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Film Review: How the Eagles’ Three Wide Receiver Sets Dominated Super Bowl LII

How the Eagles offense dominated the Patriots defense in three wide receiver sets.

THANKS TO WARREN SHARP (@SHARPFOOTBALL) AND LOUIE BENJAMIN (@PFF_LOUIE) FOR THEIR HELP ON THIS POST.

We are now almost a week removed from the Patriots’ disappointing loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, and yet it’s still difficult to wrap your head around what we just saw.

That’s because what we saw, an Eagles’ offensive outburst for 41 points and 538 yards, was unprecedented for a Bill Belichick coached defense.

Arguably the greatest defensive mind in the history of the NFL surrendered the most yards and the second-most points in a game in his historic career as the Patriots head coach in the biggest football game of them all.

What made Super Bowl LII so mind-numbing, besides the final score, was that the Eagles beat the Patriots because New England’s defense was predictable.

Bill Belichick has spent his entire career as a football coach picking on other teams tendencies, but the Eagles and head coach Doug Pederson flipped the script on Belichick on Sunday night.

The Eagles, aided by an advanced analytics department and Pederson’s offensive brilliance, saw a tendency in the Patriots’ personnel groupings defensively that they knew they could exploit.

Over the course of the previous 18 games, the Patriots were one of the worst defenses in the NFL at defending the run against three wide receiver sets, and more specifically, shotgun runs with three wide receivers on the field.

In fact, the Patriots surrendered a whopping six yards per rush to opponents in 11-personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) before Super Bowl LII, as Warren Sharp explained here: http://www.sharpfootballanalysis.com/blog/2018/to-secret-to-running-on-the-patriots.

The six yards per rush were well above the league average of 4.6 yards per rush.

Furthermore, the Patriots’ run defense got even worse when teams ran out of shotgun from 11-personnel, as teams averaged 6.7 yards per rush in those situations against the Pats.

And in the Super Bowl, the Eagles had tremendous success both rushing and passing out of 11-personnel, mainly because they knew the Patriots would match the look in their nickel defense.

The Eagles ran 43 plays in Super Bowl LII out of 11-personnel, and conversely, the Patriots played 41 snaps in their 3-3-5 nickel defense.

In other words, the Eagles knew they had the advantage in three wide receiver sets, and they knew exactly how the Patriots would match it personnel wise.

In all, the Eagles gained 5.4 yards per rush out of 11-personnel, with 70% of their rush attempts coming out of that grouping, and eight of their ten biggest plays from scrimmage came out of three wide receiver sets as well (six passes, two rush attempts).

For comparison, in the AFC Championship Game, the Jaguars used non-11 personnel on 67% of their running back rushing attempts, and gained only three yards per rush, but they gained 6.5 yards per rush on 23% of their attempts in 11-personnel.

The Jaguars, to their demise, allowed the Patriots to put heavier personnel groupings on the field to stop the run. The Eagles did not give the Patriots that same luxury.

Below, I’ll highlight the ways that the Eagles exploited weaknesses in the Patriots’ run defense, and created favorable matchups for their skill players by feasting on the Patriots’ nickel defense.

RUSHING ATTEMPTS

The Eagles wasted no time attacking the Patriots defense by running out of 11-personnel in shotgun immediately in the first quarter.

This appears to be an RPO concept and the Eagles have good numbers with three offensive lineman to three Patriots defenders on the play side.

However, the key to this play is what happens with linebacker Elandon Roberts and the Patriot defenders on the back side of this run. The left guard and left tackle appear to be pass blocking, so the Patriot defenders on that side of the field read this as a pass play. That opens up a massive hole for running back Jay Ajayi and luckily Kyle Van Noy is able to trip him up at the line of scrimmage.

Still, a six-yard gain is a decent amount of yardage on first down, and you immediately see how the Eagles RPO concepts gave the Patriots defense problems.

Roberts is really the tough one to watch on this play. He turns his back on Ajayi dropping into coverage and is completely fooled by the action.

Here’s the first big run of the game for the Eagles, a 36-yard scamper by old friend LeGarrette Blount.

The Eagles are in 11-personnel with Foles in the gun. The Patriots match that look with nickel and only one true inside linebacker (Kyle Van Noy). The other “linebacker” on the play is a safety, Devin McCourty.

On this play, they hand the ball off to Blount, who gets a terrific block by center Jason Kelce turning Lawrence Guy out of the hole (whenever a DL’s body/shoulders turn that’s bad news). By displacing Guy, the Eagles take the only player that has a chance of really stopping this run for a short gain. The Eagles also perfectly sniff out a Patriots run blitz between Kyle Van Noy and Eric Lee, and do a great job to give Blount some room through the middle of the defensive line.

And Devin McCourty, who played arguably his worst game of the season in the Super Bowl, takes a terrible angle on this play, which prevents him from cleaning up the run once Blount gets through the line.

