Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» 2017 Defensive Personnel Analysis

Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

04 Nov 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 9

by Scott Kacsmar

Well, that was not the most exciting of weeks. Three prime-time blowouts. The game of the week had a 22-point difference. Six teams were on a bye week, so that limited the number of games, but we had just four games with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, the lowest total in the four seasons I have been recapping.

It's not like we had a ton of blowouts, but things just happened to prevent more one-score opportunities, such as Jeremy Hill's 60-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville, a fantastic 80-yard touchdown drive led by Mark Sanchez (!) for the Eagles, and the Raiders sinking to 0-for-19 on onside kick attempts since 2009 with a close call in Seattle.

Game of the Week

St. Louis Rams 13 at San Francisco 49ers 10

Type: GWD
Win Probability (GWD starting with 7:37 left): 0.75
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (33-78-1 at 4QC and 48-85-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Austin Davis (1-3 at 4QC and 2-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)

One of the season's most forgettable game-winning drives was followed by a failed comeback that could live in infamy should the 49ers miss the playoffs. Maybe they weren't headed there anyway after a poor home performance against a St. Louis defense that Colin Kaepernick shredded in Week 6. The Rams finally lived up to the potential we knew they had this season, notching their eighth sack of the game in a tied fourth quarter with Kaepernick barely escaping a safety.

Andy Lee, one of the best punters in NFL history, appeared to bail the 49ers out of that poor field position, but his 55-yard boomer was wiped out by offsetting penalties. Lee then picked an awful time to shank one for 23 yards. St. Louis started at the 29 and already had a win probability of 75 percent with half the quarter left. I hate crediting game-winning drives where the offense fails to even gain one first down. Their only positive play was Austin Davis' checkdown on third down, which made the ensuing field goal attempt 8 yards shorter. Greg Zuerlein was good from 39 yards away and St. Louis led 13-10 with 5:25 to play.

Kaepernick was a bit too inaccurate on a slant to Michael Crabtree on third down and the 49ers quickly went three-and-out. The Rams could have put the game away on offense with a third-and-1 at midfield, but Davis' play-action pass was not open immediately and he had to throw the ball away. A few weeks ago, Jeff Fisher had the call of the year with the fake punt against Seattle in a much riskier situation based on scoring margin and field positon. Of course the 49ers would be alert for any shenanigans, but I think this was a spot that made more sense to go for it. Ideally, I would have run the ball on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 to convert if necessary. The major difference between this game and Seattle was that there was reason to fear the Seattle offense winning the game. The 49ers were scoreless on their final eight drives here, so I can buy the strategy to force them to drive a long field with 3:11 left.

Fisher's defense nearly let him down with big penalties on third down, but none were bigger than the 25 yards for pass interference on Trumaine Johnson for not playing the ball. Johnson picked up a holding penalty on the next snap and the 49ers had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. With 42 seconds and one timeout left, the 49ers had time to run three offensive plays, even if they were running plays.

Kaepernick threw on first down to Crabtree (of course he had to go there again in a critical spot) and we instantly had controversy with the pass ruled complete in bounds at the 1-yard line. To be honest, I cannot make up my mind on this call. I wish Kaepernick had thrown a better pass to avoid this whole sequence.

It seems like Crabtree never gets more control than here, which would be enough for a touchdown. The ball touches the ground during the process, but that's OK if he keeps control, and he appears to do that as he rolls over. I'm not sure I would get pissy whether this was called an incompletion or a touchdown, but a 1-yard catch seems to be the least realistic outcome.

Jerome Boger is about the last referee you want sorting out this mess, and on review he upheld the call, but the 49ers lost 24 seconds in the process. Crabtree rolled untouched out of bounds, which should have stopped the clock at 38 seconds. The clock moved to 19 seconds and started running after the ball was ready for play. That mistake almost compelled the 49ers to throw again.

Throw they did, and Kaepernick was forced to throw the ball away. On third down, I think they should have spread things out, put Kaepernick in the shotgun and let him run the quarterback dive the way Cam Newton does in Carolina. If he didn't get in, San Francisco still had the last timeout and could have tried a game-tying field goal. The 49ers chose the quarterback sneak, with which I can't argue, but I can criticize the jumbo formation. After waiting to see if there was a game-winning touchdown, the shocking call was a fumble recovered by James Laurinaitis for a touchback.

