Week 6 in the NFL seemed to have a little bit of everything when it came to deciding games: improbable touchdowns (Patriots), utter ineptness (Texans, Vikings), strange decisions by players (Brandon Weeden) and coaches (Sean Payton, John Harbaugh) and brutal physicality (49ers)—and we’ll touch on some of that.
In this week’s Decisive Moments, we’ll look at how reserve Lions defensive linemen played a role in Brandon Weeden’s—and the league’s—biggest “boneheaded” play of the season, how the 49ers blocked to perfection to beat the Cardinals, and how half the Saints’ secondary was playing a coverage that aided in Tom Brady’s last-second heroics. But first we’ll start in Baltimore, where Aaron Rodgers and Jermichael Finley exploited a mismatch to clinch a big Packers’ road victory.
Green Bay at Baltimore
Score: Packers 19, Ravens 17
Time: 1:53 in the fourth quarter
Situation: 3rd-and-4 from the Green Bay 27
Result: 52-yard completion from Aaron Rodgers to Jermichael Finley
Packers personnel: “12” or “tiger” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Ravens personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: The Ravens had two timeouts remaining and were looking to force a punt for a shot at the game-winning field goal.
What Rodgers saw was fairly straightforward. The Ravens had one safety very deep, James Ihedigbo (32, just out of the picture above), and looked to be in straight man underneath. That gave Rodgers comfort knowing that, since the linebackers were matched up, they wouldn’t be dropping into throwing lanes.
With that as a pre-snap read, Rodgers simply looked for the best matchup. Hard to find a better one than Finley (6-4 ½, 250 pounds) against rookie Ravens safety Matt Elam (5-10, 208).
“I had told him I was 99 percent sure I was going to go to him,” Rodgers said. “We had two receivers on one side, and he ran a great route. He hadn’t had a lot of opportunities today, but when we had to have him make a play, he did.”
From there, it was on Finley to choose his route, depending on the leverage Elam played. If Elam played inside, Finley likely had a go route over the top. Elam played outside leverage, which made the throw easier. At that point, Finley had to make sure he kept the smaller Elam on his hip to ensure that the rookie couldn’t undercut the route.
“The guy had outside leverage,” Finley said. “So I took the inside route and made it count.”
With TE Andrew Quarless chipping Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil on his way out into a pass route, Rodgers had the protection needed to deliver a strike to Finley on a quick three-step drop. Game over.
“We thought we had the call that we wanted,” said Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs. “They went to the tight end and won the one-on-one matchup. You can’t let a quarterback like that make a play like that. He made a good play, and that helped them win the game.”
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Detroit at Cleveland
Score: Lions 24, Browns 17
Time: 4:44 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: 1st-and-10 from the Detroit 44
Result: Interception by Lions LB DeAndre Levy of a pass from Brandon Weeden to Chris Ogbonnaya
Browns personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Lions personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: Well, one of the dumbest plays so far this season—one that is sure to be included on a future version of NFL Films’ Football Follies.
The Browns were driving for a tying score and were moving well with two passes to Josh Gordon for 33 yards and a seven-yard pass to Jordan Cameron in four attempts. Weeden, who has a bad tendency to lock onto his first target, saw that Cameron was well covered in the middle of the field, so he looked for his outlet in the flat, Ogbonnaya.
Weeden was initially well protected against a Lions line that had only one starter, LDE Willie Young, in the game. Starters Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah had given way to C.J. Mosley (99), Andre Fluellen (96) and Devin Taylor (92). But Fluellen and Mosley ran a stunt inside, and Mosley charged at Weeden when left guard John Greco (77) couldn’t sustain his block. At the same time, Taylor was able to position himself in Weeden’s throwing lane to Ogbonnaya, which caused Weeden to pump fake. Mosley lunged at Weeden, who thought he would be able to throw the ball out of bounds—backhanded, mind you—about 10 yards.
“I was trying to flip it over Obie’s head,” Weeden said. “[Mosley] hit my left ankle, and I couldn’t really turn to throw it. Didn’t want to take a sack there, tried to flip it as far as I could over Obie’s head. Anytime you try to underhand stuff, bad things happen. It was just a boneheaded play.”
