Week 11: The Decisive Moments

Breaking down the key plays in wins by the Steelers, Raiders, Saints and Bears

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jerricho Cotchery (89) got congrats from fellow Steeler Markus Wheaton after the late fourth-quarter TD that sealed Pittsburgh’s unlikely comeback win over the Lions. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Matt Schaub may not be a popular quarterback for the Texans, but he was right to be upset with receiver Andre Johnson in a loss to the Raiders (though not to show him up on the sideline); the Bears took a page out of the rival Packers’ playbook to beat the Ravens in overtime; and the Saints took advantage of good technique and a backup guard to setup their victory over the 49ers.

But first we’ll start in Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Jerricho Cotchery caught the inexperienced Lions’ secondary napping to seal a victory that, amazingly, kept the 4-6 Steelers in the playoff hunt.

Detroit at Pittsburgh

Score: Steelers 30, Lions 27

Time: 2:35 left in fourth quarter

Situation: 3rd-and-5 at the Detroit 20

Result: 20-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery

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

Lions personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)

What happened: When Lions safety Louis Delmas (26) showed in the box to cover tight end Heath Miller (83), the Steelers knew they had a good playcall if Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis (31), matched up on Markus Wheaton (11), and backup safety/nickel back Don Carey (32), covering Jerricho Cotchery (89), weren’t aggressive. They weren’t.

The Steelers were faking a tunnel screen to Wheaton, one of my favorite plays, which you see a lot on the college level and increasingly in the NFL (Broncos, Eagles). Roethlisberger played his part, squaring up to Wheaton—not that it mattered because Carey correctly had eyes on his man and played inside leverage. But he made a mistake when he saw Wheaton out of the corner of his eye pop for the screen and then started at him. Cotchery hesitated as if he was going to block, then continued his route. Both Lions defenders were eyeing Wheaton, which meant Cotchery was all alone for the game-clinching touchdown. 

“We should have a guy on him,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.

“It was kind of a call we dusted off,” Roethlisberger said. “Thought we could get J-Co running down the sideline, put some air on it, let him run under it and let him make a play.”

Cotchery said the Steelers’ propensity to run receiver screens sold the fake.

“It’s a play to keep teams honest,” Cotchery told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We have a variety of plays when we run screens to receivers. Sometimes we fake it so you never know where we’re going to run it. It’s a great counter to our screens to our receivers. Everyone in the stadium thought I was running the screen. It popped wide open. It had to be one of the longest moments ever, the way the ball was hanging up there. It was a perfect ball. I was able to come down with it and seal the deal.”  

Oakland at Houston

Score: Raiders 28, Texans 23

Time: 1:15 left in fourth quarter

Situation: 4th-and-7 at the Oakland 8

Result: Matt Schaub pass to Andre Johnson broken up by safety Usama Young

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

Raiders personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)

What happened: It was desperation time for the Texans, which meant it was time to look for star receiver Andre Johnson (80) in the left slot. Houston had a good chance at this play even though the Raiders only rushed three and dropped eight into coverage—mostly in the end zone since the Texans needed a touchdown.

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The Texans were fortunate that middle linebacker Nick Roach (53) immediately turned his attention to his left. That meant Johnson, who (amazingly) wasn’t doubled, had a chance at his post route with no one in the middle of the field. Schaub correctly led Johnson and high—to give him a chance against the small secondary of the Raiders—but there was one problem: Johnson inexplicably stopped his route. That allowed Young to easily come up and break up the pass.

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“I messed up—I’ll just put it like that. I messed up,” Johnson said after the game, taking the blame. “I didn’t do my part. I could’ve made a play that would have had a different outcome.” There was no excuse, however, for Schaub to verbally go after Johnson on the sideline after the play. But that’s what happens when you’re losing an eighth straight game.

“It’s just emotions, emotions of the game, a culmination of a lot of things but stuff we will keep between us,” Schaub said. “He is a great guy and a great competitor, as am I. Just the heat of the moment, but that is behind us.”

