|The Bills beat Tom Brady on Sunday with the help of four interceptions. (US Presswire)|
Once upon a time it seemed the only two people who could stop Tom Brady were the Jets' Rex Ryan and Brady himself. Now, along come the Buffalo Bills, forcing the reigning MVP into as many interceptions (4) in one game as he had all of last season, and, suddenly, solving Brady doesn't seem like nuclear physics. Careful. It's still a problem, and I'll tell you why: Because he's the best damned quarterback in the game.
He regularly dissects opponents, producing more yards in three starts this season (1,327) than anyone in NFL history and more touchdown passes (11) than anyone today. What Buffalo did was about as rare as summer in January, yet somehow, some way, the Bills did it.
My question is: How does anyone else? Just because Buffalo pulled the improbable doesn't mean the next opponent will. In fact, it almost assures it won't. The last time Brady lost consecutive regular-season games was December, 2009, winning all but four of 23 regular-season starts since.
So how do you beat the guy? Better yet, how do you defend him? I asked coaches who played him, studied him and had limited success against him, and here are their suggestions:
1. Control the clock
Most teams that have success against New England do it with patience, balancing an effective running game with the pass. Look at last year's regular-season win by the New York Jets. They held the ball for 32:32 and had two drives of 10 or more plays, one of eight and three more of seven.
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Then look what happened when Cleveland hammered the New England two months later. The Browns had three drives of nine plays or more, consuming over 20 minutes combined.
Now fast forward to last Sunday, and you have the Bills putting together two drives of 10 snaps each, one of eight and two more of seven. Follow the bread crumbs, people. The longer you have the ball, the less it belongs to Brady.
"Take as much time off the clock as you can when you have the ball," said one coach.
That means extending the play clock to the last few seconds. One coach told me he instructs his offense to be deliberate in and out of the huddle, taking each snap down to the last seconds, thereby keeping his offense on the field -- and Brady off it -- as long as he possible.
The idea, basically, is to defend Brady while you're on offense, if you can follow that logic. Yes, you're pushing for the end zone, but you're winding down the clock in the process. Drives should be so time-consuming that they minimize the damage Brady can inflict when he has his chance.
2. Run, Run, Run
The Jets beat New England twice last year and had the league's fourth-rated running game. Cleveland was the only other club to defeat the Patriots, and while it ranked 20th in rushing the Browns were numero uno vs. the Pats – producing 230 yards on 44 carries, both highs for New England opponents.
If you're going to sustain drives it figures that you must be able to run effectively, and the Jets did. In their September victory, they mixed the run with the pass, with backs carrying on 32 of 65 plays.
The Browns followed that blueprint, only they took it to an extreme -- with 44 of their 63 snaps (69.5 percent) running plays as three of four second-half drives went for 60 or more yards each.
Buffalo deviated from the plan, probably because it had to: You don't dig out of a 21-0 hole by running Fred Jackson up the gut. Nevertheless, the Bills mixed the run with the pass, extended drives and did what I didn't think possible -- catch Brady from behind, and I mean way, way behind.
Nevertheless, I recall speaking to a coach in mid-week about Buffalo's chances and was surprised when he didn't rule out the upset.
"They can run the ball," he said, "which is very important, and they get in some formations that are challenging. Look, I'm not sold on New England's defense. With the switch to the 4-3 they're playing much more 'man' [coverage] than ever, and with Buffalo able to run the ball and able to get in some formations that are challenging I think we're going to see whether New England can adjust to it, how well the communication is with that young secondary and how well can they solve the problems with this defense."
I guess we just did.
3. Take Brady out of his pre-snap reads
Now we switch to defense, and here's the Golden Rule: Always, always, always keep Brady guessing.
Coaches tell me he and the Colts' Peyton Manning are the best at pre-snap reads and that once they figure out where you're lined up, they devour you. So don't let them. Attack them before they attack you. Adjust your defensive fronts. Shift your linebackers. Move your defensive backs. Backward, forward, to the side, I don't care. Just don't let him get a fix on what's next.
Prior to snaps, Brady keys pass protections by identifying where certain linebackers are, then communicating that to his teammates. But if you move your linebackers, he can't -– and that presents a challenge. New England's offensive line and receivers determine where they go next based on Brady's pre-snap calls. Confuse him and you could confuse them.
