The NFL had its strangest week of the 2012 season yet in Week 10. There were unlikely results, special teams gaffes, head-slapping turnovers, defensive scores and return touchdowns by the bunch. There were offensive explosions, offense implosions, star players on milk cartons and even a tie!
But even amidst the nihilist anti-football that spread throughout the league in Week 10, there were some huge performances in critical spots. There were great play calls and some amazing execution.
There were some big plays in big moments—and out of all of them, the following were the biggest of NFL Week 10.
Jimmy Graham's Lead-Grabbing 29-Yard Catch
The Saints faced a must-win situation, with their season on the line against their undefeated division rival. Jimmy Graham rose to the situation with a monster two-touchdown game. His second not only gave the Saints the lead, it was a very clever play call:
The Saints are in the shotgun, with trips to the left (counting running back Chris Ivory and tight end Graham as receivers) and a receiver split wide to the right. There's a tailback, who'll stay in to block. The Falcons are in their base 4-3, with the cornerbacks giving plenty of cushion on 2nd-and-8:
At the snap, the outside receiver (Ivory) cuts back in and faces Brees, faking a screen. Slot receiver Devery Henderson actually slows up and dawdles for a second, as if he's planning to block downfield. Graham simply takes off and flies down the seam:
The Falcons blitz the strong-side linebacker, playing into the Saints' hands. The fake screen draws attention from the strong safety and middle linebacker, while the weak-side linebacker tries to catch up with Graham.
By the time Ivory completes his fake catch, Graham is past the linebacker and cornerback, and Brees is already throwing:
The middle linebacker and strong safety pull up, realizing they've been had. Henderson takes off downfield, and he would be open if the play weren't already made:
This is a blurry shot captured while the camera is panning downfield, but it's a great picture. Graham is somehow open despite five Falcons being in the shot; none have a chance to stop him.
Graham makes the catch with the cornerback, recovering free safety and trailing weak-side linebacker all two steps away:
He scores, and the Saints take the lead in what would be a season-saving upset.
Leonard Johnson's 83-Yard Pick-Six
Week 10's biggest plays couldn't be broken down without a defensive score. Let's look at the most incredible: Leonard Johnson's 83-yard pick-six against the Chargers:
This pick is incredible for many reasons, most of which have to do with simply not believing what Philip Rivers is doing on this play.
The Chargers are in a shotgun set, with two stacked receivers to the right and tight end and flanker to the left. A tailback is kept in to protect. The Buccaneers are in their 4-2-5 nickel, with both linebackers showing blitz:
At the snap, one linebacker pulls back into coverage, the Chargers do a great job of picking up the blitzer, and the pocket sets up nicely. So Rivers takes his time, finds the open man and...
...actually, no, he drifts backwards like a kid playing Madden. Then he settles down in the perfect pocket and...
...actually, no, he breaks down from pressure that isn't there and rolls to the sideline. There, his receivers do a good job of breaking out of their route and getting to open space, so Rivers throws it right to the defender.
Watching the clip at full speed, it's impossible to understand what happened, so let's see the other angle:
Rivers, rolling to the sideline, sees the open receivers:
And throws a strike to cornerback Leonard Johnson:
Talking about the play with Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, Johnson said he was "shocked" by Rivers giving him a free interception. "I had no clue he’d throw that to me," he said. Johnson's big play wasn't the pick, it was breaking a tackle from 335-pound guard Louis Vasquez, then taking it 83 yards to the house.
Dez Bryant's Unbelievable Touchdown Catch
Down 17-10 in the dying seconds of the third quarter, the Dallas Cowboys needed a big play to get back in the game. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant delivered:
The Cowboys lined up in a shotgun, four-wide "doubles," with the addition of a tight end lined up as a receiver to the left, and therefore an empty backfield. As it's 3rd-and-4, the Philadelphia Eagles were playing this look very aggressively to avoid giving up the first down. Their nickel package lined up in a one-high safety look, with tight man-to-man coverage on the outside and very shallow safety help:
At the snap, both slot receivers and the tight end run curls to the sticks. The linebackers, free safety and inside corner clamp down on these curls. This leaves cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie all alone on Bryant:
But the strong safety, Nate Allen, shows no intention of helping deep; he sits just behind the strong-side coverage. Romo reads this and lets fly.
All Bryant has to do is beat Rodgers-Cromartie deep, which he just barely does:
Romo made a nice throw, and Bryant a spectacular catch. This play tied the game and gave the momentum to the Cowboys, who eventually came away with a huge divisional win.
Adrian Peterson's 61-Yard Touchdown Run
With less than nine minutes left in the game, the Minnesota Vikings had just allowed the Detroit Lions to get within a touchdown. Momentum had swung to the Lions' side in the critical matchup. Then Adrian Peterson, bottled up all day, refused to be bottled anymore:
The Vikings were set up in an obvious running formation: an I formation, with two tight ends to the right and a single wide receiver split out left:
The Vikings plan to do the obvious: run to the strong side. But the play is blocked perfectly at the second level.
At the snap, the center sprints out to the second level and blocks the middle linebacker. The inside tight end takes on the strong-side linebacker. Right guard Brandon Fusco pulls to the strong side and attacks the cornerback, who, with no one to cover, snuck up in the box. This sets everything up:
Right tackle Phil Loadholt crashes down on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who gets into the backfield before Loadholt can hook an arm. The left guard occupies the other defensive tackle, Sammie Hill, and the outside tight end handles the strong-side defensive end.
The defensive line's inability to win any of its one-on-ones here grants Peterson safe passage to the next level:
Suh gets within the vicinity but can't get free of Loadholt. Every other Viking is holding his ground, and (former Lion) fullback Jerome Felton is ready to tee up on safety Erik Coleman:
Suh tries the "Eyy, he's holdin' here!" arm raise—which never works—after Peterson blows past. Fusco is amusingly upended by the cornerback, but he still does his job. Hill swims through the mess to get towards Peterson, but Peterson makes his only move and is off to the races.
The Lions knew exactly what was coming, but they got completely taken out of the play by the execution of the Vikings blockers. When Peterson gets to the second level untouched, he's going to make a big play.
You Decide: What Was the Biggest Play of Week 10?
You've seen the games. You've seen the scores. You've seen the plays at full speed, and you've seen the film. Now, it's time for you to decide: Which play was the Biggest of Week 10?