Norv Turner’s Vikings-Cardinals Game-Ending Play Call

Did Norv Turner’s controversial decision to call an intermediate passing play rather than a quick pass or a field goal at the end of the Vikings-Cardinals’ Thursday Night Football game cost the Vikings a victory?  This in-depth breakdown analyzes the play call and execution on both sides that resulted in the Cardinals’ thrilling last-second victory.

The Situation

Third down and ten at the Arizona 31.  The game clock is stopped with 13 seconds left in the game.

The Vikings Formation

Bridgewater lines in the shotgun, giving him room to read the field—something he consistently excels at.

The receivers line up trips left with one receiver right and Peterson in the backfield.  The look suggests the Vikings will try and get a quick out to the left, since there are three receivers there and that is the quickest route to the sideline.

The Cardinals Formation

Dime coverage, two safeties back looking like Cover 1 Robber, or possibly Cover 2.  Most importantly, the Cardinals line up man-to-man.  This has the advantage of preventing the Vikings from easily stretching coverage with a hi-lo concept, but it’s weak against crossing routes.

The Vikings Play Call

Norv Turner knows that it looks like the receivers will be crashing left, and he understands the man coverage look, so this play call actually attempts to capitalize on the man coverage’s susceptibility to crossing routes.  Instead of crashing left, all three trips receivers crash right on crossing routes (a post, shallow cross and slant) that capitalize on the Vikings’ receivers’ speed and punish the man coverage.

Since all five receivers crash right, this is actually a super hi-lo concept: the running back runs to the sideline, the shallow crossing receiver gets over to the flat, the slanting tight end gets around the first down marker, the post route ends up at the sideline near the intermediate-to-deep level and the split end’s go route stretches the safeties.

The play call is neither a quick play nor a deep shot; it’s a five step dropback that should take two or three seconds to develop.

The Execution

The Vikings receivers get poor releases, wasting crucial time for the play to develop.

At the line, the defensive ends stretch the B gaps with their speed, opening up space for the defensive tackles to stunt—#91 Ed Stinson stunts up the left A-gap, while #93 Calais Campbell runs around and rushes up the right B-gap.

But the star of the play is #54 Dwight Freeney, who speed rushes #75 Matt Kalil, getting Kalil’s footwork off balance, then finishes Kalil off with a monster reverse spin move that forces Kalil into the ground.  Freeney strip sacks Bridgewater just under three seconds after the snap to win the game for the Cardinals.

Why Call a Pass Instead of Kicking a Field Goal?

A field goal try would have been a 49-yard attempt.  Kickers in the last 20 years have made 66% of 49-yard attempts, and  Blair Walsh is 11/14 on 47-51 yard attempts in his career (although he’s 1/2 on 49-yard attempts, with his only attempt this season a miss in Atlanta.  He’s also struggled a bit this season).

The Vikings had a play call they really liked and had a matchup they were, in theory, supposed to win.  If the Vikings had gotten roughly ten yards down the field, Walsh would have been attempting a roughly 39 yard field goal.  Kickers in the last 20 years have made a little over 80% of kicks from 39-yards out Blair Walsh is 28/32 on kicks between 37 and 41 yards in his career.  If successful, the Vikings’ play call would have increased their chance of tying the game from about 70% to about 85%.

The chance of a sack was not negligible, but the Vikings’ offensive line had played very well all game.  The Vikings took a calculated risk in trying to make the field goal a bit easier for Walsh.  Norv Turner dialed up a play call that capitalized on the Vikings’ strengths (quick receivers and a quarterback who excels at running progressions and finding the open man) and the Cardinals’ weaknesses (crossing routes against man coverage).

The play ultimately failed, but that is not on Norv Turner, who designed a clever play call, nor on Teddy Bridgewater, who had less than three seconds to pass.  If you need to point fingers, you can blame Matt Kalil, but rather than pointing fingers, credit should be given to the Cardinals’ defense and particularly to Dwight Freeney, the future hall of famer whose beautiful speed rush to spin move stopped the play in under three seconds and won the game.