The Patriots are catching a lot of heat for apparently deflating footballs during the AFC Championship game. This is irritating, because a) cheating is bad and b) it detracts from something I find utterly fascinating: the way New England played with, but did not break, the NFL's receiver eligibility rules.
In two straight games, the Pats have found intriguing ways to alter their five eligible receivers in a way the defense wasn't expecting, and in each game it's led to big payoffs. Against the Ravens, they caught flak from John Harbaugh for the strategy, but as we pointed out at the time, they didn't do anything wrong. They lined up in an abnormal, but not illegal pattern, and Harbaugh was disappointed his wasn't given time to figure it out.
We pointed out that the Patriots could hypothetically reuse similar, if not identical plays against the Colts. And much to our surprise, they did -- although quite as expected.
In the Divisional round against the Ravens, the Patriots identified they needed to move the ball through the air. Tom Brady threw the ball 50 times, and the team combined for 13 carries, with no running back receiving more than three.
But against the Colts with heavy rains making passing difficult, they realized the way to move the ball was on the ground. LeGarrette Blount carried the ball 30 times himself, with Brady only throwing the ball 35 times.
And so they came out in a formation designed to bolster the power run game:
This is, perhaps, the simplest formation in football. There's a running back, a quarterback to hand off to him, a fullback to block for him, and seven people in front of him on the line of scrimmage. (There's also a wide receiver not shown in this shot.)
The only thing that makes it abnormal is the presence of No. 71, Cameron Fleming, a rookie offensive lineman out of Stanford, who you can see all the way on the left side of the formation.
NFL rules state you have to have seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage. The two closest to the sidelines are eligible to receive passes, but the five in the middle are not. So normally, teams use five offensive linemen, and play them in those five ineligible positions, with a center in the middle and two to each side. By playing six, the offense removes a potential playmaker and telegraphs its intention to run.
But the Patriots weren't worried about this. They knew they could use the power of an extra linemen to smash the Colts. So they lined up with a sixth linemen over and over. They did it in short yardage situations:
They did it in long-yardage situations:
They did it on the goal line:
They did it near midfield:
The Patriots played Fleming as a sixth lineman on 28 of their 78 snaps, running 24 of those times. The extra blocking worked: Blount gashed the Colts for 148 yards.
However, Fleming was technically an eligible receiver, if the team was to pass.
Notice how nobody is lined up on the line of scrimmage between Fleming and the sideline? That means he's an eligible receiver.
He never takes advantage of it -- on the three pass plays the Pats run with Fleming as an eligible receiver, he stays in to block each time -- but he's legally lined up as one. There's a technicality here: because his number is in between 50 and 79, the refs assume he's an ineligible receiver, so its his job to report as eligible to a referee each time he enters if he plans on lining up in an eligible position. The referee then reports this over the PA and to the defensive captain. (The same goes for players whose numbers aren't between 50 and 79 if they wish to line up as ineligible receivers -- but we'll get to this later.)
Most of the time, this would just be an interesting example of a team making a tweak to help their ground game. But then, Belichick flipped it on Indianapolis.
The Patriots threw a touchdown to an eligible receiver lined up in a position where there's normally an offensive lineman -- but it wasn't Fleming. It was Nate Solder, who briefly played tight end at Colorado before becoming an All-American left tackle.
Much like all the plays where Fleming had declared eligible, Solder had to declare himself as eligible. But the Colts had heard the ref announce No. 71 was eligible all game, and all game they'd seen runs behind Fleming. When they heard the ref announce No. 77 as eligible and saw 71 on the field, they might not have noticed the difference.
However, that wasn't the only piece of evidence the Colts had to go on. There's a critical, important difference between the two plays that makes Solder an eligible receiver here. To make it perfectly clear, take a look at the second-and-1 play directly before Solder's TD (a run play with Fleming as an eligible receiver) and Solder's TD side-by-side.
Did you miss it? How could you? It's so blatantly obvious!
The prominent, gargantuan difference between these plays has to do with where No. 19, Brandon LaFell, at the bottom of the screen is lined up.
