FROM THE ARCHIVES: Super Bowl XLIX: Malcolm Butler in the Middle

All season long the Patriots mantra has been Do. Your. Job. Nothing personified this more than Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-securing interception of Russell Wilson in the end zone. Dave Archibald explains how Butler recognized the play early, and used his experience from film and practice to cement the legacy of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots dynasty.

The New England Patriots took a 28-24 lead with just over two minutes left in Super Bowl XLIX, but the Seattle Seahawks had no intentions of going quietly. Six plays later ‒ including completions of more than 30 yards to both Marshawn Lynch and Jermaine Kearse ‒ the Seahawks were less than a yard away from winning the game. On second down with 20 seconds remaining, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a quick slant to wideout Ricardo Lockette, but undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler stepped in front of the receiver to snatch the ball ‒ and a Super Bowl victory ‒ for his first NFL interception.

In the Air Tonight

Hall of Famer and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders called Seattle’s decision to throw the ball on 2nd and goal “the worst play call in NFL history.” The Seahawks boasted the league’s best rushing attack in the regular season at 5.3 yards per carry, keyed by Lynch’s league-leading 13 touchdowns on the ground.

A closer look at the clock and timeout situation makes the choice to pass a bit more defensible. The Seahawks had one timeout ‒ their lone opportunity to stop the clock. The Patriots could have called timeout, to leave themselves time to respond had Seattle scored, but they did not, and the clock ran down to 26 seconds before the ball was snapped.

Had the Seahawks run the ball and not scored, they’d have had to call timeout, and without any way of stopping the clock would have been forced to pass on third down, when New England could anticipate ‒ and substitute ‒ for it. Instead, the Seahawks gave themselves a choice to run or pass on third down.

Seattle could have potentially run the ball twice had they gotten a snap off earlier in the play clock ‒ they let it run down to five seconds ‒ but both teams ultimately allowed the game to come down to a goal-line stand. Arguably, Seattle’s worst mistake was letting the play clock run down to zero with 1:50 remaining earlier in the drive, necessitating use of its first timeout. Had the Seahawks managed to get a play off there, they would have retained that timeout, allowing them to run or pass every down at the goal line.

As Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus points out, New England ran a heavy 4-4-3 defense with just three defensive backs against Seattle’s 11 personnel (three wideouts). The defensive look favored passing, which with Wilson is normally a safe call; the third-year signal-caller threw just seven interceptions in the regular season. In hindsight, the decision to throw didn’t work out, but there was logic behind the play call.

Stacked for a Pick

Shown below, the Seahawks use three wideouts with Lockette (#83) and Jermaine Kearse (#15) in a stack to the offensive right side. Doug Baldwin (#89) goes in motion from right to left ‒ followed by Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24), which shows Wilson that New England is in man-to-man defense. The Patriots put seven linemen and linebackers on the line of scrimmage to defend against the run:


The obvious read against New England’s defensive look is the stack, because the tight spacing allows for combination routes, where one receiver tries to spring the other open. That is what Seattle tries here, with Kearse running straight ahead and Lockette running a quick slant behind him, creating a natural pick.

However, Seattle often struggles with executing combination routes: Kearse, due in part to a strong jam from Browner, is unable to get deep enough in the end zone to impede Butler, who has a clear path to the ball. The rookie drives aggressively from his off-man position, beating Lockette to the spot and securing the football.

The Art of War

Butler made an outstanding play, and did so because he was prepared. New England head coach Bill Belichick is fond of the Sun Tzu quote, “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.” Christopher Price reported that the Patriots scout team had run the exact same play in practice during the week and beaten Butler for a touchdown. The rookie learned from his mistake in practice and then delivered the critical play on game day. It is impossible to imagine a more fitting ending for the Patriots championship season.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

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.

2 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: Super Bowl XLIX: Malcolm Butler in the Middle

  1. Any insight on why Hightower pushed Butler to the ground once he came out of the end zone? Does it matter if Butler had both feet in the end zone when he made the interception, could he have taken a knee and the Pats take the field at the twenty?

  2. He’s trying to get him down to reduce the chance of a fumble. If any part of Butler other then hands and feet is touching the ground, he is down as soon as he is touched by an opponent, making it virtually impossible to cause a fumble. However he should have let him get far enough to allow Brady to kneel down 🙂

    Little noticed fact… Kearse gets jammed so bad he realizes he’s not going to be able to “rub” (cough cough should be OPI anyhow) and reaches out and pulls Butlers jersey demonstrably away from his body. If Butler had not made the pick… would the refs have the guts to make one of the biggest calls in SB history?

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