Four offensive linemen.
Baltimore Ravens head coach Jim Harbaugh called it deception. NFL officials called it legal. And the New England Patriots called upon it three times.
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” head coach Bill Belichick saidin his postgame conference following the Patriots’ 35-31 playoff victory over the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
The play was more so an assembly for New England’s offense. Down 28-14 in the midst of the third quarter, it involved right guard Josh Kline leaving the game, and second tight end Michael Hoomanawanui entering it to assume his place rather than his role.
The results of the switch were 41 yards.
“We ran it three times, a couple different looks,” Belichick explained. “We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible. The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”
Those particular situations caught the Ravens waiting for something else, as either Hoomanawanui or halfback Shane Vereen reported as ineligible receivers to make the personnel work. And the 3-4 defense that had sacked quarterback Tom Brady twice to that point was, in turn, forced to work harder to do what it had done so effectively.
The change in effectiveness began on 1st-and-10 at the 9:33 mark in the third.
It was then that Hoomanawanui put his hand on the turf next to Solder and across from Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil. But the tight end with three catches for 44 yards on the season would not be blocking the pass-rusher with 19 sacks on the season.
He would be running past him.
Brady took the snap from shotgun as Solder kicked over to deter Dumervil. And Vereen, aligned in the slot, swung back towards the passer to keep the legalities intact.
Vereen, still qualifying as a threat on a backwards pass, still kept Baltimore’s attention. Yet no Ravens player kept the Hoomanawanui in their attention. Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley fanned out to cover wideout Danny Amendola, while veteran linebacker Daryl Smith dropped into the hole.
Right between them the tight end went. Brady found him for 16 yards.
The Patriots’ offense returned to its original form on the next play, with Kline filtering back into the lineup. But that form would shift again just two plays later, after a nine-yard completion to Gronkowski and a penalty on Baltimore for having 12 men on the field.
The four-man offensive line would appear once again for another 1st-and-10 thenceforth. It saw New England send six wide with 8:23 remaining in the quarter.
The facade proved to be a little different on the second time it was shown. Gronkowski aligned as the left tackle, while Hoomanawanui was announced as an ineligible receiver. Yet he was not alone in acting as one.
Both he and Vereen loomed outside the right hashes, and both he and Vereen would stand there long after Brady handled the snap.
Edelman would not just stand there, however; he’d make his way downfield. Running to the outside of Mosley, the inside of cornerback Rashaan Melvin, and the underneath of safety Will Hill, he would get open for a gain of 11 and another first.
And another first would be realized from the four-man line just two plays later.
It was 2nd-and-6 with 7:19 to go in the third. The Ravens were beginning to catch on to the design, as Hoomanawanui moved back to tackle and Vereen reported as ineligible out wide. But there was a difference between seeing and stopping it.
Hoomanawanui left the line of scrimmage as Brady fielded the snap from Wendell.
He would not be assumed by safety Anthony Levine, who responded to “X” wideout Brandon LaFell’s subtle glance back at the ball. He would not be assumed by Mosley, who sprinted over to the opposite site to double Gronkowski, either.
A 14-yard completion would be the byproduct, before a 15-yard penalty against Harbaugh for unsportsmanlike conduct added on to it.
“It’s a substitution type of a trick type of a thing,” the Ravens coach said after the game. “So they don’t give you the opportunity, they don’t give you the chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before.”
New England did so three times over the course of a 10-play scoring drive, cutting the deficit to seven only two plays after the final one.
But what Belichick, coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Patriots’ offense did against the Ravens may have not been deception. It may have not been illegal. It may have just been effective.
And for a team that’s often called upon sixth eligible offensive linemen to run the football, there was something to be said for calling upon four to pass the football.
It was smart.