FOXBOROUGH — On Oct. 10, playing against the Giants, Tom Brady surpassed Peyton Manning to move into the No. 2 spots on the NFL’s all-time passing yards and completions lists. Those, however, were not the only addenda the Patriots quarterback made to the record books that day.
Brady also scored two rushing touchdowns. At 42 years and 68 days old, he became the oldest player in NFL history to score two rushing touchdowns in a game. He scored both on a play he’s well known for running: the quarterback sneak.
It’s one that’s been a staple short-yardage call for the Brady-era Patriots, but one they haven’t needed as much over the last couple of years. So far this year, with their offensive line hit by injuries and the running game struggling, they’ve turned to it more frequently.
“We didn’t have any goal line in that game, and that’s what we needed to do to be successful,” said center Ted Karras. “He’s done it for 20 years, and he does everything he can to help the team win.
“I’m just glad that I was a little part of an NFL record, which was pretty cool, but even just a victory in that game. That’s what we needed to do to win.”
The Patriots have run the QB sneak five times through seven games, three shy of their 2018 total. If they run double-digit sneaks this year for the first time since 2015 — as they’re on pace to — Brady says that’s fine with him.
“If that’s what it’s got to be, I try to get as many yards as I can,” Brady said.
The sneak is a great play. It’s just not one that everybody wants to run.
An ESPN analysis from 2017 found that teams converted on sneaks 17 percent more often than they did on non-sneak runs in short-yardage situations and 29 percent more often than they did on passing plays in those situations. In fact, teams sneaking with 2 yards to go converted 73 percent of the time, while teams that went with a non-sneak run or pass with just 1 yard to go converted less often, 65 percent of the time, despite the shorter distance.
“It’s hard to defend,” said Browns coach and former quarterback Freddie Kitchens, whose team may have to defend a sneak or two Sunday. “You just try to knock the line back and see where it falls, but you have to make sure you’re gap-stable.
“But also, if they pitch it outside, you’ve got to be able to defend that as well. So there’s only so much you can do. If you’re willing to do it, it’s usually successful.”
Not everyone is willing, though, and the sneak is going out of style. Teams ran QB sneaks in short-yardage situations 4.8 percent of the time in 2016, according to the ESPN study, down from 12.5 percent of the time in 2001.
The reason for the decline is simple. The play may be more reliable than any other in short-yardage, but it puts the most valuable player on the team in a vulnerable position.
When Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes dislocated his kneecap on a fourth-and-1 sneak Oct. 17, the instant reaction revolved around whether or not it’s worth it to expose a franchise quarterback that way.
“It was a freak thing,” said Kansas City coach Andy Reid, who called the play and said he didn’t regret doing so, a fair point considering that there’s danger in every play run in every game.
Brady would concur. His history of sneaking makes it obvious that he thinks the gains are worth the risk, though that belief comes from places more specific than blind faith.
“The first thing I’ve always said to any quarterback that is going to try it is, ‘You have to be willing to do it,’ ” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “There’s an inherent courage and willingness to send your body into a bunch of 300-plus-pound men and push and not go to the ground and not lose the ball and have an awareness of where you’re at and also find the sweet spot, which he does a great job of.”
There are two main reasons Brady can accept the risks. One is fairly predictable.
“Pliability, man,” he said. “That’s what I work on every day.”
He believes his body is better prepared than most to swim around beneath a sea of linemen and pop up unscathed. So far, so good.
The other, though unsaid by Brady, was posited by those around him: He’s pretty good at it. The best evidence for that is that Brady’s willingness to sneak puts him in the company of other quarterbacks whose raw physical traits clearly surpass his.
Since 2015, he has rushed with 3 or fewer yards to go a total of 38 times, behind only Carolina’s Cam Newton (101 attempts) and the Chargers’ Tyrod Taylor (39) among quarterbacks. Brady has converted 84 percent of those attempts, to Newton’s 83 percent and Taylor’s 62 percent.
Over the course of his career, Brady has sneaked 175 times and converted 82 percent of the time, with 16 touchdowns.
“I do think there’s a technique to it from a quarterback position, and I think Tom’s one of the best to ever play the game in that area,” said Kitchens.
A total of 15 NFL teams cannot claim to have ever stopped Brady from converting on a sneak attempt, including the Jaguars, who have given up the first down on all seven tries against them. There’s only one team, the Vikings, against whom Brady has never converted. He’s tried four times.
Other than the three other AFC East teams, Brady has run the sneak most often against the Broncos (successful on 5 of 9), Jacksonville (7 for 7), and Indianapolis (6 of 7). He has one career turnover on a sneak, a lost fumble at the goal line against Buffalo in 2013, recovered by Kiko Alonso.
Former University of Maine, Jets, and Chiefs defensive end Mike DeVito holds the honor of most credited tackles of Brady (5) on sneaks. Three of them came after Brady got the first down, but DeVito’s two stuffs mean he was more successful than most.
“I have as much confidence in him and our line in those situations as you could have,” McDaniels said. “I’ll tell you what, that play, if you study that play in the history of our league — and again, I don’t claim to be in my 70s here — but I’ve watched enough and seen enough and we’ve studied enough of it. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Beyond his willingness to do it in the first place, what makes Brady good at sneaking is understanding where to find the soft spots in the defense and never letting his legs stop moving.
The offensive line, especially the center and guards, also play a big role. For the center, the job is to find the defender who is shading tightest toward him, then block that guy. It’s a bang-bang play, so the sooner he can engage defensive linemen, the sooner that wall forms in front of the quarterback.
“Whoever’s closer to me is the side I’m going to,” said Karras. “It’s all just wedge blocking, so we’re just throwing 900 pounds into the A gap, plus Tom’s 220 — I don’t know how much Tom weighs.
“You’ve got to just kind of surge forward, and he’s so experienced and good at getting the yards he needs he can kind of find a little path there and slither through it.”
Those little paths have led Brady into new records this year. More importantly, given the Patriots’ current deficiencies on offense, he may need to keep slithering his way through the masses just to score and to win, and he says that’s fine with him.