It’s a good thing for the Eagles that Nick Foles had such a stellar game, because Philadelphia’s defense was surprisingly bad. It isn’t hyperbole to say that theirs was safely the worst performance by a Super Bowl winning defense in the history of the NFL. The Eagles looked completely unprepared for anything Tom Brady and the Patriots threw their way. We’ve seen teams look ill-prepared for New England’s offense before, but given the magnitude of the game, this was on a whole other level.
It would be one thing if the Patriots came out with a game plan completely different from what they normally like to do. They didn’t though. In fact, they really didn’t deviate much, if at all, from what they had done all year (and pretty much every year for the last 5-7 years). They employed their usual unconventional formations and personnel distributions, with running backs and tight ends aligned outside and receivers aligned inside, as shown below:
This not only helped define the coverage for Tom Brady, but it actually caught Eagles defenders off guard. Philly defenders were late in identifying these formations, and generally had trouble reacting and matching up to these formations pre-snap. This created confusion, blown assignments, and wide-open receivers for big plays. Again, the Patriots have been doing this for years, so it should not have come as a shock to Philadelphia when they saw it.
The Eagles had an especially difficult time defending play-action. Linebackers and 2nd-level defenders were over aggressive and bit hard against play action regularly. Take the below play. You can see how the run fake sucked Philly’s 2nd-level defenders towards the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots did a great job of manufacturing a wide open receiver on this pla. The post route knocked the top off the coverage. The shallow crossing route, along with the play action, held the 2nd level defenders. Danny Amendola was left with no one near him at the intermediate level.
The result here was an easy 30-yard completion.
Poor play recognition coupled with bad tackling led to big plays in the screen game as well. It wasn’t exactly a shock that the Patriots utilized these types of plays either. In fact, we even suggested before the Super Bowl that we expected the Patriots to use lots of play action and screens. As much All-22 film as we watch here at Football Film Room, there is no way we watch as much as NFL coaches and players do. Somehow, the Eagles were caught off guard by the easily predictable, though.
Aside from what we’ve already mentioned, there is something defenses absolutely cannot do when facing the Patriots offense to have any chance of success – They can’t give New England receivers free releases. They especially can’t allow Rob Gronkowski to run, unimpeded, off the line. We’ll give you one guess as to how the Eagles defense did in this department:
On this particular play, it wasn’t until Gronk initiated contact with the defender 7 yards downfield that he was touched.
Gronk was able to run freely through the secondary for most of the game and maintain the rhythm of the passing game. He was able to dictate to the defense with his routes, more so than he usually does anyway. The Patriots started the game by keeping Gronk in to protect a little more than they normally do. When they finally started featuring him in the passing game, the Eagles had no answer. Gronk finished with 9 receptions for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The one thing the Eagles did well on defense was eliminate the Patriots’ running backs from the passing game. They did this primarily by having safety Malcolm Jenkins take away the best pass-catching running back on the field (most often, James White). Patriots running backs only caught 3 passes for 67 yards. The always dangerous Dion Lewis did not catch any passes. Job well done! That’s as complementary as we’ll get about this aspect of Jim Schwartz’s game plan, because you couldn’t really say that it “worked.” After all, the Patriots scored 33 points, racked up 613 yards, and didn’t punt once.
We won’t pretend that Tom Brady and the Patriots Offense had nothing to do with their success in this game. Part of the genius of the offensive system that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have put together is that their formations and play-action designs are tough to defend even when you know they are coming. But 600+ yards? And without their best wide receiver (Brandin Cooks) for most of the game? Come on.
All of that being said, the Patriots did add a subtle wrinkle to their Super Bowl LII game plan, which helped heighten their effectiveness and thwart Philadelphia’s pass rush. The wrinkle was that Brady set up quickly with short drops throughout the game. We don’t mean he just took 3-step drops all night. We mean that if the play looked like the timing would normally call for a 5 step-drop with a hitch, the Patriots often ran it as a quick-5-step drop with no hitch. If it was a quick-5 design, Brady took 3 steps. On play action, we saw Brady run the play fake, immediately turn around, and get the ball out of his hands with accurate throws to his receivers. There were fewer false steps at the top of Brady’s drops throughout the game, and he was clearly conscious about immediately stepping up in the pocket right at the top of his drop. The idea here was to prevent Eagles pass rushers from getting to him off the edge. And it worked. With New England’s offensive line also doing a tremendous job blocking inside and Brady anchored in the middle of the pocket, the Eagles’ pass rush was non-existent. Tom Brady had a field day.
That was until Brandon Graham finally broke through late in the 4th quarter. On this play, the Eagles did what they’ve done so many times this year to generate pressure on the quarterback. They aligned with 3 good pass rushing defensive ends on their front-4 and manufactured advantageous matchups inside.
Here, you can see that defensive end Brandon Graham bumped inside, where he would be matched 1-on-1 against a guard.
You can see that Fletcher Cox was aligned in the A-gap. This forced the center to slide in his direction.
This left defensive end Chris Long on right tackle Cameron Fleming, and defensive end Brandon Graham on right guard Shaq Mason. Advantage Eagles.
Give that defensive line enough opportunities, and they’ll make at least one big play. Here, it helped seal Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl victory.
Perhaps Brady setting up short in the pocket, which worked all game, contributed to Graham getting to him in time here.
The Eagles did not have a game plan that will go down in history as one of the all-time greats. But give them credit for holding Tom Brady in the closing moments of the Super Bowl. They made the play they had to with a championship at stake, which is all anyone in Philadelphia will remember anyway.