Hiding What’s About to Happen? That’s Football…
In this column, let’s delve into the concept of parachute pants and approach them as if they were a novel, unheard-of phenomenon.
Let’s reconsider. Perhaps this column should focus on the timeless “I’ve got your nose!” trick that unfailingly captivates children.
Then again, maybe not. How about exploring a groundbreaking invention involving shoes equipped with wheels?
This represents a futuristic means of transportation from one point to another. Yes, that’s the ticket! A true testament to innovation.
If you’ve been keeping tabs on the NFL playoffs recently, you might have gotten the mistaken impression that the New England Patriots pioneered the art of surprising maneuvers in football.
Well, here’s the reality check… they didn’t. If football trickery were a horror franchise, this would be like Friday the 13th, Part 72,000 or so.
Sure, the Patriots have been notably inventive in presenting specific strategies lately, but no groundbreaking scientific discovery or teleportation is involved.
No groundbreaking tactics were introduced against the Ravens or Colts on the football field.
What took place was the utilization of elements that are far from uncommon in the game of football across all levels (many of which have been in play for decades), just packaged in a slightly different manner to make the Patriots’ plays less foreseeable.
But in essence, it’s akin to putting lipstick on an old pig.
Deception forms the very essence of nearly every facet of football.
On the offensive side, there’s a frenzy of shifting and motioning, all aimed at bewildering the defense or snapping the ball before they can adapt.
Meanwhile, adept defenses meticulously conceal their intentions—whether it’s man or zone coverage, who’s poised for a pass rush, and so forth.
Heck, both sides convene in a huddle specifically to shield the impending play from the ears of the opposing team.
It’s a game of everyone trying to outsmart everyone else. To act as though deception is some novel or avant-garde concept in football is akin to being startled by the rising sun.
Suggesting that anything witnessed in recent weeks is related to “cheating” should prompt the person uttering the word to consider enrolling in a basic football education program—especially if they’re involved in the game professionally.
The armchair analysts indeed emerged in force over the past couple of weeks.
Now, let’s dissect a few of the recently deployed ‘deceptive’ plays by the Patriots. Brace yourself to be ASTONISHED…
NATE SOLDER 16-YD TD RECEPTION
The play that will draw the most attention for its craftiness involves an unexpectedly eligible receiver, with a 6’8″ offensive lineman positioned as though he were still in his standard left offensive tackle spot.
The essence of the matter isn’t so much about confirming Solder’s eligibility but instead recognizing it’s a critical 3rd and one situation, and the play action executed between Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount was compelling.
The effectiveness of the running game set up this play almost as much as the “deceptive” element that’s likely to steal the spotlight.
Even if Solder were a more frequent target for passes, you can observe the middle linebacker hopping toward Solder right after the snap (see below).
This indicates his awareness of his coverage responsibility for Nate.
The dilemma arises when he’s also contending with a deceptive run fake to a back who has been causing headaches for the Colts’ defense in short-yardage situations, all while Solder is simultaneously engaging the defensive end in a run block.
It’s a whirlwind of conflicting information.
In the NFL, things can change in the blink of an eye; that’s just how fast-paced it is.
Facing a coverage situation where your pass responsibility aligns to the right of an off-the-ball player while your run duty is elsewhere it’s always a head-scratcher—regardless of whether it involves “deception” or not.
This dilemma becomes even more crucial when the offense only needs a single yard to advance.
As a linebacker in such tight quarters, your initial move must be decisive, and if it’s off the mark, repercussions can be dire.
The Patriots’ success in executing this play in the upcoming Super Bowl will hinge on whether they’ve effectively established a running game or positioned themselves in a down-and-distance scenario that genuinely confounds the defense.
This tactic is unlikely to be as effective on a 3rd and 6. Furthermore, if your defensive line effectively controls short-yardage runs, it significantly diminishes the conflict for a linebacker. It’s all interconnected.
If, as a defender, your only takeaway from this play was “someone unexpected was eligible,” the Patriots are likely delighted.
If mental energy is focused solely on whom to cover, neglecting the situational cues, these plays will continue to be exploitable.
