Every snap counts, but the outcomes of games can often be traced back to two or three pivotal plays. That was very true in two big matchups this past week -- the Bears-Broncos tilt saw a failed fourth down and failed two-point conversion attempt that spelled doom for Chicago. In the Arizona-Cincy game, the decision to throw on a key second-and-2 late in the contest ended up being a critical mistake.
Coaches and players make hundreds of decisions every game, but a few crucial plays ultimately became the difference in these very close games. What were John Fox, Jay Cutler, Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton thinking on these plays? Were they wrong? Let's take a look.
Bears can't convert key fourth down
The Bears trailed the Broncos 17-9 with 10:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-goal from the Denver 4-yard line. John Fox decided to go for it instead of kicking the field goal, which would have cut the lead to 17-12. It was a gutsy call (one that the New York Times 4th Down Bot agreed with) and instead of playing it safe, the Bears thought they'd just look to tie it up immediately with a touchdown then follow it up with a two-point conversion.
"We felt that was going to maybe be our last opportunity," Fox said after the game.
I can understand where the decision comes from. The Bears were playing probably the best defense in the NFL and had yet to muster a touchdown through three full quarters. If you kick a field goal in this situation, you're still down five, and you still need to get another touchdown to win or tie after making a stop or holding Denver to a field goal. So, I can see how Fox and company saw this as maybe their last, best shot to tie the game up.
On the other hand, there's 10 minutes left in the game. Chicago would prove that they could move the ball and score a touchdown later in the quarter.
Either way, the bummer (for Bears fans) is that they got exactly what Adam Gase had schemed up on this play. The timing was just a hair off, and as Marc Mariani came open in the corner of the end zone, Jay Cutler had turned his gaze to run to the right as he saw a gap open up.
It was a crucial mistake by Cutler in deciding to run to the right here, and when he saw what had happened on his Microsoft tablet, he was clearly upset with himself.
It was a huge missed opportunity for the Bears, but something they would have to live with. It remained a one-score game, and either way, they'd still need a touchdown to avoid losing.
"Anytime you don't get it done, there is going to be second-guessing," Cutler said succinctly.
The defense would hold though, and Cutler would get his shot at redemption.
Bad call or bad execution?
Taking the ball back with 1:49 remaining, Cutler led the Bears offense down the field on a six-play, 65-yard drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Langford. With 29 seconds remaining, a two-point conversion would tie the game up.
They lined up, Jay Cutler called audible after seeing the Broncos' defensive alignment, and handed the ball off to Jeremy Langford.
Safety T.J. Ward, unblocked off the backside of the play, crashes down and pulls Langford down short of the goal line and the game was essentially over. The immediate reaction was confusion as to why the Bears would hand off here instead of throwing with Cutler, but interestingly enough, it was the exact same play they'd used to score a two-point conversion three weeks earlier in San Diego.
"It was one of those deals where we had a pass checked to a run," left guard Matt Slauson said after the game. "Jay felt like we had the right look, and he wanted to put it on us to put it in. And we just have to get it done."
In other words, after Martellus Bennett motioned in toward the line and settled in the slot, Cutler saw a look from the defense that signaled to him that the run check would work in this case. He had done the exact same thing against San Diego.
In this case, though, the check wasn't the problem; the execution was.
The first, and biggest issue here is that T.J. Ward does a great job of crashing down the line and getting to Langford almost immediately after he receives the hand off. Considering it looks like Langford wants to cut back into the lane that Ward occupies, that's a problem. However, a good power back has the ability to carry Ward into the end zone anyway, and that would've been a possibility if the offensive line had done their job.
Unfortunately, rookie center Hroniss Grasu either didn't hear the check or didn't know the play that was called, because he stood up to pass block. When he's supposed to be leading the charge and creating a hole that Langford can bulldoze through, that's a huge problem. Secondly, left guard Slauson has fallen down almost immediately, creating a pileup that Langford runs into.
All in all, well defended by the Broncos, but poorly executed by the Bears.
In retrospect, the fact that the Bears were able to march down the field in under two minutes and score a touchdown makes that decision to go for the touchdown instead of the field goal earlier in the quarter look like a bad one. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Bengals fail the clock management test
In the Sunday Night Football matchup between the Bengals and Cardinals, one key decision proved to be a game-changer. Faced with a third-and-2 on the Arizona 25-yard line with 1:14 remaining and trailing 31-28, the Bengals took a shot down the sideline for A.J. Green, who was being defended in single coverage by Justin Bethel.
It was a poor throw that was nearly picked. Green caught it, but he was out of bounds.
The Bengals would kick the tying field goal on 4th down, kicking the ball back to the Cardinals with 1:03 remaining. That would prove to be too much time for Carson Palmer and his explosive offense. Six plays and 70 yards later, Arizona would kick the game-winning field goal.
Obviously, the Bengals' defense shares some blame for giving up the game-winning field goal drive in under a minute, but the management of the clock definitely comes into question. Even a failed run on third-and-2 would mean about 40 seconds would come off the clock as the kick went through. The Cardinals had no timeouts remaining, and would've gotten the ball back with about 30 seconds left, not a full minute. A game-winning drive would have still been possible, but tougher. The game would likely have headed to overtime.
Instead, Cincy got aggressive -- whether it was a called throw or an option/check by Andy Dalton when he saw the coverage -- and it backfired.
"Oh my God, we have our best player and -- their best corner was on the sideline," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said after the game, explaining the rationale. (Patrick Peterson was on the sideline at the time.) "So you've got your best player out on the field and the safety is standing in the middle of the field, you've got to take that shot. Game over."
"What if we didn't make it?" offensive coordinator Hue Jackson asked. "You're going to have to kick it anyway. But maybe the clock would've kept running. I can see the logic in that. I do get that, and I respect that."
So did Dalton.
"You can think of it that way, or you can think you're trying to win the game," Dalton said. "Yeah, you don't want to leave time on the clock, but you also want to try and win and we had a chance."
Ultimately, though, like the Bears above, while the idea may have made some sense from an aggressiveness and matchup standpoint, the execution failed.
Instead, the Bengals should have run the ball on third-and-2, and based on how the Arizona defense reacted, they probably would've gotten the first down with Gio Bernard.
That would've given the Bengals a new set of downs, where they could have taken a shot or two into the end zone before running the clock down to three seconds to kick the game-tying field goal. They may have won with a shot down the sideline to A.J. Green, but in hindsight, it was the wrong call.
Cincy's coaching staff stood behind Dalton and the decision.
"You can look back on it, but our quarterback does a nice job of making decisions and we have a lot of confidence in our players to be able to handle that situation," Lewis said. "We just would like to have a better outcome next time."