Week 2 Keys to Victory

A critical look at the moments that turned the Bears, Bills, Texans and Saints into winners (and the Vikings, Panthers, Titans and Bucs into losers) on Sunday

Greg A. Bedard
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It was another crazy week in the NFL, as eight of the 15 games played through Sunday night were decided by four points or fewer. To go a bit deeper inside the games, we’ll take a look at four crucial plays that decided some of the closest contests.

Some of the points we’ll discuss:

  • How the Vikings got too cute against the Bears and have only themselves to blame for falling to 0-2.
  • How the Panthers learned a valuable lesson: that communication is often more important than physical ability in the secondary.
  • How a failure in his mechanics led to Titans quarterback Jake Locker blowing a critical play that should have delivered an upset win over the Texans.
  • And that without a heads-up play by Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, Drew Brees and Co. might never have gotten back on the field to beat the Buccaneers.

Minnesota at Chicago

Score: Vikings 30, Bears 24
Time: 16 seconds in the fourth quarter
Situation: Chicago’s ball, 3rd-and-10 at Minnesota’s 16
Result: QB Jay Cutler 16-yard touchdown pass to TE Martellus Bennett

Bears personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Vikings personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)


bears-vikings-twoWhat happened: Extremely curious call by Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams given the situation—if it was executed correctly. “They’re not going to like what they see on film,” Cutler said after the game. “It was two-deep (safety coverage), they should’ve had a pretty good play to defend it.” But the Vikings never got into their two-deep coverage, and that put cornerback Chris Cook on an island with no hope of rescue.

The back-shoulder touchdown reception
The back-shoulder touchdown reception. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Instead of playing their usual Cover 2 (two deep safeties), one safety, Jamarca Sanford, lined up between the left end and tackle, showing blitz. The other safety, Harrison Smith, was barking out calls to the right of Cutler, putting four defensive backs on a side where there are only two receivers. Cook (20) realized he was all by himself against tight end Martellus Bennett (83) and receiver Earl Bennett (80)—and possibly running back Matt Forte if he released—and motioned for Smith to help. Sanford didn’t retreat very far, and Smith didn’t get there in time. That put Cook in a bind: should he stay with Earl Bennett, running up the seam, or sink to Martellus Bennett, running a wheel route to the pylon after he and Bennett switched (crossed) off the line? Cook tried admirably to play both, and would have made the play if not for a terrific back-shoulder throw and catch from Cutler to Martellus Bennett for the game-winning touchdown.

“The play is designed to try and squeeze the corner, and open up an outside lane,” Bears coach/play-caller Marc Trestman said. “And if he squeezes to cover the wide receiver then the outside lane is available. It was going to be a tight throw anyway. The coverage was right for the play. But still, they had to execute the play.”

The coverage was right by the Vikings, but because they were consumed with bluffing Cutler into believing it was another coverage, the Vikings ended up outsmarting and burning themselves. “The corner got a little sneaky, came down with Earl (Bennett), and the safety stayed tight too, gave us a shot,” Cutler said.

* * *

Carolina at Buffalo

Score: Panthers 23, Bills 17
Time: 6 seconds in the fourth quarter
Situation: Buffalo’s ball on Carolina’s 2-yard line
Result: QB E.J. Manuel 2-yard touchdown pass to WR Stevie Johnson

Bills personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Panthers personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)


Wide open in the end zone.
Wide open in the back corner of the end zone. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

What happened: The Bills lined up in a 3×1 set with receivers Chris Hogan (15) and Johnson (13), and tight end Scott Chandler to the left of Manuel, and receiver T.J. Graham to the right. The Panthers showed an all-out blitz, so it was going to be man-to-man coverage across the board. Cornerback Josh Norman (24) was opposite Hogan, and D.J. Moore (20) was in the slot with Johnson. Moore motioned for Norman to be prepared to switch if they ran any sort of pick route. Johnson heard Moore and thought the play might be doomed. “The defender was yelling, ‘Check the corner, check the corner,’ to the outside guy,” Johnson said after the game. “Listening to the defense, I thought the guy was going to jump out later, but he didn’t.” Norman told reporters after the game that he didn’t hear the check. The Bills ran a smash concept, with Hogan running an in-breaking route and Johnson a corner to the pylon. The Panthers were in the right position, with Moore ready to drive on the crossing route, but Norman didn’t switch to take Johnson. If Norman did, he might have intercepted the pass.

* * *

Tennessee at Houston

Score: Titans 24, Texans 24
Time: 1:14 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Tennesse’s ball, 3rd-and-1 at its own 29 (the 2nd-down marker on the screen was a mistake)
Result: QB Jake Locker incomplete to WR Kenny Britt

Titans personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Texans personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)


What happened: This is the type of play quarterbacks and receivers dream about. Game in the balance, the defense coming with an all-out blitz and the cornerback is playing off coverage. If the quarterback can get a clean look against pressure, it doesn’t get any better than this.

That’s precisely the situation that Locker and Britt (18) found themselves in against the Texans. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips brought the house with a cover-zero blitz, leaving just four players in man coverage. Both safeties vacated the middle of the field and came blazing into the line as Locker called for the snap with 12 seconds left on the play clock. Since the Titans were using the silent snap count—the quarterback gives a signal and then the ball is snapped—the Texans were able to time the snap well as both safeties came barreling into the line. Still, it was picked up beautifully as running back Chris Johnson took out safety Shiloh Keo in Locker’s passing lane.

