This week's edition of "Sunday Night Football" promises one of the most fascinating matchups not just of this season, but in all of NFL history. It's the game everyone has been waiting for since last offseason, when the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick partnership ended after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl victories.
In all honesty, you don't really need me to spell out the stakes here. Instead, let's focus on something more tangible: How, exactly, will the best coach in NFL history approach game-planning against the only quarterback he's never had to face? What are the various options, and what are the potential strengths and weaknesses they present?
Let's dig in, but before we do, here's how you can watch Sunday night's game.
Man across the board
New England has once again been one of the heaviest users of man coverage this season. According to Tru Media, the Patriots have been in man on 46.7% of passing snaps, the second-highest rate in the league. They ranked third in man coverage rate last year (45.9%), first in 2019 (60.9%), and first in 2018 (52.3%). (The fluctuation between how high a rate of man usage ranked inside the top two or three comes from the hiring and/or firing of Belichick assistants like Matt Patricia and Brian Flores. Detroit and Miami's man coverage rates each spiked after those two hires.)
Stephon Gilmore opened the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, so he remains out for this game and at least two more. That leaves J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones as the team's primary corners. They have used a whole bunch of three-safety looks, as each of Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, and Adrian Phillips has been on the field for more snaps than Jones, who operates as the nickel cornerback in the slot. With those players getting the majority of the snaps, we'd expect Jackson and Mills to mostly match up with Mike Evans and/or Antonio Brown, Jones on Chris Godwin in the slot, and any of McCourty, Dugger, and Phillips (or maybe Dont'a Hightower) working against Rob Gronkowski.
Brady has not seen man coverage all that often this season, per Tru Media's tracking, with opponents manning up on just 35 of his 150 dropbacks. He's only 19 of 34 for 203 yards in those looks, but he's also got eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. If those numbers look odd, it's because they're heavily influenced by red-zone opportunities. Seven of the eight scores against man have come inside the 20-yard line, and five of them came from inside the five. (All seven of his red-zone completions have gone for touchdowns, which is pretty ridiculous. The rest of the league has 38 touchdowns on 68 red-zone completions, a rate of around 56%.)
Outside the red area, Brady has seen only 23 snaps of man coverage, on which he is 12 of 22 for 168 yards and one score (a 41-yarder to Antonio Brown in Week 1 where Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown blew his coverage). It's obviously a small sample, but it's worth noting that he's averaging 1.2 more yards per attempt against zone (8.6) than he is against man (7.4) on non-red-zone throws. It's further notable that the trend held last year, with Brady clocking a worse passer rating (83.5 vs. 92.7) against man coverage than zone outside the red zone and throwing more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three).
According to StubHub, the get-in price for the Buccaneers at Patriots is $275 with ATP of $1,222. The top 3 states attending the game are Massachusetts (32%, California (8%) and Florida (7%).
One-double 13 (or 14, or 84, or 87)
If you don't know what "one-double" is, let Belichick himself explain it to you.
Basically, the Patriots use their No. 1 corner in shadow coverage against the opposing team's No. 2 receiving threat, and double-team the No. 1 wideout on every single snap so that the quarterback is disincentivized from looking his way at all. This was a heavily utilized strategy when the Patriots had Darrelle Revis, but they have obviously used it before and since.
With Gilmore out, Jackson is the logical player to use as the shadow corner, though if the strategy is to man up on Godwin then perhaps the Pats could use Jones, who plays in the slot more often, and if it's to man up on Gronkowski and play zone elsewhere, they could use McCourty or Dugger. Still, Jackson is the team's best cover corner and thus the most likely to shadow.
The potential downside of this tactic is that if the team mans up on, say, Evans or Godwin and doubles the other, it "forces" Brady to target Brown and Gronkowski more often. And, uh, he's pretty comfortable doing that anyway.
Sit in zone
We've already detailed the Patriots' heavy use of man coverage. But we've also seen in the not-so-distant past that the Pats are perfectly happy to go away from their own style if it suits them in a particular matchup.
During that 2018 season, New England led the NFL in man coverage, but also shifted to an even higher rate of man during the playoffs. In both the divisional round and the AFC title game, the Patriots used man on more than 74% of snaps, shifting into zone a high of only 23% of the time. In the Super Bowl against the Rams, New England employed a 45-52 man-zone split, which flummoxed Sean McVay and Jared Goff from the jump.
This is essentially a way of testing Brady's patience and discipline. Will he be willing to repeatedly check down, pick up short gains, and matriculate the ball downfield for 10- or 11-play drives? For most of his career, the answer to that question has been a resounding, "Yes." He is one of the premier "take what the defense gives you" quarterbacks we have ever seen.
But he's also almost always had a great checkdown back, whether it be Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, or James White. He didn't have that player for most of last season, and may not have Giovani Bernard on Sunday after he suffered a mild MCL sprain on a late-game touchdown catch last week. He'll still likely have Gronk, Godwin, maybe Brown, and probably Leonard Fournette (Ronald Jones might just be in the doghouse) in the short areas of the field, but the pure "receiving back" threat might not be there, which could make things ever-so-slightly more challenging.
