You probably noticed it. It’s hard to miss.
The Patriots are on the road and the offense is in shotgun formation.
After QB Tom Brady makes his audibles, he lifts his lead leg, asking for the ball. Right afterwards, center Ryan Wendell nods his head, then snaps the ball.
This is the process for New England’s silent snap count.
When the road stadium makes it difficult for the team to hear Brady’s cadence, the Patriots will use it.
Initial reaction to Wendell’s motion would seem like it’s an obvious tell for the defense. To a degree, but it’s far from being absolute.
“What that head bob is, it’s an alert to the offensive linemen primarily to pay attention, the snap count is coming,” explains Pete Cronan.
Cronan played linebacker and was captain of the special teams with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins for nine years.
Currently, he's the radio analyst for Boston College football. This is his analysis of how the Patriots might execute their silent snap count.
The defense would try and time their pass rush to Wendell’s head bob instead of watching the snap of the ball to gain an advantage.
But the nod doesn’t mean the ball will always be immediately snapped afterwards.
Cronan describes a scenario:
“What frequently occurs in the huddle is they will actually have a silent count on one, or two, or four.
"When the center’s head bobs, everyone counts to two: one, two, snap. Or three: one, two, three, snap.
"So, even though there is an alert that the silent count is being employed, the defensive players aren’t aware what the silent count is. So there remains some degree of surprise.”
The offense is drilled on the silent count during practice until the coaching staff is satisfied the players can execute the concept every time.
It wouldn’t be used in a game if the coaches had any doubts about the offensive line’s execution.
“They’re experimenting all the time in practice trying to figure out the best way to pull this thing off,” Cronan said. “I don’t think it’s an easy thing to pull off. But that would be situations that they practice and is part of their game plan.”
It still is possible for the defense to learn the timing of the snap count.
If the offense gets into a rut of using calls repeatedly over the course of the game, the defense will make the association between certain calls and the results.
For example, suppose the call to snap the ball on three is blue. If the offense uses the call often in the first half, the defense hears the call as well and could decipher what blue means to the offense.
Now that the defense knows what blue means, they will try to get a jump on the snap. This anticipation can be a huge advantage for a defender.
“It’s the timing of the ball being snapped and the ability of that defender to close the gap on the offensive player or get into a gap where the offensive player is at a disadvantage physically to protect that gap,” Cronan said. “If you are aware of what the snap count was…you put an offensive lineman in particular at a severe disadvantage.”
The defense’s advantage could be short lived, though.
“It only takes one great pass rush, because the defensive end was anticipating the silent snap count, for the quarterback to go back to [the huddle], change the snap count to go on two or go on four. So it’s a game within the game and they’re constantly adapting to the conditions that the game is dictating.”
New England is listed as the road team as they face the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in London.
If the crowd gets rowdy, the Patriots likely will use the silent snap count. The routine will unfold like it always does.
The Patriots are lined up in shotgun formation. Brady lifts his lead leg. Wendell nods his head…
The process isn’t as simple as it looks.
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