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Super Bowl 52 Patriots vs Eagles film review: Malcolm Butler could have made a difference

In a very odd situation regarding Bill Belichick benching Malcolm Butler before the game, it’s clear that Butler could have made a few plays.

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to make sense of a loss in the Super Bowl just a few days after. In a game where the New England Patriots never punted, and Tom Brady broke his own record for most passing yards in the Super Bowl, the Patriots had a lead for a very short time.

It was painful to watch Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles offense methodically drive down the field, often converting difficult third-downs, and even a few fourth-downs. With the Eagles putting up over 40 points on the game’s biggest stage, it was maddening to watch Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia throw adjustment after adjustment out for the defense, none of them including cornerback Malcolm Butler.

The 27-year-old cornerback has played 97.8% of the regular season defensive snaps over the last three seasons. Zero in the biggest game this season.

Butler has had his performance slide this season, not exactly proving on the field that he’s worth the contract numbers he was asking for before the season. It had been reported MassLive’s Kevin Duffy after the game that Butler had been demoted this past week in practice, getting taken out of certain personnel packages.

However, even with allowing 373 yards to Foles (13.3 yards per completion), 84 of which came from wide receiver Nelson Agholor – Butler’s presumed matchup –, still no Butler. Even with allowing 7.6 yards per play, still no Butler. With time dwindling and a miracle needed, still no Butler.

With this article, I’m not trying to argue that if the Patriots had played Butler that they would have won, but, instead, I’m arguing that there is no doubt that Butler is right when he says that he “could have changed the game.” Here’s how, why, and when I think he could have offered some much needed help:

Stephon Gilmore shadowing Alshon Jeffery

For the entire two weeks leading up to the game, everyone and their mother thought the main matchup would be cornerback Stephon Gilmore on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The two former South Carolina products matched up physically, and it seemed to be the best way to limit Jeffery’s production.

Everyone was right.

Gilmore was lights out against Jeffery, and it appeared to be the move that New England should have employed all game. Our very own leader, Rich Hill, explained that the Patriots’ decision was based off the idea that playing in “big nickel” (three S, two CB instead of two S, three CB) would be more helpful to stopping the run and controlling the slot. He also explained that Belichick likely thought cornerback Eric Rowe would be a better matchup for Jeffery than he would for wide receiver Torrey Smith.

Whatever the case, Gilmore played Jeffery fantastically, not allowing a single catch, and even forcing the Eagles’ only turnover.

The “big nickel” personnel group proved to not be very effective in the slot, or really anywhere, as Agholor racked up nine catches and the Eagles converted 19 of their 25 first downs through the air.

Personnel groups of five and six defensive backs were forced to be in the game often, as Philadelphia stayed in 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) for the majority of the game. The Eagles’ sustained success running out of this personnel grouping allowed them to do virtually anything they wanted offensively, with a healthy dose of everything. The Patriots never were able to counter the production of Philadelphia’s 11-personnel grouping.

If Butler had been in the game, he very well could have limited Agholor’s production and Philadelphia’s crossing routes early, allowing Belichick to key in on Jeffery as their problem; maybe even causing them to swap Gilmore’s and Rowe’s assignments earlier. Belichick has always been best at taking away an offense’s first option, but the Eagles had too many weapons to focus on.

It’s a trickle-down effect. Butler’s absences forced the Patriots to move pieces around, often leading to mismatches.

The idea behind deploying more safeties for defense against the run is logical. I can understand utilizing the “big nickel” for the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon, but you can’t tell me that Jordan Richards was a better matchup against the Philadelphia’s weapons. With the Eagles having their way, it’s insane that the team’s leader in passes defended, who is also their best tackling corner, didn’t see the field on defense.

“Big nickel” and “big dime” personnel couldn’t limit big plays

While I believe New England’s “big nickel” is their best personnel group defensively, it was clear from the start that they did not match up against Philadelphia’s 11-personnel grouping.

