathis and Sheppard run a “game” where they play off each other’s actions. Mathis takes a path on the inside shoulder of Barnes, while Sheppard runs to the outside shoulder.
Barnes, the left tackle, passes Mathis off for Nix to block as he attempts to block Sheppard, but the left guard doesn’t see Mathis because he is double-teaming Jean-Francois with the center. Left unblocked, Mathis comes up the middle 2.51 seconds after the snap, leaving Pryor with no time to get rid of the ball. He’s sacked for a huge loss that severely dents the Raiders’ hopes of victory.