On Thursday night in Kansas City, the Chiefs field goal unit lined up for an attempt. Kicker Harrison Butker assumed his regular position. Everything seemed normal, but just before the snap, the holder, Tommy Townsend, ran up to the line of scrimmage, and as he ran forward, tight end Noah Gray and offensive lineman Wanya Morris ran in from the wings.
Gray took the snap and Morris and Townsend smushed together and pushed him forward with the ferocity of a jaguar heaving a gazelle up a tree trunk. It was a fake field goal tush push, the latest iteration of a play that has swept the NFL since Philadelphia’s offense introduced it and ran it at a record-setting pace last season. When I wrote about the play last January, it didn’t yet have a name. And not many teams aside from Philadelphia had tried the maneuver. Now it has multiple names. The Brotherly Shove, the rugby sneak, “Organized Mass” as the Kelce brothers refer to it, and most commonly and cutely, the tush push.
There have been some really pitiful showings this season, such as the Giants putting two backup offensive linemen in the pusher positions, failing to gain a yard, and injuring two of their starting offensive linemen in the process. Or the time the Chargers inexplicably ran the play with a quarterback who only had one good hand with which to carry the ball.
From 2000 to 2022, the league averaged 53 sneaks through six weeks of games. This year, that number is nearly double — up to 104 sneaks through six weeks of games, the most in that 24 season timespan. It might be the most ever, but since NFL play-by-play records were first kept in 2000, totals from seasons before that are difficult to check. Sneaks have been on the rise since 2021, when the season total of 233 was the highest in our dataset since 2000. The next season’s 274 sneaks smashed that record. Now the pace of sneaks is headed toward a new record for the third straight year. (We define a QB sneak as a designed rush by a quarterback under center with 2 yards or fewer to convert, though we are including one Eagles attempt from three yards out in this season’s total because it was a true push sneak.)
NFL teams have called a QB sneak on third- or fourth-and-2 or shorter on 13.4 percent of opportunities so far this season, which is the highest rate of any season this century.
Good or bad, love it or hate it, the tush push is taking over as coaches around the NFL wake up and smell the efficiency of the play.
There’s essentially three variations of sneaks, true QB sneaks that don’t feature the pushing maul (often the QB will try to leap over the pile), non-traditional sneaks (with another position taking the snap, could include a pusher or two) and the rugby sneak/tush push, which is that instantly recognizable tight formation with several players surrounding the quarterback (or whoever is taking the direct snap) to shove them forward into the heart of the conflict, and both the offensive and defensive line fighting to get the lowest pad level to win the battle.
I went through and watched every sneak from the 11 teams that are perfect on sneaks this season, and there was a good variety of the three types of sneaks. Buffalo ran exclusively tush push while Denver mixed a variety of looks into its three sneaks on the season.
The Eagles still lead the league in tush pushes, with 17 this year. Only one has been stopped for no gain. Their 93.3 percent success rate is just shy of their 93.5 percent success rate last season, and that’s only because they don’t have the volume yet at this point in the year.
Philadelphia ran the tush push 43 times last season, including six times for two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. And this year, the Eagles have run it six times in one game again, at the Rams, including on third-and-3 in the final two minutes of game time. They gained a yard to set up for a fourth-and-2, where you guessed it, they ran another tush push.
The rise in sneaks overall this year makes it clear that the Eagles near-automatic success rate, which is one of the reasons the play was seriously scrutinized by the competition committee over the offseason, has inspired other NFL offenses to see if they can also exploit the same advantage. When you take Philadelphia out of the equation, the rest of the NFL averages a 77.8 percent success rate on sneaks this season.
The Chicago Bears with Justin Fields have run the play second-most this season, with eight sneaks. But that number moves to 10 if one counts the version they ran with tight end Cole Kmet taking the direct snap and Fields doing some of the pushing and another with Kmet that wasn’t a rugby sneak.
Chicago dominated Washington with three tush pushes in one game, and then scored the following week on a tush push with backup quarterback Tyson Bagent after Fields left the game with a dislocated thumb. The Bears have only missed on two sneaks this year, and neither were a tush push.
Only six teams haven’t run any sneaks with a quarterback this season. Not surprisingly, that list includes the Chiefs, the Dolphins and the Bengals. Patrick Mahomes was injured on a sneak four years ago and coach Andy Reid has sworn off it ever since, though he has explored different types of sneaks in fun settings. Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow have recent injury histories that explain why their coaches might be extra protective over their quarterbacks.
