Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good. One of the greatest things about the NFL is that no matter how much football you have watched there is usually something each week that you have never seen before, a moment that makes you feel like you are new to the game all over again, experiencing its highest points anew.
On Sunday the undefeated Chiefs were under assault by the UDFA Jeff Tuel-led Buffalo Bills, in the shadow of their own goal line, when Sean Smith was destroyed by Bills receiver Stevie Johnson off the line.
It didn’t result in a Bills touchdown. It didn’t result in an incomplete pass nor was it deflected at the line. Despite being left for dead off the line, Smith scored for the Chiefs on the play, taking an interception 100 yards to the house. Smith was beaten so badly off the line that he stumbled into the path of the ball thrown to another receiver, lucking his way into an interception and changing the game in a heartbeat.
For all the coaching, practice and meticulous planning at this level there is nothing that can match pure, blind, dumb luck. Isn’t that great?
That’s not to dismiss the play entirely as luck. Smith lucked himself into an opportunity to make a play, but he caught the ball and returned it the distance for the score. On the flip side, Jeff Tuel was unlucky to find a defensive back right where he had planned to throw the ball, but it was poor vision to fail to recognize both that and the wide open Johnson in the back of the end zone just to the left.
To make matters worse the Bills were leading 10-3 at the time and should have extended that to 17-3, putting the Chiefs’ undefeated record in serious jeopardy — but instead the game was tied up.
Stevie Johnson is the most unique route-runner in the NFL. He has a way of moving that nobody else can match, and it makes him extremely difficult to cover one-on-one. When I spoke to him in the offseason he put his unique style down to playing basketball. Instead of practicing running routes in the offseason, Johnson practices his crossover move, and that’s what he broke out against Sean Smith here.
The Bills had three receivers lined up to the right of the formation, and two of them ran slants on the play. The middle receiver ran a quick out to try and create a pick on the defensive backs to open up the outside slant — the one Tuel threw to. At no point does he even look toward the inside slant of Johnson, but that is the route that everything hinges on.
Smith tries to jam Johnson at the line in press-man coverage. Johnson’s first move is to the right after a little hesitation off the line, so Smith reaches out with his left hand to try and counter his movement. The problem is that Johnson isn’t heading in that direction at all, and when the corner reaches out to try and shove him hard in his right shoulder, Johnson sinks that shoulder back, giving Smith nothing to hit.
The ability to both drive off that leg and drop his shoulder at the same time is an incredible feat of body control from Johnson, and the kind of thing that defensive backs just can’t deal with. After missing with his jam, Smith is completely unbalanced, and Johnson seals it by swatting his other arm to the side as he shoots past — sending Smith stumbling away from him and almost to the floor. As great a move as this was from Johnson, it’s the reason Smith ends up with an easy interception.
He was beaten so completely that by the time he rescued his balance and regained his feet he was in just enough time to look up and find the ball thrown to him as if with gift-wrapping, because he has stumbled all the way into the throwing lane of the other slant route, coming in from the outside.
Take a look at it in full motion:
The Impact of Change
Watching the Houston Texans with Case Keenum under center is like somebody hitting the reset button. You suddenly see what the Kubiak offense in Houston is supposed to look like. Matt Schaub had been in such an ugly rut of form that everything the Texans did on offense looked labored, slow and awkward. As soon as Keenum comes into the lineup it makes sense.
A few weeks ago I tweeted a picture of Matt Schaub making a routine 18-yard pick up on a roll to the right after a play-action fake. The throw was easy enough and safe, but the thing that I found interesting was that he missed a wide-open Andre Johnson streaking downfield that could, and should, have been a touchdown. Schaub either didn’t see it, or passed up the more difficult throw for a safer one underneath, in effect not backing himself to be able to hit a deep touchdown.
Fast forward to this week, the Texans ran the same play, and instead of taking the crossing route, Keenum went deep, hitting Johnson for a touchdown. The circumstances weren’t an exact match. For a start, Keenum had a lineman in his face who had read the bootleg better than any of the San Diego defenders had in Week 1, and the crossing route was less wide open than the one Schaub hit. Perhaps the most important part though was that Andre Johnson wasn’t nearly as open as he was for Schaub either.
Schaub passed up the chance to hit Johnson deep down field when he was practically uncovered, while Keenum elected to put the ball in the air and give him a chance to make the play despite the fact that there was a FS in good position that he still needed to beat.
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