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The All-22: Why can’t Tom Brady beat the blitz?

Touchdown Wire logo Touchdown Wire 11/13/2018 Doug Farrar
a football player kicking a football ball: Getty © Getty Getty

On the surface, it would appear that Tom Brady is having another typically efficient season-through 10 games, he's completed 65.2% of his passes for 2,478 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. These don't mesh with his all-time seasons, but he certainly doesn't show statistical signs of the radical drop-offs you generally see with quarterbacks over 40.

And yet… there are reasons to be concerned about Brady's immediate and long-term future. In his last three games, facing the Bills, Packers, and Titans, he's completed just 72 of 121 passes (a 59.5% completion rate) for 872 yards, just one touchdown, and no interceptions. Brady has had a few similarly quiet chunks of games throughout his career, and given the sporadic play of his offensive line, communication issues with his receivers, and the injuries that have prevented Rob Gronkowski from performing at his best (or playing at all), it's understandable that the Tom Brady you've seen in late October and early November isn't exactly the best Brady you've seen.

There's one statistic that stands out even further regarding Brady's 2018 season, and it's been an issue throughout. Per ESPN's NFL Matchup, Brady has the worst quarterback rating (59.6) of any starting quarterback in the league when he faces a blitz. And as Ryan Doyal-part of the Matchup staff-said in that tweet, the stat is only surprising if you haven't been watching Brady's tape this season.

When you do watch Brady's tape with an eye for why he's been a liability against the blitz, all kinds of issues show up. Presented with more pass-rushers than he'd find in a base front, Brady appears to have issues with sight adjustments, protection calls, committing to hot routes designed to beat the blitz… it's a part of New England's offense that has been an uncharacteristic mess.

In the Patriots' 34-10 Sunday loss to the Titans, Brady was especially vulnerable. The Titans knew it, and they went after him all the way.

"We got pressure early on him," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said per the team's official site, "and the thing with Brady is if you get pressure early on him, it can mess with the offensive line's head. He is going to be yapping… We just wanted to keep him unhappy.

"Any time you get hit at quarterback, you don't like that pressure. We stuck to the game plan and attacked the middle of the pocket. We couldn't let him get comfortable back there and pick us apart … and he didn't."

Woodyard's first-quarter sack of Brady was an outstanding example of this, and when I was speaking with Doyal about Brady's issues against the blitz, it was one of two plays we both chose independently of each other.

The Titans present a four-man front, with all four defensive linemen in a two-point stance. At the snap, linebacker Rashaan Evans (No. 54) drops into middle coverage, and Woodyard (No. 59) blitzes up the A-gaps. Brady has two receivers running to his front side, with Julian Edelman (No. 11) as his obvious quick target against a blitz. It looks like safety Kevin Byard (No. 31) will bracket either Edelman or Gordon, giving the Titans a 3-on-2 advantage, but Byard also moves to the pocket on a late blitz.

This should give Brady an easy one-on-one to one of his frontside receivers, but he's unwilling to drop the hammer, and Woodyard takes him down. It also doesn't help that running back James White (No. 28) fails to pick up Woodyard's blitz.

Against the Packers the week before, linebacker Antonio Morrison came away with a third-quarter sack of Brady despite Green Bay effectively running a three-man front with a blitz exchange-this is the other play both Doyal and I selected.

Here, it appears that linebacker Clay Matthews (No. 52) will be part of Green Bay's pass rush, but he instead drops into coverage to deal with Edelman. Instead, it's Morrison (No. 44) who shoots through the B-gap to take Brady down without a hint of a block. That the Packers could get this done with a 6-4 numbers disadvantage is disconcerting for New England's offense. Brady didn't hit receiver Phillip Dorsett (No. 13) on the quick out route, and I'm not sure what White was doing here-he puts half a block on linebacker Nick Perry (No. 53), and then fails to make himself apparent as a hot-route receiver.

Most of Brady's interceptions haven't come against a blitz, but this Week 7 pick against the Bears did, and it's just as troublesome as the other blitz looks. Chicago puts six defenders at the line on a third-and-1, basically daring Brady to hit his hot route and defy the rush.

The protection appears to be the main issue here. Khalil Mack (No. 52) at the edge of the defensive right side is obviously going to be left tackle Trent Brown's (No. 77) primary assignment. This allows defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris (No. 95) to come through with no resistance, as left guard Joe Thuney (No. 62) is occupied with defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (No. 91). Fullback James Develin (No. 46) stays on the offensive right side to block linebacker Leonard Floyd (No. 94), but one wonders if it would have been better to move Develin to the left side and have tight end Dwayne Allen (No. 83) stay in to block as opposed to running a seam route. And once again, white does not pass the blocking test here-this appears to be a real problem for the back.

In any case, Brady throws a helium ball in Develin's general direction, safety Adrian Amos (No. 38) takes it away, and throws it into the hands of cornerback Kyle Fuller (No. 23).

I'm not sure if this is a problem the Patriots can solve overnight. If they can't rectify Brady's atypical inefficiency against blitz packages, more and more teams will bring the house, and New England's offense will continue to regress.

"I wouldn't use the word flustered, but I definitely think we made him uncomfortable back there," Byard said of Brady after the Titans win. "You definitely saw him moving around, trying to move in the pocket. We hit him a lot of times, got a few sacks.

"Honestly, I think that was one of the keys to help us win the game. We got him off his spot and caused him to make some errant throws. He made some throws in the pocket, of course, but at the end of the day we made more plays than they did."

It's highly unusual for a defense to speak so confidently about a Patriots Achilles heel, which further emphasizes the severity of the issue. Tom Brady has solved all kinds of unsolvable problems before, but the blitz is the big problem he must counter at this point in his career.

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