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Guide to Stopping Tom Brady & the Patriots Offense

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The Patriots have one of the best offenses in football, led by a genius coach and a hall of a fame quarterback. How can the Colts defense slow them down? Stampede Blue's Andrew Aziz breaks down different ways of slowing down the great offense by breaking down different plays and using advanced statistics to find weaknesses.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After a stellar defensive performance against the Broncos, the Colts are now onto the AFC Championship and will face Tom Brady and the Patriots. Last week, I highlighted what needed to be done in order to slow down the Broncos offense (aggressive man coverage, having Vontae shadow and jamming Thomas, attacking Clady with Newsome, aggressive line of scrimmage play from the linebackers, etc). This week, there will be some subtle changes, but the overall mentality should remain the same. Here’s how the Colts can slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.

Stopping Tom Brady

Last week we asked the question "How do we stop Peyton Manning?" and although the question seemed far-fetched, Manning had a bad game (due in part to a nagging injury). This week, we ask the question "How do we stop or slow down Tom Brady?" Again, this may seemed far-fetched, but let's remember that Brady went 19/30 (63.3%), 257 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions against the Colts. That's a passer rating of only 85.0 for Brady. I would call that a win for the secondary. How do you stop Brady though?

There are two things you need to do to limit Tom Brady: pressure him and take away the short passes. In this case, both go hand in hand. Let's look at the advanced stats of what Brady is like when he's pressured.

When not pressured, Brady has a completion percentage of 71.2%, 7.8 yards per attempt, 32 touchdowns (6.75% (#/dropbacks)) to 4 interceptions (0.84%), 113.3 passer rating, on 474 drop-backs.

When pressured, Brady has a completion percentage of 44.9%, 5.0 yards per attempt, 4 touchdowns (2.08%) to 6 interceptions (3.13%), 53.4 passer rating, on 192 drop-backs.

As you can see, there is a big difference. The completion percentage drops 26.3%, his yards per attempt drops 2.8 yards, his touchdown to drop-back percentage drops 4.67%, his interception to drop-back percentage increases 2.29% and his passer rating drops 59.9 points. As you can see, everything drops and his interception percentage increases.

It's clear that you need to pressure him, but as you'll see that doesn't mean you can necessarily blitz him.

When not blitzed, Brady has a completion percentage of 64.7%, a 7.0-yard per attempt average, 28 touchdowns (5.46%) to 8 interceptions (1.56%), a 97.7 passer rating, on 512 drop-backs.

When blitzed, Brady has a completion percentage of 63.1%, 7.2 yard per attempt average, 8 touchdowns (5.19%) to 2 interceptions (0.65%), a 96.9 passer rating on 154 drop-backs.

As you can see here, there is very little change and it's almost not even worth bringing extra blitzers. Why is there little change? Because Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels always find plays that exploit a defense and if you take players out of the secondary, then you're giving them more plays to work with. On top of that, you have a quarterback in Tom Brady who for his whole career has made essentially all the right reads all the time. If you blitz, they'll get the ball out quicker; it's that simple.

So the Colts need to pressure Tom Brady, but they cannot send too many blitzers and they need to be cautious with how many times they blitz. Last week, the gameplan was to blitz and pressure Manning on a lot of plays. This week, they can't blitz too much. If the Colts can properly disguise blitzes, and systematically mix it up, then they'll be able to slow him down a bit.

What this all means is that the Colts must be able to generate pressure with their defensive line and the outside linebackers.

Attacking Their Weakest Pass Blocker (Offensive Linemen)

With a big reliance (for pressure) on the defensive line and the outside linebackers, the Colts must be methodical with where they place their better pass rushers. They need to find and exploit the weakest pass blocker on the Patriots offensive line. Last week, they correctly spotted Ryan Clady, exploited him and Jonathan Newsome was able to get a strip-sack (and a Colts recovery) against Clady. With that being said, who is the weakest pass blocking offensive linemen for the Patriots? According to Pro Football Focus, it is Dan Connolly, their left guard. Nate Solder (their left tackle) and Ryan Wendell (their right guard) also have bad ratings. To attack Connolly, the Colts should move Cory Redding to the right 3 technique defensive end spot. Redding played 4 games at that position this year (including the wildcard game against the Bengals) and had 1 sack, 2 hits and 11 pressures. That would be the first wise move. However, unlike last week, they will need to attack other positions. The next player we should look at is Nate Solder, and examine where he has struggled this season. He had rough games against Baltimore, Green Bay, and the Week 1 Miami matchup. In those matchups, he faced off against Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), Mike Neal (Packers), and Oliver Vernon (Dolphins). All are explosive pass rushers who have quick hands. Let's examine this play of Neal vs Solder and how this exploits a weakness of Solder's.

