Week 8 of the NFL saw more than its fair share of, shall we say, not-big plays. There were a few truly not-big matchups, not-big games and not-big plays. Even some of the NFL's best and brightest could only muster a dim flicker under the dark, approaching shroud of Halloween.
But there were a few games that went down to the wire, with explosive offenses and ball-hawking defenses and last-second dramatics. There were a few players who stepped up their play under the high-definition cameras and bright lights. There were a few truly big plays worth a longer look.
Here they are.
Doug Martin's 64-Yard Catch-and-Run
Martin, the rookie Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back, broke the game against the Vikings wide open by taking this screen pass to the house (at 2:45 of the video):
The Buccaneers are in the shotgun, with a tight trips bunch to the right and a split end out wide left. Martin is alongside the quarterback. The Vikings are in a 4-2-5 nickel, with tight man coverage on the split end and matchup zone coverage on the trips with the middle linebacker and other two corners.
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway is spying Martin:
What Tampa Bay is doing with the trips is intriguing: The tight end runs a flare to the outside, while the flanker crosses him to run a seam route, and the slot receiver runs a post. This puts the slot corner on a tight end, the outside corner on the slot receiver and the flanker on the middle linebacker (!) with deep safety help.
But instead of taking advantage of any of these matchups, quarterback Josh Freeman hits Martin on the screen. Guard Carl Nicks and center Jeremy Zuttah double-team defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who tries to split them with a spin move. Then they both release, leaving Guion unblocked, and focus on Greenway:
Nicks takes on Greenway one-on-one (and is nearly beaten), while Guion nearly catches up to Martin. But Martin jukes Greenway and stays ahead of Guion as Zuttah plows into the safety:
Martin hits the jets, burning past a safety and a corner before Tiquan Underwood puts a devastating block on the last man that has a chance.
Tim Jennings' Tide-Turning Pick-Six
The Bears were in danger of being upset at home by the 1-5 Panthers until cornerback Tim Jennings took an errant Cam Newton pass back to the house:
The Panthers are lined up in shotgun, with a tight end on either side of the line and two receivers to the right. The Bears are in their base 4-3, with the linebackers shifted left. Safety Major Wright has snuck way up in the box, and Steve Smith goes into motion, taking cornerback Kelvin Hayden with him:
At the snap, it's clear the Bears are playing very aggressive man coverage. Wright covers tight end Gary Barnidge, an outside linebacker picks up the other tight end and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher covers the tailback. Hayden is covering Smith man-to-man but is giving him a lot of cushion:
Newton sees this right away and locks on to Smith after the snap. Newton's eyes give Hayden a chance to break on the pass. Smith cuts, and Newton fires it high and outside, hoping Smith will use his separation to make a clean catch and get to the sideline or spin back inside. Instead, Smith slips on the Soldier Field grass:
Jennings is all alone. He easily makes the catch and has no one in front of him.
Vick Ballard's Game-Winning Catch-and-Run
The Indianapolis Colts had, surprisingly, pushed host Tennessee Titans to overtime. Despite quietly effective performances from Matt Hasselbeck and Chris Johnson, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck led the Colts to what would be a game-winning drive. Sixteen yards out, tailback Vick Ballard put the exclamation point on it:
Unlike the Buccaneers screen above, this play was never going to be anything but a screen pass. The whole team worked together to sell it.
The Colts are lined up in a three-receiver single-back set:
Right before the snap, flanker Donnie Avery motions inside. At the snap, he crashes down to block defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. Tackle Anthony Castonzo and guard Jeffrey Linkenbach pull to get in front of Ballard:
Meanwhile, Luck fakes a pitch to Ballard as he rolls to his right. Ballard effectively fakes catching it. See how the entire Titans defense is staring down Ballard above? Watch what happens when they see Ballard doesn't have it but Luck does:
The entire defense hits the brakes, stops flowing toward the play, and drifts back towards Luck's boot action. Ballard releases into the flat as Castonzo and Linkenbach run downfield to get ahead of the play. Wimbley recovers from the chip block to nearly make the play:
But Luck's pass is just out of Wimbley's reach. Ballard has a convoy in front of him down the sideline, and of course he makes the spectacular dive into the end zone that seals the win:
This is a good example of Luck selling a fake, but a great example of an entire offense selling a fake. That fake and boot action froze the entire defense just long enough to give Ballard the lane he needed.
Dez Bryant's Close-but-Not-Quite
The NFC East boasts some of the best rivalries in football, and when the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys, the stakes are always high. After the Cowboys came back from a 23-0 deficit, Dez Bryant had a chance with 16 seconds left to give the Cowboys a win for the ages:
But as you've surely heard, part of his hand came down out of bounds, nullifying the game-winning score.
It was still the biggest play of Week 8.
The Cowboys line up in a shotgun, three-receiver set. They have one tight end and one running back, both kept in to block on what would amount to a Hail Mary.
The Giants are in a soft dime: one linebacker, three cornerbacks playing soft man and three defensive backs playing as safeties in a deep Cover 3. There's nothing fancy here, schematically. It's three fly routes:
What makes this work is how shallow No. 23, defensive back Corey Webster, plays and the barest hint of a double move Dez Bryant applies to his route. First he feints outside, freezing both the corner and Webster:
Then Bryant cuts back upfield, catching Webster flat-footed:
Webster's only job here is to not get beat deep, but that's exactly what happens:
Romo overthrows a wide-open Bryant, and it's to Bryant's great credit that he went up and got it. If he'd just clipped his fingernails beforehand...
Which Play is the Biggest?
You decide: Which was the most explosive, the most momentous, the most schematically interesting or the just plain awesomest? Which play was the biggest of Week 8?
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