BIG PLAYS #17 (!): Pittsburgh @ Denver

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
-0.17 Defense 3:56 2-10-DEN 31 PIT 16 DEN 23 LI: 1.4 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep middle to 89-J.Cotchery for 31 yards TOUCHDOWN. Boy, what a huge sequence this was, late in the 4th quarter. Only one play earlier, Champ Bailey had dropped a certain interception - can you imagine the articles that would have been written had we not come back to win? A few plays earlier, Willis McGahee had fumbled, and Ben Roethlisberger ties the game by scrambling and throwing the ball just over the fingertips of D.J. Williams. Cotchery was bobbling the ball - upon replay, it looked like if Rafael Bush had gone for the ball after what looked like a clear catch, he still would have been able to prevent a touchdown. Just a huge play from many different angles. What impresses me about this play is that it seems to be designed to have options if a play gets elongated. Cotchery had a huge space in the field to run to here, despite the fact that there were eight in coverage, and it's because of the routes the other receivers ran.
-0.16 Offense 7:43 1-10-DEN 48 PIT 16 DEN 23 LI: 1.9 (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee right tackle to PIT 44 for 8 yards (29-R.Mundy) FUMBLES (29-R.Mundy) RECOVERED by PIT-56-L.Woodley at PIT 44 56-L.Woodley to PIT 44 for no gain (81-D.Rosario) Denver challenged the fumble ruling and the play was Upheld (Timeout #1 at 07:35. After a nice start to the drive, Willis McGahee fumbles on a first down at a very bad time. Ugh. It gives Pittsburgh great field position, and they would answer by scoring the tying touchdown.
-0.16 Defense 0:33 1-10-PIT 37 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 4.7 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep left to 88-E.Sanders to DEN 45 for 18 yards (25-C.Harris). This play was probably Denver's darkest moment in the game. Pittsburgh only needs a field goal as time is running out in the game, and Roethlisberger loops a gorgeous timing throw over Chris Harris, who seemed to have good coverage. Our defense was playing up and tight and this looked like a great play-call. Not sure what to point out in terms of anyone doing anything wrong - I'm still not sure anyone would have had a chance to break up that play. This got Pittsburgh very close to field goal range, and things were looking pretty dire.
-0.15 Offense 1:51 3-8-DEN 35 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 3 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass incomplete deep middle to 88-D.Thomas. Third and long on Denver's final drive of regulation. This was tough, in that Demaryius Thomas was open. One of Tebow's few clearly bad throws of the day, it looks like this one was all arm. He didn't really get his body into it. Tough, un-clutch play as it gave Pittsburgh a chance for a game-winning drive.
-0.14 Offense 2:29 1-10-DEN 33 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 4.9 (Shotgun) 23-W.McGahee right tackle to DEN 35 for 2 yards (96-Z.Hood). This was two plays earlier on the same final drive - every yard counts here, and two yards won't get it done.
-0.13 Special Teams 3:56 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 6-S.Suisham kicks 69 yards from PIT 35 to DEN -4 12-M.Willis to DEN 15 for 19 yards (50-L.Foote). Here's why this was such a bad play. Average field position in 2011 after a kickoff is the 28-yard-line. It used to be past the 30, but all the 2011 touchbacks have knocked it back. This late in the game with the score tied, thirteen yards of field position makes a huge difference. Not a great decision by Matt Willis - you don't take it out that late in the game unless you're sure you have an opening.
-0.12 Defense 1:04 2-14-PIT 20 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 3.8 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep middle to 84-A.Brown to PIT 37 for 17 yards (24-C.Bailey). Wow, this was just some great work by Antonio Brown - his stutter move created the kind of opening that made it a tougher but more possible catch for him to make - otherwise Champ might have been able to knock it away. One thing I liked to see on this play is that rookie Quinton Carter was directing David Bruton before the play, and then looked a bit frustrated at him afterwards, since it looked like he was saying Bruton should have stayed more in the center of the field, which might have prevented the play. Obviously I'm supposing a lot here, but it's good to see Carter showing some leadership.
-0.11 Defense 5:02 3-2-DEN 33 PIT 6 DEN 20 LI: 0.5 33-I.Redman up the middle for 33 yards TOUCHDOWN The Replay Assistant challenged the runner broke the plane ruling and the play was REVERSED 33-I.Redman up the middle to DEN 1 for 32 yards (21-A.Goodman). On a third down, Redman is able to break through the line and almost score a touchdown. It was Pittsburgh's right guard who got upfield. Von Miller was trying to fight through the right tackle to make the tackle and couldn't quite get there. Meanwhile, the right guard got his hands on Joe Mays. Joe Mays was able to fight him off, but then missed the tackle. Quinton Carter couldn't get around Joe Mays to back him up, and Redman was able to run thirty more yards to the 1-yard line.
-0.07 Offense 2:00 2-8-DEN 35 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 3.7 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass incomplete short left to 19-E.Royal. I know the rules about face mask - they got rid of incidental contact, and only kept the personal foul ones, the grab-and-twist ones. That said, this sure looked like a grab-and-twist, and the ref missed it. This was the offense's final drive of regulation, and the next play would be Tebow's underthrow to Demaryius Thomas.
-0.07 Defense 13:40 1-10-PIT 35 PIT 0 DEN 0 LI: 1.4 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep right to 83-H.Miller to DEN 32 for 33 yards (30-D.Bruton) [91-R.Ayers]. D.J. Williams and David Bruton missed a handoff on this play. Robert Ayers had a great hit on Roethlisberger on this play, but it was an instant too later. D.J. let Miller go across the middle of the field, and Bruton had left to go over to the side of the field to help with a receiver that Champ already had well-covered. Hard to say whose fault it was, but it looked like someone took a wrong assignment.
