Sports

BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Colts’ trick play wasn’t a terrible idea, just terribly executed

Colts coach Chuck Pagano may have been onto something with his fake punt — but his players let him down.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Colts coach Chuck Pagano may have been onto something with his fake punt — but his players let him down.

Let’s talk about the Colts’ disaster late in the third quarter of Sunday night’s game: “Snapfu,” “Fourth and Dumb,” or “WTFake Punt,” whichever you prefer.

First off, let’s be fair to Colts coach Chuck Pagano: The play itself, called the “swinging gate” formation, wasn’t a terrible idea! If you look at the alignment, the Colts had a nine-on-seven blocking advantage against the Patriots defense, and had they been able to get the ball over to the right, they would have easily picked up the 3 yards needed for a first down.

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The formation also is very smart, and hard to diagnose in the heat of the moment. As we learned last year in the AFC Divisional game against the Ravens, the players lined up at the end of the formation on the line of scrimmage are eligible receivers. In this case, center Griff Whalen was actually eligible — and who thinks to ever cover the center? This could have been a big catch-and-run for Whalen, if the Colts had been able to execute it.

And, at minimum, the Colts could have caught the Patriots off guard with substituting and alignment, and gotten a penalty to keep the drive going.

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“They were trying to act like they were running the punt team off and running the offense on, trying to catch the Pats subbing the defense back in,” an NFL special teams coordinator told me Monday morning. “They were going to snap it if they subbed in and caught them with 12 guys on the field.”

However . . .

The play was doomed for three major reasons:

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1. The Patriots had it covered. They didn’t substitute players off the field. They had the center and the quarterback properly covered. The Colts’ only chance was to get the ball out to the right side, and that was impossible from an under-center position. “Obviously, the guy should not have snapped it,” the special teams coach said.

2. The Colts weren’t lined up properly. Again, as we learned in last year’s playoffs, the offense must have seven players on the line of scrimmage; the five inside guys are all ineligible, and the two bookends are eligible. The entire right side of the Colts’ formation lined up 2 yards off the line of scrimmage. There’s nothing else to say about that other than poor coaching.

3. These plays are really hard to execute. We’ve seen a few examples of this kind of trickery over the years, and it usually doesn’t work out well. Plus, the Colts were in their own territory and only trailing, 27-21, making the decision doubly curious.

Last November against the Broncos, the Patriots ran a “fire drill” on fourth down, with the entire punt team sprinting off the field and the offense sprinting onto the field.

It looked good, and then Sebastian Vollmer was called for a false start. Not even the mighty Patriots could pull it off.

In 2013, the Eagles tried a “swinging gate” play on a 2-point conversion against the Chiefs, a play Chip Kelly had brought from Oregon. Except the Eagles didn’t block it properly, and Zach Ertz was tackled in the backfield.

And in 2009, Washington ran a “swinging gate” play on a field goal attempt at the end of the half against the Giants in Week 15. Punter Hunter Smith took the snap and promptly threw the worst interception you will ever see.

It was possibly the dumbest play in the NFL over the last decade . . . until Pagano trumped him Sunday night.

Other observations from the Patriots’ 34-27 win over the Colts after reviewing the tape:

When the Patriots had the ball

 Let’s give the Colts credit for at least slowing the Patriots offense this time (although it’s amazing that 34 points and 417 yards is considered “slowing down”). The Colts were much more stout up front with newcomers Kendall Langford, David Parry, and Henry Anderson, holding the Patriots to 3.2 yards per carry, excluding LeGarrette Blount’s 38-yard touchdown.

The Colts used the same game plan that the Cowboys used two weeks ago, consistently rushing only three defenders and dropping eight into coverage. The Colts played more zone than the Cowboys, who played primarily press-man, and Tom Brady chewed up the Colts on the underneath routes when the DBs were giving a soft cushion at the line of scrimmage.

 This was a Decoy Day for Rob Gronkowski, who had only three catches (on five targets) for 50 yards. He was getting slammed by Erik Walden at the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots responded by trying to line him up out wide to isolate him against the cornerbacks (primarily Vontae Davis), but the Colts shadowed Gronk with safety Mike Adams over the top for much of the game.

