The most memorable play of Super Bowl 52 happened with 30 minutes and 38 seconds left to play. The Eagles faced fourth-and-goal at the Patriots’ 1-yard line, leading 15-12. Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson realized settling for field goals on the 1-yard line isn’t a good way to beat New England, so he didn’t settle.
“I trust my players. I trust my coaches. I trust my instincts,” Pederson would say.
The Eagles had been working for a few weeks on a trick play they could break out at exactly the right time. They decided this was that time, so they tried something ambitious. The result was the play of the night:
A touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to Foles, the quarterback who’d never caught a pass in a four-year college career or six-year NFL run. 22-12, Eagles.
Pederson said the Eagles call it the “Philly special.” It sounds like a cheesesteak or a breakfast bowl from Wawa. In this case, it was a way to con the Patriots.
The play came out of a weird formation.
It wasn’t exactly the wildcat, but Foles also wasn’t anywhere near a position to accept a snap. Foles spent a few seconds before the snap pretending to call in pre-snap adjustments to various members of his offensive line. He ultimately came set just behind right tackle Lane Johnson, positioned as a sort of H-back.
“I really need to sell like I’m not doing anything,” Foles said later.
The Eagles’ formation teetered on the line between legal and illegal, in that only six players of a required seven were really close to being on the line of scrimmage. But a seventh man, Alshon Jeffery, appeared to check in with the official on his side of the field to confirm his alignment wasn’t a problem. That’s typically enough to avoid a penalty, and it was here, along with Foles coming set before the ball was snapped.
The Eagles used their offensive line to fool the Patriots.
At the snap, all five Eagles linemen stepped hard to their left. The running back who caught the snap while Foles was in the H-back spot was Corey Clement. He took the ball and darted off the left tackle, effectively selling an outside run to the left.
In some circumstances, that would be the trick play. But the Eagles wrapped one trick play inside of another. The purpose of Clement going left was to get New England’s defense flowing toward him — and, specifically, to get Foles free on the opposite side of the field. That meant fooling one guy in particular — the playside outside linebacker for the Patriots, No. 55 Eric Lee. And, oh, boy, did the Eagles fool him:
The play was going well away from Lee, who was all the way across the formation as Clement went to the left pylon. But he engaged with a blocker anyway, as if he thought he could chase Clement down. That meant that when Clement pitched the ball to a field-reversing tight end Burton, nobody was following Foles.
Jeffery, who’d been aligned all alone on the weak side of the Eagles’ formation, ran a slant pattern to drag cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the right flat. With Lee taking himself out of the play, nobody remaining was in the same zip code as Foles.
The Eagles had the Patriots so badly deceived that even if Foles had been covered, the play might have ended in a touchdown.
Note the extreme openness of receiver Torrey Smith in the back of the end zone:
It appears the man who let Smith go free was No. 32, Devin McCourty, one of many Patriots defenders who stepped up to play the run when Clement went left.
The Eagles’ sleight of hand, combined with the Patriots’ lack of attentiveness, gave Burton three viable receiving targets with just one defender near any of them. All Foles had to do was catch a relatively soft throw while being defended by air.
It’s surprising that the Patriots weren’t better prepared, given that they ran the same play just a few seasons ago. But the Eagles executed the play brilliantly.