-0.06 to +0.06 Gameplay (Every other play) This encompasses all the other plays of the game that weren't "big plays".
+0.07 Defense 9:23 3-16-PIT 14 PIT 6 DEN 14 LI: 0.8 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short middle intended for 83-H.Miller INTERCEPTED by 28-Q.Carter [55-D.Williams] at PIT 27 28-Q.Carter to PIT 18 for 9 yards (88-E.Sanders). Ben Roethlisberger was sacked by Robert Ayers just before this play, and might have still been feeling the after-effects. This was apparently a Dennis Allen special, as he called a certain coverage scheme that they weren't normally running. Quinton Carter was sitting in the middle of the field as D.J. Williams blitzed on the delay, and was able to snag the interception to continue Denver's momentum midway through the second quarter.
+0.08 Defense 7:35 1-10-PIT 45 PIT 16 DEN 23 LI: 1.7 Direction Change 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 39 for -6 yards (77-B.Bunkley). Just after Willis McGahee's 4th-quarter fumble, Roethlisberger tries to push the advantage but is pushed back by the defensive line. Elvis Dumervil causes the pressure, and Broderick Bunkley is able to finish it off with a sack. Elvis really gutted it out in this game - he looked hurt on many of these plays. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh would later score a touchdown on this drive.
+0.11 Offense 14:56 3-12-DEN 18 PIT 6 DEN 0 LI: 1.2 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 88-D.Thomas to PIT 31 for 51 yards (24-I.Taylor). This is where it all began, and it looked so bad at first. Early in the second quarter, Denver has third and long, after their first two drives were both three-and-outs. The play starts with Tebow looking to pass, and then hesitating, which doesn't look much different than most of the plays against Kansas City the previous week. But then after a scramble, the long pass to an improvising Demaryius Thomas is perfect, and Thomas is able to beat Ike Taylor for a 51-yard gain. Demaryius Thomas then stares down Taylor at the end of the play, ha ha. Taylor still looks upset a play later.
+0.14 Offense 13:31 2-9-PIT 30 PIT 6 DEN 0 LI: 1 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep right to 19-E.Royal for 30 yards TOUCHDOWN PIT-99-B.Keisel was injured during the play. Two plays later, Tebow pumps to one side of the field, faking out the safety, taps the ball, and then lays it in for Eddie Royal. The catch was a bit lucky in that Gay could have easily knocked it away (although it might have ended up a penalty), but Royal showed excellent concentration in coming up with the catch. And this is in character for Royal - he's very good at catching the ball in traffic, *if* the throw is perfectly accurate. And Tebow's pass was difficult and perfect.
+0.14 Defense 1:37 1-10-PIT 24 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 4.8 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 20 for -4 yards (58-V.Miller). After a disappointing final drive (in regulation) by Denver's offense, Pittsburgh is able to start a drive with a chance to win the game. But on the first play, Von Miller is able to dart backward from the edge and bring down Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh would be able to convert to a new set of downs.
+0.15 Offense 12:15 2-7-DEN 30 PIT 6 DEN 7 LI: 1.4 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 88-D.Thomas to PIT 12 for 58 yards (24-I.Taylor). It's possible that Denver learned something from their first bomb to Thomas on this play, as this second-quarter route looked called rather than improvised. Play-action, and Thomas gets behind Ike Taylor - it looked like he could have just kept running towards the opposite corner, but Thomas chose to cut it back and stiff-arm Taylor a couple of times, which was admittedly fun to watch.
+0.18 Offense 3:07 2-9-DEN 16 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 3.6 15-T.Tebow pass deep left to 86-D.Fells to DEN 33 for 17 yards (24-I.Taylor). It was demonstrated that Denver completely faked out Troy Polamalu by making their tight end go deep at an unexpected time, and as a result, this more conventional in route was wide open for Tebow and Daniel Fells. This was also a huge play because it got Denver some desperately needed field position near the end of the game. Despite the fact that Denver would then stall and punt, the field position was essential in later keeping Pittsburgh out of field goal range. Huge play.
+0.24 Defense 0:29 1-10-DEN 45 PIT 23 DEN 23 LI: 4.1 (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 44 for -11 yards (92-E.Dumervil) FUMBLES (92-E.Dumervil) and recovers at PIT 44 7-B.Roethlisberger to PIT 44 for no gain (58-V.Miller). On May 25th, 1965, Muhammed Ali fought Sonny Liston and knocked him out in the first round, due to the controversial "Phantom Punch" that many never saw and may have actually never happened. This play between Elvis Dumervil and Ben Roethlisberger reminds me of the Phantom Punch because it's almost impossible to see what happens here. Dumervil is falling to the ground, on Roethlisberger's left side, and while he's in mid-air, close to the ground, reaches around with his impossibly long left arm, towards the ball in Roethlisberger's right hand, and swats it away. In my mind, this is the play of the season. I don't believe we win this game if not for this impossible, impossible defensive play. Someone should find an HD screen grab of this moment and blow it up onto a wall, because it's that amazing. Pittsburgh had the ball on the edge of field goal range, first down, near the end of the game, and this saved the game by knocking them eleven yards back. And by the way, this was with a three-man rush!
+0.53 Offense 15:00 1-10-DEN 20 PIT 23 DEN 23 (Shotgun) 15-T.Tebow pass deep middle to 88-D.Thomas for 80 yards, TOUCHDOWN. +0.53 is the biggest play of the season so far - bigger than Goodman's interception, bigger than Prater's 59-yard field goal. Just a huge, dramatic moment that this wild, crazy season was entirely worthy of. What a great moment to end the game.

