Here are five good coaching decisions from Sunday’s Week 8 NFL games:
1. Early Pete Carroll challenge
We forgive you if you forgot what was maybe the 18th most important play of the thriller that played out Sunday afternoon in Seattle. But early in the game, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll made a brilliant call — and it required a little bit of backward thinking to pull it off.
The game against the Texans started at breakneck pace, and Houston took a 14-7 lead less than nine minutes in. On the Seahawks’ next possession, Russell Wilson led them into field-goal range at the Houston 31-yard line. There they faced a 3rd-and-2, and Wilson appeared to throw an incomplete pass amid heavy pressure by the Texans.
At least that’s what the naked eye appeared to show. Jadeveon Clowney was the one who got to Wilson, and when CBS showed the replay it appeared Clowney tipped the ball as Wilson was releasing it. Out came the field-goal unit, and it appeared to be just your standard failed third-down attempt.
But Carroll — or someone acting as his eye in the sky — noticed that it appeared the ball was knocked loose from Wilson’s hands before he actually threw it. That’s what they call the old “open hand” rule. What the TV broadcast did not show initially (and what it took the announcing crew, the fans and most of us at home several minutes to realize) was that tight end Luke Willson made an incredibly heads-up play, falling on the ball … just in case.
That case proved to be huge, and Carroll threw the challenge flag. That’s right: The Seahawks coach was hoping that the replay officials would rule it a Texans strip sack and not an incomplete pass. You seldom if ever see this, but in that short window there someone with the Seahawks was able to figure out that it should have been ruled a fumble and that there was clear, unquestioned recovery by Willson.
These are the small, subtle plays that truly separate the great coaches from the good ones. Carroll won the challenge, and the net gain on the fumble — 11 yards — gave the Seahawks a first down and new life. So instead of attempting a 49-yard goal that might have netted them three points, the Seahawks had new life at the Houston 20.
Two plays later, they scored a touchdown — a net gain of four points, and that’s assuming the field-goal try would have been good. Fast-forward a few hours and the final score was Seahawks 41, Texans 38.
In a shootout such as this that featured 79 points and nearly 1,000 yards of offense, it’s easy to dismiss an early play such as this as fairly trivial. But those who know the game understand that winning those key early advantages, especially those that few coaches would have tried to gain, is absolutely crucial to winning football games.
Brilliant stroke by Carroll.
2. Mike Tomlin, once more
We lauded head coach Mike Tomlin’s handling of disaffected Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant during and after the game last week, and we must carry that forward to the Week 8 win over the Detroit Lions. Tomlin couldn’t have played his cards any better in the eventual 20-15 victory.
Tomlin sat Bryant as a healthy inactive for the game, as had been reported far prior to kickoff. Although Bryant’s immediate response to the move appeared to be one of apathy — “it is what it is,” Bryant told the media last week when first asked about it — we wonder if his tune will change and his focus will sharpen after watching his replacement set fire to the Lions’ secondary.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, who already is becoming a fan darling with his lost-bike story on social media, stepped in as the No. 2 wideout and turned in numbers that he only bettered in one of his 40 games during a decorated college career at USC. Smith-Schuster caught seven of the 10 passes thrown his direction for 193 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown that provided the winning margin in a five-point victory.
Smith-Schuster dropped an easy pass in the game, too, but otherwise was brilliant. And Bryant was there on the sideline to witness his replacement be the difference in the game. Maybe it has no effect on Bryant, and we might not know how recommitted he’ll be for a few weeks as the Steelers head into their bye.
But even if Bryant doesn’t bounce back, the Steelers might have found his successor and another weapon to augment what has been a slightly disappointing unit this season. Just like Smith-Schuster found his bike, to the delight of Twitter and elsewhere.
3. Bills’ no-name defense comes ready to play
We’ve taken Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott to task a few times for some of his in-game decisions and coaching errors, but that’s somewhat to be expected for a first-year head coach who suddenly has everything on his plate.
But what cannot be praised enough is the job McDermott and coordinator Leslie Frazier have done with this defense. The Bills have a formula — to take the ball away from the opponent — and it’s working beautifully. That it’s happening without full strength is absolutely astounding.
Sunday’s victory over the Oakland Raiders was the Bills’ most complete effort of the season on both sides of the ball in a single game. Despite falling behind early, they took control of the game early in the second quarter and didn’t let up. Short-circuiting Derek Carr and the Raiders’ passing game with a less-than-full-health Bills secondary was a tremendous achievement.
You can say that the Raiders have not fired on all cylinders this season and there was no Marshawn Lynch in this one, and those are both true. But the Raiders were coming off a dramatic Week 7 victory and had extra rest and time to prepare. Meanwhile, the Bills were playing without two starters on the back end — Jordan Poyer and E.J. Gaines. Poyer, you could argue, has been their defensive heartbeat this season.
