Having grown up in Annapolis, New England Coach Bill Belichick remembers watching quarterback Johnny Unitas, one of the NFL’s pioneers of the pass, drive the Baltimore Colts up and down the field with their version of the two-minute drill. At the time, no one did it quite like the man with the golden arm.
Nearly four decades after Unitas retired, quarterback Tom Brady often forgoes a huddle, racing to the line of scrimmage to exploit reeling defenses. Some suggest the Patriots are pioneers of sorts, but Belichick spikes that notion.
“It’s not like that’s something new to football,” Belichick said.
But you would think otherwise given how often his Patriots have caught opponents off guard.
This season the Patriots ran more plays, piled up more yards, picked up more first downs and scored more points than any other team in the NFL. With their offensive stars producing video-game-type numbers, the Patriots will be home against the Ravens in the AFC final Sunday for a second straight season.
For the Ravens to leave Foxborough with a win, they must find a way to slow Brady and the Patriots, something few teams have been able to do.
The Patriots have used the no-huddle offense for a little more than a quarter of their plays this season. But it’s when they use it, not how often they use it, that makes it so difficult to defend.
“When they make plays, they hurry up to the line and they speed the game up on guys. If you’re not ready, if you’re not prepared for it, it will catch you off guard,” Ravens cornerback Corey Graham said. “They’ve been catching guys off guard.”
The Patriots’ offense ran 1,191 plays in the regular season. That was 164 more than the NFL average, meaning Brady played the approximate equivalent of nine extra quarters compared with the average quarterback. They had 444 first downs, 130 more than the Ravens, who ranked in the middle of the pack. And they averaged a league-best 427.9 total yards per game.
Playing the role of Magic Johnson in New England’s fast-break attack, Brady had 4,827 passing yards and 34 touchdown passes. Wes Welker tied for second in the NFL with 118 receptions. Rob Gronkowski, out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken arm, had the most touchdown catches for a tight end (11) despite missing five games. And led by running back Stevan Ridley and his 1,263 yards, the Patriots ranked seventh in rushing.
The Patriots, who scored 76 more points than the second-highest team and led the league in touchdowns, often had to wait until they reached the end zone to get a breather.
In their 41-28 win against the Houston Texans in the playoffs, the Patriots gained 457 yards and scored five touchdowns. The Patriots were credited with 10 no-huddle snaps — the official scorekeeper missed at least one other, though — and scored twice on no-huddle plays.
“If you don’t get lined up right and right away, you’ve got no chance,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
After a 14-yard reception by Aaron Hernandez in the first quarter, the Patriots sprinted to the line, and the official spotting the ball dodged linemen. Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson and linebacker Brooks Reed slammed into each other while scrambling to get lined up. Amid the chaos, Shane Vereen was not touched on his 1-yard TD run.
Two quarters later, after a 23-yard run by Ridley, Brady barked out another no-huddle play call. Getting the snap off just after Texans defensive end Antonio Smith subbed off the field, he quickly threw the ball to Brandon Lloyd, who sidestepped a flat-footed cornerback for a 5-yard touchdown.
“Tom Brady runs it so well,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s not just the fact that they go fast sometimes. They force you to line up. Sometimes they’ll force the defense to show their hand because you have to defend the play. If they don’t, they’ll run the play. You saw last week they got Houston in some tough situations and it was big plays for them. It usually results in a big play.”
Looking for another edge two years ago, Belichick flew in an offensive innovator to pick his brain. Oregon punished opponents and short-circuited scoreboards with a break-neck pace under Chip Kelly.
The biggest takeaway from those meetings? To pick up the tempo, they had to cut down on the chatter. Time was wasted as Brady spit out long play calls. Now, according to The Boston Globe, the Patriots use one of several one-word play calls in their no-huddle. That one word tells all 11 players what they need to do — who the offensive line blocks, where the backs line up, which routes the wide receivers run.
“They’ve learned through the college game some of the best ways to implement it into the pro game,” said former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN. “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘innovative,’ I think they have just streamlined it. At this point they are pioneering something in the NFL, which is super fast. People played fast before but no one has ever played super fast.”
Ravens tight end Ed Dickson played three years under Kelly at Oregon, and those practices — loud music pumping as players flew up and down the field — were so frenetic, Dickson said, further conditioning was unnecessary.
The Patriots don’t go nonstop, but Dickson sees traces of what Kelly, who was introduced as the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Thursday, preached at Oregon.
“It’s a smart two-minute,” said Dickson, who believes Kelly will succeed in the NFL. “It’s not going haywire out there, saying, ‘We need to go score.’ They know exactly when to slow it down.”
What the Patriots are doing, sometimes snapping the ball with 20 or more seconds left on the play clock, has left defenders out of breath but not words.
In November, New York Jets linebacker Calvin Pace called the Patriots’ tactics “borderline illegal.” Texans linebacker Bradie James joked that he wasn’t even sure the officials were set Sunday when Brady was snapping the ball. And while watching the Patriots’ latest win on television, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo ripped them on Twitter for running a “gimmick” offense.
“New England does some suspect stuff on offense. Can’t really respect it. (It’s) comparable to a cheap shot (before) a fight,” Ayanbadejo wrote on his Twitter account, adding, “It’s a gimmick.”
Ayanbadejo has apologized.