Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Game Winning Drive over the Dallas Cowboys

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Breaking Down the Detroit Lions' Game Winning Drive over the Dallas Cowboys
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It was one of the most thrilling victories in Detroit Lions history. When Matthew Stafford unexpectedly launched himself across the goal line to score the go-ahead touchdown, Lions fans across the country screamed in joy as one loud voice. 

That final drive is the kind of season-defining moment of which Detroit is used to being on the wrong end. Instead of the bitter loss, this time was different. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is somewhat cliché, but it’s the plain truth in Detroit’s 31-30 win over Dallas.

Here’s a blow-by-blow of how the final drive succeeded. 

After Dan Bailey’s kickoff sailed over return man Jeremy Ross and out of the end zone, the Lions took over at the 20. The first play, on the surface, looks like a simple checkdown to running back Reggie Bush in the short left flat. Dallas easily defends it, and Bush is somewhat lucky to get out of bounds to stop the clock. 

But there is a larger purpose to this minimal gain. By highlighting Bush as a weapon, the Lions have planted the seed that Bush remains a viable weapon. It reinforces the need for a safety to pay attention to him no matter where he roams on the field. 

The play also gives Stafford a quick look at the coverage scheme. He knows that teams seldom change things up on the fly, and the Lions will be flying in the no-huddle offense. That's the lesson he gleans from this peek at the Dallas defense.

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Stafford applies what he learned right away. He knows the Cowboys are giving the inside receivers the middle of the field, figuring the ticking clock is more important than the yardage surrendered. 

The Cowboys get some pressure on the play, but the quarterback escapes to his right. While running to his right, Stafford delivers a frozen rope to Calvin Johnson, who is breaking back across the field in the other direction. 

This is when Stafford's ability to generate serious mustard on a throw from an odd arm angle really shows up. The throw is more akin to a third baseman ranging into foul territory and rifling a strike to the first baseman to beat a speedy base runner than it is a standard football throw. 

Not many quarterbacks can do that sort of thing. After the Lions rush to the line and quickly kill the clock to create 2nd-and-10, Stafford proves capable of making another throw which some quarterbacks wouldn't even try to attempt.

With the exact same alignment as the first play of the drive, Stafford capitalizes on what he has already seen from the coverage. He knows the two safeties are both starting the play 30 yards deep and the outside corners are using outside technique to try and funnel the ball to the middle of the field. This is textbook prevent defense.

Stafford knows that if he can get the ball over the outside corner and into the receiver before the safety can come up and close, the window is open. It's a very small window that requires perfect timing between quarterback and receiver. It also demands a high-caliber rifle of an arm, because that window is going to close very fast. 

He gets the look he wants with Kris Durham down the left sideline. The wideout runs an excellent route, angling inside at first, just as cornerback Orlando Scandrick wants him to do. But Durham bursts outside and gets a clean release up the sideline. Scandrick lets him go too readily, expecting safety help to the outside. This is one of many critical errors by the Dallas defense on this drive.

Stafford holds the high safety with his eyes, while the linebacker playing underneath is too far inside and cannot head up the field because he's responsible for Bush in the short left flat.

The quarterback rolls to his right, away from Durham. This keeps the safety, undrafted rookie Jakar Hamilton inside. Surely Hamilton is thinking, "He's not going to try that throw."

Stafford is making what's already a difficult throw even harder by drifting away from his target. It takes supreme confidence in his own arm to even entertain the mere thought of letting if fly.

He releases the ball just as Durham gets good separation beyond Scandrick

This is one of the prettiest throws you are ever going to see. The accuracy is absolutely perfect, leading Durham beyond the corner. The velocity on the ball is fast enough that the safety cannot get there in time. Stafford lasered the pass 38 yards down the field with enough precision that it would have split an arrow already lodged in the bulls-eye.

Durham makes and absorbs a big hit from the closing safety before crashing out of bounds. Now the Lions are in business. It's first down from the Dallas 23 with 33 seconds to go. That is more than enough time to use the entire field, not just the periphery. 

Dallas changes things up on defense with the shrunken field. They opt for a single-high safety and bring the linebackers much closer to the line of scrimmage. Detroit remains in its standard three-wideout offense with one tight end and one running back. 

Calvin Johnson is lined up in the right slot, flanking tight end Brandon Pettigrew and inside Jeremy Ross. Bush is lined up on Stafford's left, which dictates the underneath coverages; one Cowboy will have Pettigrew, the other has Bush. 

That means Stafford doesn't have to worry about a linebacker undercutting the seam route to Johnson, which is his automatic read when he sees the single safety alignment and man coverage in the slot.

Dallas has essentially entrusted Brandon Carr, who has already surrendered 13 catches for over 300 yards to Johnson, with single coverage on Megatron. There is some safety help, but it's coming from a good distance. That leaves the same sort of window Stafford just proved he could nail.

Even though Stafford knows from the pre-snap look where he's going with the ball, the other Lions still need to sell the play. They execute it very adeptly. 

