Ravens coach John Harbaugh had seen enough of the New England offense's four-linemen configuration, creating uncertainty for his team about which Patriots receivers were eligible and ineligible, so in the third quarter, he complained.
Walking well onto the field of play at Gillette Stadium, Harbaugh pleaded to an official and intentionally drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. The Patriots had gone to four offensive linemen after center Bryan Stork left the game with a right knee injury, lining up with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui at left tackle as an eligible receiver and running back Shane Vereen reporting as an ineligible receiver. The Patriots would snap the football as soon as the ineligible receiver was announced, using the configuration on three plays.
When Hoomanawanui caught a 14-yard pass in the third quarter of the Ravens' 35-31 AFC divisional-round playoff loss after he lined up at left tackle, Harbaugh erupted.
“Maybe those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “We obviously knew what we were doing, and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us. Maybe we’ll have something in store next week. I don’t know what’s deceiving about that. [The Ravens] should figure it out.”
Harbaugh wanted the Ravens to have enough time to identify who the eligible receivers were before the snap so that they could adjust their coverage schemes.
“It's a substitution type of a trick type of thing,” Harbaugh said. “So they don't give you the opportunity. They don't give you a chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.
“We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was, they would announce the eligible player, and then time was taken, and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had a chance to figure out who was lined up where. And that was the deception part of it. That was clearly deception.”
Harbaugh explained that he had to deliberately draw the penalty, which moved the Patriots further downfield. New England scored a touchdown two plays later.
“That's why I had to go and take the penalty, to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on because they didn't understand what was going on,” Harbaugh said. “And they said that was the right thing, that they'd give us a chance to ID the eligible receivers, so we could actually get them covered. That’s why guys were open, because we didn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at. That’s the nature of the particular thing that they were doing. That’s what made it so difficult.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and McDaniels employed the tactic in the third quarter while trailing by two touchdowns and were having problems keeping Brady on his feet,
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” Belichick said. “We ran it three times, a couple different looks. We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible.
"The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”
Harbaugh said what the Patriots did was unprecedented. When asked whether he considered it a cheap or dirty tactic, Harbaugh replied: “I'm not going to comment on that.”