New England Patriots' Offensive Creativity Fueling Playoff Surge

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2015

New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, center, celebrates his 51-yard touchdown pass from Julian Edelman (11) in the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The New England Patriots completely abandoned the running game during their victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount combined for just seven carries, and not a single one of those carries came during the second half. Predictably, this meant that Tom Brady was forced to attempt a vast number of passes, 50 to be precise.

Brady completed 33 of his 50 passes for 367 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. However, he wasn't the lasting storyline that drew attention after the game.

Instead, most of the attention was focused on the Patriots' tactics offensively. While they didn't do anything illegal, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh got frustrated with the officials when the Patriots made Vereen ineligible.

After the game, Harbaugh explained why he was upset, per Chris Wesseling on NFL.com:

We wanted an opportunity to be able to identify who the eligible players were because what they were doing was they would announce the eligible player and Tom (Brady) would take it to the line right away and snap the ball before (we) even figured out who was lined up where. And that was the deception part of it. It was clearly deception.

The officials told me after that they would give us the opportunity to do that, which they probably should have done during that series but they really didn't understand what was happening. I had to go take the penalty to get their attention so they can understand what was going on.

Harbaugh's complaint wasn't about the legality of what the Patriots were doing, but rather, the time the officials gave his defense to react. What the Patriots did simply put more pressure on the Ravens defense to figure out all their assignments in an instant.

Was it very tough for the Ravens? Sure. Was it illegal or unfair? Not at all.

These plays occurred during the third quarter of the game on a drive that ultimately ended in a touchdown for Rob Gronkowski. Each play resulted in a first down and combined for a total of 41 yards. Furthermore, the impact of the ineligible receiver was significant for the success of each play.

On any given play, the offense must have seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage, with the remaining four behind the line of scrimmage. These seven players don't have to be bunched together. This is where the Patriots developed a sense of deception. 

Credit: NFL.com

In the above image, the Patriots have five eligible receivers on the field and seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage. The yellow numbers highlight the eligible receivers, and the red numbers highlight the players who are on the line of scrimmage.

What stands out is that both Julian Edelman and Vereen, the receivers to the bottom of the formation, are on the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, on the left side of the offensive line, left tackle Nate Solder is lined up as a guard, and a tight end is in his normal spot.

Because Vereen is ineligible in the slot, that tight end is an eligible receiver who can release into a route from the left tackle position.

Although his jersey number and his actual position make the Ravens treat Vereen as a receiver on this play, he is essentially an offensive lineman. Because he has reported as ineligible, he is not allowed to advance farther than one yard downfield before the football on passing plays.

This is easy to figure out when the play is frozen and you have all of the information, but it's much more difficult when you have 11 players trying to get on the same page in a matter of seconds before the snap.

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When the ball is snapped, Vereen runs backward as if he is going to catch a screen pass. He hasn't run farther than one yard past the line of scrimmage, so he isn't doing anything illegal. The Ravens defenders react to his motion, as they had accounted for him as a receiver at the snap.

Therefore, on the other side of the field, linebacker C.J. Mosley is suddenly outnumbered. The Ravens had a play called that would have accounted for five receivers, but they were expecting three receivers to come from the left side, not the right.

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Brady has a simple decision to make as he throws the ball to the receiver, who Mosley is forced to leave and open up the seam. Mosley never had a chance because of how the Ravens lined up at the snap. The Patriots converted a 1st-and-10 in their own territory with ease.

The second deceptive play the Patriots used was very similar to the first conceptually but executed from a different alignment.

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On this play, Vereen is again the ineligible receiver, but this time he is lined up wide to the right side of the field. Lardarius Webb, the cornerback covering him, should leave Vereen and move inside to cover the slot receiver.

This would tighten the whole defense and allow Mosley at the top of the screen to move out to cover the slot receiver, while Daryl Smith covers the tight end who is lined up at left tackle.

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Webb doesn't move in to cover the slot receiver, so he is a wasted body covering Vereen wide to the left. Once again, this means the Ravens are accounting for three receivers on a side of the field that only has two, leaving a wide-open player for Brady.

