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Hiked-up offense

Patriots thriving in shotgun formation

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 12, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - Dan Koppen shrugs it off as if it's no big deal, but it wasn't long ago that the Patriots were handcuffed when it came to running plays out of the shotgun formation.

Remember the 2001 Super Bowl season?

When the Patriots wanted to deliver a shotgun snap to Tom Brady that year, it required a rather disruptive switch along the line. Because center Damien Woody struggled with the skill, he slid to left guard, while Mike Compton moved to center, his primary purpose to deliver a clean snap 5-7 yards behind him.

No such switches are required these days, and that's been a good thing for the Patriots considering how prevalent the shotgun has been in their record-setting offense.

Of the team's 484 pass attempts this season, a whopping 359 have come out of the shotgun (74 percent).

Of the team's 865 total offensive plays, not including penalties, 421 have come out of the 'gun (49 percent).

The late Red Hickey would be proud. It was Hickey, who, as coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1960, was credited with unveiling the version of the shotgun snap used by most NFL teams today. In preparing to face the high-powered Colts that year, Hickey was looking for a way to combat Baltimore's dynamic, powerful pass rush and instructed his quarterbacks and centers to work on snaps 5-7 yards away from each other. He figured that would allow the quarterback more time to see where the rush was coming from, as well as more time to see his receivers downfield.

The 49ers pulled off a 30-22 upset that day, and the shotgun has been part of the game since. After a hiatus it was re-introduced years later by Cowboys coach Tom Landry.

This year, the Patriots are pulling the trigger more than ever, and it's a good thing Koppen, and not Woody, is snapping the ball.

"It's something I don't think about, and try to repeat the motion every time and get it back to the same spot every time," said the fifth-year center. "I've done it since I was in college, and knock on wood, I haven't had any problems yet.

"We're trained pigs, we go out and do what's called, so whether it's shotgun or under center, it doesn't matter."

It does to the opposition, however, because the Patriots have turned to the shotgun to turn games into what can look like target practice. Sunday's win over the Steelers was the latest example.

The Patriots utilized the shotgun 38 times out of 55 total plays (not including penalties), and turned to it almost exclusively at the decisive point of the game in the third quarter.

Much like Hickey in 1960, Patriots coach Bill Belichick later explained that the shotgun - accompanied by spread formations with three or four receivers - was utilized to neutralize the relentless Pittsburgh pass rush. Because the Steelers were blitzing on almost every snap, spreading the field and using the shotgun allowed Brady to better detect where the pressure was coming from, and help set the pass protection for the line.

To defensive coordinators, it is part of what makes Brady so difficult to defend. While much attention is paid to the way he throws the ball, perhaps overlooked is how effective he is at deciphering what he sees from the defense before the snap.

"It's ridiculous how good he is, and he's so poised in that situation," said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "You see the whole team believes in him. Right now, he's playing as well as anyone in the league, the history of the league."

Brady has often made the point that an offense establishes an identity over the course of the season, and by this point it isn't difficult to pinpoint what defines the Patriots. They are a shotgun team, with Brady in command, looking to get the ball into the hands of his playmaking receivers.

Through the first four weeks of the season, the team averaged 21.5 plays out of the shotgun per game. The usage began to increase over the next five games, up to an average of 32.

And just when it seemed it couldn't go any higher, the Patriots have been in the shotgun formation for an average of 43.8 times per game over the last four contests.

If there is a danger in going to the shotgun that much, it's that the running game becomes less of a factor. The Patriots consider quick receiver screens the equivalent of a running play - and they run a handful of those each game - but one might argue that those don't come with the same attitude as a power run up the gut.

Along those lines, the Patriots have been careful to mix in some running plays out of the shotgun. Of the 421 plays out of the shotgun, 51 have been runs, albeit some coming via quarterback scramble when things break down.

At the heart of it all is Brady, who fittingly was a big 49ers fan growing up in San Mateo, Calif.

When Hickey and the 49ers introduced the shotgun, expanding on the double-wing and short-punt formations from college, it didn't have a name. But after they upset the Colts that day in 1960, Hickey said to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Well, I'm an old country boy, and I used to go hunting with a shotgun. How about we call it the shotgun?"

The name, and the approach, have stood the test of time.

If there were ever any question, just watch the Patriots.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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