Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ 23-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football and a trick play that featured a wide receiver and a running back connecting on a touchdown pass.
After a scoreless first quarter, the New England Patriots’ Week 10 game against the Baltimore Ravens turned into a relentless back-and-forth in the second. The Ravens struck first, jumping to a 7-0 lead on the first play of the period. New England answered with a touchdown of its own — a 7-yard pass from Cam Newton to Rex Burkhead — before holding the visitors to a field goal on the next drive.
With 5:32 left in the half, the Patriots’ offense took over again and behind some strong running by second-year back Damien Harris found itself in scoring distance rather quickly. The unit was after more than just a game-tying field goal, however, and therefore decided to go all-in on a 2nd-and-6 from the Ravens’ 24-yard line by ditching a conventional play in favor of one that started with a backwards pass and ended in a touchdown.
2-6-BLT 24 (1:10) J.Meyers pass deep right to R.Burkhead for 24 yards, TOUCHDOWN [D.Wolfe]. backwards pass from Newton to Meyers before TD pass
After a four-yard run by Damien Harris on first down, the Patriots decided to call a timeout with 1:10 left in the second quarter — a crucial moment in the series especially for Jakobi Meyers, because it allowed him to prepare for the play that was about to follow. The former quarterback, who moved to wide receiver a week before the start of his redshirt freshman campaign at N.C. State, had time to take off his gloves to get a better field for the ball.
As was perfectly visible on NBC’s broadcast, Meyers (#16) took off his gloves between the two plays:
“He said, ‘I got to take off my gloves. I got to take off my gloves. I got to do it so they won’t recognize anything,’” Patriots quarterback Cam Newton said about the preparation for the double pass during his postgame media conference call. “So he took off one glove. He takes off another one. I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘I got to take off another one, bro.’ And he did pretty good without being able to warm up or anything.”
One crucial part of the play is the Ravens defense not catching the tell beforehand, in part because of who was lining up opposite the second-year receiver. The first down run saw Marcus Peters take on Meyers, the touchdown pass started with Marlon Humphrey on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
As for the play itself, the Patriots approached it in an 11-personnel group aligned in a 3x1 formation. Meyers was joined on the left side of the formation by fellow wide receivers Damiere Byrd (#10) and N’Keal Harry (#15); tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) aligned in a three-point stance outside of right tackle Michael Onwenu (#71). Rex Burkhead (#34) lined up in the backfield, meanwhile, behind Cam Newton (#1):
The Ravens defense countered the Patriots’ alignment with a one-deep man coverage that had the aforementioned Marlon Humphrey (#44) on Meyers and off-the-ball linebacker Patrick Queen (#48) responsible for Burkhead. Both of those matchups would become relevant after the snap.
Before the ball was snapped, though, Meyers motioned towards the middle of the field and smartly took a few steps back after Cam Newton received the hand-off. The reason for this? He wanted to make sure he was deeper in the backfield than his quarterback, because you can only throw one forward pass on any given play. And knowing what Meyers knew at the time, Newton’s was not going to be it.
Once the ball was in Meyers’ hands, he dropped back even deeper to give himself more room to step into his own throw and to allow for his intended target — Rex Burkhead — to get down the field on his wheel route. Burkhead did that, and Meyers hit him with a perfect throw in between two defenders for a touchdown:
For as well as Meyers and Burkhead performed on that throw, their roles were not the only important one on the play. Let’s start with our old friends Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Queen.
While the Ravens’ top cornerback motioned alongside Meyers and even backed off from the line to get himself away from traffic in case of a potential end-around pitch to the wideout, Humphrey quickly reversed course once he realized that the ball was indeed coming to Meyers. At that point, however, he was in an unfavorable position: not only did his momentum carry him in another direction, he also had to get by Damiere Byrd to get back to his man. He couldn’t.
As for Queen, he started charging forward as soon as the ball was snapped in anticipation of another run play. And why wouldn’t he? The Patriots, after all, had run on seven of the nine plays on the series leading up to this second down play. He only moved forward three yards before realizing that Burkhead was running a route, but in combination with his constant peeking into the backfield allowed the veteran back to get behind him just enough.
Then, there’s DeShon Elliott (#32). Baltimore’s deep safety started moving up the field once the ball was in Meyers’ hands, possible anticipating a screen run. Only when the Patriots wide receiver showed his intentions did Elliott change direction again to get back deep to help defend against Burkhead’s route. It was too late, however, and he did not make it back in time.
While those three players played pivotal roles on the play, so did the Patriots’ front. The offensive line moved to its left in unison, with both Byrd and Harry also engaging in blocking, further strengthening the impression of a screen play. This impacted the entire flow of the play, and gave both Meyers and Burkhead space to operate:
While left guard Joe Thuney (#62) was eventually unable to hold his block versus Ravens defensive linemen Derek Wolfe (#95), the line did its job to allow Meyers and Burkhead time to get into their respective positions. Bryd’s block against Humphrey in particular stands out, and so does the role that Cam Newton played as the “hot” option on the play; the safety blanket that Meyers would have had the play not gone according to plan.
After his backwards pass, Newton moved to the right as if going on a route himself. This drew outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (#54) away from both the pocket and from Rex Burkhead as well. Consequently, both Meyers and his target were not disturbed by the defender.
In general, the play was well designed to isolate Burkhead on the perimeter with Ryan Izzo running a crossing pattern to the other side of the field and the rest of the eligible receivers occupying other defenders. From design to execution, the Patriots did their job on this play. The result speaks for itself.