Having grown up in Annapolis, 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 his New England Patriots are pioneers of sorts with what they have done this season, but Belichick spikes that notion.
"It's not like that's something brand new to football," Belichick said about his team's offensive style.
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 team in the NFL. With their offensive stars producing video-game-type numbers, the Patriots will host the Ravens in the AFC championship game on Sunday for a second straight season.
For the Ravens to leave Foxborough with a win this time, they must find a way to slow down 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 have been catching a lot of guys off guard."
High volume, high production
The Patriots offense ran 1,191 plays during the regular season. That was 164 more than the NFL average, meaning Brady played the approximate equivalent of nine extra quarters compared to 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. Wide receiver Wes Welker tied for second in the NFL with 118 receptions. Rob Gronkowski, out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken arm, was 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 AFC divisional round, the Patriots gained 457 total yards and scored five touchdowns. The Patriots were credited with 10 no-huddle snaps — the official scorekeeper missed at least one other, though — and they scored twice on no-huddle plays, with the Texans on their heels and out of position.
"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 tight end Aaron Hernandez in the first quarter, the Patriots sprinted up to the line, and the official spotting the ball dodged linemen as if he was in Spain running with the bulls. Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson and linebacker Brooks Reed slammed into each other while scrambling to get lined up. Amidst the chaos, Shane Vereen was not touched on his 1-yard touchdown 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 out to wide receiver 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."
Gimmick or innovation?
Looking for another edge two years ago, Belichick flew in an offensive innovator from Eugene, Ore., to pick his brain. The University of Oregon football team 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 words 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 stream-lined 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 Ducks players flew up and down the field — were so frenetic, Dickson said further conditioning was unnecessary. Kelly's motto was "Win the Day," and he wanted to do it by running 100 plays a game. Dickson fondly remembers Oregon's opponents "grabbing their ankles or knees and gasping for air."
The Patriots don't go non-stop like Oregon, but Dickson sees traces of what Kelly, who was introduced as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles on 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 without a loss for 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 since apologized, but that won't remove it from Boston-area bulletin boards.
Slowing the Patriots down
However you want to classify what the Patriots do, stopping it is a concern heading into Sunday's game.
In Baltimore's 31-30 win in Week 3, New England went without a huddle on 38 of their 77 plays, and the Patriots scored two of their touchdowns after rushing to the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens defense has tightened up in the playoffs, allowing just 27 points in two games, but Ray Lewis and company have been on the field for a total of 185 plays the past two weekends. Harbaugh raved about his team's conditioning this week, but the Patriots may try to run the Ravens ragged.
Asked how the Ravens, who may try to blitz and batter Brady to knock him out of rhythm, could make life uncomfortable for the New England quarterback, Pees joked that they could "hire Tonya Harding" or spray the door on the Patriots bus with water "and hope it freezes." Pees then gushed about Brady, labeling him a Hall of Famer.
"He can give you this little boyish look on TV, but he is a very, very, very competitive guy," he said.
Lewis, the quarterback of the defense, is one of the game's most calculating minds when it comes to the pre-snap chess match. But no one in the NFL is moving the pieces faster than Brady right now.
"They are big into getting people out of position, and you watch the Houston game last week, a huge example of how they can confuse you and get you to line up not right, and then a touchdown is too easy," Lewis said. "You have to be able to look at them and say, 'Come play football.' "
Whether the Patriots' sneak attacks are a gimmick or truly an NFL innovation, the Ravens say that they are ready. Knowing that they are coming is half the battle. Stopping them is another challenge in itself.
"I couldn't care less about anything being a gimmick. They haven't been penalized on it," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "That's just the game that they play. They're good at it, they're experienced and they know how to get it done. No. 12 is probably one of the best at it."
Brady is not the first quarterback to thrive in the no-huddle offense, but right now, he is running it the fastest.
twitter.com/mattvenselCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times