This took Gronkowski out of the equation, but left the short middle of the field wide open for Danny Amendola, who had a season-high seven catches for 105 yards, and Julian Edelman, who was effective until he hurt his ring finger in the first half.

The Colts switched to more man-to-man defense in the second half, when Gronkowski had all three of his catches. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson bit badly and got completely turned around on Brady’s play-action fake, leaving Gronk wide open for a 25-yard touchdown.

 That finger clearly affected Edelman, who had three drops in the first half after the injury, including Adams’s pick-6.

Edelman was trying to body-catch the ball instead of using his hands. Of his 10 targets, only two came after he handed Adams the interception with 11:30 to go in the second quarter (plus a third that was negated by penalty).

 Remember, football is a team game. Blount gets all the credit for his touchdown run, but it wouldn’t have been possible if not for a great block by Josh Kline, an excellent pull block by Shaq Mason, and a really nice seal by Cameron Fleming.

Amendola was able to pick up a first down on a third-and-17 screen pass thanks to great downfield blocking by Edelman and Keshawn Martin. And Dion Lewis had only seven touches as he had more of a 50-50 split with Blount, but he had an excellent blitz pickup in the second quarter.

Vollmer held his own at left tackle (though he’s better suited for right tackle) and Mason played double the snaps of fellow rookie Tre Jackson (56 to 23), underscoring how athletic and versatile he is.

 Brady’s underrated mobility was really on display, illustrating how hard he has worked in this area. He made some excellent throws on the run while avoiding pass rushers, highlighted by Amendola’s 24-yard catch-and-run . . .

. . . and Blount’s 11-yard touchdown catch.

NBC’s Cris Collinsworth commented that he felt like he was watching Aaron Rodgers play.

When the Colts had the ball

 Let’s give it up to the Patriots’ secondary, which turned in an admirable performance while shorthanded because of injuries. It limited Andrew Luck to three completions of 20-plus yards on 53 dropbacks. The Colts were killing the Patriots with crossing routes early, so the Patriots switched to a lot of Cover 2 zone, with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon covering the deep part of the field.

Andre Johnson is certainly not the receiver he used to be, but Logan Ryan did an excellent job shadowing him all night, showing impressive ball skills to knock one pass away. Malcolm Butler started the game on T.Y. Hilton, but actually covered Donte Moncrief for most of the game. And while Butler mistimed his jump on Moncrief’s corner fade touchdown, and got caught up in the wash a few times on those crossing routes, he didn’t give up any big plays.

Rookie Justin Coleman spent a lot of time on Hilton, and surprisingly so did safety Patrick Chung, who did really well against the speedy receiver, and against Dwayne Allen as well. Hilton did the Colts no favors by consistently running out of bounds and avoiding contact instead of fighting for extra yards.

 Jamie Collins is simply a freak. He was a terror going after Luck, covered Ahmad Bradshaw out of the backfield, got in the passing lanes to knock down a pass, played the deep middle part of the field in the Cover 2, and had that freakish extra-point block. I know he was a raw prospect, but I can’t believe this kid lasted until the second round of the draft.

 Great game for Dominique Easley, consistently beating Khaled Holmes and Hugh Thornton to collect half a sack and four quarterback hits. Chandler Jones also had four quarterback hits and 2½ sacks, consistently stunting inside and not getting picked up by the Colts’ linemen. Newcomer Akiem Hicks showed up in his second game, throwing Thornton off him and stuffing Frank Gore.

 Excellent tackling day from the Patriots. McCourty tackled Allen from behind at the 3 to save a touchdown (temporarily), and Butler tackled Moncrief from behind, 2 yards shy of a first down.

Special teams

 The Patriots knew a surprise onside kick was coming. Two weeks ago against Dallas, they kept six players up on the line of scrimmage on kickoffs. Against the Colts, they kept eight — four on each side. And the Colts recovered the kick anyway, thanks to a crazy hop. Horrible job by the officials to instantly award the fumble to the Patriots, making it nearly impossible to overturn the call on replay.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.
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