Green Bay left Chicago with a lopsided 38-17 win. But it was a back-and-forth game until one Packers defender made the right gamble against Jay Cutler and completely turned the game for the road team.
The Packers kicked a 53-yard field goal for a 24-17 lead on their first drive of the third quarter last Sunday in Chicago. Up to that point, the Bears had scored on every offensive drive except one -- partially thanks to some shenanigans on the last play before halftime. So it was very realistic to think they might tie the game on their ensuing drive. They had to start on their own 15-yard line after kick returner Rashad Ross (why didn't they just keep Devin Hester?) tripped over the 10-yard line. But with a high-powered offense, that generally just means 5 more yards to add to the stat sheet.
Sure enough, after six plays, the Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler were all the way down to the Green Bay 24-yard line. They lined up on first-and-10 for a fateful seventh play of the drive. Some folks would say what happened next was just the "same old Cutler." Maybe, maybe not. I wanted to see for myself what happened. According to the film, it was more a matter of one Packers player seeing the future than just Cutler being Cutler.
I admit to having a somewhat positive bias toward Cutler. Every time I think about the fact that he has diabetes and has to check his blood several times during a game just so that he doesn't have serious complications, I guess I feel like maybe we should all be giving him more of a pass than he's generally had from fans and the press. Yes, I know he acts like a jerk quite a bit, especially with the media, but I like my quarterback to have a little asshole to him. Sue me.
I'm not giving him a pass on that play. He simply cannot make that throw, no matter what.
Let me back up for the folks who didn't actually see the game or the highlights and are wondering about the play.
Cutler comes up to the line, notices something about the Packers' defense and audibles. He was initially under center with a tailback lined up behind him and a fullback, who is actually a tight end, offset to his left. Two wide receivers are bunched at the end of the formation to his left and there's another receiver wide to his right. This is basically an "I near" formation with three wideouts.
Whatever Cutler saw caused him to audible to a shotgun formation. The tailback, Matt Forte, moved from beside him to the right, and the tight end/fullback beside him moved to his left. After the snap, the receiver to his right, Josh Morgan, runs a 5-yard slant; Forte runs a flat route to the right. This is a very common route combination where either the back to the flat drags the coverage wide, opening up a lane for the slant, or the slant takes the coverage inside with him, opening up the outside lane for the running back to the flat. Very simple read.
That's looking at it from an offensive perspective, which is what you normally get in analysis. From the defensive perspective, however, it's a combination that's hard to cover. If you sit inside for the slant, it's almost a given that the flat route will outflank the defense. If you try to cover the flat route, it's hard to keep someone between the quarterback and the receiver, which is about the only way you can stop the slant route. There are always more exceptions to the rule.
Just like some analysts now have access to All-22 tape, players and coaches can access this stuff 24/7, and they usually have it before we do. They can watch for tendencies and plan for them. A guy might have an unconscious habit that tips his routes, the split may tell you where he will go, the kind of coverage you show may affect what the offense checks to, etc. There are a multitude of things that you can get from watching film that can give you an edge in the game. When you have teams that play as much as the Bears and Packers, a player also may pick up on the code words the opposition uses for their audibles on offense or defense.
True students of the game can put all that knowledge together and make a play by "seeing into the future," so to speak. Usually that means you aren't exactly playing the defense the way it has been called, which can be dangerous if you're wrong. However, if you feel strongly enough about your educated guess to act on it, nobody will complain if you make a big play.
That's what Packers cornerback Tramon Williams did on Sunday. The Packers like to play a lot of two-man and some cover 3 as well. With two-man, the corners line up inside the wide receivers and try to funnel them outside knowing they have two safeties deep to help over the top. With cover 3, the corners have one-third of the deep zone with the single-high safety having the deep middle third. Generally, the corners end up squeezing those deep routes from outside in.
Now, why am I explaining all of this to you? HEY, WAKE UP! I needed to explain that to explain how dope Williams' play was and how I know he pretty much guessed right.
See, most of the Packers' corners line up inside of the receiver in bump-and-run when it's two-man coverage, but they line up slightly off and to the outside of the receivers when it's cover 3. There is no set rule that says you have to line up outside in cover 3, and Williams generally didn't last Sunday. Instead, he positioned himself shaded inside and off the ball and then backpedaled outside before turning and running with any deep routes to maintain outside leverage. This is pretty much the way Williams lined up on that first-down play last Sunday.
I think Cutler presumed they were playing cover 3 with a single-high safety because of how the safeties were aligned. That means they would have had eight men in the box, which is no bueno for running the ball. Cover 3 though? Perfect coverage for that slant/flat route combination. The assumption is the corner will be looking for the deep stuff and won't be able to jump a quick slant. One of the linebackers responsible for the flat zone will have to cover Forte going to the flat. So basically all Cutler, in theory, had to do was see if that linebacker was going to fast flow to cover Forte, then hit the slant. If the linebacker was trying to hang around to stop the slant, then he can hit Forte for nice yardage up the sideline. That should've been good money, but two things went wrong.
First, even though the single-high safety couldn't have been a factor on that play if he had a rocket strapped to his back, Cutler decided to try to look him off. Hell if I know why, but he did.
Second, Cutler never took a glance out to the side of the slant/flat route to check out the corner to that side -- in this case Williams. Had he snuck a glance, he might've noticed that after the audible, Williams, who was already lined up inside Morgan, actually took another half step inside. I'm not saying he definitely wouldn't have thrown that pass had he seen it, but he would at least have known something was up.
All of these circumstances came together as Cutler shifted his weight to the right after having looked off the safety and located Packers linebacker Jamari Lattimore sprinting vigorously trying to catch up to Forte in the flat. Almost on autopilot, Cutler uncorked a bullet to the quick slant ... which also happened to be where Williams was already camped out and waiting.
Instead of backpedaling, Williams turned his shoulders outside toward Morgan so as to be in position to ward him off from the slant route. Then as soon as Morgan cut inside, Williams broke up and beat him to the spot because, after all, he had a head start. Williams ends up tipping the pass up in the air and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews brings it in for an interception with about a 40-yard return all the way to the Bears' 35-yard line. The Packers go on to score a touchdown on that drive and, well, the game was pretty much over at that point.
How did Williams know that slant was coming? That's something he will have to answer if he chooses to ever reveal his secret. But, and I can't stress this enough, had Morgan been running any kind of deep route on that play, you would have been able to slather Williams up with butter and whichever fruit compote you prefer because he would have been grade A toast. Everyone else in the secondary was playing single-high safety cover 3 -- there was no safety net once he jumped that route. He was about to be the hero or the goat with that guess, and lucky for him his crystal ball was on point that time.
The same could be said for his buddy in the defensive backfield, Sam Shields. The interception that Cutler threw to Shields later on in the game because of "miscommunication" with receiver Brandon Marshall was actually Marshall noticing the Packers were looking to jump shorter routes and doing a double move to use it against them. Had he and Cutler been on the same page, you could have gotten out your finest hot sauce and white bread, because Shields was as good as fried on that double move, again with no safety help deep. But Cutler and Marshall weren't on the same page and I'm sure a lot of folks will put that play in the "same old Cutler" category as well.
That's cool, really it is. I just want those same folks to give Williams some love too. Because somehow, someway, he used his crystal ball and made a pass breakup that should have been a routine completion. Considering how the Bears' offense had marched up and down the field until that point, that play may well have been the one that won the game for the Packers.