By: Steve Balestrieri
By now everyone in America knows who Malcolm Butler is; those of us who watched him all summer know that he earned his way onto the roster by making the kind of plays we saw on Sunday.
But first, by now the typical overreaction on Monday calling the Butler interception, “The worst call in Super Bowl History”, are just that. An overreaction, once the play is laid out using the NFL’s All-22 film, it is plain to see that it wasn’t a bad play call at all. It was open for just a split second before Butler and Brandon Browner made plays by the slimmest of margins that turned a Super Bowl victory over to New England.
Pete Carroll took the blame for the failure as all good coaches do but also explained his rationale behind the pass call. With under a minute to go and one time out left, the Seahawks wanted three shots at the end zone. A pass on second down if incomplete would stop the clock and they’d still have two shots at running the ball in from the one-yard line. And Carroll made it clear; they were running on third and fourth down.
But before we get to the interception, setting the scene is important because a lot of other factors went into making that play possible. And a few players that no one… outside of perhaps the coaching staff deserve great credit.
Chung, Hightower Set Stage: On first down, Seattle lined up in run formation with a two-tight end, two-WR set with the receivers stacked to the right. Marshawn Lynch is the deep back with a fullback to lead the way.
At the snap, Lynch takes the hand-off from QB Russell Wilson and is running over left tackle with a fullback in front. Safety Pat Chung lined up close to the line in the box, recognizes it and flies up to blow up the block in the backfield, which he does.
That is significant, because it allows LB Dont’a Hightower who defeats his block two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, to move into the running lane and hit Lynch as he’s moving towards the end zone.
Hightower is just able to bring to Lynch to the ground with LB Akeem Ayers coming over in support and save a touchdown at the one-yard line. Without key plays by Chung and Hightower, Lynch scores right then and the Butler play never happens.
So Why Did Seattle Throw On 2nd Down: Take a look at the line-up on the field for the pivotal play. Seattle lines up with a three WR set with two, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette stacked to the right.
In contrast, the Patriots are in their heavy goal-line package with 8 men at the line of scrimmage and a ninth, Hightower keying on Lynch all the way, essentially daring a pass in this situation. They were totally selling out in run support on this play.
This is a designed pick-play, Kearse is supposed to fire off and engage Browner two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This will allow Lockette to slant just at the line and catch the pass from Wilson and gain just the one yard needed to score. The pick-play will force Butler to loop far around Browner and not get there in time. It is a bang-bang play.
A freeze frame at the time of Wilson releasing the ball shows how open this play seems at that exact second. But two things happened. Browner, reading the play, drives into Kearse and drives him back into the line of scrimmage, completely blowing up the play. Butler reads Lockette breaking inside and shoots into the now open gap and flies into the flight path of the ball and gets there a split second before Lockette and is able to intercept the pass and fall to the ground at the two yard line.
Something to keep in mind here is the preparation factor of Bill Belichick’s teams and their obsession with situational football. Here it paid off in spades. Butler told the press after the game that the Patriots had run this play numerous times in practice all week and the scout team offense had scored every time.
Butler recognizes the play and seems shot out of a cannon as soon as Lockette breaks inside. An interesting footnote is on the Patriots previous scoring drive, Julian Edelman showed a similar route but then broke it outside for an easy touchdown. If Lockette breaks back outside, he’s even more wide open.
This play illustrates not that it was a bad play call, but a great play by Butler and Browner and superb preparation by the New England defense. They weren’t fooled by this and illustrate the need for all 53 men of a roster to be all-in on game planning and preparation.
By the way, Butler is essentially the 5th cornerback on the Patriots depth chart, behind Darrelle Revis, Browner, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan. That kind of depth has been missing from the Patriots defense and shows how important the element of team building has become.
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