This was a unique matchup. While New England went into the AFC playoffs as the number one seed and favorite to win it all, Philadelphia took on the underdog role throughout the NFC race, with the opposing team favored in both games at Lincoln Financial field. Despite earning the top seed in their respective conference as well, not many people believed that backup Nick Foles would be able to match MVP and five-time champion Tom Brady in the big game. All the analysts talked about how Philly’s defensive line would have to harass Brady throughout the game, to keep the score low and give them a chance to win the game. Yet, 74 points and, an all-time NFL record for any game, 1151 total offensive yards later, it was the Eagles hoisting the Lombardi trophy with Foles being named Super Bowl MVP. How was this possible?
First of all, the likes of Foles, Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and the entire offensive line showed up in a huge way in their biggest game yet. I won’t take away credit from anyone of those guys. After all, football games are won on the field and players will always be responsible for what happens once the ball is snapped, but I truly believe this was all about head-coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and the entire offensive staff winning the mental battle against Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and all those guys. Let me elaborate:
The biggest problem for most teams in recent years, when facing the Patriots, has been the fact that at some point they played with fear and the mentality not to lose the game, instead of coaching to win it.
Just take last year’s Super Bowl versus Atlanta. We all remember (and often times remind their fans) that the Falcons were up 28-3 with two minutes left in the third quarter. OC Kyle Shanahan, last year’s MVP Matt Ryan and a core of offensive weapons were moving the ball up and down the field in the first half and the initial drive of the half number two due to clever play-calling and the aggressiveness to push the ball vertically. When the defense was on the field, they were fresh and energized to make big plays against the dynasty of this early century. In the second half, they went with a much more conservative approach, which has its justification, but once New England started realizing that and becoming the aggressor themselves, Brady and company started coming back against them. A historically great offense, that put up an average of 34.1 points per game during the regular season, couldn’t score a single point over the last 22-and-a-half minutes, because looking at who was on the opposing sideline, made them go away from doing what had gotten them to this point. They were afraid of allowing the Patriots to make a game-changing play until converting a magical sideline play to Julio Jones, which put in the field-goal range. But then Matty Ice was sacked on a drop-back. So they played scared until they could have put the game away and then they made a dumb mistake. The Falcons still threw a bunch of quick passes, but the Patriot DBs were able to just sit on them and force incompletions. That led to the Atlanta defense being on the field 20:34 minutes out of the final 34 minutes and getting exhausted towards the end of the contest. That’s what New England does to people. They make them go away from who they are.
Something similar took place in this year’s AFC Championship game, when Jacksonville jumped on the then-reigning world champs, by being aggressive on defense, getting into the face of the Patriot receivers, and spreading formations out on offense, to keep New England’s defense honest and not be able to load up the box. Even against the different rub-routes Josh McDaniels loves to run, the Jaguars did a phenomenal job in man-coverage, just sprinting towards the open target and bringing him down short of the sticks. Despite having a lot of success with those cover one looks, even with New England making it a priority to test it heavily early on, the Sacksonville coaching staff clearly got scared out of what they do best. Up 14-3 with a little more than two minutes left in the first half, defensive coordinator Todd Wash went away from challenging Brady’s receivers in favor of playing soft coverage behind them. The 40-year old has seen everything in his career and if you give him the same looks time and time again, he will pick it apart as if he was in seven-on-sevens. Especially the quarter-coverages were exploited with deep crossing routes and comebacks on the outside. Out of the 221 passing from the Patriots’ first touchdown-drive on, 199 of them came against zone-coverage, while the few man-calls from that point on, resulted in an average of just three yards per attempt. The same passive approach can be criticized on the offensive side of the ball. With 55 seconds and two timeouts left in the first half, the Jaguars didn’t even try to run a play. After finding some running room through the middle out of doubles- and trips-formations, Doug Marrone and OC Nathaniel Hackett went back to using 21 and 22 personnel in hope that they could just hand the ball off to Leonard Fournette running through three defenders, instead of taking the game into their own hands and forcing the Patriots to adjust.
With those two examples of teams, and more importantly coaches, being afraid of the five-time champions in Brady and Belichick, how did the Eagles find a way to win without their own MVP-candidate in Carson Wentz? They just didn’t give a damn.
