EAGAN, Minn. — With 5:16 remaining in the first quarter of last Sunday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, Kirk Cousins ran for three yards.
That’s how it reads in the box score.
No big deal, right?
The Vikings were trailing by seven and their first two drives had looked as ugly as all of their first half drives the previous week against the Chicago Bears. To open the game, fullback CJ Ham was stuffed on third-and-short and then on drive No. 2, Cousins took a sack and the Vikings were forced to punt.
After a 9-yard run by Dalvin Cook to open the third drive, Cousins and the offense were looking for anything to get them rolling. The Vikings quarterback sprinted with his team to the line of scrimmage, took the snap immediately. If you were watching on TV, you saw him sneak across the superimposed yellow line for the Vikings’ first first down of the game. Three plays later, the Vikings were holding up receiver Adam Thielen and doing the limbo underneath him to celebrate their game-tying touchdown.
Cousins’ sneak didn’t momentum-ize his team into a quick score, it simply set them up with first-and-10 at their 37-yard line.
At the time it might not have seemed like a dire situation, but according to Pro-Football Reference’s Win Probability Calculator, stumbling on that drive would have dropped the Vikings’ chances to win down to 21.8 percent had they failed to convert and been forced to give the ball back to the Packers. When it comes to chances to win, it gets late early, you might say.
Also when it comes to win probability, there are generally a handful of plays in each game that swing the contest one way or the other. The Vikings’ odds were 11 percent better after the first down sneak than they would have been had they gone three-and-out again. Cook’s touchdown brought the game back to a 50-50 proposition.
QB sneaks are often involved in such game-changing plays, though they are never the feature of post-game analysis, broadcast breakdowns or debate shows. That’s because it appears to be the simplest play in sports and what TV producer in his/her right mind would tell its analysts to focus on the importance of a quarterback falling forward for one yard?
But it isn’t quite as simple as it looks. And no better team is better at the QB sneak than the Vikings’ opponent on Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots.
Since 2010, Tom Brady has run the ball up the middle 55 times on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go and picked up a first down 48 times. In other words, his QB sneaks have worked 87 percent of the time, according to Pro-Football Reference. Of the 55 rushes, Brady has lost yardage just once and three of the seven misses came in the fourth quarter of games the Patriots were ahead by significant margins.
Brady just so happens to be facing the NFL’s best team on third and fourth-and-short situations since 2015 in the Vikings. Mike Zimmer’s defense allows just a 56.7 percent first-down rate on such plays.
The league average first-down rate in short yardage situations on third or fourth down is 64.6 percent.
On a conference call prior to Vikings-Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick was asked why his club has been so successful running its not-so-speedy quarterback up the middle in short yardage situations.
His answer was classic.
“Execution,” Belichick said and then paused for six seconds (an eternity on a conference call) before mentioning the importance of leverage.
Clearly NFL history’s third-winningest coach was not interested in sharing the secret sauce behind Brady’s incredible QB sneak success.
The Vikings are aware of Brady’s penchant to sneak. Defensive coordinator George Edwards said that quick sneaks are a part of the team’s preparation this week. They will have to be aware that Brady may scoot up to the line and slam the ball for a first down before the beasts in the middle Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson can get set.
“One thing for them is that you’ll see a lot of times hurry up to the ball, snap the ball, and it’s catching people off guard or they out-leverage you in the run game,” Edwards said. “I think it’s an awareness thing for us. I think our guys have done a good job throughout the course of last year to this year of realizing the situation and playing the situation.”
“Brady has the option a lot of times of sneaking it if the A-gaps are open, so that’s part of it,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “But he’s a big guy, he puts that foot back and drives and their inside guys get nice and low.”
Here’s a look at Brady on third-and-1 against the Packers. The Pats go no huddle. When neither defensive tackle lined up over the center, Brady simply falls forward for the first down. The next play is an 8-yard touchdown run.
Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels said on the Purple Podcast this week that there’s probably more to the Pats’ sneak success than a commitment to using the play or taking teams off guard.
“With some teams, and I think the Patriots are one of them, it’s sort of like a play where it’s a sneak, but it depends on however the look is,” Rosenfels said. “I do believe they have that play down to a science, better than other teams.”
It’s true, but not by a mile. A Yale paper found that the league wide success rate of sneaks was 82.8 percent, nearly 20 percent higher than non-sneak plays in short-yardage situations.
The secret might just be that Belichick uses it more than everyone else.
The only quarterback with more runs on third and fourth-and-short since 2010 is Carolina’s Cam Newton and his carries include other types of rushes like option plays.
The next quarterback behind Brady’s 55 short-yardage runs during that time span is Andy Dalton with 42.
“Brady is pretty good at it,” former Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon said on Mackey and Judd. “I know this sounds crazy, but there are some quarterbacks who are good at it. [Brady] has got the length that you like, he knows kind of how to torpedo himself between the center and the guard… I also think some coaches are worried about their quarterback getting hurt, but how many times have quarterbacks gotten hurt on a quarterback sneak?”
“The thing about it that drives me crazy is that you got fourth and less than a yard and the quarterback is in the shotgun,” Gannon added. “I don’t understand that.”
Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has a goal for his quarterback each week: Gain one first down.
“Whether it be a QB sneak, a third down and six run up the middle, whether that be whatever, our goal is to get one a game, so Kirk did a great job of doing that last week,” DeFilippo said on Thursday.
Cousins is 4-for-5 gaining first downs on sneaks and has totaled eight rushing first downs — a little below his OC’s standard.
“The more I can steal a first down now and then running the football, the better our offense will be,” Cousins said.