Not all of the sneaks in this season’s total are the true rugby-style tush pushes. Some are regular QB sneaks and some have one player in the backfield who runs up behind to push at the very end, but that low to the ground, snarling pile is something different. You just know when you see it, and TruMedia doesn’t have a filter to classify the rugby sneak from other variations of sneaks without watching every play to judge it, so these season totals are all-inclusive sneaks.
There have been some really good rugby sneak attempts, like the Arizona Cardinals gaining 3 yards on two attempts against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. (In their defense, no pun intended, Dallas later stopped a New England tush push on fourth-and-1). Or Buffalo, perfect in three tush pushes this season with the very physical Josh Allen.
Buffalo leads the league in third- and fourth-and-short (fewer than 2 yards) chances, but Allen has lined up in the shotgun on 23 of those 28 plays. Three of the five times that Allen has lined up under center on third- and fourth-and-short, they ran the tush push. Maybe the Bills and coach Sean McDermott are spooked after Allen’s extremely unfortunate fumble at the goal line last season on a sneak?
Bears quarterback coach Andrew Janocko said that they really like the tush push play, and they know they are good at it, but to run it at the rate of the Eagles would require Chicago to be more efficient on first and second down, instead of getting stuck in third-and-longs.
The Bears have averaged 7.3 yards to go on third down this season (23rd in the NFL) and their 2.5 plays per game on third-and-2 or shorter is 19th in NFL. When they get into fourth-and short, the Bears have been one of the more aggressive teams in going for it, doing so on five of eight chances, a 62.5 percent go-for-it rate (11th in NFL). On those five fourth-and-short plays in which the Bears have gone for it, three were sneaks (two converted) and two were non-sneaks (one converted). Perhaps Chicago should really tush push it to the limit.
Bears left guard Teven Jenkins helped Chicago convert three of three at Washington, and he said he sees the effort in the pushing as 50 percent offensive line, 30 percent quarterback, and 20 percent pushers. On many attempts of this play, the pushers don’t appear to be doing much, but as Jenkins says, “If we get stonewalled, they’re pushing Justin over.”
Defenses haven’t looked nearly as hopeless in halting the inertia of the organized mass this season, and Jenkins said he’s noticed some interesting tactics from Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. “He’s like laying down on the ground,” Jenkins said. “He’s literally on the ground.”
Upon further review of Bears and Eagles film, I found that Allen — and sometimes teammate Chase Young — angles his body nearly horizontal to the wall of offensive linemen surging towards him and then sprawls sideways into the contact. In theory, it is so that he can push back against multiple offensive linemen at once, instead of taking on just the one in front of him if he were facing straight forward. The innovative technique didn’t work against Chicago, or against the Eagles, but it’s a better strategy than the many defensive players who choose to jump over the top of the pile and completely whiff on making any contact at all.
“Defenses are doing a much better job at defending this play than they have done since I have been in the league,” said Eagles center and the premier spokesman for the tush push, Jason Kelce, on his podcast “New Heights.” “There is an emphasis being made. We have always got QB sneaks, if I am being honest, against the Commanders. The Commanders came out with a much better attempt at stopping this play than I have ever had.”
Kelce also said on his podcast that Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne was actually putting his hand under the football, which would be a neutral zone infraction. “Whatever, everybody is going to be jockeying for position,” Kelce said.
“Technique goes out the window,” said Broncos defensive end Zach Allen, who stopped one of the Eagles attempts last season when he played for Arizona and they ran the tush push three times in a row at the goal line (they eventually scored on it). “It’s just more of an attitude thing and a pride thing to stop it.”
The evidence that other offenses are figuring out how to win on the tush push, and that defenses are adjusting for it, should only help save the play from permanent banishment. The Eagles are still leaps above the rest, but teams such as Buffalo, Chicago and Arizona are also finding consistent success with the play.
Eagles’ push sneak unchallenged by competition committee
The biggest threat to the future of the rugby sneak will be any injury data that could prove it isn’t safe. Last season there wasn’t any injury data to review, but this year, the Giants contributed the first two data points. In the meantime, offenses will keep organizing the mass and crossing their fingers that the play survives its second offseason under the competition committee’s microscope. At the league meetings in New York Tuesday, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said that he can’t predict the future of the play, but he knows that the committee will discuss it again this offseason.
“I really hope” it’s not outlawed, Bears guard Nate Davis said. “It is definitely something that works for offenses. I don’t think it’s anything illegal.”
(Top photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)