Doug Pederson and Frank Reich were career backups in the NFL and I strongly believe they allowed Nick Foles to play the way they wanted to be treated during their playing career. Instead of asking the kind of forgotten man (until Wentz was hurt) to just manage the game, they put the ball in his hands and let him win it. Of course, it wasn’t like they wanted him to simply drop back and work his progressions, but rather they used genius offensive play-scheming and -calling to take advantage of the weaknesses on Matt Patricia’s unit. For the sake of this article, I’m going to disregard the Philly defense for now, because they didn’t do a whole lot to stop Tom Brady, who went for a Super Bowl record 505 yards on them. They produced stops on the first two New England red-zone drives, Malcolm Jenkins crushed Brandin Cooks early on, which put him off the field for the final three quarters, and maybe the biggest play was Brandon Graham beating right guard Shaq Mason for a strip-sack, which put the offense back into field-goal range and forced the Patriots to drive the length of the field with a minute on the clock and no timeouts left. However, that was the first and only time an Eagles defender took down Brady and far too often, his receivers were open by five yards or so, with the O-line allowing him to stay in that pocket forever. But I will say this – I was impressed by how Philadelphia was confident in their DBs to match up one-on-one with Rob Gronkowski in the first half, before he went off later on against a lot of zone.
To me this was all about not just staying aggressive throughout the entirety of the contest, but rather showing the guts to say “I know what you’re going to do. You can’t stop this play.”
Look no further than the opening drive of the game. Philadelphia fakes the run on first down with LeGarrette Blount, Patrick Chung blitzes off the slot and they complete the pass to Nelson Agholor on a curl right behind it. On third down, they come up in bunch left and let Alshon Jeffery run a pivot route. I can tell you, the Patriots corners were schooled all week long to use inside alignments and take away those easy slant routes. The defender bites on the inside-route, Jeffery puts his foot in the ground and works his way towards the sideline, which led to a conversion. The following two first downs they use what they did to that point to their advantage. First, they see New England dropping into a cover-three knowing that if they run trips against what basically was a five-man front with just one true linebacker, the tight-end will be open where the second linebacker would usually be in that hook-to-curl zone. The Patriots drop the last man on the line to the trips-side, to stop where the Philadelphia went in recent weeks off that run-fake, Zach Ertz releases outside and catches the ball for an easy seven yards on a curl. Next fresh set of downs, the Patriots go back to a 4-2 look with the LB to the trips-side playing flat-footed to not allow a throw into that area. The Eagles run zone towards the single-receiver side and have the backside guard and tackle pretty much sell pass, basically giving them a three-on-three matchup on the play-side and having Jay Ajayi gain another easy six. These calls worked because of the emphasis on stopping those run-pass-options everybody talked about leading up to the game. The Eagles were eventually stopped on the goal-line after losing a crucial five yards on a false start, but this would be a sign of things to come in terms of winning with play-calling.
Pederson didn’t shy away from running the ball on passing downs like third-and-three and third-and-four, because he knew the Patriots would only play two actual linebackers and one of the safeties would have to stuff the hole when he brought in a tight-end to have numbers. A 27-yard run by Jay Ajayi comes to mind. On that play, Nelson Agholor was motioned in as kind of an H-back and just kicked out the wide end a little, while pulling the back-side guard and tight-end to free Ajayi. The Philly O-line was phenomenal in this matchup, but this play was just a number- and angles-game. Only the nose-tackle and that wide end were in a three-point stance. Left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai reached the stood-up linebacker in the B-gap, center Jason Kelce sealed the nose, the right side got onto the defender in the other B-gap plus the Mike linebacker and the two pullers got onto the first man coming respectively. Obviously, execution plays the major role here, but by knowing your personnel, you don’t have to be afraid of varying from the norm and using the ground-game in this situation.