With the incredibly high first-down rate, it might make sense for teams to sneak every time they get into third or fourth down spots with less than two yards to go. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
If a team ran the sneak each time, opposing defenses would set up fronts to give themselves better shots at shutting it down.
“When they know it’s coming it’s a lot harder,” Vikings veteran center Brett Jones explained. “Then They’re just going to fire out and just try to fall down and it’s really tough to push when they are low like that.”
NFL coaching staffs are known for the meticulousness, so it should come as no surprise that they are prepared on a weekly basis for the looks thy might get from the opponent’s front seven and they give players an idea of how to attack with a sneak.
“Any time you run the sneak, it goes into a lot of preparation with the way in which they play their front,” Jones said. “Lots of times you’ll see defenses will put two guys in the A gap. That makes it preventative to run sneak. But if you know there’s just one guy in the A gap, there’s an open A gap to the other side, you’ll be able to run a sneak. So usually there’s some form of communication, whether it was the quarterback during the week saying, ‘we’re going to go this way for the sneak,’ and you know you’re going to be going forward and favoring the way the quarterback’s going and the other guard is going to be working with you.”
Rosenfels points out that if the quarterback has his own option to call sneak, he has to quickly assess the chances of converting based on the defense.
“Sometimes they get into a four-point stance and what they call ‘submarine’ where they are literally just submarining at the knees and getting underneath the center so they just create a pile,” he said. “That’s where you want to jump over. Where are the linebackers in this thing? Are they right there at the line or are they back four yards deep?”
“There is actually a lot that goes into a sneak, it is incredible.”
Asked if Cousins called his own sneak on the key second-and-1 play, Zimmer smiled and said, “I don’t know.”
It certainly isn’t a reach to think Cousins saw the tractor-trailer sized hole between the DTs and knew he could gain a first down.
There are times where things are happening too fast to be sure whether the opposing defense might have an advantage or the situation is simply too important to avoid the highest percentage play. In that case, Jones says it becomes a one-on-one battle for each lineman.
“Sometimes they give you unscouted looks and you still try to run it and then it’s just man on man, just trying to see who can push them farther,” Jones said. “Especially with some of these D-tackles in the league, it makes it tough but we’ve had a lot of success with sneaks.”
There are some other considerations to keep in mind, like what to do with the ball. That changes depending on whether it’s third or fourth down.
“Alex Gibbs of the Texans would always say, ‘never put the ball out unless it’s fourth down,'” Rosenfels said. “If it’s fourth down, by all means put the ball out there.”
There also might be a second chance option if the defensive tackles stick the interior linemen.
“The best hole might almost be like a mini option where you see this hole because there’s four guys crammed right over the ball basically and you want to run outside toward the B or C gap and maybe there’s a softer spot over there,” Rosenfels said.
Here’s an example in which rookie Sam Darnold does not take the ball up the middle, rather he follows the guard for a first down.
Gannon believes teams too often overthink key short-yardage situations.
“Look at the Tennessee Titans in a critical game on Monday (against Houston),” Gannon said. “On a fourth down they handed it to a tight end who had never had a carry in the NFL, so some of it’s coaching.”
And some of it might be that teams are focused so much on fooling their opponent that they lose sight of the oldest of old school football concepts: Imposing your will.
“There’s really an attitude to it,” Gannon said. “Some of these teams have become so finesse.”
Of course, Cousins pointed out that that self preservation does have to be part of the equation.
“You certainly want to bring your legs and you want to find the open gap or get behind a double team and create push, but ultimately you want to get the necessary yards and then get down and not expose yourself to unnecessary hits.” Cousins said.
Teams rarely try QB sneaks against the Vikings and there is a very large reason why: Pro Bowl nose tackle Linval Joseph.
Over the last two years, there have only been five attempts by quarterbacks to run up the middle on third or fourth-and-short against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense. Massive Bills QB Josh Allen had two successful tries. Darnold went 1-for-1. but Joseph was out that game with an injury. DeShone Kizer snuck in from the goal line last year. A Cam Newton run last season in Carolina was stuffed.
“I think it’s his mentality,” veteran defensive tackle Tom Johnson said of Joseph’s success on short yardage stuffs. “Everybody has tools, everybody is big in this league, but Linval brings a whole different level when you talk about intensity and quick twitch, you don’t see that many guys be that explosive and that accurate and be that consistent. When he’s on point, when he’s doing that, it’s hard to stop.”
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson welcomes anyone who is willing to come up the middle.
”We laugh,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of his reaction to teams running up the middle. “Seriously, we laugh. Run the ball up here, OK. We get mad when they run the ball outside.”
But even Joseph can be beaten on a sneak if the alignment isn’t set up right.
In a rare stuff of a Patriots sneak, the Tennessee Titans — who are blessed with the services of DT Jerrell Casey — shift right into the gap Brady was attempting to attack. Notice right before the snap, the linebacker No. 59 tells the defensive tackle to move over. It seems the entire Titans defense is trying to tell him to move, possibly having seen the look from the Patriots on tape.
Here’s the problem with defending the Patriots’ sneak game: They have counter punches.
The failed attempt came on third and just over one yard. On fourth down, the Patriots’ offense line summed into the D-line like it was another sneak, but instead Brady ran a little bootleg and completed an easy pass to running back James White for a first down.
And in the end, it comes down to execution.
“You might think [Belichick] is being sarcastic like, it’s a stupid quarterback sneak, let’s not overthink this, but I do believe they have certain rules and he’s not going to give those rules up,” Rosenfels said.
In New England, the Vikings will have their hands full with an all-time great quarterback and a team that’s stacked with impressive weapons, from White to dynamic utility man Cordarrelle Patterson to former Browns standout Josh Gordon.
You can see how teams overlook the Patriots’ most unstoppable play.