A particular 4th & Inches play late in the fourth quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ Thanksgiving Day win over the Detroit Lions was one of the most pivotal moments in the game. The play happened on the Lions’ final drive in regulation, trailing Buffalo by a field goal. This play ends up being forgotten easily, though, because Detroit missed a 3rd & 1 deep shot later in the drive, then kicked the game-tying field goal. I wanted to take a look at how this play developed, and how the Bills lost it.
Why is CB Taron Johnson in the play?
Cornerback Taron Johnson is a very good football player, and one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. With all that being said: Why is he on the field in a 4th & Inches situation? Why are there three cornerbacks on the field for Buffalo, and only four defensive linemen? In addition, why aren’t safeties Damar Hamlin and Jordan Poyer, and linebacker A.J. Klein, closer to the line of scrimmage?
Lions’ clever fourth-down formation
Pre-snap, quarterback Jared Goff is under center. There are two receivers to his left and one to his right, with a tight end inside and a running back in the backfield. What makes this play clever on Detroit’s part is that in this scenario, you expect Goff to hand it off to the back or even attempt a QB sneak, not hand off a sweep to the receiver. Once Goff gives the ball to Amon-Ra St. Brown, cornerback Dane Jackson follows one receiver out on a pattern downfield while the tight end serves as his lead blocker.
LB Matt Milano is out of position and doesn’t make the play
Before the play starts, Milano is lined up as an outside linebacker on the left side of the defense. Milano rushes inside at the snap, while St. Brown runs to the outside, so Milano is out of position and can’t make the down-defining play. Milano is now looking back at St. Brown and running after him in a trailing position as he gets the first down.
Jordan Poyer and Dane Jackson unable to shed blocks
The next issue the Bills have on this play is both Poyer and Jackson are blocked downfield and can’t shed. This leaves St. Brown running downhill with no one who can make a tackle on him. St. Brown ends up running for the first down and gets to the sideline and runs out of bounds — which was big, because that stopped the clock.
The Lions out-schemed and out-executed the Bills on this pivotal play. If Buffalo is ever in this situation again, I think they need to go big — more linemen and fewer corners. All in all, this is a learning opportunity. You’d rather fail on this play now than in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. What do you think the Bills should have done differently to stop this play?