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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

THE ANSWER: Flacco's Overtime INsight


It's the only name that truly defines the play.

It was an answer to team prayer.
It was an answer to the critics.
It was an answer to the 35.3 million viewers who were asking, "Can they do it?"
It was an answer to the battle cry of #52.

The 70 yard stunner from the gunner, Flacco, that tied the game with 31 seconds left and effectively sent it into overtime, is indelibly etched in not only the minds of Ravens fans, but also in the minds of football fans in general.  Here is a breakdown of the many different factors that made The Answer a true miracle.

Let's start with the basic setup: 3rd and 3 on our own 29, the clock is running with :43 left in the game, Ravens down 35-28, Dierdorf is whining about something "else" that we are doing horribly wrong.

 Funny thing is, at the outset, this is the same formation and look as the play which was great enough to be the namesake of this blog.  It appears that this play was unscripted, and the receivers, including Rice, were to simply find open spots in the  zone.  This is the eventual route combination that they ran.

The Broncos begin with a three man rush, and a three-deep zone.  All eyes are on Flacco, most notably the corners.  Look at how committed they are to watching him.  Flacco's first look is to his right.

The D-line is getting uncomfortably close to Flacco.  Note how two of them have partially broken protection and have a shot at him.  The middle Safety is taking a hard step towards Pitta, the Linebacker is in tight coverage with Rice, who is about to give him a move and cut hard.

Rice cuts and is open, Pitta draws attention from both the middle-third and right-third safety, Jacoby Jones is a little further downfield than Torrey Smith, who is looking more like a decoy at this point and the left-third safety knows it.  Again, the pressure is on Flacco.  Dumervil almost has a 'paw' on his back!

Flacco steps up and gets excellent help from McKinnie and Birk.  Rice is open but would only get so much.  Pitta changes his direction  but clearly has the attention of three d-backs.  I think he was their focus on this play, although S Rahim Moore is backpedaling, demonstrating awareness of the deepening responsibility of the play.  I also think Flacco's eyes were doing the deception; the d-backs had to decide what layer he was looking at, shallow (Pitta) or deep (Jones).

 Flacco commits to a throw, and we see a peek at his options.  Pitta is not open because of #32 Carter and #36 Leonhard, who is charging towards him now.  S Moore is flat footed, and Jones has a slight let up in his run.  But keep in mind: Jacoby Jones ran track for his first two years in college, at Southeastern Louisiana   He transferred to Lane College in Jackson, TN, in order to play football.  He is about to apply sprinter speed to catch up to that bomb.  Because of Leonhard's (middle safety) commitment, it appears that Anquan Boldin was open in the post for a threaded dart, but Leonhard committed only when Flacco did.  Yet, positionally, 'Q' did have an edge if Flacco had gone his way.

Here is  the beginning of the end for S Rahim Moore and the Broncos.  Moore appears to react slowly to the ball, as if he is measuring where it is going.  He is not in full sprint mode like the corner Carter.  Jacoby is speeding downfield to meet the ball.

The last point from this angle: look how high the ball is.  And simply eyeing the body positioning of Jacoby and Moore, who do you think has the best shot at it here?  Who looks like they are tracking the ball correctly?  This height will be revisited below.  First, let's look more closely at Jacoby and Carter's entire run.

In a tighter shot of Jones and CB Carter, we see that Carter begins the play with eyes in the backfield.

A few steps in, he begins his backpedal, giving up the sideline, with eyes still in the backfield.  Jones is being diligent in his pattern--did he know that he was a distinct possibility on this play?  My opinion, which could be wrong, is that he didn't, but that he initially is being a great team player and selling his route.  I say this because of his later hesitation in the route.

 I included this next shot simply to demonstrate that Jones has turned Carter all the way around, and that Carter is attempting to illegally impede Jones' progress with a swat, but that right here, because of speed, Jones has Carter beat.

This is a few strides later and after the pass has been released.  Closely pay attention to Jones' posture in these next few pictures.  Enter S Rahim Moore, sliding towards the sideline with an eye on the ball as well.  Look how upright Jones is, eyes high in the sky.

