Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are perfecting football’s easiest play
This season, the Philadelphia Eagles executed 33 sneaks for 29 first downs or touchdowns, both figures the highest on record.
By MIKE TANIER
The quarterback sneak is football’s simplest play. So simple, in fact, that NFL coaches have long underestimated its value.
The sneak is enjoying a surge in popularity. NFL teams sent their quarterbacks plunging into the heart of the line of scrimmage in short-yardage situations 291 times during the regular season. That figure is up from 243 sneaks in 2021, 170 in 2020 and 133 in 2019. Teams attempted just 73 sneaks in 2016, the first year that Sports Info Solutions began tracking the plays separately.
Even accounting for the addition of a 17th regular-season game in 2021, that’s a 275% increase in the use of the tactic over the past seven years. Fourth-down conversion attempts were much rarer before 2016, and the quarterback sneak is most popular on fourth-and-inches, so it’s very likely that 2022 saw a record number of sneaks.
Coaches are calling the play more because it works: Quarterback sneaks resulted in first downs or touchdowns on 82.8% of attempts in 2022 and have succeeded at a 78.7% rate since 2016. Standard rushing plays on fourth-and-1 succeeded just 62.5% of the time in 2022, passing plays just 57.5% of the time.
The sneak is so effective in short-yardage situations that it prompts an obvious question: Why do coaches call anything else?
Defenders are at a severe disadvantage on sneaks. Before he was an ESPN analyst, Anthony “Booger” McFarland was an NFL nose tackle, the defender who lines up directly across from the center and quarterback. His assignment when expecting a sneak was to dive at his opponents’ legs and “make a pile” of bodies that the quarterback needed to go over, around or through.
But offensive linemen knew when the ball would be snapped and could therefore move first, an alert quarterback could shuffle left or right to avoid trouble and success was usually less than 36 inches away.
“The quarterback can almost trip and fall forward to get the first down,” McFarland said.
The already effective quarterback sneak changed strategically this year, thanks mostly to the Philadelphia Eagles, who executed 33 sneaks for 29 first downs or touchdowns, both figures the highest on record. Taking advantage of a long-ignored 2006 rule change that allows players to push their teammates forward, the Eagles typically surround Jalen Hurts in short-yardage situations with three compatriots tasked with shoving their quarterback through the pile like a battering ram.
The Eagles’ sneak looks more like a playground rumble than a modern NFL play, but it represents an evolution in how offensive coaches approach the tactic.
“Before, teams wanted to make it look like every other play,” said Mitchell Schwartz, a former All-Pro offensive lineman. “You didn’t want to tip your hand.”
In other words, the sneak was supposed to be sneaky, preventing the defense from cramming as many defenders as possible in front of the quarterback’s face before the snap.
Now, teams like the Eagles practically announce over the stadium loudspeakers that they are planning a sneak and dare the opponent to stop it. The play still works, in part because defensive make-a-pile strategies may be an advantage for the offense.
“If defenders go low, the offensive line can go over the top, and it becomes like a springboard for the quarterback to get shoved over the pile,” Schwartz said.
The sneak was on full display during wild-card weekend. Daniel Jones picked up two key first downs to extend fourth-quarter drives in the New York Giants’ 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Brock Purdy sneaked for a touchdown on a go-ahead drive in the San Francisco 49ers’ 41-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
On the downside, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley fumbled while leaping into the pile on a goal-line sneak, and Cincinnati Bengals defender Sam Hubbard returned it 98 yards for what became the game-winning touchdown in a 24-17 final. The Ravens have a knack for such catastrophes, however, and coach John Harbaugh said after the game that the play was designed as an Eagles-style push but was executed improperly.
Defenses have yet to come up with an effective countermeasure against the sneak, yet some coaches remain reluctant to use the play. Routine handoffs remain more than twice as common as quarterback sneaks (694 attempts to 291 in 2022) when the offense needs only 1 yard, despite the large disparity in success rate. That’s perhaps a justifiable decision with a bruiser like Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in the backfield or if “1 yard” is closer to 4 feet than 2, but it’s still not the optimal choice in most circumstances.
Some coaches may be understandably wary of injury on a play that turns the quarterback into an applied-physics experiment. Patrick Mahomes injured his knee on a sneak in 2019 and has not run one since. Kansas City sometimes compensates by slipping a burly tight end behind the center to dive into the pile instead of Mahomes.
Other teams insert backup quarterbacks like Jacoby Brissett (Cleveland Browns) or gadget-specialist Taysom Hill (New Orleans Saints) to run the sneak. Again, the element of surprise does not seem to matter much.
Injury concerns alone cannot explain all the alternatives that coaches deploy when they need to gain only 1 yard. For example, quarterbacks often align in shotgun formation in short-yardage situations, placing them several yards away from their goal. Designed shotgun running plays succeeded just 65.1% of the time in short-yardage situations in 2022, yet 235 of them were attempted.
Then there are empty-backfield passes and jet-sweep handoffs to tiny receivers running parallel to the line of scrimmage. From a statistical standpoint, none of these wrinkles are as effective as the simple snap-and-dive sneak. Yet play callers still follow their muses.
The Eagles eschew such over-engineering, so the Giants defense can count on Hurts’ lining up under center surrounded by his closest friends when the Eagles face fourth-and-short in their divisional-round playoff matchup on Saturday. That does not mean, however, that the Giants should not brace for a burst of creativity.
“The Eagles have been showing us this all year long,” McFarland said. “At some time in the playoffs, they’re going to do that, then have a play-action pass off it.
And when that happens?
“It’ll be a wide-open touchdown,” McFarland said. “I guarantee it.”