Well, it's been an exciting few days for the Buccaneer faithful, with the Darrelle Revis trade finally consummated and the draft, but there's still a long offseason before football's truly back. So, to help pass the time, I've decided to look back over every game from the 2012 season and identify the one key play that was ultimately responsible for the eventual success or failure of each game. I'll start off by setting out what happened each game up to the key play, explain why I've chosen that one play as the deciding factor in the outcome of the game, and then go on to break down exactly what happened on that play, armed only with a whiteboard, some marker pens, a copy of NFL Game Pass and the All-22 camera angle - or, in order to keep things thematically consistent and pirate-y, what I'm calling the 'View from the Crow's Nest'.
Week 1: Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9/9/12
No one really knew what the Schiano-led Bucs would look like; but with the media having spent the offseason fawning over Cam Newton (one particular segment of NFL Network's Total Access stuck in my craw - playoffs? They hadn't (and still haven't) had a winning record since 2008!), the Panthers were widely considered the favourites in this season-opening matchup. Yet, when the game got under way, it was the Bucs who were firmly in the driving seat throughout the first half. The Tampa Bay offense was solid, efficient, a far cry from the high-powered scoring machine that it became in the middle six weeks of the season, but equally unrecognisable from the misfiring shambles that would close out the year.
They got the job done, reasonable gains on the ground and some short-to-medium completions through the air, with just two completions going for longer than 20 yards. Defensively, the Bucs looked completely transformed from the previous year: fast, aggressive, swarming, shutting down the run completely and holding Newton to dinks and dunks, managing only three completions longer than 10 yards and none longer than 20. With an offense that only had three drives but managed to sustain them for around 17 minutes total, and coming away with points each time, and a defense that wouldn't give the Panthers room to breathe, the Buc headed into the locker room with a 13-0 lead.
The second half, however, was a completely different story. On offense, the Buccaneers began to shoot themselves in the foot, with penalties and sacks killing drives, not aided by some half-time adjustments from the Panthers that led them to stuffing Doug Martin for a majority of the second half. The Carolina adjustments spread to their offense too, with them taking advantage of an overly-aggressive run defense through exploiting their play-action. This is best categorised by their first drive of the second half, consisting of just five plays, the last three of which resulted in completions of 11, 32 and 22 yards (for a touchdown).
The Bucs should have gotten a break when the next two Carolina drives ended in interceptions, but with the Tampa offense unable to score any points off of the turnovers, the Panthers got the ball back with the 13:21 left in the fourth quarter trailing by just six points. With the Bucs looking to really struggle to keep the ball moving on offense, and the Panthers' O appearing to have figured out how to drive down the field on the Bucs' D (though the previous drive ended in an interception, the Panthers were still moving the ball well on the Bucs before a holding call put the Panthers in a third-and-long situation), the game was still very much in play.
The drive started badly for the Bucs, with Newton completing a 24-yard pass, and a roughing the passer penalty on Michael Bennett tacking on another 15 yards, Carolina had a 1st & 10 right around the halfway line. The Panthers lost two yards on a stuffed run, but a short three-yard completion to Greg Olsen gave the Panthers a 3rd & 9 at the Tampa 48. What followed was the key play of this game.
(Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any highlights of this particular play online, though the picture at the top of the article is from the play in question; but for those who have NFL Game Rewind/Game Pass, it's the play that begins at 11:38 of the fourth quarter. The diagrams are for illustrative purposes, and due to the width of the white board is not meant to be a scale representation of formations etc. Buccaneers are naturally in red, as they will be throughout the series.)
