The NFL Network aired “Do Your Job: Bill Belichick and the 2014 New England Patriots” on Wednesday night, highlighting the legendary coach and his team as they defeated the Seattle Seahawks to win their fourth Super Bowl Championship. The highlight of the special – and the season – was undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception. That moment and play were special, but “Do Your Job” reinforced that the preparation that put Butler in that position was just as critical.
Football teams drill situational football so they are prepared in the some of the game’s biggest moments. Prior to the interception that turned the Super Bowl, the Seattle offense and the New England defense had each faced just 12 plays on the 1- or 2- yard line over the course of the whole season. With so few plays to draw from, attempting to scout tendencies can produce as much harm as good as each play is unique. After all, the Seahawks possessed the best rushing attack in the NFL – their 5.3 yards per carry were more than a half-yard better than no. 2 Miami – and had run on eight of their 12 previous attempts from close in; who would guess they would pass with the game on the line? Still, with the benefit of hindsight, we can review each team’s earlier goal line situations and see if there are insights to glean.
“It Was the First Time We Were In That Personnel Group”
The Patriots used a three-cornerback goal line set with zero safeties on Malcolm Butler’s pivotal interception, and in “Do Your Job,” defensive assistant coach Brendan Daly noted that they had not used that personnel group all season. New England did use several three-defensive-back (but never three-corner) goal-line sets during the season, however, often as a result of a lack of depth in the front seven:
The Broncos use a jumbo set here with two tight ends (Julius Thomas, #80, and Jacob Tamme, #84) and two extra offensive linemen (Chris Clark, #75, and Will Montgomery, #64), but the Patriots don’t match that beef, playing a cornerback (Logan Ryan, #26) and two safeties (Devin McCourty, #32, and Patrick Chung, #23) along with six linemen and two linebackers. This was due in part to injuries – nose tackle Sealver Siliga and linebacker Jerod Mayo were on injured reserve, and defensive end Chandler Jones was inactive for the contest with a hip injury. Denver attacks the lightest part of the defense, running a stretch run left at McCourty and Chung, who are blocked by Thomas and Tamme, respectively, long enough for Ronnie Hillman (#23) to reach the edge for the score.
“You Think You’re Never Gonna Use It”
Daly explained, “[t]he situation had never come up where we had to use [the three cornerback goal line set] in a game until that very last play of the season.” Safeties coach Brian Flores added, “We spent a lot of time talking about it, but as a coach, as a young coach, you think you’re never gonna use it.” Because of the rarity of goal line plays, thorough situational preparedness involves study and practice of scenarios that might never come to pass. The New England defense had faced 12 plays on the 1- or 2- yard lines heading into the Super Bowl, and only one featured three wide receivers:
Unlike the Seahawks play, there’s no running threat here, with fairly immobile signal-caller Matthew Stafford (#9) the only Detroit Lion in the backfield. Detroit’s tepid running game (3.6 yards per carry, 30th in the NFL) was a poor bet to get them in the end zone from the 2-yard-line, and on third down they had just one more play to score before settling for a field goal. Accordingly, the Patriots match up with their nickel defense. Stafford recognizes that New England has linebacker Jamie Collins (#91) and safety Chung (#23) in coverage on the left side and elects to go there rather than the right side where the Patriots have their other four defensive backs. Running back Theo Riddick (#25) and tight end Joseph Fauria (#80) execute a rub route to try to pick off Chung and get Fauria open, but Chung dodges Riddick’s pick and gets his hands in to break up the pass.
The Patriots successfully defending a pick route from a three wide receiver set sounds familiar, but this play has more differences than similarities to the Super-Bowl-winning interception. Seattle’s far superior rushing attack meant that New England had to stay honest against the run, something they didn’t need to be concerned with here. On the other hand, Detroit caused interesting matchups by spreading everyone wide, while the Seahawks were throwing against cornerbacks. In the compressed time and space of the end zone, options are limited, and nuances that get a favorable matchup can make the difference between success and failure.
“I Get To Be the Red Team”
“Do Your Job” shed some light on the role of longtime Belichick assistant and resident mystery man Ernie Adams. “I get some fun during practice, because I get to be the ‘Red Team.’ … For our defense, I’ll set up how I think Seattle will attack us on offense,” the rarely-filmed advisor explained. Adams undoubtedly noticed that of 12 plays they ran on the one- or two- yard line, the Seahawks deployed three wide receivers on seven of them, an unusually high figure. Both of their two-point conversion attempts on the season featured three receivers as well. Three receivers force defenses to substitute in defensive backs to compensate – and until the Patriots, every team combatted this look with a nickel defense (five defensive backs). The goal line look with three cornerbacks was as new to the Seahawks as it was to the Patriots.
Three receiver sets make most people think of the passing game, but this look also serves to spread the field, reducing the number of defenders in the box and opening things up for the run. Quarterback Russell Wilson (849 rushing yards at a league-leading 7.2 yards per carry in 2014) and halfback Marshawn Lynch (1,306 rushing yards and a league-leading 13 touchdowns) form the game’s most dangerous running tandem, giving the Seahawks an advantage if they can get a seven-on-seven or six-on-six matchup:
Against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks align in the shotgun with three wide. Wilson (#3) runs the read option, putting the ball in Lynch’s (#24) belly until the unblocked defenders commit themselves. In this case, both Ha Ha Clinton Dix (#21) and Mike Neal (#96) charge in unblocked from the left side to try to chase down Lynch, and Wilson just runs past them into the end zone for the easy score.
“Something Just Didn’t Look Right”
Belichick drew some criticism for not using a timeout immediately prior to Butler’s interception. In “Do Your Job,” he explained that “I thought about taking the timeout, and when I looked over there, I don’t know, something just didn’t look right.” In the post-Moneyball era, many analysts tend to ridicule “gut decisions” or “hunches.” But Belichick’s gut decision isn’t the same as your Uncle Jeff’s; he might be the leading expert in football on the planet. He’s watched countless hours of games, studied tape, coached hundreds of games, studied situations and data and tendencies, and prepared for numerous scenarios. If Bill Belichick’s gut tells him something, he should listen to it – it’s probably based on something real and significant, even if he can’t consciously – perhaps even in hindsight – elucidate the logical reasons. Belichick and the inscrutable Adams aren’t computers, and the subconscious mind is often a far more effective tool for making quick decisions, such as those made in the seconds between plays, than the conscious mind.
Perhaps ultimately it was the rarity of goal line situations that led Belichick, or his gut, to eschew the timeout and let things ride. There was a good chance the Seahawks would use the three wideout set, and the Patriots knew that they hadn’t seen the three cornerback heavy package in response. There were only so many route options, and as Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer relayed, “Malcolm had seen that in practice, he kinda knew what the route was probably going to be.” Goal line plays are often unique, and this one certainly was – it was the only interception on the goal line all season. Belichick and his staff were able to put Butler in a position to make that unique play by studying Seattle’s tendencies and coming up with a plan to counter them. They did their jobs, and Butler did his, and the rest is history.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.