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The Patriots yielded two sacks to the Jets Sunday. Considering how well they have protected Tom Brady this season - five times their opponent has had no more than one sack - it’s easy to say that’s not good enough.
But considering the opponent, and how the hits on Brady came, the result really wasn’t so bad.
Both sacks came with the Jets in a straight four-man rush, meaning the Patriots were beaten, rather than tricked. Each was a case of crafty New York veteran Shaun Ellis getting over on a backup guard, Dan Connolly, making his first career start.
So with backup linemen like Connolly and Mark LeVoir getting extensive time, and the Jets walking linebackers all over the defensive front on third down and bringing defensive backs tight to the line of scrimmage, the Patriots did not fall under the spell of Rex Ryan’s defensive voodoo.
How did they avoid being fooled, even with stalwarts like Matt Light and Stephen Neal on the shelf?
It starts after the huddle is broken, with Brady looking at the defense, identifying what’s happening from front to back, and then pointing and yelling something like, “52’s the Mike!’’ And that’s on every down, not just when coaches like Ryan are cooking up confusion.
“Mike’’ is football jargon for the middle linebacker, and that is where the process of sorting things out begins, on both run plays and pass plays. Sometimes it’s actually the middle linebacker. Other times it’s not.
“In a regular defense, non-sub, it’s the ‘Mike’ linebacker, but in sub, it can be different,’’ Brady said. “We play Miami, for example, and they play their dime with [safety Yeremiah] Bell at a linebacker spot, so it changes. It’s how you treat those guys, how you set up your blocking, what’s more likely to happen.
“If the safety’s involved, which side is he coming to? There are only so many guys you can block, so it’s important being able to distribute your blockers.’’
The idea is that once the Mike is identified, the defensive front is established. And the offensive players can make assignments based on that.
“From the Mike, everyone else is declared - the Will [weak-side linebacker], the Sam [strong-side linebacker], the safeties,’’ said center Dan Koppen, who is responsible for line calls. “Everyone knows who each person has to get. It’s not necessarily splitting the defense in half, as much as it is making sure everyone’s on the same page.’’
In the run game, former Patriots quarterback Jim Miller explained, the Mike is almost always the middle linebacker. In the passing game, there’s far more variation.
Miller cited a “62 protection,’’ which has five linemen blocking the four defensive linemen plus one additional player, with a back in to help. The Mike in this case is that additional player.
So if, for example, Brady sees what he thinks is a safety blitz, he can make that safety the Mike. Then the linemen have to sort out who has each of the four linemen and who has the safety.
“It’s huge,’’ Miller said of this element of the quarterback’s job. “If you don’t do that stuff, teams can bring crazy blitzes, and you always have to be in ‘max protect,’ which isn’t what you want to do. You want to have as many guys out on routes as you can.’’
Against teams like the Jets and Ravens, whose fronts may be more difficult to identify, there are sure to be spots where the QB isn’t correct. But that doesn’t necessarily spell disaster.
“They’re identifying the ‘bigs,’ ’’ said Jets linebacker Bart Scott. “Their five are identifying the five that they’re going to take. So if they get the Mike wrong, it’s still five on five.’’
And the quarterback can get by getting rid of the ball quickly.
But if the offense is going to be wrong, it’s being wrong together that’s important. Often, that will mean that the running back has to make a defender miss earlier than he’d like, or the quarterback has to sidestep a rusher or unload the ball quicker.
“Thing about that is, if you’re right, you’re right,’’ Koppen said. “But if you’re wrong and you’re all on the same page, you’re better off than one guy being messed up.’’
Wondering how defenders go unblocked? There it is.
That’s when you see the defensive player knifing into the backfield and dropping the tailback for a 4-yard loss. Or a rusher coming free and dropping a quarterback who has no clue what’s coming.
As Patriots guard Logan Mankins puts it, “Certain guys get picked up, other guys won’t get picked up. When it’s wrong, you can tell it’s wrong.’’
The problem, of course, is magnified on pass plays, because the quarterback is prone to the big hit.
“If you have five guys in pass protection, and seven at the line, as a quarterback, you have to determine which five guys are likely to rush,’’ Brady said. “If they rush six, you have a problem. But five of those seven are coming, you have to try to figure out which ones to block.
“If you don’t communicate it right, it gives the defense a huge edge. They could get a free rusher or make you throw ‘hot’ [quickly to an underneath receiver] on third and long or get an angle on run defense.’’
It’s easier with some teams than it is with others. The Jets are one that makes it tough. The Saints, this week’s opponent, are another.
“When you’re in third and long, and you’re playing a defense where everyone’s moving, that’s tough on the quarterback, especially against teams that are good at disguising where they’re gonna pressure from,’’ Mankins said. “There are times where I wouldn’t want to have to make that call.’’
What makes it hard on the man who does is Football 101. Offensive players’ pre-snap movement is limited. Defenses don’t have the same constraints.
“On a down-to-down basis, it’s important for me to put our guys in the best position,’’ Brady said. “The defense can line up whatever way they want. It’s important for quarterbacks to direct, in the run game, in the passing game, where you want the protection to start, where you want the line to block on a run play, all that.
“It certainly changes from play to play, but the important thing is to get right players on right players.’’