The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game, and it’s no mystery why: whether a strip-sack to end a key drive, an interception returned for a touchdown, or a game-saving pick, few plays make more of a difference in winning and losing. In the first in a new series, Dave Archibald looks at the decisive turnover(s) that swing a big game in the weekly NFL slate.
Defenses ruled the day in the Week 1 showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco threw the ball a combined 72 times, but totalled just 292 passing yards, a paltry 4.1 yards per attempt. The longest pass play went for just 22 yards. Neither Manning nor Flacco threw a touchdown pass, but they combined for three interceptions, each of which served to sway the outcome of the game.
The Blitz from the Slot
The Broncos line up in the shotgun with Demaryius Thomas (#88) split out wide and Jordan Norwood (#11) in the slot. The Ravens counter with Jimmy Smith (#22) and Kyle Arrington (#24) on them, respectively, but prior to the snap Arrington inches closer to the tackle box as if to blitz. He’s not the only Ravens defender showing blitz; all three of their linebackers align at the line of scrimmage, too, giving Baltimore seven potential pass rushers. With six blockers, Denver can’t account for all of them, and in this case they leave Arrington unblocked. He charges in on Manning (#18), who makes the correct read and targets Norwood on an out route.
With Arrington blitzing, no one is covering Norwood as he heads to the area vacated by Thomas’ go route. Unfortunately, with Arrington bearing in on him, Manning can’t get his legs into the throw and floats it, giving Smith time to come off Thomas and tip Manning’s pass in the air. He catches his own deflection and has nothing in front of him but green grass, sprinting to the end zone for a 10-9 lead.
Let the Games Begin
All four down linemen for the Broncos rush, as does linebacker Brandon Marshall (#54) and safety David Bruton (#30). What makes the blitz effective is the “game” that Denver runs up front. Rather than have the blitzers charge straight ahead into the obvious gaps, they sow confusion in the Baltimore front by circling defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (#96) around the left side while Bruton loops from the left side to the right. Bruton ends up one on one with running back Justin Forsett (#29), who recognizes the game late and can only dive at Bruton’s legs. The safety gets pressure in Flacco’s face, forcing a quick decision – and a terrible one.
Flacco zips the pass to Steve Smith (#89), Baltimore’s most reliable receiver, but the veteran is not remotely open, with Denver cornerback Aqib Talib (#21) tight to his hip. Worse, Smith is running an in-cut, and Talib has inside leverage, putting the cornerback in position to intercept the pass. A convoy of blockers and a nifty cutback later, the game has swung from a 13-9 Ravens lead to a 16-13 Broncos advantage.
Bruton also factored heavily into the next interception, this time in coverage. The Ravens got the ball down by six with a little less than three minutes to play, and drove down to the Denver 16-yard-line, abetted in part by a pass interference penalty Bruton committed in coverage on Baltimore tight end Crockett Gillmore. On third-and-10, Bruton was given a chance to atone.
Unlike the previous two turnovers, there’s no elaborate blitz here, just a standard four-man rush and a fairly clean pocket. Flacco, perhaps skittish from pressure throughout the game, still throws off his back foot to Gillmore, who has a step on Bruton on a seam route. The pass is slightly underthrown, and the tight end has to reach back over his defender to try to corral it. Bruton manages to get his hands up to break up the pass without making enough contact to draw a flag for interference. The pass looks like it will fall incomplete until defensive back Darian Stewart (#26) charges over to pluck it out of the air. One kneel down later and the game was over, a 19-13 Broncos victory.
Plot Twists Galore
The turnovers in this game functioned as plot twists in a mystery novel, upsetting the viewer’s perception of the final outcome. According to Pro Football Reference, the Smith interception dropped Denver’s chance of winning from 77.8% to 59.2%; the Talib touchdown increased it from 29.5% to 67.8%. The Stewart interception cinched the Broncos victory. Few plays can swing the outcome of a game more than a timely turnover, and that was certainly the case in the tilt between Baltimore and Denver. These three turnovers could loom large months from now when it comes time for playoff seeding in the AFC.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Pass.