The story of Super Bowl LII was on the other side of the ball for the Patriots from a playing time perspective, but there were a few notable trends on offense as well.
Let’s start in the backfield where running back, and Super Bowl monster, James White led the group with 45 snaps.
White finished the game with 66 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown, as the team opted to go with it’s top receiving back in a game we all expected the running backs to play a significant role in the passing game.
It was a terrific season for running back Dion Lewis, who led the team in rushing yards during the regular season, but his 21 snaps were his fewest in a game since Week 14 against Miami.
As for the wide receiver position, after Brandin Cooks left the game with a concussion in the second quarter, fellow wideouts Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola stepped up hugely to fill the void.
Along with tight end Rob Gronkowski, the trio became the first trio of teammates to eclipse 115 receiving yards in a Super Bowl.
Phillip Dorsett became the third wide receiver on the field in the Patriots’ 11 personnel packages in Cooks’ absence, but only had one catch for 19 yards.
The Patriots offense exploded for a Super Bowl record 613 yards and 33 points in the loss.
The story of Super Bowl LII for the Patriots was without a doubt the decision to bench Malcolm Butler.
Butler, who had played on 97.8% of the regular season snaps on defense over the last three seasons, and played 100% of the snaps in the AFC Championship Game, played zero in the most important game of the year.
Yes, you read that right. Zero.
The Patriots opted to go with Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe as their two outside cornerbacks, and a variety of three and four safety looks.
I’m going to repeat this a lot I’m sure as we break down this game, but let me make it clear nonetheless: I don’t agree with the decision and think it’s the worst in-game decision Belichick has made as Patriots coach.
That said, here’s my best guess as to why the Patriots benched a three-year starter in the Super Bowl:
The Eagles rushing attack was the clear strength of their team all season, and they did it with a physical offensive line and two bulldozers at running back in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi.
The best matchup from a size/speed standpoint for Butler in this game was Eagles slot wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
However, in today’s NFL, the slot corner position is responsible for gaps in the running game much like an outside linebacker in a more traditional defense.
That means the player that’s in that spot has to be a good tackler, but more importantly, he has to be physical at the point of attack.
That’s why you have seen the Patriots play safety Patrick Chung play primarily in the slot this season.
Butler is one of the team’s best open-field tacklers, but we have seen him get blown off the line of scrimmage in the run and screen game plenty this season. Just go watch the tape of the AFC title game.
So my theory is that the Patriots didn’t like the matchup on the outside for Butler against the much bigger Alshon Jeffery or the speedy Torrey Smith, as Butler has also gotten beat over the top more than usual this season, so they went with Rowe on the outside.
And although the matchup with Agholor would make sense in the slot for Butler, it’s plausible that the Patriots didn’t like Butler’s chances of taking on those run-stopping responsibilities that may have been better suited for bigger-bodied players such as Chung and Johnson Bademosi.
Think about it this way, imagine the 5-11, 190-pound Butler taking on a pulling guard or tackling Blount at the line of scrimmage. That’s a huge mismatch.
Again, this is just my theory, and I don’t agree with the decision, but the Eagles love to run outside zone running schemes that attack the edge, and you can see the explanation of how the smaller Butler would get pushed around in that role.
The 16 snaps that Jordan Richards played in this game was more of a trickle-down effect than saying he played over Butler.
With Chung on Agholor, that left the Patriots shorthanded defending Eagles tight end Zach Ertz when he lined up in the slot or at an in-line tight end position.
Devin McCourty drew that match up some, but to allow McCourty to play some deep safety they needed another coverage player to take Ertz, and it was clear they trusted Richards more than the linebackers they have on the roster.
We have seen Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Marquis Flowers cover running backs and lesser tight ends in the past, but Ertz is one of the best tight ends in the game and would be a huge mismatch for the Pats linebackers.
The decision to bench Butler in this game, if we are assuming it was just about football, may stem from a weakness we’ve known about all season at linebacker.
That’s why my top priority for the Patriots this offseason will be adding some much-needed athleticism and coverage ability to the linebacker group.