Despite having a clear picture and a clean pocket as Britt ran a shallow snap route with cornerback Jonathan Joseph about five yards off, Locker rushed his throw. Instead of stepping toward Britt, Locker stepped to the sideline, which caused his front shoulder to fly open in that direction as well. When the front shoulder of a quarterback flies open, that usually leads to a high pass. Locker’s throw was not even catchable for the 6-foot-3 Britt. If it was, he might have scored a touchdown since there were no defenders in the middle of the field.

One of the most important qualities for an NFL quarterback is the ability to stand firm in the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver the ball on target. Locker didn’t on Sunday, and he’s going to have to prove that ability if he’s going to continue to be the Titans’ starter. (The Texans, in case you missed it, won 30-24 in overtime.)

* * *

New Orleans at Tampa Bay

Score: Buccaneers 14, Saints 13
Time: 1:56 in the fourth quarter
Situation: Tampa Bay’s ball, 3rd-and-6 at New Orleans’ 32
Result: RB Doug Martin 3-yard rush

Buccaneers personnel: Tank (two backs, two tight ends, one receiver
Saints personnel: Base 3-4



What happened: The Saints had just taken their final timeout, so if the Buccaneers had converted this third down, the game would have been over and Saints quarterback Drew Brees never would have gotten a shot to drive the field for a game-winning field goal. Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan had to strike a balance between making sure the clock would run after the play with staying aggressive enough to get a game-ending first down. The play Sullivan called—a counter toss—was a very good call, and it would have done the job had left outside linebacker Junior Galette (93) followed the flow of the play like a majority of NFL players normally would.

The design was very good, and so was the execution by Tampa Bay. The initial movement of the play was away from Galette: Martin took a step to his left, and the fullback blocked that way and even the right guard pulled to that side. The entire front seven of the Saints flowed to that side, except Galette. He must have read quarterback Josh Freeman coming out from center to the right, or quickly saw Martin come back to the right. Whatever Galette’s key was, he was spot on. He took two steps up the field in perfect position with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage. When Freeman pitched the ball to Martin, Galette sprinted outside of Martin to force him back to the inside. The slight adjustment allowed the Saints’ pursuit players to make a tackle three yards short of the first down.

The play is predicated on Galette being fooled by the run action and being sucked up inside. If that happened, the play would have gone for a first down because the Bucs had the rest of the play blocked reasonably well. But because Galette stayed home, he blew the play up and gave Brees a chance to put the Saints in scoring position. Even more amazing is that Galette, despite getting a piece of Martin’s leg and being the key to the play, wasn’t even credited with a tackle.

Martin was dropped three yards shy of the first-down line.
Martin was dropped three yards shy of the first-down line. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI)

Good analysis on a detailed, tactical level.  Now, where's a meta-analysis of overall team execution, play-calling, etc?  Maybe ProFootball Focus?


The difference between this year's offense and the one Cutler had to put up with for the last three years is incalculable.

Cutler finally has the two things he needs most: time and weapons. And much better play calling.


Where has this analysis been? I dig it, a lot. 


Anyone notice that Brandon Marshall was an ineligible receiver on that play.  He is covered by Alshon Jefferies - both the Vikings secondary and the officials fell asleep on that play.


This is fascinating stuff. Showing some of the most interesting angles of the game. Must-read material for anybody who has interest in coaching. Please continue!
I use this opportunity to congratulate you on MMQB: I am amazed by the quantity of quality content you have been able to bring to readers this season. Keep it up!


Two weeks, and this is one of the best columns going so far this season. Great job with the analysis!


Why no out cry for the illegal formation in the Bears last play?  Both WR's at the bottom are obviously on the line.  That's illegal in NFL.

Tommy K
Tommy K

Excellent piece Greg. I love this weekly article and analysis. the Locker bit is especially good - if that was Tom Brady in the pocket - you are spot on, that is a TD for Britt all day long. Amazing at this level Locker cannot even throw a 5 yard in route with accuracy when he has the time. Even my boy P Rivers makes that throw to win the game... 


@MichaelSpires You're late - someone did notice, he's about two posts down from you. 


@Redtheidiot p.s.  Not actually an illegal formation, just and ineligible receiver.  You can line ten guys up on the line, they just cannot go out for a pass.


@Redtheidiot I was screaming (as a Bears fan) for at least one of them to get off the line and kept expecting a flag and the disappointment that comes with being a Bears fan, but I guess this could be the year when something like that happens.


@Tommy K the same phillip rivers that had a 21 point lead on Houston and couldn't win, hmmmmmmmmmm interesting


@Jim21 @MichaelSpires I think my replies to his post would indicate I was aware of that, just not when I posted immediately.  My replies to his post also do not post to my FB page whereas my original post does. 


@Jim21 @Redtheidiot NFL has also come out (in response to angry Vikings fans) that they really do not enforce that rule if the inside receiver is in the slot and not tight because there is no advantage to the offense.  Kind of lame - they need to actually change the rule if that is the case.