As we can see here, the Packers are lined up in something the Colts would run. They have three linemen with hands in the dirt, and one stand up outside linebacker who is in a pass rushing position. The only difference is that the Packers subbed out their other outside linebacker for a defensive back. Watch the two men in the boxes (Nate Solder #77 of the Patriots and Mike Neal #96 of the Packers).

As the play gets off, Neal has an explosive start (indicating by how far he got upfield compared to everyone around him and where his body position is compared to Nate Solder) and has position on Solder. He must get his hands in the right position so he can get better leverage and have to ability to get around Solder.

What he does here is absolutely perfect and it exploits a weakness on Solder. Neal gets his hands perfectly inside and he gets perfect leverage on Solder. If he didn't get his hand/arm in that position, he wouldn't be able to get around Solder (or at least it would be much harder).

As the play continues, Solder is behind the play, trying to make up for his loss against Neal, but it's too late as Neal has gotten a hand on Brady and the end is near.

Neal and Daniels finish off the sack and Solder is left there watching.

Getting an explosive start is always important, but it's meaningless when you don't know what to do with your hands. Having proper hand placement can go a long way and as you can see here, it's something that Nate Solder cannot defend against. For the Colts, their best pass rusher is Jonathan Newsome and he also shows great hand placement and explosion off the pass rush. Placing him against Solder could be a potentially winning matchup for the Colts. Newsome went against Clady last week and got the best of him. Newsome could do the same this week.

Slowing Down Rob Gronkowski

Last week, we looked at who was the biggest receiving threat on the Broncos offense. This week, we look at who the biggest receiving threat is on the Patriots. The answer is easy, and this man goes by one name: Gronk. Rob Gronkowski gets an average of 8.5 targets each week, meaning that Brady loves to look his way. Gronkowski is then able to catch 65% of those targets, meaning he has an average of approximately 5 catches per week. They love to throw his way.

In short, Gronkowski doesn't have many weaknesses, and some would say he has no weaknesses. Gronkowski is massive, strong, has great hands, great blocker and can (and will) be a deep threat. He's the perfect tight end, but teams have been able to stop him, and look no further than the New York Jets. In 2 games against the Jets this season, Gronkowski had 11 catches (18 targets) for 99 yards (39 of them being yards after catch), and a touchdown. Those are not Gronkowski numbers and the Jets have always had his number. What have they done that has been so good? Here's an example of how you should play him.

If Gronk lines out at a receiver position, he should be played like a receiver, and that means a cornerback should be lined up against him, or Mike Adams. Definitely not Laron Landry.

Gronk Play #1: Wide Receiver vs Jets

As we see, Gronkowski is lined up as the left wide receiver. The Jets did not bring a safety down or a linebacker out there, they left their cornerback there to go up against him (as they should).

Now, if you play in a zone defense, the Patriots will pick you apart and not touching Gronk will not stop him. You need to get hands-on with him and you need to slow him down. It's almost identical to the blueprint we had last week for Demaryius Thomas. Except with Gronkowski, he doesn't usually line up outside, but if he does, it's like their against Demaryius Thomas.

As we see here, the Jets cornerback has his arm inside in the right position and gets his hand on the ball.

He knocks the ball out and he demonstrates how you need to play against Gronkowski if he's lined up on the outside.

Here's an example of what the Patriots like to run with Gronkowski if they spot a Cover 2 defense.

Gronk Play #2: Beating Cover 2 Defenses

As you can see here, the Patriots are in an almost jumbo formation here, but there is no fullback in the backfield. Nevertheless, Gronk is hidden well inside and will split the Cover 2 defense here.

