The fate of the NFC East may have been decided in a little more than three minutes of fourth-quarter football at the beginning of October.
The Giants had 1:49 to set up a game-winning field goal against the Eagles. They drove into range, then drove right back out of it, with Lawrence Tynes missing a 54-yarder in the final seconds. Instead of knocking the wind out of the Eagles, the Giants lost a second divisional game, which could have major tiebreaker implications in a few months. The Eagles, meanwhile, continue their first-place tightrope walk.
The Redskins had 1:42 to set up a game-winning field goal against the Buccaneers. Robert Griffin III drove the team down the field so efficiently that it looked like the Buccaneers' defense had already hit the showers. The come-from-behind win brought the Redskins back to .500 and provided a confidence boost for a young team that lost a similar game against the Rams two weeks ago.
Tom Coughlin fielded multiple questions about his late-game strategy after the Eagles' loss. Greg Schiano also faced some heat for allowing the Redskins to drive down the field on cruise control. A closer look at both endings shows that Coughlin may have been too indecisive in the game's final moments, while Schiano's big decisions were already made long before his team even took the field.
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Giants Final Drive: To Clock or Not To Clock?
Let's join the Giants' final drive with 49 seconds to play and the Giants with a first down on the Eagles' 27-yard line. The Giants are in range for a 44-yard field goal after a long kickoff return and two defensive pass interference penalties.
First Play: Ahmad Bradshaw for one yard: It is important to note just how poorly the Giants' offense was playing on this final drive. Eli Manning nearly fumbled away a bad snap a few plays earlier. His passes were off target, and coverage was tight (neither pass interference call was blatant). When Bradshaw sliced off left tackle, the Giants appeared content to gain an extra yard or two, take every possible second off the clock, and get Tynes set up on his preferred hash mark. Instead of letting the clock wind down, however, the Giants line up to snap the ball with 23 seconds left on the play clock.
Second Play: Offensive pass interference. Tom Coughlin said after the game that he considered running the ball one more time, then "clocking the ball." Instead, the Giants took a daring risk to turn a makeable Tynes field goal into a chip shot, or even an extra point.
Coughlin said that this play was designed to provide safe options for Manning on both the left and right side of the field. Figure 1 shows Victor Cruz (80) running a scat route on the left side of the formation (marked in bright blue). Cruz's inside move makes the Eagles' linebacker slip, and if Manning looks in his direction, he has an easy completion along the sideline at about the 20-yard line. But Manning sees Ramses Barden (13) isolated in single coverage against Nnamdi Asomugha (24), who had been injured for much of the game. Manning likes the matchup, but Asomugha gets perfect position, and the inexperienced Barden collides with the defender while tracking what is probably an uncatchable ball.
Third Play: Incomplete Pass to Domenik Hixon. There are now 21 seconds left, and with no timeouts, the middle of the field is closed to the Giants' offense. Suddenly on the outer fringes of field-goal range, the Giants are forced to call a passing play in which only Barden works the middle of the field; all the other receivers, including Bradshaw out of the backfield, run routes along the sidelines. This makes life easy for both coverage defenders, who know which way receivers are going to break, and pass rushers, who do not have to worry about the run threat, the screen threat or containment. Manning is chased from the pocket and throws a dying duck along the sideline. This play could have been far worse for the Giants: Defensive end Jason Babin collapsed the pass protection, and Manning could have easily been sacked out of field-goal range.
Lessons Learned: Tynes missed 40- and 44-yard field goals last year. He also had two field-goal attempts blocked, one of them a short 35-yarder. A 46-yard field goal is no chip shot, so it made sense to play for a few more yards.
The problem was that the Giants did not quite commit to that strategy. First, they ran, ineffectively, eating precious seconds. Then they took the daring shot, with Manning locking on to the big play. The Giants created their own bad clock situation with the Bradshaw run, leaving them with no recourse after the penalty. Instead of either eating the clock or using the time they had to attack the whole field, the Giants did a little of both, but got the benefits of neither.
