There were 16 games played this week in the NFL, and each seemed wilder and woolier than the last. A mountain of huge plays, botched calls, turnovers and overtimes kept NFL fans on the edge of their seat all Sunday long.
Some of those incredible plays were more crucial than others, though. Some were the fulcrum on which the whole game balanced. Some had been on the cusp of happening the whole game, and others struck like a bolt from the blue. Some of them drew first blood, and others were a dagger in the heart.
But each of these plays was not only critical to the outcome of their game, they're also a great look inside what's happening when Xs meet Os. Let's break down the biggest plays of NFL Week 3.
San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers Intercepted by Atlanta Falcons' Thomas DeCoud
DeCoud had two interceptions and a fumble recovery against the Chargers; he made many great plays. But this one was the one that decided the game.
Down 13-0 with two minutes left in the first half, the Chargers were facing 3rd-and-6 from their own 14. A conversion would give them a chance to drive for a score; if they could pull it off, they'd enter halftime down by only six and with all the momentum.
Instead, this happened:
The Falcons turned around and scored a touchdown. Instead of the Chargers threatening to pull within six, they went into the locker room down by 20 and out for the count.
This one is especially interesting, thanks to the pre-snap motion. The Chargers took the field lined up like this:
This is a shotgun formation, with four receivers lined up in "doubles" (two to each side). To the right, Eddie Royal flanks tight end Antonio Gates, who's in the slot. The Falcons are aligned aggressively, in a 4-2-5 nickel with all four linemen lined up wide and both linebackers at the line, showing blitz.
Rush end John Abraham jumps the snap count but gets back onside before the Chargers are ready to snap. Rivers checks at the line, and Royal goes in motion to put all three receivers in a trips bunch to the left:
DeCoud calls for cornerback Asante Samuel to follow Royal to the other side of the field, while DeCoud stays on Gates. Initially, the motion does its job: Samuel is still trying to catch up to Royal at the snap, and Royal runs a quick slant to the far sideline.
At this point, Gates is sitting wide open in front of DeCoud and the backpedaling Falcons secondary. The clearing routes being run by both left-half receivers pull Samuel downfield briefly before he recovers. If Rivers stands tall in the pocket and delivers right here, it's a first down:
Instead, he feels the heat of the blitz, breaks down, runs for his life and throws off his back foot to Gates, who's been sitting wide open. But DeCoud has plenty of time to close on the lofted effort from Rivers, and that he does—game-killing interception.
Mohamed Sanu Touchdown Pass to A.J. Green
The Cincinnati Bengals wasted no time in putting the at-home Redskins on the back foot. They went for the end zone on the very first play:
Obviously, this is not the Bengals' base formation. This is a variant on the Pistol formation, with the receiver Sanu at quarterback, guarded on either side by two running backs.
In lieu of a third back behind Sanu to form the "diamond" variant of the Pistol, the Bengals have tight end Jermaine Gresham lined up to the outside of the left tackle to pass protect. We can think of this as an unbalanced line. A.J. Green is in the right slot, and quarterback Andy Dalton splits wide to the right.
Commence Redskin back-seven freakout:
Free safety DeAngelo Hall calls for someone to get on Green, and strong safety DeJon Gomes sneaks up, way up, to the line. The Redskins show blitz, with 10 men in the box at the snap. But Hall smells a rat and gives Dalton about nine yards of cushion:
The key to making the whole play go comes next: Sanu flashes a play fake toward tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Gomes and the rest of the Redskins secondary bite just long enough for Green to rocket past the secondary.
This is my biggest gripe about Pistol and/or Wildcat concepts: splitting a pocket passer like Andy Dalton wide. What is he doing here? Nothing; Hall pays him no mind at all. Hall breaks deep to cover Green, but it's already too late.
Sanu gets off a perfect pass in the face of the Redskins' rush, and Green is off to the races. This opening touchdown would be the margin of victory in a 38-31 Bengals road win.
