Every week is filled with big plays that turn the tide of games. Plays that lock things up for the leading team or dramatically turn the tables. Plays that make future Hall of Famers into goats for a day, and nobodies into heroes for life.
Week 4 was no exception, and I've put its biggest, weightiest, "whoa"-est, most interesting plays under the searing gaze of the telestrator. If you're looking for an advanced, Xs-and-Os look at this week's meatiest, most critical plays, you've clicked to the right place.
Aaron Rodgers' touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson
The Packers were down by six points with just 7:05 left in the game. Perched on the Saints' 11-yard line, Green Bay knew it needed to find the end zone to stay in the game. That, it did:
The Packers line up in in the shotgun with three receivers to the right ("trips"). Donald Driver is in the inside slot, James Jones is outside of him in the slot, and Jordy Nelson is the flanker. Jermichael Finley is the split end at the top of the screen.
It's tough to see, but the Saints are in a 3-3-5 nickel, with three down linemen, both outside linebackers set to blitz on either side of the nose tackle and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton dropping into zone coverage:
At the snap, it looks like man coverage; all four Packers targets have a New Orleans defensive back lined up directly over them.
Driver gets jammed by safety Malcolm Jenkins, but Jenkins can't stay with Driver as the veteran wideout cuts toward the far sideline. Nelson gets a jam from Saints corner Patrick Robinson, but Robinson seems to be protecting the sideline and has no problem letting Nelson have the inside.
Here's what makes the play work: James Jones running straight for the end zone.
Cornerback Corey White seems to think he's responsible for Jones, but Lofton and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus also think they're responsible for Jones. White sees his two teammates converging on Jones and the ball flying to an open Nelson, and he tries to hit the rewind button:
Rodgers lets the ball fly the instant Nelson fights through the jam; if White hadn't been distracted he would have broken the pass up. But he was, and Nelson had just enough space to make the catch. Nelson's momentum let him truck-stick White for not only the first down, but the game-winning touchdown.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's end-zone interception
As the fourth quarter began, the Philadelphia Eagles were nursing a three-point lead against the New York Giants. The Giants were knocking at the door, with a 1st-and-goal from just outside the Eagles' 10-yard line (don't ask me how that works):
The Giants are lined up in a singleback formation, with Eli under center and three targets in a tight trips bunch to the left. Tight end Martellus Bennett was at the head of the diamond on the line of scrimmage, with fellow tight end Bear Pascoe to his inside and Victor Cruz to the outside.
The Eagles were in their base 4-3, though with the linebackers shaded hard to the right to cover the Giants' trips. To the right, the Giants parked a lone receiver manned up on an Eagles corner. The two Eagles safeties are quite tight to the line, about five and six yards deep. And then there's Rodgers-Cromartie.
Rodgers-Cromartie is lying way, way back at the goal line, wisely recognizing that something is up with this trips bunch. Outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks covers Pascoe's lookie route to the sideline, and middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans slides over to cover Cruz. Despite these mismatches, Eli throws for Bennett in the corner, who's beaten safety Nate Allen:
But Rodgers-Cromartie is lurking, just playing left field and sitting in between the two routes. Whether it's luck, skill or top-notch film study, DRC did a fantastic job of standing where Eli Manning planned to throw.
Brian Hartline 80-yard touchdown reception
Unlike most of the Biggest Plays of the Week, this did not result in a victory. But an 80-yard touchdown reception is an enormous momentum-changer, especially when it turns a one-point, fourth-quarter deficit into a seven-point lead with seven minutes left:
From one of the unlikeliest quarterbacks to one of the unlikeliest receivers, nobody saw this game-changing bomb coming—especially not the Cardinals.
At the snap, the Dolphins are in a surprisingly tame formation: a good old-fashioned "I." Hartline is at the bottom of the screen, ready to run a deep post route that crosses (I believe) Davone Bess. The Cardinals are in their base 3-4, with the two inside linebackers dropping into coverage and the rest of the front seven rushing the passer:
At first, it looks as though both outside corners have man coverage on the Dolphins receivers. Instead, left cornerback Greg Toler is playing a matchup zone on Hartline, and he attempts to pass him off to safety help:
Unfortunately, both Kerry Rhodes (right safety, higher on the screen) and Adrian Wilson (left, lower), see Bess's crossing route and think he's their responsibility. Here's a field-level shot of Toler passing Hartline off, while Wilson is clearly looking at Bess:
It's difficult to see, but here's a shot of a blurry Kerry Rhodes sprinting towards Bess while Hartline sprints the other way:
The result is a completely blown coverage and a crucial 80-yard touchdown.
Percy Harvin's return touchdown
Harvin returned game's opening kickoff 105 yards and scored; that ended up being the margin of victory on a day when his team scored no offensive touchdowns:
According to MLive.com's Justin Rogers, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said it was a victory of Xs, Os and film study:
I remember in our first special teams kickoff return meeting we saw some things, and we pointed out that if everybody held their blocks, Percy's going to score. I mean, it was obvious. There are some things that we saw if we just held our blocks and our guys did it. They leveraged the football. They got where they needed to be and Percy did the rest.
Let's see if we can see what they saw:
At the kickoff, we see nothing unusual. The Lions are lined up conventionally, and so are the Vikings. But by the time the Vikings are finished retreating, some things are taking shape:
Linebacker Doug Hogue and running back Stefan Logan were set up as the second- and third-leftmost players, but by now Hogue's inside the hash mark and Logan's nearly so. The Vikings have paired up into their two two-man wedges (the most allowed by current NFL rules), but are also double-teaming Hogue.
The key here is No. 34, running back Keiland Williams. He was initially lined up five yards outside the left hash, but in order to avoid former Lions fullback Jerome Felton's block, Williams dances to the outside of the right hash. The Lions' fate, and Williams, is sealed by Felton.
Hogue can't beat the upfield double-team, and one wedge takes out No. 97, Ronnell Lewis. The other wedge splits up; one man seals Logan, while the other, Matt Asiata, splits off to block the widest Lion, Jonte Green:
This creates the lane Harvin eventually runs through, having sprinted on a steep angle from the far right corner. Incredibly, one Lion does his job and then some. Special teams captain John Wendling:
Wendling was lined up all the way to the right, but he shadowed Harvin's sprint to the left around all his blocked-off teammates. He has neither the angle nor the speed to make a play, though, and Harvin races off to the end zone untouched.
The Lions overcommitted to the right and didn't penetrate deep enough downfield to prevent Harvin from beating them far to the left. The Vikings knew exactly who they had to keep from making the play, and they made sure they had more than enough beef in place to block them.
That's the power of breaking down film.
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