BIG PLAYS #12: Denver @ Minnesota

We're again referring to AdvancedNFLStats' game log to analyze the game and come up with the biggest plays of the game. Our definition of a big play is a play that changes the likelihood of the outcome of the game. We're looking at WPA to judge them. At the start of the game, WPA is 0.50, meaning each team has a 50% chance of winning. After every play, WPA is recalculated compared to every nfl football play that has ever happened, and each team's likelihood of winning is adjusted. The bigger the play, the bigger the WPA movement.

Since we won, we'll start with our worst plays and end with our best. I'll also ignore all plays of .06 points or less, since they're not big plays. Here we go!


WPA Offense/Defense Play Description Notes
-0.22 Defense 3:22 3-10-MIN 48 DEN 14 MIN 15 LI: 1.1 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder pass short left to 12-P.Harvin for 52 yards TOUCHDOWN. In the third quarter, Percy Harvin pushes off of Chris Harris, causing Harris to fall over. David Bruton, in at safety, pushed into the middle of the field too aggressively and had to turn around to chase Harvin. Andre Goodman was blocked out of the play, and it became an easy touchdown.
-0.20 Defense 9:53 2-10-DEN 48 DEN 21 MIN 22 LI: 2.3 7-C.Ponder pass short middle to 12-P.Harvin for 48 yards TOUCHDOWN. This looks like it was an excellent call against a zone-blitz. Denver rushed six. Harvin is wide against Champ Bailey, and Champ is playing off to respect the deep route. Percy Harvin cuts to a shallow crossing pattern and Champ can only run across the field with him on a ten-yard cushion. Quinton Carter and David Bruton are both out injured, and Kyle McCarthy had been focusing on the wrong side of the field for no good reason. Harvin then pretzeled McCarthy and scored early in the 4th quarter.
-0.16 Defense 4:43 3-7-DEN 43 DEN 29 MIN 29 LI: 2.5 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder pass short left to 11-S.Burton to DEN 26 for 17 yards (21-A.Goodman). This 4th-quarter conversion was again another good offensive play call by Minnesota against a blitz - a slanted crossing pattern from the slot. All the action was to the other side of the field, which distracted McCarthy and took him out of the play. Ponder throws a slightly inaccurate pass which allowed Goodman to catch up - good thing, because there was no one else around.
-0.13 Defense 6:30 3-7-MIN 42 DEN 29 MIN 29 LI: 2.5 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder scrambles left end ran ob at DEN 46 for 12 yards. Earlier on the same drive, this might have been a designed quarterback draw, or at least a clear option for it, because the routes looked designed to clear out space for Ponder to run there. Goodman stayed with his man too long - if he had paid more attention to the line of scrimmage, he might have been able to help prevent the conversion.
-0.12 Offense 3:51 1-10-DEN 27 DEN 7 MIN 2 LI: 1.4 (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee right guard to DEN 35 for 8 yards (97-E.Griffen) Minnesota challenged the fumble ruling and the play was REVERSED (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee right guard to DEN 35 for 8 yards (23-C.Griffin) FUMBLES (23-C.Griffin) RECOVERED by MIN-33-J.Sanford at DEN 36. Just after the Haggan touchdown and an following three-and-out, Tebow hands off to McGahee on what looks like a fake zone-read. McGahee fumbles and gives Minnesota excellent field position, which would lead to one of their field goals. It looks like Tebow had a lot of room to run had he kept the ball, although that pistol look meant the handoff looked a bit delayed.
-0.12 Offense 0:47 2-2-DEN 28 DEN 7 MIN 12 LI: 1.1 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow sacked at DEN 23 for -5 yards (69-J.Allen) FUMBLES (69-J.Allen) RECOVERED by MIN-69-J.Allen at DEN 22 69-J.Allen to DEN 21 for 1 yard The Replay Assistant challenged the fumble ruling and the play was Upheld. Denver has a chance to get some points before the end of the half, but Tebow fumbles the ball and gives Minnesota excellent field position again, which leads to another field goal as the half expires. One of those plays that taught me a little more about football. I always thought that the football was like a body part; once it touches the ground, you're down. Turns out that's not true.
-0.10 Offense 1:44 3-10-MIN 28 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 3.1 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass incomplete deep left to 88-D.Thomas. This was actually a pretty impressive play from the standpoint of tracking Tebow's development - Minnesota blitzed eight, and Tebow almost beat it with a nice throw to Demaryius Thomas. However, this was a 3rd and 10, late in the game, down three, so the failed conversion made Denver less likely to win.