From there, Blount breaks an arm tackle from Malcom Brown and is in the open field, and it’s up to safety Duron Harmon to bring down the freight train, which he does nicely on the play.

Although Blount’s longest run of the day was out of shotgun, he only averaged 3.2 yards per rush on shotgun runs.

However, Eagles running back Jay Ajayi averaged 7.4 yards per rush on shotgun handoffs, and you saw him almost break one for a big gain earlier.

Here, the Patriots loaded the box with eight defenders, but three of those defenders are defensive backs.

An eight-man box should be stout against the run, but the Patriots’ necessity to put more speed on the field to combat the Eagles’ pass catchers forces them to go lighter.

The Eagles run an inside zone read play and pull left guard Stefan Wisniewski, which allows right guard Brandon Brooks to climb to Jordan Richards at the second level.

Richards, a safety, has no chance to shed the block from Brooks. As for the other safety in the box, Patrick Chung, the Eagles have Wisniewski to wall him off on the play.

Think about that for a second, because of the personnel the Patriots are forced to put on the field; they have two safeties taking on blocks by two Eagles interior offensive lineman. Those are the types of mismatches that happened to the Patriots defense all night.

By spreading the Patriots out, and forcing them to play with extra defensive backs on the field, the Eagles created a size mismatch on the ground that the Patriots simply couldn’t prevent.

PASS COMPLETIONS

The Eagles passing attack wasn’t quite as productive as their ground game out of 11-personnel, only averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, but their chunk plays through the air mostly came in three wide receiver sets.

The reason for that big-play success was in large part because the Eagles were unpredictable due to their rushing success out of 11-personnel.

Because of that success, the Patriots were forced to crowd the line of scrimmage, albeit still with extra defensive backs on the field, and were often reacting to plays instead of anticipating.

It also forced the Patriots to play with just one safety in the middle of the field with an extra body in the box, and as a result of that, the Eagles were able to get favorable matchups isolated downfield.

So the Eagles established the running game, and now they hit the Patriots defense with a play-action pass out of a three-wide receiver set. And wide receiver Alshon Jeffery hauls in a 34-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

On this play, Foles is under center, where running back LeGarrette Blount is a much more significant threat than in shotgun.

However, the key to this play is what happens in the middle of the field both before and after the snap.

The Eagles start with a two-receiver stack to Foles’ right, but motion wide receiver Torrey Smith into the slot next to Jeffrey. Patrick Chung follows Smith to the other side of the formation, which tips off the man coverage to Foles.

Then, the Eagles are going to run what’s called a Yankee concept in the middle of the field, as one receiver runs a deep over and another a deep post, which is a perfect route combination for their speedy wideouts.

The Patriots only have one safety in the middle of the field (Duron Harmon), and the crossing patterns leave cornerback Eric Rowe isolated on Jeffery in man coverage. Rowe has decent coverage on the play, but it’s a better throw and catch.

This touchdown catch by Jeffrey is another head scratcher for the Patriots coaching staff. Why they didn’t have top corner Stephon Gilmore shadowing Jeffery for the entire game remains a mystery.

The matchup that was most heavily affected by Bill Belichick’s decision to bench Malcolm Butler was Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor against safety Patrick Chung.

Chung has been one of the Patriots’ most valuable defenders over the last few seasons but was asked to play a role in this game that doesn’t best suit his skill set.

Chung played a season-high 43 snaps as a slot cornerback in Super Bowl LII, and many of those snaps came in man coverage against Agholor in the slot. Both Butler and cornerback Eric Rowe were candidates to draw the matchup with Agholor entering Sunday, but without Butler in the mix, the Patriots had to use a safety to cover a wide receiver.

On this play, the Eagles utilize play-action once again, and the fake holds Duron Harmon in the middle of the field for an extra half a second. The Eagles also have tight end Zach Ertz in the inside slot next to Agholor, which means there’s a lot of players threatening the middle of the field. And just for good measure, Pederson throws in a dummy route by the outside wide receiver at the top of the screen to hold Eric Rowe on Torrey Smith.

That creates a one-on-one matchup between Chung and Agholor with delayed safety help, and Pederson calls a fade from the slot and Agholor is just too fast for Chung.

Agholor, Foles, and Pederson didn’t just pick on Patrick Chung. They also utilized the speedy slot receiver against the Patriots linebackers when they played zone coverages.

Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles threw for 125 of his 373 yards right up the middle of the Patriots defense, and it was a significant part of how the Eagles created easy reads and favorable matchups for him in the passing game.

Here, Ertz once again motions pre-snap, and the Patriots don’t react to that motion which suggests it will be zone coverage. Agholor is lined up in the slot with Chung across from him and linebacker Kyle Van Noy inside. He then runs a deep over route right through Van Noy’s zone, and the Pats linebacker can’t flip his hips around in time to break up the pass.

