The last-second field goal is one of the most dramatic plays in football, especially ones of a considerable distance. A made 61-yard field goal, like the one that beat the New York Giants, certainly counts. While the play that won the game for the Philadelphia Eagles will be the one remembered most, the play to set it up was just as important and should have been just as improbable.
After an incomplete pass on first down, the Eagles faced a second-and-10 from their own 38 with just seven seconds remaining in the game and one timeout. Before the play, Joe Buck relayed information to the listeners about the target line for a Philadelphia field goal:
“In talking to head coach Doug Pederson, he said Jake Elliott feels good pushing it to the 37-yard line… so we’re talking roughly 25 yards away from that.”
It was unlikely the Eagles would be able to gain 25 yards on the next play to get into Elliott’s comfortable field goal range, so the goal would be to gain enough yards where a decision needed to be made.
The Eagles lined up in a 3x1 set with a bunch on the three-receiver side to the right. Tight end Zach Ertz was the isolated receiver while the bunch included Torrey Smith at the top, Nelson Agholor inside, and Alshon Jeffery outside. The Giants, knowing the Eagles needed a big chunk of yards, played mostly deep against the three receivers, the one exception, Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie pressed against Smith at the top of the bunch.
At the snap, the Giants rushed just three and left eight men back in coverage. WIth the wide receivers’ release, all three stayed at or outside the numbers, which only gave the Giants a four-on-three advantage. With eight total players in coverage, the defense should hope for more than that.
Torrey Smith’s role here is to clear out the defenders over the top. He ran straight down the field and it didn’t matter if he got open or not. He wants to take Rodgers-Cromartie downfield and hopefully at least one other defender. Darian Thompson, the safety on the opposite side of the field eventually came over.
The other two receivers ran a pretty basic Hi-Lo concept to the outside. Agholor cut his route to the flat, while Jeffrey ran a deep corner route. They were the key to the play.
On the first down play, the Giants rushed four and were able to get pressure on Carson Wentz. Most of this was Jason-Pierre Paul pushing back right tackle Lane Johnson. The pressure from Pierre-Paul caused Wentz to panic in the pocket, scramble, and eventually throw the ball away for an incompletion:
By electing to go with a three-man rush on second down, the Giants gave up the illusion of pressure. This type of passive defense was a big cause of contention towards the end of Steve Spagnuolo’s first tenure as defensive coordinator with the Giants. After building an early lead, the Giants would sit back and allow teams to gain chunks of yards in the fourth quarter. This was a similar case.
Even as Pierre-Paul pushed back Johnson for the second play in a row, Wentz never had to panic because of how clean the pocket was elsewhere. With a big play needed, Wentz was able to settle and allow the play to develop.
Wentz’s first move was a slight pump fake in Agholor’s direction. As the closest defender, Eli Apple bit on the fake with a few steps towards Agholor. At this point Agholor was only four yards past the line of scrimmage. A catch there does little to improve Philadelphia’s field position even if he stepped out of bounds immediately to save Philadelphia’s last timeout. Apple needed to show more discipline there and know allowing a catch in that situation wouldn’t be the worst situation.
Apple’s step in was just enough to open up a lane for a pass to Jeffery. Wentz released the ball as his receiver broke to the sideline and needed to place it between a retreating Apple and a charging Janoris Jenkins.
Despite Apple’s break on Agholor earlier, he recovered enough to have a play on the ball. He was firmly in front of Jeffrey, but instead of being aggressive and undercutting the route, Apple passively sat back to let the ball come to him. As Apple drifted back, Jeffrey got in front of the cornerback to snatch the ball away.
It’s difficult to look at the shot below and wonder how there wasn’t an interception or at least a deflected pass.
Apple had already been called for two pass interference penalties in the game, so maybe those were in the back of his head. The second was a questionable call in good coverage against Smith, but the first was a case of Jeffrey adjusting a route after a breakdown and Apple never getting his head turned back around to the ball. Apple’s physical play was an issue in college and his ability to locate the ball in good coverage has sometimes been an issue in his brief pro career.
Jenkins, meanwhile, sat back and prepared to make a tackle as he saw Apple going up for the ball with Jeffrey. At this point there were just two seconds remaining and it’s possible a tackle in bounds could have caused the clock to reach zero even with the Eagles having one timeout left.
The biggest problem about Apple’s path to the ball is that his drifting took him towards the sideline to the outside of Jeffrey. That is where Jenkins was lining up to make a play so Jeffrey couldn’t get out of bounds if the pass was completed. But when Jeffrey moved up to attack the ball, Apple and Jenkins collided, which sent both defenders to the ground and allowed Jeffrey to not only make the catch, but get out of bounds quickly with one second left in the game.
There were many ways this play could have been avoided: sending an additional rusher, Apple not biting on the first fake, Apple taking a better route to the ball, Jenkins and Apple not colliding and instead making a tackle inbounds. If one of those things changes, it’s possible this play is never made or the clock runs out. But the entire chain of events allowed the Eagles to gain 19 yards and set up a 61-yard field goal attempt to win the game.
It was a litany of mistakes that didn’t just cost the Giants a shot at overtime, it likely sunk the season.