Analysis Notebook: Super Bowl XLIX -- That Play
I 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:
Seattle had time, a time out, a half yard to get, and Marshawn Lynch. They just threw the Super Bowl away.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) February 2, 2015
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.
Malcolm 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