James Develin Extended Wham Block
I appreciate this unexpected “Wham” block executed by Patriots fullback James Develin for several reasons.
It encapsulates what we’ve been discussing—taking something familiar and presenting it as something fresh.
However, what’s genuinely commendable here is how the offensive play call comprehends the defensive viewpoint and capitalizes on the dilemma the formation and block are bound to create.
“Wham” blocks are far from a recent innovation. The nose tackles I played with have grappled with them for as long as I can recall.
Typically, this block comes from either a tight end or a fullback, integral to the offensive formation’s core.
The players extended are usually smaller and not ideally equipped to crash down against a 320+ pound defensive lineman.
“Whams” can be somewhat challenging to conceal from brilliant interior defensive linemen, as the offset blocker often has to lean, glance, or initiate motion back toward where the block will occur.
Consequently, they are frequently anticipated and only yield modest effectiveness.
Their decision to relocate the fullback from the backfield sets the Patriots’ approach to the “Wham” apart, aligning James Develin wide as if he were a wide receiver (see below).
Typically, this is done to establish who will trail the motion, and it seldom signals an impending run play.
A linebacker shadowing the motion suggests man coverage, while a defensive back widening indicates some form of zone.
On occasion, if you’re contending with a particularly adept run-stopper in the middle, moving the fullback out forces him to prioritize pass coverage.
Alternatively, if the fullback is more of a pass-catching threat (think Larry Centers), this motion sets up a favorable space matchup for the passing game.
A defensive lineman already has a lot on his plate—deciphering the quarterback’s cadence, contending with a formidable blocker in front of him, and attempting to anticipate the running back’s moves in the backfield.
So, expecting him to spot a block that wasn’t initially in his field of vision before putting his hand on the ground is highly improbable.
It transpires too swiftly, making it a straightforward seal block for a quick 5 yards.
Once this block has been showcased, the secondary can alert the defensive lineman.
However, if it hasn’t been revealed in the film study during the week of preparation, it almost always results in a straightforward gain of 5 yards. Those crafty strategists!
Julian Edelman Jet Sweep
This play might not be the most overt example of “deception.” Still, a significant portion of the intrigue unfolds before the snap, occurring so swiftly that several Colts defenders are left befuddled about who possesses the ball. How audacious!
College football enthusiasts might be thinking, “Isn’t this commonplace?” Indeed, reverses are a well-established maneuver across all levels of the game.
However, the college level has emphasized in recent years the utilization of pre-snap speed motion that synchronizes with the hand-off, as opposed to initiating the reverse action after the snap.
In the NFL, north and south motion (toward the ball, akin to arena football) isn’t permitted.
Offensive motions in the NFL usually serve to reconfigure formation strength or establish a bunch (a grouping of receivers) to sow confusion in matchups, among other purposes.
Deploying pre-snap motion to propel the ball carrier to near-top speed before the snap is a nuanced strategy that read-option-centric offenses have embraced for some time.
For the left defensive end tasked with making the play, it essentially comes down to heightened awareness (see below).
Identifying reverse action post-snap is comparatively more straightforward.
The speed of motion merely demands quicker anticipation and processing.
The player is in rapid motion, meaning you must think even faster.
In the Patriots’ case, the threat of a QB option play isn’t a real concern, so the assumption would naturally lean toward a jet sweep.
The Patriots could only execute this type of play sparingly in a game, as the other half of the play’s development (Brady retaining possession) shouldn’t command much respect from the defense.
The primary issue is that the Patriots didn’t pioneer this strategy; they merely adopted a slightly unconventional approach for their team, which doesn’t align with the expected playbook.
They timed its execution perfectly. The Eagles and Jets have also incorporated the jet sweep concept this season, and I’m sure other teams have as well, though I can’t recall them off the top of my head.
Each play involves a level of trickery—a touch of calculated deception, one might say.
However, this is par for the course in football. Concealing what’s about to unfold is often the first step in various facets of the game.
Executing it exceptionally well isn’t a revolutionary concept; it’s simply a manifestation of superior football.