A few things had to line up just right, and they did! Let’s walk back through the steps that made for the most exciting NFL play we’ve seen in a long, long time. I woke up Monday still in a daze. Two intense, down-to-the-wire playoff games in one day, not even 24 hours removed from two of the dullest postseason games we’ve seen in a while, will do that to a person.
But the moment that stuck in my head was Stefon Diggs ’ game-winning touchdown. I spent most of Monday trying to figure out what happened; how it happened. Here’s what I got.
Here’s the set up for ‘seven heaven’ and the Minneapolis Miracle.
It’s third-and-10 at the Minnesota 39-yard line with 10 seconds on the clock and the Vikings down 24-23.
All the Vikings really needed to do was to get the ball down the field far enough for a reasonable field-goal attempt, say inside the Saints 35-yard line, for a long one. That meant get it to a receiver, get out of bounds to stop the clock, and send out Kai Forbath and the kicking team.
Minnesota has a sad history with game-winning field-goal attempts. But it was the smart play, the play that the Vikings were attempting when they called the “seven heaven” play, something they’ve practiced many times before.
A receiver on the outside runs a seven route down the field and near the boundary. The “heaven” part comes from the idea that if the receiver on the seven route catches it, good things will happen.
Diggs was the angel designated for heavenly things on that play. He’s lined up in trips on the right side of the Vikings’ offensive formation with tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Jarius Wright .
Rudolph runs a short route down the sideline, and Wright runs a little deeper, but not as far down the field as Diggs. It’s their job to look for the throw, catch it, and get out of bounds, which is the safe thing to do on that play.
Wright said after the game it was unusual for Diggs, the deep man, to get the ball.
“We practice that play all the time,” he said . “But the high seven never gets the ball. It has never been thrown to that route as far as I can remember.”
Not this time. With a little help from the Saints’ defense, Case Keenum pushed it down the field for the big play. Diggs delivered.
The first question that came to mind: How does the Saints’ defense let that happen?
The Saints’ defense was doing exactly what it wanted, and it was a big mistake.
The Saints’ defense was actually good this season, something that hasn’t been true for several recent seasons of 7-9ness. Along with the running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram , that defense is a big reason why the Saints got this far in the first place.
So it’s even more confusing that they did what they did on third-and-10 against the Vikings.
This is the defensive alignment they rolled out on that play:
Per #NextGenStats , here's another look at the @stefondiggs game-winning TD to send the @Vikings to the NFC Championship Game pic.twitter.com/lq0OgciB7I — Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) January 15, 2018
This alignment left them at risk for a deep ball, but that wasn’t what the Vikings were going for on third down. They needed to get the ball into field-goal range and stop the clock. For the defense, that meant emphasis on the boundaries, which is exactly what it wanted.
Saints coach Sean Payton explained it after the game :
“It was an outside zone [defense]. We were protecting the sidelines. Anything inside and you’re in a pretty good position when the game is over. It’s a situation we practice quite a bit.”
By protecting the boundaries, the Saints could tackle the receiver in bounds, keeping the clock running and letting time expire. There were five seconds left on the clock when Diggs caught Keenum’s pass. No amount of hurry in the world would have given the Vikings enough time to get the kicking team onto the field and lined up for the field-goal attempt.
A bigger problem is where they had two linebackers, in the middle of the field and bunched up close to the line of scrimmage. One of them does end up dropping back and moving toward the ball, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve got two defenders tied up in the middle of the field where the Vikings could not afford to throw it and hope to stop the clock with less than 10 seconds left when they snapped it in the first place.
And what the hell is P.J. Williams, No. 26, doing here? He’s in the flat to cover Rudolph, but he’s starting within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. Rudolph doesn’t go more than 5 yards down the field and toward the sideline.
It all sets up so that when the deep man, Marcus Williams , missed the tackle, there was nothing between Diggs and a touchdown. More on that in bit.
Where was the Saints’ pass rush?
The Saints’ pass rush had a pretty good night, until it didn’t.