On replay, Kaepernick fumbled the exchange from center. Due to the inadequate jumbo formation, he plowed right into his own linemen immediately while trying to recover the ball. To me, there was a clear recovery and then the fullback rode Kaepernick forward into the end zone, but the quarterback then fumbled again. At that point, it's too difficult to judge whether or not he broke the plane before losing the ball. This is a case where that standard of "conclusive evidence" doomed the 49ers. There's probably a good chance that Kaepernick broke the plane, but the proof just was not there. So they had to stick with the call on the field.

It's one of the most disastrous ways to lose a game. Oddly enough, since 1998 there have been four instances of a quarterback fumbling in the red zone in the final two minutes with his team down 1 to 3 points. All four games involved the Rams.

Down 20-17 against the Washington in 2002, Kurt Warner was sacked by LaVar Arrington and fumbled with the ball at the 6-yard line and only 11 seconds left. Four years later, Warner was with Arizona playing against the Rams and lost a snap in a 16-14 game with 1:46 left at the 18-yard line. If that wasn't lucky enough for the 2006 Rams, two weeks later Brett Favre lost the ball on a Leonard Little sack in a 23-20 game with 36 seconds left.

The shroud of uncertainty over the finish will soften the blow of criticism against Kaepernick, but this was another red-zone trip with an unsavory outcome.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Washington Redskins 26 at Minnesota Vikings 29

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 6 (20-14)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 8:55 left): 0.25
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (3-0 at 4QC and 3-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater (3-0 at 4QC and 3-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Robert Griffin III took some big hits in his return to action and Teddy Bridgewater missed some deep passes, including an inexplicable overthrow in the first quarter to Cordarrelle Patterson. With the usual criticisms of those two out of the way, this was an exciting fourth quarter with the teams exchanging touchdown drives.

Minnesota trailed 20-14 to start the quarter, but one of Matt Asiata's three touchdowns put the Vikings back on top. Griffin hit a nice deep ball to DeSean Jackson for 56 yards, leading to a touchdown run by Alfred Morris. However, the all-important two-point conversion failed after Griffin ate the ball with the pocket collapsing around him. Washington led 26-21 with 9:01 left.

Bridgewater hit back-to-back 21-yard pass plays to get to the red zone. Asiata embraced his short-yardage role and scored again, along with a crucial two-point conversion to give the Vikings a 29-26 lead with 3:27 left.

That's plenty of time for Griffin, who came up short in the red zone against Minnesota last year when he absolutely needed a touchdown. Just a field goal would work here, but Jackson made things difficult with a penalty for offensive pass interference, setting up first-and-20. Griffin suffered his fifth sack of the day, but avoided a sixth while scrambling for 14 yards with a rare sliding finish. Offsetting penalties allowed for a redo on fourth-and-6. Minnesota rushed four. Griffin did a good job of sliding away from the pressure, but he failed miserably on a throw that was way too low for Pierre Garcon to ever have a chance to catch. If Griffin had put the ball on the receiver, it would have been a good gain and game on.

Minnesota ran the ball three times and punted, which is a fine strategy given that Griffin had six seconds left to get 80 yards. At this point you would probably rather set up a lateral play than a deep pass, but Griffin's Hail Mary for Jackson landed out of bounds. (Somewhere a tiny violin is playing as Joe Theismann praises how far the ball traveled.)

Bridgewater starts his career 3-0 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. The last rookie to do that was Ben Roethlisberger at 5-0 in 2004. Sure, close wins over the Falcons, Buccaneers, and Washington won't do anything to endear him to his doubters, but success still looks better than failure.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17 at Cleveland Browns 22

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (17-16)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 9:42 left): 0.63
Head Coach: Mike Pettine (3-2 at 4QC and 3-2 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Brian Hoyer (4-3 at 4QC and 4-3 overall 4QC/GWD record)

The 2014 NFC South has been the laughingstock division of the NFL. Every team in the division has blown multiple fourth-quarter leads, including the eventual tie Carolina settled for with Cincinnati. Here's the saddest part: three teams have allowed at least three fourth-quarter comebacks in 2014 and they all play in the NFC South: Atlanta (three), New Orleans (three) and Tampa Bay (four). That's why the division record is so poor.

