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Patriots struggles on third and fourth down against the Eagles cost New England the Super Bowl

New England was terrible on third down.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The New England Patriots can point to a few reasons for their 41-33 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

The coaching staff mishandled the secondary with their benching of Malcolm Butler and decision to have Stephon Gilmore not cover Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery until the second half.

The defensive front allowed the Eagles running back duo of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement to gain 155 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries (5.96 yards per carry) and add 100 yards and a touchdown on 4 receptions.

The Patriots decision to settle for a field goal on 4th-and-1 from the Eagles 8-yard line was also a bad decision, but there wasn’t much to complain about with the New England offense.

But the biggest problem that the Patriots had came on third and fourth down against the Eagles where New England simply couldn’t get the job done to get the ball back to the offense.

“We just couldn’t get off the field on third down,” FS Devin McCourty said. “It was just man to man coverage. They kept making plays. We just didn’t do a good job on third down.”

“We just didn’t make enough plays to get off the field, especially on third down,” CB Stephon Gilmore said. “They completed too many passes on third down. Came up with a couple fourth downs. We didn’t get off the field.”

The Eagles converted 12 of their 18 attempts (66.7%) on third and fourth down as Nick Foles and the Philadelphia offense were able to waltz down the field at their own leisure.

Six of those conversions came on third or fourth and short (4 or fewer yards). Six of those conversions came in long situations (6 or more yards). The Patriots simply couldn’t generate a stop against the Eagles regardless of how many yards the Eagles needed to gain.

“There were a lot of problems,” DT Malcom Brown said. “We weren’t stopping the run like we wanted to. They basically ran their offense like they wanted do and we just have to do better.”

The Eagles gained an average of 10.9 yards on their third or fourth down attempts, which is a total disaster for the Patriots defense. Even if you remove the 55-yard gain by Corey Clement right before the half, the Eagles still gained 8.4 yards per play.

But as Brown stated, the Patriots were unable to stop the run on early downs which set up very convertible third down attempts, which the Eagles were content to try through the air. Prior to their final drive when they were trying to burn clock time, the Eagles rushed the ball on just one of their first 17 third or fourth down attempts.

“They did a great job in their execution, the routes,” Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “They had great protection. They did a great job with their offensive line in pass rush. They were able to get some longer players in there, extend some routes and just kind of get open. They did a great job in the concept of their protections and their routes. The offensive line was really impressive.”

The Eagles kept the Patriots off balance on third and fourth down by using screens to get in space, by using the playaction pass to move the linebackers, and by taking some aggressive deep shots down the field. They didn’t follow a set guideline on these plays and that is exactly what teams need to do to prevent the Patriots from settling in on defense and buttoning up in the second half.

“We talked about tackling and third down,” FS Duron said about the Patriots halftime adjustments. “We talked about being better on third down and tackling better. Third down was still an issue and we allowed them to keep drives alive.”

New England’s defensive strategy of forcing long drives wasn’t terrible, either, if they were only able to hold on third or fourth down. The Eagles regularly needed to convert two or three third or fourth down plays in order to score, which should theoretically be difficult to sustain for an entire game.

Patriots opponents converted just 39.8% of third or fourth down attempts in the regular season. The odds of converting two of these plays on a single drive is 15.8% and converting three times is 4.7%, which means most teams would have to punt.

But instead, the Eagles were converting at nearly double the rate of the Patriots regular season opponents and waltzing into the end zone.

If the New England defense were able to hold on just half of their third or fourth down plays- a difference of just three plays- the outcome of the game would have been entirely different.