Much has been made of how the Patriots will often use historical wrinkles in their game plan to show new things to opposing teams. Whether it be messing with the eligible linemen to get his receivers open (hi, Jim Harbaugh!) or just recalling a specific run play from 1959, Bill Belichick uses his vast knowledge to help gain the edge.
One of the plays that the Patriots have continued to run over the years is the direct snap dive play. We're going to take a look at the history of that one play to see when it started and how it's matured over the years.
The Basics of the Play
The play in it's most basic form is relatively simple. The quarterback lines up in the shotgun with a running back to one side of him. The ball is snapped in the direction of the quarterback, but is intercepted on the way by the running back, who will use his momentum to continue towards the line, usually running off of the center-guard gap.
This play has usually been reserved (in the Patriots game plan) for short yardage plays, often in the red zone.
We have to go all the way back to week 2 of the 2001 season to find the first instance of this play, run by none other than Drew Bledsoe. On a 3rd and 5 in the first quarter of a scoreless game against the Jets, the Patriots ran this play:
It worked. Kevin Faulk took the direct snap and ran around the right end for 13 yards and a first down. In this original version of the play both guards pull to the right and act as lead blockers for Faulk to follow.
The more observant of our readers might recognize that this is the game that changed history in other ways; Drew Bledsoe would get injured later in this game, opening the door for an unknown QB named Tom Brady to take the reins.
The play was put in the back pocket for the better part of 3 seasons, not to be seen again until it was sorely needed. The Patriots had just taken the lead in Super Bowl XXXVIII over the Carolina Panthers and were lined up for an important 2-point conversion.
Drew Bledsoe is no longer running the offense, but Tom Brady runs the play in much the same way: as Kevin Faulk takes the snap, Brady jumps and turns as if the ball has sailed over his head. Instead of following pulling guards like in 2001, the play is designed more as a dive. The direct snap, coupled with Brady's play action, gives Faulk and the offensive line enough of a jump to get into the endzone.
Another big moment, another version of the play. This time, the Patriots line up with no running back next to Brady; Kevin Faulk is split out wide left. But before the snap he motions back in next to Brady and then the play operates as usual.
This was another must-have moment. The Patriots had trailed for most of the game and needed this 2 point conversion to tie it up with just over 4 minutes left in the game.
This is where things get interesting. There's now tape on this play, and the Patriots are showing a trend for running this play in important red zone situations. In the playoff game against the Jaguars after the Patriots' record-setting offensive 2007 season, they found themselves in the red zone again. Knowing this, the Patriots added a new wrinkle:
Brady actually takes the snap, but still follows through with the play fake of jumping as if the snap went over his head. Assuming that this is the same direct snap play that the Patriots have shown on film, the Jaguars defenders step up to stop the run. This allows Brady to throw the ball over the top of the linebackers to an open Wes Welker -- open in a space that's usually congested with defenders.
The Patriots are back to running this play, but without the sure hands of the since-retired Kevin Faulk. While we're back to the same basic play, this time it incorporates some motion from WR Wes Welker who comes down to block the inside defensive back. This helps Danny Woodhead find enough of a hole to walk in for the TD.
The play took a hiatus again, only to be brought out in the biggest of spots (again). Down 8 points with 1 minute left in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots again went to their go-to play:
This one again looks very similar to the play last run in the 2nd quarter of a regular season game in 2010. The WR (Julian Edelman this time) motions in and blocks the inside defensive back, allowing RB James White to cross the goal line. Fifteen years after the first occurrence of this play, Tom Brady is still performing his pirouette to freeze the defenders for that fraction of a second. And the play is still effective.
Which brings us to the present season, and yet another wrinkle. Down 3 points to the vaunted Chicago Bears defense on the road, the Pats go back to their play.
A few notable changes on this one. The first? This is the only instance of this play that was not successful. James White bobbles the snap (unlike in the Super Bowl 2 seasons before), which throws off the timing of the play.
But we also have more trickery from Brady: instead of pretending as if the ball is snapped over his head like he normally does, he leaves his position and pretends to call audibles while the ball is snapped.
And lastly, we're seeing more similarities to the 2001 version of the play: the entire line pulls to the left as this play is designed as a sweep instead of a straight ahead dive. Something we haven't seen for almost 20 years.
Will we see this play again in this upcoming Super Bowl? Who knows, but when the Patriots need a red zone score it's definitely a good idea to keep an eye on the direct snap.