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Breaking down the tush push — the play with odes to both football and rugby

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Football has always been a game of inches.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Stopped short. Four plays from the 1. They can't get in.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One play in particular has been this season's topic of watercooler huddles, fantasy football group chats and the ire of NFL defensive coordinators - the tush push.

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KIRK HERBSTREIT: It worked again.

AL MICHAELS: Are they going to push him in? Yep, in there. Touchdown. They've run that play a few times, haven't they?

CHANG: That's right. The tush push is a play where the quarterback lines up behind the center instead of the quarterback driving ahead by himself. Two, three, four, sometimes five players jump behind the caboose of the quarterback and they push, push, push.

SUMMERS: And one team in particular, the Philadelphia Eagles, seems to have this play down to a science so far, converting more than 80% of the time for a first down this season.

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MIKE TIRICO: They're back in BS territory - brotherly shove, that is. Everybody's in there. And it's a first down.

CHANG: This Philly evolution has been legal since 2005, but it wasn't employed as frequently or efficiently until Nick Sirianni made it a staple last year.

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NICK SIRIANNI: Jason Kelce starts it off. Jalen Hurts, you know, is right there. Right? You've seen it across the league that people can't do it like we can do it.

CHANG: It's true. Aside from the Eagles, only a handful of teams are remotely successful when it comes to the push.

SUMMERS: Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton dismissed the tush push, saying it, quote, "amounts to a rugby scrum." To get to the bottom of this, we asked Gavin Hickie, head rugby coach of the No. 1 ranked Navy Midshipmen.

GAVIN HICKIE: Football listeners and football fans probably won't love me for saying this, but if we just go way back, you know, we have to say that football came from rugby. Pitches were narrow. It was getting too violent.

CHANG: Hickie says all this talk over this one play actually is a disservice to the Eagles' hard work and to the strength of their quarterback.

HICKIE: The fact that Jalen Hurts can squat 600 pounds plus is a big piece of the success rate the Eagles have in the tush push. That along with, obviously, Kelce and Mailata and Johnson, I mean, they're massive men.

CHANG: In addition to our call, Hickie's received a few calls from NFL teams who hope to put a stop to the push.

SUMMERS: And Hickie's been candid with his advice on emphasizing timing, but concedes that the offense will always have the advantage. His advice?

HICKIE: Make sure that everybody's in sync, everybody knows what they're doing. At the same time, tongue in cheek, the best way to stop it is don't give a 4th and 1.

SUMMERS: And we'll be watching on Sunday to see if the Dallas Cowboys have been listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.