With no time left on the clock in their game against the Detroit Lions, the Green Packers were faced with the choice of running a lateral play or going for it all. Daniel Syed breaks down the Rodgers to Rodgers Hail Mary that won the game for the Packers.
During walk through on the day before a game, a football team practices unique situations, including its trick plays, laterals, and end-of-game scenarios. Aaron Rodgers’s 61-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Richard Rodgers to beat the Lions was a great example of exactly what not to do when defending the last second desperation heave. Let’s analyze the three places where the Lions coaching staff and players failed, and what they could have done instead. For those who have not already seen the play a hundred times, here it is:
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The first thing wrong with the Lions defensive plan was the personnel on the field. Detroit had three defensive linemen to rush the passer, but their best pass rusher Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah was on the sideline, presumably winded from the play before. If he needed a quick breather, the Lions should have used their final timeout to make sure the best 11 players for that scenario were on the field.
Next, Detroit not only opted to have two linebackers on the field, but stationed both of them in the end zone. Unless a defense has a Luke Kuechly or Jamie Collins type, there are better players to play a ball in the air 60 yards down the field.
Finally, the most talked about personnel decision: Why wasn’t Calvin Johnson in? Or even 6’4 tight end Eric Ebron? Lions WR Golden Tate told reporters after the game that Calvin Johnson is on the Hail Mary defensive team on Saturday practices, yet wasn’t when it counted. It makes more sense to have a taller big body who is used to playing the ball in the air in the end zone, as opposed to multiple linebackers. We’ve seen this from several teams and coaches over the years, including having Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss back deep in Hail Mary situations.
The Lions coaching staff made several schematic errors on the play. First, they anticipated a lateral play, which is the only explanation for why multiple defenders were hanging out at the 45-yard line:
Based on the formation and Rodgers’s ability to scramble and throw the deep ball, the Lions should have known a throw to the end zone was coming and used their final timeout to adjust. Both players on the sidelines were essentially wasted defenders.
Not only are the Lions operating with fewer players than they should, but the other defenders were in terrible position for a Hail Mary throw. In the end, this made for a 4-on-3 situation in the end zone — in favor of the offense!
The last schematic failure was the lack of disruption to the Packers receivers. All five Packer receivers were given completely free releases. The Lions could have played press technique to disrupt timing, even if they anticipated a lateral play.
The poor execution starts with the pass rush. The Lions three-man rush went all out for a sack, instead of keeping Rodgers contained and in front of them. By containing Rodgers and not allowing him to step up and run into the throw, the pass rush could have forced a flat footed 70+ yard throw. Instead, Rodgers broke contain to the right side, got a running start, and was able to generate all the power and torque needed for the throw.
Although the coaching staff anticipated a lateral play, there is no explanation for why the defenders at the 45-yard line continued to cover turf after all the Packer receivers had run by them; the CB on the left side of the play should have continued to sink and go to the end zone to join the play, while the CB on the right side of the play could have come up to pressure Rodgers or continued to drop back in coverage.
Of course, catching the Hail Mary in the chaos is more difficult than getting the throw off. But Richard Rodgers runs free for the length of the field. More egregiously, the Lions defenders play behind the Packers receivers in the end zone. This is a cardinal sin for defensive backs—playing behind receivers allows the offense to box out and gain position. It also puts receivers in a better position for a tipped pass.
Combine all of this, and you have a complete failure from the coaching staff to the players costing the Lions the game, and effectively ending their season.
Follow Dan on Twitter @syedschemes
Daniel Syed is a contributor to the ITP Glossary, as well as the operator of syedschemes.com.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.