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The little things: Subtlety, nuance key to the week's biggest touchdowns

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Pulling guards, play-action passes, misdirection and more ... Danny Kelly goes into the film room to break down the little things that made for big plays in a record-setting week of scoring in the NFL.

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

There were an NFL-record 90 touchdowns scored this past Sunday, the most in a single day. When you include Thursday and Monday Night Football, a total of 104 touchdowns were scored in Week 14, another record. For some perspective on how crazy these numbers were, consider a few tidbits:

Five touchdowns were scored in the final two minutes of the Vikings-Ravens game. The Eagles scored four touchdowns on the Lions in the fourth quarter, despite about a foot of snow on the ground. Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes. Actually, that's not weird. Scratch that one.

The only team that didn't score a touchdown was the Buffalo Bills. On Sunday alone, teams combined for 739 points. There were an average of 52.8 points per game on that day. No 6-3 Browns-Bengals barn-burners this week?

In the spirit of celebrating the most insane touchdown frenzy the NFL has ever seen in a single week, I thought that I would set out to break down a few of the more interesting paydirt plays from a schematics point of view. While watching 104 touchdown snaps in quick succession though, things start to blur together; before long, all you're looking at is a bunch of bodies kicking and gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.

So I flipped on the coaches tape, focused in on the line of scrimmage, and watched to see some of the nuances teams used to win. Things may all look the same on the surface, but obviously, there is a lot at play.

As Chan Gailey put it so laconically a few years back:

There are only so many plays in football; all we're doing is finding different ways to run them all.

That's were little subtleties come into play. Subtleties are change-ups. They're tendency killers. They're cool.

To the tape!

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Washington Redskins

Ah, Washington hosting Kansas City, what a lovely day for a football game. Hey, remember when the Chiefs used the first overall pick last year to select the highly athletic, mobile offensive tackle, Eric Fisher? To be totally honest, I had kind of forgotten about that. This play made me remember it.

2-5-WAS 5 (11:35 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short right to J.Charles for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

There are very few points to note about this play because it's simple. First, the Chiefs spread the Redskins out by aligning three receivers to the left, one to the right, and sending RB Jamaal Charles to the wing, leaving Alex Smith alone in an empty backfield.

You can surmise that the Redskins are in man-coverage because of a few reasons: First, Washington's defensive backs are all up close to the line, and each mirroring an offensive player. Second, on the wing, linebacker Riley Perry Jr. has followed Jamaal Charles out on what's surely a unenviable assignment - trying to mark one of the fasted, shiftiest players in the NFL, in space. When you see a linebacker out further than a cornerback, it generally means you're seeing a man coverage scheme.

Alex Smith knows what he's looking at. The Chiefs get the defensive matchup that they want. The nuance of this play that I loved was the manner in which Andy Reid and Kansas City utilized their athletic right tackle.


Watch below:


This play blends many of the Chiefs' individual player talents together. Fisher was drafted first overall in a large part because of his athleticism. That shows up here. Alex Smith is also athletic and likes to move outside the pocket to throw. He's got to be agile enough to move and throw to his right while avoiding the unblocked defensive end to the playside. In some ways, this is sort of like the 'read-option' freeze that you see, quarterback playing off of defensive end. Finally, of course, Jamaal is a fantastic receiver. He's fast, but tough to bring down with first contact.

What's most impressive in this play is how quickly and easily Fisher gets to the numbers outside to lay his key block for Charles, considering he starts from just outside the hashes. Washington's linebacker is not expecting a block from that side, and is caught off guard, and swept out of the play. Charles shows patience to let the play develop. A nice block by Donnie Avery on the cornerback means that all Charles has to do is to beat the deep middle safety. Which he does.


It's always fun to see the big fellas get out in space and lay a block.

This was a simple, yet creative play-call, and instead of using a tight end or wide receiver out on the wing to block for what's essentially a tunnel screen, Andy Reid asked his right tackle to get on his horse and make it happen.

Denver Broncos vs. Tennessee Titans

Speaking of horses (I mean the Broncos, not Peyton), there were interesting play designs from this high scoring affair, which included 12 touchdowns. I'm only going to talk about two of them!

In the interest of fairness, let's break down a great play from the losing team first.

1-10-DEN 28 (7:07 2nd Quarter) S.Greene left tackle for 28 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Midway through the second quarter, Titans running back Shonn Greene rumbled for 28 yards and a touchdown on a cool little lead counter play. The three key blocks were from tight end Taylor Thompson (No. 84), rookie guard Chance Warmack (No. 70), and fullback Quinn Johnson (No. 45).


See it in motion:

Warmack pulls from his right guard spot and I'm fairly certain he blows up DE Shaun Phillips so violently that Phillips' head just pops right off of his body. That's just his helmet, but it was close to being his whole head.


With Phillips dispatched, Johnson leads the way for Greene through the hole, and with quick succession of successful blocks at the point of attack and a nice seal by Thompson on the filling linebacker, the former Jet is home free.