-0.09 Offense 12:44 1-10-DEN 1 DEN 0 MIN 0 LI: 1.8 23-W.McGahee up the middle tackled in End Zone for -1 yards SAFETY (69-J.Allen). Strange play-call in the 1st quarter. You're on the goal line, and you've got your tight end against Jared Allen. Do you call a play that requires your running back to take a sidestep towards Jared Allen before receiving the ball in the backfield? Daniel Fells is late off the snap, and Jared is basically in perfect position to wrap up McGahee in the end zone.
-0.09 Defense 5:04 3-16-MIN 47 DEN 7 MIN 5 LI: 0.8 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder pass short left to 19-D.Aromashodu to DEN 35 for 18 yards (30-D.Bruton). Mario Haggan had just wrapped up a ball carrier for a six-yard loss, and this tough conversion would later lead to Minnesota's first touchdown. Quick throw against a defense that was only rushing three. It looked like it was just a very good decisive play by Ponder. Bruton was helping Goodman but I don't think they could have defensed it much better - maybe Goodman could have played a bit tighter, but it looks like it was zone coverage overall.
-0.09 Defense 3:40 1-10-DEN 19 DEN 7 MIN 5 LI: 1.5 7-C.Ponder pass deep right to 82-K.Rudolph for 19 yards TOUCHDOWN. Penalty on DEN-28-Q.Carter, Defensive Pass Interference, declined. Three plays later Ponder throws a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Remember how we all wanted to draft Kyle Rudolph? Quinton Carter was covering him for the whole route and seemed to have good position overall - just a good play by Rudolph.
-0.09 Offense 2:00 2-6-MIN 24 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 3.8 23-W.McGahee up the middle to MIN 28 for -4 yards (22-B.Sapp) MIN-52-C.Greenway was injured during the play His return is Probable. Kind of a role reversal from the end of the San Diego game, Denver is in excellent position to tie the game late in the 4th quarter, and then Willis McGahee gets knocked back four yards. McGahee could have gone down for less of a loss, but kept struggling and got pushed back further.
-0.07 Special Teams 3:10 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 8-R.Longwell kicks 73 yards from MIN 35 to DEN -8 17-Q.Cosby Touchback. You don't normally see kickoffs as big plays, but when you're late in the game and field position matters, it will come up from time to time. The forced touchback meant that Denver had a long field to attempt the tying field goal.
-0.06 to +0.06 Gameplay (Every other play) This encompasses all the other plays of the game that weren't "big plays", and includes an Elvis Dumervil sack and a very long Quan Cosby return.
+0.07 Special Teams 0:03 2-6-DEN 6 DEN 7 MIN 12 LI: 1.1 8-R.Longwell 25 yard field goal is GOOD Center-48-M.Katula Holder-4-C.Kluwe. This end-of-half field goal after the Tebow fumble gave Minnesota an eight-point lead going into halftime.
+0.07 Offense 9:01 1-10-MIN 24 DEN 21 MIN 29 LI: 1.7 23-W.McGahee right guard for 24 yards TOUCHDOWN. Normally these stats give the touchdown-scorer credit for all seven points, but since Denver went for two, I interpolated the results and gave McGahee credit for cutting the score to 29-27. McGahee had a couple of sick cuts on this play and definitely helped make long scoring drives look easy. Spencer Larsen had a great sealing block on this play.
+0.07 Defense 3:15 3-11-DEN 21 DEN 29 MIN 29 LI: 3.3 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder pass incomplete deep right. Late in the 4th quarter, Christian Ponder had already converted two third-and-longs on this drive, so things were looking rather scary. Then, Ponder just kind of threw this ball away. Denver had rushed three and seemed to have good zone coverage, but Ponder also didn't look like he was about to be sacked, so it's kind of a mystery. His very next pass attempt after the field goal would be the interception to Goodman, so it's possible Ponder was having some late-game problems.
+0.07 Special Teams 1:38 4-10-MIN 28 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 2.1 5-M.Prater 46 yard field goal is GOOD Center-66-L.Paxton Holder-4-B.Colquitt. Prater nails a long field goal to tie the game again, late in the fourth quarter. A tough, pressure kick that looked tougher than his recent game-ending kicks.
+0.07 Special Teams 1:38 DEN 32 MIN 32 LI: 5-M.Prater kicks 74 yards from DEN 35 to MIN -9 12-P.Harvin Touchback. On the next play, the kickoff gives Minnesota a long field again. But given the time left, the odds actually still favored Minnesota for winning the game.
+0.09 Offense 2:59 2-10-DEN 20 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 1.5 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass short middle to 12-M.Willis to DEN 32 for 12 yards (23-C.Griffin) A crossing pattern to Matt Willis gets a first down, thanks to a nonchalant block by Willis McGahee. This 4th-quarter drive would lead to the tying field goal.
