JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In the summertime in New England, screens are important, especially in blackfly country. Last night, screens were again important in New England, even though it’s the dead of winter.
The New England Patriots used the screen pass to nullify a swarm of nasty blackflies called the Philadelphia Eagles, beating a blitz that was pressuring Tom Brady and forcing New England into some uncharacteristic mistakes and penalties through much of the first half of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Just before the first screen was called, the Patriots’ offense seemed rattled. Their tackles were called for illegal procedure twice, reacting to the blitz. Brady was throwing with too many unfriendly people in his face. Problems were everywhere. Eagles were everywhere. Rhythm was nowhere.
Then, midway through the second quarter, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called two consecutive screens to Corey Dillon that netted 29 yards and put the brakes on the Eagles’ pass rush. Although Philadelphia blitzed more later in the game, the Eagles never returned to the all-out attack they had been using. After adjusting their defensive game plan, Brady had just enough breathing room to begin the steady process of dissecting the Eagles’ defense and destroying their Super Bowl dreams.
Following those two screens, the Patriots, who trailed, 7-0, and had made just one first down, scored on four of their next five possessions on the way to winning their third Super Bowl title in four years, a nail-biting 24-21 victory at Alltel Stadium that made the Patriots only the second team in NFL history to accomplish that feat. Not even the great Steeler teams of the 1970s, who won four Super Bowl titles, could match that accomplishment. Neither could the San Francisco 49ers teams of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Only the Dallas Cowboys of the mid-1990s won the Lombardi Trophy three times in four years until the Patriots, who passed their way to victory despite the best efforts of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
”Any time you blitz a lot, you start to think you’re running free at the quarterback,” Brady said. “We got some good yardage with those screens because they thought the scheme got them free on those plays. When we gashed them, it helped slow them down.”
Although the Patriots did not score on the drive on which the screens were utilized because of a fumble at the 3-yard line, when they got the ball back at the Eagles’ 37 after a shanked punt, Brady immediately hit tight end Daniel Graham, then delivered a 7-yard completion to Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch for a first down. After two more completions, Brady found David Givens to tie the game. The Patriots never trailed again.
”They pressured us,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They forced us into a couple of plays we couldn’t get. A lot of our problems were at least partially a result of their good play.”
On the first drive of the second half, the Eagles tried to go back to their blitz but Branch destroyed the Eagles, catching four passes for 71 yards. One reception beat the Eagles’ blitz for a 27-yard gain and another did the same for a 21-yard catch that put the ball on the 2-yard line. Seconds later, Mike Vrabel grabbed a touchdown pass that gave the Patriots a 14-7 lead.
The Eagles tied the game late in the third quarter, then again tried to go after Brady. He hit the Eagles’ defense with a 13-yard screen pass to Kevin Faulk, and went to Faulk again for 14 yards to put the ball at the 2-yard line. One play later, Dillon bowled over left tackle to give New England the 21-14 lead. Although Philadelphia fought fiercely to get back into the game over the final 13 minutes, the screens had slammed a door in their faces.
”They did change a little after those screens,” Brady said of the Eagles’ defense. “They went to a little more zone coverages. They started to drop back and then we made the plays we needed to make.”
Four screens for a total of 56 yards, two in the second quarter that slowed the Eagles’ rush and two more on a second-half drive that gave the Patriots the lead for the final time. Four screens that gained an average of 14 yards. Four screens, four scores in five series, three Super Bowl championships in four years.
”They blitz everybody,” Brady said. “They disguise it and it gave us trouble. We were 0 for 4 on third down [until that first screen to Dillon]. We couldn’t get any rhythm going at that point.”
Couldn’t get the rhythm until Weis called those screens and Brady delivered them. The Eagles had no answer because they had made the decision to sell out on their pass rush, relying on what had gotten them to this game. The team that lived with the blitz died from the screen pass.
”I must have called five screens,” Weis said. “We only got a couple yards on one but I think every one of the others got more than 10 yards a play. That was significant as far as field position goes.”
Brady hit other throws along the way to another remarkable playoff performance. Branch beat the blitz on several occasions by beating man coverage. But when the Eagles’ defense was at its swarming best, the Patriots beat it back the same way New Englanders have beaten back blackflies all these years.
They slammed the screen door on them. The rest is history.
Super Bowl history.