One thing that jumps out at me is that both the offense and the defense had very big impact plays in this game. It's a very good sign to see that both sides of the team upped their game for the playoffs. I also think I saw improved secondary play from our young secondary - even Rafael Bush looked solid. If Carter, Bruton and the rest are really finally putting things together, there's room for optimism against New England and next season.

4th down notes:

  • In the second quarter, Denver had a 4th-and-2 from Pittsburgh's 2-yard-line, and elected to attempt a 20-yard field goal. It actually makes more sense to go for it in this case, but given that we were already up eight points, it's not by much. There's a law of diminishing returns here, so adding on to a big lead is almost as helpful.
  • In the third quarter, Denver had a 4th-and-3 from Pittsburgh's 38-yard-line. It turns out it was actually the correct call to punt the ball, given the score differential and the time remaining. If the score were closer, it would have been worth it to go for it.
  • With 1:45 remaining in the 4th quarter and a tie score, Denver had a 4th-and-8 from the Denver 35-yard-line. Believe it or not, it makes more sense to go for it than to punt, assuming an average offense against an average defense. If you convert, you have a 70% chance of winning, and if you punt, you only have a 35% chance of winning. If you fail, you only have a 19% chance of winning, and conversion rate is 38% in those situations. Put the numbers together and you are giving away +0.03 WPA by punting the ball. That said, I think Denver's pass rush has an advantage against the desperate late-game passes, so it's hard to object to the decision to punt.

Drive notes for Offense:

  1. -0.04 for a three-and-out.
  2. -0.03 for a three-and-out.
  3. +0.21 for a touchdown drive with a 30-yard TD pass to Eddie Royal.
  4. +0.20 for another touchdown drive capped by a Tebow TD run.
  5. -0.04 for only getting a field goal after the Quinton Carter interception.
  6. +0.02 for a drive ending in a field goal.
  7. +0.00 for an end-of-half kneel.
  8. +0.03 for a drive ending in a punt (after a bizarre wildcard play) that gained field position.
  9. +0.09 for a long drive ending in a field goal, answering Pittsburgh's touchdown.
  10. -0.09 for a drive that ends with a Willis McGahee fumble, giving up good field position.
  11. -0.15 for having to punt (after a bad kickoff return by Matt Willis) on our side of the field, late in the game, when the score was tied.
  12. +0.53 for a one-play game-winning drive in overtime.

Drive notes for Defense:

  1. -0.06 for giving up an opening-drive field goal.
  2. +0.02 for forcing a punt after one first down.
  3. -0.05 for giving up another field goal.
  4. +0.04 for forcing a three-and-out with three incompletions.
  5. +0.11 for a three-play drive with a sack and a Quinton Carter interception.
  6. +0.03 for forcing a punt after one first down.
  7. -0.01 for giving up field position at the end of the half.
  8. -0.14 for giving up a touchdown drive after halftime.
  9. -0.03 for giving up a field goal.
  10. -0.13 for giving up another touchdown after the Willis McGahee fumble.
  11. +0.12 for holding Pittsburgh to zero points at the end of regulation.

In the first half, the offense was +0.32 thanks to the two touchdowns, while the defense was +0.08, thanks to Carter's interception. In the second half, the offense was -0.18. They were able to continue their effectiveness in the third quarter, but in the 4th quarter, the McGahee fumble was bad, and the final drive was worse. The defense was also -0.18. Giving up 17 points was really bad, but they were able to claw some of the lost WPA back with their late pass-rush skills. And then in overtime, the offense was +0.53 . Overall, the offense was +0.67, while the defense was -0.10, slightly hurting Denver's chances for victory. In general, our offense still looks slightly more dangerous than our defense, although I think our defense made strides.

Players: Tim Tebow had a monster game, with over 1.00 WPA all by himself. Demaryius Thomas had a huge game as well, and while Daniel Fells was overshadowed by the other two, he still had one of the higher-scoring offensive games of the season. Defensively, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were the two high scorers. Hopefully we'll see more of that against New England!

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