The play that changed the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl fortunes, and will likely forever highlight Zach Ertz’s career, unfolded in an instant.
But the time and effort it took to get there can’t be understated.
No. 86 was supposed to be double-teamed on third down from the Patriots’ 11-yard line, with time running out in Super Bowl LII. But because of the intense preparation of the Eagles players and their coaching staff, Philly found a way to isolate Zach on the smaller Devin McCourty. The team’s ability to then expose that matchup allowed Zach to score the go-ahead touchdown, which ultimately pushed the Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl win.
The Eagles didn’t outsmart just anyone. They manipulated a Bill Belichick team and took down a New England franchise that has won five Lombardi Trophies, which meant that much more with another Super Bowl on the line.
“We beat the gold standard of NFL teams that’s won five Super Bowls in the past 20 years,” Zach said. “The situation, the opponent, the stage … It would be a tough argument to say that coach [Bill] Belichick’s not the best coach of all time. Obviously Bill Walsh is up there, but in this day and age, Bill Belichick is the gold standard. But we love our coach, Doug Pederson. Guys really, really love playing for him, as you can tell when we take the field every Sunday. But beating the Patriots really makes the play and the result just so cool.”
A play to beat the vaunted New England Patriots doesn’t just happen by chance.
The call: Gun trey left, open buster star motion, 383 X follow Y slant, resulted from tons of film study and plenty of repetition at practice leading up to Super Bowl Sunday.
But when the Eagles installed their original 192-play offensive game plan before leaving for Minneapolis the week before the Super Bowl, the championship play was not a part of it.
So how did this play come to be? Zach recently broke it down for Peter King of NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk.
It started via Philly’s outstanding chain of command.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson encourages innovation, so when assistant coaches Mike Groh and Frank Reich came to Pederson with the idea, believing it would catch the Patriots by surprise because they had never run it before, it was added to the playbook five days before the game. From there, the Eagles prepared themselves to run that innovative play at the perfect moment.
It finally came in the red zone, with 2:25 left in the fourth, on third down, the Eagles trailing by one after leading most of the game.
The play design unfolded exactly as Philadelphia had hoped, and Zach’s dive into the end zone put the Eagles up for good.
“Well, obviously it was the culmination of a lot of hard work,” No. 86 said. “We worked that play in a bunch of different varieties, but never that specific play with that specific motion against that coverage. I mean, when I think back, what I learned is that this was the culmination of all the work the coaches put in studying the Patriots and what might work in certain situations in the game.”
It was not secret, however, that Zach was a bit of a security blanket for quarterback Nick Foles on third downs throughout the team’s late-season and playoff run, just as he had been for starting quarterback Carson Wentz earlier in the season. The Eagles often schemed No. 86 open on third down to move the sticks. But that had not been happening for most of the Super Bowl, until that fateful play.
ZE credited the Patriots for their scheme against him on third downs throughout the game, and they were looking to double team him again on his touchdown play. However, the play design created by Groh and Reich called for running back Corey Clement to motion out of the backfield — which forced safety Duron Harmon to cover him — leaving Zach with single coverage for his slant route.
“When that happened, Nick knew where he was going. I knew. The throw was perfect. I caught the ball, took three-and-a-half steps, dove into the end zone. Touchdown,” Zach said. “Looking back on it, what I learned is how many things had to go right for the play to work. Obviously I don’t know how the Patriots installed everything. But I think if Corey [Clement] stayed in the backfield, either James Harrison on one side or Kyle Van Noy on the other would’ve covered him if he free-released either side. They would’ve peeled with the back. And I would have been double-covered, I guess the way their defensive coordinator wanted the play to go. Once Harmon left to go after Corey, I knew the ball was coming to me.
Just that one little wrinkle in the play made all the difference. Had Clement not motioned out of the backfield, the Patriots would have been able to remain in their desired coverage, which was to double team Ertz, and they may have come up with a key defensive stop, forcing a field goal attempt that would’ve left New England two minutes to go back down the field and get a field goal of their own to win it. Instead, New England needed a touchdown to win and the Eagles defense stepped up on the other end to finish the game and lock up a championship.
Beyond the fulfilling feeling of success, what the Eagles took from that play and that game into this season, looking to repeat, is just how important trusting coaches and teammates is to that success. Everybody bought into what Pederson was asking them to do. No matter what was called — or who it was called for — the Eagles believed it would work. Their foundation of trust was on display throughout the season, but especially in the biggest moments when they executed without hesitation.
“We’d get the game plan every week and just trust that [the coaches had] thought of everything, and they weren’t afraid to call anything at any time,” Ertz said. “Running the flea flicker in the NFC Championship Game. Running Philly Special in the Super Bowl. Man, it was great. Those coaches last year were rolling, trusting themselves, trusting us. When that trickles down to the players, you’ve got something special.”
And Zach has a moment, a highlight, that will forever be attached to his name, and a Super Bowl ring to show for it.
“Game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “I don’t know if it will ever hit me that I scored the quote-unquote game-winning touchdown in a Super Bowl.”