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The trick plays that could decide the Super Bowl
We've had the Philly Special, Randle-El to Ward, and an onside kick to open a half. What's next?
Super Bowl Sunday will feature two of the game’s most creative offensive coaches. Nick Sirianni is a serial gambler. Andy Reid is, well, Andy Reid. The two are unconventional to the point of disruption. As offensive architects go, they don’t get more free-thinking, radical, or original.
Add those minds to these offenses and you wind up with the All-Twirl shift. The Rugby-style laterals. The Rugby-style scrums. The Ring around the Rosies sugar huddle. You name it, they’ve thought of it – and they’ve run it. Some stuff just looks good on the whiteboard; Reid and Sirianni are happy to break with orthodoxy and run the damn thing on Sundays. Reid even dedicates one member of his staff to trawl through high school, international tape, and social media to find the whackiest most imaginative designs – that weekly spot used to belong to former quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka, who will take up a head coaching gig on Monday just two years after being the designated cool play finder.
Trick plays have long been a part of Super Bowl folklore. The Philly Special. Randle El to Ward. Payton in Miami. When you have a tight contest, trying to steal a score or possession can be the difference – an onside kick; a fake punt; punching it in in the red zone after being stone-walled for three downs. Given the talent, the stakes, and the two staffs lining up on Sunday, it feels as though the moment is ripe for a game-altering trick play.
Once derided as gimmicks, trick plays are now an essential part of postseason game-planning. So what will Reid, Sirianni, and company uncork on the biggest stage of them all?
The Halfback Option
An option pass or some variation of the double pass are tried-and-true trick plays in the Super Bowl. But I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this.
Fun fact: The most creative offense being run anywhere in football is in Japan. The Kwansei Gakuin Fighters are the powerhouse of Japanese college football. NFL sides – at least smart ones – trawl all over for any kind of funky play design that can give them an advantage in a high-leverage spot. No one offers more ammunition than Kwansei GF. They are consistently warping the boundaries of what’s possible on a football field.
Behold: Three-back power-read, halfback option:
Yes, you saw that right. It’s a three-back backfield, one lined up as the quarterback and two beside him riding in the sidecar. But, wait, what’s that? THEY’RE BOTH ON THE SAME SIDE. They’re in the SAME SIDECAR? Is this allowed? If so, what does it mean? Did that edible just kick in?
The two-backs-to-the-same-side formation is common within the KG playbook. It allows them to mess with mesh point by tagging a lead blocker to the same side as the exchange – a defense has to figure out who is getting the ball to that side and where the target point is, all while a blocker from the backfield goes screaming out to clear out a defender.
Teams get a similar effect in the traditional split backfield, with two players sitting on either side of the quarterback. With the same-side-sidecar, things are just a little hazier for the defense (though the trade-off is that it restricts the field and what the offense can run) – all the more so when they add in an option element that freezes either an interior lineman or an edge defender.
KG utilize their madcap formation in a bunch of ways. They’ll run a three-back version on early downs or in short-yardage situations, giving them extra beef and flexibility in the run game. And then they’ll run the two-back version with the quarterback back in his original spot in order to try to hit some play-action shots down the field – though the routes that are practical with two backs together are fairly limited, or take an extra couple of beats to develop, beats that would not be available at higher levels.
Still: The most inventive look of all – the let’s pinch this and go win the Super Bowl look – is the power-read option.
I mean, come on now. That is preposterous. Breathe it all in. If you need a second to lie down, I understand. Allow me to fetch you a cold glass of water or an ice pack for your neck.
Let’s dig in. It’s a 2x1 set with the tight end unattached and the two running backs stood to the same side of the ‘quarterback’. The true quarterback is flexed out to one side of the field, stood as wide as possible to stretch out the coverage shell and to help unload a body from the box if the offense opts to run the ball. The tight end aligns in the slot before running a return motion – first, he presses across the formation toward the isolated receiver before returning towards the line of scrimmage. The goal: to give him leverage at the snap to seal the edge of the formation as the backs pull towards the perimeter.
From there, the fun and games really begin.
It’s a power-read: the backside guard wraps for power while the ‘quarterback’ reads a defender — the offense toggles the read-man depending on the defenses pre-snap formation and the numbers in the front. If the read man crashes, the quarterback hands the ball to the running back running along a horizontal line with a pair of lead blockers in space. If that defender surfs, the quarterback keeps it.