Pettigrew runs his underneath clearing route as designed. He drags safety Jeff Heath out of harm's way, but he also indirectly impacts linebacker Sean Lee by running right at him. On a play where every millisecond, every single inch of turf matters, this little nuance makes a difference. 

Ross takes his route straight up the field to the deep corner of the end zone. The cornerback has to respect him and it pulls any outside over-the-top help away from Johnson. 

Stafford sells the underneath look to Pettigrew, holding with his eyes the single safety (Hamilton) for a count. This is exceptional discipline by the young quarterback; he's made up his mind where he's going with the ball before the snap, but he has the presence to not stare it down or give it away. 

It's important to note the undermanned Dallas defense here. Neither safety in the game, Hamilton nor Heath, are starters. In fact, Hamilton is listed on the Cowboys' depth chart at Ourlads.com as the third-string free safety behind second stringer Heath.

Regular starting safety J.J. Wilcox, another rookie, was inactive for the game with a knee injury. The other starting safety, Barry Church, had earlier left the game with a hamstring injury. Starting cornerback Morris Claiborne also left the game with a bum hamstring, replaced by Scandrick.

They had played all afternoon without star pass-rusher Demarcus Ware. This Cowboys defense was a vulnerable, wounded animal. As any hunter can tell you, the best way to handle a wounded animal is to make the quick kill. That's exactly what Stafford and the Lions did here.

Just as with the throw to Durham, Stafford has to have perfect accuracy with exceptional velocity to complete the pass. There are two defenders in decent position to prevent this play.

Johnson has about a quarter step on Carr at the 17 when Stafford decides to let the ball go. He is throwing to a spot and banking that Johnson will get his hands there before Hamilton arrives. 

Carr never senses the ball, which whizzes beyond his extended left arm. Hamilton is at full gallop and less than two yards from Megatron when the ball arrives. The safety slams into Johnson's chest with a clean shot, a huge collision between two men running at full speed. 

As Lions fans know, Johnson has had some issues in completing the process of the catch in these sorts of situations. He takes the big hit from Hamilton but keeps the ball pinned to his chest as he thuds into the ground. 

One other key to this play was the good work by the offensive line. After using bland four-man rushes earlier in the drive, the Cowboys deploy a twist to try and generate some pressure.

Defensive tackle Nick Hayden starts inside but quickly loops around left defensive end George Selvie. This is the exact same play the Cowboys used earlier in the game to bag a sack. But this time, the Lions are ready.

Rookie right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, making his first career start, quickly slides outside and engulfs Hayden. He pushes the twisting tackle well outside of Stafford, clearing the throwing lane. Right guard Larry Warford, also a rookie, easily ties up Selvie inside to give Stafford room to step into his throw. 

After the catch, the clock is still ticking away. With no timeouts, the Lions must rush to the 1-yard line and get ready for the next play.

Left tackle Riley Reiff, who was questionable for the game with a lingering hamstring injury, is the last to arrive. Reiff is clearly laboring, hobbling as fast as he can. He's exhausted, trying desperately to coax one more play out of his battered body.

The Cowboys are gassed as well. They are also shocked at what's happening. After all, they had forced the Lions off the field with an excellent defensive stand barely one minute earlier.

That drive saw Stafford get sacked on first down by Jason Hatcher. Pressure also got to Stafford on third and fourth down of that drive, a possession on which he infuriatingly never even looked at Johnson.

If ever the walking-wounded Dallas defense had some confidence, it was earned on that prior drive. Many Lions fans lost confidence in the home team and headed for the parking lot when Stafford's fourth-down heave fell to the turf.

Now, everyone in Ford Field expects Stafford to get the snap and immediately spike it to stop the clock. It took 12 seconds from the time when the whistle blew on Johnson to the point when Stafford gets the snap from center Dominic Raiola

Stafford has other plans, however. He spontaneously makes the decision to leap over an unsuspecting line and thrust the ball into the end zone. The Cowboys barely react, as they were obviously expecting a break in the action to regroup.

One official signals touchdown, but just to be safe Stafford scampers around left tackle without ever being touched. His gamble hits the jackpot. The comeback is complete when David Akers nails the extra point.

It took two undeniably perfect throws from Matthew Stafford, followed by one of the gutsiest snap decisions in recent NFL history to pull off the win. 

It's too early to tell what sort of lasting impact this drive has on the season. Detroit is now on a bye week, which somewhat blunts the momentum.

Yet it's safe to say the game-winning drive saved the season. A loss would have made two straight setbacks heading into the bye, a lot of time for the negativity and "what ifs" to linger. The injuries hurt a little more, and desperation sets in. 

Now the Lions hit the halfway mark at 5-3 and controlling their own playoff destiny. Yes, it's awfully early to talk about playoffs. But had that awesome drive not happened, few in the Lions fanbase would be thinking that the playoffs are in reach. 

Not only did this drive save the game, it just might have saved the entire season. 

 

 

 

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