Football games don’t get any more exciting than the NFC Divisional round tilt between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals. Dave Archibald examines the biggest play on the night: the long run of Larry Fitzgerald in overtime.
[Editor’s Note: Per this piece, and the comments from Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, we got this one wrong. Without knowing the play call, and specific responsibilities for each defender, it is always possible to make a mistake. Thanks to the astute reader, Sam Gold, who brought this to our attention. When a mistake happens, it is Inside The Pylon policy to be accountable, and provide our readers a source with the correct information. We apologize for the mistake.]
The Packers drove 98 yards in less than a minute to erase a 20-13 deficit, with Aaron Rodgers completing two long passes to Jeff Janis. Of those passes, one was a 41-yard desperation heave for a touchdown as time expired that Hollywood screenwriters would have dismissed as too improbable for a movie. The fairy tale soon turned into a pumpkin, however, as the Cardinals won the coin toss and scored a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime.
Life In The Fast Lane
The key play in the game-winning drive – obviously, perhaps – was a 75-yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald on the first play:
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The Cardinals line up with two receivers on both sides, and a tight split. Carson Palmer (#3) shows a quick play-fake to running back David Johnson (#31). The two receivers on the left side run vertical routes, clearing out that half of the field. On the right, the tight end runs a quick out to the flat. Fitzgerald (#11) runs an over route, from right to left, crossing into the area vacated by the deep patterns.
Meanwhile, the Packers counter with a Cover 3 look and a zone blitz, rushing five. The slot cornerback carries the seam route from the slot receiver on the left side. With an extra rusher and the slot corner covering deep, Green Bay has just two underneath defenders as opposed to the typical four.
The Heat Is On
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Down linemen B.J. Raji (#90) and Mike Daniels (#76) both line up shaded to the right shoulder of the offensive linemen across from them – guards Mike Iupati (#76) and Ted Larsen (#62), respectively – but loop to the left shoulder at the snap. Ryan and Matthews charge through the gaps in which the defensive linemen had initially lined up but have now left vacant.
Johnson picks up Ryan’s blitz, but Matthews beats Larsen and forces Palmer to climb the pocket, where he runs smack into Packers end Mike Neal (#96) who has won his battle with right tackle Bobby Massie (#70). Palmer channels teammate Dwight Freeney, and rocks a tight spin move to elude Neal’s sack attempt.
The Last Resort
Palmer runs to the right flat, being chased by Daniels – and by Peppers, who has vacated his underneath zone to chase the quarterback:
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Palmer throws a fadeaway jump pass across the field. Had Peppers stayed in his zone, the throw would have been extremely risky, and possibly deflected or intercepted. But the veteran didn’t anticipate Palmer throwing across the width of the field. Palmer doesn’t get a lot of velocity on the throw, but no one is within 15 yards of Fitzgerald, so he has no difficulty securing the pass. The veteran receiver catches the ball around the Arizona 35-yard-line, bursts toward the sideline, cuts his run back at midfield, stiff-arms pursuit at Green Bay’s 35, and finally is hauled down just five yards short of the end zone. It’s no easy feat to tackle Fitzgerald in space and the play design, combined with Palmer extending the play, gave the receiver a ton of room to run.
Both coaching staffs had great schemes here. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers dialed up a blitz that got immediate pressure on Palmer, with enough coverage deep to take away the vertical routes. Arizona head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin created a concept that put pressure on that pass defense, with Fitzgerald getting open in the cleared-out area between the intermediate and deep zones. Ultimately, however, the play was won by something altogether unplanned: Palmer spinning away from pressure and staying aware of Fitzgerald’s position, Peppers abandoning his assignment, and Fitzgerald’s brilliance in the open field.
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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 Game Pass.