The mechanics above get a bit funky – a pair of players appear confused (or the quarterback whiffed on the read). But regardless, the design is inventive and effective.
The end result still works, even if all the moving parts don’t fit together perfectly. The guard wraps. The tight end seals. The first running back through serves as an extra hat to kick out anything that comes flying down to the end of the line of scrimmage.
And then it’s time for the razzmatazz. The second back flowing through picks up the hand-off on the read. He follows the first back – serving as the lead blocker – to the perimeter. If the motion, movement and blocking mechanics drag the linebackers out of space, the second back can follow the first back into space and dart downfield untouched. If a linebacker or safety holds their spot or drives to meet the back in the flat, he has the option to toss it to the boundary receiver down the field — the stop-and-go route from the isolated receiver will either drag the boundary corner out of the space needed for the run, or as that corner bites to play run he can blow by him into space.
Above, the corner bites on the stop-and-go. The receiver cruises into space. Touchdown. Easy work.
It’s wonky. It’s unusual. It’s bordering on the deranged. But it works!
Can you not picture Reid dialing that up in the red zone, either with Travis Kelce in the wildcat quarterback spot or Mahomes standing in his typical spot rather than being flexed out?
Do it, Andy! You know you want to.
The Big Boy Package
Or how about this?
That right there is Matt Nagy’s lasting impression on offensive innovation. Against a slimmed-down Rams front, Nagy ran an all-offensive-lineman play. Outside of Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, all players on the field were linemen. Two lined up in the wing; one lined up in the backfield.
The combined weight of all eleven Bears players on the play was 3,288 lbs. Yet rather than slam the ball into the line of scrimmage behind the roughly 1,400 lbs stood on the right side of the line, Nagy opted to fake the run and to sneak tackle Bradley Sowell out downfield.
Nagy is currently on the Chiefs' staff serving as the situational guru — his job, ostensibly, is to come up with designer plays to attack the principles of that week’s specific opponent. The Chiefs have been creative with touchdowns – both thrown and caught – to the big fellas before. But the all-linemen set likely lends itself more to the Eagles. They’ve been sneaking and scrumming their way to conversions and scores all season – so how about rolling with all of their mass (and depth) along the league’s top offensive line to blast the Chiefs’ slighter front in the red zone, or bluffing the sneak and tossing a ball to Jordan Mailata or Lane Johnson or Andre Dillard?
(At some sportsbooks, you can find any non-offensive player to score a touchdown at 25/1, which necessitates the eyeballs emoji for those that way inclined)
The Fake Sneak
Sticking with that idea. The Eagles' utilization of the sneak push has been one of the defining schematic evolutions of the season. It is, essentially, unstoppable, unless somebody makes a mistake or a defense is blessed with two All-Pro talents along the interior. Philly runs it more than anyone else — and they convert more than anyone else.
The sneak has become so effective — so lethal — that it will almost certainly be outlawed next season – most likely under the (not incorrect) guise of player safety; nobody wants to see Jalen Hurts get folded up on the line of scrimmage being pushed from behind.
But how about layering on top of the sneak (I had to squeeze that in somewhere)? The options are, almost endless. You best believe Steve Spagnuolo has spent two weeks putting a point of emphasis on the sneak itself. Philly can now leverage the threat of the sneak into scoring a conversion or big play elsewhere: they could replicate the Patriots' fake from the end of Super Bowl LI; or they could shift from the bulkier set into a fully spread out, empty look; or they could run the play they’ve been teasing all season:
Did you just hear Spags’ stomach hit the floor? If you can’t stop the sneak, if you’re so worried about stopping the second surge, pushing as many resources into the front as possible, how the holy hell do you go about getting set up to stop the pop pass?
The great wonder of the Eagles’ offense is that they force you into specific looks to stop their base, generic concepts, looks that they can then bludgeon with their more complex designs.
This fits. Piling everyone forward to build an eight-man-wall at the snap to have any shot at stopping the initial sneak and then the push can lead the defense to be caught out if Sirianni, Steichen, and Hurts opt to go for the fake. And with the kind of athletes along Philly’s offensive line and at tight end, it’s the kind of play that feels like it just fits.
The Rugby Lateral
The Chiefs have already unveiled this one a number of times, so it doesn’t really count as something Earth-shattering. But it’s a design that probably has the best shot at snagging a lasting impact.
