With less than a week to go before Super Bowl LIII, all eyes are starting to focus on Atlanta and the upcoming matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots. Both teams are spending the two weeks trying to figure out how to stop the other’s offense. In the Rams case, it’s really about stopping Tom Brady.
This is Brady’s 9th Super Bowl, and at this point you’d be forgiven if you thought the Patriots are unstoppable with him under center. This, however, is not true. Everyone has an idea on how to beat Brady, but few have had success.
In general, most people understand that the key to stopping Brady is getting pressure with just their defensive line and playing man defense long enough for the pressure to affect the throw. Easier said than done, I know, but in general most believe this is the key to beating Brady. The problem is, that’s not entirely true. There are 3 things you need to know if you want to beat Tom Brady.
LESSON 1: PLAY MAN DEFENSE
Starting with the AFC Championship Game last season against the Jaguars, a look at the tape shows that for 3 quarters, Jacksonville had effectively shut down the Patriots offense by sticking to a man coverage system where, most importantly, they were getting pressure UP THE MIDDLE with a mix of 4-man rushes and blitzes. Brady never got anything going because the Jaguars kept the offensive line guessing at the line of scrimmage while their superior secondary went man-to-man against the Patriots receivers.
Then came the 4th quarter.
Jacksonville dropped into a prevent zone defense, shifting between Cover 3 and Cover 4. On the game-winning drive especially, they just sat in a deep Cover 4 and never changed things up. On the critical 3rd&18, they repeated a play used on the 1st down play by sitting in Cover 4 after the snap.
Brady recognized this and knew where the gap in coverage was because he’d seen it most of the 4th quarter. Amendola was wide open on a deep crossing route between the linebackers and safties and Brady marched right down the field after that.
In the fourth quarter against a defense that was zone over 88% of the time, Brady went 10-15 for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns. Against man defense, he was 0-2, sacked once, and nearly threw an interception.
LESSON 2: THIS ISN’T GROUNDHOG DAY
The second example is the final drive against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Romo was able to call almost every Patriots 3rd-down play, but that was only due to how telegraphed the Chiefs defense was on these final drives.
New England came out with a receiver stack to the left on the first play. With the single high safety and the corners openly discussing their coverages pre-snap, it was a dead giveaway that the Chiefs were in man coverage. Not only would the receiver at the back of the stack have a free release, but any miscommunication would open up one and more likely both receivers. The pass was completed to Chris Hogan for a first down, but Julian Edelman was ALSO open because of his free release from the stack. I’d argue this was one of Brady’s few bad decisions in the 4th quarter and Overtime because he went straight to Hogan instead of waiting the extra second for Edelman to get across the field for what would be a massive gain and possibly a touchdown.
On the first 3rd&10 (15:43 in the video) the Chiefs came out with the same 2-man under coverage that they had on the previous two pass plays. Brady saw this and motioned Edelman into another stack for another free release, and this time a slight miscommunication by the Chiefs outside defenders led to an open catch for a first down. The next 2 plays (both incomplete passes), the Chiefs kept running this same defense. Both times, Brady had a man open but either missed his read or the receiver dropped the ball. On the following 3rd and 10 (15:54), Brady motioned Edelman into a stack, this time on the right, and with yet another free release he was able to make the catch for a first down.
By the 3rd 3rd&10 (16:05), the Chiefs hadn’t changed their coverages, but they were starting to adapt and stop the Patriots from abusing them with their stacked receiver sets. Instead they were playing a Cover 1 Robber, which is arguably the most effective single defensive coverage against Tom Brady. However, this too was telegraphed as the safety dropped down toward his assignment before the snap. With Rob Gronkowski out wide in single coverage, all Brady had to do was connect on a 5-yard quick slant and have Gronk do the rest.
The Patriots ran the ball to finish the game and the Chiefs were left kicking themselves. They’d done everything right on the final drive. They played man defense against Tom Brady. They brought pressure with just their front 4. It should have worked. But it didn’t.
It didn’t work because, like Tony Romo in the booth, Tom Brady saw what the Chiefs were running before the snap and knew exactly where to put the ball and how to get his receivers open.
True, Brady is worse against man coverage than he is against zone, but that can only last for so long. Eventually, the Patriots will develop mismatches and picks to abuse a static man defense. If you blitz Brady, he’ll read the blitz pre-snap and get the ball out faster than anyone can get to him. If you play a Cover 2, Brady will pick you apart with intermediate curls and out-breaking routes. If you play Cover 3, he’ll burn you with deep seams. If you play Cover 4, then Edelman will feast over the middle. At first glance, it seems as though he’s good against everything and that nothing will work. But a deeper look shows that the exact opposite is true. Brady is good against one thing and one thing only: the SAME thing.
LESSON 3: IF SOMETHING WORKS, NEVER DO IT AGAIN
If there’s one person that has ever figured out how to consistently stop Tom Brady, it’s current Rams Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. While Phillips was in Denver, the Broncos defeated the Patriots twice in the AFC Championship Game by following a seemingly insane rule: if a coverage worked, don’t run it again. He’d run an overload blitz and get a sack, then not run that same blitz for 2 1/2 quarters. He’d run a Cover 1 Robber and nearly get an interception, then ignore Cover 1 for the rest of the game. He’d show Cover 3 and then roll into a Cover 2, then stay in Cover 3 on the next play. If Brady doesn’t see the same defense, he can’t adapt and exploit it’s weaknesses.
When Brady was asked about retirement in 2014, he said he viewed football as a test that he had the answers to. Wade Phillips understands this, like most defensive coaches do, but he goes in a totally different direction from everyone else. Instead of making the test as hard as he can, Phillips turns his defense into a roulette wheel when he plays the Patriots. He understands that, no matter how hard you make a test, someone with the answers will still ace it. Instead, he makes things as unpredictable as possible so that all of Brady’s pre-snap talents are cancelled out and he has to beat you with raw arm talent. It’s a tough path to victory, but it’s at least an open one, which the Rams will need if they want to dethrone the Patriots juggernaut.
There are 3 rules that you must follow if you want to stop Tom Brady. Play (mostly) man defense, don’t run the same coverage over and over, and never let him adapt. If the Rams do all three things, they’ll beat Tom Brady and hoist the Lombardi trophy when the confetti falls.
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