a deep analysis of the butler-lockette-wilson superbowl interception

For Patriots and Seahawks, Victory Hinged on the Details

The final offensive play for Seattle of Super Bowl XLIX capped what may be the greatest Super Bowl of all time. The Seattle-New England matchup was widely predicted at the beginning of the 2014.  But seldom do early favorites reach the championship then put on a performance that doesn’t disappoint ... (remember last year’s Super Bowl?)  While Patriot fans have had the first of many days to rejoice, Seahawks fans will lament what took place with :26 to play forever. 

There's been a ton of debate since the game ended, so let's break down that final Seattle play from all angles to provide the best insider understanding of all considerations, and what inevitably took place. 

The Scenario:  Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

Seattle’s ball with :26 to play, second-and goal from the 1-yard line

The thought process here is a touchdown is needed to win, obviously, but how do you accomplish this?  For Seattle, one would think the first thought is running the football.  Marshawn Lynch, one of the best backs in the NFL, had rushed for over 100 yards in the game, averaging over four yards a carry.  But, they had faced five similar "and-1" situations earlier in the Super Bowl and had given the ball to Lynch four times, with him converting once for a touchdown and once for a first downOddly enough, the only throw was an incomplete pass to Jermaine Kearse, who was being covered by, wait for it...Malcolm Butler.  It wasn't a guaranteed conversion considering the two previous stops, but they still had three chances and time...

So why not run?

Head coach Pete Carroll’s post-game remarks regarding the scenario were that the Seahawks wanted to ensure they had the most opportunities to score a touchdown and also leave no time on the clock.  He explained, "we’re going to leave them no time, and we had our plays to do it." The average play (in the field) takes between 6-7 seconds, meaning three more plays were possible. On the goal line, there’s NO DOUBT Seattle could throw three passes in that time. But Seattle still had one timeout, and that timeout allows a team to still run the ball and stop the clock if no TD is scored. 

Running plays take less time than passing plays, which would assure the Seahawks adequate time for two more throws if for some reason they got stopped on the ground. Carroll also mentioned that the Patriots were lined up in their goal-line personnel on the last play…

Malcolm Butler is the 3rd CB in the game (offscreen right), a hybrid goal line grouping used vs Seattle's 3 WRs.

What Carroll is hinting at is that it wasn’t a desirable look to run the football against, but you can control that by matching the New England goal line personnel with your own goal line offensive personnel.  The undesirable look is a self-inflicted wound by Seattle's own substitution choice. 

Even with the sub-optimal look for running the football, you still have an athletic QB who is a threat to run.  The picture above shows the offense to be a man short in their blocking scheme to both sides of the center, but because typical QBs don’t run. and Wilson IS a runner, the outside linebackers on either side have to account for him should he keep on a read-option play.  That evens the playing field slightly, even from a 'bad' look. 

So in summary:
Lynch + 1-yard line + :26 left + one timeout + athletic quarterback = RUN THE FOOTBALL!

That didn’t happen. Let’s break down what did.

It’s clear from the picture above that New England loaded the box to stop the run and account for Lynch and/or Wilson running the ball. This means the defensive backs were playing man-to-man with no safety help on the outside. During a two-minute drive there isn’t time or space to run exotic combination coverages, so defensive schemes become somewhat simple.

The corners at the bottom of the picture are playing what is called “locked” coverage, meaning it’s man-to-man and each DB is locked on the wide receiver they have regardless of alignment, motion, or where he goes after the snap of the ball.  The Seahawks want to throw the football for the aforementioned reasons and have the proper play for this scenario. 


Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (No. 15) is at the point of the stack and releases outside against cornerback Brandon Browner (No. 39). This creates a natural pick due to the traffic created, something Pats DB Malcolm Butler (No. 21) must fight through in order to cover Ricardo Lockette (No. 83).  The key here is Butler plays at a different depth than Browner.  Had they been on the same level, they would have rubbed one another off.  But getting that extra depth to prevent the pick creates a small window of space between the defender and the wide receiver.  At least as far as the defensive coverage shown on the outside, this is a good play call for the offense. 

The challenge then belongs to Wilson.  Can he fit the ball in before Butler can close the space he had to give to avoid the pick? 

This is a quick-hitting play and even more so this close to the goal.  In my opinion, it’s too close to be in the shotgun; better to be under center to get the ball out quicker.  To catch a shotgun snap, find the laces (if you have time), see the coverage and throw an accurate pass is extremely difficult.  And standing in the gun indicates to the defense and coverage players that it's most likely pass, so they can hone in on their route reads. 

So what gets left out? Seeing the coverage. You know it’s man-to-man, so there’s no need to. You can tell before the snap and that’s why you are calling this particular route combination. Wilson gets the snap and leads the pass to the wide receiver for which it’s designed.

I’m going to stop here for a moment. Take a look at the above photo again.  There's been a lot said in the last day trying to rationalize ways out of this interception happening.  For all those who say “Russell Wilson made the worst decision in the history of football,” or “Wilson should have thrown the football into the ground,” or better yet “he should have thrown the ball behind him,” where would you have thrown it?  It’s a one-man route!  For those who haven’t played in this system (I have) or who never have thrown a football...stop.  The bad decision was on the play call, not the decision of where Wilson threw the ball.  His was the correct read. 

So how could the pass be a bad decision when Wilson threw to the correct read, on time and out in front? If Wilson had thrown the ball behind Lockette the receiver may have been forced to stop, not gotten into the end zone or worse, the ball could have been tipped and intercepted. This play isn’t designed to be thrown behind the receiver. You must lead him, which Wilson did. Throw the ball in the dirt? Look at the photo again. It’s almost impossible for a 5-foot-10 QB to get a ball over the offensive and defensive lines, much less over the line and then into the ground in that short amount of space.  Attempting to throw the ball to the dirt would have been a dumb idea.    

But was it the proper play for the scenario? In my opinion, no. Could it have worked? Yes.  What I want to highlight is that it’s difficult to catch the shotgun snap and get the pass off to the right guy accurately and on time, which Wilson did. Butler happened to make an incredible play. He also may have gotten some help.

Wide receiver hands are palms up (instead of down) providing the millisecond of time needed to help Bulter knife in for the INT

The still shot shows Lockette attempting to catch the pass with Butler at the catch point. Notice Lockette’s hands (circled). They are turned with the palms facing up. This tells us that he was planning to use his body for the catch instead of using his hands. If he was going to use his hands, he instead would have his hands out front with his palms facing the football. Why is this significant? Because in a closely contested play such as this, the extra millisecond it takes for the ball to come to Lockette’s body allows Butler to intercept the pass. This was the difference between an interception, a TD or just an incompletion.

I’m not blaming Lockette. Many wide receivers use their body to ensure a catch, but the consequence is giving the defensive back more time to get to the ball. In that moment Butler made a more competitive play. Competition in all things is one of Carroll’s mantras, and on that play the Seahawks lost the competition.

Most importantly, this game was not won or lost on one play...although it may feel like it. Teams win or lose these games, not coaches, not individuals.  Everyone has a hand in the matter, and this play illustrates how the success or failure didn't end at the decision to run or pass.  My intent is to share with viewers some insight on the details of what took place that are bound to get overlooked.  The decision was one mistake, but that wasn't the end of it.  

It was an incredible ending to an outstanding NFL season, and a great example of the layers of detail that go into making a successful football play happen.  Fans will agonize over this play forever, while teams around the league are guaranteed to use this play as critical learning material for their own players.

Brophy Thursday 05 February 2015 - 02:40 am | | Brophy Blog

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