NFL fans had an idea rookie quarterbacks would be huge this season. With a few rookies taking over teams with good coaches, it's no surprise rookies are making plays this late in the season and winning games with playoff implications.
That those rookies are Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles? That's a shock.
Sunday was full of one-score games and dramatic late winners, but the heroes of the games—making the biggest plays from NFL Week 14—were less often the ones you see in commercials between kickoffs and more often the ones just happy to be playing.
The winners, in turn, were less often the ones trying to lock up a playoff berth and more often the ones just playing for pride.
Week 14 was all the more fun for it.
Cam Newton's 72-Yard Scramble
Cam Newton was the precocious rookie everyone was buzzing about last season; this year, he's looked like the raw, talented young man fans expected to see when he was drafted.
The change in coaching staff surely didn't help Newton's "sophomore jinx," but as he's grown more confident in his new scheme, he's looked a lot more like the Superman everyone came to love in 2011.
For instance, take this play, where he and the Panthers took down the "1" at the end of the Falcons' 11-1 record and hung a "2" up there instead:
The Panthers were already up 16-0 on the Atlanta Falcons. With a 1st-and-10 in their own territory and 11:14 left in the third quarter, the Panthers needed to eat up some clock. So they turned to what Chris Brown of Grantland.com described as Carolina's "basics," their zone-read package.
The Panthers lined up in a three-receiver shotgun formation, with two running backs bracing Newton. The third receiver was lined up in the right slot. The Falcons were in what appeared to be a 3-3-5 nickel; the coverage package was one high safety, two outside corners and two slot corners:
The "zone read" run play hinges on the quarterback's read of the weak-side edge rusher, circled here in red. The offensive line does not block this player; instead, the quarterback reads if the player is going to attack the tailback or play the possible fake.
It's deceptively simple: If the rush linebacker attacks the running back, Newton should keep it. If the rusher plays the fake, Newton should hand it off.
At the snap, we see things according to Hoyle: Panthers right tackle Byron Bell is ignoring the rush linebacker and blocking the slot corner. The fullback to Newton's right is lead-blocking to the left, while tailback DeAngelo Williams gets ready to take the ball (or not):
Newton correctly reads the back-side edge rusher as attacking the handoff, so Newton keeps it himself and follows the block. The fullback easily picks up the other slot corner. The only Falcon who has a chance to make the play is No. 71, end Kroy Biermann. He, too, is drawn in by the play fake and follows Williams:
Newton, aided by a well-sustained Jordan Gross block, now has a fantastic running lane open. We see nose tackle Corey Peters attempt to tackle Williams, and cornerback Dunta Robinson pulls off his assignment to chase Williams' apparent run.
Newton would later tell The Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler, "When I was running I saw No. 23, Dunta Robinson, look back as if the running back had it. ... The only thing I kept thinking was, ‘I just can’t get caught.’"
This, along with Steve Smith's excellent downfield blocking, sprung Newton for a 72-yard score that all but sealed the divisional win.
Nick Foles Hits Jason Avant on the Doorstep
Down 21-16 with 22 seconds left to play, Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles were perched on the enemy's 23-yard line, needing a touchdown to win. On this play, they nearly got it:
The Eagles lined up in an interesting formation: a two-back, three-receiver shotgun, with Avant lined up in the slot to the right. The hosting Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed a dime look, with Lavonte David the sole linebacker:
With all four cornerbacks and the linebacker playing man coverage and two safeties dropped into deep zones behind, the Bucs have the field fairly well covered:
Then again, with the Eagles keeping both backs in to block, the protection is excellent, too. Foles has all day to find an open receiver—and he does. Nickel cornerback E.J. Biggers has drawn the assignment on Avant, and he slips as he flips his hips:
Avant gets the advantage and finds himself open in the gap between the Buccaneer safeties. Foles, as the announcers say, throws a strike to Avant, setting up the game-winning score.
Aaron Rodgers' Go-Ahead Touchdown Scramble
On Sunday Night Football, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were expected to extend a 20-year home win streak against their division-rival Detroit Lions. Down 14-10 in the middle of the third quarter, the Packers had just entered field-goal range.
