When the Falcons signed Mohamed Sanu this past offseason, they didn't just bring in a quality second wideout to complement Julio Jones. They also brought in a guy who adds a special dimension to an offense as a capable passer.
Sanu was a triple-option quarterback out of high school and has played some quarterback in the NFL -- he has completed 100 percent of his passes, going 5 for 5 in his four-year career.
This isn't some dink-and-dunk stuff either. Sanu hit A.J. Green for a 73-yard BOMB with the Bengals.
And yet, he hasn't thrown a single pass since joining the Falcons. Cincy used him often; Kyle Shanahan hasn't used him once. That fact hasn't lulled Bill Belichick to sleep, however. In fact, the lack of usage has the Patriots coach on even higher alert for a potential trick play in Super Bowl LI.
"We know [Sanu] can do [throw the ball]. Look, this is the kind of game where a team could be working on a play like that all year and running out of games," Belichick said. "Could be a lot of other plays too -- reverse, a pass, a double pass, some kind of gadget play. Absolutely, the longer the season goes, the more you have to be prepared for those kind of plays. The team's been working on it, at some point they're probably going to use it and the fewer games there are to call it. If you've been working on a play all year, a lot of coordinators, you might as well call it.
To be very clear: Belichick loves Sanu as a receiver (which should be no surprise given that he played at Rutgers) and gave him ample praise.
"He's big, he's tough, he's got great hands, tremendous hands," Belichick said. "He's got a great catch radius. He catches everything. Tough blocker, hard to tackle. He's an explosive player."
Belichick was asked if he thought those sort of traits are why former Patriots employees Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli identified Sanu as a guy to sign this offseason.
"Sanu would help any team. There's not a team in the league he wouldn't help."
You almost get the feeling that Belichick would've loved to have landed Sanu, except the price simply wasn't right. (Sanu signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract last offseason.)
As it is, Belichick has to be figure out how he plans to defend Sanu and/or any other trick plays Shanahan might have up his sleeve. And the Patriots coach, in a long-winded and thoughtful answer, explained exactly how you work on stopping trick plays.
Basically, it's kind of fundamentally built into the defense.
"You can draw up any gadget play you want, but at the end it comes down to the basic fundamentals of your defense," Belichick said. "Every defense is designed to defend the perimeter, to defend the deep balls, whether that's man-to-man or zone or four-man line, three-man line. Two-man line, whatever it is, it doesn't matter. You can't defend an offensive formation without defending the perimeter of the formation, without defending the vertical element the formation could bring.
"Defend the outside, defend deep, everything's in front of you. Every defense has to have those elements to it. Who knows what you're going to be in, what play they're going to run that you haven't seen before. You just have to count on the sound fundamentals of the defense to handle all those things. Every time we put in a defense it's the first thing we do. Run strong, run weak, reverse, halfback pass, passing game, four verticals, three verticals, double moves, deep crossing routes. Make sure those plays are handled by the assignments in the defense."
So every single one of Belichick's defenses is tested against the reverse and the halfback pass. You might assume that every single defensive formation will also be tested against Sanu tossing a bomb to Julio Jones as well (or Taylor Gabriel).
Because, as Belichick added, you don't want "to be light" on giving up the huge play.
"If you're going to be light on something, you don't want to be light on those. You want to be light on something else," Belichick said. "You don't want to be light on a seam route or on a post pattern. Or not have a run force guy if they run a reverse. It doesn't mean you have it done right every single time, but there's somebody that's responsible for it and it's their job to make sure they handle that responsibility based on how the play is designed."
The really short version? Belichick and the Patriots are fully prepared for a trick play from Atlanta when the Super Bowl rolls around.
It's almost as if the Falcons' lack of usage of Sanu in the trick-play game is almost a red flag at this point.