Super Bowl 52 X’s & O’s Review

Super Bowl 52 was the most prolific offensive game in NFL history with 1,151 total yards and countless records broken. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were spectacular; both designed creative schemes and were able to repeatedly create favorable matchups for their respective offenses. Let’s take a look at how the offenses were able to score at will:


The Eagles used running back motion, the wheel route, and the mesh concept repeatedly to take advantage of the Patriots decision to predominantly play man to man coverage. The Patriots were weak against pass catching running backs all year, particularly wheel routes. In the AFC Championship, Jacksonville missed their opportunity multiple times to hit an open running back against a linebacker or peeling defensive end; but the Eagles cashed in.

2nd Quarter, 1:46, 3rd & 3 on Phi 37 (Phi 15 NE 12)

Late in the first half, the Eagles make a huge play using both the mesh concept and the wheel route. Defensively, the Patriots are in Cover 1:

The Patriots have it covered well, but Jordan Richards (#37) takes a bad angle on the wheel route, leading to an easy throw for a huge gain. The angle below shows Richards could have gone over the sit route and been in position to make a tackle before the first down marker, instead of shooting underneath. Of course, if Malcolm Butler was on the field, Richards probably wouldn’t have been:

This won’t be the first time the Eagles use these concepts to beat the Patriots D. In fact, this particular play ends up being key for a fourth down conversion late in the game.

3rd Quarter, 7:25, 3rd & 6 on NE 22 (Phi 22 NE 19)

In the middle of the third, the Eagles use return motion as a coverage indicator; once #59 linebacker Marquis Flowers motions in with running back Corey Clement, Nick Foles knows its man to man coverage. The Eagles are running a drive concept with Clement’s wheel route behind it from the backfield. The Patriots are playing man to man with a free safety in centerfield. They are also doubling Zach Ertz; (#37) Jordan Richards has any in breaking routes, while (#32) Devin McCourty has any out breaking routes:

The Eagles end up getting a speedy running back on a linebacker. Foles has plenty of time  and delivers perhaps his best throw of the day for a touchdown. Meanwhile, the free safety is too far to make an impact on the wheel, and McCourty hesitates ever so slightly, flips his hips the wrong way, and is unable to make a play on the ball:


4th Quarter, 6:10, 4th & 1 on Phi 45 (NE 33 Phi 32)

The Eagles wouldn’t have had the opportunity for the go-ahead touchdown had it not been for a fourth down conversion in their own territory earlier in the drive. Earlier in the game, the Eagles gashed the Patriots with two huge passes to running back Corey Clement, analyzed above. The Eagles come back to the mesh concept on this critical fourth down. The Patriots are in man to man coverage, middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy blitzes, safety Duron Harmon is a “robber” in the box, and outside linebacker James Harrison has peel responsibility if the running back has a route. The Eagles mesh works perfectly, and Ertz is able to get free:

However, Patriots safety Duron Harmon is still in great position to make a play on Ertz. This is where the Eagles previous success on wheel routes to Clement comes into play; Harmon hesitates ever so slightly to the wheel, leaving enough space for Foles to complete the ball to Ertz for a crucial first down.

4th Quarter, 2:25, 3rd & 7 on NE 11 (NE 33 Phi 32)

On perhaps the most important play of Super Bowl 52, Pederson used motion to out-formation the Patriots and get exactly the matchup he was looking for: tight end Zack Ertz in 1 on 1 coverage. Pre-snap, the Eagles come out in bunch trips right, running back Corey Clement offset left, and Ertz wide left. The Patriots are playing man-to-man on the trips, but importantly, safety Duron Harmon can help Devin McCourty, currently lined up on Ertz, and take away any in breaking route. The Patriots would handle Clement out of the backfield with James Harrison peeling off to the flat:

However, when Clement fast motions from the backfield to the trips, the Patriots are completely outflanked and Harmon is forced to match him. This leaves McCourty on an island with Ertz at the very last second, and the rest is history:

While Pederson called a near perfect game, Josh McDaniels was just as good. The Patriots, more than any other team, use movement before the snap as coverage indicators. Super Bowl 52 was no exception:


1st Quarter, 1:41, 3rd & 7 on NE 21

Before the snap, the Patriots motion in James White to the backfield. By this time, the Patriots know the Eagles are matching up safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27) with White. Jenkins follows White, but the Eagles could still plausibly be in a variety of coverages. The Patriots go one step further and have receivers Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks switch places. When the Eagles defenders don’t move, Tom Brady knows its zone coverage:

A side note, most analysts expected Malcolm Jenkins to match up with Gronk. Given that James White had 14 catches in Super Bowl 51 and Shane Vereen had 11 catches in Super Bowl 49, it made sense that the Eagles decided they’d try to limit James White. The move was effective; after the first drive White didn’t have a single catch.

2nd Quarter, 2:55, 2nd & 10 on NE 31

Down 15-6 with just under 3 minutes in the first half, the Patriots get a one on one matchup they unquestionably circled before the game; Eagles cornerback #31 Jalen Mills in man to man off coverage. Mills has struggled with double moves in this scenario throughout the year, (top of screen in first clip, bottom of screen in second clip):

This time is no different. Chris Hogan is matched up with Jalen Mills at the bottom of the screen, in off coverage, with no deep half help. He runs a curl and go for a huge gain:


3rd Quarter, 3:29, 1st & 10 on Phi 26

Down 10, the Patriots began the second half by attacking with seam routes. They also took advantage of a bit of confusion in alignment; in the NFC Championship game, when a non-pass catching back (Latavius Murray) split out wide, the Eagles were confused and gave up a wide open touchdown:

Below, Patriots fullback James Develin is highlighted at the top of the screen. When he lines up out wide, the Eagles are confused on coverage assignments. Meanwhile, the play call is double seams with Gronkowski and Hogan:

This becomes a big play because of three factors: First, the Eagles pre-snap confusion causes Malcolm Jenkins (free safety, highlighted above) to keep his eyes solely on Gronkowski as opposed to playing deep middle. Next, Tom Brady’s eyes hold Jenkins toward Gronkowski’s side. Watch Brady’s eyes flip to Hogan just before the throw. Third, Chris Hogan expands his seam route to the wide side of the field, creating more room for the throw:

Finally, it’s impossible to do a full review of Super Bowl 52 without mentioning “Philly Special,” the throwback pass the Eagles used to score right before the end of the first half:

It was a great play call and design, but there’s more: the Patriots ran the same play the last time they played the Eagles in 2015:

It may have been in the playbook already, but it’s also possible Philly added it specifically for this game after reviewing that film. For those looking to add this play to the playbook, make sure you know the rules; in the NFL, the quarterback must be in the shotgun, or he is not eligible to catch a pass. There is no such rule in college:


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One thought on “Super Bowl 52 X’s & O’s Review

  1. On the go ahead touchdown to Ertz: what was the Patriots call? It was 1 Double 86 but also looks like it was combined with a variation of their Rain/Hail blitz when the LB opposite the center slide blitzes and the DE (Harrison?) would have peel responsibility for the back but just kind of settles when outflanked.

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