But a field goal wouldn't get them the lead, so Aaron Rodgers didn't settle for one:
Rodgers and the Pack lined up in an effective "doubles" formation: a shotgun set, two receiving targets to each side (including tight end Jermichael Finley on the right and running back John Kuhn in beside Rodgers:
Finley and the left slot receiver are supposed to run matching curls, with the receivers running go routes on the outside. Kuhn is supposed to block, then release.
At the snap, Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson reverse-pancakes the Packers' left tackle and nearly sacks Rodgers:
At this point, the downfield man coverage is solid, and Rodgers has no daylight.
But Rodgers amazingly stays upright and flushes to his right, where there's plenty of room to roam. Lions linebackers Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch are locked onto their men, with their heads turned around.
Rodgers takes off, and by the time the Lions' back seven figures out what's going on, they've unwittingly "run blocked" themselves right out of the play. The Packers took the lead and never relinquished it.
Anthony Spencer's Pivotal Sack
Before Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium, both the home Cincinnati Bengals and visiting Dallas Cowboys desperately needed a win to keep their heads above water.
More importantly, the Cowboys family was hurting, trying to make sense of the car accident that took the life of teammate Jerry Brown—and possibly ruined the life of the intoxicated driver, fellow teammate (and great friend) Josh Brent.
With just under five minutes left to play, the Bengals were approaching midfield and nursing a two-point lead. If the Bengals could convert this 3rd-and-5, they'd surely drain another few minutes off the clock—and maybe push toward a that's-all-she-wrote score. Instead, this happened.
Fans often struggle when their team's defense doesn't seem aggressive enough. With a Ryan at the controls, that is not a problem for Dallas Cowboy fans:
Your eyes don't deceive you: That's 10 of 11 Cowboys up on the line of scrimmage, or just a yard or two off. The Bengals were in an empty-backfield, five-receiver set.
This is typically a smart formation to use when you really need at least five yards but anything more would be gravy; spreading the defense horizontally and getting a quick completion often gets the job done. Dallas, though, looked like they were going to sell out to stop that from happening.
At the snap, the ruse is revealed: Only four Cowboys rush, while the left slot "receiver" (actually running back Brian Leonard) chips DeMarcus Ware. Instead of six rushers against five blockers, it's actually four rushers against six blockers, with both press man and short zone coverage:
Initially, the pocket sets up well. But the confusing coverage keeps Dalton from finding the open man right away. Meanwhile, Anthony Spencer, rushing up the inside A-gap, gets away from guard Kevin Zeitler:
Dalton doesn't have a prayer. Spencer closes in a heartbeat and takes him down. The Bengals were then forced to punt to the Cowboys, who drove for the game-winning score.
Nothing can undo the tragedy that befell their teammates; the outcome of a football game doesn't register against the scope of what's happened to these men and their families.
But the Cowboys were visibly emotional to know they'd been able to honor their fallen teammate on the field of play.
Kirk Cousins' Game-Tying Touchdown
Called upon in emergency relief of fellow rookie Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have to do much—just win the game.
Cousins drove the Redskins to the Baltimore Ravens' 6-yard line, with two downs and 36 seconds left to come up with eight points. He had more time than he needed:
The Redskins lined up in a shotgun-based three-receiver set, with a tailback next to Cousins and a tight end inside of the slot receiver. With receiver Pierre Garçon split wide of the slot and the tight end not chipping before going out on a route, the look is trips right:
The Ravens were in a 3-3-5 nickel, with a linebacker showing blitz up the middle. The Ravens showed man coverage; outside corner Chris Johnson covered Garçon while the slot corner lined up over the slot receiver.
Note safety Ed Reed's deep zone outlined with red; the play is designed to attack him. If Reed provided help to the outside, the slot receiver's double-move back inside will be almost impossible to stop. If Reed stays in the middle, Garçon just has to beat his man to the corner.
Just after, the Ravens are covering well. But Cousins sees Reed patrolling the deep middle and knows he needs to get Garçon open. He pump fakes, and Johnson bites down hard:
Garçon was already shake-and-baking to get open; when Johnson bit on the fake, Garçon turned to Cousins, called for the ball and furiously backpedaled into the end zone. Cousins smartly pulls the ball down and rolls a little to his right to cut the angle down.
With Johnson too shallow and Reed too far for either to make a play, Cousins zips the ball into the end zone. He'd go on to convert the tying two-point try, and the Redskins won the huge matchup in overtime.
Now YOU Decide
Which was the Biggest Play of NFL Week 14?
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