Nick Foles threw for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns, and even caught a touchdown on his way to an improbable Super Bowl MVP. The Eagles ran for 164 yards on 27 carries, good for 6.1 yards per rush. The 41 points they scored were the most the Patriots have given up in a playoff game under Bill Belichick. In fact, this was only the 4th time in 37 playoff games during the Brady-Belichick era that the Patriots allowed at least 30 points. Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson deserves a ton of credit. He remained aggressive from start to finish, kept New England off balance, and put his players in position to exploit advantageous matchups due to Malcolm Butler’s absence.
We won’t speculate about what kind of off-the-field issues Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia may have had with Malcolm Butler. What we will say is that it’s hard to believe keeping Butler on the sidelines for every single defensive snap provided some kind of strategic advantage for the Patriots.
New England played most of this game with Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe at cornerback, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon at safety, and Patrick Chung as the 5th defensive back in the slot. In all fairness to Belichick and Patricia, using 3 safeties in their Nickel sub-package with Chung, a multi-purpose safety, in the slot does make some sense given the matchup. The Eagles not only like to utilize multiple-tight-end sets, but because the RPO (Run-pass option) is such a significant part of their offense, the extra defensive back inside has to be able to play the run and the pass. Chung fits that bill.
Also, in addition to the Eagles’ two main pass-catching tight ends (Zach Ertz and Trey Burton), wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is listed at 6’3” and 218 lbs. It could be somewhat justified for Belichick to start Eric Rowe over Malcolm Butler because he is a bigger cornerback and perhaps a better matchup. This rings especially true when you consider that the Patriots did not have their corners follow Eagles receivers around the field in man coverage for most of the first half. Instead, Gilmore and Rowe mostly stayed to their respective sides. They played man against whoever they were aligned over, whether that was a receiver or a tight end.
The strategy here was simple – the Patriots did not want to allow the Eagles to identify man or zone coverage purely based on matchups and the alignment of defenders. Belichick and Patricia likely played the percentages that Gilmore and Rowe would be matched on Jeffery or a tight end on the outside most of the time, therefore decreasing the chances of a mismatch on the perimeter. Patrick Chung would then take the slot receiver and play to some form of help. The disguise was likely also meant to prevent Nick Foles from being able to correctly dissect the defense and choose the right option quite as much when the Eagles ran their RPO offense.
What makes us skeptical that keeping Butler on the sidelines was something the Patriots viewed as a strategic advantage is that the Patriots still refused to put Butler in the game even when they went with Dime personnel (6 defensive backs) in obvious passing situations. Instead, they predominantly used safety Jordan Richards in Dime. This meant the Patriots had 4 safeties and two cornerbacks on the field in many obvious passing situations. Richards moves more like a box safety and is therefore not an ideal matchup for New England from a pass-defense perspective. The Eagles were able to exploit both his presence and the Patriots’ preference for safeties over cornerbacks all night.
Take this 3rd-and-7 in the 2nd quarter for instance. Here, the Eagles aligned in “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). The Patriots matched up in Dime with those 4 safeties and 2 cornerbacks. As you can see below, Patrick Chung and Jordan Richards were aligned over Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz. That’s two safeties in man-to-man coverage against a wide receiver and a very good pass-catching tight end.
The Patriots were actually playing 2-man here, meaning man-to-man coverage with 2 safeties over the top.
In 2-man, generally the underneath coverage plays inside and underneath their receivers (between the receiver and the quarterback) because they have safety help over the top. Below, you can see that the Patriots were doing this across the board, with the exception of Richards on Ertz (in red).
Richards was not playing to his help like he should have been. Instead of taking away the underneath and inside throw, making it easier for him to react to any direction Ertz was cutting, he played on top of the tight end. Ertz was able to get him going in one direction and then cut in the opposite direction more easily as a result. You can see the separation below.
This was a 19-yard gain and a 3rd-down conversion. Perhaps Richards was not as seasoned at running this type of coverage, and therefore played it incorrectly. If Butler was in the game, the more experienced Patrick Chung likely would have been covering Ertz instead of Agholor.
