As we approach the top play of the Green Bay Packers' 2014 season, we find a play at #2 which encapsulates everything you look for in the plays at the top of the list.
It happened in a high-leverage situation in a big game. It featured a remarkable individual effort by a great player. It was a huge turning point, and turned a potentially disastrous situation into a positive for the Packers. It has it all, but was narrowly out-voted by our number one play, which we'll reveal shortly.
Here is our pick for the second-best play of 2014.
The Packers, Seahawks, and Cowboys finished the regular season with 12-4 records, and the 3-way tie left the Cowboys with the 3rd seed due to an 8-4 conference record. They pulled off a thrilling comeback over the Lions in round 1, which was not secure until DeMarcus Lawrence strip-sacked Matthew Stafford with a minute to go.
The Cowboys were, on paper, a tough matchup for the Packers, who had trouble stopping the run all year. The Cowboys boasted Pro Football Focus's 2nd best run-blocking line (+54.2 on the year, one of two "green" units) as well as the excellent DeMarco Murray (also the 2nd-highest PFF run grade at his position with +17.8, just behind Marshawn Lynch). If the Cowboys could get off to a good start and grab a lead, there was every reason to be worried that they could win this game.
That is exactly what happened. While the Packers scored first on a short pass to Andrew Quarless, the Cowboys came right back with a one-yard TD to Tyler Clutts (aided by Tramon Williams pass interference call on the play before). On his next possession Aaron Rodgers would lose a fumble in Dallas territory and the Cowboys capitalized with a Romo-to-Terrence Williams 38 yard catch-and-run score. The Packers would cut the lead to 14-10 with a Mason Crosby field goal, but with 11 minutes left in the 3rd quarter the Cowboys threatened to take their first two-score lead.
With a 14-10 lead the Cowboys took over at their own 20 yard-line, and after stopping Murray for no gain on the first play, things started to go downhill for the Packers. A pass interference penalty on Tramon Williams (that Green Bay contended came on a tipped ball) moved it out to the 36, at which point Clay Matthews was hit with an offside penalty.
On 1st and 5 from their 41 the Cowboys are in a power formation with 7 total offensive linemen including a tight end on either side. Dez Bryant is split wide on strong side along with Gavin Escobar, a tight end usually brought in for running downs. Jason Witten is the tight end on the strong side while James Hanna is the tight end on the weakside.
The play is a counter with much of the Dallas line firing left. Murray takes one step left and bursts hard back to the right where he has left guard Ronald Leary pulling and right guard Zack Martin firing outside. Jermey Parnell immediately fires off at Datone Jones, temporarily removing him from the area, Hanna eliminates Brad Jones from the play, and Leary shoots through the hole ahead of Murray and destroys Morgan Burnett up the field. A.J. Hawk starts far away from the play and Jones gets in his way. Only one thing stands between DeMarco Murray and the end zone.
As previously mentioned, the Cowboy line excels at run-blocking and you can see why on this play. One of the anchors of that line was right guard Zack Martin. On the season he graded out as "green" (Pro Football Focus's designation for a "good game") ten times. He is a star in pass-blocking, having not received a red grade all season, but he is no slouch in run blocking either. Against Seattle in Week 6, he put up an excellent +2.9 run blocking grade and an amazing +4.1 overall grade against the NFL's best defense. Only five guards graded higher than Martin in 2014.
What I'm trying to say is, Zack Martin is a very good offensive lineman. And on this play, his assignment is simply to tie up Julius Peppers long enough for DeMarco Murray to get through the hole.
Peppers is lined up extremely wide, a full two yards outside of Hanna. Just before the snap, Romo shouts an instruction to the left side and Hanna picks up his hand and whips his head around to hear it and Peppers takes a tiny step in. And here is where it fundamentally all goes wrong for the Cowboys.
Zack Martin is a guard, and guards play on the interior of the line specifically so they don't have to do athletic things like this. Guards excel at powering over opposing players or simply taking up space and not relinquishing it. They are generally excellent at anchoring an area. Martin is a good athlete and he's certainly not a statue out there, but this is a tough assignment. Peppers is old for a football player, but he's still an athletic freak who can move in space like few other men his size. Just take another look at play #6.
But the advantage is still with Martin. He doesn't have to do very much, he just needs to occupy Peppers for a second or two. With Murray beginning to cut downfield behind him, Martin guesses that Peppers will also angle downfield and lunges at his downfield shoulder. Here, Peppers shows the combination of 13 years of experience and superior athleticism. When Martin lunges, Peppers puts his his hands on his back, hops backwards and upfield and gently ushers Martin past him. Peppers slides under him and stays on his feet. He also escapes the attention of the pulling Ronald Leary, who runs full speed past him to get to Burnett. And perhaps most importantly, he has his head up the entire time and never once loses sight of DeMarco Murray.
For many lesser athletes, this attempted block still would have been enough to spring Murray. Murray is extremely fast and he is just a split second from being out of Peppers' reach, but not quite. Peppers takes one step, dives, and gets a hand on the ball. It's not a big punch - more of a poke - but it's enough. Murray puts it on the ground. Datone Jones, in pursuit after getting blocked at the snap, is there to jump on it, and what is probably a highlight-reel Murray touchdown and an 11-point lead is now Packers' ball, first-and-ten.
It's likely the Packers lose the game if Murray goes the distance on that run. Even if he's stopped for a long gain the Cowboys would have been in great shape. It was an individual clutch effort by one the of the NFL's all-time greatest defensive players on one of the NFL's biggest stages. The Packers did a great job on Murray up to this point in the game. Pre-fumble, he had 54 yards on 20 carries, and he had been stuffed numerous times. That said, he turned it on after this play, and had the Packers been trailing by two scores, coming back would have been extremely difficult.
On the possession after the Peppers strip the Packers could only muster a field goal, largely due to an unnecessary roughness penalty on TJ Lang, but that at least kept it close. They would go down by 8 on a Murray 1-yard touchdown run which followed immediately after a 26-yard Murray run to get to the one, but Green Bay cut the lad back to one point on a 46-yard catch-and-run by Davante Adams, and finally took the lead on a 13-yard strike to Richard Rodgers. There was also some kind of controversy or something involving Dez Bryant or something, but who remembers details like that?
#3: Cobb's catch clinches playoff victory
#4: Rodgers' fake spike
#5: Jordy Nelson escape Revis Island
#6: Peppers' pick-six leads to first Lambeau Leap
#7: Randall Cobb's one-handed catch finishes off the Bears
#8: The longest one-yard touchdown ever
#9: Rodgers finds Cobb on one leg
#10: Jordy Nelson completes the comeback