On Sunday night, there were two teams that ran fake punts in their respective games: The 49ers playing on the road against the Patriots, and the Seahawks playing in Canada against the Bills.
Both of those punts were very successful, garnering a first down (and more) in their respective situations. The 49ers, on a 4th and 10 with 4:43 left to go in the 1st quarter, hit a direct snap to S Dashon Goldson and ran a sweep towards the left sideline for a 31 yard gain, stifling the Patriots' momentum on defense and proving to be one of the many game changing plays that led to a 49ers victory.
And for the Seahawks? Well, their fake came with a 47-17 lead and nearly thirteen minutes to play in the 4th quarter, that seemed more like piling-on rather than a strategic move. As if the storyline wasn't convoluted enough by the prospect of two consecutive blow out games, the play sparked yet another discussion of running up the score - a discussion, mind you, that won't be broached here, as Jacson pretty much had us covered earlier this week. (And if they really wanted to do that, why didn't they just run it with Beast Mode more? /rimshot) Of course, after the dust and smoke was all cleared, Pete Carroll came out and apologized for the call, noting that it was part of the gameplan.
Naturally, this got me curious. For one thing, there aren't many fakes in a season; on average, there are 10 fake punts ran per year and most of them aren't even successful (only a 45% conversion rate for the first down this year). For another, even the most sophisticated teams only call fake punts based on certain situations regarding the score, down-and-distance, rather than simply place it in as an audible. It really speaks volume to Carroll's ability to gameplan, and even more about his players when they actually follow through with it this late into the game.
Let's look at a regular punt first, without the fake. It's 4th and 10, and the Seahawks have just experienced their first three-and-out of the game:
Buffalo's Special Teams line up in an overload left look, with 5 Bills rushing towards the right of long snapper Clint Gresham. The right side of the line is only tasked with two opponents in blue. This is a staple very common for special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, who has been in the league for over 25 years. I included some instances where he used a overload look during his term;
Week 11, against the Dolphins;
The main purpose of overloading one side of the scrimmage is with the intention to block the punt by having more defenders than blockers. With overloading of course comes a price in sacrificing players for position, meaning that while you are increasing the chance of winning the numbers game, you are also risking significant gaps/holes within the formation.
You can see what I mean more clearly down below;
The protection for Ryan holds, and he boots the ball away. (Note that this was only one of three punts he had for the entire game.)
Flash-forward to the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, and after 16 more points, the Seahawks are again called in to punt on a 4th and four.
Maragos, who has the best view of the defense's formation (the quarterback of the ST, if you will), audibles the designed fake;
Ball is directly snapped at an angle to Maragos (note how Gresham slightly angles the football before the snap). The right guard, Heath Farwell, pulls while Michael Robinson follows behind him. The left guard and tackle (KJ Wright and Malcolm Smith) double team on the DT, taking him out of the play, while the TE Mike Morgan holds the far right DE outside. #60 of the Bills is the trap guy, and what followed should be an gigantic hole;
Boom. Robinson earns 26 yards and the first down, along with the scrutiny of Bills fans everywhere.
Now comes the more important question; why audible the fake at all?
This is the part of the analysis where I get extremely speculative. Carroll's apology and regret on the fake punt certainly indicates that the team had planned to run it in the case that a certain formation showed up - probably the earlier overload punt block. And it'd be a pretty reasonable move - if you overload that one side, you can run towards the other side (as noted by the gap).
What's intriguing is that the formation the Bills lined up in during the fake was considerably more balanced and less of an "overload" view. Compared to the other formation, the second had four guys lined up on the left side to three guys on the right (whereas it was 5-2 in the first). So, it doesn't make much sense, at least based on the personnel alignment, schematically, why Maragos decided to audible at the moment (though they executed it with precision).
What does support Maragos' decision is the positioning and down-and-distance. Compared to the 10 yards in the first punt, the Seahawks only needed 4 yards for the first down. It's a very achievable down-and-distance when there's no line of defenders in the second level of the Bills' formation , and it may have been the key influence in trusting Robinson with the run.
Another theory is that Maragos simply saw that there were more people on one side of the line and immediately set it off. It may have been his mistake that he didn't recognize the slight change in formation. Whatever it is, it certainly set a precedent for Carroll's scouting ability, and more importantly, on the interactions between a coach and his players.