The Raiders were in the playoff hunt heading into the last game of the 2011 season versus the San Diego Chargers. And before this game was over, they learned that if they won this game, 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 and ensuing Chargers drive that ended their hopes. And 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 5 yard line where it was picked up by San Diego's rookie return man, Richard Goodman, at the 1 yard line. Goodman bobbled the bouncing ball before scooping it up and inexplicably running backwards into the end zone. The Raiders' coverage team swarmed him and he went down in the end zone 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, Sand Diego came out with 3 WR's, 1 TE and 1 RB in a shotgun formation with two WR's split out on the left with 6'5" Malcolm Floyd as the outer of the two.
My guess is that SD 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 WR to the left of the line ran an out route and his man followed, the two of them effectively picking Lito Shepherd, who was opposite Malcolm Floyd. Floyd ducked inside and then straight towards the end zone with Shepherd 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 Raiders fans were left to wonder what might have happened if the Raiders Defense had held.
Raiders QB 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 a Shotgun formation with RB Mike Tolbert to Rivers' right. Chargers' backup TE 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. TE McMichael acted like the fullback and moved into the gap and blocked Raiders' weakside linebacker Aaron Curry. Raiders much-maligned middle LB 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 gap 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 and the first player to try, CB Lito Shepherd, 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 7 yard gain for the Chargers, setting up 2nd and 3 at the Oakland 43. At this point, there was still a small hope the Raiders 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 2 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 – 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 RB. TE Gates stayed in on the right side of the line with two WRs split out to his right. Malcolm Floyd was initially alone on the left side of the line with the RB in shotgun formation to Rivers' left, but the RB went in motion and split out to almost the left sideline.
At the snap, Floyd takes a step to the inside and Lito Shepherd, who was guarding him, bit on the slant route. Floyd immediately cuts outside and up the field with Shepherd on his right. Rivers makes a good throw to the outside where only Floyd is likely to be able to grab the ball and Floyd turns back for the ball just as it's arriving. Shepherd actually had fairly good coverage on Floyd considering that he's manning up against a very tall, fast WR – a difficult matchup even for an elite CB. However, Rivers and Floyd have good timing on the play and make the connection.
The catch takes place around the 26 yard line and Shepherd fails to wrap Floyd up. Safety Matt Giordano takes a poor angle and overshoots Floyd. At which point, Floyd highsteps into the endzone and the Chargers never looked back.
The poor play by Lito Shepherd on this drive is representative of his season – very rocky. It'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 it was drives like this one that hurt the Raiders all season and ultimately ended their 2011 season.
Asher Mathews is a Guest Contributor special to Thoughts From the Dark Side. Levi Damien also contributed to the this article.