Saints’ Marcus Williams isn’t the only one who made a mistake on the Vikings’ walk-off TD
New Orleans should have been in a ‘victory fence’ defensive formation
Football spoiler alert: If you believe that a pure white light shined momentarily from the heavens on the Minnesota Vikings franchise and you want to remember that play as the holy intervention it appeared to be, then you may want to skip this article. Because I am about to unweave that rainbow.
Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs’ miraculous game-winning catch wasn’t the only play in Sunday’s game, but it is the only one we’ll remember, so no need to talk about anything else. I watched the film looking for the answer to the question we all had: How was Diggs able to make that play?
Yes, former Maryland Terrapins receiver Diggs made a difficult catch. But this play was more about the New Orleans Saints. Free safety Marcus Williams could and should have made that play. In a deep zone like that, he should attack the ball with an awareness of the receiver. He did the opposite. After the ball was thrown, he broke to the man and got there a bit too early. With his attention on the ball, that would be an interception or incomplete pass. However, he shouldn’t be the lone scapegoat. One of the smartest coaches in the league, Saints head coach Sean Payton, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen did not play the situation as well as they could have. Given the circumstances, the Saints were not in the optimal defense.
They should have been in Victory Fence. Victory is a suite of defensive plays for end-of-game or end-of-half scenarios. The first word, victory, normally means that there is a special personnel group of three D-linemen, one linebacker and seven defensive backs. The second word communicates the coverage and situation to the defenders. Victory 30Cloud is like a souped-up Cover 3. It is what you run toward the end of the game if the offense has a timeout or enough time to spike the ball after a completion. If the opponent is in a Hail Mary situation, the defense should use Victory Jump. And if you are in the situation the Saints were in, the D should build a fence along the sideline and the goal line and invite a catch in bounds, then tackle the man with the ball.
The Vikings were on their own 39-yard line with no timeouts. They needed to gain about 25 yards to give kicker Kai Forbath a chance at a 54-yard field goal attempt (his career long is 53). But the most important number was the 10 seconds left on the clock. In my rookie year, I learned in practice with coach Mike Shanahan that if 14 seconds were left on the clock, the offense could run a play and have enough time to either spike the ball or run the field goal team on and attempt a hurried field goal. Even if the defense didn’t tackle the ball carrier, he could kneel and stop the play immediately after catching the ball in field goal range. As long as it took seven seconds or less, the offense would have enough time for another play, so 30Cloud would have been an appropriate call for the play before the Diggs touchdown. That’s not what they did.
Instead, they played some sort of hybrid Cover 2 fence, with four D-linemen rushing the passer and the linebacker, Craig Robertson, playing man with a heavy outside leverage on Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ran a flat route to the trips side. Robertson vacated the middle hook zone, leaving Jarius Wright wide open in the middle of the field with enough time to set up a field goal. But Vikings quarterback Case Keenum didn’t see him and threw incomplete to the running back.
That was a bad call for that situation, but it would have stopped the Diggs touchdown. On the game-winning play, the Saints again rushed four but kept Robertson in the middle of the field for no reason. Rudolph again ran a flat route to the trips side, but this time the cornerback stood with his back to the sideline between the tight end and the boundary. Wright ran a deeper out, and the nickelback kept him from getting to the sideline with no regard for him going deep because he had Williams, the safety, behind him. That left Diggs running at Williams. Williams cannot play a back to the sideline “fence” technique because there is no safety behind him. Williams must protect both the goal line and the sideline. He should be able to do that, but he shouldn’t have to had the Saints run the same defense that they ran the play before. Rather than Robertson being wasted covering the middle hook zone, he would have covered the tight end flat. That would have allowed the corner to cover Wright’s out, and the nickel could have aggressively covered Diggs’ corner route because Williams would have only one responsibility: protect the goal line.
Although that would have worked, it still is not the best option, starting with the personnel: three defensive linemen, one linebacker and seven defensive backs. The offense will be in trips to the quarterback’s throwing side (in this case the defense’s left). Before the snap, the lone linebacker should go to the trips side and press the best receiver, and there should be three defensive backs standing along the sideline waiting to receive the three levels of out cuts. And one defensive back in the deep middle of the field would be ready to roll over top in case a receiver runs a go route. That leaves three defensive backs to do the same thing over the two remaining eligible receivers on the back side. At the snap of the ball, the defensive ends should slant in and the defensive tackle should loop to the left. After the linebacker jams the receiver and slows down the play’s development, he goes on a delayed blitz from the defensive left side. The D-line stunt should have flushed the quarterback right to him. Now, the fence is set along the sideline and the goal line, no one on the defense is responsible for protecting both, and the quarterback is running out of time.
Instead, we got an all-time great playoff ending that you may tell your grandkids about. If you do, make sure you teach them the full story.