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The 5 O'Clock Club: This week’s difference maker

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

How do you choose a difference maker in a team win like the one on Sunday night against the Raiders?

I looked down the depth chart, and here’s the list of guys from the 46 active players who I didn’t notice making a contributing play against the Raiders:

  • Brian Quick
  • Chase Roullier
  • Jeremy Sprinkle
  • Colt McCoy
  • Anthony Lanier
  • Chris Carter
  • Will Compton
  • Quinton Dunbar
  • Stephan McClure

I’m not saying those guys didn’t make plays — just that, if they did, I didn’t notice it.

I know that Colt McCoy didn’t see the field; I’m not really sure about the other guys.

That means that there were an incredible number of standout players among the remaining offensive and defensive players. Normally, when you think about standout plays in a game, it’s a handful. This week had a plethora. As I think about highlight plays, names pop into my head:

D.J. Swearinger, Fabian Moreau, Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller, Zach Brown, Martrell Spaight, Preston Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, Junior Galette, Matt Ioannidis, Jonathan Allen, Morgan Moses, Trent Williams, Spencer Long, Vernon Davis, Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine, Mack Brown, Josh Doctson, Kirk Cousins — they all made big plays.

I think the first name that most people would toss out as the difference maker in this game would be, for the second week in a row, the Redsdkins’ 3rd down running back. From the opening whistle to the final gun, probably the biggest impact player was Chris Thompson, who I think needs to get consideration for NFL Offensive Player of the Week (and depending on how things go in KC, maybe for the offensive player of the month).

But I’m not going to award this week’s difference maker to #25 again.

See, I’ve long held a theory that is sort of like the long-discredited “Butterfly Effect”. Let me see if I can explain my theory coherently; I’ve never tried to put it into words before.

I think that in a lot of football games, a key play early sets a tone that defines the rest of the game. On the positive side, it might be a big run or a forced fumble. On the negative side, it might be a drive-killing penalty, a dropped pass for a first down, or a blown assignment in pass coverage. That big play often decides the direction of the game, and ultimately, who wins and who loses.

Basically, I’m talking about a momentum shifter — or perhaps a potential momentum shift that doesn’t eventuate — that is so big that it sets the tone for the game.

Often, following a Redskin loss, I think back to a negative play that happened early in the first quarter -- usually on the opening drive — and think, “If he’d only caught that ball”, or, “If we just hadn’t been called for that stupid penalty” then the entire game would have been different. We would have scored, or stopped the opponents from scoring. We would have had the early momentum, and we would have been playing from a position of strength instead of fighting to bounce back from a position of weakness.

The idea is that a different outcome on that one play leads to a different outcome in the game because it changes the entire flow of the game from the ‘get go’.

My difference maker for the win against the Raiders made a huge positive play on the second play of the game that put the Redskins in control — and they never gave up that control.

Montae Nicholson picked off a long Derek Carr pass by being alert and doing his job, and — I believe — changed the flow of the game, turning it to the Redskins favor. The Raiders never recovered.

In the screenshot below, you see two receivers in their routes on the right side of the field, with Carr looking that way, and his body set to throw that way. Carr has 7 blockers and perfect blocking against a 4-man rush. He has all the time in the world to decide what to do.

I’ve circled Montae Nicholson in position as the play develops.

Though I haven’t added a screen shot of it, a moment later, Nicholson -- watching Carr — actually broke to leave his side of the field (the wrong thing to do... just ‘do your job’) and ran about three short steps before he saw Carr turning back to Breeland’s side of the field.

Nicholson slams on the brakes, reverses field and gets back to his area of responsibility.

The result, of course, as an interception by Nicholson, who undercut Amari Cooper and made a leaping catch.

But, what if Nicholson hadn’t reversed field in time?

What if he had fully abandoned his zone in anticipation of Carr throwing to the right side of the offense?

Well, Cooper had a couple of yards of separation on Baushaud Breeland.

  • It’s possible that Cooper might have dropped the ball (he’s got 6 drops on the season, if I understood Collinsworth correctly).
  • It’s possible that Breeland would have tackled him for “just” a 40 yard gain to open the game.
  • It’s also possible that Cooper might have be able to ... go ... all ... the ... way.

We’ll never know, because the rookie did make the play, came down with the interception, and drove the first dagger thrust into the heart of the Raiders offense.

The Raiders never recovered.

More than one hightlight from our rookie safety

Nicholson made the highlight reel again later, when he separated Michael Crabtree from the ball legally, but violently. This is how safeties are supposed to play.

But being a difference make isn’t simply about making the stat sheet or the highlight reel with a couple of gaudy plays.

Nicholson responds to pressure

Nicholson also stands out because, when he was taken in the 4th round of this year’s draft, no one was really sure when he’d be healthy enough to play. Also, a lot of scouting reports called him “soft”.

Because of injury, he got very little off season work aside from the infamous “mental reps” that are so important to the development of players who are injured and unable to practice.

With limited preparation, it was expected coming out of pre-season that Nicholson would probably play behind Su’a Cravens and Deshazor Everett. But, of course, Cravens shocked us all with his sudden decision to retire at age 22, followed by the team placing him on the reserve list, effectively mothballing him for a year.

Suddenly, Nicholson finds himself on the field in the first series against the Oakland high-powered offense on Sunday Night Football.

That’s pressure.

It would have been easy to understand if Nicholson had broken under the pressure.

Had Nicholson taken a few more steps across the field, and been unable to make a play on the ball at the beginning of the game, the call from Chris Collinsworth would have been very different. Collinsworth might’ve sounded like this:

“You can see that Cooper runs past Breeland, who is expecting help over the top, but it isn’t there. Nicholson was watching Carr, and left his area of responsibility to go where he thought Carr was gonna pass it. Carr moved the safety with his eyes, and without that help over the top, Breeland isn’t in position to make a play on the ball. In this league they say, “if you’re even, you’re leavin’”, and you can see Cooper just run away from Breeland, then run under this ball thrown so beautifully by Derek Carr. Cooper just has to keep running, which he does, and because Montae Nicholson didn’t just do his job, now the Raiders have the momentum and a big first down deep inside the Redskins territory. The rookie will learn from this mistake, but that doesn’t help this Redskin defense right now. They’re dug in a hole, and they’ll be lucky if they can hold Oakland to a field goal here to start the game.”

Instead, Nicholson did his job; he made the play, and this week Redskins fans are celebrating the physical and emotional domination of a very talented Raiders team.

Nicholson, in my opinion, was the difference-maker of the week against the Raiders for doing his job, and getting the INT against the Raiders to open the game.

I’ll be bringing the local stone carver to my home here in Bangkok to chisel Motae’s name and stats into the weekly difference-maker winner’s wall in my condo, right below Chris Thompson, last week’s difference maker. I’ll need to remember to take a picture of that and post it later.


Which Redskin (individual or position group) will be most critical to the outcome of the game against the Chiefs?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Jay Gruden
    (15 votes)
  • 20%
    Kirk Cousins
    (57 votes)
  • 1%
    Rob Kelley
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    Josh Doctson
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Terrelle Pryor
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Ryan Grant
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Jordan Reed/Vernon Davis
    (2 votes)
  • 6%
    Chris Thompson
    (17 votes)
  • 0%
    Dustin Hopkins
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Jamison Crowder
    (4 votes)
  • 7%
    Edge Rushers
    (22 votes)
  • 38%
    Interior Defensive Line
    (107 votes)
  • 7%
    Zach Brown
    (20 votes)
  • 7%
    CBs & Safeties
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    Tress Way
    (2 votes)
280 votes total Vote Now