The Raiders were in the playoff hunt heading into the last game of the 2011 season versus the San Diego Chargers. Before the game was over, they learned that if they won, they would win the AFC West and head to the playoffs. They pulled to within five points of the visiting Chargers with under ten minutes remaining in the game, and their season hung in the balance. It became the fateful moment. The ensuing Chargers drive ended the Raiders’ hopes. This is exactly how it went down, through the analytical eyes of TFDS contributor Asher Mathews.
The drive started with a squib kick by Sebastian Janikowski that bounced at the five yard line, where it was picked up by San Diego’s rookie return man, Richard Goodman, at the one. Goodman bobbled the bouncing ball before scooping it up and inexplicably ran backwards into the end zone. The Raiders’ coverage team swarmed him and he went down in the end zone with what appeared to be a safety to bring the Raiders to within three points at 28-31, as well as give them the ball right back.
The problem was the officials ruled that Goodman had brought the ball across the goal line, so instead of a game-changing safety, the Chargers retained possession with the ball spotted just inches outside the end zone.
Those watching could tell the game hinged on this drive. The score was still reasonably close at
26-31 with 9:32 left on the clock. If the Raiders could hold San Diego to a three and out, they could get the ball back with good field position and plenty of time to win the game to move on to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
For the first play, San Diego came out with three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back in a shotgun formation with two receivers split out on the left, and 6’5″ Malcolm Floyd as the outer of the two.
My guess is that San Diego banked on Oakland running man coverage — always a good bet with the Raiders — because this route wouldn’t have been nearly as effective in a zone, but with man coverage it can be devastating.
At the snap, the inner wide receiver to the left of the line ran an out route and his man followed, the two of them effectively picking Lito Sheppard, who was opposite Malcom Floyd. Floyd ducked inside and then straight towards the end zone with Sheppard in pursuit. Rivers threw a ball up for Floyd to make an easy 19 yard grab. It wasn’t even a very good throw as Floyd didn’t catch it in stride, instead turning his body around to catch it and then having to turn back and run forward while being tackled. It was effective enough, however, and Raider fans were left to wonder what might have happened if the Raiders’ defense had held.
Carson Palmer wasn’t too happy with the play, either. After the game, when asked about this play, he said, “That was the momentum changer. It’s too bad he got out of there obviously because then they punt to us and we got a short field, we get the two points and the game is reachable. We might have been able to tie it up if we score or make it a game there. The guy made a play, did a good job of getting out of the end zone.”
This was still a good situation for the Raider defense, however. Because the Chargers had been so close to their own end zone, even with this completion, they were on their own 20 yard line. The next play drew a holding penalty on Chargers left tackle Jared Gaither and they moved to their own 10 yard line.
For the next play, the Chargers came out in shotgun formation with running back Mike Tolbert to Rivers’ right. Chargers’ backup tight end Randy McMichael was initially split out left but then came in motion to Rivers’ left side.
At the snap, Gaither took the defensive end on his side, Kamerion Wimbley, and the left guard and center doubled Raiders right defensive tackle, Desmond Bryant. McMichael acted like the fullback and moved into the gap and blocked Raiders’ weakside linebacker Aaron Curry. Raiders’ much-maligned middle linebacker Rolando McClain made a terrible read and ignored the signs that the play was going through the LT/LG gap and instead moved into the C/RG gap, effectively taking himself out of making a play near the line of scrimmage.
Tolbert is not a small, quick back but he wasn’t really touched until he was 15 yards downfield. The first player to try, CB Lito Sheppard, didn’t wrap up well. Tolbert is in the Michael Bush mold — a big, strong runner — and he went right through Shepherd until he was brought down around the 50 yard line by safety Tyvon Branch, a run of 40 yards.
The next play brought a modest seven yard gain for the Chargers, setting up second and three at the Oakland 43. At this point, there was still a small hope the Raider defense would stiffen and hold the Chargers out of field goal range to keep the score within striking distance. Those of us watching were hoping that, at worst, they would only allow a field goal, which would still make it a one score game if the Raiders could get a TD and a two point conversion. It was the next play, however, that put the Raiders down for good.
The Chargers came out in a similar personnel grouping as they had before: three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back. Gates stayed in on the right side of the line with two receivers split out to his right. Malcom Floyd was initially alone on the left side of the line with the running back in shotgun formation to Rivers’ left, but the back went in motion and split out to almost the left sideline.
At the snap, Floyd took a step to the inside and Lito Sheppard, who was guarding him, bit on the slant route. Floyd immediately cut outside and up the field with Shepherd on his right. Rivers made a good throw to the outside where only Floyd was likely to be able to grab the ball, and Floyd turned back for the ball just as it arrived. Sheppard actually had fairly good coverage on Floyd considering that he’s manning up against a very tall, fast receiver — a difficult matchup even for an elite corner. However, Rivers and Floyd had good timing on the play and made the connection.
The catch was made around the 26 yard line, and Sheppard failed to wrap Floyd up. Safety Matt Giordano took a poor angle and overshot Floyd. At this point, Floyd highstepped into the endzone and the Chargers never looked back.
The poor play by Lito Sheppard on this drive is representative of his season: very rocky. That’s a big part of why Coach Jackson has announced that Michael Huff will be moving from safety to cornerback next season.
The drive was also probably the last straw for Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, emphasizing that his defense was not able to make stops when they mattered. As of this writing, Bresnahan has not been offically fired, but coach Jackson’s comments after the game indicated it would probably just be a matter of time, as drives like this one hurt the Raiders often in 2011, and ultimately ended their season.
Asher Mathews is a Guest Contributor special to Thoughts From the Dark Side. Levi Damien also contributed to this article.