Yes, Weeden made a play that he will try to forget, but two anonymous Lions—Taylor and Mosley—applied the pressure that made Weeden attempt the unimaginable.
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Arizona at San Francisco
Score: 49ers 22, Cardinals 20
Time: 6:39 left in fourth quarter
Situation: 2nd-and-goal from the Arizona 6
Result: Six-yard touchdown run by Kendall Hunter
49ers personnel: “22” or “tank” (two backs, two tight ends, one receiver)
Cardinals personnel: Goal line (three defensive backs)
What happened: After LB Patrick Willis forced a fumble on Cardinals WR Larry Fitgerald, the 49ers went to work on the ground, holding the ball for 10 minutes—including eight straight runs to finish off the drive.
The final play was a thing of blocking beauty. Teams detest when opponents can run the ball in from inside the 10-yard line—so the Cardinals will be doubly upset when they see the mammoth hole that the 49ers were able to punch into their front on this play.
The 49ers ran a simple guard power play—”We ran ‘94 power’ probably 12 times in a row,” fullback Bruce Miller said, after the game, overstating slightly—where the backside guard (Mike Iupati) pulls in front of the back, Hunter.
The key blocks on the play were RG Alex Boone (75) and RT Anthony Davis (76) collapsing two Cardinals linemen to the 49ers’ left, and then TE Vernon Davis (85) sealing inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (56). Miller (49) took care of ILB Daryl Washington, and Iupati (77) helped on Dansby as Davis’ block weakened. Goodwin also got pieces of two players on the backside.
What was left was an enormous hole. It was perfect execution by the entire 49ers run-blocking unit—with four linemen finishing on the left side, leaving just one (Iupati) on the front side. The resulting picture should be put up in the offensive line meeting room. It was that impressive.
“We grinded some meat,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Definitely the game could have gone different ways. I thought our players really toughed it out when they needed to, and that drive was an example.”
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New Orleans at New England
Score: Saints 27, Patriots 23
Time: 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter
Situation: 2nd-and-10 from the New Orleans 17
Result: 17-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Kenbrell Thompkins
Patriots personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
Saints personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: The Patriots were in obvious desperation mode, down to probably two plays, with the receivers running all go routes into the end zone. Everyone has seen the replays: Brady threw to the back corner of the end zone, making a perfect pass just over the outstretched hand of cornerback Jabari Greer (33) for the game-winning score to Thompkins.
What I found interesting is how the top side of the Saints’ defense played very loose coverage defending the goal line, and the short side played a little bit more aggressively. Malcolm Jenkins (27) played underneath slot receiver Austin Collie (10), and Greer played about five yards tighter on Thompkins than the other edge corner did.
Not only did this give Brady a clearer picture of where to go with the ball, but it allowed Collie’s inside route to affect coverage. Safety Rafael Bush (25) watched Collie, so he was very slow reacting to Brady’s throw. Linebacker Curtis Lofton (50) dropped deep, so he was able to, in effect, double Collie. That should have freed up Bush to cheat toward Thompkins, but he didn’t. Normally in that situation, defenders are taught not to let receivers make a play behind them. From the reaction of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after the play, it looked as if either the call wasn’t communicated properly—there was a lot of chatter between Greer, Jenkins and Bush just before the snap—or wasn’t executed properly.
Even with all that, it was a perfect pass and catch, and Greer was still in a position to knock the ball away.
“We fought with everything to be in the position we’re in. And to have one play change everything, it’s tough to stomach, especially being the person …” Greer said. “It’s very humbling. You never want to hurt your team. But also I know I’ve made that play a lot of times in my career.
“You have to be confident and know that play doesn’t define you. But as a team, to lose like that, it’s just as tough. We fought so hard and to have it slip through our fingers like that, it’s hard to swallow.”
Said Brady: “We sent all the guys to the end zone, and at that point you’re just trying to pick a side. I looked right and came back left and saw K made a move and slipped behind him, and I just tried to put it back there where he could make a play. That was pretty sweet.”