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In defense of Bill Belichick benching Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 52

From purely an on-the-field perspective, there's an argument that Butler wasn't a top 2 option at cornerback.

Super Bowl LII: Philadelphia Eagles Vs New England Patriots At US Bank Stadium Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots defense fell flat on its face last Sunday, giving up 41 points and 538 yards in Super Bowl 52. The Philadelphia Eagles even missed out on three easy points because they missed an extra point and failed on both of their two point conversion attempts.

After the game, the spotlight was on Malcolm Butler's complete absence from the defensive gameplan, and rightfully so. After being no lower than number two on the depth chart at cornerback for every game except one (2017 week two versus New Orleans) for the past three years, Butler saw zero defensive snaps in a game where his coverage skills were sorely missed.

I don't think that it's a debate – the Patriots definitely missed Butler. But I also don't think that it makes the top three in terms of bad personnel decisions in the game.

1. The Patriots played primarily a 3-4 front

To me, playing a 3-4 made very little sense. In my preview, I recommended a 4-3 with the outside linebackers standing up on the line of scrimmage in what would essentially a six-man line, with each defensive lineman one-gapping. The distinction between the linemen one-gapping and two-gapping is important, especially in the context of combatting Philadelphia's zone blocking scheme. The zone blocking worked to perfection against the 3-4. Because they had to two-gap, the Patriots' linemen were hesitant and slow to react to running plays. That gave the Eagles' undersized offensive linemen more than enough time to execute their double teams and combo blocks.

The Eagles finished the day with 164 rushing yards and 6.1 yards per rush. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy had one of their worst games of the year and they were not helped by the scheme. You cannot expect to succeed against an aggressive zone blocking scheme if you're playing a two-gapping 3-4. I don't have any idea why that was in the game plan.

Both of these plays are just flat out embarrassing. The Patriots are simply asking for the ball to be run up the middle off of combo blocks by playing that alignment. It makes absolutely no sense.

2. Jordan Richards, dime linebacker

While most of the fan base has been pretty harsh when assessing Jordan Richards' play, I have been more optimistic. But this time there is no sugar coating it: Richards was horrible all game long. It was very difficult to identify any positive impact Richards has made this year. And it was even more difficult to comprehend why Richards was the primary man coverage defender of speedy third down backs and Zach Ertz throughout his horrible 16 snap night.

I’m not going to lie, this might have been one of the worst examples of “coverage” that I’ve seen all year. Richards legitimately does nothing right. First of all, he tries to go over the pick for no reason whatsoever. It’s like he thought he was Malcolm Butler trying to go over a pick for an interception like he did in Super Bowl XLIX. But the scenarios are completely different. Clement is in the backfield and needs three yards to get the first down, not one.

It’s 3rd and 3 and the 1st down marker is the 39 yard line. All Richards has to do is move laterally on Clement and drive on the man if the ball comes his way.

Richards, the guy in the crudely drawn circle I made in Microsoft Paint, is already lost on this play. He has taken the worst possible angle to the running back and has sprinted full speed to beat the natural pick that the wide receiver is making with the slant route. He doesn’t have enough time to readjust his path to Clement and reaches his arms out in order to stop him. Well, the five-yard penalty for holding would have been a good outcome compared to what happened. Roberts didn’t even land a hand on him and eventually fell down on Clement’s 55 yard reception. Absolutely unacceptable.

And the worst part is that the Patriots have seen plays like this before, it wasn’t a foreign concept. They just couldn’t execute it in the biggest game of the season.

3. Elandon Roberts, starting inside linebacker

I’ve wondered several times this year... how bad must David Harris have looked at practice in order to justify Elandon Roberts playing 53% of defensive snaps this season. Roberts showed lots of promise defending the run in his rookie year and admirably replaced Jamie Collins during the second half of the 2016 season, but he struggled mightily in 2017. Roberts and Marquis Flowers essentially split time as the number two linebacker alongside Kyle Van Noy, but the split seemed less than ideal. Roberts ended up playing 55% of snaps compared to Flowers’ 18. Based on the Eagles success with the run/pass-option and their zone blocking scheme, it made no sense. An inside linebacker needs to be disciplined, stay in their proper lanes and be able to defend running backs out of the backfield in the passing game. At this point in his career, Roberts can’t do any of that.

