The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Denver Broncos this past weekend in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs 24-13 to advance to the AFC Championship Game, where they'll face the New England Patriots. The Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 35-31 on Saturday, and in doing so they used some trickery to establish an edge. The most notable was Julian Edelman, a wide receiver, throwing a 51-yard score on the "double pass" play that served as a huge one for New England. But the Patriots also used some formations that have rarely been seen in the National Football League.
It was these formations that prompted Ravens coach John Harbaugh to say that "it was clearly deception" after the game, and he wasn't happy about it. Which, of course, that led to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady responding that, "Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out. We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us."
The play was perfectly legal and it was a very smart move by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. So what was it exactly that the Patriots did? Are we going to see it this Sunday against the Colts, and perhaps the biggest question is if the Colts are ready for it? We'll look at each of those, but first let's begin by understanding what the Patriots actually did.
Patriots Four Lineman Formation
NFL rules make it pretty clear about which players are eligible players and there are certain regulations for being on or off of the line of scrimmage. Seven offensive players must be on the line of scrimmage and four offensive players must be off of the line of scrimmage. Typically, the five linemen plus two other players - whether it be tight ends or wide receivers - are on the line of scrimmage split out wide. The other players -such as the quarterback, running back, slot receivers, etc. - are all off of the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, of the seven players on the line of scrimmage only the two outside players are eligible receivers, whether the outside player means the receiver, tight end, or, in some rare cases, even the lineman.
Those are the rules, and the Patriots used them to create a big mismatch against the Ravens defense on a couple of plays in the second half. Let's take a look at one of those plays to understand the concept.
Ok, so there are a couple of things to note on this play. Basically, what the Patriots did is they took an offensive lineman out of the formation, so there are only four true linemen there. Running back Shane Vereen checked in with the official as an ineligible receiver (just like some players have to check in as eligible receivers) and it was announced by the referee, but we can't blame the Ravens' defense for not paying any attention to this, because they didn't know what was coming (no one did). Vereen then lined up in the slot to the right on the line of scrimmage, but if you'll notice he was "covered up" on the line by the outside receiver, meaning that Vereen wasn't an eligible receiver on the play and therefore couldn't go out for a route much past the line. Rob Gronkowski, the tight end on the right side of the line, was off the line of scrimmage and was therefore eligible. Here's where the trick comes in: tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was playing in the normal spot of the left tackle but was actually an eligible receiver. The Ravens defense doesn't account for this, however, as they just assume he's playing the left tackle spot and that Vereen will be going out for a pass route. But that's not what happened.
As we see, the Ravens did exactly what you'd expect them to do. They covered Vereen but didn't pay attention to Hoomanawanui until he was wide open and Tom Brady hit him for a gain of 14 yards. It was a perfectly legal play, but one that we haven't seen much at all before. It was a incredibly smart design by Belichick and McDaniels, as the Patriots lined up in a formation that created a big mismatch because the Patriots knew what was coming but the Ravens were left confused.
So what about the Colts?
Alright, so now that we've looked at what the Patriots did, let's look at the implications for the Colts this weekend. Will the Patriots use it? We really don't know, because with Bill Belichick you never know what to expect week to week - he plays the matchups and whatever gives him the advantage, that's what he'll do. So we don't know if we'll see this formation from the Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Colts, but head coach Chuck Pagano isn't waiting to see.
"We talked a little bit about it today," Pagano said on Monday, "but once I saw it on Saturday, I did some investigating and just trying to again cover all bases, if you will. I talked to some guys in Baltimore about what went down and then had a conversation with league officials and just asked how things were officiated. They did the right thing when you look up the rule, because I wanted to make sure going into our game. We still had time in the morning and I had time to get ahold of Dean Blandino and ask him what the letter of the law was, what the rule read in the book and how it's interpreted, and those kind of things.
"They had a special personnel grouping out on the field and officials are required to, the guys that come in like when we go our heavy package, our jumbo package and we put an extra lineman in, he's got to go in and he's got to go to the guy with the white hat on and he's got to report. He's got to present him to the white hat, the referee, and then the referee points at the player and tells the defense and he makes an announcement. Then once they make the announcement, they back away and play ball, and they let you snap the thing. So what happened to Baltimore, I mean you've got 47 is eligible, 34 is ineligible. They did nothing, as far as what was explained to me, nothing wrong in what they did.
"So again, we've just got to make sure that we cover all our bases and understand they do a great job," Pagano continued. "They use a ton of different personnel groups and they only had four linemen in on those plays They had three wide outs, and two tight ends, and a running back and a quarterback, and it made it difficult for the defense to get lined up especially if you're in a man-to-man situation and you're trying to figure out who's eligible, who's not, who's on the ball, who's off the ball, all those kind of things. You don't have a lot of time to, the officials aren't going to slow the thing down to let you get lined up, so to speak, so we have to be prepared for everything obviously."
So in summary, the Patriots did nothing illegal but rather it was a great concept to confuse the other team. While we never know what to expect week to week from the Patriots, the Colts are definitely preparing in case they encounter these different formations on Sunday.