It was a Minneapolis Miracle for the Minnesota Vikings. For Marcus Williams and the New Orleans Saints, it was a disaster.
Leading 24-23 with 10 seconds left on the clock, New Orleans was moments away from securing an NFC championship game berth. Then, it happened.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum stepped up in the pocket, fired a strike to wide receiver Stefon Diggs and watched as Williams propelled himself towards the pass catcher only to miss the tackle and spring Diggs for a walk-off touchdown. It was one of the most improbable, spectacular plays in NFL history.
On the surface, it’s convenient to put the loss on the shoulders of the rookie second-round pick who missed a tackle on the biggest play of his career. However, a closer look reveals the major flaws in the play call from the Saints sideline that helped make the nightmare scenario possible.
Vikings WR Stefon Diggs scores with no time left in 29-24 win over Saints
We can establish off the top that Williams was in position to make a play on Diggs and potentially clinch the victory for New Orleans. He didn’t, and the Saints lost. However, looking back at the tape gives us a better understanding of how defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and his coaching staff put Williams in a more difficult position than he needed to be in with the game on the line.
Rewinding back to the moments before that fateful third-and-10, the first thing that stands out is the way that the defence lines up. Allen commits to four defensive linemen. Those down linemen are tasked with pressuring the quarterback. This is the first mistake Allen makes.
Minnesota is out of timeouts. With only 10 seconds left on the clock, the Saints have time on their side. Keenum is already dealing with a sense of urgency to get rid of the football quickly since he needs to give his wide receiver enough time to make the catch and get out of bounds before time expires.
Sure enough, Keenum takes the snap, steps up and launches the ball down the field in a span of three seconds. He has a clean pocket to step up in. It’s unlikely he would have held on to the ball any longer regardless of whether New Orleans sent four pass rushers or three. The difference is that one fewer pass rusher would give the Saints one additional defender in pass coverage down the field.
Considering the circumstances, it would have made a lot more sense for Allen to rush three and add another defensive back in the deep third of the field.
In addition to the four down linemen, New Orleans lines up a linebacker and safety within seven yards of the line of scrimmage.
Safety Rafael Bush shadows running back Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield. Linebacker Craig Robertson never covers anybody. At the snap, Robertson begins backpedaling over the middle of the field. The problem is that all four Vikings receivers run routes designed to attack the sideline. Robertson covers the short, middle of the field on a play in which Minnesota purposely avoided that area.
With four down linemen rushing the passer and two more defenders assigned to cover the short middle of the field, six of the Saints’ 11 defenders are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage when Keenum decides where to throw the football. New Orleans is left with only five defenders to cover the four Vikings receivers running sideline routes.
Minnesota’s receivers line up in a one-by-three formation. Adam Thielen is lined up to Keenum’s left, while Diggs, Jarius Wright and tight end Kyle Rudolph are bunched to his right. The Saints commit their best cornerback Marshon Lattimore to cover Thielen with safety Vonn Bell helping over the top. That leaves New Orleans with three defensive backs to cover the three receivers on the other side of the field.
Keenum recognizes he has one-on-one coverage on that side of the field. When he drops back, Keenum looks to Thielen just long enough to keep the safety Bell from drifting towards the middle of the field. Rudolph runs a quick out to the sideline, but brings cornerback P.J. Williams with him in coverage. Diggs and Wright cross near the 50-yard line and cornerback Ken Crawley follows Wright on the shorter of the two routes.
Diggs runs the deepest route of the four receivers, making him the biggest threat to the Saints. He also ends up wide open with Williams in deep coverage nearly 15 yards further down the field when Keenum decides to throw the ball. In a situation when Minnesota needs to throw deep and to the sideline, there is absolutely no reason for one of its best receivers to be wide open with only a safety left behind him to make a play on the ball.
Four defenders rush the passer, two defenders commit to the short middle with McKinnon still in the backfield and two defenders blanket Thielen on the other side of the field. Once P.J. Williams and Crawley commit to Rudolph and Wright, New Orleans is left with its rookie safety on an island to defend the biggest threat.
Williams is the deep safety on his side of the field. He has zero help behind him. In a matter of seconds, Williams has to make a decision and commit to it. If he hesitates on his break he risks giving Diggs enough time to secure the catch and get out of bounds at the 30-yard line, setting up a potential game-winning field goal. If he commits to trying to make a big play inbounds to prevent the clock from stopping, he risks missing the tackle with no help behind him to cover up his mistake.
Williams goes with the latter option. In an instant, he commits to trying to make a big play. Williams whiffs on his tackle attempt, Diggs makes the catch and stayed inbounds, then runs 30 yards to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
In the moments before that final play, Minnesota had a 2.6 per cent chance to win the game, according to ESPN Analytics. The Saints left the door open just enough for the Vikings to capitalize in the most dramatic fashion.
No one will forget the moment Williams lunged past Diggs on the missed tackle that left the Vikings receiver all alone running towards the end zone. If the defensive coverage was drawn up just a little differently, the Minneapolis Miracle might have never happened at all.