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The Patriots Defense Did Everything Wrong

Tom Brady played the most incredible playoff game of his incredible playoff career in Super Bowl LII. New England lost anyway, because its defense failed in virtually every imaginable way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With a good defense, the New England Patriots would be navigating the logistics of where to best place a sixth Super Bowl ring—double up on a non-thumb finger, or bump a ring to a second hand? With an average defense, the team would be renting out the duck boats for yet another celebratory parade. Honestly, even if the Pats had merely a bad defense, most of Boston would crossing out the “5” on the “5-time champions” shirts that they bought just last year. But instead, the Patriots played one of the worst defensive games in Super Bowl history, squandering an all-time great performance from Tom Brady as the Eagles won 41-33.

New England’s offense played great on Sunday, piling up 613 yards, the most in Super Bowl history, and the most of any team in a regulation-length game since the Steelers racked up 639 total yards in Week 8 of the 2014 season. Tom Brady passed for 505 yards, the first time any quarterback has thrown for 500 yards in a postseason game in NFL history. The Pats were the first team in Super Bowl history to go through the entire game without punting.

Teams typically do not lose when they are this good offensively. The Patriots are the first team in NFL history to lose a game in which they amassed 600 yards of offense. Brady is not the first quarterback to lose a contest in which he passed for 500-plus yards, but seven of the eight before him threw interceptions, while Brady threw none.

Still, New England lost, as its defense could not stop Philadelphia from moving the ball and scoring. The Eagles got points on eight of their 10 drives, five touchdowns and three field goals. They punted once and Nick Foles threw a fluky second-quarter interception, but otherwise every Philly drive culminated in a score. New England gave up conversions on 10 of 16 third-down attempts, and two of two fourth-down tries. The Patriots recorded no sacks. “It just came back to the basic skills of football,” Pats cornerback Eric Rowe said of the unit’s problems afterward. “Running, tackling.”

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s group allowed 538 yards—the most any opponent has tallied in a game against the Patriots since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000. The 41 points that New England allowed were the second most of the Belichick era, behind only the 42 that Kansas City scored in Week 1 of this season. Philly was a missed extra point and two failed two-point conversions away from taking that distinction as well. (Note: The Detroit Lions officially have hired Patricia as their new head coach. Surely this will work out great.)

A lot of this had to do with the brilliant performance of Foles and the brilliant play-calling of Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. A lot of it also probably had to with the Patriots’ inexplicable decision to bench one of their best pass defenders at the weirdest possible time, a move that revealed the disarray within an organization that typically seems under control.

Perhaps predictably, the Patriots couldn’t stop the Eagles running game. New England had one of the worst run defenses in the league this season, ranking 31st out of 32 NFL teams by allowing an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Philly had one of the best offensive lines in the league, led by Pro Bowlers Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. The Eagles finished with 164 yards on 27 carries (6.1 per attempt) on Sunday, and that production often came easily. On this play, for instance, Philadelphia sent Isaac Seumalo into the game as a sixth offensive lineman; no Patriots defender was able to come within a few yards of running back LeGarrette Blount on his second-quarter jaunt to the end zone.

LeGarrette Blount

New England’s inability to stop the rush opened up a devastating Eagles passing game. The Patriots couldn’t stop run-pass options, nor could they stop the play-action passes that NBC’s Cris Collinsworth repeatedly and incorrectly identified as run-pass options. They couldn’t stop downfield shots to Alshon Jeffery, nor could they stop passes to running back Corey Clement out of the backfield. Foles’s story is incredible, as nobody could have predicted that the backup who seriously considered retiring two years ago would be Super Bowl LII MVP. He deserves credit for the bevy of beautiful throws he made, but still: The Patriots also deserve legitimate criticism for allowing Nick Foles to win Super Bowl MVP.

The Pats’ awful pass defense has to be linked to the team’s stunning decision to bench one of its starting cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler, for the entirety of Sunday evening. A second-team All-Pro last season, he played a team-high 97.8 percent of New England’s defensive snaps in the 2017 campaign. (He also led the defense in 2015 and was second in 2016.) Even though Butler was fully healthy for the Super Bowl, he played zero defensive snaps against Philadelphia, entering the game only to cover the Eagles’ lone punt, his first special teams action in two seasons.

Rowe started in Butler’s spot and got immediately dunked on, with Jeffery skying to make a dazzling 34-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.