Formation: Gun Spread-Right Weak (QB in shotgun, spread receivers with the TE on the right, RB lined up on the weakside of the QB)
Personnel: LT, #69 Jordan Gross; LG, #61 Amini Silatolu; C, #67 Ryan Kalil; RG, #63 Geoff Hangartner; RT, #77 Byron Bell; QB, #1 Cam Newton; #35, RB Mike Tolbert; WR, #89 Steve Smith; WR, #83 Louis Murphy; TE, #88 Greg Olsen; WR, #11 Brandon LaFell
Formation: 4-1-5 Dime
Personnel: RDE, #94 Adrian Clayborn; RDT, #71 Michael Bennett; LDT, #93 Gerald McCoy; LDE, #56 Dekoda Watson; LB, #54 Lavonte David; CB, #21 Eric Wright; CB, #33 Brandon McDonald; CB, #20 Ronde Barber; CB, #25 Aqib Talib; SS, #24 Mark Barron; FS, #43 Ahmad Black
As drawn up above in Fig. 1, the Panthers come out in an obvious passing formation: Cam Newton is back in shotgun, the OL are in an obvious pass set, Greg Olsen is split out slightly from the line and in a two-point receiver's stance, with the opposite slot, Louis Murphy, also on the line of scrimmage (LOS), and the two outside receivers lined up as flankers. The Bucs have gone to their dime package, and unlike some teams, who might bring in their fourth corner as the dimeback, Tampa Bay would typically in 2012 bring in a third safety, Ahmad Black, and line him up at free safety, moving Ol' Man Ronde down into the traditional slot corner position that, together with Charles Woodson, he made famous through the 2000s. Lavonte David is left in as the only true linebacker, though up in front the Bucs swap out the nose tackle for linebacker Dekoda Watson, lining him up at left end and pushing Michael Bennett inside.
The interior DL line up as 'double threes' (two 3-techs), something you will only see on obvious pass rushing situations as it leaves both A-gaps open against the run, but gives the DTs the advantage of almost guaranteeing one-on-one situations, as it is unlike the center would be in position to help block unless he drops backwards on a scoop block. Lavonte David and Ronde Barber lined up almost in a stack over the right tackle, presumably to disguise which of the two will cover Olsen after the snap. The other three corners line up on the LOS directly across from their respective receivers, on the back end, Mark Barron is creeping into 'the box' (the area of the field where the DL and LBs typically line up), while Ahmad Black is playing deeper. Pre-snap, the coverage could either be a one- or two-high shell, or even Cover 0, as both safeties are in position to drop back or blitz. Ultimately, the coverage will prove to be Cover 1 Man (single high safety, man coverage underneath), with the Bucs rushing five. Prior to the snap, Brandon LaFell casually motions inside, with Talib following. As the snap begins, Ahmad Black sprints down into the box, and Mark Barron begins to back-pedal.
In order to make the play clearer, I'll deal with it in two sections: rush & blocking, and routes & coverage.
Rush & Blocking
In order to make things (a little) clearer, I've just drawn in the rush for Fig. 2, and drawn in letters A-F for reference as I describe exactly what happened on this rush, a typical example of a Schiano defense stunt-heavy third-down blitz.
So, we begin (as is sensible) with 'A': Adrian Clayborn. In a third-and-nine situation, with the Panthers at the half way line, you would think you might want to have the team's leading sacker from the previous season involved in the rush. Not so. Despite being split out at a wide-9 (or more accurately since there's no TE on that side, wide-5), an alignment which is meant to heavily favour a pass rush (compare to the more traditional 7-tech alignment of Watson on the other side), Clayborn does not rush, but rather drops back - slightly. As the Bucs are play man-coverage, it's clear that Clayborn is matched up to Mike Tolbert, should the fullback/tailback hybrid have released into a route. As it stood, Tolbert remained in to block throughout the play, so Clayborn remains in the same spot on the field throughout the play, as he would have been responsible if Tolbert were to slip out on a delayed release, had the play been a slow-developing screen or something similar.
'B' is Ahmad Black. As mentioned above, Black sprints down towards the LOS just as the Center begins to snap. While Clayborn did not rush, his dropping out of his stance into coverage does cause Gross to widen a little. Black comes down like a rocket into this widened 'B' gap (one of two defenders who penetrate this hole - no innuendo intended); but Gross recognises quickly that Clayborn is not coming, and puts his inside shoulder into Black as he comes down. That alone is enough to cause the 185lb safety to bounce off course, losing his footing as he ricochets harmlessly past Newton and into the legs of Michael Bennett.
'C': I mentioned earlier that both David and Barber were stacked in a way that either one could have been manned up on Greg Olsen. Well, it's Barber who's left on the tight end, as the rookie linebacker loops round and attacks the 'B' gap left unoccupied by a stunting Michael Bennett. David is met by a double-team by left guard Silatolu and Tolbert, and though Tolbert ends up off the block, David is unable to shed Silatolu and is blocked out the play.
