To Dont’a Hightower, situational football is simple.
“Football itself is situational football,’’ said the Patriots linebacker.
Working on and preparing for the thousands of situations that are out of the norm are heavy on the Patriots agenda.
When asked how often situational football is practiced and preached at One Patriot Place, a smiling Dion Lewis said, “A lot. Every day. Every day.”
But can those high-pressure, game-on-the-line situations be replicated in practice? The Patriots think so.
“You can practice it,’’ said Lewis. “The more you practice it, the more you’re ready for it in a game situation — that’s the big thing that’s always said [around here]. That way you’re ready for it and it just becomes second nature.’’
Punter/holder Ryan Allen is only on the field for situational plays and believes New England’s practice methods, which combine physical repetitions and mental tests, are invaluable.
“Making sure you’re mentally going through things is just as important as doing it physically,’’ he said. “When you have both you’re giving yourself the best chance to go out there and be productive.”
Former Patriots running back Jonas Gray offered some insight into how much the team spends on the little things.
“I was with the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Ravens before coming here,” Gray said during the week before New England’s Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle. “We didn’t practice situational football there like we do here. We talk about the importance of situational football pre-practice and post-practice. We practice with wet balls. Balls that have grease on them. We have drills where a partner is constantly trying to strip you of the ball to try to recreate those situations that happen in games. It’s that kind of detail that makes a difference in close games.’’
It’s not a new phenomenon for the Patriots to emphasize situational football. Former long snapper Lonie Paxton said it’s always been this way.
“Everything we practiced in New England had a situation attached to it,’’ he said. “From Day 1 of spring we harped on it. We had a good couple periods during practice where we would do it as a team and then on the side the specialists would kind of create our own situations.
“So, we were always preparing for them. Whether it was a last-second field goal, a fake punt, some sort of fair catch after a safety or whatnot,’’ he continued. “There are a lot of situations that we prepared for that Ernie [Adams] and Bill [Belichick] and the staff didn’t miss.’’
When Tom Crean was asked recently about the key to Belichick’s success, the former Indiana basketball coach said of his friend, “Everything matters every day.’’
That simple answer goes a long way in understanding why the Patriots invest so much time in preparing for every situation.
Here are some — but certainly not all — of the scenarios that come to mind when discussing situational football.
There’s not a lot of guesswork as to what this is. The two-minute drill (or hurry-up offense) is when the offense is battling not only the defense but also the clock.
As always, the quarterback is the key here as he must be on top of his game both physically and mentally. He needs to remain calm while also setting a torrid pace. While gaining yardage is priority No. 1, stopping the clock without burning timeouts is 1A. The QB not only is charged with getting the ball to his receivers (the majority of hurry plays are passes), but he also must deliver it to a spot where his target has a reasonable shot of getting out of bounds.
Knowing when to use a timeout or spike the ball (also known as clocking it) is critical, as is deciding when it’s appropriate to take one more shot down field or settling for a field goal depending on the score and situation.
Few are better at this discipline than Tom Brady, who has engineered 40-game winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in the regular season. Oh, and he spearheaded the winning drive to break a tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime in each of New England’s five Super Bowl wins.
Heading into his 18th season, Brady has plenty of experience running the hurry-up. Many of his teammates haven’t. They benefit from not only having Brady at the helm but Bill Belichick as well.
Often times during 11 on 11s in camp, the coach will shout out a situation during the hurry-up drill: “First and 15, 55 seconds left” or “Third and 5, 20 seconds left” or “Field goal.” When the orders are given, the players scramble. When it’s done right, they howl. When it’s done wrong, Brady scowls.
“Oh, boy,’’ said Jimmy Garoppolo when asked what was more important for running a successful two-minute drill — mental sharpness or physical ability.
“I don’t think it’s either one,’’ said the quarterback. “If you have one without the other you’re not going to be successful. So, it’s a combination — obviously you have to have the mental toughness part of it but if you don’t make the physical throws it’s not going to work.’’
This is pretty much the exact opposite of the two-minute version. The objective here is to protect a lead and grind the clock down. A seasoned QB will set a steady but tempered pace. If you can extend the lead, all the better.
The four-minute offense features a heavy dose of conservatism. This attack will include lots of runs and low-risk passes to keep the chains moving — you won’t see many flea-flickers and double reverses.
Protecting the football and avoiding penalties are the keys to the success of the four-minute attack. Letting a team back in a game because of sloppiness and mental errors will drive a coach up the proverbial wall.
Known mainly as a desperation move when a team is trailing late, this also can be an effective “surprise” tactic — especially if the receiving team is reeling. It can be a spirit lifter for the kicking team and a spirit killer for the receiving team.
The ball set askew on a tee, kickers gently nudge the top of it in the hopes of getting one or two short bounces and one giant bounce. It’s on the high bounce where the play turns into a demolition derby with bodies crashing as the ball – which is anybody’s after 10 yards — is literally up for grabs.