Alshon Jeffery

Johnson Bademosi, who played exclusively on special teams between weeks 12 and 16 while failing to log a single defensive snap, saw significant playing time at corner instead of Butler. He allowed Philly to convert a critical third down by failing to tackle wideout Nelson Agholor.

Nelson Agholor

The Pats trusted safeties Patrick Chung and Jordan Richards in man-to-man coverage. As it turned out, Richards is particularly terrible in that capacity. In the below clip, he’s the guy who can be seen getting absolutely toasted by Clement on a wheel route:

Corey Clement

Butler became famous for making an interception on a throw to a receiver running an in-breaking route toward the goal line in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIX. He was on the sideline while safety Devin McCourty allowed tight end Zach Ertz to score the game-winning touchdown by running an in-breaking route toward the goal line in Super Bowl LII.

Zach Ertz

When asked about the decision to bench Butler after the game, Belichick said that he “put the best players out there,” and that Butler was not being punished as the result of a disciplinary issue. Patricia was asked multiple times about the benching, and gave consistent nonanswers: “We just had a situation where we had some matchups and packages that we went with”; and while Butler was “ready to play in [other] packages if that situation arose,” “different situations came up.” This all made no sense—in what matchup was Bademosi a better fit than Butler? Why did no packages call for Butler after a full season in which he played virtually every snap? What situation never arose in 60 minutes of Philly roasting the Pats’ secondary?

If this was a strategic move designed to cater to other defenders’ skill sets, those other players should at least have been aware it was coming. But that wasn’t the case. Rowe claimed that he didn’t realize he would start until slightly before kickoff—around the time that Butler was seen crying during the national anthem—and added that Butler’s benching “wasn’t the plan.” Fellow corner Stephon Gilmore called Butler “a great player” and noted that he had rotated in throughout the week of practice. McCourty noted that Butler stayed “ready to go” all game. If Butler truly wasn’t part of the game plan, why did he practice as such all week?

After the game, Butler was distraught, and rightfully so. “They gave up on me. Fuck,” he told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. Butler said he didn’t know why he hadn’t been put in, and felt that he could have made a difference.

If we take Belichick and Patricia’s words at face value, they look awful. Their claim is that the decision to bench Butler was long considered and played to the intricacies of their personnel in ways they couldn’t possibly explain. But it glaringly backfired: Every player who saw action instead of Butler made at least one major error. Belichick has earned his reputation as a coaching genius; let’s get our special teamers Super Bowl reps instead of our All-Pro is not a genius-level move. The Pats would look equally bad if they benched Butler over a petty disciplinary issue rather than strictly over football logic, but at least that explanation would make some sense.

Butler became famous due to an odd Super Bowl choice: With Super Bowl XLIX on the line, Seattle threw from the 1-yard line despite having Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. No matter how it came about, New England’s move to eliminate Butler from this game plan with a title at stake should surpass that in the history of questionable Super Bowl coaching decisions.

Sunday’s game was the end of a season-long reckoning for the Patriots defense. It was clear that this group could be exploited dating back to its 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in Week 1, a contest in which New England allowed 537 yards. There were times in October when the Pats legitimately looked like the worst defense in the NFL. They ended the 2017 campaign ranked 29th in opposing yards allowed, which is horrible; however, their ability to generate turnovers and get stops in the red zone kept them in the top five of scoring defense. Those positives clearly didn’t translate to the Super Bowl, as Philly scored on every one of its trips to the red zone.

This is not normally a problem for New England, which had not given up more than 30 points in any of the previous seven Super Bowls it’d played under Belichick. In their prior two Super Bowl losses, both to the Giants, the Pats allowed 38 points combined.

For all the second-guessing that will take place following New England’s upset loss, the explanation is stunningly simple: Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time and played the best playoff game of his incredible playoff career, and his team still lost, with a backup quarterback winning MVP, because New England’s defense was not just bad, but aggressively so.

The Patriots’ dynastic run is built on the premise that this team operates at a higher level than its leaguewide counterparts. Its players execute better than anyone else; its coaching staff is smarter than everyone else’s. Sunday night ended with New England’s players bemoaning their own mediocre fundamentals, and its coaches scrambling to defend a decision that remains inexplicable and inexcusable. Brady will turn 41 in August, and even in his wildest avocado-fueled dreams he won’t play in many more games like this. As successful as the Patriots have been over the past two decades, their failure to capitalize on one of Brady’s greatest games is shameful.