Sometimes, the game breaking plays are obvious. Take, for instance, Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown's 4th-and-1 catch Monday night for a 29-yard touchdown against the Washington Redskins. It was a fourth-down, do-or-die moment, quarterbacked by fellow Steeler Ben Roethlisberger -- the one person in the world who may implicitly trust Brown more than, say, his own mother. Brown, of course, came out of it the way he usually does. That is, figuratively spit-polished, smelling of roses and dressed to the nines.
Sometimes, though, the critical plays are cleverly disguised as benign, apparently meaningless moments that you don't recognize until you watch it again later. Once, twice, maybe five times. Such is the case for the three plays we're going to highlight today: hidden gems that gently swung momentum, or otherwise impacted the game in bigger ways than it appeared in real-time.
Lawrence Timmons & Cameron Heyward force an incomplete pass
Trailing three to nothing, and with their backs already against the wall due to an unfortunate bounce that led to a Redskins interception, the Steelers defense was trying to keep Washington out of the end zone on a short field. That's when defensive coordinator dialed up this subtle beauty.
As we pick up the play, Timmons has just retreated a few yards back and to his right. Just before the snap, though, he runs up to the line and tips his hand that he's coming on a pass rush. No matter, though. No one is going to be able to make an adjustment in that tiny amount of time.
It worked perfectly.
With Timmons off the line, the left guard was going to be free to help either the tackle or the center. Timmons' late shift, though, left the guard to defend him one-on-one and, consequently, it also left center Kory Lichtensteiger on an island with the considerably larger Heyward. In a matter of a few heartbeats, Lictensteiger was getting up close and personal with Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, forcing Cousins to simply abandon the play and throw the ball away.
The hidden impact of this play was both situational and psychological: by throwing the ball away on second down, Washington was left in a third-and-long situation, which is precisely what this Steelers defense is built to defend. A touchdown at that point in the game would have left the Steelers in a two-score hole very early. Instead, the field goal meant a touchdown and an extra point would put the Steelers in the lead -- which is precisely what happened on the next drive.
Heavy pressure leads to a fourth-down stop
The Pittsburgh pass rush Monday night was subtle, to say the least. They applied a lot of pressure all night with just four rushers, but they never closed the deal with a sack. Pressure, though, can be equally effective, especially when it comes at just the right moment.
Jarvis Jones gets a great jump on left tackle Trent Williams here. Meanwhile, the two defensive tackles stunt, but end up overloading the left side of Washington's line. The combined pressure of the tackles from Cousins' left front, and Jones around the back, causes the quarterback to rush through his progressions, and he finds tight end Jordan Reed in the short middle. The catch is made but Reed is stopped short.
But hold on a minute -- had Cousins been able to look to the left side of the field, he would have seen receiver Pierre Garçon in a very favorable, one-on-one matchup with cornerback William Gay on the outside. A heave toward the left numbers would have been a nearly certain completion, into the red zone, if not more. Pittsburgh would take the ball 67 yards for a touchdown on their next drive, just before the end of the first half, taking a 14-6 lead into the break.
The beginning of the end
The final play is less about what happened before the whistle than what happened just afterward.
The play itself could hardly be considered to have a "hidden" impact, as it was one of the biggest plays on the drive that essentially put the game out of reach. On this play, receiver Sammie Coates is jammed very well at the line, but he fights through it with his massive frame and seems to simply glide at half speed through his route. But, with the cornerback in trail position and well behind, Coates runs a curl, turning at just the right moment to optimize separation from everyone. It results in him being wide open, despite nearly half of the Washington defense being within ten feet of him. He gained 14 yards on the play, just enough to convert the third down into a first down.
If you watch carefully at the end of the play, though, you can see the moment when the wheels start coming off the Redskins' bus. Safety DeAngelo Hall, one of the five defenders who were unable to prevent Coates from making the catch, comes to his knees and, in a moment of frustration, throws his towel. He then proceeds to stand up and begins yelling at teammates. From that moment on, with just over six minutes to go in the game, the Steelers would pick up 82 of their 384 yards, as well as 14 of their 38 points. As subtle as it looked at the time, that was when the Steelers broke the Redskins' backs.
Truly, the biggest plays can sometimes happen without anyone even noticing.