This year the AFC North plays the NFC South, which partially explains why every team in the AFC North is currently above .500. The AFC North is 7-1-1 against the NFC South, with the lone loss coming at the hands of Tampa Bay in Pittsburgh. Even the Buccaneers couldn't blow that lead since they only got it with seven seconds left in the game. Otherwise they are 0-4 at protecting the one-score lead in the fourth quarter.

It's as if Greg Schiano never left the Buccaneers, who have yet to play complementary football this season. Leading 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers came up with an interception after a deflection of a Brian Hoyer pass. Instead of adding to the lead, the offense went three-and-out and the special teams let the ensuing punt get partially blocked (officially: a 1-yard punt).

Now at the Tampa Bay 35, Hoyer needed one pass to find Taylor Gabriel for the go-ahead touchdown. The play was a disaster all around for Tampa Bay. Star linebacker Lavonte David was injured on a block by running back Terrance West. The play just looked odd too. Gabriel sat down for a quick slant, but with Hoyer still buying time in the pocket, Gabriel streaked down the field and free-agent acquisition Alterraun Verner continued his brutal year by failing to keep up and allowing the easy score. Cleveland's two-point conversion pass was easily snuffed out in the flat, so the Browns only led 22-17.

Getting the ball back again, Cleveland failed to run out the entire clock after Hoyer threw a ball into the ground on third-and-8. Mike Glennon had his chance with 2:37 left at his own 23 (win probability: 0.23). Rookie Mike Evans had the kind of huge game for which he was drafted so highly, with seven catches for 124 yards and two scores. He started the drive in style with a 31-yard catch over rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert. Evans caught another pass for 9 yards to get to the two-minute warning.

That's when the Tampa Bay strategy went haywire. With two minutes left and 37 yards to go, time was not an issue. Score too quickly and Cleveland could answer with a winning field goal. When it's second-and-1, that's a great opportunity to run the ball and move the chains. Tampa Bay threw the ball on three consecutive plays, only needing a yard for a first down. Sure, Joe Haden grabbed Vincent Jackson a little to cause a drop on second down, but run the football. That's the smartest play to make here.

On fourth-and-1, Evans appeared to have the first down with a 9-yard gain, but he was penalized for offensive pass interference for pushing off.

I thought it was a tick-tacky call that usually would not be called. Evans locks up with cornerback Buster Skrine in the allowed 5-yard zone of contact. The bigger Evans wins that battle, but look at the battle right next to them with Louis Murphy basically doing the same thing to K'Waun Williams. It's a penalty on both or it's a penalty on neither.

On fourth-and-11, Glennon had a clean pocket against the five-man rush, but his floater never gave Austin Seferian-Jenkins a real chance to make a play. Cleveland had 1:39 to burn with one Tampa Bay timeout remaining. Even after three runs, that led to the unique situation of four seconds remaining on the clock. At midfield, the offense might as well just throw an incomplete pass deep out of bounds and that's how Hoyer took care of the final snap.

After a 3-22 (.120) record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in 2011-13, the Browns are 3-2 this season.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Cardinals at Cowboys: Another Exquisite Fourth Quarter, Master Bruce

Instead of writing well-crafted pieces to highlight the under-appreciation of Tony Romo, we just needed to wait for Brandon Weeden to start in his place. To be clear, I liked Arizona's chances all week and the game was going to be difficult for Dallas regardless of who was behind center. However, Weeden gave the Cowboys very little in a winnable game, which was a de facto battle for first place in the NFC. Dallas led 10-0 early thanks in no part to Weeden, but Arizona led 14-10 to start the fourth quarter.

Weeden had a favorable situation with the ball at the Arizona 43 following a 16-yard punt return. His third-down pass to Jason Witten was a yard short of the first down, but this was a no-brainer decision to go for it. DeMarco Murray and the offensive line have been praised all year, so surely they would get the call here to convert. With both teams playing goal-line football at the 34-yard line, Arizona had the advantage with safety Deone Bucannon coming in unblocked to tackle Murray short of the marker. Murray's streak of 100-yard rushing games to start the season was snapped at eight as he was held to 79 yards on 18 carries. Arizona has only allowed one 100-yard rusher in 24 games under Bruce Arians.