As you can see, the two safeties split apart and the deep middle part of the field was open and the Patriots spotted that. Brady makes the straight forward pass and Gronk gets 46 yards on the play. A hunch feeling also tells me that if a safety is playing center-field (deep middle part of the field) that Gronk probably has an option to execute an out route at about midfield (if we're using this diagram as the example).

This shows us what they like to do with Gronk and if you don't change up your defense, they will exploit it.

Gronk Play #3: Inside Slot Receiver

Here's Gronk in the inside slot position to the left of Brady. Calvin Pace (#97 of the Jets) will be covering him, but as indicated here, he isn't in a man coverage position. A zone coverage isn't bad against Gronk, as shown in this example, but jamming him on the line and slowing down his progress is what you need to do. The Patriots execute an offense with a lot of short passes designed to get the ball in the hands of players who are good at getting yards after the catch. If the Colts can slow the rhythm of their offense (by slowing down their main target), they can slow down the pace of their offense and change their gameplan.

As the play starts, Calvin Pace (#97) shifts over to the left (and to Gronk's left) just as the play starts and back-pedals into coverage. David Harris (#52 of the Jets) is also in coverage to the inside of Gronk. I cannot confirm whether this was a coverage based on stopping Gronk, but if it is, it did a good job of doing it. They have 2 guys who end up next to him.

As he makes his turn (because he's on a hook route), Calvin Pace (#97) drops back in coverage as does David Harris (#52) and Harris even shifts over a bit. Here's an example of what makes Gronk so good. He finds open areas and gives Brady extra space to throw the football.

The pass is a bit behind Gronk but as you can see, Gronk moved over to his left. The defenders are in great position, but if the pass is a bit better, Gronk probably catches the ball.

Those three plays give you a good image of what Gronkowski is all about as a receiver. He's smart as he finds the open space in coverage. That's why you need to jam on the line and have a safety play over the top. If he plays as a tight end, it will be harder to slow him down at the line of scrimmage, but having a player "chip" or nudge him on his get off slows him down a bit. It's an old trick that a lot of coaches like to use.

You need to take him away and make Brady rely on Edelman, Amendola, Lafell and Vereen, which is an easier task for the defense.

Containing the Running Game

The Patriots do not have one quality running back… they have three. They like to use a running back by committee format and give each of their running backs carries in certain situations.

The last time the Colts and Patriots played, Jonas Gray was able to go wild for 201 yards. He torched them and the Patriots used a trick in the game that helped tremendously: they brought in an extra offensive lineman. They brought in Cameron Fleming to play as the extra blocker 38 times in the game, which equates to 49.3% of the plays. Whenever they had him in the game, they almost always ran to his side. I wrote an article earlier this season about this exact tactic the Patriots usedVereen is the main guy, but they like to ride with the hot hand. Vereen isn’t a great runner, but rather a great receiver and above average blocker. They like to get him in there for receiving purposes. He played 52% (647/1224) of the snaps this season and of the snaps he played in, he ran about 15% of the time (97/647). He only ran 10% of the time in the past 3 weeks. Point is, when he’s in, there’s a very good chance he’s not running.

Then there’s LaGarrette Blount, who is a very interesting case. With the Patriots, he’s played in 25% of the snaps (105/419). Of those snaps, he’s ran on 60% of them (63/105). It’s safe to say that if you see LaGarrette Blount in the game, there’s a very good chance the Patriots are running the football.

Finally, we have Jonas Gray, who may be the hardest of the three to track. As mentioned earlier, Gray torched the Colts for 201 yards earlier this season. Since then, Gray hasn’t been able to do much and has missed the last 2 games. Don’t expect see those numbers ever again from Jonas Gray, but the Patriots could look his way this game. As mentioned earlier it’s hard to track what Gray does, but what we do know is that as a Patriot this year he has played in 28.5% of the snaps (161/565), and of those snaps, he’s rushed the ball 55.2% of the time. In the Colts game, he was in on 74% of the snaps and he rushed the ball 65% of the time.

After reviewing all three running backs and their tendencies, we come away with these conclusions:

Shane Vereen will come in the game, and do everything but run the football. He likes to receive the ball and he is a legitimate receiving threat, meaning that the Colts must place a linebacker, outside or inside, against him whenever he is in the game. They could even have a safety against him. The Patriots view him as a dump off option, meaning that linebackers must always be wary of what he’s doing if he’s on the field.

