Week 4 in the NFL was a lot like the first three: fun from start to finish. Mitchell Trubisky tossed six touchdown passes to lead the Bears to a 48-10 blowout win over the Buccaneers. The Bengals and Falcons combined for 902 yards in a barn-burning 37-36 Cincinnati win. Three games went to overtime: the Texans bounced back to beat the Colts, the Titans knocked off the Eagles, and the Raiders came back to beat the Browns. The Cowboys ran past the Lions, the Packers blew out the Bills, the Patriots got their mojo back against the Dolphins, the Chargers held off the 49ers, and the Seahawks topped the Cardinals.
The Sunday slate featured nonstop action, but a few moments stand out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays from Sunday’s action, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
Dak Prescott Passes to Ezekiel Elliott Up the Seam for 34 Yards
Trailing 24-23 with 1:23 to go and facing a second-and-10 at its own 41-yard line, Dallas had a win probability of 38.3 percent. For a team that had struggled mightily to move the ball through the air during its first three games, those odds might’ve even felt high.
The Cowboys sent Elliott out into the slot to run a fade route up toward the sideline. Elliott quickly beat linebacker Jarrad Davis off the line, and Prescott floated a pass to the big running back in stride.
That play pushed Dallas to the Lions’ 25-yard line, boosting the team’s win probability by a colossal 34.6 percentage points. Four plays later, Cowboys kicker Brett Maher made the game-winning field goal as the clock hit triple zeroes. After promising this week that the team’s archaic, far-too-predictable, identity-lacking offense would add some new wrinkles, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan lived up to his word: Lining up Elliott away from the formation to run a downfield route caught the Lions by surprise and created the mismatch the team was looking for. Linehan dialed it up at exactly the right time.
That play was the capstone of a massively productive performance for Elliott, but it wasn’t the only snap that illustrated the Cowboys’ desire to mix things up schematically. Late in the second quarter, Dallas used a pre-snap sweep action by Cole Beasley to get the defense flowing toward the left before running a screen to Elliott on the right. That window-dressing worked like a charm, moving linebackers away from the action while helping the offensive linemen execute their blocks.
Loved this play design from #Cowboys. The jet-sweep action causes the LBs to flow one way, giving the OL great angles to get their blocks in space, before throwing the screen to the other. pic.twitter.com/tpaE36CZSi— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 1, 2018
The Cowboys didn’t quite look like the Rams in this one, but they did seem to take a step in the right direction. On two of the most crucial plays of the game, they incorporated concepts that make L.A.’s offense so devastating—deploying their running back all over the formation while leaning on good, old-fashioned deception to get the defense out of position. Elliott finished with a career-high 240 scrimmage yards—152 on the ground and another 88 and a touchdown through the air—and, hopefully, helped carry the Cowboys offense out of the past. Dallas can’t run the same scheme it had so much success with in 2016 and hope for the same results; the team just doesn’t have the same level of talent up front or at receiver to out-execute everyone it faces.
Elliott’s still the focal point of the offense, but Sunday showed that the Cowboys are finding more creative ways to get him involved.
Andy Dalton Finds Tyler Boyd to Convert Fourth Down
Trailing 36-31 with 1:21 to go, Dalton and the Bengals offense found themselves in a do-or-die fourth-and-8 from the Falcons’ 35-yard line. With the game on the line, Dalton looked to Boyd, who jab-stepped off the line to get Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant turned around, then ran a hook route to gain separation just past the line to gain. Dalton fired a dart up the hashes, hitting Boyd to keep hope alive and boost the team’s win probability from just 8.9 percent all the way up to 43.1 percent.
Three plays later, the Falcons forced Cincy into another fourth down, this one a fourth-and-6 from the 20-yard line with 22 seconds remaining. At the snap, Dalton again looked for Boyd, who drew man coverage from Trufant. Running a quick whip route from the slot, Boyd made his second game-saving play of the drive.
