How the Eagles outcoached the Patriots on Super Bowl LII's game-winning TD play
Wristband 145 was a long con for the Eagles, set up from the beginning of the season
Any number of plays from Super Bowl LII can be pointed to as the turning point for the Eagles in defeating the Patriots. The "Philly Special" play that led to Nick Foles catching a touchdown certainly stands out. As does the Eagles' game-winning touchdown pass to Zach Ertz. The latter, , stands out in a big way because it emphasizes just how much the Eagles outcoached the Patriots in the championship game.
Specifically, the motion the Eagles used on the play in question is remarkable because it was literally a season in the making, according to Doug Pederson, former offensive coordinator Frank Reich (who took the Colts job on Sunday) and wide receivers coach Mike Groh, in a fascinating interview with Peter King of TheMMQB.com.
They had rookie running back Corey Clement, lined up to Nick Foles' left in shotgun, run a sprint motion behind Foles out to the right, ending up behind the trips formation out to the right.
The initial point of the motion is to identify whether the Patriots are in man or zone coverage -- when the safety sprints across the formation to follow Clement it's clearly man -- but also to set up a clear-out look for Zach Ertz.
The Patriots even said, as captured by NFL Films, they wanted to "double 86" (Ertz) on the play. But the Eagles used the motion to take away the double opportunity and then allowed routes out of the trips formation "to create legal traffic."
What makes this play particularly fascinating from a chess-match perspective is just how long the Eagles allowed it to marinate. With King in the office, the trio of coaches dialed up a bunch of film to explain how the play evolved from an idea early in the year.
"So this is a unique motion in our offense that we don't use a ton," Reich explained. "[Running backs coach] Duce Staley is the one who every week is on Coach and I, saying, 'We've got to get that motion in.' Because it's a tough motion for defenses to handle."
The Eagles ran the motion only three times over the course of the season and, every single time, ran a different pass play out of it. That pass play was never the throw to Ertz lined up on the outside left, meaning this motion-formation combination was something the Pats hadn't seen before when studying film leading up to Super Bowl LII.
"One time it went to Sproles. One time it went to Torrey Smith up the seam versus zone, now it's to Ertz on a crossing route," Reich explained. "We hit three different areas of the field with the same motion. So every time we are using the motion for a different reason. And there's a different pass concept with it every time."
Philly also studied the Pats' tendencies, including a play design by former Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, in which he motioned running back Christian McCaffrey into a bunch formation that created problems for New England and led to a long Kelvin Benjamin reception.
"We're like, yeah, they could be having a problem here," Reich said. "They could have a problem with a four-by-one cluster deal, so now, here's where all the elements come together for the game-winning play."
Late in the fourth quarter in their playoff game against the Falcons, the Eagles ran that game-winning play, only without motion, hitting Ertz for a first down that set up a cushion field goal to give them a 15-10 lead.
The Eagles coaches keep a big "databank of play" according to Pederson, and used that collection to mesh various concepts (including a bunch playcall they saw from the Cardinals against the Rams involving Larry Fitzgerald) into the game-winning play.
"This is exactly why we keep a databank of plays," Pederson said. "We took the Kansas City motion with Sproles, we took the Arizona bunch play against the Rams, and then we came back against the Falcons and moved Ertz out and left the back in the backfield, and then we get to this game, we added the motion, and we just put it all together for this specific defense. This play is a result of what we did all season, and what the coaches researched, taking different things from different plays."
There's more than just a playcall, of course. And the coaches would tell you as much: it's about Foles making the right decision and then Foles and Ertz executing. Pederson pointed out to King how Foles made an adjustment, on a play the team practiced just twice, to throw three quarters because Kyle Van Noy was attempting to swat the ball on the play.
Football really is a game of inches, but for the game-winning play of Super Bowl LII, there was months and months of planning and preparation from the Eagles coaches before dropping the hammer with a brilliant playcall that won them a championship.
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