Two plays later, the Eagles aligned with 3 wide receivers and 2 tight ends in an empty formation. There was no threat of run here. This was undeniably a passing situation. The Patriots once again matched up with 2 cornerbacks and 4 safeties. This time, they played man-free coverage. As you can see, safety Patrick Chung was aligned in the slot on Alshon Jeffery. This was a mismatch.
Jeffery was easily able to get on top of Chung on his slot-fade route, and Foles made a great throw.
On the Eagles’ touchdown drive before the end of the first half, they faced a 3rd-and-3. They once again aligned in “11” personnel. The Patriots once again responded with 4 safeties, 2 cornerbacks, and man-free coverage.
To the right side of the formation, the Eagles had wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Zach Ertz with running back Corey Clement in the backfield. The Patriots matched up with Devin McCourty on Ertz (a matchup we saw all night), Richards on Clement (circled), and Stephon Gilmore on Smith.
Here, Clement was running a wheel route out of the backfield, with Torrey Smith’s route meant to pin Clement’s defender, Jordan Richards, inside. Richards tried to get underneath the pin route at the snap.
He aggressively undercut Clement and came in a bit out of control. This enabled Clement to easily get on top of him. Because Richards moves like a box safety, it was difficult for him to recover.
The result was a 55-yard gain. Had Butler been in the game, Patrick Chung likely would have been covering Clement instead of Nelson Agholor in the slot on the other side of the field.
It’s hard to believe that Belichick and Patricia wanted Richards being such a factor in the passing game, or that they truly wanted Chung covering receivers in the slot all game. The approach allowed Philadelphia to dictate favorable matchups throughout the night.
It didn’t help that New England was unable to generate much of a pass rush all game. Perhaps tighter coverage in their secondary could have forced Foles to hold onto the ball a bit longer and given Patriots pass rushers the opportunity to create just a few more plays.
Ultimately, New England allowed advantageous matchups all game and never adjusted after being picked apart. Despite their ineffectiveness, they still kept #21 on the bench. Not to mention, even after Chung was knocked out of the game (twice), they subbed cornerback Johnson Bademosi instead of Butler. This all but confirms that keeping Butler on the sidelines could not have been merely a strategic football decision.
None of this should take away from Nick Foles’ performance, because he was outstanding in every way. He consistently made great throws into very tight windows. He saw the field with almost perfect clarity, his coverage and matchup recognition on point all game. His decision-making was nearly flawless. Simply put, he was on the money in the biggest game of his life.
It was evident early in the game that Foles was feeling it. His throw to Alshon Jeffery for Philadelphia’s first touchdown was perfectly placed. On his second touchdown pass of the night, his recognition and ball placement could not have been better.
On this play, it was 3rd-and-6. The Eagles initially aligned with running back Corey Clement on the perimeter. The Patriots matched up with a linebacker, Marquis Flowers.
This was an indicator of man coverage. The Eagles motioned Clement into the backfield before the snap and Flowers followed.
Clement would eventually be running a wheel route out of the backfield.
A key thing to note here is that safeties Devin McCourty and Jordan Richards were aligned over tight end Zach Ertz. Earlier in the game, the Patriots had shown bracket coverage on Ertz with Richards and McCourty on 3rd down. Foles realized he might be getting the same coverage here.
This is important because if Ertz was drawing bracket coverage, that meant Foles would have Clement in a 1-on-1 mismatch on a linebacker with no help over the top. At the snap, you can see Richards and McCourty were indeed doubling Ertz.
Clement was singled up on Flowers.
Clement was able to get on top of Flowers. McCourty was late to get overtop of Clement because of his initial double-team responsibility on Ertz.
Foles recognized the coverage and knew that all he had to do was hold the deep safety in the middle of the field. At the snap, you can see that he immediately looked right to do just that.
