Playoff football is upon us! We’ve hit the postseason in the 2011 NFL year and, though the games are fewer, we are still going to bring you some of the more interesting plays we have seen from the week’s action.
Our top analysts, Ben Stockwell and Sam Monson, have each provided a play from the Wild Card games, including one that Sam claims may just be his favorite of the season.
So take a look through this week’s Analysis Notebook, and let us know what you think and which plays you would have drawn attention to.
Detroit @ New Orleans | 4th Q, 9:58 | 1st-and-10
Darren Sproles takes a run off middle right, bursting through the second level for a 17-yard touchdown to put the Saints up 31-21.
Why it worked:
There may not have been a more devastating free agent addition to any offense in the NFL this year than Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Filling the “Reggie Bush role” in the Saints’ offense, Sproles has done just that and more, providing the Saints with more than they thought they would get from their former option.
On this crucial fourth-quarter touchdown run, Sproles shows why speed kills in the NFL as he makes Detroit safety Louis Delmas pay badly for indecision and a bad angle, burning him to the end zone. The play is perfectly blocked by the offensive line and the rest is down to Delmas’ slow read and Sproles’ explosion through the hole.
The Saints get double teams on both of the Lions’ defensive tackles at the snap with left guard Carl Nicks and center Brian De La Puente doubling right defensive tackle Corey Williams while right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief work together to control the left defensive tackle, Sammie Lee Hill. De La Puente has good angle on Williams and (with only a hint of a hold), controls him. The double to the left is comfortable, but the key block is to the right with Evans getting strong contact on Hill and Strief being able to work his way around to take over, freeing Evans to move to the second level. Strief is able to seal Hill out of the play and Evans takes out middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch.
Everything is set up for Sproles to run between the two defensive tackles, but his angle is taking him to Strief’s right shoulder, bringing Delmas initially up on that angle–even though the blocking indicates a cut-back is coming. Sproles does exactly that and Delmas is too slow to recognize as he loses out to Sproles’ burst though the line.
Delmas’ poor read-and-react is compounded by the flow of two other defensive backs, Eric Wright and Amari Spievey, moving to cover this gap. If Delmas tracks the motion of the offensive line and fills the gap between right linebacker Justin Durant and Tulloch, this play is stopped at no further penetration than the Detroit 10-yard-line. As it was, Sproles cruised in for the score.
Pittsburgh @ Denver | 2nd Q, 4:31 | 2nd-and-7
Tim Tebow completes a 40-yard pass to Daniel Fells on a play-action bootleg across the middle of the field.
Why it worked:
This was one of the most clever play designs I’ve seen all season, and was so subtle a change from the same play that everybody has in their offense that I wondered initially if it had simply been ad-libbed by Daniel Fells as he ran his route. Closer inspection shows that it was very much by design and perfectly exploited the play recognition of Troy Polamalu, one of his greatest strengths.
Denver lined up with a single receiver split wide to the left, and a pair of tight ends to the right of the formation along with an offset-I formation in the backfield. This is a heavy run look, but also the perfect set to run a play-action fake from, which is exactly what they do. After the fake to Willis McGahee, Tebow rolls out of the pocket to the backside and looks downfield.
The Steelers line up in their base defense with one safety, Ryan Mundy, up at the line of scrimmage–as he was for much of the game–to play the run or any other option play that the Broncos decided to break out. Mundy being up at the line effectively takes him out of this play and makes the middle of the field quite open behind the front eight defenders.
The important part of this play is the route combination of the two tight ends. They begin to run exactly the same thing that all offenses incorporate: a high-low combo of crossing routes. Fells cuts across the field within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage while Virgil Green runs a deeper crossing route, beginning his cut about 15 yards downfield.
This play exploits the idea that every NFL defense has seen this play and will recognize it quickly, and Polamalu–whose instincts are arguably his top asset–is quick to react to the crossing route he sees from Fells and jumps the pattern expecting Tebow to throw quickly. At that moment, Fells perfectly times a second break deep, right into the area that Polamalu has just vacated by biting on the underneath route, and that is when Tebow makes the throw.
It may not have been the prettiest ball in the world, but he hits Fells in stride 30 yards down field, lofting the pass over Polamalu and before William Gay can get across and get involved (but just in time to make the tackle). Sometimes true genius in terms of play design is in being able to take a play that is already an NFL staple because it usually works, and tweaking it ever so slightly so that it exploits the fact that defenses are used to recognizing and defending it. This is one such example, and easily ranks as one of my favorites of the season for the subtlety of its design.