Winslow Townson for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Under investigation as to whether they deflated footballs in the AFC title game, the Patriots won’t stop pushing the boundaries in Super Bowl 49

By Jenny Vrentas
January 20, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Whenever head referee Walt Anderson announced that an ineligible player was reporting as eligible, or vice versa, the home crowd of 68,756 roared as if the Patriots had just found the end zone in Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game.

Even those in the nosebleeds at Gillette Stadium knew what to expect: a trick play, but something more highbrow than a flea-flicker or a triple reverse. A referee’s announcement meant there would be a creative manipulation of the offensive formation, just like the ones New England had used to snooker the Ravens for three first downs on a critical third-quarter scoring drive in the divisional round a week earlier.

Everyone knew what was coming, but the Colts still couldn’t stop it. Left tackle Nate Solder, a one-time tight end in college, reported as eligible in the third quarter and caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, giving the Patriots a 17-point lead in their 45-7 victory.

“We didn’t line up right, and didn’t cover him,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said afterward.

There go the Patriots, pushing the envelope again, right?

Talk about a loaded phrase.

Just a few hours after the game, Bob Kravitz of Indianapolis’ WTHR-TV reported that the NFL is investigating whether the Patriots deflated their game balls on a purpose, a tactic that would make them easier to handle in the wet weather conditions. Each team uses its own footballs during a game, delivering a set of 12 balls to the officials’ locker room two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. The referee checks to make sure they are properly inflated before returning them to the team’s ball attendant just before the game starts. Team staffers handle balls on the sideline—those not in use are kept in a bag near the instant replay monitor—though deflating them out in the open would be a risky and brazen move.

This DeflateGate controversy might not be fully resolved before the Super Bowl, but it has already added fuel to the public’s lingering distrust of the Patriots following Spygate. If these allegations are confirmed, the NFL says discipline could include a $25,000 fine for the person responsible, as well as the head coach or other team personnel. On Monday, Bill Belichick said, “We'll cooperate fully with whatever the league wants, whatever questions they ask, whatever they want us to do.”

But don’t expect him to stop pushing boundaries—at least within the lines.

As reported by the website, the Super Bowl will be refereed by Bill Vinovich, who also officiated the Patriots-Ravens divisional-round  game in which New England unveiled its unorthodox formations. Three times on one drive, the Patriots caught the Ravens off guard with a four-man offensive line. One such play was a 14-yard pass to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who lined up at left tackle while running back Shane Vereen reported ineligible split wide on the right side of the formation.

The Patriots ran up-tempo on that drive, and the Ravens’ defense had roughly seven to 10 seconds between the “ineligible” announcement and the snap. The circumstances were different against the Colts. The Patriots used a four-man line on two plays, with Hoomanawanui reporting as ineligible. Neither were hurry-up plays, and each time about 20 seconds elapsed between the announcement and the snap. On the first, the umpire stood over the ball for about eight seconds.

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Solder’s touchdown came via a different look. On roughly a third of their offensive snaps, the Patriots used rookie Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman. He reported eligible, but he was almost always an extra blocker on running plays. By early in the third quarter Fleming had been deployed as the sixth lineman 11 times, including nine runs. Then came the change-up.

On third-and-1 from the Colts’ 16-yard line, Fleming again lined up as a sixth lineman on the outside shoulder of the right tackle. He was ineligible, but didn’t have to report because he was in a natural position for his jersey number. Solder lined up where he normally would as a left tackle, but this time he reported as an eligible receiver.

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The Colts, specifically linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and safety LaRon Landry, bit on Brady’s fake handoff to LaGarrette Blount, having been conditioned to look for a running play out of this personnel grouping. Solder, meanwhile, disengaged from the edge rusher, outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, and quickly found himself open a few yards past the line. By the time Jackson realized what happened, Solder had caught the ball and had an angle to the end zone.

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The Colts had about 12 seconds between the eligibility announcement and the snap, but they weren’t able to see through the deception. “Obviously, it is going to create some confusion for them,” left guard Dan Connolly said. “They just needed to be able to take the time to communicate, and they just didn’t have the time. We were able to run the play before they could get it figured out.”

Solder isn’t the NFL’s only offensive tackle to have caught a touchdown pass this season—and the success rate on such plays is surprisingly high. Offensive tackles scored a TD on three of the four times they were targeted, according to Pro Football Focus. (The other two were the Colts’ Anthony Castonzo and the Raiders’ Donald Penn; this doesn’t include plays on which interior lineman caught deflected passes, nor does it include special-teams plays like the Seahawks’ fake field goal in the NFC title game.) But the Patriots have taken the gambit to the next level, proving there are myriad ways to space out the required seven men on the line of scrimmage.

But you can count on one thing for sure. However they line up in the Super Bowl, the Pats will be trying to take the air out of the Seahawks’ formidable D.

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