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Breaking down the Colts’ fake punt against the Steelers

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Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In Thursday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, there weren’t a ton of highlights for the Colts to celebrate in their 28-7 loss. One of the highlights they could, however, featured a fake punt pass by Pat McAfee to Erik Swoope that gained 35 yards.

Not only was it a fun and well-executed play, it also was a crucial one for the Colts in the game, because without it they wouldn’t have had their lone score of the day. To set the stage, the Colts were down 14-0 to the Steelers in the first quarter and were playing with backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, so they knew they’d need help to get things going and try to mount a comeback. That help came from the special teams unit, as Jordan Todman returned the kickoff 43 yards to the Steelers’ 47 yard line, meaning that the Colts would start in enemy territory. The Colts’ offense didn’t do anything with that field position, however. Frank Gore was stuffed for a gain of one. Scott Tolzien hit Gore for a short three yard completion. And then on third down, Tolzien threw a bad pass across the middle that was nearly picked off. His pass was intended for Dwayne Allen, but it looked more like it was intended for Lawrence Timmons as Tolzien threw in front of Allen over the middle and right to Timmons.

So the Colts had absolutely squandered the good field position given to them by Todman in the return game, and the team had to punt on 4th and 6 in Steelers territory. But it was there that head coach Chuck Pagano and special teams coach Tom McMahon rolled the dice and trusted their punter.

McAfee had thrown a pass previously in an NFL game, as he threw a fake punt pass against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. It was a perfect pass that would have been a first down, but Dewey McDonald dropped it. McAfee has from time to time filled in at quarterback in some training camp wide receiver drills, and he’s also told the story of how he ‘prepared’ to play quarterback last year with all the injuries (it’s got some language but it’s pretty funny). On Thursday night, his number was finally once again called in a game setting.

Here’s a look at the play again:

Tight end Erik Swoope, who stepped up for the Colts as the number two tight end and as a receiving threat in Dwayne Allen’s absence earlier this year, lined up on the end of the line and, upon the snap, took off on a sort of drag route across the middle.

It was at this point that it appears Pat McAfee has the option to either punt it or throw it. That’s a benefit to having someone like McAfee as your punter, as he’s capable of pulling off the rugby-style punt if need be but is also capable of throwing it on the run, as he proved on Thursday night. So it appears that the Colts gave him the option on the play to either punt or throw (as you can kind of see from the picture below), so he was checking to see if Erik Swoope would come open.

Swoope did indeed break open, as in fact nobody covered him. He took off on a route upon the snap and nobody picked him up, leaving him wide open and making McAfee’s decision quite simple: throw the football.

As you can tell, there was nobody near Swoope, so McAfee opted to make the throw. And he delivered a tremendous throw, all things considered. He threw the ball from the Colts’ 47 and Swoope caught it at the Steelers’ 27, meaning it traveled 26 yards in the air. So McAfee - a punter - threw the football on a rope 26 yards in the air while on the run and put it in a great spot for Swoope to catch it. That’s impressive, and I think lost in the excitement about the trickery was how well-executed the play was by McAfee (and by Swoope too, which we’ll get to in just a minute). Steelers safety Jordan Dangerfield closed on the play quickly and got to Swoope just as the pass did, but he wasn’t in time.

Dangerfield’s momentum carried him by Swoope, as he was going for the pass breakup instead of the tackle (which is understandable in this scenario), so Swoope was able to brush off the defender and keep on going down the field. Here’s where it was a nice play by Swoope, as he looked in the pass and made the catch, brushed off the defender, and gained some yards after contact. He took off running down the sideline until he was met by two Steelers defenders, at which point he tried to cut in-between the two of them and managed to get to the Steelers’ eight yard line before being brought down.

The play was a great call and a very well-executed one, and it set the Colts up with first and goal from the eight yard line. Two plays later, Scott Tolzien made a nice throw to Donte Moncrief for the touchdown to make it a one-score game. The Colts suddenly had life! Was it possible the fake punt would serve as the turning point in the game and the momentum swing the Colts needed?

The answer, as you all know, was no, and the Colts never found the end zone again on Thursday night despite a couple other red zone trips. Their lone scoring drive was one set up by special teams, and the biggest play of the drive came on special teams too. It was an exciting fake punt and one that was really well done, and even though the game wasn’t a good one for the Colts a number of people deserve credit for the fake punt call and execution.