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Packers Top Plays of 2020, #1: Za’Darius Smith’s sack-strip of Taysom Hill

A massive, momentum-changing turnover helped deliver the Packers a huge road victory early on in the 2020 season, and it’s our pick for top play of the year.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Acme Packing Company’s writers have watched the film on the Green Bay Packers’ 2020 season and compiled our lists of the best plays from last year. Each writer voted on their favorite plays, combining qualities that include a play’s impact on a game or the season, outstanding individual or team effort, and amusement or hilarity factor.

Ten APC contributors submitted votes for the 15 best plays of the season, which we have combined and whittled down to the top ten plays of 2020. Please enjoy our countdown over the next two weeks!

Despite the greatness of Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and the Green Bay Packers’ offense in the 2020 season, neither of our picks for the team’s two best plays of the year feature that side of the football. Instead, #2 went to Jaire Alexander for his hilarious safety in week one, and the number one play found Packers fans getting plenty of schadenfreude as they earned a big early-season victory in the Bayou.

The Game

It’s week three. After a 2-0 start, the Green Bay Packers are in New Orleans to face the 1-1 Saints, who are coming off a ten-point loss to the Raiders on Monday Night Football. Green Bay has not won a game in the Superdome since Super Bowl XXXI, dropping three straight to the Saints in the dome.

These two teams are expected to be among the very best in the NFC, so even an early-season clash could have major postseason implications. Indeed, coming down the stretch the winner of the head-to-head tiebreaker held a significant advantage in the NFC standings, particularly with only one team getting a playoff bye.

Entering the game, both teams were missing their all-world wide receivers. Davante Adams missed the game with a hamstring injury he suffered in the second half of the Packers’ win against the Detroit Lions the week before, while Michael Thomas would sit out for the second week in a row with an injury of his own.

The Situation

Green Bay and New Orleans went back-and-forth throughout the first three quarters of this game. The two teams were never farther apart than seven points through 45 minutes; Green Bay took a one-touchdown lead on Marcedes Lewis’ impressive touchdown (our #7 play on the countdown), but New Orleans tied the game quickly on a 52-yard catch-and-run from Alvin Kamara — perhaps the worst display by the Green Bay defense all season long.

With the game tied at 27, the Packers took over and ran one play before the start of the fourth quarter. Green Bay would then attempt a run on 4th-and-1 from their own 48-yard line, but Aaron Jones was stuffed trying to run up the middle. After the turnover on downs, the Saints picked up seven yards on a short pass to Latavius Murray before Sean Payton reached into his bag of tricks with a chance to take the lead back.

The Play

Payton’s quarterback usage during the 2020 season must have been maddening for Saints fans. Yes, Drew Brees’ arm strength was largely gone, as he had become a glorified checkdown artist. Brees’ average intended air yards dropped from 7.1 to 6.4 to 6.1 from 2018 to 2020, showing how little he threw the ball deep in his final NFL season.

Still, Brees remained an accurate passer, using his quick release and his receivers’ YAC abilities to move the ball down the field. That made Payton’s decision to insert former Packers UDFA and training camp star Taysom Hill into the game for a random second-down play all the more confusing.

The Saints’ formation indicates that a run is coming. Hill is aligned in the pistol with Murray behind him in the backfield and Josh Hill aligned next to him to the right as a fullback. Wideout Tre’Quan Smith is standing up just off the right side of the line with Emmanuel Sanders split out to his right and rookie wideout Marquez Callaway split left just inside the numbers. Before the snap, Sanders comes in motion across the formation, just reaching the left side of the line at the snap. This alignment, Hill’s presence on the field in Brees’ place, and the motion suggests a run is coming.

Indeed, after the snap, the Saints’ line blocks right with Josh Hill coming across the formation, seemingly ready to take on Za’Darius Smith, the Packers’ edge rusher on that side. Meanwhile, Taysom Hill finds the mesh point with Murray with the play looking like this:

Instead of handing the ball off, Hill elects to keep the ball himself. It’s unclear whether this was a read-option, if it was a designed play-action fake leading to a quarterback draw for Taysom Hill, or if it’s a more typical play-action pass. A designed run looks most likely, as two offensive linemen quickly release up the field and on to the linebackers while Tre’Quan Smith does as well.

Josh Hill is the most puzzling factor on this play. He never really tries to block Smith, intead ducking outside and around Z and seemingly releasing into the flat as a receiving option. Instead of staying with Hill in coverage, Za’Darius easily slips inside him, giving him an unblocked path to Taysom Hill, who realizes he is immediately in trouble. Confounding things for the Saints is a good job by Tyler Lancaster of holding the point of attack in the middle, giving Murray nowhere to go inside to get out of Hill’s way:

The third image above is taken a half-second after the second. Hill tries to work his way back to the right and avoid Z, but he has nowhere to go. While going in for the tackle, Smith attacks the football with his left hand, popping it out of Hill’s grasp and onto the turf. He, Hill, and Will Redmond all fall in a pile, but the ball hops neatly into Smith’s hands, as he scoops it up to give the ball back to the offense.

Here’s a look at the play in its entirety:

The Impact

Any momentum the Saints had gained with their fourth-down stop two plays earlier vanished instantly. Instead, the Packers got the football back near midfield in a tie game. Green Bay would retake the lead on the ensuing series, going up 30-27 on a 49-yard field goal from Mason Crosby.

A big three-and-out stop by the defense, anchored by a tremendous open-field tackle from Chandon Sullivan on Kamara, gave Green Bay the ball with the lead, and after two defensive pass interference penalties in the end zone, Robert Tonyan would score to put Green Bay up by ten at the two-minute warning to effectively seal the deal.

This victory gave the Packers a head-to-head victory that would prove vital to earning the NFC’s top seed for the postseason. The Packers would finish at 13-3, one game ahead of the 12-4 Saints. Had the game gone the other way and all other results remained the same, the Saints would have finished 13-3 and in the NFC’s top spot, while a 12-4 Green Bay team would have fallen all the way to the third position in the conference behind New Orleans and the Seattle Seahawks. Of course, both of these teams would ultimately lose on home turf to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

This play will remain etched into Packers fans’ memories for years, however. From the high-leverage nature of the play — it moved the Packers’ probability of winning from just 37.5% to 58.4%, according to ESPN — to the special fun of having it come against Taysom Hill, this play earns the top spot on our countdown for 2020.