Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jack Dempsey/AP/Shutterstock (13400614ag) Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton makes a catch as Houston Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, in Denver Texans Broncos Football, Denver, United States – 18 Sep 2022
One play is all it took to completely change the game. What if it was defended differently?
The fourth quarter had just started. The Texans were holding a 9-6 lead in a defensive battle of a game. The defense had the Broncos backed up, facing a 3rd and 16 from their own 32, mostly as a result of a 15 yard chop block penalty called against Broncos RB Melvin Gordon. The Texans had stymied Russell Wilson most of the day, and Denver needed a big play to keep their drive alive as they were facing a 3 and out.
The only receiver that Denver had any success connecting with was Courtland Sutton. WR Jerry Jeudy was injured early in the game and never returned. After three quarters, Wilson was 9 of 23 for 116 yards and an interception. Sutton had 5 receptions for 77 yards. To this point in the game, the Broncos did not have another receiver with even 20 yards receiving. It was clear where they were going to look for the play.
The Texans were playing Cover 2. Derek Stingley Jr had the underneath, and Jonathan Owens had the deep half of the field. So how did Sutton wind up wide open for a 35 yard reception?
Stingley got turned around on the play, not once but twice. He completely lost track of Sutton. This allowed Sutton to be wide open in between a confused Stingley and Owens, who was playing very deep. Owens made the tackle at the Texans 33 yard line. Three plays later, Wilson connected with Eric Saubert on a 22 yard touchdown pass. The winds of change were blowing fast.
So what happened? Texans head coach Lovie Smith said they had a breakdown:
“That wasn’t covered as well as we needed it to. You know exactly what happened. We had played coverage the way we should and a little bit of a breakdown, and we paid for it.”
But what if the Texans played that defense just slightly differently?
What if, rather than stay in their standard Cover 2, they adapted specifically to the situation. 3rd and 16, start of the 4th quarter, and only one receiver that has done anything against your defense all day long?
What if the Texans had a tougher double-team on Courtland Sutton, a more direct double-team? Russell Wilson to this point had been struggling badly and could not really connect with anyone else, why not force his hand? Take Sutton completely off the table and make Wilson find a receiver he has less trust in, less connection with, less success with to beat you on that down.
What if the defensive call was designed to take Sutton completely away? Even at the end of the game, Sutton was the only receiver to have over 30 yards receiving. He was the one player that the Texans couldn’t let beat them in that spot.
If the Texans get off the field, and force the punt, maybe Denver never scores that touchdown. A plethora of possibilities open up after that. Could the Texans have scored again? Would the Broncos be down from yet another offensive failure? Would the Texans defense have been able to continue to keep the Broncos off the board?
All of these and more are possibilities, if the Texans had made it a point to deny Sutton on that 3rd and 16 no matter what. Instead, they played their standard Cover 2, it broke down, and they lost.
This is the biggest play of the game, that had it been different, makes you think “What if?”