Keenum was sacked twice in the game. Cam Jordan didn’t have a sack, but he finished with eight total pressures and two hits on the QB, according to Pro Football Focus . But it was his inability to get to Keenum on the only play that mattered that ate away at Jordan after the game :
“As a defensive end and player of my caliber, I should have been able to eradicate that play all together. ... Had I been a half-step faster, I would have been able to get off the tight end and tackle and completely take over that play.”
Take another look at it. Jordan is No. 94:
An extra half step definitely would have helped, but the offensive tackle does a nice job riding him out of the play. I’m not a pass-rushing expert, but I have read enough of Stephen White’s Hoss of the Week columns to recognize that Jordan could’ve used a different set of pass-rushing moves or maybe a pass-rushing game to throw off the blockers.
Notice too that they sent four on the pass rush. That’s slightly unusual in a situation where a defense is trying to prevent a big play. They might have rushed three and had an extra man in coverage to help prevent the big play. Were they worried that Keenum, who’s pretty good on his feet, would slip outside the pocket and make a play?
The Saints could have really used those timeouts.
Remember earlier in the fourth quarter when Payton challenged not one, but two plays that he had no business challenging? He lost a pair of timeouts for the effort.
The Saints used the third timeout before the Vikings’ second down, the play before the big one, to get set.
So on that fateful third-and-10, another one would have been handy to get the defense lined up the way it needed to, like getting the linebackers in the right place or figuring out how to cover the receivers in trips.
We need to talk about Williams ’ tackle attempt.
Williams should not be the scapegoat for the Saints here. Sure, he whiffed big on the chance to stop the play, but the team around him messed up throughout the day too.
He goes low here, dropping his head and leading with his shoulder in an attempt to lay out Diggs. And his misses him completely.
As we explained after the game, there’s some logic here . The Saints cannot afford a pass interference penalty that would stop the clock and give the Vikings a great spot for a game-winning field-goal attempt. They’d already picked up four pass interference calls in this game.
He could have played the ball, going up into the air to contest the catch. That would have courted an interference call at precisely the wrong time. He also could have waited for Diggs to come down with it and tackled him in bounds.
The decision he did end up making wasn’t necessarily wrong, but wrapping up and just making the tackle would have been better. And now he’s got all offseason, and beyond, to watch the replay of the play.
Unfortunately for the Saints, Williams’ miss happened to take out cornerback Ken Crawley , who was originally covering Wright and happened to be the last man standing in the area with a chance at making the tackle.
With those two down, it set up Diggs for the big play.
Look at the moment Diggs realizes he’s free to the end zone. Damn.
The whole point of this play, as drawn up, was to give Keenum someone to throw to on the sideline and then for the receiver to get out of bounds, stopping the clock so the Vikings can try for the game-winning field goal.
And it’s here that Diggs hesitates, just for a teeny bit of a second. Momentum should have pushed him out of bounds, but as he comes down, he looks behind him, back toward the line of scrimmage:
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Look at it in slow motion. Notice what he sees there:
Right after he comes down with it, he sees the Saints defensive backs — No. 20 is Crawley, who gets bowled over by Williams ’ failed tackle attempt — behind him on the ground. That’s when he realized there was no need to get out of bounds.
The men who were in front of him are now behind him, sprawled out on the turf. He turns around, regains his footing, and he’s gone.
Keeping himself upright was also pretty impressive.
In the process of going up to make the catch, landing and turning upfield, Diggs loses his balance. He almost goes down. Any more wobble, and his knee, at least, would have been on the ground, in bounds. That would have effectively done what the Saints’ would-be tacklers couldn’t do, which was to bring down the receiver in bounds to kill the clock, ending the game.
And all we’d have to talk about was a great catch that didn’t matter.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
The reaction on the sidelines is priceless. Half the people standing there are pointing downfield, imploring Diggs to run for the win. The others are still in shock.
Hell, I’m still in shock. It’s hard to believe that actually happened.
I’m just going to let Everson Griffen sum it up for me:
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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