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Dublin: 7°C Monday 30 November 2020

Breaking down the play that won the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots

We break down the most important play of the Super Bowl

BY NOW YOU probably know the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks to win Super Bowl XLIX thanks in large part to Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception with just 26 seconds remaining.

If not, sorry for the spoiler.

What we saw at the end of the Sunday’s game was a classic example of an offensive coordinator and head coach – in this case Darren Bevell and Pete Carroll respectively – over thinking a situation that was actually really clear cut.

Against the NFL’s second best run defence in terms of scores allowed – only Kansas City conceded fewer touchdowns on the ground than the Patriots this year – the Seahawks opted to pass the football despite having a time out, three downs and 26 seconds in their pocket.

However, lost in a lot of the justifiable incredulity at Seattle’s decision making is just how good a play Butler – and his team-mate Brandon Browner – made on the final play.

In case you missed it, here’s how it played out on TV:

Source: NFL Gamepass

Pre-snap read: Offence

Source: NFL Gamepass

As they seem to be so often when we’ve looked at them this season, the Seahawks are in their Posse/11 grouping with Luke Willson (orange) at tight end and Marshawn Lynch (black) as the single running back.

With Russel Wilson taking the snap from shotgun, this is a pretty standard look for Seattle’s much vaunted zone run game. However, with Ricardo Lockette (yellow) and Jermaine Kearse (red) stacked wide right and Doug Baldwin (blue) in the slot close to the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks QB tests what type of defence the Patriots are playing by moving Baldwin from right to the left just before the snap.

Pre-snap read: Defence

Had the Patriots been in zone coverage, Baldwin’s move across the line of scrimmage would have seen a number of them re-adjust their own position on defence. However, with only Darrelle Revis (24) moving to track Baldwin, it’s instantly clear to Wilson that the Patriots are in Cover-1 with just middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (grey) playing the role of safety.

Source: NFL Gamepass

To Wilson’s right, Kearse and Lockette are being covered by Browner (purple) and Butler (green) respectively with the former playing shallow (or close to the line of scimmage) and the latter lined up directly behind.

Given the way the Seahawks have lined up on offence, this is textbook coverage from New England.

At the snap

On any given snap in the NFL one team or the other is usually unhappy with what they see in front of them. For the offence, they could have a pre-packaged play that suddenly looks like it won’t work based on the defensive coverage.

Likewise, defensive coordinators can know before the ball is snapped that their team’s coverage has left them open to a certain touchdown.

Here, both the Seahawks and Patriots were probably very happy with their lot in the seconds leading up the Wilson snapping the football. For the Patriots – based on the fact Wilson has tested their coverage – it’s almost certain he’s not handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch.

As for Seattle, they’ve got exactly the coverage they’d want for ‘pick/rub’ play they have in mind to work.

Aye, there’s the rub

Source: NFL Gamepass

Now, for a lot of people, a rub and a pick play are essentially the same thing however, there is a very important difference.

On a rub play, one receiver deliberately gets in the way of, but avoids touching, the defender covering a fellow wide receiver.

On a pick play, one receiver illegally blocks the defender covering his fellow wide receiver in order to enable that receiver to get open.

On this particular play Kearse (red) is supposed to run interference for Lockette (yellow) by forcing Browner into the Butler’s path to the football resulting in an easy touchdown.

What happens next?

Like me, you probably watched this unfold and – after you’d finally stopped questioning why they didn’t run the ball – thought that Butler’s interception won the Super Bowl for New England but, as it happens, it is the play of former Seahawk Browner that ensures he wins his second ring in two seasons and not his former team-mates.

Source: NFL Gamepass

As you can see above, Browner jams – stops – Kearse immediately at the line of scrimmage and so the receiver has no chance to run interference for his team-mate. For this play to work for Seattle, Kearse HAS to interfere with Butler and Brower prevents him from getting anywhere close.

With no receiver blocking his route to the football, Butler – who says he was beaten on this exact play in training this week and vowed not to let it happen again – is able to make the perfect play to defend against the slant route.

After the game, his offensive coordinator blamed Lockette for not being strong enough in trying to win the football but Butler has the momentum and the angle of the pass in his favour and he makes the perfect play. Sometimes that just happens.

Source: NFL Gamepass


From a match-up point of view, getting a big-bodied experienced receiver one on one with an undrafted rookie cornerback is almost exactly what you want as both a quarterback and offensive coordinator.

But sometimes you have to play the situation as well and the fact is that Seattle didn’t. If you don’t trust a guy who has 14 rushing touchdowns this season to get it into the endzone with three attempts from the one yard line, there’s something seriously wrong.

He still may not score but at least you’re asking the defence to make three massive stops. By passing the ball Seattle gave the Patriots, Browner and Butler the opportunity to kill the game with just one. And they took it.

Read all of our Coaches Film series here

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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