Mike Vrabel pulled off a unique strategy in the Titans' win over the Texans on Sunday.
The Tennessee coach used an interesting loophole in the rulebook that ended up saving his team time at the end of the game. And the Titans needed that time, as they ended up scoring the game-tying touchdown with just four seconds left in regulation.
Vrabel's move was to intentionally put too many players on the field as a way to save time. The move was initially spotted by a Reddit user.
Here's the situation: The Titans are down 30-29 and there's about three minutes left in regulation. The Texans have been driving the ball downfield and are now at the Titans' 25-yard line, meaning they're already in field goal range.
The Texans just picked up nine yards on a pass play to Brandin Cooks, setting up 2nd and 1. Instead of letting the Texans run a play (or possibly two) and pick up a first down, Vrabel sent out Josh Kalu to take an intentional penalty of too many men on the field.
Here is the sequence. It’s 2nd and 1. Odds of Houston converting either on this down or the next is astronomical. Joseph is confused looking to the sideline and Vrabel is telling him “it’s ok” and then does a sales job to make sure the ref sees it. https://t.co/ZFJzQJC5II pic.twitter.com/EWuOhk5J4U— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) October 18, 2020
As Mike Herndon notes, Kalu had only played on 10 snaps all season, meaning he wouldn't be put in this situation. The only reason he's there is so the Titans are penalized. You can also see Johnathan Joseph look back at Vrabel in the clip. Joseph is a 15-year veteran, so he likely spotted that the Titans had too many men on the field, but Vrabel assured him things were fine.
The Titans are then penalized for having too many men on the field, and the Texans pick up a first down. More importantly, the clock is stopped as a result of Vrabel's coaching move. Stopping the clock saves 40 seconds of play clock, or a timeout, both of which are extremely valuable in this situation.
Some wondered on Twitter why the Titans didn't just take an encroachment penalty and touch an offensive lineman instead. That's because such a penalty would result in the clock starting up again, as mentioned in the NFL rulebook.
You might also wonder why they don't just take a timeout in that sitution. That's because it's easier to stop the Texans on 1st and 10 than it is on 2nd and 1. The worst case scenario would be the Texans failing on 2nd and 1 and then picking up the first down on 3rd and 1. That means you've now wasted a timeout, and it would be almost impossible to come back.
Vrabel's plan was likely to then stop the Texans in three plays and force a field goal. It didn't work out that way, as the Texans ran six more plays and scored a touchdown. But the penalty did end up saving the Titans 40 seconds, which they desperately needed on their final game-tying drive.
The Titans were then able to force overtime and win the game.
This isn't the first time Vrabel has used clock tricks, either. He famously used Bill Belichick's clock loophole against him in the playoffs last season. That loophole allowed the Titans to take intentional delay of game penalties and false start penalties before punting, resulting in nearly two minutes of lost game clock. The NFL closed that loophole ahead of the 2020 season.
Vrabel also pulled the same too-many-men-on-the-field penalty back in 2018 against the Jets. We wouldn't be surprised if the NFL found a way to close this loophole as well.
UPDATE: Vrabel was asked about this tactic during his press conference with the media on Monday, but dodged a direct response.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel is asked if the 12 men on the field penalty was intentional to save clock and he dodges a direct response. pic.twitter.com/txF7KlS0SN— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) October 19, 2020
When asked whether that play was intentional, Vrabel instead talked about penalties as a whole.
"We have to do a better job with penalties," he said. "We had seven of them, I think. Pretty uncharacteristic. We have to be better in all areas, and I think penalties are one thing that we focus on."
Not satisfied with that answer, the reporter again asked directly whether that penalty was intentional. And again, Vrabel side-stepped the question.
"The 2nd and 1 [play], just trying to make a stop there and substitute in an extra defensive back," Vrabel said. "We ultimately got to do a better job on first down in four minute defense, and not give up nine yards."
Considering Vrabel didn't come out and say that it wasn't intentional, we can likely assume that it indeed was intentional. Especially when you consider all of the context clues, and the fact he did this same thing in a similar situation back in 2018.
Vrabel likely doesn't want to admit to it because he doesn't want the NFL to fix this useful clock trick.