- Film-study notes on the 10 schematic strategies and performances that decided the Eagles’ win over New England
After six hours of breaking down the film, here are the five biggest items on each side of the ball from Super Bowl 52, analyzed in order of significance.
EAGLES OFFENSE VS. PATRIOTS DEFENSE
1. Leading up to Sunday, we wondered: Would Doug Pederson play to the version of Nick Foles he’d seen over the years and constrict the passing game to safe, defined underneath throws? Or, would Pederson play to the version of Foles he saw in the NFC championship and open things up? Clearly, Pederson played to the latter. Against Minnesota, Foles made downfield throws by extending plays. Against New England, he made downfield throws by executing the gameplan. Pederson was aggressive, not just in his play-calling, but also in his designs. Foles rewarded him by making some tremendous deep anticipation throws.
2. Usually the post-Super Bowl hype exaggerates the significance of a story like Malcolm Butler’s absence. But not here. Butler’s benching was every bit as important as dumbfounded media and fans believe. What’s so baffling is that the Patriots, who are better than any team at shuffling personnel to find the best matchups, left themselves with three glaringly bad matchups by benching Butler. The problems were:
a. Playing slot corner Eric Rowe outside. Rowe got beat off the line of scrimmage a few times, including on Alshon Jeffery’s sensational 34-yard touchdown.
b. Playing Patrick Chung in the slot. Chung has been solid here for much of his career, and he wasn’t awful in Super Bowl 52. He did, however, get beat on a pair of sail routes towards the sidelines, one for 22 yards by Jeffery (a great throw by Foles) and another for 24 yards by Nelson Agholor. If that had been the long-armed Rowe in his usual slot position, there wouldn’t have been a window for either throw.
c. Without Butler, the Patriots’ choices in dime were journeyman fringe guy Johnson Bademosi or No. 4 safety Jordan Richards, who normally only plays in seven-DB packages. They chose Richards, and he was beaten twice in man coverage on critical first-half plays: Zach Ertz for 19 yards on a third-and-7 and Corey Clement for 55 yards, which set up the trick play touchdown to Foles.
3. The Patriots played a ton of man coverage. Against 3x1 sets with a line of scrimmage tight end isolated on the weak side (a staple Eagles look), the Patriots even showed zone coverage and played man, which is highly unusual. Philly had a great feel for New England’s man-to-man principles and exploited them with a variety of route combinations.
4. Philadelphia’s offensive line was not dominant in the running game, but it did just enough against New England’s defining 5-1 fronts. Center Jason Kelce survived his phone booth battle against nose tackle Malcom Brown (that probably wouldn’t have happened two years ago). Something else that stood out: Jay Ajayi and especially LeGarrette Blount ran with excellent patience and did a nice job setting up their blocks. Philly’s ground game produced important chunk plays in the first half and kept the offense on schedule in the second.
5. New England’s pass rush did very little, which has been the case often in recent years. Foles, throwing from clean pockets, easily played in rhythm and on schedule. The only Patriot who made noise was James Harrison on a few power rushes against left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. EAGLES DEFENSE
1. The Eagles defensive line did nothing until Brandon Graham’s sack-fumble late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots offensive line played very well, but more than that, the Patriots schemed ways to minimize Philly’s front four. Going in, many (including yours truly) would have guessed this meant New England spreading into empty formations and throwing quickly to Danny Amendola and James White. Nope. Instead, the Patriots went with deeper dropbacks, which they set up with (lots and lots of) play-action, as well as with chip-blocks on defensive ends. Both are common D-line-slowing tactics. The Patriots also played up-tempo at times, and even when they huddled, they often snapped the ball quickly, which kept the Eagles in a reactionary mode.
2. Tom Brady threw for 505 yards, so take this with a grain of salt: Brady won’t enjoy watching this game’s final drive. The Patriots were backed up and out of timeouts, which obviously complicates matters. But on the first snap, Brady just barley missed on a deep corner ball to Chris Hogan. It would have been a tremendous throw, putting the ball at the 30-yard-line and stopping the clock, changing the tenor of the drive. Two snaps later, Brady didn’t see Hogan on a deep curl inside or Rob Gronkowski in the flat. The play resulted in an incompletion to Danny Amendola. (Brady hit Amendola on a tough fourth-and-10 on the next snap, but by then time was really a-tickin’.) To be clear: Brady did not blow this drive. But there were two plays he might want back.
3. The Eagles were not going to let James White beat them in the passing game. They put their best back-seven defender, Malcolm Jenkins, on the running back (including when the back was Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead) and played a variety of man and zone concepts around that. This put the onus on Nigel Bradham and Corey Graham to handle Rob Gronkowski inside. Bradham had Gronk if it was nickel 2-deep man coverage (something the Eagles rarely employ), and Graham had him otherwise, both in man and zone.
4. What about Gronk’s two touchdowns against Ronald Darby? Or the deep incompletion early on against Jalen Mills? Well, here’s the other thing Philly did: If it was a 3x1 formation with Gronkowski as the “1” alone on the weak side, the Eagles showed Cover 3 zone, which kept a cornerback aligned opposite Gronk, but the coverage usually played out like man-to-man. This is the same thing New England did against Zach Ertz (see Item 3 above in Eagles offense vs. Patriots defense). Teams tinkered with this idea in 2017—you’ll see it a lot more in ’18.
5. Philly wasn’t going to let New England dictate the game with funky formationing. They played a more athletic “big nickel” package (3 safeties, 2 corners) when fullback James Develin was in. And when Develin split out wide, instead of letting him occupy a cornerback, the Eagles had a linebacker (almost always Mychal Kendricks) follow him and play iso-man coverage, while the other 10 defenders executed the regular coverage inside.
REMINDER: The Eagles had some creative defensive wrinkles in their gameplan, and they pulled off the upset. But let’s not assume these two things correlate. The Patriots had 613 yards of offense, netting 500 through the air. They had no punts and one penalty (a false start). Their lone turnover came at the most inopportune time, and it was simply a great play by defensive tackle Brandon Graham. (Don’t believe the rumor that Brady held the ball on that play; it was a deep dropback design and Graham beat right guard Shaq Mason before the routes could unfold. Mason was only beat one other time all game; it was also by Graham, midway through the first half.) Super Bowl LII was decided by Philadelphia’s offense outplaying New England’s defense.
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