LaGarrette Blount will come into the game and mostly run the football. He isn’t a receiving threat meaning having a spy on him isn’t necessary. When the Colts see him in the gap, attacking the gaps up the middle would be the smartest thing to do as he’s a between the tackles runner. He likes to pound it up the gut and the Colts need to eliminate that threat.

Finally, with Jonas Gray, the Colts must be wary of not only him but also the extra offensive lineman. The Patriots used that a lot against the Colts and it worked a lot of the time; the Colts had no answer for it. If the Colts see an extra offensive lineman in the game, and Jonas Gray is in the backfield, it means that the Patriots will (probably) be running with Gray to that side. The Colts must adjust accordingly and bringing down a safety would be wise.

Tendencies Noticed in Patriots Offense

As I watched most of the Patriots games this season, I noticed a few things that they did similarly in a few games. Here are a few things I picked up:

1 - Will mostly pass on the first play of drives; short, quick pass usually.

2 - It seems as if a quarter of their passing plays are play action passes.

3 - When in the redzone, Julian Edelman is the top target. In fact, they ran the exact same play twice in the Ravens game, and only switched sides while doing it.

Regarding #3, take a look at these two redzone plays in the Ravens game.

As you can see, they are the exact same, but they are flipped! The primary receiver is Julian Edelman (in the orange) and Tom Brady is told to throw the ball just as Edelman makes his outside cut. The secondary target is Rob Gronkowski (in the yellow) who is doing a quick in route. Their third target is probably Brandon Lafell who is over the top. As we can see here, the Patriots built a play that satisfies each area of the field. It's a perfectly designed play that you can imagine they use a lot.

The Patriots tend to stick to what they like, which from a coaching standpoint is much easier to defend. The Colts should go back and see which plays they like in the redzone, like this one, and find plays to match them as the Patriots could (and will) use them in the redzone. I wonder if there any other games where they use this exact same play in the exact same situation...

The exact same play! The only difference is that the receiver in the orange box (same colours as the other screenshots) does an inward cut like the receiver in blue. Is there more?

YES!

Although some of the players in the boxes have changed, the routes have not and the primary and secondary targets have not changed either. Tom Brady goes for the guy in the orange box again.

It's simple, and I can attest to this as a football coach, if you are in a certain situation game after game, you will tend to go with what's comfortable, and the Patriots clearly think that this is a comfortable play for them. It's easy for the receivers and it's easy for Brady as a quarterback. I expect the Patriots to go back to this play again if they are in the redzone, and you should watch for it too!

Their Approach in the Broncos Game

The Colts quieted the Broncos passing game by consistently using man coverage. The Colts got in the face of the Broncos receivers and they challenged them on every throw. Vontae Davis was all over the field, constantly making plays. They had faith in their secondary, hence the reason they went with the more aggressive, riskier press coverage defense, but the secondary came through. Up front, they put a lot of reliance on their defensive line to open up holes and to allow the inside linebackers to stop runs. It worked perfectly as Jerrell Freeman had a big day, as did D’Qwell Jackson. They had an aggressive defense and that worked to perfection. You cannot play conservatively against top offenses, because they’ll do pick you apart, and we saw that last week when the Patriots played the Ravens. The Colts must be aggressive, like they were against Denver, in order to be successful.

Keys to the Game

In this game, the three keys will be to:

1 – Finding the Right Matchups with the Front 7 and to apply pressure on Tom Brady by placing strong pass rushers with explosiveness and good hands against weaker offensive linemen.

2 – Slowing Down Rob Gronkowski by getting your hands on him and slowing down his initial burst off the line of scrimmage. Treat him as a wide receiver if he lines out wide, and chipping him if he lines up as a tight end.

3 – Eliminating the Running Game by adjusting to each running back and taking away their strengths

As a side note, the Patriots were a harder team to break down on video, and to me that means that they are better than Denver (but I don’t need to tell you that).

If the Colts can follow all these steps in the game, the Colts defense should be able to have a similar result to the one they had against Denver and Cincinnati.