“You’ve got to get a lucky bounce,’’ said Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, when asked what is needed to pull off a successful onside kick. “I think most teams have seen everything that’s been thrown out there [on an onside kick], so I guess catching them off guard, getting that lucky bounce, and getting that perfect kick are the keys. There’s only so many things you can do, so hopefully we don’t need too many of them.’’
While the vast majority of onside kicks are executed when a team is trying to dig out of a hole, they have been deployed as a surprise move to further demoralize a reeling team.
“We’re always ready for what the coaches ask us and if there ever comes a time when we need one, we’re always ready,’’ said Gostkowski. “It’s all situational. If we’re up by 10-14 points, you don’t want to risk an onside kick. But that’s something the coaches have to decide. If they have confidence that I can do it, then I have no problem trying it in any situation.’’
In perhaps the most memorable example of situation football, the Patriots gave the Broncos 2 points in 2003 on an intentional safety as a way of getting the ball back quickly.
Trailing, 24-23, and facing a fourth and 10 at their 1, Bill Belichick called for a safety, in which Lonie Paxton snapped the ball out of the end zone and off an upright, extending the Broncos’ lead and giving them the ball on a free kick — and almost assuredly worse field position than they would have received on a punt from the end zone.
New England, which boasted the league’s top defense, got the ball back on a three-and-out. Tom Brady led a two-minute drive that was capped by a touchdown pass to David Givens and an eventual 30-26 win in Denver.
“We practiced situations so much, it was almost a no-brainer to us,’’ said Paxton. “I guess to the TV audience and to everyone viewing it was this kind magical solution but we actually practiced taking an intentional safety a lot if the situation called for it. Well, the situation called for it and just so happened to be that we we’re down and not up, so it was a little trickier, but we definitely practiced for it.’’
While most were surprised by the call, Paxton wasn’t.
“Bill knew I could snap it 30, 35 yards, so as I was running out there, he just said to me, ‘throw into the 10th row,’ ’’ said Paxton. “I was just trying to throw it as high as I could into the stands. It just so happens we were on a hash, and I was a guy who prided myself on accuracy, so I threw it straight and straight behind me was the goal post.’’
Red zone offense
Getting into the red zone — that coveted patch of turf from the 20-yard line to the end zone – is the first goal of the offense. Converting once you’ve arrived is the ultimate goal.
This is a situation where momentum can stop — or change sides in a hurry. Suddenly, an offense that was rolling can come to a crashing halt. There’s less field for the defense to protect and consequently, the play selection sheet gets shorter. It’s tougher to run because linebackers and safeties tend to play more snug to the line. It’s tougher to pass because the middle is clogged with traffic and deep patterns don’t exist.
Red zone defense
It’s not just the offensive guys who face a stiffer challenge in the red area. The pressure is on the defense, too.
The front seven must dig in against the run because the slightest crack can lead to a short touchdown. The edge rushers have less time to get to the quarterback because he’ll be chucking it quicker. The corners have less of a cushion to give because there’s less time and space to make up ground with a closing burst. The safeties have to be quicker in their presnap recognition — are they bringing the wood or are they backpedaling?
Third and short
Does the drive continue or stall? It often comes down to how a team performs on third down and in particular third and short. Conventional wisdom says (or used to say) run. But this takes the guesswork out of it for defenses, which load the box and take away running lanes.
“You’ve just always got to be aware. Aware of the situation — that’s the big thing here playing great situational football,’’ said Patriots running back Dion Lewis. “Because it’s third and 1, you’re running for that 1 yard, you’re not running like you normally would on a running play. So, situational football is things like that.’’
Beating the blitz
Blitzes can ruin your day.
There are many variations (zone, single edge, double edge, safety, corner) but they’re all designed with one thing in mind — get the quarterback.
Knowing when a team likes to blitz is the first step in neutralizing it. Having a smart QB, an alert running back, and a “hot” receiver helps, too.
When a QB notices a blitz during presnap recognition, calling an audible to a receiver that is likely to be left unaccounted for and having a back pick up the blitzer can lead to a big play.
It may seem like a simple concept — kick the ball as far as you can and try to flip the field on your opponent. But there are other variables. For proof, here are the thoughts of New England’s Ryan Allen, one of the best in the business.
“I think being at the punter position is very situational . . . Maybe you’re trying to kick away from a certain return man to try and neutralize their return game, so you may try to place a shorter ball out of bounds. Sometimes you’re backed up and you need a long ball. Other times you’re pretty close and you want to pin them deep. So it’s all situational. And I think that’s the fun part about the position is you never know the hand you’re going to be dealt and you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and the situation is different every single time. That’s what keeps you on your toes and that’s why you have to be ready for different things. So we definitely practice for any situation that could come up.’’
When asked about fake punts, Allen said the key is having everybody on the same page.
“In order to execute that stuff, all 11 players have to be doing their job. We all have certain roles on certain plays — whether it’s a fake or whether it’s a normal repetition on one of the four phases of special teams. And if 10 guys are doing something right and one guy is not doing it, that can be the end of the play right there.”
When it was suggested that the fake punt be used more often — more as an element of surprise play than just a desperation move — Allen offered a differing opinion. He suggested going for it on fourth down might be the best bet.
“We have amazing athletes on the offensive side of the ball,’’ said Allen. “Those guys work together as a unit, solely focused on offense, so one could say your percentages are better going with an offensive unit and running a play that those guys do well on.’’
Matching wits with sub packages on defense has become the game within the game in the NFL. Going from base 3-4s and 4-3s to nickel and dime looks even from play to play is more the norm than the exception now.
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said substituting is “absolutely” a part of situational football. Because the offense dictates the pace, Hightower said awareness is the key to correct substituting.
“Obviously whatever the offense is emphasizing is going to be the big point of emphasis for the defense,’’ said Hightower. “Situational football is not just two-minute offense or four-minute offense, or get the ball back, or an onside kick. It’s knowing the repercussions of a play before you execute it. It’s knowing how your opponent is going to be attacking and doing your best job to defend it.’’
Hightower said speed also is a big factor here especially when QBs switch to no-huddle attacks or what he called “going NASCAR.”
“You have to be prepared for everything because these guys are not letting you sub,’’ said Hightower.
Maybe the greatest example of New England’s substituting prowess and preparedness came in Super Bowl XLIX when the coaches recognized Seattle’s three-receiver formation on the goal line and they hustled Malcolm Butler in the game — everybody remembers Brian Flores yelling “Malcolm go!” in “Do Your Job.”
The Patriots hadn’t used a three-corner set on the goal line all season — but they had practiced it extensively — so they were prepared.
Butler, the then unheralded and undrafted rookie, proceeded with his championship-sealing interception of Russell Wilson.
Belichick credited football research director Ernie Adams, a daily practice attendee, with helping squash that play.
“You’re going to win or lose games in practice. There is no such thing as being a game day player. You see situations come up on the practice field, you’ve worked on it, you know what it takes when it comes up in the game because you’ve trained, you’re seasoned, you’ve seen it, [and] you react to make the play,’’ Adams said in “Do Your Job.” “I wish I could say that everything we did worked out as well as that, obviously it doesn’t, but we do try to make sure that we’re ready for anything that comes up on a Sunday.”
Dont’a Hightower said discipline — especially in high-pressure situations — is critical. The linebacker specifically pointed to falling victim to the presnap inflections of the QB’s voice.
“Aaron Rodgers does it, Drew Brees does it, Matt Stafford does it and I’m pretty sure Tom [Brady] does it, too where they can get the defense to jump offside,’’ he said. “You know, that comes down to knowing your opponent.’’
The Patriots always have a group of plays that can be called at a moment’s notice regardless of the situation — including the postseason.
Think of the double pass from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola for a touchdown against the Ravens in the AFC divisional round. Last season New England pulled a flea-flicker against the Steelers that resulted in a long Tom Brady touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. The story behind the story of how that play unfolded is retold in “Do Your Job 2.”
Another gadget play often lost when stories of the Super Bowl LI victory are retold is the last play of regulation.
Although it appeared Tom Brady was preparing to take a knee, he wasn’t. Crouched under center with James Develin tight to his left and Dion Lewis tight to his right in a protection formation, Brady took the snap. Instead of kneeling, however, he deftly tucked the ball to Lewis before sprinting toward the Falcons sideline. The Falcons defense stood up at the snap before realizing Lewis was sprinting around the left edge. The Patriots didn’t score but it was another example of being prepared for anything — which the Falcons were not.
James White, who was lined up as the deep tailback on that play, vividly remembers practicing that scenario.
“The fake kneel,’’ said White, laughing at the memory. “I never thought we’d run that play but we did and it’s a good play. It’s never shocking when we call a play like that but it is a surprise sometimes. But the coaches really do a great job of preparing us for everything.’’
Perhaps no unit is more familiar with high stress situations than the field goal unit. Lots of times the game is riding on their performance. It’s in these situations where mental toughness outweighs physical prowess, according to kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
“We’re always in a one-play situation. But obviously the less time there is in a game and the closer the score, the more heightened the situation is and I think having done things in practice and having had success in the past at certain things can help mentally,’’ said Gostkowski, who has eight game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime in his career. “I mean if I’m kicking a field goal at the end of the game as compared to one in the first quarter, it’s technically the same kick but the situation is heightened so, from my position, it’s more mental.’’
Gostkowski said that while game experience is invaluable, the Patriots staff does a great job of replicating high-pressure/stress situations in practice to get the team ready.
“You always want to practice well and play well and put yourself in good situations,’’ said the franchise’s all-time leader in field goals (303) and points (1,457). “You can’t set up perfectly a game situation in practice but you try to get yourself as close as possible. The coaches put a ton of pressure on us on a daily basis so sometimes it seems even more nerve racking to kick in practice than it does in a game.’’
The first week of training camp offered a nice mix of weather scenarios for the Patriots. It was cool and cloudy followed by blistering heat and humidity capped by a two-hour session in the rain. The only thing missing was a nice wintry Nor’easter.
It was just what coach Bill Belichick would have ordered if he could have. It gave the players a chance to work under varying conditions while also working on footing and ball control.