Baltimore at Chicago

Score: Ravens 20, Bears 20

Time: 10:57 remaining in overtime

Situation: 1st-and-10 at the Chicago 35

Result: 43-yard completion from Josh McCown to TE Martellus Bennett that set up the game-winning field goal

Bears personnel: “22” or Ace (one back, two tight ends, two receivers)

Ravens personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)

What happened: An NFC North team, looking to get into game-winning field goal range, aligned in a 3 x 1 set with a running back left in to block against the Ravens, who were bringing an extra rusher in Cover 1 (one deep safety), took advantage of a size mismatch to target the tight end on a big gain.

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Hmmm. Seems vaguely familiar. Actually, it was like déjà vu all over again.

In Week 6 the Packers ran the same personnel with similar concepts against the Ravens to produce a 52-yard reception by tight end Jermichael Finley.

Five weeks later it was the Bears’ turn to borrow from their hated rivals to the north.

The slight wrinkle was Chicago brought in tackle Eben Britton as an extra tight end, which showed a stronger possibility of a run. Instead of Packers TE Andrew Quarless clearing out a linebacker for Finley to run a slant against safety Matt Elam, the Bears kept Britton in to block. That meant the 6-6, 265-pound Bennett was on a seam route against cornerback LaDarius Webb (5-10, 182). Webb played inside leverage, and Josh McCown— with an assist from running back Matt Forte (22), who picked up the blitzing Elam (26)—made a decisive back-shoulder throw away from the lone deep safety and then let Bennett’s size win the play.

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“You know, it was taking a shot with any of our three big guys,” McCown said, “When the call came in, I can remember making eye contact with Jay [Cutler] on the sideline, and he was just smiling. We got the coverage we wanted, and it was a great call. Martellus made an awesome play. So we were able to move the safety towards Brandon and then get back to Martellus.”

Said coach Marc Trestman: “The play was designed to throw a slant and go to Brandon [Marshall]. We were fortunate, I believe we caught them in a blitz. A single=safety defense. That’s what we wanted. A chance to move the safety and work down the seam or outside lane to Alshon [Jeffery].”

San Francisco at New Orleans

Score: 49ers 20, Saints 20

Time: 2:06 left in the fourth quarter

Situation: 1st-and-10 at the San Francisco 20

Result: Colin Kaepernick sacked for a 9-yard loss

49ers personnel: “11” or posse (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

Saints personnel: Dime (six defensive backs)

What happened: The Saints were looking to get the ball back to win the game when they only rushed four on this first-down play. But it was far from simple. On the right side of the Saints’ line, end Junior Galette and linebacker Keyunta Dawson (playing tackle in the sub package) ran an end-tackle twist or game. The premise is Dawson will basically pick left tackle Joe Staley, and hope that backup guard Adam Snyder (in for starter Mike Iupati) won’t recognize or be athletic enough to pick up Galette.

As a general rule, the offensive line zones twists—meaning they play their area, not the man. Linemen, who have viewed film coming into the game, look for alignment clues that a twist might be coming and are on alert. Perhaps Snyder should have been on the lookout for something since Dawson was not in the normal “three technique” outside shoulder of the guard. Dawson was in four technique—between the guard and tackle—which would seem to be unusual for a first-down play. But the Saints align so many different ways, it might have been hard to tell. 

Snyder had to know that if Dawson was aligned so wide, Snyder was going to have to find a way to keep Dawson from picking Staley. But at 31, Snyder is no longer fleet of foot, so he could have been fearful of giving up a quick inside rush. In any event, Snyder compounded the situation by being slow off the line. That left him with no chance to make contact with Dawson—which is a must against twists. The blocker who has the penetrator on a twist has to make contact to flatten him out. Snyder didn’t, and the result was what happened. Snyder and Staley were on different blocking levels, which made for an easy pick and allowed the looper, Galette, to quickly close on Kaepernick for a huge sack that set the wheels in motion for the game-winning field goal.

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