PFF’s Sam Monson has been banging on about incorporating Rugby style laterals down the field within the flow of an offensive concept for almost a decade. The idea is simple: To build a pair of route concepts together that allow for a built-in pitch further down the field.
The Chiefs have been dabbling with this for some time. Based on film alone, Travis Kelce is routinely given license to pitch the ball after the catch – designed or not. His pitch to Jerrick McKinnon in the AFC Title game was clearly unscripted, based on the route structure and the fact that McKinnon appeared to have no idea that it was coming.
Had McKinnon set off early and timed it correctly, he would still be running today. But the hiccup in his step owed to the fact he had no idea that Kelce was going to lateral the ball. Kelce looked a couple of other times in the second half to try to lateral it.
In the biggest of games against a tough defense, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Kelce given full freedom to try to attempt one pitch down the field.
Did Big Red Drop Acid?
Coaching Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce must be fun. It seems as though Andy Reid and Eric Biennemy delight in making the game even harder — or at least more interesting – for themselves.
With Mahomes at quarterback, the scales are forever tilted in their favor. succeed. And few staffs are as adroit at crafting ways through play design to make life easier on their superstars. But there is — or, I should say, there has to be — an element of the offense that is just chucking funny junk at the wall because they can and it’s interesting and, you know, why not? Why else do you *really* need all eleven players spinning in the huddle pre-snap?
So, I offer you: the backward pass.
Is this absurd? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Will Reid have spied it and thought about it and have even tried it in practice? You betcha.
I mean, is it more bizarre than having eleven grown men spin around in a circle before breaking the huddle in a mostly meaningless game to throw off where those eleven guys would align before the snap?
Not really. And it’s not as if the full-time quarterback is always looking at his targets — and that appears to function okay.
The concept starts with a full shift – a Reid staple on tricky plays. One side of the line flips over to the other, leaving the group with an unbalanced offensive line. There are two players lined up in the wing. One, a fullback, is in a three-point stance. The other is a receiver, standing in a half-tilt. Will he insert as a blocker? Will he spin out as a receiver? Does he even know where he’s supposed to be?
The quarterback and running back are in the gun, the back close enough in the sidecar to hear a secret.
Pre-snap, the offense is set up to either crunch the ball behind the fullback with some extra heft to the right side of the line of scrimmage or to sneak the secondary wing (the receiver) out for a play-fake.
But that would be too obvious. That would be ho-him. That would fit within the normal paradigm of what we consider ‘football’ and ‘offense’. That would be Please Please Me. This shit is Rubber Soul.
At the snap, the quarterback gathers the ball in the gun and hands it off to the back before sprinting out into a fake. He wants to zoom away from the mesh point to drag the second-level defender's eyes and feet sideways.
It’s all a ruse. The offense has no intention of using the eye candy – the shift; the optionality – to puncture the defense on the ground.
The running back gathers the ball and presses toward the line.
The fullback turns his back to the line of scrimmage.
The running back hands the ball to the FULLBACK.
The wing receiver sneaks toward the end zone.
THE FULLBACK LOBS THE BOUQUET BACKWARDS OVER HIS HEAD TO THE RECEIVER SPRINTING FROM THE WING!
Football coaches are such beautiful weirdos that you just know some high school educator spent an afternoon at a wedding he did not want to attend trying to find inspiration that could help his side reach state — probably over a Red Bull or 40. Hmmm, see the way they gather down at the front and then she turns around and lobs it over their head. What if she muddied the read a little bit with some late movement or pre-snap motion? Then she’d definitely toss it past the irritating friend.
Reid and his staff regularly assemble a rough cut of all of the wildest, most innovative plays that football — in college, high school, and around the world — has to offer. The backward pass will be stored on those MP4s somewhere. Sirianni and his staff might take a different path to design their off-the-wall looks, but they appear to arrive at the same conclusion: It doesn’t matter how goofy it is as long as it provides an advantage.
Trick plays have become a mainstay of Super Bowls. When the talent discrepancy is this tight, it can take some esoteric thinking to provide the difference. Both staffs are ripe to rip anything from the archives of all football to try to squeeze out a score or a drive-extender on Sunday. It could be something we’ve seen somewhere in the football world, or something new and entirely of their own making.
Sirianni and Reid are both bold and fearless. They challenge their staffs to think differently — and craft designs that no one can prepare for. Both will have a couple of go-to tricks that they’ve saved in their back pockets for this exact moment.
Be prepared to see the unthinkable.