For the first time since 1992, the NFL's top three scoring offenses have all made the conference title game. The Carolina Panthers reinvented their scheme, not only by adding wrinkles to their zone-read and option-run elements, but by also dialing up some well-timed vertical shots that have done well to take the top off a defense. The Patriots are the Patriots, and their rendition of the "spread and shred," as NFL Media's Bucky Brooks likes to call it, has always been deadly and difficult to stop. And the Cardinals continue to terrify opposing safeties with head coach Bruce Arians pulling the strings.
While they are all different, the teams share in common a penchant for big plays. All three are in the top half of the league in 40-plus yard passing plays, and 20-yard passing plays, with the Cardinals leading the way on both fronts. The interesting component is how they have all arrived here by running plays that seem so different -- and with entirely different personnel -- but end up functioning in similar ways.
In that spirit, Around The NFL brings you the anatomy of a big play from three different perspectives. Since just one of these can alter the course of NFL history, it's worth keeping an eye on over the final two weeks of football this season.
Safeties playing against Bruce Arians' offense deserve hazard pay. For those who have studied the Cardinals coach at length, there exists a common theme: Creating large gaps of space at different levels of the defense and isolating the one or two mismatches that can alter the course of a game.
In looking at Arizona's five biggest passing plays of the season, many of the most-potent calls are propelled by bunched route combinations run by Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown. The synergy between both receivers is devastating, especially because Fitzgerald can still draw a double team at the tender age of 32.
The Cardinals have Fitzgerald and Brown to the right and Michael Floyd wide to the left. Floyd and Brown were both running "go" routes down the sidelines, and with only one deep safety perched in the middle, he had an impossible decision to make. In this case, the Rams safety cheats -- barely a step -- toward Floyd, who can out-muscle cornerbacks downfield to create his own big plays. By then, Brown is two steps ahead of his defender and there's a five-yard wide-open window to complete the pass. Fitzgerald was dragging across the field, occupying another defender.
It looked like a riff on a play the Cardinals ran earlier this season in their opener against the Saints, though the personnel was a little different. Tight end Darren Fells lined up outside Fitzgerald and Brown in the bunch with three defenders directly over the top. With Brown running a go, Fitzgerald venturing out on an option out/in route and Floyd again running a go on the outside, the middle of the field was completely wide open. Fells took a similar drag route to the one Fitzgerald ran against the Rams and rumbled 44 yards into scoring territory.
The best part about these plays is that they are self-contained and don't require any help from play action. When they do, however, imagine the increasing amounts of chaos -- like when J.J. Nelson took a pass 64 yards against the Bengals in Week 11. Fitzgerald was the only other wide receiver on the play and he took a corner and safety with him. The safety over the top of Nelson was just slightly drawn in by the run fake and by the time he recovered, Nelson was wide open with room to run.
Arians preaches simplicity, and when the results are this good, it's difficult not to listen up.
Rob Gronkowski caught a 76-yard touchdown against the Giants running in the seam like he always does. The Patriots' ability to destroy opponents between the hash marks is stunning, and the impossible task of covering and tackling Gronkowski only adds to the mound of issues. On that touchdown play, Safety 1 loses Gronkowski deep and Safety 2 collides with Safety 1 while trying to make a play. Even if the defense worked out as planned, do we really expect Safety 2 to be able to make that tackle more than 50 percent of the time?
The best part of New England's big-play offense is that it works hand in hand with Gronkowski's prowess in the seam. Just watch the same Giants game a few plays later. Not even a quarter has gone by and Gronkowski rolls into the same part of the field. The Giants are in a zone coverage that has a man over the top of Gronkowski and one directly underneath. The Giants' defense does not, at this moment, have the man power at cornerback to consistently handle one-on-one matchups on the outside, so Tom Brady dials up a deep shot down the New England sideline to Brandon LaFell for 54 yards.
The most stunning example of this was during New England's regular season loss to the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter. The "spread and shred" is so often the preamble for the major payoff. Gronkowski has been making teams pay for three quarters, and in this particular instance, he shifts to the strong side and takes off down the seam.
A cornerback follows him and both safeties converge which leaves, at best, one person to cover each of the four remaining eligible receivers. Brandon Bolden ended up in a one-on-one against Danny Trevathan and beat him easily for the score.
The most enjoyable aspect of this play is that even if Brady opted against the big play, he still had LaFell wide open for an easy first down. Sometimes, a player like Gronkowski can just create an embarrassment of riches. That's why it's no surprise that six players aside from Gronkowski have receptions of 40-plus yards this season.
Cam Newton's 74-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn during a Week 14 demolition of the Falcons in Carolina was largely the product of the following facts: Ginn is fast, the cornerback whiffed on a good jam, Ginn was able to gain a little bit if -- possibly illegal -- separation with his right hand and Newton has a beautiful cannon of an arm.
But, in looking at some of Carolina's other big plays, it's clear that they value an intense vertical component like Arians. And while Arizona's offense is driven by the speed and astute route-running combinations they have on offense, Carolina's is built on the initial fear of Cam Newton and the subsequent response of the defense.
Against the Packers earlier this year, Jerricho Cotchery caught a second-quarter pass against the Green Bay Packers reminiscent of some younger Ben Roethlisberger-era route concepts. Facing zone coverage tiered to keep Newton from scrambling for a first down, Cotchery made a simple sight adjustment and dragged his route through the middle for a 20-yard gap between defenders. It was an easy throw to make for someone with Newton's talents.
It's interesting to look at these three teams and see the balance of their power. Arizona has beautiful route runners, massive speed and a deft touch at quarterback. New England has a powerful focal point, a mechanical quarterback and a cadre of speed elements that can break out at any moment. Carolina, though, may have some of the smartest and most flexible of the group which, when paired with Newton, can be just as deadly.