Joe Flacco Pass Intended for Jacoby Jones
On 3rd-and-9, with 51 seconds left in the game, down by two and driving for the game-winning field goal, Flacco and the Ravens took a shot at the end zone:
The lineups here are conventional, though maybe not consistent with what fans think of as the "identity" of either unit. The Ravens are lined up in a four-receiver set, with Flacco in the shotgun. The Patriots are in a 4-2-5 nickel, with four defensive backs matched up against the four Ravens targets, plus a single high safety playing center field:
At the snap, all four Ravens targets take off downfield. The Patriots "send" one linebacker, though it appears he's actually singled up on Ray Rice. Flacco immediately sees Jones beat corner Kyle Arrington one-on-one and lets it fly:
What's interesting here is where Flacco throws this ball. Jones has thoroughly torched his man, and if Flacco leads him at all, it will be to untouched swathes of glorious Sportexe Momentum Turf. Instead, Flacco throws well short, to Jones' back shoulder, forcing him to hit the brakes and make a major adjustment:
Jones, who had a two- or three-step lead on Arrington, ends up coming to a complete stop and jumping backward to get to the ball. Arrington, unable to slow his momentum, plows into Jones, drawing the flag.
It's possible that Flacco simply threw it poorly, underthrown and off-center, blowing a possible touchdown strike. Or perhaps, Flacco saw safety Steve Gregory flying over to make the play and chose to put it where only Jones could get it.
Either way, the play was an unqualified success; 4th-and-9 from the same situation would have been all but impossible. Instead, the Ravens got a 1st-and-goal from the Patriots' 7-yard line...and shortly thereafter, the win.
Blaine Gabbert's 80-yard Game-Winner to Cecil Shorts
Colts fans were on their feet for the final minute of Andrew Luck's home-opening win, and the Jaguars took over with 56 seconds to go a long, long way:
But with a single play, Gabbert and Shorts turned imminent defeat against a rebuilding Colts team into a resounding road win. So what happened?
The Jags went with a four-wide "doubles" set, out of the shotgun, and the Colts countered with a 4-2-5 nickel. It was interesting, because the Colts are running out of a base 3-4 alignment this season:
Most Madden fans know the power of having both slot receivers run short out routes while your outside receivers run streaks downfield. Whether in man or zone, the outside and slot corner have almost no chance of locking down both routes:
Here, Jags receiver Mike Thomas' sharp cut gets him great separation from the Colts' Sergio Brown, and corner Jerraud Powers is fighting through Shorts to step up and cover Thomas:
Brown does a good job of staying with Shorts at first, but Shorts sees Gabbert quickly throw the seam route and feints inside. It's adequate to get Brown to turn around just enough, and Shorts breaks back upfield just in time to barely snag the ball. Powers saw the ball come loose too, just in time to realize he'd been had:
Gabbert made this play by getting rid of the ball so quickly, and Shorts did an outstanding job of running his route. Once he made the superlative catch, he was off to the races, and the Jags were off to take their victory lap.
Christian Ponder's Touchdown Scramble Against the 49ers
The Vikings were slowly nursing a fragile, tender 7-3 lead in the dying minutes of the first half. Apparently lucky to not yet have been trucked by the San Franciscan juggernaut, the Vikings were in field-goal range and still driving:
Christian Ponder pulled a vintage Alex Smith here, beating a team barely concerned about his arm with his feet.
The Vikings lined up in a singleback formation, with Ponder under center and receivers in trips to the right. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is lined up to the right for pass blocking. The 49ers are in their base 3-4, with both outside linebackers ready to blitz and both inside linebackers dropping into coverage:
What's interesting about this play is its design: a receiver screen to Percy Harvin. Immediately after the snap, Ponder looks Harvin's way:
You see the other two receivers don't run routes, they run block. Harvin drops back and waits for a pass that's never going to come. Why isn't it going to come? Well, because of 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks:
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald is about to destroy Ponder, but Brooks did an absolutely incredible job of elevating to stop what might have been a very successful play. Ponder tops both of them, though. Having the awareness to tuck the ball, the quicks to sidestep McDonald and flee the pocket and the tenacity to take it all the way to the house speaks volumes about Ponder.
Maybe the Vikings have found their quarterback after all.