When Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez came to the line on fourth-and-goal at the Jets' 6- yard line with the game on the line Sunday, he thought, "Oh, my God, I think they are going zone. I might have a shot to get open."
On the Jets' sideline, Rex Ryan didn't share that opinion. "We knew the exact play that was coming," he said. He called a "loaded" zone coverage, meaning a formation with several defenders keying on Gonzalez.
"We were rushing three," Ryan said. "We figured we would trap Gonzalez. Put a guy over the top of him, a guy inside of him, a guy outside of him. We just never executed."
Atlanta sent wide receiver Michael Jenkins in motion to the right side of the formation, where Gonzalez was lined up. Jets defensive back Donald Strickland was supposed to jam him at the line and then step back into the area where Gonzalez was expected to go. It didn't work out that way.
"I kind of over-chased [Jenkins] a little bit and I left that window open for Gonzales to sneak in," Strickland said. "I'll take the blame for that play. We had the perfect coverage for it, but I didn't execute my assignment properly . . . I let the defense down."
Gonzalez got off the line, saw Jets linebacker David Harris waiting on the inside, turned to the outside and cradled a perfect pass from Matt Ryan with 1:38 remaining for the winning touchdown in a 10-7 victory.
Springing out of his crouch, Gonzalez brought back memories of his basketball days at Cal by running to the back of the end zone to dunk the football over the crossbar.
Maybe Harris, who didn't speak to reporters after the game, was in position to make the play, but Strickland took the blame.
"He had the inside shadow," he said, "but if I was sitting in the spot I was supposed to be, there would have been no play there for them. I was at fault."
In Gonzalez's view, it would have been tougher for him to get open against man coverage. The zone gave him options, and he reacted when he saw Strickland follow Jenkins to the outside.
"[Harris] dropped back so I couldn't turn in," Gonzalez said. "There was just a small window right there. You try to find that little sweet spot in the zone, and a good quarterback like Matt is going to find you."
Reaching into his locker, he produced a grainy black-and-white photo shot from the coaches' box and mounted as a keepsake of his winning play.
"There's guys all around," Gonzalez said, indicating five Jets in the area. "It's a good play against zone, and they ran zone."
Gonzalez's catch capped a 73-yard, 11-play drive. The Jets had allowed only a yard on three plays after Jason Snelling's 20-yard run gave the Falcons first-and-goal at the 7.
The larger issue for the Jets is that a defense ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL and No. 1 in pass defense has allowed opponents to fashion four game-winning drives at the end of the fourth quarter or overtime.
"If you have a great defense, you make that stop," Ryan said. "Our standards are going to be set where we're going to be a dominant defense, and when we get ahead of you, regardless of how much time you've got left, we're not going to let you drive the field on us."
That's the vision, but it's a long way from reality.