Aaron Rodgers' 61-yard Hail Mary toss that fell from the sky right into the hands of tight end Richard Rodgers gave the Green Bay Packers a ridiculous 27-23 win over the Detroit Lions on Thursday night. But after reviewing the play a couple times, I wondered, "How did this even happen at the pro level with your season on the line?"
The Lions had a bad defensive plan in place, period. Let's take a look at what they got wrong, and two ways to defend what is really a playground route.
The Wrong Way to Defend the Hail Mary
Detroit's plan to defend the Hail Mary was set up to fail from the start due to a coaching decision. Instead of defending against a jump ball, the Lions were preparing to stop the short pass that turns into a series of laterals, according to head coach Jim Caldwell. That's why we see two defenders hanging out around the 40-yard line and essentially covering a piece of turf (see diagram below).
Sorry, that's poor situational football, considering the field position and the scouting report on Rodgers. With the ball at the 39-yard line and Rodgers' deep-ball arm strength, there is no need to defend the classic hook and ladder. Instead, the Lions should have been preparing to play the Hail Mary based on their alignment and technique.
But that's just the start of the Lions' issues. A second flaw is that they used an aggressive three-man rush that was about getting a sack, not containment. They allowed Rodgers to break contain, which buys time for targets to get down the field and also creates a situation where Rodgers can set his feet and get in a comfortable throwing position (thus generating the power to launch the ball 60-plus yards in the air). Beyond that, the rushers didn't seem at all conscious of keeping Rodgers to the left so he is forced to throw at all across his body.
OK, stuff happens, right? A three-man rush doesn't get there. Not a shock. So now it's on the back end of the Lions' defense to knock the ball down. However, why isn't there a defender running with Rodgers? And who is teaching this technique in the end zone? We should never see defenders playing behind the receivers in the end zone (guarding the end line), even in a normal red zone situation. So, why now? That allows the offensive players to box out, gain position and prevent anyone from knocking it down. Beyond that, the Lions opted not to use Calvin Johnson or even Eric Ebron, two huge bodies who would both have been the tallest players in the end zone.
Add this up and the Packers winning play suddenly turns into a game of "500" on the playground during fourth-grade recess, with the Packers tight end basically walking into the end zone (uncovered) to finish for six. Hard to fathom.
So, how should this work?
Have a Detailed Defensive Plan
One of my main issues with preparing for the Hail Mary is that it's not practiced at full speed because coaches want to prevent injury. This doesn't account for the standard chaos that ensues at the catch point in a game setting. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a detailed, rigid plan to defend it.
Most teams will rush three (with contain principles), jam and trail on the outside, with three secondary players having specific roles to spike the ball, catch the tip and become the "savior" over the top (see diagram below).
As you can see in this example, every receiver is accounted for, with defenders playing press-man coverage and trailing the vertical routes. That allows the defense to impact the release and prevent a mess of bodies standing in the end zone at the same time. Plus, with three having the role of "spiker," "tipper" and "savior," there is no question of who should be going for the ball. And don't ever try to pick it off. That's how the ball gets tipped up in the air.
Some defenses will assign those roles to specific skill sets (think of Calvin Johnson being the "spiker" last night) to gain even more of an advantage, but this scheme, which I've seen work on the field, is a safe and solid plan to defending the Hail Mary.
That's the standard stuff. There's one other option coaches need to think more about.
Forget Protecting Deep -- It's Time to Send the House
Ask Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams about defending the Hail Mary and he will show you one of his top blitz schemes. Yeah, I know it might sound nuts to send zero pressure here (no safety over the top), but a lot of defensive coaches love the idea of dictating the situation when the offense needs a Hail Mary to win a ball game.
Think about it: With six (or even seven) man zero pressure, the blitz is going to get home. That eliminates the quarterback escaping the pocket and it also forces him to unload the ball. There are no 61-yard throws when a quarterback is about to get hit drilled. Instead, the ball is coming out hot.
Now, is there a risk to sending the house? No doubt. Even a four-yard route can beat you as a defender. But the more I look at this situation, it's obvious that pressure is a true weapon. In this case the Lions almost got there with three rushers, and still left a guy wide open. What if they had rushed five (like the two guys guarding turf)? And it tells the quarterback that he better unload the ball unless he wants to wind up on the ground. Go get the quarterback and tackle. Keep it simple to win the game.
Regardless if you want to play coverage with a structured plan to defend the Hail Mary or just send everyone to hit the quarterback, both ideas work. And both plans are much better than what we saw from the Lions on Thursday night.
Yikes. That was bad football.