In the first half alone, the Patriots gave up seven passes of 15 or more yards. Two of those passes came against the Patriots’ “big nickel” grouping, while the other five were defended with the “big dime” (four safeties, two cornerbacks) personnel grouping. Six out of seven of the passes were against a man-to-man concept. Plain and simple, the Patriots defensive backs on the field were beat by the men across them.

New England also gave up rushes of 36, 26, and 21 yards in the first half. One of them in “big nickel,” two in “big dime,” and all three of them against a single-high, man-to-man defense.

Belichick, widely known as the best in the business at halftime adjustments, had to notice the three- and four-safety groupings getting beat big consistently. But, spoiler alert, things did not get better for the New England defense in the second half.

For example:

1-10-PHI 25 (3:23) (Shotgun) N.Foles pass deep right to N.Agholor pushed ob at PHI 49 for 24 yards (P.Chung).

On the Eagles’ first play of this drive, the Patriots came out in a “bear” front with a single-high, man-to-man look. With Duron Harmon being the single-high safety, who, while excellent, doesn’t have quite the range of Devein McCourty, Nick Foles knew he could attack the boundary of the field.

Chung was beat five yards off the snap, and Foles placed it too far outside for Harmon to get there. If Butler had been covering Agholor in the slot there, that could have allowed the Patriots to man-up Chung on TE Zach Ertz and have McCourty play his “centerfielder” role. The Patriots were obviously trying to stop the run here with this look and formation, but it’s interesting why that’s the matchup they thought was best fit.

It’s just one play, and we can certainly cherry-pick plays where Butler should have been on the field, but at this point it’s about matchups. With a man-to-man defense, it’s all about the athleticism and technique. Why the Patriots didn’t leave their All-Pro safety in single-high, have their most versatile defender covering the tight end matchup problem, and their fastest cornerback on Philadelphia’s twitchiest receiver, I will never know.

Butler is the Patriots’ most sure-tackler at cornerback

Butler has received a lot of criticism this year regarding quite a few things from his ball skills to biting against double moves. However, tackling has never been a complaint.

Remember, just seven weeks ago, in the biggest game of the regular season, when Butler made the game-saving tackle? Good times.

Butler’s tackle in-bounds forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to rush up to the line, eventually attempting that awkward, amazing fake spike to end the game.

In contrast, one of Super Bowl LII’s biggest plays involved a missed tackle by a Patriots cornerback on a crossing route.

3-6-PHI 19 (11:27) (Shotgun) N.Foles pass short left to N.Agholor ran ob at PHI 36 for 17 yards (P.Chung).

This play is the one that haunts me the most when thinking about Butler being on the bench.

The Patriots once again came out in a single-high, man-to-man look, but, this time, they are in a standard nickel package (three cornerbacks). The cornerback that was chosen to play over Butler in this situation was Jonathan Bademosi.

Bademosi, who had a solid couple games this regular season, saw zero defensive snaps in the AFC Championship game. So, this was obviously a move made in the past two weeks, and a pretty puzzling one.

On a crucial third-and-six, after the Patriots had cut the lead down to three points at the beginning of the second half, Agholor beat Bademosi with a crossing route. To make matters worse, Bademosi recovered well enough to be able to make a tackle before the sticks, but couldn’t bring him down.

New England was on the verge of forcing a three-and-out following their score. The Eagles would run eight more plays on the drive, eventually finding running back Corey Clement for a score of their own. If only the Patriots had their best tackling corner on the field earlier...

Third- and fourth-down performance killed the Patriots

As we all witnessed the entire season, good situational football can mask a lot of ugly issues. For instance, on defense, third-down, fourth-down, and red zone performance can make an average defense look much better than they are.

All season, New England’s defense feasted on good field position, making it increasingly difficult for offenses to convert multiple third downs. They were a top-five scoring defense, but near the bottom of the league in yards allowed. Something had to give.

What gave was the Patriots.