We heard all the analysts talk about Philly’s run-pass-options and how the Patriots might stop them. I think their belief was that the best way to take it away, was to match up with their receivers in man-coverage and challenge them off the line of scrimmage. For some reason, Malcolm Butler, who I thought was their best guy at doing so, didn’t see any defensive snaps all game long, and Eric Rowe started in his place. Not only did they use stack- and bunch-formations to defeat the press continuously, they also abused Rowe in his one-on-one matchups with Alshon Jeffery. In contrast to the belief the Eagles would run a lot of RPOs, Nick Foles lined up in shotgun a bunch, but it was about throwing the ball on early downs to open up running room. They used some light play-action to give New England similar looks, but they did not have the option to hand the ball off. The few times they did use them was on first-and-10 or second-and-medium, ahead of the sticks. The coaches also knew, that they would have Corey Clement one-on-one with a linebacker or safety in the box, which had proven to be a mismatch a couple of times during the regular season and reached new dimensions in this matchup.
After starting the game out with the idea of being able to match up man-to-man on the stacked-receiver side, the Patriots started playing cover-three and combo coverages with man on the single-receiver side. Pederson cleverly followed that up with curls in between the hashes and numbers, with a linebacker or safety in the flats and somebody over the top, but that was basically the vacated area. Another route to attack that space was a drag or over-route from the opposite side. Both of those were simple throw-and-catch plays as long as the O-line provided enough protection and they did all game long.
Up 15-12, the Eagles drove the length off the field, all the way down to the two-yard line. After their full-back was stuffed for no gain and an incomplete pass to Jeffery in the corner of the end-zone, Pederson opted roll the dice on fourth-and-goal with the gutsiest play-call in Super Bowl history. With 38 seconds left in the half, I love this decision to go for it no matter what, because New England was down to one timeout and even if the pass had fallen incomplete, Brady would have been forced to move the ball pretty far to even get into field-goal range. But instead of handing the ball to Ajayi or Blount, what do you do in this situation? Of course, you let your backup QB fake calling the protection, get the direct snap to undrafted rookie Corey Clement, have him flip it back to third-string tight-end Trey Burton and let him deliver the ball to Foles sneaking out into the flat. Since we know the name of the play now, this all-time great moment will go down as “Philly Special”.
New England got the ball to start the second half, Brady and Gronk carved up the Eagles’ zone-coverages and made this a three-point game again. With the ball back in Philly’s hands, this was the time they really needed to score, because it was clear by then, that this wasn’t going to be a field-position battle. After being held to three yards on an inside run, despite having numbers, followed by an incompletion, the offensive staff made on of my favorite calls in the entire game. The Eagles came out in an empty-formation with a tight-end and wing-man to the left, plus Clement split out wide. They motioned the RB back into the backfield, which drew safety Devin McCourty into the middle of the field to play pretty much the robber role in their cover one hole. Then they had Clement run the wheel, like he did already for a big gain in the first half, the tight-end cross the field and the wing occupy that robber over the middle. Foles knew all along where the ball had to go, as Nelson Agholor came underneath that TE crossing the field and if the ball was placed out front, he would have had that first down even without having to break a tackle.
All those motions and different formations kept the Patriot defense off balance and by establishing the pass on early downs out of these packages, that opened up running room on the inside. So after a couple of successful runs, they come out with their three-tight end set from under center with Blount lined up in the backfield. Everybody in the entire stadium is thinking that they are going to pound it with the big fella, but instead they go heavy play-action with two of those TEs streaming down the field, putting the safety in a bind. As soon as he turns his hips to face the inner pass-catcher, Foles delivers the ball towards the sideline.
On the next third down, they show something similar to what they did to pick up their initial first down. They come out in an empty formation again, with Clement out wide and now with a slot receiver in a close split to the O-line. Clement motions back in and runs that wheel route again, only this time the, two other pass-catchers to that side sort of change roles, as Mack Hollins runs the crosser out of the slot and Zach Ertz releases outside before curling back to the QB. This time you can see 250-pound linebacker Marquis Flowers matched up with number 30 out of the backfield. Moreover, McCourty is now lined up on the numbers in intermediate range, expecting another crossing route from the opposite side or an out-breaking route by Ertz. Because of that he gets his feet stuck, Clement runs past his man and Foles drops an absolute dime for a huge touchdown. This was a bit controversial because it looked like the rookie bobbled it slightly, but the call stood.