'D': This particular rush called for a rush of three on the weakside of the play, Newton's backside, and it's Watson out of the LDE position who makes up the other rusher, looping all the way from the strongside 'C' gap to the weakside 'A' gap. Watson has the longest to go to reach his gap, and when he gets there he does himself no favours; rather than attacking the 'A' gap cleanly, he somehow manages to run into the back of Silatolu. Had he not done so, there's a chance he might have beaten Kalil (who was pulled wide by Bennett stunting across his face), or at least had a bit of a head start on that match up; but by running into Silatolu, even briefly, it gives Kalil enough time to set his feet to block Watson, and the All-Pro center handles him easily.
'E': In a more traditional, conservative pass-rush, this would be a dream match up: the very talented Michael Bennett, lined up at three-tech, against a rookie guard starting his first professional game? Forget about it. Literally, forget about it - it never happened. Instead, Bennett stunts across the faces of the interior three, going from lined up in the weakside 'B' gap to rushing the strongside 'B' gap. Bennett is able to use his speed get around the edge of Hangartner - and runs into an Ahmad Black still reeling from a shoulder barge by Jordan Gross. Bennett trips up over the safety, landing on top of him and knocking into Byron Bell.
'F': Finally, Gerald McCoy. McCoy stunts across Bell, using quick hands to knock Bell's arms away, and punching a hand into his chest to keep distance from the offensive tackle. Bell, however, steps back slightly, leading to McCoy over extending to keep his hand on the Panther lineman, losing his footing slightly and going onto the ground. Still, McCoy might have been able to get back up quickly and onto Newton - had the Bennett-Black dogpile not bumped into Bell, knocking him over and on top of McCoy.
So, the rush didn't get there - though I do believe Watson might have been able to sack, or at least seriously harass Newton had he not ran into a guard's back. Yet, while the rush did not end in downing the passer, it did appear to have two beneficial effects on the play - the overloading of the weakside of the play did, I believe, prevent Cam from looking too far over to that side of the play, where (as we will see below) an open Steve Smith was racing across the field and should have been a guaranteed first down for the bad guys. The second, though, is that while it didn't put Cam under much duress, he did have to shuffle a little to get out of the way of the Bennett/Black/McCoy/Bell bundle - which results in him throwing off his back foot, or at least not setting his feet for long enough to get his full power into the throw.
Routes & Coverage
Similarly to the previous section, I'm using letters off the alphabet (A-E in this case) to identify what certain players did; but I've also added three green Roman numerals (i-iii) to bring attention to three particular incidents that I feel are noteworthy. In order to make things clearer, I've re-drawn LaFell, Talib & Barron after their pre-snap motions & adjustments, and erased all the rushers and blockers off the board.
Firstly, let's begin with the one route that had no effect on the play: Brandon LaFell, 'A', having motioned in towards Olsen, runs a shallow drag route across the formation - a route that typically serves as a checkdown only in a third-and-long situation, with the hope that the receiver can make enough yardage after the catch to get the first down. Talib, however, sticks with him throughout, and this route was never open for Cam to throw.
At 'B' we have Steve Smith, who is being guarded by new free agency acquisition Eric Wright. Smith releases inside of right, running downfield and then breaking inside after 10-11 yards, running across the middle of the field. Wright, who back manages to keep step-for-step with Smith on the downfield release, takes far too wide an angle when Smith breaks inside, and is a good three or four yards behind Smith when the ball is released (signified by Roman numeral 'i'). To me, this is the obvious throw to make - Smith is open, past the first down marker, Mark Barron has back pedaled deep so is in no position to make a play on the ball, and Wright at best could hope to have the closing speed to maybe break up the pass, but realistically this was the best option open to Cam, his best receiver being open in position for a first down, and had Newton made this throw rather than the one he would eventually make, this game could have ended differently. As it was, the Bucs got a lucky break on this - and since I'm in a generous mood I will chalk it up to Newton feeling some pressure from David and Watson preventing him looking over to this side of the field.
'C': This play looked like it was going to be similar to LaFell's route at 'A' - one where the receiver never breaks free from coverage, and so is never a viable option for Newton. Indeed, Ronde doesn't look at all like his 37 years, sticking to Greg Olsen like velcro as he release inside and up the middle of the field, shutting the tight end out of the play. Yet, this route does have an important impact on 'D'...