On the second-and-1 play, he's on the line of scrimmage. That means he's the last eligible receiver on the line of scrimmage, and the players on the line between him and Fleming are all ineligible. On the third-and-1 play, he's a step behind the line of scrimmage. This means Solder is the last player on the line of scrimmage, and therefore is the eligible receiver.
That one tiny step makes Solder eligible. Can you blame the Colts for not noticing?
Fleming was on the field -- but he's got a player on the line of scrimmage above him, Rob Gronkowski, so he was ineligible.
What's incredible to me is how seamlessly the Patriots inserted this trick into their pre-existing gameplan. On this drive, the Patriots hit three run plays with an additional lineman for a gain of 28 yards. Indianapolis was already struggling to stop the basic, evident thing the Pats were trying to do with their jumbo formation. When a few barely perceptible tweaks turned that run play into a pass play, the Colts didn't have a chance.
This wasn't the only screwery the Patriots hit -- they also ran a pair of plays with only four offensive linemen:
That meant there were six players with eligible receiver's numbers lined up in slots where eligible receivers typically line up, and the defense has to figure out who is eligible and who isn't.
Both times, the ineligible receiver was Michael Hoomanawanui, who announced himself as ineligible before the play. On both plays, he's on the line of scrimmage with a receiver closer to the line of scrimmage than he is -- in the screenshot above this, he's near the bottom of the screen, in the shot below, he's near the top of the screen.
These plays were both unsuccessful -- the first was a screen, where Hoomanawanui was supposed to block, but the pass fell incomplete:
He was ready to do the same on the second, but was stopped, but Brady saw nobody was open and was sacked:
These plays failed for two reasons. The first is that after a Patriots' play with four offensive linemen drew a lot of attention the week before, the Colts studied and were on high alert to diagnose these plays. On each play, the Colts identified Hoomanawanui as ineligible and didn't commit a defender to him while covering the five eligible receivers.
The second reason, in my opinion, is that there isn't a whole lot of subterfuge here. What was surprising about the play against the Ravens is that Hoomanawanui was lined up in a position where a left tackle is normally lined up, and ended up bursting down the field. The referee's ineligibility announcement drew attention to the ineligible receiver, Shane Vereen, but didn't alert the defense to the fact that there was an eligible receiver hiding on the offensive line.
On this play, the trick is that the guy split out wide is actually ineligible, the announcement is that he's ineligible, and the playcall is... a screen to a receiver near him? The Patriots were hoping that the Colts would realize Hoomanawanui was ineligible and commit receivers to other parts of the field, but it seems like it just put the Colts on alert. Earlier in the week I hypothesized that Brady's deadly accuracy when releasing the ball quickly might make the success of four-OL sets replicable, provided the confusion allowed for more open receivers. Instead, the Colts sussed out what was going on quickly.
The obvious risk in fooling around with eligible/ineligible receivers is that it's easy to screw up. One guy on the line of scrimmage who isn't supposed to be there wipes out your play and results in a 5-yard penalty for illegal formation. Of the Patriots' 32 attempted plays with an abnormal eligibility situation, they got one penalty:
On this play, Fleming (at the top of the offensive line) reported as eligible, but there's a receiver on the line of scrimmage above him, making him "covered" and thus ineligible. Meanwhile, Solder, who didn't report as eligible, is uncovered. The refs caught this, wiping out a QB sneak for a first down.
If the biggest danger of a play is an illegal formation penalty and you're 31-for-32 at avoiding it, you're doing a pretty good job. The positives (the Solder TD and the gains provided by having an additional lineman on all those running plays) completely outweighed the negatives (one penalty for five yards) for the Patriots.
We can't say for sure the Patriots will find a way to integrate eligibility trickeration into their gameplan against the Seahawks, a team with few, if any, defensive weaknesses. But what is clear is that at the most important part of the season, the Patriots realize how big hitting a single trick play could be.
What's so intriguing about the eligibility playfulness is that there are still possibilities out there. In two weeks, the Pats have unveiled three unique looks for tricky pass plays -- the one with Vereen eligible and a TE posing as an OL, the apparent jumbo look that featured a OL that was actually a TE, and the six-wide look.
If the Pats think they could gain a slight advantage against the relentless Seahawks defense by adding another kink, they will. And that's fascinating.