There were several snaps where Elandon Roberts straight up had no idea where the ball was. Like when Nick Foles handed the ball off and Roberts dropped into coverage because he thought Foles had kept it on the RPO. It’s bananas to have those kind of issues in the Super Bowl.

Was Bill Belichick wrong to bench Malcolm Butler?

There are many layers to this question, many of which have been absolutely beat to death. I’m sure you’ve already heard about 30 different people voice their opinions on Butler playing zero defensive snaps in the Super Bowl and I’m just another one. I actually started this article on Tuesday and I’m just getting to finishing it on Sunday night. Watching game film from the defense is that depressing.

For starters, it’s more than fair to say that Butler was not an athletic match for any wide receiver in the Eagles’ lineup. In my preview (and in most beat reporters’ previews) I had projected Butler to be on Torrey Smith. All week after the Super Bowl loss I’ve heard that “Butler should have been on Agholor in the slot” but that would have been just a terrible, terrible matchup for Butler and that opinion is mostly people playing the hindsight game. Agholor is a tall slot WR at 6’0 and his 40 yard dash (4.42) and 3 cone (sub 7 seconds) are way too much for Butler, a guy who played limited slot snaps this season, to overcome.

I actually kind of understand Patrick Chung on Agholor is the slot. The best matchup for Agholor, who doesn’t have the typical measurables of a slot wide receiver, would probably have been Jonathan Jones (who’s season-ending injury in the divisional playoffs was low key massive), but Chung ran a pretty damn fast 4.49. Chung did a good job on slot wide receivers this season. Playing him there allowed him to aid in run support as well. But the trickle down effect of having Richards on Ertz was just bizarre. And in the end, McCourty on Ertz wasn’t much better.

So what should the Patriots have done? Butler doesn’t match up athletically with any of the Eagles wide receivers, including fourth option Mack Hollins (6’4) who chipped in with 17 snaps. Could he have played any snaps at dime linebacker instead of Richards? Maybe, but if you play Butler there, you’re sacrificing run defense once again in an awkward 3-4 alignment that’s prone to the run. Richards has an inch and 20 pounds on Butler, I can see why the coaching staff would have been hesitant to line up Butler anywhere near the 6’5, 250 lbs Ertz, who Richards was familiar with when they played together at Stanford.

Really the only big mistake that I can pinpoint is Butler not seeing the field when Chung had to leave due to his concussion. Johnson Bademosi over Butler is where the coaching staff went wrong. In most of the cases of blown coverages or big chunk plays, there was simply nothing the Patriots coverage guys could do, the football was placed accurately and the misaligned front seven failed to get any pressure on the quarterback. The touchdown that Eric Rowe gave up to Alshon Jeffery was just a case of the ball being perfectly thrown. It was great coverage, much like the coverage that he had on Julio Jones last year in the Super Bowl on what could have been the signature catch for the Falcons. Belichick caught a lot of heat for not putting Stephon Gilmore on Jeffery immediately, but I thought that it was a mistake to change the gameplan and move Rowe onto Torrey Smith. Rowe ended up finishing the game with three passes defended and was a strong positive on the day according to PFF.

It’s easy to say this stuff in hindsight, but I can really understand the Patriots coaching staff looking at the matchups and saying “I don’t see a package where Butler is a top three cornerback, and a three-safety look is our best option in nickel.” Even in my preview, I wasn’t passionate about Butler on Torrey Smith. I simply justified Butler on Smith working because Smith kinda sucks now and can’t run routes well or create any meaningful seperation. Not a ringing endorsement at all.

In the end I think Belichick was probably satisfied with how both Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe played. The Patriots really lost the game because of the way Jordan Richards and the linebackers played, which is independent from the Malcolm Butler situation. It’s easy to crucify the most glaring independent variable when the game goes awry, but in this case, I don’t agree that benching Butler was that cause.

Now those goddamn linebackers and the horrible depth... now that’s another story. It’s going to be a long rest of the winter. Like Bill Belichick, I’m on to the draft.