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The key coaching decision you didn’t see on the Lions’ game-winning play

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When the game was on the line, one subtle decision made all the difference.

Los Angeles Chargers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

If you were watching the Detroit Lions game against the Los Angeles Chargers on television, you almost missed the biggest play of the game.

Last week, the Lions failed to gain 5 yards that would’ve given them a first down and the ability to run the rest of the clock, clinching a win over the Cardinals. Against the Chargers, they had to gain 6 in a similar situation, and because of one key coaching decision, the CBS broadcast crew nearly missed it entirely.

You may not have noticed, but after the Chargers took their second timeout—desperately trying to get the ball back with under a minute to go—CBS took the opportunity to run a highlight reel of the biggest moments from the game. Coming out of that package, CBS showed the faces of Philip Rivers and Ty Long—two players who made critical errors late in the game.

But when they finally cut back to the action—a critical third-and-6 coming up—the Lions’ game-clinching play was already in progress:

How could CBS nearly blow it? Coming out of a timeout, there’s no excuse to almost missing the play of the game.

Well, actually, there is.

Because the Lions caught everyone off guard thanks to a smart coaching decision. After the Lions broke the huddle, they sprinted to the line of scrimmage and immediately snapped the ball, hoping to catch the Chargers in a state of panic and get that one second of hesitation they needed to get tight end Jesse James open. And it worked.

“Broke the huddle quick, caught them sleeping,” Matthew Stafford said in his post-game press conference.

Unfortunately, the All-22 coaches film isn’t working at the moment, so I can’t show you proof that the Lions hustled to the line, but I can show you how it affected the defense.

The Chargers still had one timeout left, and Matt Patricia’s conservative nature probably had Los Angeles thinking Detroit would run the ball, forcing them to use that final timeout. By rushing to the line out of the huddle, the Lions didn’t give the Chargers time to think twice:

That second level of the defense—the group of players that will be responsible for covering Jesse James—are all shifting to the offense’s right, buying the play fake. The one guy that isn’t biting is the safety, who we’ll get to in a minute:

At this point, all three relevant players are at about the same horizontal point on the field. It’s simply a foot race to the outside. Because James is running with a full head of steam while the linebacker is still in the midst of changing directions, he’ll beat him easily. But that safety—who is much faster than James—still presents a problem.

Until...

Wamp Wamp

The frantic nature of the play causes the two Chargers defenders to run into each other and that’s all the space James needs to get the yards needed to put the game away.

Put it all together, and it’s a masterpiece:

“Just, in general, in football you’re trying to put as much stress on the defense as possible in those situations and we thought that that play would be able to do that,” head coach Matt Patricia said of the decision. “It was just something that—like I said, give Coach (Darrell) Bevell credit, give ‘Staff’ for hustling through, recognizing the situation and then executing at a high level.”

After a week in which the Lions coaching staff was highly criticized for mistakes in critical situations, they deserve some of the accolades in victory this week.

UPDATE: Here’s what it looked like from the All-22 with the last few moments before the snap: