Every week in this space, we roll through three plays that shaped the action of the NFL’s prior slate. In this edition we’ll take a look at a pair of defensive plays with which the Bills clinched a big win, and the Chiefs saved the game before eventually beating the Jets.
Then, finally, it’s time to take a deep dive into Texans QB C.J. Stroud, showing why the rookie is giving Houston fans real hope for the first time in years.
All screenshots and videos are courtesy of NFL+’s All-22.
The Bills proved the Dolphins are mere mammals
Trailing 34–20 in the third quarter, the Dolphins needed a spark. After scoring on their first two possessions Sunday, Miami added only a single touchdown on the next five, with three punts and a lost fumble mixed in.
For the Dolphins, the play below effectively ended their hopes of an upset over the Bills in Buffalo. Facing second-and-10 at its own 25-yard line with 5:03 remaining in the third quarter, Miami went with an empty formation. The Bills countered the look with a nickel package. Buffalo showed a four-man rush while dropping seven into zone coverage.
On the snap, the Dolphins called a slant for fullback Alec Ingold (No. 30) from the left side, while receiver Tyreek Hill (No. 10) ran a cross. The idea was to occupy the underneath middle, drawing coverage and clearing out for wideout Robbie Chosen (No. 3), who was positioned slot left.
Chosen was running a seam route, which seemed ideal from the initial look. The Bills appeared to be in a shallow five-man zone with a two-deep shell from the safeties. However, linebacker Terrel Bernard’s job was to carry anybody running down the middle.
As quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw the ball, you could see Bernard open his hips, allowing him to run with Chosen. Knowing he had safety help, Bernard needed to stay underneath Chosen, forcing the ball to go over his head.
The result was a perfect defensive call and fantastic execution. Tagovailoa appeared to have anticipated Bernard sitting on a short route. Instead, Bernard got depth, and the ball needed to be high. Tagovailoa’s problem? Buffalo safety Micah Hyde (No. 23) was waiting on the throw.
The result was a predictable overthrow and an easy interception for Hyde. The turnover was cashed in for a touchdown, ending the competitive phase of the game.
The Bills played phenomenal defense on Sunday to beat the Dolphins. One guy who shouldn't be overlooked? Terrel Bernard.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) October 3, 2023
On Micah Hyde's interception, look at the depth Bernard gets down the middle, forcing Tua Tagovailoa into a high throw. Great play. pic.twitter.com/D5Cqx4xdXv
C.J. Stroud showed off his instincts and cannon
Of the rookie quarterbacks, Stroud has clearly been the best through four weeks. Additionally, he ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,212 passing yards and has helped the Texans to a 2–2 mark.
On Sunday, the Texans blew out the Steelers with a 30–6 win. And while Stroud made many plays, the final one of the third quarter started the game-sealing drive.
On second-and-11 from Houston’s 41-yard line, the Texans came out in 12-personnel (RB, FB, TE, two WRs). Pittsburgh matched with its base 3–4, showing a five-man front.
On the snap, Stroud faked a handoff to running back Dameon Pierce (No. 31) and got immediate pressure from Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (No. 90).
Then Stroud did something most rookies don’t. He stayed calm. Instead of panicking with a former Defensive Player of the Year breaking into the pocket, Stroud kept his eyes downfield and rolled right.
For a brief moment, Stroud tucked the ball and began to run for what would have likely been a short gain, as linebacker Cole Holcomb (No. 55) had a good angle in pursuit.
However, Stroud continued looking for a receiver and found a streaking Nico Collins, who after the play broke down ran across the field on what amounted to a deep drag route.
Without breaking stride, Stroud delivered a 24-yard strike to Collins, hitting him with a perfectly placed ball.
The play gave Houston a first down on a drive that ended in a touchdown and a 23–6 lead.
C.J. Stroud has been awesome so far, ranking fourth in passing yards and helping the Texans to a 2-2 record.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) October 3, 2023
Plays like this are why. Check out his poise in the face of T.J. Watt's rush. Also, look at how Stroud start to run before re-gripping the ball and firing a dart. pic.twitter.com/ZLFDLkSGhn
Bryan Cook made a game-changing tackle
In the Chiefs-Jets box score, Kansas City safety Bryan Cook made one solo tackle. It was the biggest play of the game.
In the third quarter, the Chiefs were barely hanging on after watching a 17–0 lead turn into a 20–20 tie. After forcing a punt, the Jets had the ball on first-and-10 at their own 15-yard line with 5:19 left in the third quarter.
To start the drive, New York came out in a condensed formation with two tight ends to the left and running back Breece Hall in the backfield. Kansas City matched with its base defense.
Right before the snap, the Jets sent Jeremy Ruckert (No. 89) in motion to the right side, giving them someone to seal Chiefs corner Trent McDuffie (No. 22) on the perimeter. Hall took the pitch from Zach Wilson and immediately had a huge lane, provided he could beat defensive end George Karlaftis to the open space.
Not surprisingly, Karlaftis had no chance. And behind three perfect blocks, Hall appeared destined for an 85-yard touchdown run, which would’ve given the Jets a 27–20 lead.
Enter Cook. The only defender left with any chance at Hall, Cook (No. 6) had a choice here. He could’ve attacked downhill and tried to limit the gain while giving himself a tough angle, or he could have retreated and hoped to snag a piece of Hall downfield.
Cook chose the latter option. The second-year man from Cincinnati tried to play Hall toward the boundary, hoping to run him out of room.
Bryan Cook had one solo tackle on Sunday in the Chiefs' 23-20 win over the Jets. Yet it was the game's biggest play.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) October 3, 2023
Just an incredible effort by Cook, who somehow tackled Breece Hall in a sea of open space to save a touchdown. KC would force a punt on the series. pic.twitter.com/AvNVURLnqT
However, Hall cut back. All Cook could do was try to avoid the oncoming blockers while throwing himself at one of the best runners in football. Somehow, Cook made the play.
It was one of the best singular efforts of the season, and it’s the biggest reason the Chiefs are 3–1 instead of 2–2.