After the New York Jets upset the previously 5-1 New England Patriots with an overtime field goal on Sunday, most of the postgame talk centered around the controversial call that set up the extra game-winning field goal attempt.
However, in reality, it was the unexpected play of Jets second-year free safety Antonio Allen that provided the biggest difference in the game.
Allen was a strong safety in college at South Carolina, but was as much of a Sam linebacker as he was a safety and developed a reputation for being a stout run defender. His coverage skills were so untested that he was not drafted until deep into the seventh round by the Jets in 2012. In fact, Allen was the second safety the Jets drafted that day after they had taken Josh Bush a round earlier.
Having seized the starting job from Jaiquawn Jarrett and turned in his best performance as a pro last Sunday, it is clear that Allen has much more untapped potential than any team, including the Jets, could have imagined.
Allen was assigned the most difficult job for the Jets' defense—covering Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in his first game of the 2013 season.
The stat sheet does show that Gronkowski got the best of Allen with eight catches for a team-high 114 yards. In reality, most of Gronkowski's big catches came against the Jets' linebackers or in zone coverage. Allen was the only one who prevented Gronkowski from breaking open the game.
Allen contained Gronkowski with a full arsenal of skills that allowed him to go blow-for-blow with one of the most difficult players in the league to match up against.
Trying to outmuscle Gronkowski may not sound like a recipe for success, but the 200-pound Allen was able to go punch for punch with a player with nearly 70 pounds on him.
It became evident that Gronkowski was going to have to do some serious work to get catches in coverage against Allen when Allen was able to shut him down in a one-on-one situation early in the game.
In this third-down situation, the Jets elect to come out in a Cover 0, which means that they do not have a deep safety in coverage as insurance against any miscue. The Jets are playing straight man coverage across the board, electing to use all of their available resources to blitz and force the ball to come out quickly.
While forcing a quick pass in this situation is ideal, the Jets are one accidental slip or mistimed jump away from giving up a touchdown.
Allen is in press-man coverage against Gronkowski, who is lined up outside.
Allen shows no fear at getting his hands on Gronkowski right off the snap. He is able to force Gronk to the sideline, disrupting his route.
Allen uses perfect technique to pin his man to the sideline, keeping in perfect position as he awaits the pass. His hips are interlocked with those of Gronkowski, not allowing him to get any separation.
Now comes the tricky part. By reading Gronkowski's eyes and mannerisms, Allen must know when the ball is coming and time his jump properly to make a play on it—all while avoiding a flag for pass interference.
A jump that is too early or too late could result in a long reception, and with no deep safety, Gronk just needs to shed a man roughly two-thirds of his size to run it in for a touchdown.
Allen times his jump perfectly and is almost able to intercept the pass.
This play is very reminiscent of what Darrelle Revis did to opposing receivers when he was in a Jets uniform. By outmuscling his opponent, Allen dictated where Gronk was going to go—not the other way around. Being in perfect position the entire way negated any size advantage that Gronk had over Allen.
Anticipation and Ball Skills
Allen was responsible for making the biggest play of the game on a pick-six of Tom Brady, again while in single coverage against Gronkowski.
This time, Gronkowski is lined up close to the formation, but Allen follows him wherever he goes.
Because of where Gronkowski is in the formation, Allen is not able to apply press coverage this time, but he does disrupt Gronkowski's route at the top of his break. Gronkowski is able to finish his route, but it alters the timing of the throw.
Because Allen disrupted the route, Brady has to wait a few more beats before he is forced to throw the ball to Gronk under (somewhat perceived) pressure.
With his eyes in the backfield and seeing that Gronkowski was running out of field, Allen starts to undercut the route as soon as the ball is released.
Allen is able to do that because he knows that he has two deep safeties to help in coverage. Even if he is out of position and Gronkowski catches the pass, the result won't be disastrous. The risk is certainly worth the reward.
Brady's rushed pass is predictably underthrown and Allen is able to get the interception that he takes all the way in to the end zone for the Jets' first defensive touchdown of the season.
Allen was able to make this play for a multitude of reasons. For one, he was not afraid to be physical against Gronkowski and was able to read the play and cut the route short to get to the underthrown ball.
Allen's ball skills and speed finished off the play to turn an incompletion into a touchdown going the other way.
As brave as Allen was in his physical approach to containing Gronkowski, he certainly did not win every round on Sunday.
This play is very similar to the play earlier in the game, where he was able to pin Gronkowski to the sideline to force the incompletion.
Lined up on the outside again, Allen is in press-man coverage, but this time, he has a deep safety dropping back to help him out.
Despite this actually being an easier situation for Allen, he finds himself in trouble in a hurry. Gronkowski is able to shake his press off the line and immediately get a step of separation.
Brady immediately sees Gronkowksi getting open and gets ready to hit him near the end zone. Allen, however, is able to make up ground in a hurry right as Brady gets ready to throw.
Brady is consequently forced to alter his throw by just a few inches, resulting in his pass being incomplete.
Allen may have been initially beat on this play, but he was able to do just enough to deny what would have been a touchdown, as the safety that was supposed to be helping him was too far away to stop the play.
Headed into this season for the Jets, the safety position was supposed to be the weakest part of the their roster on defense. However, Allen's emergence as a jack-of-all trades safety has made him one of the most useful and reliable players in New York's defensive backfield over the past month or so.
If Allen can continue his stellar play on the back end, he will quickly turn what used to be a position of need into a position of strength, giving the Jets one less thing to have to upgrade in the offseason.