That was another huge win-probability swing, and two plays later Dalton found A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone to all but seal the win. Dalton finished 7-of-12 for 65 yards on that game-winning touchdown drive, targeting Boyd seven times and completing four passes to him for 38 yards. That series highlighted a new dynamic that’s developed in the Bengals passing attack over the past few weeks: While Green’s still the unquestioned superstar and touchdown-maker in the team’s passing attack, Boyd’s emerged as Dalton’s new trusty chains-moving underneath threat. Sunday, Boyd racked up 11 catches for 100 yards, and nine of his receptions went for first downs.
After a quiet Week 1, the third-year pro has gone on a three-game tear, racking up 23 catches for 323 yards with two touchdowns on a team-high 31 targets. He’s filled a key role for a quarterback who’s struggled with pressure for most of his career; when Dalton’s had pass rushers in his face this season, it’s Boyd he’s looked to most often for an outlet. Boyd’s not the quickest player on the field, but he runs crisp routes and knows how to open up right when Dalton needs him to. That safety-net role has helped unlocked the Bengals offense and could pay big dividends for this surprisingly strong Cincy team.
Marcus Mariota Hits Taywan Taylor for Fourth-Down Conversion in OT
With 4:51 to go in overtime, the Titans trailed the defending champion Eagles by three points and faced a fourth-and-15 from their own 31-yard line. Tennessee’s win probability sat at a paltry 9.0 percent. All the Eagles had to do was drop back into coverage, keep everything in front of them, and swarm to what was sure to be a desperation heave to make the game-sealing stop. But that’s not how it went down. Mariota stepped up, looked left, and launched a rope to a wide-open Taywan Taylor near the sideline for 19 yards and the first down. There was likely a defensive breakdown—one that Mariota took advantage of.
That kept the drive alive, but even afterward the Titans’ win probability still was just 23 percent. It’d take Mariota and his squad another two steely fourth-down conversions—the first with the help of an interference call, the second on a screen (and gutsy decision by head coach Mike Vrabel to go for it instead of trying for the tie) to Dion Lewis—to set up Mariota’s game-winning touchdown throw to Corey Davis with 17 seconds remaining.
Corey Davis touchdown. Titans pull out the win against the Eagles. They played to win and got it. Mora would be so proud pic.twitter.com/pVccOGyUhQ— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 30, 2018
That score was the culmination of a 16-play, 74-yard game-winning drive, and it capped an outstanding performance by Mariota. The fourth-year pro, still nursing an elbow injury that has caused him to lose feeling in his throwing hand, finished 30-of-43 passing for 344 yards with two touchdowns and a pick while rushing 10 times for 46 yards and a score. Mariota offered a glimpse at the upside this talented Titans squad has when he’s at his best.
The Titans fired former coach Mike Mularkey in January and brought in Vrabel as his replacement in large part because of how badly Mariota regressed in 2017. Vrabel’s job is tied to what he can get out of the former second overall pick, and the early results (even with a 2-1 start) were not encouraging. It got to the point that I was beginning to wonder if Mariota was permanently ruined from having to run the exotic smashmouth offense.
Sunday, though, the Mariota I’d hoped to see in a modern, forward-thinking offense under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur emerged. Mariota threw with confidence; he stressed the defense with his legs; he completed deep passes off play-action; he was accurate; and, during the team’s game-winning drive, he was cool under pressure. The Titans offense still has a long way to go—they converted just five of 16 third downs and didn’t get much going from their running backs on the ground—but the way Mariota played Sunday makes Tennessee look like a legit contender in the wide-open AFC.
Derwin James Forces the Game-Sealing Pick
No one would blame you if you thought the Chargers were going to blow a 29-27 fourth-quarter lead when the C.J. Beathard–led 49ers got the ball with 3:49 to go. With so many late-game disasters on L.A.’s résumé, I expected the team to fold in hilariously inept and tragic fashion.
