Cassel: Are Patriots tipping plays? Inside the NFL's ‘guessing game'


Opposing defenses calling out the offense's plays isn't totally unusual, but it's not exactly common, either. I'd say it happens maybe three or four times in a season, depending on the team.

It usually involves veteran defensive players who are really good and instinctive, who study and do their homework. Guys like Luke Kuechly, for example. I'll never forget when I was playing with Dallas, we motioned to this little stack formation. We'd love to throw the slip screen out of that formation -- just a quick-hitting play on the outside where the tackle is lead-blocking.

When we started the motion, Kuechly would yell, "Be ready for the slip screen! Be ready for the slip screen!" And I'm going, "Oh, God, this is not good." So I came off my play-fake and looked over there, and the nickelback had already run past the pursuit angle of the tackle, so I just had to throw the ball in the ground.

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There's really nothing you can do in that situation, either, especially when you're in the middle of your cadence and you've got the guy yelling at you right before the ball is snapped. Because if you stop your cadence and try to check the play, you still have the time constraints of the play clock and everything else.

So sometimes you just have to run the play, live for the next down and then get to the sideline, where you can have that discussion with your play-caller and say, "For whatever reason, they've got a beat on this formation or this play, because he's called it out now twice when we line up this way. So, we've got to either change the formation or run something different."

Getting to the root cause of 'play tipping'

Every offense has tendencies, and you want to break those tendencies through your formations and by implementing pre-snap wrinkles. Maybe you change the strength of formation and still run the same play. But there are definitely times when good players who are well-coached can dissect the play before you actually run it.

That can be an intimidating thing when you're sitting there going, "Oh man, how the heck did he know?"

When the defense calls out your plays like that, the offense has to look at the situation and say, "Are we giving something away up front? Do our run sets look different than our pass sets?"

That can include the way in which you line up or how much pressure you put on your front hand -- all of those little details that a lot of people might not pick up on, but really good players can identify and use to recognize a play before snap.

So first and foremost, the offense has to identify the issue. Are we giving an indicator based on our formation? Is it the way in which we run certain plays out of those formations? Is it how we line up on the offensive line or at the tight end position? Is there a tell-tale sign there?

Was Bill Belichick sending a message?

I thought Belichick's comments admitting that Shaquille Leonard knew their plays were interesting, because usually Belichick won't go into much detail about situations like that. But it's obviously something that he was aware of and he felt comfortable addressing.

That's a good thing because he's not brushing it under the rug and just saying, "This happens all the time." To me, this means he's aware of this issue and that they'll make the appropriate changes to make sure the offense is more efficient and isn't giving away its tendencies.

The other side of the play-call 'guessing game'

There are also times when the defense calls out a play and they're completely wrong. They're not always correct. Some players are smart, but it's not like they've dissected everything that you're doing and they're inside your helmet calling out your pass concepts.

It's a guessing game in a way. Your offense might like to run slip screens when it's second-and-long, so if the defense sees that on film and you get to second-and-long in the game, somebody might say, "Hey, be alert for the screen here."

That's when you can take advantage of the defense and make them guess wrong.

The really good offenses can run different plays out of the same formations that look exactly the same before the snap. So, you can get the defense to over-pursue at the second level, and now you can get behind them on a pop pass to pick up a big gain.

If the defense is picking up your plays, that may mean you need to install more "complementary plays," where the play looks the same but there's a wrinkle that throws the defense off.

'No we're not, JUSTIN!'

As a quarterback, it's a great feeling when the defense guesses wrong.

One of my favorite examples was in 2010 when I played for the Chiefs against the 49ers. We were in a four-minute drill trying to run the clock out, and their stud defensive lineman, Justin Smith, started yelling, "They're going to the right! They're going to the right!" And we were running the play in the opposite direction.

We had a comfortable lead at this point, so I literally stopped my cadence and said, "No we're not, JUSTIN!" And then I said, "Omaha, set, go!" and we took off in the other direction.

My entire offensive line was laughing hysterically when they got back into the huddle. They were like, "Cassel, what are you doing?" And I was like, "I was just having fun, man. I love when defenders call out the wrong play."

I saw Justin Smith after the game and we were both laughing about it, because that's the game you play. It's such a mental game -- it's strategy, it's formation, and it's play recognition.

As an offense, if you can stay ahead of the defense and disguise your plays to keep them guessing, that can give you a big leg up.

Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.

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