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Redskins' Final Drive: An Ounce of Prevention
Let's pick up the Redskins' drive at first-and-10 on the 20-yard line. They have one timeout left.
First Play: Griffin to Santana Moss, 15 yards. The Redskins line up with three receivers to the right, Moss in the slot. The Buccaneers are in zone coverage with three underneath defenders, including linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David in the middle of the field. Moss runs a crossing route and catches the ball between Foster and David.
This play succeeds for the Redskins because a receiver with 159 games of experience works against linebackers with a combined 24 games of experience. Both David and Foster are late to respond to the route combination. Moss knifes upfield as soon as he catches the ball. If Moss is tackled near where he catches the ball at the 26-yard line, this play is a win for the Bucs' defense. But Moss slices all the way to the 35-yard line.
Second Play: Griffin to Fred Davis, 20 yards. Whenever a defense gives up a late drive, fans blame the "prevent" defense. In fact, Schiano was asked several times about the Bucs' allegedly conservative calls in the final drive. "Giving the underneath stuff wasn't the issue," he said. "We weren't laying back."
The Bucs are certainly not laying back on this play: They blitz both David and Ronde Barber from the offensive left side (Figure 2). The blitz is a calculated risk: force a sack before the Redskins reach midfield, and they use their final timeout, causing all sorts of complications.
Unfortunately, this particular blitz is far too easy for Griffin to read. The Redskins again have three receivers on the right, and there is no defender anywhere near tight end Davis.
There might as well be a blinking neon sign over Davis' head saying "Hot Read!" The blitz is also slow to develop, with Barber taking the scenic route from deep safety and David slow to get a jump at the snap. Davis sits in a soft spot in the middle field, hauls in an easy pass, and rumbles into Buccaneers territory. On this play, a "prevent" concept with linebackers in the middle of the field would have better contained the Redskins.
Fourth Play: Griffin for 15 yards. After a short completion, the Redskins attempt to set up a screen to the left side. The Buccaneers' defense does an excellent job reading the screen, as both linebackers follow the Redskins' blockers to the left. But defensive end Michael Bennett loses containment on the right side. When facing scrambling quarterbacks, defensive ends are coached to stay in their pass-rushing lanes and prevent the quarterback from escaping along the sideline. Bennett gets caught too far inside, and Griffin loops around him as soon as he realizes that the screen pass isn't going to happen.
The Buccaneers are playing man-to-man defense on this play, and the Redskins receivers run their defenders on deep routes, creating wide-open space for Griffin. Again, this is just the opposite of a defense lying back in "prevent." Had the Bucs' defenders been sitting in zones, Griffin would not have had any easy escape lanes.
Sixth Play: Griffin to Moss for seven yards. After a clock spike and a false start, the Redskins are still on the fringe of kicker Billy Cundiff's range. Their final offensive play is similar to the first play of the drive: Moss in the slot in a three-receiver look (this time to the left), running a shallow cross. This time, the Buccaneers are in man-to-man coverage, but Moss crosses underneath Davis, creating a natural pick which forces his defender to sift through Davis and Barber. This is a perfect call for the situation, and there is little the Bucs' defense can do at this point: Not only have the Redskins gotten so close that a seven-yard play can be lethal, but they marched down the field without using that last timeout, making this high-percentage pass over the middle possible.
Lessons Learned: Griffin proved that he was wise beyond his years on this drive, but most of us have already figured that out. The Redskins' success (and Buccaneers' failure) had less to do with the individual play calls than with preparation and execution. The Redskins were comfortable with their hot reads, and Griffin and Moss were in sync when working the middle of the field against man and zone coverage. The Buccaneers were slow to react, late with their blitz and sloppy with containment.
Coaches talk about "execution" so much that many of us are in favor of it. It's a cliché in most cases, not an insight. But in this game, it was not just coach-speak: The team that executed better at the end won the game.