Sunday seemed to be a woulda-coulda-shoulda Week 8 in the NFL. There were several games that ended up not being so close on the scoreboard, but had the losing team just made a key play in a big spot, it might have gone down to the wire. They didn’t, so the finishes were devoid of drama.
We’ll take a look at two of those situations—a strange blitz call by Washington that led to the clinching Denver touchdown, and a failed blitz pickup by a Dolphins back in New England—and also highlight the ridiculous throw by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford that set the stage for his late-game heroics.
But first we start in Oakland, where the Steelers (2-6) had their last gasp against the Raiders and might have squandered what little hope they had of salvaging their season.
Pittsburgh at Oakland
Score: Raiders 21, Steelers 10
Time: 6:52 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Steelers’ ball, 3rd-and-3 at the Oakland 24
Result: Interception by CB Tracy Porter after WR Antonio Brown drops the ball when hit by CB Mike Jenkins
Raiders personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
Steelers personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
What happened: The Steelers’ previous drive ended when WR Antonio Brown dropped the ball as S Brandian Ross bumped him a little bit. Despite that miscue, Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Brown in a big spot.
Pittsburgh ran double slants, and it should have been easy money once Jerricho Cotchery (89) cleared out Porter on the inside slant, with Jenkins playing well off. It was an easy play, as Roethlisberger delivered a perfect ball that allowed Brown to protect himself and the ball against the oncoming Jenkins. But Brown wasn’t strong enough on the ball. Jenkins tackled him—without hammering the ball—and the ball jumped into the air. Coming off Cotchery, Porter was able to pick the ball before it hit the turf.
Two straight possessions. Two straight drops by Brown.
“Oakland made good plays both times, but I know I’ve got to hang on to those,” Brown told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Washington at Denver
Score: Denver 31, Washington 21
Time: 6:43 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Broncos’ ball, 2nd-and-20 at the Washington 35
Result: 35-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas
Washington personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
Denver personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
What happened: Despite turning the ball over on a Robert Griffin III interception (when receiver Pierre Garçon slipped), Washington still had a chance to hang in this game when a holding call against Denver and an incomplete pass pushed the Broncos to the edge of field-goal range, and into a long-yardage situation on second down. If Washington could hold them there, or even limit Denver to a field goal, it would still have a chance, trailing by 13 with about five minutes left.
It’s puzzling that Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett called a slot corner blitz (No. 26, Josh Wilson) in this situation. You have to figure either the Broncos are going to run it and settle for the field goal, or they’re going to look to get a chunk back with one of the many screens they like to use. Having Wilson blitz made the play easy for the Broncos to execute. It’s simple arithmetic, which is what offenses are looking to leverage on a tunnel blitz like this. Denver has three receivers (Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker) against two defensive backs (No. 23, corner DeAngelo Hall; No. 32, safety Jordan Pugh). Yes, LB London Fletcher (59) is part of the coverage package, but he’s going to be late against this play.
Nice design on this play, as the run action to Knowshon Moreno gets Washington’s front moving away from the pass. Wilson doesn’t get there in time to affect the throw, and it’s easy pickings for the Broncos. Decker takes Pugh, Welker picks off Hall, left tackle Chris Clark (75) easily dispatches Fletcher when he overruns the play, and then hustling left guard Zane Beadles (68) barely has to block safety E.J. Biggers (30) because he took such a bad angle and/or underestimated the speed of Thomas.
An untouched 35-yard touchdown on 2nd-and-20? That shouldn’t happen. It was either a bad call from the blitz-happy Haslett and the Broncos took advantage of his tendencies, or a defender didn’t check out of the blitz once the Broncos lined up.
Miami at New England
Score: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17
Time: 3:11 left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Dolphins’ ball, 3rd-and-3 at the New England 15
Result: 6-yard sack by end Rob Ninkovich, followed by a blocked field goal
Miami personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
New England personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)
What happened: Despite blowing a 17-3 halftime lead, the Dolphins had a chance to get back into the game with two timeouts (along with the two-minute warning) and a very manageable third down deep in Patriots’ territory.
When receiver Rishard Matthews (18) went it motion, it became evident that the Patriots were playing man coverage when cornerback Logan Ryan (26) went with him. The Patriots also had six players around the line of scrimmage, so something was up. New England came with a cross dog blitz as the two “linebackers”—Dane Fletcher (52) and safety Steve Gregory (28)—rushed the quarterback. Fletcher went into one A gap, and Gregory crossed behind him into the other A gap. The Dolphins’ offensive line picked it up perfectly, with a hat on a hat, and they had RB Daniel Thomas (33) in as an extra blocker to make it six Dolphins against six Patriots. The play call by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had TE Charles Clay (42) wide open for at least a first down, or more if he could break the tackle of safety Devin McCourty (32). Matthews was also a viable target on the outside.
There was one big problem, however. Thomas didn’t recognize where the free rusher would be coming from, and he blocked no one in the middle of the formation. That allowed Rob Ninkovich (50) to come in unblocked for a sack. Putrid pass protection by the Dolphins’ running backs has been a huge issue for the Dolphins this season, and it cost them in a huge spot again.
“[There’s] nothing special that we need to do,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “We just need to get the target on the right guys and execute the blocks and get the football out.”
The ensuing field goal attempt was blocked by Chandler Jones, and the game was all but over.
Dallas at Detroit
Score: Cowboys 30, Lions 24
Time: 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter
Situation: Lions’ ball, 2nd-and-10 at the Detroit 37
Result: 40-yard pass from QB Matthew Stafford to WR Kris Durham
Dallas personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
Detroit personnel: “11” or “posse” (one back, one tight end, three receivers)
What happened: Before the pass to Calvin Johnson that got Detroit down to the 1-yard line and the last-second heroics by Matthew Stafford, the Lions first had to get into position with 80 yards in front of them, 1:02 left on the clock and zero timeouts. Detroit was either going to need a great play by one of its own, or a defensive breakdown. They got both on this play, which got them into business in Dallas territory.
Hoping to avoid giving up a big play and trying to keep the clock running, the Cowboys ran a prevent version of their Tampa 2 coverage, with middle linebacker Sean Lee dropping deep down the middle of the field. That allowed the Cowboys to basically split the deep area of the field into thirds among the two wide safeties and Lee. And that’s what happened.
Stafford took the snap and felt a little pressure, so he moved to his right—the side of the field where the Lions were running two vertical routes. There was only one vertical receiver, Durham, on the other. It shouldn’t have been a problem for the Cowboys. But rookie safety Jakar Hamilton (32) played Stafford instead of his only possible threat (Durham, 18) and drifted slightly toward the middle of the field. That was all Stafford needed, as he quickly changed fields and threw a laser 48 yards in the air over cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32), who was in proper position for the coverage, and in front of Hamilton, who was way too late. Hamilton would also be late on the next play, the pass to Johnson at the 1.
“I’m at a loss for words, but I’ve just got to continue to work hard,” Hamilton told The MMQB after the game. “I let the team down. I lost the game, just by those two plays. I should’ve made those plays.”