Philadelphia had 18 situations where they faced a third- or fourth-down, converting on 12 of them. You don’t need to know much about football to know that’s awful, and it reflected much of the game. Foles took advantage of the less-experienced Patriot defenders being in the game, converting anything from third-and-long to third-and-short.

Bademosi, who was New England’s third-most played cornerback in Super Bowl LII, only saw the field for 11 snaps. With the Patriots defense being on the field for 75 snaps throughout the game, the Patriots’ personnel grouping was consistent, and the defensive looks were simple, even.

This was a common look seen from the Patriots all season on third-down:

NFL Game Pass

On this third-and-seven, New England came out with five men on the line of scrimmage, in a 2-man shell (two-high safeties, man-to-man underneath). Yet, what’s different for the Patriots here is, once again, personnel.

Instead of their typical dime personnel, the Patriots decided to roll with their “big dime” grouping. With Chung locked up on Agholor, this left Richards to cover Ertz man-to-man, a much better matchup for Chung. As you could have predicted, Richards was beat for the first down.

Taking all this in perspective, it’s not hard to see where the Patriots were coming from for some of the decisions that went on defensively. Belichick and Patricia prioritized defending the run, stacking up on big bodies and hoping their defensive backs could handle man-coverage.

However, the logic that is difficult to understand is why we saw so much of the same. In the last game of the season, with one more game for their defensive coordinator, and likely the last one for their most experienced cornerback, nothing should be off-limits. Time and time again, the New England defense was beat for big gains, and nothing more would come of it.

Bottom line, what happened to Butler in Super Bowl LII was pretty disgusting. Going from an undrafted free-agent to a three-year starter, not to mention making the biggest play in Super Bowl history, Butler deserved more in what looks to be his last game as a Patriot. Given, he hasn’t played nearly as well this season, but it’s incredible that throughout Foles’ 373 passing yards, Butler never saw the field once.

Yet, there have been rumors circulating around that this move was, in fact, disciplinary. These rumors have revolved around from Butler missing curfew, even including Butler going to a Rick Ross concert.

This being true would point to why Butler may have been emotional during the game, and why he was not involved in the certain “packages” that Matt Patricia and Belichick were trying to get on the field. But, these rumors are interesting given that, when asked about not playing, Butler simply stated that “they gave up on me. F---.”

If Butler was too sick to play on Sunday night, why not make him inactive? I’m sure they would have preferred a healthy Alan Branch for even 10 snaps to Butler for none. Yes, New England only had three other cornerbacks active (Gilmore, Rowe, and Bademosi), meaning he had to be an emergency option. But, that still doesn’t match up with him not being a part of any single personnel package used, despite the beating the defense underwent. It also doesn’t seem like he was much of an “emergency option” when he took a special teams snap, after not taking any all year. And then, with the curfew, that seems like something Belichick would respond to by benching Butler for a few series, or a quarter, at most. With the combination of all these factors, it still doesn’t explain how a team that gave up 41 points didn’t use all available assets, especially when one has the pedigree of Butler.

Adding on to this, Butler ended his silence on Tuesday.

Butler has claimed that there were no wrongdoings on his part, and that there was no team violation. With Butler entering free agency for the first time in just over a month, it makes complete sense for him to tell his side of the story.

Now we have Butler saying that these rumors are false, and Belichick has continued to state that the decision to bench Butler was purely football. If both sides here are telling the truth, and there are not other pieces of the story that we’re missing, then the decision here is even more baffling.

I just can’t imagine Belichick refusing to look Butler’s way throughout the entire game, when nothing appeared to be working. But, with no other reports being confirmed, Belichick may very well have thought that Butler just wasn’t a right fit in this game.

I’m also not Belichick and do not posses one of the greatest football minds ever, but I was just as confused as everyone else.

Whether it was truly a “coach’s decision” or disciplinary, Butler could have made a difference in Super Bowl LII. I’m betting that Belichick never makes another comment on it and takes it to his grave.