3 plays from Week 15 that could decide the NFL playoff picture
The Lions, Saints and Steelers all got big wins last week, thanks to highlight plays from their best players. Danny Kelly breaks down the big plays from the week that was.
The NFL’s Week 15 schedule provided a smorgasbord of savvy schematics and interesting play-design, but as we close in on the end of the season, let’s concentrate on a few teams in playoff battles.
Golden Tate gets Detroit on the board
Situation: Detroit trails 14-0, it’s 2nd and goal with 3:48 to go in the half
Concept: Bubble screen left to Golden Tate
When Golden Tate signed in Detroit during the offseason, one bonus that he identified, in his words, was: “I’m going to see a lot of single coverage. I’m probably going to see a lot of No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks because everyone’s going to be on No. 81.”
For much of the season, that advantage was nullified as Calvin Johnson worked to get back from an ankle injury, but on Sunday, it was apparent. As the Lions lined up at the Minnesota six yard line, the Vikings respond with man-coverage on the outside and they shaded safety Harrison Smith towards Johnson, one of the most fearsome redzone targets in the NFL.
That gives Golden Tate his single coverage on the opposite side, with no safety help over the top.
Only in the case, Tate isn’t seeing a No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback in coverage. Instead, the Vikings make the decision to match him up in the slot with linebacker Chad Greenway. Now, prior to the snap it looks like there’s some confusion on the part of Minnesota’s defense so I’m not entirely sure this is how they wanted to gameplan their coverage on Tate (and in fact, DB Captain Munnerlyn is on the opposite side ready to blitz off the edge) but if this was in fact their design, perhaps here’s why: 636 of Tate’s 1224 receiving yards this year come after the catch — that’s over half of his yards scampering around like a runaway gyroscope.
Assuming the Vikings wanted their linebacker Greenway to match up with Tate in man-to-man, the likely reason would be to give their defense a boost in tackling power on one of the toughest running receivers in the NFL.
Nonetheless, as Tate recalled afterword, “It was probably one of the easiest touchdowns I’ve ever had.”
As you can see, Tate simply runs a quick route outside to set up the bubble screen pass from Matthew Stafford. Greenway reacts fairly quickly but Tate’s too fast getting to the outside, particularly with the help of a bad angle by the Viking linebacker. Tate shrugs off the tackle attempt and with the help of nice blocks up front by Jeremy Ross and Eric Ebron, he scoots in for the score.
This play put Detroit on the scoreboard, and gave them a shot of life after a lackluster first half on offense. The Lions would hold the Vikings scoreless in the second half while kicking three field goals of their own, completing the comeback and grabbing a 16-14 win to keep them right in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Le’Veon Bell puts Steelers in the driver’s seat
Situation: 14:19 remaining, Steelers up by a touchdown 20-13; 1st and 10 from the Atlanta 13 yard line
Concept: Counter-power left to Le’Veon Bell
Le’Veon Bell is really, really good, but on this play a lot of the credit goes to the Pittsburgh offensive line and whoever it is that designed and installed this cool counter-power run. As you can see in the illustration below, the Steelers come out against the Falcons in a 22 personnel grouping — two tight ends, two running backs, and a receiver — and run a take on the old school Power-O.
Fullback #46, Will Johnson, is aligned on the right wingback spot, and at the snap he’ll cross the formation and act as a lead blocker around the edge. He’ll be following RG David DeCastro, who will pull to his left at the snap. Every other lineman and tight end will simply block the man in front of him.
One little twist on this run play is that Le’Veon Bell will take a false-step to his right before changing course to run off the left side. This “counter” is designed to make the defense think you’re going either right up the gut or to the right side of the offensive formation. This sucks defenders up and forward instead — and keeps them from flowing laterally right at the snap.
Watch TE Heath Miller first combo-block with the left tackle then see #53 Prince Shembo scraping to take on the outside run. Miller picks him up, allowing Bell to get to the corner.
At that point, Bell simply just follows his blocks to daylight. The right guard DeCastro picks up the playside safety (#36), and the fullback behind him picks up the backside safety (#20) that is now in quick pursuit.
Bell uses his speed to accelerate up the sideline and gets inside the pylon for the score, giving the Steelers some breathing room on the road.
Drew Brees propels Saints into the half with two-score lead
Situation: With 38 seconds to go in the half and leading 7-0, the Saints have a 1st and Goal from the 9-yard line
Concept: Isolate slot receiver, run skinny post up the seam
The Saints have all kinds of issues on defense but they still have a strong offense with a multitude of weapons. In the scheme below, Sean Payton lines Jimmy Graham up next to Marques Colston to the slot right against a Bears‘ cover-3 look. You can see the routes below:
The two most important schematic points to make here, I think, are:
1. Watch Marques Colston’s release off the line. You can’t see the top of his route in the Vine below but the important part is that you can see how he opens up by running at a dull angle toward the corner of the endzone. This is meant to get the defensive back in coverage on him to widen. You can see DB Demontre Hurst’s footwork as he moves laterally to counter Colston’s release. Colston already has six inches of height on Hurst and probably more than that in reach. After the veteran receiver hits his fifth step, he cuts his route up inside and now has all the leverage he needs.
If Colston doesn’t first get the cornerback to widen out in his coverage, the angle of the throw becomes very difficult for Brees, as Colston would have the cornerback on his inside hip, and much more able to intercept or break up the pass. You can see that below:
Colston has manipulated the coverage so the corner now has outside leverage, opening up the slant.
Of course, as you can see in the two photos above, the second schematic point is:
2. Manipulate the deep middle safety. Drew Brees has to make sure that the safety in the endzone is preoccupied with Jimmy Graham running a slant route up the middle. Graham is a favorite redzone target of Brees so just about any defensive back is going to be pretty mindful of where he is on the field.
As you can see below, the safety, Brock Vereen drifts to his right (watch Drew Brees’ helmet looking middle-of-field-left) before breaking left toward Colston’s route (middle-of-field-right). It’s way too late.
Just classic Brees here, hitting Colston in stride. The big receiver makes a nice catch for the touchdown. After a sloppy first half of football, this score came at an opportune time for the Saints, putting them up by two scores going into halftime.