+0.10 Offense 1:12 1-4-MIN 4 DEN 32 MIN 32 LI: 3.9 35-L.Ball up the middle to MIN 2 for 2 yards (Team). Probably a recurrence of Burke's second-down bug late in the game - but the rapidly decreasing time clock was making the game outcome closer to certain.
+0.11 Offense 9:35 1-10-DEN 34 DEN 21 MIN 29 LI: 0.9 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 88-D.Thomas to MIN 24 for 42 yards (33-J.Sanford). This was really part of a perfect three-play drive. A long pass by Tebow, followed by McGahee's touchdown run, followed by a Tebow two-point conversion. On this play, safety Mistral Raymond rushes the line of scrimmage at the last minute. Cedric Griffin doesn't realize it, but Tim Tebow does. No overhead safety support, and Demaryius Thomas is wide open. Perfectly placed throw, too.
+0.12 Offense 11:24 3-9-MIN 21 DEN 7 MIN 15 LI: 1 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 88-D.Thomas for 21 yards TOUCHDOWN. Early in the third quarter, this is what started the fireworks. This just looked like a simple busted coverage, the cornerback didn't follow Demaryius Thomas into the end zone, and Thomas made the touchdown grab.
+0.12 Offense 9:01 DEN 27 MIN 29 LI: (Run formation) TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. 15-T.Tebow rushes right guard. ATTEMPT SUCCEEDS. Tebow follows a pulling Zane Beadles (Beadles seems to be good at this) right into the end zone. Tebow was reading where to run - I think this play has got to be pretty difficult to defend. This finally tied the game after a long half of chasing Minnesota.
+0.15 Offense 3:03 1-10-MIN 41 DEN 14 MIN 22 LI: 1.1 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass short left to 88-D.Thomas for 41 yards TOUCHDOWN After a loooong Quan Cosby return late in the third quarter, this was the first play of the drive. Man, this has got to be my favorite play of the season. It has so many elements. Minnesota had Thomas pretty well covered in zone, but then they gave up on him to try stop Tebow from running. Poor discipline because Tebow was still behind the line of scrimmage, but then again, Tebow hasn't shown a willingness to pass the ball after tucking it before. In addition, Decker was running to the corner of the end zone, which pulled two other defenders away from the flat. Also, Thomas read the play well and found the center of a big open space, and kept himself close enough to scoop up Tebow's pass. Finally, Tebow stiff-armed a guy to the ground before throwing a pass while being knocked out of bounds! How do you get a better play than that? Awesome.
+0.15 Offense 2:51 1-10-DEN 32 DEN 29 MIN 32 LI: 2.4 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep right to 88-D.Thomas to MIN 28 for 40 yards (33-J.Sanford). Tricky McCoy puts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas on the same side of the field and gives them both go routes. There's only one safety, and he chose Decker. Tebow again with good recognition and a very well-placed deep throw. Late in the 4th quarter, this brought us closer to tying the game.
+0.19 Defense 5:50 2-8-MIN 9 DEN 0 MIN 2 LI: 1.6 7-C.Ponder pass short right intended for 19-D.Aromashodu INTERCEPTED by 57-M.Haggan at MIN 16 57-M.Haggan for 16 yards TOUCHDOWN. Just a crap throw by Christian Ponder. He was staring right at Mario Haggan and threw it at him anyway. Still, it was a good play by Haggan - Haggan had dropped back from the line and was moving in the opposite direction from the play motion, so that's probably why Ponder didn't see him at first. A great way for Haggan to score the first interception of his career.
+0.20 Defense 8:16 3-8-DEN 8 DEN 0 MIN 2 LI: 1 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder sacked at DEN 15 for -7 yards (20-B.Dawkins) FUMBLES (20-B.Dawkins) RECOVERED by DEN-90-J.Hunter at DEN 32 90-J.Hunter to 50 for 18 yards (71-P.Loadholt). Just after the safety, Minnesota was looking likely to score here with a 3rd and goal. This is kind of a forgotten play since it was early in the game, but it was every bit as essential as all the other big plays, and the second biggest play of the game. Brian Dawkins, with a murderous swipe at the ball, forces a fumble by knocking the ball back several yards, and then Jason Hunter picks it up and carries it to midfield. Denver wouldn't do anything on the next drive, but they'd knock Minnesota back, deep into their own territory, which is what led to Mario Haggan's pick-six.
+0.46 Defense 1:33 1-10-MIN 20 DEN 32 MIN 32 LI: 3.1 (Shotgun) 7-C.Ponder pass short left intended for 12-P.Harvin INTERCEPTED by 21-A.Goodman at MIN 35. 21-A.Goodman ran ob at MIN 15 for 20 yards. I'm not sure we've seen a bigger single play this season - +0.46 is pretty huge. Andre Goodman with a great, sneaky veteran play - he gives up his own man and switches zones as Ponder makes the decision to throw - backpedals to the next target and picks off the pass easily. What a great play by Andre Goodman, in a situation where Minnesota was actually still more likely than not to win.