As Jones continues his calculated drift downfield, Moore takes another angle on the ball, which allows Jones behind him.  Clearly, he believed that he has the proper track on the ball.  But here, he is beginning his leap, in recognition that it might go over his head.  As a former safety and corner in my limited playing days, I can vouch that a high pass like this is hard to judge, especially when not going forward with the ball.

..And, viola--the ball has Moore far out of position to affect it, while Jacoby scoops it in like a little baby.  A very interesting note here: look at how Jacoby has brought the ball in.  He has his arms in a basket.

--Another angle.  Basket catch, not sprinting but waiting, ball out of reach for Moore.

Jacoby Jones, whether by plan or simple instinct, treated this pass like a punt.  That's how high the ball is.  His posture is identical to his punt receiving posture.  Look at this return earlier in the game:
...Arms in a basket.  Facing the ball.  He did it the exact same way.  This is why, perhaps in part, he was able to ignore Moore's frantic attempt to reach the ball.  Even if his eye contact was interrupted by Moore, his basket was able to compensate by being in the right spot and guiding the ball in.

In contrast, look at Torrey Smith hauling in a long Flacco TD pass:
Notice that his hips are downfield and his upper body is turned.  His head is more back and his hands are doing all of the work.  24 Bailey is burnt in this instance and not waving sightline interference, but Smith still had to slow up just a little for the pass yet caught it differently.  I show this to demonstrate that Jones' experience as a punt/kick returner is what made this play.  He caught it like a punt!

Rahim Moore has pretty much been a career defensive player, so I had to go back to his High School stats to find the last time he returned a few kicks.  And I do mean a few--these happened over the course of two games in his senior year.  Compared to Jacoby Jones' NFL stats, because he is currently in practice of returning kicks.  Moore played this high pass so poorly, in a way, because he is far out of practice receiving kicks and misjudged it terribly.

The difference between this and an actual punt is that instead of it being with the opponents all running towards him, he was running away from them.  Think of a punt where the returner turns and sprints the wrong way.  The Answer was a lot like that, amazingly enough.

...A kiss to seal the deal.

So, the wrong read of the entire right side of the D was one aspect, thinking Pitta was the target.  The kick returner advantage and technique was another improbable aspect.  Let's look at Flacco's stand-up deliverance and true leadership of this historic play.  Here is the shot from behind center:

While the line might've mentally stepped down a notch for this play, because of the obvious low commitment by Denver of rushers, the Broncos linesman did not.  #92 Elvis Dumervil and #91 Robert Ayers had every intention of beating their blockers and getting to Flacco--outside/inside.

The only way to escape this assault was to do something that Flacco has struggled with all season--step into the pocket.  That, with the very timely help of veterans McKinnie and Yanda, could avert a certain sack.

And step up he did.  In perfect form and fashion, Flacco zigzagged into the pocket, capturing the attention of all 7 of the defensive backs and performing what is so often referred to as a stretch of the play.  When quarterbacks do this, it can really throw a defense off.  Look at how close everything was.  Look at Flacco avoiding the step of McKinnie with his legs, while avoiding the grasp of Ayers with his right shoulder.

McKinnie and Yanda sealed the protection leak with emphasis, Joe bought himself enough time to get back downfield with his vision and create.

Now look again at this shot.  Who is Flacco looking at?  What level is his focus on?  Since Jacoby hadn't caught a pass all game, and the secret has been out that Flacco likes to go to road roomie Pitta in crunch situations, the D seemed to collectively key on him for a split second too long (hence the orange question marks).  #5 was obviously looking at his sprinter and planning a World Shocker.

After bomb delivery, Flacco ran downfield, backwards and arms stretched, for about 30 yards.  It was quite a sight to see and a catharsis for him, I'm sure.  It could possibly even be coined "Flaccoing."  

The Answer was just that.  Not fully man made--a conglomeration of split-hair timing and choices that resulted in the best outcome.  It will be in my memory forever, long after the hoopla fades.

Yet, we're not finished with this type of performance-wrapped-in-Providence.

New England is next.