I remember that happening one game where the Patriots were forced to go to a scramble protection, much like on punts where you pick up the first rushers that break through, and they did it effectively. But the point was: They were forced to deal with the attack, instead of launching one of their own first.
Granted, Brady will catch shifting defenses with quick snaps, but so what? You've taken him out of his comfort zone.
"The most important thing," said one assistant, "is not giving him pre-snap information. If he knows what [defense] you're in, he's going to go to the right place, and it doesn't matter if that place is a 2-yard completion or a 4-yard completion or going somewhere his favorite receiver is not. He's going to go where the answer is.
"Nevertheless, I see teams lining up like statues each week, and he picks them apart. So it has to be a concerted effort by everyone to disguise what they're doing. Sometimes, there's not a commitment to it. It's like teams have this idea that all we need to do is move around. So they do it for the early part of the play clock, then Tom lifts his leg once ... as if he's going to take a snap.
"But he doesn't, and everybody gets to where they need to be, and that's when he strikes. He gathers information and waits for you to show your hand. Then he moves forward. He just keeps going and going, and so what if he catches you in a quick count or moving or not being in the right spot. That's OK. If you get hurt doing that, it's much better than what you'll get hurt by if you don't."
4. Don't fall behind
Miami and San Diego are the rules. Buffalo is the exception. The Dolphins and Chargers fell behind, then watched Brady dissect them with second-half strikes. In one game he threw for over 500 yards; in the other, over 400.
But against Buffalo he struggled after New England jumped to a 21-point advantage, and don't ask me what happened. Yeah, I know, Brady suffered four interceptions, but Buffalo never quit or never deviated from its plan. That's not easy, especially when you need 21 points -- which is why I recommend that no one follow the Bills' script.
What occurred last week is rare, and, OK, so we saw it in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Trust me, it happens to New England about as often as it rains in Texas.
"What happens if you fall behind," said a defensive coordinator, "is that teams typically abandon the running game, end up not using as much clock and give Brady more opportunities to get the ball. If you get behind in your attempt to get back, you abandon the play-clock component, which just gives him more chances to run up the score."
In the win at Buffalo, the Patriots lost despite Wes Welker catching a career-best 16 passes for a franchise-record 217 yards. Minimizing the damage he can inflict is necessary, too, with one coordinator suggesting press coverage on first and second downs to prevent bubble screens and double coverage on third.
The problem is that Brady is so smart he'll find someone else, like tight ends Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski or wide receiver Deion Branch -- which is all the more reason to try to keep him guessing.
"Say what you want about dealing with Welker," said one coach, "but if you push the coverage over there, it's going to be [Danny] Woodhead or Branch or Gronkowski or Hernandez that Brady looks at it. He just says, 'Here's the matchup I want, here's the matchup they're giving me and this is the best situation we've got.' Then he feeds that guy the ball."
5. Stick to the plan
Buffalo last weekend did what it couldn't in its 15 previous games vs. New England, yet Brady still wound up with four touchdown passes and nearly 400 yards. Nevertheless, he lost, and that's all that matters.
Brady routinely shreds opponents, and he routinely takes them out of game plans. The key is never to deviate from what you think will work offensively or defensively until or unless that plan proves deficient.
I remember a coach a couple of years ago telling me how his pre-game plan was to mix up defenses at halftime, no matter how effective they were, to keep Brady off-balance when he saw them in the third and fourth quarters.
"They were dealing with us," he said, "instead of us dealing with them."
When the Jets beat New England in the 2010 playoffs they surprised Brady by mixing coverages, often dropping eight, bringing pass rushes from unexpected places and forcing him to choose among receivers who weren't open.
Essentially, they did what New England didn't expect, and the plan worked. Brady was frazzled, with one AFC assistant saying that if you broke down the video you would see why: The Jets blanketed his receivers.
"They didn't show what they were in," he said, "and often it looked as if they would bring six or seven when they'd drop eight. Then it looked as if they would drop eight when they would pressure him. Guys were moving around, making it difficult for Brady to see what they were doing.
"Offensively, they ran the ball and chewed up the clock, and that's the right concept. They ate up the clock offensively, and they disguised everything defensively."
And they won.