MINNEAPOLIS – The first half of Super Bowl LII was not for the faint of heart. Big plays dominated on both sides and the Eagles went to the locker room with a 22-12 lead at the break.
While the explosive plays were a surprise, what was even more so was the lack of Malcolm Butler on defense.
The Patriots corner was not on the field for a single snap in the opening 30 minutes, a half that saw Philadelphia rack up 323 yards of total offense and 22 points. The latter total could have been higher if not for a pair of missed PATs by Philly, as well as a near connection inside the Patriots 5 by Alshon Jeffery that resulted in an interception.
Bill Belichick opted to go with Stephon Gilmore at left corner and Eric Rowe on the right side with Patrick Chung in the slot. The safety-heavy look also featured Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and, surprisingly, Jordan Richards.
Whatever the thinking was for going with the unconventional lineup didn’t work as Nick Foles picked that group apart to the tune of 13 of 22 passing for 215 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a touchdown on a trick play at the end of the half that completely mesmerized the Patriots on fourth-and-goal from the 2.
Butler was dealing with an illness late last week that caused him to miss some practice time, and he was not with his teammates in Minnesota on Monday when the team arrived. He came the following day and told reporters he was ready to go for the Super Bowl.
He appeared to be anxious to get in the game throughout the early going with his helmet on near the sideline, but he never entered the game on defense, instead being relegated to special teams work.
Rowe struggled with Jeffery, although his coverage wasn’t always bad. He was in position to make the play on two occasions but couldn’t prevent the tall wideout from making the catch. That was certainly the case on Jeffery’s 34-yard touchdown in the first quarter when he simply won a jump ball over the former Eagle in the end zone.
Jeffery finished with three catches for 73 yards in the first half.
Corey Clement victimized Richards, who was getting the snaps in place of Butler as part of the dime package. Clement had two catches for 71 yards, including a 55-yarder late that set up the Foles touchdown reception.
Regardless of personnel, the Patriots will need to fix their issues in the secondary if Tom Brady is going to lead another Super Bowl comeback.