Luckily, at least for the mental health of Chargers fans, rookie safety Derwin James had other ideas. Exploding off the edge like a bolt of lightning (pun intended), James turned what should’ve been an easy “scat protection” play (which calls for Beathard to dump it off to his running back to avoid the pass rush) into a disaster for San Francisco. The speed at which James closed on the QB changed everything: He hit Beathard as he went to throw, and the ball landed softly in the hands of defensive end Isaac Rochell.
That’s Derwin James’ music. pic.twitter.com/0E0Rc77CYY— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) September 30, 2018
That play all but ended the Niners’ comeback attempt and helped the Chargers avoid what felt like an inevitable collapse. A few plays later, Philip Rivers found Virgil Green for a first down to seal the win.
This was just the latest example of James’s incredible start. Coming into the week, the safety out of Florida State was already Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded defensive rookie, and he proceeded to rack up seven tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits, and two pass deflections in the win. James, who now has 26 tackles, three sacks, five quarterback hits, five pass breakups, and one pick in four professional games, is redefining what it means to make plays all over the field.
I’ve got to give the Chargers credit for the way they’ve deployed their positionless playmaker during the first month of the season. L.A.’s letting James do exactly what he did in college, lining him up from just about every spot in its defense. Per PFF, he’s now played 28 snaps lined up as a de facto defensive lineman, 81 times as a box safety, 34 times as a slot corner, five times as an outside corner, and 103 times as a free (deep) safety.
Seahawks Gain 5 Yards on Third-and-6
Quarterbacks around the league have broken new ground during the first month of the season, throwing for record numbers of yards and touchdowns while setting new benchmarks for efficiency. There has been an explosion of passing, and groups like the Chiefs and Rams have exemplified what the ideal modern offense should look like.
Pretty sure we're seeing all-time highs in completions, passing yards, touchdowns, and passer rating. At the very least it's easily all-decade highs through the first four weeks of the season (and with the best passing game in the NFL still to play on Monday Night). pic.twitter.com/ryTg4HkLh7— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) October 1, 2018
The Seahawks, on the other hand, are seemingly determined to redefine what it means to win ugly. Sunday, Seattle eked out an unimpressive 20-17 win over the winless Cardinals, a game that perfectly represents the Seahawks’ hard-to-watch, unnecessarily conservative style. Under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the team’s identity seems centered on a flurry of clichés: running the ball, staying on schedule, and playing for manageable third-down situations to move the chains and control the clock.
That old-school, ball-control, run-on-second-down-to-set-up-third-down offensive philosophy requires teams to actually execute in those third-down situations, though; in that regard, the Seahawks haven’t been good of late. Seattle finished 21st in third-down conversion rate last year (37.3 percent), came into this week ranked 25th (14-of-41, 34.1 percent), and then set a new bar for third-down negligence by going 0-of-10 against Arizona, becoming the first team to go 0-of-10 or worse and win a game in eight years.
The team’s first drive is a telling example: After running on second-and-15 (which, just, why?), Seattle gained 9 yards to set up a third-and-6. Russell Wilson threw short of the sticks for a 5-yard gain, and the Seahawks punted. On their third drive, they ran again on second-and-10, picking up 1 yard to set up a third-and-9. Then Wilson threw to Brandon Marshall for a gain of 5 yards, setting up a punt. And on Seattle’s fourth drive, it ran on second-and-8, losing a yard to set up third-and-9. Wilson hit Doug Baldwin for, you guessed it, 8 yards, and the Seahawks were again forced to punt.
Yeah, the Seahawks managed to beat Josh Rosen in his first pro start. But while the 171 yards and two touchdowns they picked up on the ground might be encouraging, Wilson (who finished 19-of-26 passing for 172 yards) languishing in an archaic, all-too-basic scheme is not. This game was a stark contrast with the direction the league is going: As Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes II tear through opposing defenses with deep shots on second-and-long, Seattle remains committed to playing for manageable third downs and running the rock. And it increasingly feels like a waste of Wilson’s talents.