Analysis Notebook: Super Bowl XLIX — That Play

Sam Monson has a deeper look at the play that decided Super Bowl XLIX.

| 2 years ago

Analysis Notebook: Super Bowl XLIX — That Play

analysis notebook copyI hadn’t been planning on doing this article at all, but when the entire Super Bowl gets decided on one play so controversial at the end of a thrilling game, it was hard not to dive into the play itself.

After Seattle had surrendered a two-score lead they found themselves in the hole, but with time to drive and win the game. Russell Wilson connected with a nice pass to Marshawn Lynch and then a freak bobbling catch down the right sideline set the team up deep in New England territory needing a score.

From there, Marshawn Lynch did what Marshawn Lynch does and rumbled down to the half-yard line, giving us our scenario. On 2nd-and-goal from the half-yard line Seattle decided not to back to Lynch, instead they passed the ball, leading to this tweet and plenty of others as twitter practically exploded:

But now in the cold light of day let’s take a look at the play itself. The first and most obvious thing to note is that you can see exactly why Seattle wanted to pass the ball. Even though they had three wide receivers on the field, the Patriots were almost completely selling out to stop the run. 


Take a look at the highlighted box. Despite three wide receivers in the formation the Patriots have eight guys on the line of scrimmage in position to defend the run and a ninth in the form of the middle linebacker keying heavily on run-first. If I was calling plays in this situation I’d still run the ball, but I can absolutely see the logic in the pass. The Patriots, in effect, were daring them to do it, and this Seattle Seahawks team doesn’t back down from being dared too often. So if we can get past the notion of the play call itself we can get a look at the execution, which is the key to all of it.

ANSB2Malcolm Butler, who missed out on the MVP award but did receive PFF’s Game Ball for his performance and largely because of this play, told reporters after the game that the Patriots had run this play with the scout team in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl and he had been beaten by it. It is a designed pick play with the receiver at the top of the stack supposed to cause traffic in front of the corner behind it and prevent him from getting to the slant.

One of the keys to this play is that Brandon Browner crushes the top of the stack with his press coverage. That receiver is supposed to drive him off the line and into the path of Butler, but Browner’s strength ensures he doesn’t even get off the line. Butler ends up with a straight shot through to the football, which turns a potential pass break-up and Super Bowl-saving play into a Super Bowl-winning one.

Without Browner’s part in this play, Malcolm Butler doesn’t become a Super Bowl hero. The biggest point to think about, though, is what that story from Butler says about New England’s preparation for the game. They knew this play was coming.

They ran this play in practice specifically to prepare their defensive backs for it. Nothing in football gives you an edge like knowing exactly what is coming. People have called this play a great read by Butler, but if you take a look at his reactions, he is playing nothing else. He knew this play was coming and that’s all he was planning to defend. If the Seahawks had run a whip route – faking a slant and then spinning back out to the sideline – like the Seahawks were beaten by Julian Edelman on earlier in the game, Butler would have been completely screwed.

That knowledge is even more impressive because that is only the third time all year Seattle have run that formation on short yardage. The Patriots clearly excel at doing their homework and weren’t fooled by the Seahawks trying to throw them off with an unusual formation. While the formation differed, their tendencies remained the same. Take a look:

He is moving before Ricardo Lockette even cuts inside. As soon as he makes that cut step Butler is already driving on the ball. It is great recognition by Butler, but the key to this was the Patriots defensive preparation and the fact they were expecting this play from Seattle.

If the Seahawks had changed it up with a new route wrinkle, they would have had success, but the slant was the one route that Butler was determined to stop. Then we come to how Butler finishes the play. Driving on the slant is impressive enough. Nine times out of 10 in the NFL this route combination leaves the corner nowhere, trailing behind and just trying to get a play on the receiver to dislodge the ball after he has caught it.

Between the practice preparation and Browner’s jam at the line, Butler now found himself in position not just to defend the pass, but to pick it off and essentially end the game. Watch the way he doesn’t just go for the football, but actually shields it from Lockette by throwing his shoulder in that direction as he positions his arms to make the catch. I doubt this was deliberate, rather pure instinct, but it’s a crucial element to this catch that is likely the difference between a pass that is almost intercepted and one that was.

The bottom line in all of this is that this wasn’t some embarrassing debacle, a sad way to end an otherwise thrilling Super Bowl. This was a fantastic play that made logical sense to the offense, and was just defeated by better defensive play and stellar preparation from the New England Patriots.

If ever one play was going to define a Super Bowl this is a pretty fitting one to do so.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • David1225

    Given what we know about the Patriots’ coach, shouldn’t we be somewhat suspicious about their readiness for this play at this time? I know I am.

  • jag0581

    The reason the play call is the absolutely wrong decision here and will
    go down as one of the worst calls in Super Bowl history is in this
    situation you have to think about all of the possibilities. A slant to
    the middle of the field where the majority of the defense is is way too
    risky and brings the chances of a turnovers way up. Giving the ball to
    the best RB in the league is the best bet here because if you get in you
    win the game, if you don’t get in there and still don’t get in on the
    next play and time runs out and you lose still you can still say you
    gave the ball to your best player and New England made the best
    defensive goal line stand in SB history.

    The clock management
    excuse doesn’t hold up either. Before the play there was 26 seconds on
    the clock, if you run the ball and don’t make it and call a TO you most
    likely have 23 seconds on the clock. You run it again and don’t make it
    you rush the the line and run it again really quickly. Now chances are
    you get in on your first try if not your second try of running it.
    What is the point of trying to not give Brady time to run a play when
    really if you think about it if you run the ball and get in (likely
    scenario) you give the ball to New England with a little over 20 seconds
    on the clock. Tom Brady is good but would still not be able win the
    game in that amount of time.

  • moe

    If I may recall, some reporter said early in the year, brady not a top 5 qb.

  • Steven V. Duran

    Why didn’t they call pass interference? He was an hour early?

    • Riffle,Rod&Fly

      He was making a play on the ball. Learn the rules.

  • Steven V. Duran

    Another example of special rules for the Patriots…

    • Steven V. Duran

      Just one of a hundred examples of special rules for the Patriots…

  • corners

    But i think i heard butler say it could only be 1 route , so thats why he could bite hard and jump the route. Id hope they practiced a common play that even the patriots use……

  • DrAWNiloc

    Fine work, Sam. It may be a minor point but Carroll didn’t make the call. Indeed, he had to ask his OC what it was going to be.

  • Frank Cole

    The play before was due in no small part to the state of shock the Patriots were in after yet another fluke catch at the end of a super bowl. With their goal line package in there is no guarantee Lynch gets in. They bottled him up pretty good many times during the game.

  • RW111

    I can understand Seattle throwing a pass on this play. But NOT this play. First you are asking 6’1″ Jermane Kerse to try and block 6’4″ Brandon Browner one of the most physical corners in the game. Not good combination. Chris Matthews would have been a better target than Lockette. Also I agree Lockette made a poor stab at the pass. But Bevil should NOT have thrown Lockette under the bus. Bevel is the one that called the play. Finally if Seattle was going to throw the football why didn’t they fake it to Lynch? It would have sucked everyone in and some one would have been open. It would earlier in the game.

    But this is water under the bridge.