What I found interesting about this play was the blocking up front. I wouldn't say that something like this is rare, per se, but you don't often see a right guard pull left and take out a defensive end four players away on the play side. More typically, you're seeing this type of job given to tight ends or maybe even a center. Guards will routinely pull over one or two of their own teammates to lead through a hole downfield, but generally speaking, what we see above is a lot of ground to cover in a very short amount of time, so you have to be pretty athletic to pull it off. In this case, Warmack, the 10th overall pick from last year's draft, is up to the task. Easily.

With this scheme, the tight end to the play side, Thompson, can leave Phillips unblocked and instead move downfield immediately to seal off a defensive player in the second level. His block proves key, and like Phillips taking on Warmack, the linebacker never really sees Thompson coming.

The San Francisco 49ers ran a somewhat similar play against the Seahawks this past Sunday as well.

In the case below, the Niners actually pull their left guard (as opposed to their right guard) to take out the defensive end (Bruce Irvin in this case), and ask their tight end to pinch down and seal at the point of attack. Fullback Bruce Miller is aligned in an I-formation (as opposed to offset-I) and his angle of attack downfield is slightly different. In the grand scale of things, though, it's a pretty similar idea, with slight tweaks to the angles and personnel.


In fact, this particular run play was an ever-so-slightly tweaked version of one of their staple plays, but as Niners OC Greg Roman pointed out afterwords:

"We've never ever run it before since we've been here. And it's just something we were keeping in the back pocket for the right time. And it's one of those things, you always question, ‘Should we run it early and pop it early?' You like to have some stuff in your hip pocket for the right time."

As Gailey said, again:

"There are only so many plays in football; all we're doing is finding different ways to run them all."

The play netted San Francisco 51-yards and set them up for the eventual game-winning field goal.

1-10-TEN 20 (9:19) (Shotgun) P.Manning pass deep middle to E.Decker for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Here's the thing about Peyton Manning. He can make a complicated series of decisions look effortless. I watched this following play about 30 times in a row and couldn't figure out if it was really brilliant or really boring. I tend to think it's the former, because there probably aren't a ton of quarterbacks in the NFL that make this throw consistently. Peyton does.

Here's the setup: Broncos in their normal "11" personnel grouping with three receivers, a tight end and a running back. Manning can probably run almost the Broncos' entire offense through this grouping and formation. That's part of the reason they're so hard to defend.


Key points:

The tight end up the seam is the main catalyst to this play working, but I also think play-action has a big part of it in terms of timing.

The tight end, Julius Thomas, is aligned right, in-line, at the snap. As he breaks off the line, he gets the attention of two defenders and holds them long enough for Manning to thread the needle down to Eric Decker up the numbers. Manning wouldn't have been able to hit this throw if the nickel back, Michael Griffin (No. 33), hadn't been forced to stick with Julius Thomas so long.

In what looks like a bit of a domino effect, the play-action fake draws Tennessee's two linebackers up to the line of scrimmage. The weakside linebacker Colin McCarthy, gets into his zone drop a beat or two late. This means Griffin has to wait an extra beat to pass Thomas off to him, which means he cannot recover and disrupt the passing lane to Decker on the outside, now coming into Griffin's zone. The deep safety is also slow to react after getting stuck looking at Thomas.


For Eric Decker's part, he runs a nice route, post-corner-skinny-post. Alterraun Verner doesn't get beat much. Here it looks like he's expecting more help.

Let's look at spacing again. Without knowing what assignments are based on the play call, all I can do is speculate. I'm thinking that Griffin needed to be a little deeper and wider with his drop, hopefully keeping Manning from throwing this pass in the first place. The play-action is what created this effect though, and take a look at why play-action was so effective:

A pulling guard.


Now, the guard in this case doesn't do a great job of actually blocking anyone, but his movement is what the linebackers key on and they both immediately read 'run'. You see a guard pulling? You come downhill hard to stop the run.

No. 68's job is done as long as he gets the linebackers to suck up toward the line of scrimmage even for a moment. Especially when you've got Peyton Manning dealing, because he's proven he can take advantage of even the smallest mistake.

The nuances. Pull your guard in play-action. Create a chain reaction on defense. Get guys out of position. Exploit.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Buffalo Bills

One last play that caught my eye was the 2nd from scrimmage in the Bucs-Bills tilt in Tampa Bay.

2-10-TB 20 (14:56 1st Quarter) B.Rainey left tackle for 80 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

This home run was created with some nice blocking up front and some misdirection from Tampa receiver Russell Shepherd. It's really pretty simple, but it works.


I'll let the GIF do the talking here. The play-side corner and deep middle safety both take themselves out of the action immediately because they're so keyed in on Shepherd's motion to the right. Bobby Rainey stiff-arms Kiko Alonso (who is normally very reliable) and is home free.


See it from the end zone angle: the defense flows downhill to stop the reverse by Shepherd, and there's no one in the secondary to stop Rainey, who takes the inside handoff 80 yards.


Subtle and not-so-subtle nuances that made big impacts on plays.

Follow Danny on Twitter.

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