It’s hard to call any play made by a team that was up 31-0 at halftime and led through all four quarters a true “game-saver,” but there’s no denying that the Panthers were in need of a big play after the Seahawks’ successful fake punt late in the third quarter. That’s when Josh Norman went off-script to pull off one of the best defensive plays you’ll ever see.
The Seahawks had put together two consecutive touchdown drives to cut the lead to 31-14 before stalling out at their own 23. On fourth down, DeShawn Shead took a direct snap on a fake punt for 17 yards, and the Seahawks were in business on their own 40. Russell Wilson was in a rhythm, Pete Carroll was grinning and gloating on the sideline, and in that moment it felt like the game really might turn in Seattle’s favor. You could imagine watching future replays of Shead’s run, backed by orchestral music and the NFL Films voiceover. Wilson completed a 17-yard pass on the next play before being sacked for no loss on first down. And then this happened:
The delayed cornerback blitz isn’t a play that most defenses have in the repertoire, and it certainly isn’t what Josh Norman was supposed to be doing in that situation. After the game, he admitted that he was freelancing on the play (via the Charlotte Observer):
“Man … you know at some point in time you’ve just got to be relentless,” Norman said. “You’ve got to say bump it. Gotta go rogue. Just go rogue one time for the heck of it. I was so happy it worked out for me.”
Even more impressive than Norman’s willingness to abandon his coverage was his situational awareness. The Panthers were in zone coverage, and the Seahawks had Marshawn Lynch split out wide on Norman’s side. The slot receiver ran straight down the seam, and so as soon as Norman saw Lynch’s route go to the middle of the field, he knew there was nobody on the right side for Wilson to throw it to.
The conservative play would have been to stay on Lynch’s back to prevent him from settling into a hole in the middle of the zone. But Norman waited until he was completely out of Lynch’s field of vision before making his break toward Wilson. Had Lynch known that Norman had abandoned his zone, he could have stopped his route short and presented a perfect outlet for Wilson:
Lynch never saw Norman, though, and just ran himself back into coverage, assuming that he was still being trailed from behind. And that’s the genius of the play, the fact that Norman was in two places at once. He was sacking the quarterback while also hounding the only open receiver on the field back into a covered area:
Maybe Norman processed all of this in the moment, or maybe he just got lucky in staying out of Lynch’s peripheral vision. Whether the play was a result of instinct or cold calculation seems beside the point, though. For an athlete in the moment, I imagine there isn’t much difference between the two. Norman saw the play that was available to him and he made it, right when his team needed him most.