Edelman not only has a free release at the snap, but he runs into wide-open space completely unopposed because Mosley is working his way across from the tight end, who is releasing from left tackle.

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Mosley ultimately covers the tight end while Smith is left completely alone over the middle of the field. The deep safety wasn't expecting to have to cover a receiver from that position this early in the play, so he has lined up too deep to prevent the ball from making it to Edelman.

The Patriots attain another easy first down because of how the Ravens reacted to the deceptive alignment.

Harbaugh's defense had been beaten at the snap on both of these plays. The NFL is all about numbers and space. The offense is trying to create space, and when the defense messes up the numbers at the snap, it's simple for the offense to find space.

The third play, which finally forced Harbaugh to run onto the field and earn a penalty to argue with the officials, followed exactly the same pattern.

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Before the ball was even snapped, the Ravens linebackers and safeties were confused. That confusion meant Mosley was running toward Vereen in the right slot at the snap. Vereen was ineligible again, and Brady had exactly the same two-on-one situation on the other side of the field.

Although these were controversial plays and the NFL should probably consider altering the rules to aid the defense somewhat, nothing illegal happened.

It was simply outstanding attention to detail from Bill Belichick and impressive timing to take advantage of a defense that was already being stretched by the plethora of weapons at the offense's disposal. To compound the Ravens' frustration, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Belichick came back on the following drive with another trick play.

This play didn't involve any substitution or ineligible receiver tricks.

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On 1st-and-10 close to midfield, the Patriots motioned Edelman from the right slot so that he was running toward the left sideline at the snap. The Ravens responded to this movement by sending a blitz from that side of the field.

This adjustment may have been something the Patriots were expecting, but if not it was an unfortunate development for the defense.

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At the snap, Brady immediately throws the ball to Edelman. He doesn't attempt to draw the defense to him by holding the ball during his drop. Instead he lets the ball go immediately so that it not only gets to Edelman quickly, but it also is certain to be a lateral rather than a forward pass.

This is crucial because Edelman isn't running a screen play; he is going to throw the ball down the field.

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When Edelman catches the ball, he has plenty of time to control it, set his feet and look downfield. Gronkowski is his only blocker, but no Ravens are anywhere near him to disrupt because of the blitz they sent after Brady.

Gronkowski is an eligible receiver, so he can be down the field as Edelman releases the football. However, over the middle of the field the Patriots do have an ineligible receiver who releases too far downfield. No. 62, Ryan Wendell, is two yards away from the original line of scrimmage. This should have drawn a flag from the officials.

Now, this is something that happens often and goes without being called. It's one of the most overlooked penalties in the NFL. However, that doesn't mean it should be excused.

Like with the minute details the Patriots took advantage of on the previous drive down the field, this minute detail should have been called. This is the one play where the Ravens could feel fully aggrieved by the officials missing something they shouldn't have missed.

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Despite the missed ineligible receiver downfield, Edelman still had to make the throw to Danny Amendola down the sideline. Amendola was wide open, and the former Kent State starting quarterback hit him in stride for the long touchdown.

This wasn't an exceptionally complex trick play. It's one that many teams have run over the years. The timing was important, and maybe they got lucky with the blitz call. But either way, the Patriots coaching staff deserves credit.

Even if the Patriots don't use any of these plays against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game, the threat of them will add another dimension to the defense's preparation.

Although the Colts showed up relatively well against the Denver Broncos last week, much of that performance was about Peyton Manning's struggles rather than great play from the Colts secondary or pass rush. Therefore, the Patriots probably won't have to rely on trick plays again to win the AFC.

Instead, they'll probably bring back the run-heavy game plan they used the last time they faced off. The Patriots won that game 42-20, while Jonas Gray carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards.

As the Patriots have shown repeatedly this season, creativity isn't solely about trick plays. In that game against the Colts, they showed off the ability to trap Indianapolis' defenders and send offensive linemen to different areas of the field.

It may be less obvious, but it's not less creative—or less effective.