Making this strategy even more attractive for the Patriots is the fact that they have been able to generate a ton of pressure without having to blitz this season. On 70 blitz-less opponent dropbacks, the Pats have gotten pressure 40% of the time -- the second-best mark in the NFL behind only the Bills. Josh Uche (who sat out last week's game due to injury) and Matt Judon rank first (Uche, 28%) and second (Judon, 26.1%) in the NFL in the share of their pass-rush snaps where they have generated a sack, hit, or hurry, per Tru Media. That's out of a group of 231 players who have rushed the passer at least 25 times so far this season.
Heat 'em up
The general principle defensive coordinators have followed in recent seasons is that the best way to handle Brady is by figuring out a way to get pressure without resorting to the blitz. If you can muddy up the pocket without sending extra rushers, you can still keep seven defenders in coverage, which better enables you to deal with all of his various weapons.
Well, news flash: that's the ideal way to deal with every NFL quarterback. The issue is it's really freaking difficult -- and perhaps even more difficult against Brady, whose depth of knowledge and pre-snap orchestration is unmatched by any player in the league, due to his wealth of experience. It's even more difficult against Brady's Bucs because their offensive line has been so good. Combine those two things, and sending only three or four pass rushers seems unwise. Defenders just can't cover for long enough when Brady has time to sit in the pocket and wait for his guys to shake open.
And yet, Brady has been blitzed at a rate that sits right around the league average so far this season. Opponents have sent extra rushers after him on 24.0% of his dropbacks, per Tru Media, compared with the league average of 24.5%. Last year, he was blitzed 25.3% of the time, several percentage point south of the 28.1% league-wide mark. Defensive coordinators are generally reluctant to send heat for good reason; Brady has carved up blitzes with regularity.
This season, he is 22 of 31 for 235 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and one sack on plays where the opposing defense has sent heavy pressure. Last year, though, he had a bit more trouble when opponents sent extra rushers. He was 100 of 164 for 1,148 yards, 10 scores, five picks, and eight sacks. That's not bad, but his 91.7 passer rating ranked 25th out of 37 qualifiers, while his 0.05 EPA per pass average ranked 20th. Meanwhile, he has the NFL's fourth-best QB rating (105.0) and fifth-best EPA per play mark (tied with Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill at 0.18) on blitz-less dropbacks. He was similarly less effective during his final three years in New England: 90.2 passer rating (20th out of 39) and 0.08 EPA per play (tied with Carson Wentz for 18th) when blitzed, and 97.7 rating (fifth) and 0.16 EPA per play (also fifth) when he wasn't.
Intuitively, this makes sense. The best way to get pressure is to bring more players than the opponent can block. The one relative weakness Brady has in his game is making plays on the move. He's 44 years old and was never all that mobile to begin with. He's an absolute master of pocket manipulation, so long as he only has to step up or shuffle a bit to his left or his right. Make him scramble, and he's usually not going to make you pay like Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. The problem for defenses is his brain and his timing. He's seen every possible look imaginable more times than it is possible to count, and if he knows where the blitz is coming from, he can get the ball out before it hits home.
The Pats, though, have one of the NFL's best blitzing linebackers in Hightower. And while they have a coach that Brady knows better than any other in the league, it's also just about the only coach that Brady has never actually played against, slightly increasing the (still minuscule) odds that he's able to show Brady something he's never seen before.
Invite the run
This is actually the strategy I am most interested to see play out, for several reasons.
First, the Buccaneers currently rank first in the NFL in pass rate over expectation (as determined by things like down and distance, score, time on the clock, etc.), according to our friends at Establish the Run. Second, we have a pretty good way to measure "invite the run"-style defense (snaps with six or fewer defenders in the box), and according to Tru Media, no team has utilized that strategy less often in neutral situations (first and second down, score within 14 points) than the Patriots, who have done so on only 27 snaps. And third, it would absolutely drive everybody who is only tuning into this game for BRADY VS. BELICHICK absolutely nuts to see Jones and Fournette combining for like 30-35 carries, and I think that would be very funny.
There are reasons to think the Patriots are actually more inclined to use this strategy than the numbers to date would indicate. Their opponents in the first three games of the season were the Dolphins, Jets, and Saints, each of which is quarterbacked by a player (Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston) in whose hands Belichick and company were likely comfortable putting the game. Brady, obviously, is quite a bit more dangerous than any of those players, and the Buccaneers have a significantly more threatening pass-catcher corps than Miami, New York, or New Orleans.
However, there is also reason to think that the Buccaneers just kind of ... won't care if the Patriots do come out in run-inviting alignments. Those light boxes the Patriots have rarely utilized in neutral situations? The Bucs have faced those more often than every NFL team save for the Chiefs, Bills, and Colts. They've just come right out and thrown the ball anyway, letting Brady air it out on 74 of 95 snaps. He's 52 of 71 (73.2%) for for 641 yards (9.03 per attempt), two touchdowns, and no interceptions on those plays, with an EPA per play average that ranks fourth-best in the NFL.