How Patriots Orchestrated Titans’ Controversial (And Costly) Punt Penalty

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One of the turning points of Saturday night’s playoff game at Gillette Stadium played out exactly how Bill Belichick had planned.

With the New England Patriots lining up to punt from their own 14-yard line midway through the second quarter, Geneo Grissom was whistled for a false start, backing the Patriots up even further. But after conferring, the officials changed their ruling, waving off the penalty on Grissom and instead flagging Tennessee Titans safety Brynden Trawick for a neutral zone infraction.

The 5-yard penalty gave the Patriots, who held a seven-point lead at the time, a fresh set of downs. They capitalized, driving 95 yards for a touchdown en route to a 35-14 divisional-round victory.

Trawick’s infraction looked like a stroke of good luck for New England. In reality, it was the result of Belichick’s maniacal attention to detail.

Speaking Sunday morning on a conference call, the Patriots coach said his players are coached to move if an opponent jumps into the neutral zone and the offense needs fewer than 5 yards for a first down. Grissom did his job.

“I wasn’t (surprised), because I thought that Trawick entered the neutral zone and Geneo reacted to him,” Belichick said. “We practice that play every week, and if it’s that kind of a situation — fourth-and-less than 5 — and the player enters the neutral zone, then we want to react to it and force the penalty, not allow him to get back and reset and not have the opportunity for it.

“So, I thought it was a heads-up play by Geneo to react to that. That’s what he’s supposed to do, and that’s what he did. I thought we did the right thing. He definitely entered the neutral zone, at least from what I saw. I thought Trawick was in the neutral zone. So, assuming we agree on that, if he did that, then the player on the offensive side of the ball, if he reacts to that, the penalty’s on the defense.”

Under old NFL rules, defensive players needed to touch an offensive player or be caught across the line of scrimmage at the snap in order to be flagged for encroachment. The league changed that rule several years ago, however.

“He can pull back out, but if the offense reacts to the defensive player in the neutral zone, then the penalty’s on the defense,” Belichick explained. “Otherwise, you’re going to have the whole defense flinching and what we went through a decade ago with everybody on the defensive side of the ball flinching.

“With the silent count, crowd noise and all that on the road, you’ve got all the defensive players flinching but not entering the neutral zone to get the offense to false start, and the league changed the rule so that, A) it’s illegal to flinch, and B) if you try to time up a blitz or try to beat the count and you get into the neutral zone, then, no, you don’t get a chance to get back if the offense moves. If they don’t move and you get back, then everything resets and there’s no infraction. But if the offense reacts to that, then the penalty’s on the defense.”

The Patriots converted three third downs later in the drive — which spanned 16 plays and culminated in a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan — and were helped along by two additional Titans penalties.

“That’s what football is,” Belichick said. “Football is about making plays and taking advantage of opportunities.”

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images

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