The defense came in with a plus-10 turnover margin and forced four more in the victory. There were heroes all over on that side of the ball a few days following the trade of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. But we want to focus on the contributions of players such as Shareece Wright, Trae Elston, Eddie Yarbrough and Leonard Johnson — afterthoughts or castoffs or both coming into the game.
Their disciplined coverage, taking away the deep part of the field, helped define this game. It got the Raiders out of sync and forced them to do things they normally don’t want to. The Bills’ coaches clearly watched what the Washington Redskins did to the Raiders earlier in the season because it was just one of those types of games where the Raiders were grasping at straws after the opening 13-play, 81-yard drive.
The Raiders ran 63 plays and only one of them went for longer than 21 yards. They had five such plays in the Chiefs victory 10 days earlier. The Bills moved rookie corner Tre’Davious White on Raiders receivers Amari Cooper early on in the game, and White was lights out. Cooper was held to five catches (on 10 targets) for 48 yards in the game following his best statistical game ever vs. Kansas City.
Terrific game plan and adjustments by the Bills in what was a statement victory and a 5-2 start to what could be a shockingly good season, even with a tougher schedule ahead and a quick turnaround for Thursday’s road game at the New York Jets. One quick note for that game: The Jets have 14 turnovers this season, tied for third-most in the NFL. We think we know how the Bills could take advantage of that.
4. Falcons save their season
It wasn’t a pretty affair against the Jets in the rain and muck on the road, but the Atlanta Falcons did what they had to do to stop the bleeding in a 25-20 victory. The Jets wanted to make this an ugly, sloppy contest, and the Falcons dove right in. That’s the sign of a team with some grit and will.
Tevin Coleman, who was a relative ghost in the loss at New England last week, helped carry the load with some passionate runs late in this win. Part of that had to do with Devonta Freeman’s in-game injury, but the Falcons recognized how well Coleman was running and let him be the bell cow.
The Falcons received big plays in all three elements of the game and clawed back despite trailing three separate times, including into the fourth quarter, on a field that was rain-soaked. This might have the appearance of a finesse team, and the litany of flubbed snaps between Matt Ryan and Alex Mack can’t go unmentioned. But the team made the proper adjustments, and that credit goes to them and to head coach Dan Quinn.
Red-zone efficiency is still a big worry — the Falcons were 2-of-6 in the game, and that won’t cut it most weeks. But they converted late thanks to two big plays from Mohamed Sanu, who made a massive third-down conversion late on 3rd-and-5 and scored the go-ahead touchdown prior to that on a sharp pass from Ryan. The Falcons had let leads slip away in two of their three losses this season, but that wasn’t the case Sunday.
This was just a gut-check of a win, style points be damned. The Falcons kept their heads, handled the adversity and prevented a four-game losing streak that would have put them even further back in the division chase. Instead, they head into Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers with a chance to fight back into second place and get back on track even more.
5. Patriots keep finding ways to win
Like the team they faced in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots aren’t lighting up scoreboards and going all runway model on the NFL this season. Ugly is fine — if you’re winning. The Patriots are again now, and Sunday’s victory over the Los Angeles Chargers was as much a textbook example of how there has been no better team at finding solutions to problems when they arise than Bill Belichick’s crew.
It was yet another close one, beating the Chargers, 21-13 — New England’s fifth game this season that came down to the closing minutes and/or was decided by one score. Jonathan Jones intercepted Philip Rivers at the goal line as time expired, which was reminiscent of the Week 6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that played out similarly.
Safety Duron Harmon credited “mental toughness” as one of the keys, and who are we to disagree? The Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower prior to the game and watched offensive starters Chris Hogan and Marcus Cannon leave mid-game. They missed two 43-yard field-goal tries and went a mere 1-for-4 in the red zone, leaving a bunch of points on the board.
And yet they endured. They needed every one of the points they did score, including a key early safety that was as much a Chargers boneheaded play as it was a heads-up one by the Patriots. But those are the plays they capitalize the most on, it seems, in a season in which they lack the firepower to blast opponents into oblivion as we had grown accustomed to.
Giving Belichick credit for his coaching ability is pretty trite at unnecessary at this stage; we think he’s going to turn out OK at this football business. But we can’t overlook the little things he does, such as baiting the Chargers into attempting a long field goal into the wind in bad field conditions with a kicker who had been pushing his pregame tries from that distance. Maybe that one is more on Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, but we suspect Belichick lured him into the trap there.
You really think Belichick doesn’t think about those minute battles that he almost always wins? And they almost always add up to Patriots wins, too. This season, his team might need him to bail them out a few more times than normal.
— Eric Edholm is an NFL writer for Pro Football Weekly.