'D': While I criticise Newton for not throwing to a wide-open Smith, you can at least understand his thought process - pre-snap, if you see your speedy (4.32 40 time) slot receiver against an old journeyman nickel like Brandon McDonald, then you know that's going to be the best mismatch for the offense. Louis Murphy releases inside of McDonald, but manages to get behind him, putting the corner in bad position as he runs downfield, then breaks inside and heads for the sideline. Though Murphy soon breaks away from McDonald, the nickel is able to keep up relatively well - until he brushes into Olsen, at Roman numeral 'ii' in Fig. 3. While it's only momentary, McDonald has to pull up to avoid a full-on collision - being left far behind Murphy. It seems that all that's left to secure the first down is an accurate throw from Newton, and though Cam is throwing off the backfoot, so that his throw doesn't have as much power as it might, the throw's on the money. First down, right?
'E': Nope. While later in his rookie season, seemingly having hit the mythical 'wall', Barron got burnt regularly when left as the single-high safety, early on he proved that, while he doesn't have the man-to-man skills to cover tight ends, he absolutely does have the coverage skills to play one-high. From the snap, Barron back pedals quickly and deeply, but never stops watching the quarterback's eyes. As he sees Newton winding up, it's clear that he's targeting Murphy, and begins running towards the receiver who's now free of McDonald. Had Newton had all his power behind his throw, I believe this ball gets there on time - but with a little bit less touch on it than usual, as the ball flies towards Murphy's hands, Barron makes a textbook play - leaping in front (and not into) Murphy, never touching the player to risk drawing a flag, but getting his finger tips to the ball and batting it down (Roman numeral iii), breaking up what would otherwise have been at least a first down, and potentially a long touchdown. The play showcases Barron's speed, instincts, and disciplined reading of the quarterback's eyes, and though his coverage slipped as the season went on, I imagine we will see a lot more of this type of rock-solid safety play from Barron in his second season.
Now facing 4th & 9, the Panthers punt from the Buccaneer 48; you may remember what happened next. Leaving the starting defense in, the Bucs overload one side of the punt formation, Aqib Talib comes free and unblocked, and leaping in front of the punter, bats the ball down, blocking the punt and after a Clayborn recovery, giving the Bucs possession deep in Panther territory. The shift in momentum is palpable, even re-watching on a computer eight months later - I can't imagine how electric it must have been to be sitting in the Ray Jay at that moment. After a first down, the Bucs get a field goal, pushing it to a two-score game.
So why is this the key play, and not the blocked punt? Well, it's easy to say "without this play, there wouldn't have been a punting situation", which is true; but this specific play is the key play, to me, because of where on the field it happened. Had Newton completed that throw to Murphy, then if the receiver had been taken down immediately, Carolina would still have gotten the ball on the Buccaneer 28. That's field goal territory; if this pass is completed, then the drive ends with the Panthers at least cutting the score to 13-10, and at most taking the lead at 14-13. Remember, the Buccaneer O really struggled to drive down the field in the second half; the field goal following the blocked punt was the only points they scored after half time, and to put just how much they struggled into context, the only drive of the second half where the Bucs had more than a single first down was the final drive to run out the clock. Let's say the Panthers did cut the lead to 13-10 - based on what their offense was able (or not) to achieve, there is no guarantee whatsoever the Bucs would have been able to score all second half.
Remember, too, how the game ended - the Panthers got back into the end zone, but were only able to come up with a field goal, which did bring the score to its final standing of 16-10 - but what if that 3rd & 9 were completed? The score would likely have been 13-10 already, so that final field goal would have sent the game to over time. Simply put, the blocked punt may have swung the momentum which was favouring the Panthers in the second half back towards the Bucs, but Tampa Bay were just fingertips away from letting the Panthers score on that drive - and that is why this was the key play of Week One.
Hopefully you enjoyed this breakdown, but please give feedback in the comments below - especially let me know if you'd prefer if I only stuck to plays which have a clip on NFL.com I can embed, so you can see the play for yourselves, or if you'd rather I broke down what I genuinely feel is the key play, regardless of whether not a clip of it exists publicly online, next time I bring you the View from the Crow's Nest.