To me, this was a game about the young quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks showed some interesting ability, and Ponder in particular showed an ability to beat the blitz and make Denver pay for it. Ponder had much more trouble, however, when Denver chose to flood the zone. Kudos to Dennis Allen for (eventually) recognizing this and dialing back his own aggressive blitz tendencies. One other thing I've noticed - not just in this game but in several others. Robert Ayers seems to be one of the most passionate players on the sideline when the offense is on the field or when he's subbed out. He always seems first to congratulate the offense and cheer on his teammates. Just seems like a great team guy.

Drive notes for Offense:

  1. -0.09 for giving up a safety.
  2. -0.06 for a three-and-out.
  3. -0.13 for a Willis McGahee fumble.
  4. -0.03 for a three-and-out.
  5. -0.02 for punting after a first down.
  6. -0.06 for a three-and-out.
  7. -0.11 for a two-play drive ending in a Tebow fumble just before halftime.
  8. +0.20 for a touchdown drive to start the second half.
  9. -0.04 for a three-and-out with three McGahee runs.
  10. +0.15 for a one-play touchdown drive, from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas.
  11. -0.08 for a drive with one first down, eventually overcome with offensive penalties.
  12. +0.30 for another short touchdown drive with a tying two-point conversion.
  13. +0.14 for a drive with a tying field goal
  14. +0.12 for a game-winning field goal

Drive notes for Defense:

  1. +0.03 for forcing a punt at midfield.
  2. +0.11 for forcing a fumble after a long drive and returning it to midfield.
  3. +0.20 for Mario Haggan's pick-six.
  4. +0.06 for forcing a three-and-out.
  5. +0.04 for only giving up a field goal after McGahee's fumble.
  6. +0.02 for forcing a three-and-out.
  7. -0.26 for giving up a 96-yard touchdown drive.
  8. +0.02 for forcing a punt after a first down.
  9. +0.04 for only giving up a field goal after Tebow's fumble, to end the half.
  10. -0.01 for giving up some field position before forcing a punt, after halftime.
  11. -0.24 for giving up a touchdown drive to Ponder and Harvin.
  12. +0.04 for forcing a punt after one first down.
  13. -0.27 for giving up another touchdown drive. We were only 14% likely to win after this drive.
  14. -0.20 for giving up a long field goal drive.
  15. +0.46 for a one-play drive where Goodman intercepts in good field position.

Denver's offense was an even -0.50 in the first half, enough to lose the game by itself. The safety and the two turnovers nearly did them in. Luckily, the defense helped with a very strong first half outside of one touchdown drive, and ended the half at +0.26. At halftime, they switched hats. Denver's defense got torched several times. Goodman's interception helped, but they still scored -0.22 for the half. Overall for the game, Denver's defense was +0.04, basically helping Denver a little more than they hurt, but with several boom/bust plays. Denver's offense, however, scored an incredible +0.79 in the second half, more than enough to make up for the defense's struggles.

So what's the real storyline of the game? Denver's offense basically bailed out an injured Denver defense in the second half. I don't know what happened at halftime but it sounds like it was more about getting tough than making adjustments, and the offense finally came to life.

Players: Demaryius Thomas and Tim Tebow scored best in WPA, while Andre Goodman and Mario Haggan took the honors for the defense, largely because of their interceptions. On the other side, Denver was really missing their pass rush, and outside of one Dumervil sack, was pretty ineffective. And, Willis McGahee, despite a few long runs and his touchdown run, hurt Denver more than he helped with his fumble and some other failed runs. If he could just get a little more consistent and get stuffed less often, he'd be much more useful and we'd have longer drives.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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