Ted Ginn, the forgotten man of this receiving corps, made an impressive grab for 27 yards down the sideline and Carson Palmer finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Andre Ellington. Arizona led 21-10 with six minutes to play and quickly made the win a certainty with Antonio Cromartie's interception of an errant Weeden throw leading to another touchdown.

Did anyone have the Arizona Cardinals (7-1) with the best record in the NFL through Week 9? Every win they have enjoyed this season has been keyed by a defensive stop in the fourth quarter in a one-score game. We looked at Denver in this situation a few weeks ago; the Broncos have posted a 15-2 record since 2012 when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. In the last three years as head coach of the Colts and Cardinals, Arians' record is even better at 19-1. His only loss was his first game as Arizona's head coach when Sam Bradford led the Rams back from a 24-13 deficit.

Bruce Arians Defenses: Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempts (Leading by 1-8 PTS), 2012-14
Date Team Opp. Quarterback Ahead Final Time Drive Result
10/7/2012 IND GB A.Rodgers 30-27 W 30-27 0:35 M.Crosby 51 yd FG is no good w/0:03 left
10/21/2012 IND CLE B.Weeden 17-13 W 17-13 - Stops CLE on five drives in quarter
11/4/2012 IND MIA R.Tannehill 23-20 W 23-20 2:39 R.Tannehill 14-yd pass on fourth-and-15
11/25/2012 IND BUF R.Fitzpatrick 20-13 W 20-13 4:31 3-and-out after Buffalo recovered fumbled INT
12/9/2012 IND TEN J.Locker 27-23 W 27-23 3:48 J.Locker incomplete on third-and-10; punt w/2:42 left
12/23/2012 IND at KC B.Quinn 20-13 W 20-13 4:03 3-and-out w/2:30 left
9/8/2013 ARI at STL S.Bradford 24-24* L 27-24 1:45 G.Zuerlein 48-yd game-winning FG w/0:40 left
9/15/2013 ARI DET M.Stafford 25-21 W 25-21 1:59 M.Stafford 3-yd pass on fourth-and-4
9/29/2013 ARI at TB M.Glennon 13-10 W 13-10 1:29 P.Peterson INT w/0:48 left
10/6/2013 ARI CAR C.Newton 12-6 W 22-6 13:11 C.Newton sacked on third-and-7 (red-zone INT on previous drive)
11/10/2013 ARI HOU C.Keenum 27-24 W 27-24 2:06 C.Keenum incomplete on fourth-and-3 at HOU 35
12/15/2013 ARI at TEN R.Fitzpatrick 34-34** W 37-34 OT 14:52 OT: A.Cason INT returned to ARI 46 to set up game-winning FG
12/22/2013 ARI at SEA R.Wilson 17-10 W 17-10 2:06 K.Dansby INT w/1:56 left
9/8/2014 ARI SD P.Rivers 18-17 W 18-17 2:25 P.Rivers incomplete on fourth-and-2 at SD 40 w/1:49 left
9/14/2014 ARI at NYG E.Manning 22-14 W 25-14 3:19 4-and-out w/2:36 left
9/21/2014 ARI SF C.Kaepernick 20-14 W 23-14 6:54 C.Kaepernick incomplete on third-and-19; punt w/3:57 left
10/12/2014 ARI WAS K.Cousins 23-20 W 30-20 0:29 R.Johnson pick-six w/0:18 left
10/19/2014 ARI at OAK D.Carr 21-13 W 24-13 9:59 D.Carr 3-yd pass on third-and-7; punt w/7:22 left
10/26/2014 ARI PHI N.Foles 24-20 W 24-20 1:21 N.Foles three incompletions from ARI 16 as time expires
11/2/2014 ARI at DAL B.Weeden 14-10 W 28-17 11:00 D.Murray no gain on fourth-and-1 run at ARI 34
*Led 24-13 to start 4th quarter
**Lost 34-17 lead in final 6:13 before rebounding with overtime interception
Note: not every drive is listed for each game.

