NFL defensive coordinators live with nightmares. They close their eyes and see Terrell Davis breaking a run back against the grain and going all the way. They see a slant pass that should go for eight yards go for 90. They see a receiver set a pick, and they scream for a flag that never drops. In their dreams Cris Carter sprints into double coverage and snatches the ball away from two defenders. Jerome Bettis, legs churning, body tilted forward at an impossible angle, sheds tacklers like a dog shaking off raindrops. What thrills the crowd humiliates defensive coordinators, and they grip their temples and murmur, "Oh, my god."
Here are five of the plays most likely to leave defensive coaches mumbling to themselves, partly because of the plays' designs but mainly because of the players who make them work. "Everyone studies the Broncos' downhill pitch," says Bill Musgrave, a Philadelphia Eagles offensive assistant and a former Denver Broncos quarterback. "Every team has it in its playbook. But everyone doesn't have a Terrell Davis."
Broncos' Downhill Pitch
When a back takes a pitch and runs toward the sideline, with the defense streaming over to meet him, that's called running uphill. When he cuts it back swiftly, decisively, through a tattered landscape of contorted bodies and arm tackles, that's downhill running, and no one does it better than Davis, who's on pace to break the NFL's single-season rushing record.
What makes the play so feared? "The whoosh!" says Buffalo Bills pro personnel director A.J. Smith. "Some backs dance before they make their cut, and that blows up the play. Terrell hits it with a whoosh."
"His power, his speed, his instincts," says Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, "plus he has the best vision of any back I've ever seen."
Davis also has a supporting cast that seems to have been put together with this play in mind. The offense is built for speed, for the quick strike. There are no 300-pounders on the line, no 250-pound fullback, no 270-pound tight end. Howard Griffith, the fullback, is a compact 230. So is Shannon Sharpe, a pass-catching tight end who takes great pride in his blocking. Once Davis gets downfield, he's escorted by a pair of wideouts who are serious about their blocking, Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith. And while the front side of the most mobile line in the business is taking its guys for a ride, the back side is closing off the pursuit with a precise series of cut blocks—a scheme that is hammered into the Broncos by Alex Gibbs, one of the finest line coaches in the league. "Alex does a tremendous job of coaching back-side techniques—who you're going to block, who you're going to turn free," says Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "So many concepts, and he adjusts them every week."
"How do you stop the cutback?" says Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Campo. "You try to make a picket fence. Then they eliminate the pickets."
Davis creased the Cowboys for 191 yards in a 42-23 victory on Sept. 13, including, on consecutive plays, scoring runs of 63 and 59 yards on the downhill pitch. "When you pitch the ball, everybody is running," Davis says. "Legs are being cut, people are hitting the ground, people are grabbing other people, defensive linemen can't come off their blocks. That's when you start to find seams."
The feared cutback. How do you stop it? "Penetration," Musgrave says, "except that their linemen won't let you penetrate because they're too quick. Teams try eight-man fronts, bringing up a safety, but Terrell can run over safeties."