Let’s Talk About Trick Plays

Okay, so last week the Steelers tried a fake field goal. It didn’t work, and the prevailing opinion seems to be that Mike Tomlin should absolutely lose his job over that. That’s stupid, and you’re stupid for thinking it.

On the play in question, Landry Jones snuck on as the holder for a field goal attempt. Okay, you can get away with that. It’s usually the punter’s job, but backup QBs have done it in the past.


Now, after the field goal unit is set, Jones stands upright in shotgun formation. Heath Miller motions out from the formation to the right, obviously telegraphing that they are going for it on 4th down.

I saw a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth on Twitter about Seattle being able to recognize the fake and adjust to it. Well… duh. Your quarterback stands up to take a snap and a receiver motions out to the wide side. What did you expect the Seahawks to do? Still try and block a field goal? They didn’t reinvent the wheel, they reacted to a formation shift. You know, like every team ever has always done on every play.

Now, the play was designed to go to Alejandro Villanueva. That’s cool; he played wide receiver at Army and spent time as a tight end in the NFL before moving to tackle with the Steelers. That’s good; that’s the kind of thing you can take advantage of on a trick play. If you have a guy who’s 6’9″ and has caught passes in his career, you have something to work with.

Obviously, the Seahawks counted the Steelers’ eligibles on that play and covered them. An awful throw by Jones led to an interception that eventually turned into a touchdown for Seattle. This result does not mean a fake field goal was a bad idea.

Let me repeat that: The result of a play does not mean the intent was incorrect.

When Jerome Bettis fumbled at the goal line in Indianapolis in 2005, was your reaction, “Obviously they should have thrown a quick slant to Cedrick Wilson!”? If it was, shut up, you are terrible, and so was Cedrick Wilson. The right play call was made, and it didn’t work. That’s why the other team plays defense. This is not rocket science.

So let’s all cool our jets about calling for a trick play when we have the benefit of hindsight, because that’s for babies. Instead, let’s talk about something I can really get fired up about: play design.

The idea of that fake field goal, I liked. You distract the defense by moving Miller out, then you go the opposite way to Villanueva, who, as a tackle, the Seahawks have been trying to get around all day. He’s the perfect candidate to conveniently miss a block and suddenly be wide open in the flat, especially while the secondary is watching Miller. So the intent is good. Now let’s talk about the execution.

Personally, if I’m running a fake field goal, I don’t want to give the defense time to assess the situation. By getting up from his stance, Jones announces he’s going to try an offensive play, and the defense has to adjust. Okay, this might diminish the rush as the defense has to suddenly account for eligible players, something they don’t usually do on the field goal team. You can cause some confusion that way. Confusion is good.

Then you motion Heath Miller out. All right, so they already know you’re going to try something, and then your presumed target moves away from the formation. This accomplishes nothing. Had he stayed tight to the formation, that limits his route choices to basically a quick pass in the flat. Moving him outside opens up the rest of the playbook as far as route running goes. The problem is that it just gives Seattle more time to read the formation and account for players. That extra few seconds might have been what let someone identify Villanueva as an eligible receiver and move to cover him. Your trick play has already been defeated.

What should have happened was keeping Miller tight to the formation, and perhaps even keeping Jones down as if he were holding for the field goal try. You can get the defense on autopilot, and then you can trick them. Jones takes the snap and immediately stands up and throws to a spot. Ideally, a spot that Heath Miller is running to as he just chips a defender on his way out.

Or, if you like misdirection (and I do), have Jones stand up before the snap to alert the defense that something is happening, but don’t stand around and let them respond. Take the snap as Miller moves out, then go to the opposite side to Villanueva. The defense will shade toward the surehanded tight end in a short-yardage passing situation, and Villanueva can slip into the flat on the opposite side before the defense has time to account for him.

If that sounds better to you, remember that no play is guaranteed to work. Jones could still take a sack or throw an interception. But I prefer aggressive playcalling, and a trick play on 4th & short in the first quarter qualifies as aggressive to me. So I like that the coaching staff went for that fake field goal. I don’t like the way it was executed at all, but any chance to catch your opponent off guard is worth taking.

About Brian Schaich

Brian studied computer engineering long enough to know he just wanted to talk about sports all day for a living, so that's what he does.