This was one of Foles’ best throws of the game. He threaded the needle on that pass and anticipated that Agholor would get to that spot before Van Noy and had enough zip on it to beat safety Devin McCourty to the ball too.

Another matchup that heavily favored the Eagles going into the game was receiving back Corey Clement against the Patriots linebackers, and as it turns out safeties as well.

Clement had a career-high 100 receiving yards in Super Bowl LII, and the rookies previous career-high was just 31 yards in the Eagles’ divisional round game against the Falcons.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was able to isolate Clement on two critical receptions, one coming against safety Jordan Richards and another on linebacker Marquis Flowers.

Let’s start with Richards, and Patriots fans might want to skip past this part for your sanity.

Clement beat Richards on a wheel route that went for 55 yards, and eventually set up the infamous “Philly Special” trick pass for a touchdown to quarterback Nick Foles before the half.

On the play, Richards, for god only knows what reason, attacks Clement aggressively right at the snap, which was both stupid and costly.

Richards thought that he could jam Clement at the line to prevent a release downfield, which was obviously a mistake seeing that Clement ran right past him.

The 55-yard gain by Clement was the longest play from scrimmage for the Eagles in the game, and Johnny down at Foxboro High could take a better angle than that.

We’ll continue with the Clement theme here and point to one of the games biggest plays: a 22-yard touchdown reception by Clement in the third quarter.

The Eagles are still in traditional 11-personnel, but Clement starts out wide rather than in the backfield.

That forces linebacker Marquis Flowers to line up across from Clement, and when Clement motions into the backfield it tips off the man coverage to Foles.

Clement runs another wheel route this time up the opposite sideline, and because of the threat of tight end Zach Ertz, the Patriots double Ertz with Richards and Devin McCourty, leaving Flowers on an island with Clement.

Flowers is not far behind Clement on the play, and McCourty tries to come off of Ertz to provide help once he sees the play developing, but Foles’ throw is too good, and it beats Flowers for the touchdown.

In my opinion, that was Foles’ best throw of the night, and there were a lot of good ones. Dropping the ball in there with just the right combination of touch and pace to beat the coverage, heck of a throw.

Finally, the last killer out of 11-personnel through the air was the Eagles’ usage of bunch formations with their receivers.

The Patriots have had a difficult time defending and communicating their assignments out of these types of looks, and the Eagles featured them heavily to try and exploit that weakness.

This a crucial third down and six play with 8:35 to go in the game, and a stop for the Patriots would mean a punt for the Eagles.

Philly starts with Clement in the backfield, but motions into an empty backfield, which opens up the middle of the field.

Then, the Eagles run a staple play of their offense, which is a terrific design by Doug Pederson. The Eagles know the Patriots are going to defend this bunch set by the outside corner (Gilmore) taking the first outside release, the corner in the middle taking the deepest threat (Bademosi), and the inside defender taking the inside threat (Chung).

So what they do to combat that is bait Stephon Gilmore into thinking tight end Zach Ertz is releasing towards the sideline, but then he actually runs an angle route back into the middle of the field. The little looping action immediately creates the inside leverage on Gilmore, and the Eagles convert on third down.

Philly would go on to score the go-ahead touchdown at the end of that drive, and Pederson’s unique and diverse play calling on third down showed up in a big spot on that particular play.

CONCLUSION

We talked all week in the lead up to Super Bowl LII about the terrific play calling and designing by head coach Doug Pederson.

Pederson lived up to the hype in the game, but more importantly, he kept the Patriots defense off-balance by establishing a running game out of pass-first looks.

Typically, teams don’t run a heavy dosage of running plays out of 11-personnel, but the Eagles have done it all season and did it even more in the Super Bowl.

In fact, Philadelphia ranked third in the NFL during the regular season in percentage of rush attempts out of 11-personnel (60%), behind only the Rams and Raiders.

And as stated earlier, the Eagles ran out of 11-personnel on 70% of their rush attempts in the Super Bowl, knowing the Patriots couldn’t stop them.

So why does New England have such issues stopping opponents on the ground out of 11-personnel?

Well, the main reason is a lack of talent at linebacker, specifically linebackers that can both stop the run and play in coverage. That forces them to play far too often with just one inside linebacker in the middle of the field and puts a heavy burden on the defensive line to stop the run. Against a good offensive line like that Eagles, that’s a matchup you can’t expect to win consistently.

In particular, their lack of coverage linebackers is a major problem. It forces them to put defensive backs in spots where linebackers typically would be too often and prevents them from playing a high-volume of snaps with two inside linebackers on the field.

Their current linebackers also aren’t good at diagnosing plays on either RPO’s or straight play-action, as you saw with Elandon Roberts, and opponents will continue to exploit that weakness.

The Eagles’ flexibility out of 11-personnel kept the Patriots defense on their heels, and never allowed them to anticipate either run or pass.

The Patriots defensive philosophy has always been to take away what the opposition does best, but on Sunday night, the Eagles were able to do whatever they wanted.

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