Every Monday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen takes you inside the X’s and O’s of the game. Here are his five keys plays from the Week 8 Sunday NFL schedule.
Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford Set Up the Lions Win
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson produced ridiculous numbers (14 receptions, 329 yards, one touchdown) in the win over the Cowboys vs. Cover 1, Cover 2, zone pressure, etc. And during the Lions' game-winning drive, Johnson put Detroit in a position to win on the seam route versus Brandon Carr in man coverage.
Let’s take a look at the route, talk about Johnson’s release and break down the throw from Matthew Stafford that set up the Lions quarterback to sneak the ball in for the winning score.
Cowboys vs. Lions
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far
Offensive Concept: Inside Seam (Verticals)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1
Look at the game situation. Final minute with no timeouts left for the Lions. I wouldn’t have played Cover 1 here (prefer Cover 2 inside the plus 25-yard line) because it puts Johnson in a one-on-one matchup on the seam route versus a single-high safety defense.
This should have been an automatic read for Stafford, with his top target aligned inside of the numbers (pre-snap alert for the defense) against a cornerback in a press-man look.
Carr allows a free release at the line. Instead of sliding his feet and mirroring Johnson, the Cowboys cornerback “opens the gate” (open hips), tries to widen the stem of Johnson and puts himself in a trail position. Stafford can hold the free safety with his eyes and come back to the seam route with Johnson working to the top of the numbers (create space down the field versus the safety).
This is a great ball from Stafford. The Lions quarterback puts this throw on Johnson's upfield shoulder. And with the free safety taking a lateral angle to the ball, Johnson can secure the catch, absorb the contact and put his team in a position to beat the Cowboys.
Aaron Rodgers Beats the Vikings' Zone Pressure
Rodgers and the Packers put up 44 points on the Vikings on a night where Green Bay absolutely controlled the tempo of the ballgame with a balanced call sheet. And Rodgers reminded us why he is one of the top players at the quarterback position with his two touchdown throws to Jordy Nelson.
Here’s a look at Rodgers' second touchdown pass to Nelson versus the Vikings' zone pressure. Let’s break down the blitz and coverage responsibilities and take a look at the ball placement from Rodgers.
Packers vs. Vikings
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot (Dakota) Gun Far
Offensive Concept: Inside Seam (Hot Read)
Defensive Scheme: Nickel Fox
Nickel Fox is a five-man zone pressure with a three-deep, three-under zone shell in the back end. At the snap, the nickel and Mike ‘backer will rush to the closed (strong) side of the formation. At the second level, the strong safety and open- (weak-) side defensive tackle are playing the “seam-flat” (match to No. 2) with linebacker Chad Greenway as the “middle hook” defender (match to No. 3).
Rodgers quickly identifies the pressure and looks up his "hot read" (or blitz read). That’s Nelson on the inside seam. The wide receiver releases up the field and gets his head back to Rodgers with Greenway working to match the vertical stem.
As you can see here, Nelson will convert his route and take a straight stem on the inside seam route. And because of the zone-blitz responsibilities, Greenway has to carry/match Nelson (No. 3) vertically up the field.
Greenway has coverage on Nelson with a free safety in the deep middle of the field to protect the post. However, look at the ball placement from Rodgers. He throws this ball behind Greenway and allows Nelson to make the play. And with a poor angle from the Vikings free safety, this turns into a 76-yard touchdown.
Pryor didn’t have impressive numbers throwing the football versus Dick LeBeau’s defense (10-of-19, 88 yards, two interceptions) in the 21-18 win over the Steelers. However, his ability to sell the read-option—and showcase that straight-line speed—led to Pryor breaking the record for the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history.
Steelers vs. Raiders
Personnel: Regular (2WR-1TE-2RB)
Formation: Unit Wing Slot
Offensive Concept: Read-option
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
The initial read for Pryor is the end-man on the line of scrimmage. Ride the running back through the mesh point (quarterback-running back exchange) and read the path of the outside linebacker. And with the Raiders pulling the open-side guard (inside zone becomes a power read), the Steelers' second-level defenders (including free safety Ryan Clark) overpursue inside.
With the outside linebacker crashing to running back Darren McFadden on the inside give, Pryor pulls the ball and gets to the edge. That allows the fullback to work to the second level of the defense on the arc block. However, there is no one to play the quarterback here, with the inside linebacker chasing the dive and Clark taking an angle to the closed side of the formation.
Because of the slot formation, strong safety Troy Polamalu bumps out over No. 2 to the open side. But the veteran safety can’t get off the block and squeeze the running lane. And with Clark now removed to the closed side of the formation, this is trouble for the Steelers as Pryor outruns the defense for a 93-yard score.
Patriots Defense Produces a Key Interception vs. Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
After blowing a 17-3 halftime lead, the Dolphins still had an opportunity early in the fourth quarter to move the ball into scoring position. However, Patriots cornerback Marquice Cole intercepted a Tannehill pass after it had been batted in the air by safety Devin McCourty on the 9 (fade) route to Mike Wallace.
Let’s check this play out, talk about the poor throw from Tannehill and discuss why McCourty was able to get over the top of Wallace.
Dolphins vs. Patriots
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Near
Offensive Concept: 9 Route (Verticals)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1
This is a standard route from the Dolphins (verticals), and it should be a simple read for Tannehill versus man coverage. Hold the free safety and work the ball outside of the numbers to Wallace on the fade route. Allow the wide receiver to use his top-tier speed to create some separation down the field and take a shot.
Tannehill has to get this ball out quicker. That has to be corrected when throwing the fade route up the sideline. However, the real issue is the throw. The Dolphins quarterback floats this ball down the sideline. That brings the free safety into play and allows McCourty to overlap the 9 route.
But how about the play from McCourty? The free safety knows he can’t secure the catch and get his feet down, so he tips the ball up in the air with Cole trailing the route. Smart football right there.
Cole finishes the interception by grabbing the tip and getting two feet down. Big play that led to more points from the Patriots as they closed out the Dolphins to move to 6-2 on the season.
Broncos' Fourth-Down Call Catches the Redskins on the Goal Line
Denver produced 31 fourth-quarter points to get the win at home over the Redskins, and that scoring run started on a fourth-down play on the goal line. Down 21-14, Peyton Manning and the Broncos took advantage of some poor pre-snap communication from the Washington defense to get the ball in the end zone.
Let’s talk about the personnel in the game, look at the route and break down why Joel Dreessen was wide open in the flat for the touchdown.
Redskins vs. Broncos
Personnel: Jumbo (3TE-2RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Bunch
Offensive Concept: Spot Route
Defensive Scheme: Goal-Line Man
The Broncos have their Jumbo personnel on the field (defensive tackle takes the place of the fullback) and shift to a bunch look (three tight ends) with the running back removed as the X receiver. That causes some issues for the Redskins in their goal-line personnel, as they fail to bump out a linebacker versus the Spot route (corner-curl-flat combination).
On the goal line, the Spot combination plays out as a pick situation with the No. 3 receiver in the bunch (Dreessen) releasing to the flat. However, because of the Redskins' lack of communication, there is no one to account for the flat. Manning can give some ground and look up Dreessen once the tight end clears the inside receivers.
Easy read for Manning to target Dreessen in the end zone and a perfect example of how NFL offenses can use personnel to window-dress a basic concept. By bringing their Jumbo personnel on the field, the Broncos forced the Redskins to counter with their goal-line package.
And that created confusion with Denver’s pre-snap shift to the bunch alignment. A crucial play in this game that started the fourth-quarter run for the Broncos.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.