Of course, Brady & company answered with another quick TD drive of their own. So the Eagles needed to make this a two-score game once again. They started their possession with a beautiful slot fade to Agholor, followed up by another curl route in the middle of the field to Torrey Smith after occupying the underneath linebacker with Ertz coming across the field against cover-three. For their next two snaps, they brought in an extra offensive lineman in Chance Warmack, to run Blount off the right side and then run a sweep with Agholor including Clement as a threat to the opposite side. Unfortunately, after an incompletion to the end-zone and one of their two screens being blown up, they were force to settle for a field-goal and this was the first time the Patriots got the ball with the opportunity to jump ahead since the middle of the second quarter.
Like a well-oiled machine, New England used all areas of the field and just marched down the field once again, ending in Gronk catching a goal-line fade for the go-ahead score. At this moment, it started to feel like the game was turning the Pats’ way like it had done so many times before in recent memory. The ensuing possession, Matt Patricia’s unit started covering all those little plays to guys in motion and out of the backfield, leading to fourth-and-one from the Eagles’ own 45 yard line. Common sense would tell you to punt the ball and pin the opposition deep in their own territory in a situation like this with six minutes left, instead of setting them up close to field-goal range, but considering who was on the other sideline and how aggressive Pederson and his coaching staff had been all year long, they decided to go for it. Similar to a play I described earlier, they brought two in-line receivers to the middle of the field to open up room for Ertz on a drag from the opposite side, only this time out of their three-tight set. Philadelphia just picked up the first down by a hair, but now they were in position to take a late lead.
Thanks to a deep over, a post in between the linebackers and middle safety and a quick screen off play-action, all going to Nelson Agholor, they were set up in the red-zone. Facing another critical third-and-long, Frank Reich and the guys had to pull one more brilliant play-call out of their hat and they did. Lining up in bunch to the right, the Patriots have them a single-high safety look. Clement, who had terrorized New England in this game, was motioned from the left of Foles out to the flat on the three-receiver side, drawing the safety with him. This gave Ertz, who was the single receiver on the left side, a one-on-one matchup with Devin McCourty. The superstar tight-end beat him on the slant and leaped into the end-zone to put Philly back on top. For a while I thought the referees would reverse the call, because of what happened to Jesse James in the Pittsburgh game (which I talked about in a recent article), but this was just too clear of a possession and run after the catch to overturn.
The coaching staff drew up another perfect play for the two-point conversion, with the RB running into the flat off play-action, but Foles took too long to deliver the ball and this was a five-point game. A couple of plays into the Patriots’ following drive, Brandon Graham picked up that enormous strip-sack to set his offense back up in field-goal range. For the first time in the game, Philadelphia went conservative by handing the ball off three straight times and with the way the game went, I wouldn’t have bothered to see them call an easy pass-play on second down to catch New England off guard with 2:03 left, because the clock would have stopped anyway. But I can’t really blame them either, because of what happened to Matt Ryan a year, although this was a different situation of course. Anyhow, rookie Jake Elliott converted on a 46-yard field goal and the Patriots fell short on a Hail Mary to Gronk, giving the Eagles their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
To sum all of this up a little, there were some incredible individual efforts by players and you could have easily given the MVP trophy to Corey Clement or even more so the offensive line, which kept Nick Foles clean for almost the entire game. However, after watching and analyzing every single snap, I think the largest portion of the credit should go to this offensive coaching staff. Quarterback coach John DeFilippo for getting Foles comfortable and ready, offensive coordinator Frank Reich for understanding and maximizing the strengths of this unit and head coach Doug Pederson for staying aggressive throughout the entire game and giving the green light on those creative play-designs. They used their own tape from previous games to fool New England into reading keys that led them away from where the ball actually was going to and then they had an outstanding plan for what to do once the Patriots adjusted. If you combine their third-down attempts with their two fourth-down conversions, the Eagles went 12 for 18 on plays that could have sent their offense off the field. Overall, they were stopped from scoring points just twice – once on their only punt of the game and another time on a fluky interception, after Alshon Jeffery juggled the ball in the air and Duron Hurmon could just pick it off. I went away from Super Bowl in awe of what these guys had done to one of the defensive masterminds of this generation in Bill Belichick, but after watching everything from the eleven-on-eleven angle, I understood fully how exceptional it really was.