The Philly Special will rightly be the play that forever defines the Eagles’ victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl 52. But such ballsy trickery wasn’t some one-off bit of well-executed brilliance: The Eagles rolled up 538 yards and scored 41 points on the Pats, and they did it by doing a lot of things the Patriots typically do to other teams.
RPO, or run-pass option, became a popular term to toss around this season when discussing the Eagles’ offensive attack. But RPOs were only a small part of their approach during the Super Bowl, contrary to NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth’s repeated use of the phrase.
Instead, it was head coach Doug Pederson’s and offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s use of personnel, route combinations, and heavy reliance on play-action that did the trick.
First, there was the personnel. The Pats years ago had pioneered the use of slot receivers and three-receiver sets to better exploit horizontal space. The trend of “11 personnel,” or formations with three receivers, one tight end, and one running back, has since caught on around the league. But during the Super Bowl, the Eagles went with “11” more than usual on run plays:
The Eagles rushed for 164 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
The Pats also love to get their running backs involved as pass catchers by creating mismatches—particularly against linebackers—with Dion Lewis and James White. And with New England playing a lot of man-to-man the Eagles countered by getting rookie running back Corey Clement more involved. Clement played just 22 percent of the offensive snaps all season, but he was on the field 32 percent of the time in the Super Bowl. And even though Clement had been targeted in the passing game just 21 times all year (including playoffs), he had five balls thrown his way in the Super Bowl. He caught four for 100 yards, and quarterback Nick Foles had a perfect passer rating when targeting him.
One was a simple
wheel rail route to the right that went for 55 yards on third-and-3:
The other was a simple wheel route to the left that went for a touchdown:
The Patriots always seem to find a way even when injuries strike. They won the Super Bowl last year without Rob Gronkowski, didn’t have Julian Edelman for all of this season, and Tom Brady still threw for more than 500 yards in the Super Bowl even though Brandin Cooks got concussed early in the second quarter. This year’s Eagles—who lost running back Darren Sproles in September, left tackle Jason Peters a month later, and starting quarterback Carson Wentz two months after that—were no different. And much like Brady often does, Foles spread the ball around during the Super Bowl to a multitude of pass catchers, with five of them getting targeted at least five times.
Then there were the route combos. As Robert Mays of The Ringer noted, the Eagles used “a steady diet of vertical routes from the slot and even the backfield.” Clement’s TD catch above was a prime example of this. But the Eagles also weren’t afraid to borrow from the Pats’ tendency to position receivers and running backs all over the formation, such as this 22-yard completion to wideout Alshon Jeffery, who had lined up in the slot:
Pederson’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 45 while trailing by one point with less than six minutes remaining was emblematic of the aggressiveness that proved so crucial to Philadelphia’s success. But check out the play design here, with tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek both running short crossing patterns—a mesh concept, according to Mays—that called for Celek to take out safety Devin McCourty to free up Ertz. Again, this is the kind of stuff the Pats themselves love to do:
Remember when the Patriots pissed off John Harbaugh by having a little fun with eligible receivers? The Eagles broke no rules here, but on Ertz’s fourth-quarter TD they did have three receivers bunched on the right side, only to have Clement sprint in the same direction without stopping just before the snap, the effect of which was to drag a defender away from Ertz, leaving him singled up on the left:
Lastly, with LeGarrette Blount (14 carries, 90 yards) and Jay Ajayi (9 carries, 57 yards) slicing the Patriots up on the ground, the Eagles went heavy on the play-action when they did throw. According to Mays, Foles used play-fakes on a Super Bowl-record 21 of his 43 dropbacks. The biggest reason for this? The Pats’ defense had been especially vulnerable against play-action this season.
Per Pro Football Focus, during the regular season, New England’s D was hit with play-fakes on 111 attempts, 76 of which were completed (68.5 percent). These went for 899 yards, eight TDs, and a 109.4 passer rating. Also per PFF, in the Pats’ three regular season losses, play-action was often their kryptonite:
- Chiefs (Week 1): 5-for-6, 36 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 91.7 passer rating
- Panthers (Week 4): 6-for-9, 81 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 134.7 passer rating
- Dolphins (Week 14): 9-for-10, 1 TD, 0 INT, 124.6 passer rating
And no team exposed the Pats’ weakness against play-action more than the Jaguars did in the AFC title game by going 11-for-14 for 169 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, and a 140.8 passer rating. Unlike the Jags, who did much of that damage in the first half before getting conservative, the Eagles kept firing with it. All the way to a title.