FOXBOROUGH -- The first offensive play of the Patriots' season is one quarterback Tom Brady would like to forget, but it keeps popping up in the team's film sessions. The results were disastrous.
Brady dropped back to pass, unaware that Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes was surging through an open lane on the left side of the line, Brady's blind side. Spikes rocked Brady, the ball came loose, and the Bills recovered and ran it in for a touchdown. Twelve seconds into the season, the Patriots trailed, 7-0.
On the surface, the play looked like a breakdown along the offensive line. Left guard Logan Mankins had turned to his right for a combination block with center Dan Koppen, opening the lane for Spikes. Meanwhile, running back Corey Dillon released out of the backfield to the right side.
But more than a month later, Brady said the blame for the play belongs on his shoulders. How so?
``It was just a poor decision by me in terms of our protection," he said yesterday. ``I wasn't as aware on the first play of the season as I would have liked to have been. I'm glad I was the one who paid the price for it."
While the play might be a painful reminder for Brady, it's also a reminder that his role in the offense encompasses more than simply throwing passes and handing off to running backs. One of his most important roles, in fact, is setting the team's protection every time he steps to the line of scrimmage.
One way Brady carries out the responsibility is by identifying the opposing middle linebacker, which helps the linemen clearly see the strong and weak side of the defense. Also, on-field microphones often pick up Brady's voice as he barks words to his linemen -- such as ``Omaha!" -- which are cues to execute a certain protection.
``That's one of my biggest responsibilities here," Brady said. ``I hate it when it doesn't go the right way. It doesn't happen very often that we don't pick up exactly who we want to pick up."
Sunday's game against the Bills in Buffalo will provide a tough test for Brady and Co. in that regard. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Buffalo is a ``blitz zone" team, which means it often blitzes two players to one side, while dropping one player to the opposite side.
The Bills also do plenty of stunting with their linemen, and have totaled 17 sacks through six games, with three coming against the Patriots.
Brady said the key in setting the correct protection begins well before kickoff, because ``a lot of it is based on film study." The second part of the equation comes before the snap and ``the feeling you have out there and the body language of the defenders."
In the end, the execution comes down to simple math.
``If you have six defenders and you have six guys blocking -- the five down linemen and the running back -- you want to try to pick up the six most probable rushers," Brady said. ``If they bring a seventh guy, then you don't have someone to account for him and you have to throw the ball in what we call a `hot' or a `sight adjust.' It can be complicated, but hopefully you always choose to protect the right five, the right six, the right seven [guys]."
That didn't happen on the first play of the season, as Brady called out a protection that had Dillon releasing to the right side. The correct call, it appears, would have had Dillon staying in to block.
``I remember right after it happened I ran off the field and I said, `That's a [heck] of a way to start the season,' " Brady recalled. ``I'm sick of seeing that play. I've seen it probably 30 times in the last six weeks. I'm trying to put that one out of my mind."
Brady knew what went wrong the moment Spikes whacked him, and said yesterday it was something the Bills hadn't executed the entire exhibition season.
``They kind of got me on it, I learned a lesson," he said. ``Sometimes I can make better protection calls to account for certain blitzes."
Most often, though, Brady is on the money. He has been sacked only five times this season, as the Patriots are tied with the Chargers for the fewest sacks allowed.
Left tackle Matt Light said some of credit for that goes to Brady, because he is so effective at getting rid of the ball quickly .
Brady is also considered one of the league's smartest quarterbacks, which comes back to his protection calls at the line of scrimmage.
One of his lesser-discussed attributes is his ability to keep the Patriots out of dangerous plays, which is why the opening play of the season was so surprising.
``Is it challenging? It can be," Brady said of setting the protection. ``But I've been around a long time, so I feel like I can get us in the right protection probably 99 percent of the time."
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Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.