Foles then turned left, reset his feet, and made an unbelievable throw to Clement. You can see the ball placement below.
Controversial catch aside, quarterbacking doesn’t get much better than that.
On the final drive of the game, Foles was outstanding in all the ways a quarterback needs to be to win a Super Bowl. On 4th-and-1, his pocket movement bought him time to make the necessary throw for a first down. A few plays later, Foles made an accurate throw on the run to Nelson Agholor in tight man coverage. He then fit a pass into a tiny window against a Cover-3 zone for an 18-yard gain. On the very next play, Foles recognized blitz pressure and responded accordingly. This is illustrated below. Here, the Patriots had a safety stacked over a slot cornerback, indicating a potential blitz.
This would indeed end up being a slot-corner blitz.
The Eagles had an RPO called, with Alshon Jeffery running off Stephon Gilmore and Nelson Agholor running a bubble from the slot. We know that Foles must have recognized this as a blitz, because he likely would not have chosen to throw the bubble pass to Agholor if he thought the slot corner was playing man coverage.
With Jeffery taking Gilmore deep and the safety over the blitzing corner too far away from Agholor, Foles threw the bubble for another easy 10 yards and a first down.
A few plays later, on the game-winning touchdown, Doug Pederson once again was able to isolate the 1-on-1 matchup the Eagles wanted. As you can see below, the Eagles aligned tight end Zach Ertz on the perimeter to the left. He had Devin McCourty aligned over him.
McCourty is a good cover safety, but this is a matchup that favors Ertz and the Eagles. This particular play would call for an inbreaking route from Ertz. The only question was, would the safety in the middle of the field be helping McCourty with Ertz or covering Corey Clement out of the backfield?
To find out, the Eagles sent Clement in motion to the right just before the snap. The deep safety in the middle of the field immediately ran with him.
This meant the Patriots were playing “0” coverage (Man-to-man with no deep safety help). The middle of the field was vacant.
You can see the separation Ertz was able to generate at the top of his route.
The result was the game-winning touchdown.
Nick Foles had total clarity all night and earned a much-deserved Super Bowl MVP. Additionally, Doug Pederson called a great game. Yes, the “Philly Special” was an unbelievable call that will go down in Super Bowl lore, but trick plays don’t make a great play-caller. Great play-calling is largely about timing, keeping the defense off balance, using certain plays to set up even bigger plays later in the game, and putting your players in the best possible position to succeed. Pederson hit all of those notes in Super Bowl LII. He kept the Patriots off balance all night with tons of play-action and RPOs, and he consistently put his players in position to take advantage of favorable matchups.
In a game where both teams combined for nearly 900 passing yards, it isn’t surprising that Philadelphia’s running game has received little recognition in the aftermath of their Super Bowl victory. But the Eagles were able to put 41 points on the board largely because their rushing attack helped them sustain drives and create big plays.
Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi did a great job of running with patience and setting up their blockers. It also helped that their offensive line dominated for most of the night. In particular, center Jason Kelce, left guard Stefen Wisniewski, and right guard Brandon Brooks consistently controlled the Patriots’ inside. They handled a Patriots D-line that had a stellar game just two weeks earlier against the Jaguars’ #1 ranked rushing attack. Kelce, Wisniewski, and Brooks were regularly able to get to the second level, and they played key roles on the Eagles’ biggest runs of the night.
It certainly helped that Doug Pederson’s great playcalling extended to the Eagles’ ground game. Pederson ran the Patriots sideline to sideline with outside runs. Because Philadelphia was able to stretch the defense horizontally, and because of the threat of their RPOs, lanes opened up inside. The Eagles finished the night with 76 yards rushing on 10 inside zone runs.
When people look back on Super Bowl LII, the absence of Malcolm Butler will always cast a large shadow over the game. Maybe we’ll find out more details in the coming weeks and months. Maybe we won’t. Regardless, 41 points is 41 points. Doug Pederson and Nick Foles were both nearly flawless, and the Eagles are finally Super Bowl Champions as a result.