Sometimes the offense has carried the load with its own game-winning drive or a drive that ran out the clock. This season has been more about the defense, but no matter which side of the ball we look at, we see aggressive tactics successfully employed. Statistically, records of 19-1 overall and 7-0 this season are unsustainable going forward, but when you see Tampa Bay blowing four fourth-quarter leads in 2014 alone, or Arizona and Indianapolis both losing multiple leads since 2012 without Arians, then it looks like a little more than just good luck.

It's a coaching job that has warranted three straight years of consideration for Coach of the Year honors. Not bad for a guy Pittsburgh tried to retire.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 33
Game-winning drives: 38
Games with 4QC opportunity: 73/134 (54.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 23

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 04 Nov 2014

10 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2014, 8:11pm by Scott Kacsmar


by Eddo :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 5:00pm

"I thought it was a tick-tacky call that usually would not be called. Evans locks up with cornerback Buster Skrine in the allowed 5-yard zone of contact. The bigger Evans wins that battle, but look at the battle right next to them with Louis Murphy basically doing the same thing to K'Waun Williams. It's a penalty on both or it's a penalty on neither."

One, I believe the five-yard rule doesn't matter for OPI.

Two, only calling it on one of them has to be the most picky complaint I have heard about a call. When the whole left side of an offensive line moves early, they announce the penalty on one player; this situation doesn't have to be any different.

I say this as a fan of neither the Browns nor the Buccaneers nor any team in either of their divisions.

by Ryan :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 5:11pm

There have been plenty of instances where two players on the same team were flagged on the same play, even for the same penalty (e.g. holding, or whatever). One gets declined, one gets accepted. It's a valid complaint.

by Eddo :: Wed, 11/05/2014 - 12:03pm

Sure, not saying it never happens, but it's not usual. Thus, Scott's complaint is a petty one.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 11/06/2014 - 8:08pm

Classic example: 2004 Ravens at Colts. Ed Reed and Deion Sanders are both flagged for illegal contact. It's declined on Reed, accepted on Deion to the amusement of the crowd.

And I've heard referees say "whole left side" or "entire line" on a false start before. Sure, it gets credited officially to one player, but that's beside the point.

If Glennon threw to the other side of the field, would they not have called OPI? Should a penalty always be a penalty if it influences the play? Did they only call Evans because he caught the pass?

I just don't think that's enough of a push to justify the flag. How else can the receiver beat the jam if he can't use any contact? Evans made a common WR move there.

by overt1me :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 5:35pm

Hi Scott,

You are the second or third person I heard saying that Kaepernick should have made a better pass to Crabtree on that out throw to the endzone. However, I looked at it again and I think if he puts the ball any higher or a little more inside Mcleod (flying up from the inside) has a good chance at grabbing it for a pick six. In fact, it looks like where he threw it was probably the best choice based on risk/reward for the down and time left on the clock. Heck, that was a touchdown if he catches it more cleanly (and arguably a touchdown even as it was).

by Luke :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 11:01pm

It would have been a travesty if either Crabtree or Kaepernick's efforts had been ruled as touchdowns. With the game on the line, you should be required to break the plane emphatically - not bobble it around and maybe break it, maybe not.

I say this as a seahawks fan with a huge axe to grind.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 11/05/2014 - 3:21pm

Seems like with the game on the line, you should have a little better evidence of a fumble before calling one. Instead the referees made an unclear call that decided the game. That's not how football games should be decided.

by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 11/05/2014 - 4:08pm

I can understand how the call happened, they didn't have any real view and then the replay wasn't incontrovertible. Whichever way they'd have called it they would have been unable to overturn it on replay.

One team was going to feel like they'd been robbed on a call that basically came down to a 50:50 decision.

I think they probably got it wrong but the Crabtree call was just plain awful.

by tequila0341 :: Thu, 11/06/2014 - 7:42am

Pretty sure you meant "Todd Bowles' defense" since by Arians' and Bowles' own admission, Arians leaves Bowles to run his defense while Arians runs the offense.

I mean, would anyone ever say "Sean Payton's defense"?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 11/06/2014 - 8:11pm

Bowles wasn't with him in Indy though, so that would look rather weird if you mean the table should say Todd Bowles' defense. I know what you're getting at though. I just like to believe a head coach has some input in all facets of his team, even if it seems like some (Sean Payton on defense, Rex Ryan on offense) have none or couldn't care less.