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Football Notes

Brady goes up against the masters of disguise

By Greg A. Bedard
October 9, 2011

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If Tom Brady looked confused at times in the Patriots’ 28-21 loss to the Jets in the playoffs in January, it’s because he probably was.

Before practice Friday, Brady said the amount of defensive looks that Jets coach Rex Ryan threw at him - including an unheard-of seven defensive backs for 18 snaps - was the most he’s seen in his 12-year career.

“Yeah, and that’s part of their scheme, you know?’’ Brady said. “They have no problem putting defensive backs on the field. In any down and distance.

“So late in the game we’re in two-tight-end grouping, and they had their dime grouping [six defensive backs] out there. If that’s the way they’re going to do it, then that’s what they think they need to do to stop us. And we’ll try to have an answer.’’

You bet the Patriots will have an answer, and so will the Jets.

No matter what happened in the offseason, or in the first four games this season, you know that Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien have had their game plan for today’s game fairly well set for a long time.

As have the Jets.

Ryan tries to avoid doing the same thing twice, so the Patriots will have to be prepared for anything. But one thing they know they’re going to have to handle better is the variety of pre-snap looks and a lot of moving around by the Jets.

It’s all designed to mess with the Patriots’ “Mike protection’’ scheme.

The Patriots set their pass protection by the defensive player Brady designates as the middle (“Mike’’) linebacker before the snap. That’s the player he’s pointing out before the snap.

The offensive line is responsible for the down linemen and whomever Brady identifies as the Mike. The running back is usually responsible for one of the other linebackers, but once the Mike is identified, everyone should be picked up - or at least Brady knows which players will be unaccounted for.

If Brady declares the Mike early on the play clock, then the Jets can change up and force him to do the same.

“It really becomes a chess match,’’ Brady said. “I think they do a good job of that. When you play teams that disguise, you have to have enough disguise in your offense, too, to make it hard for them.’’

If there’s anything that the Patriots and Brady have had trouble with in recent years - and there has not been much - it’s teams that disguise against their Mike protection.

Against Ryan, the Ravens (even after Ryan left as defensive coordinator), and the Browns (when Ryan’s brother Rob was coordinator, Brady has been mortal.

Even if you include the Patriots’ 45-3 victory over the Jets last season - and you shouldn’t, because the broken leg suffered by safety and chief signal-caller Jim Leonhard three days before made it an outlier - Brady has completed 58 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of 80.8 in nine matchups against those teams since 2005.

Overall since 2005, Brady has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and had a rating of 101.6.

“Most times it’s the offensive line that sets a lot of the offense’s protections,’’ said Leonhard. “In New England, Brady does that. He is completely in charge of recognizing blitzes and making sure the offensive line takes care of who they have to.’’

Having Brady in charge of protection, as Peyton Manning is with the Colts, puts a lot on the plate of a quarterback if he is playing a team that will disguise.

The main goal of disguising is to get a rusher to come in free where the protection is not expecting it. The Jets accomplished that last year when cornerback Drew Coleman registered a blind-side sack of Brady.

Even getting the right rusher into an advantageous one-on-one matchup is often a victory.

And then there’s the element of time, and this is where the Jets got the Patriots in the playoff game. Because Brady is responsible for the protection, he has much to do when the team breaks the huddle with about 25 seconds left on the play clock.

First he has to set the protection, which the Jets will try to delay as long as possible with shifts. Then he has to get the team into a good play. He can audible in and out of plays. The Patriots often run a “check-with-me’’ system where two plays are called and Brady determines at the line which one will be run, so everyone has to check with him.

If it’s a pass play, Brady has to decipher the coverages and get an idea before the snap where he’s going to go with the ball to take advantage of matchups.

If he has time.

The games the Jets played up front were designed to make Brady spend as much time as possible dealing with everything but the coverages. It worked the deeper the game went.

Excluding the last two drives, in which the Patriots were in hurry-up mode, the ball was snapped 20 times when the play clock was under 10 on their final three drives.

On the first seven series, it was snapped just 18 times under 10.

“You have to try to confuse him,’’ Leonhard said. “You can’t make it easy on him. If he knows the coverage, where the pressure’s coming from, he’ll get the ball out and you’re never going to get there.’’

Expect the Patriots to counter the Jets’ plans a few different ways today.

If the Jets want to play 28 snaps with five defensive backs, and another 28 with six, seven, and eight as they did in the playoffs, the Patriots must run the ball more.

And you can almost count on the Patriots running hurry-up to dictate the tempo more. They were much too slow in the playoff game.

NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said the Patriots could try two versions of the hurry-up: the regular kind in which they just run up and snap the ball, and one in which they race to the line, fake like they’re going to snap the ball, and then Brady backs out and changes the play once the defense declares.

“Then you force the defense to be static, because the defense can’t be moving around when the ball is snapped, because people do have to get to their assignments,’’ Cosell said. “Then also use a lot of shifts and motions to turn the tables on the Jets. Make the Jets commit, then have to recalibrate.’’

Manning and the Colts run the modified hurry-up, and they’ve been much more successful than the Patriots over the same six-year period (64 percent completions, 109.9 passer rating) against Ryan and other teams that disguise.

Ryan, said Brady, has had success against him.

“He’s had success against a lot of people,’’ said Brady. “He’s a good coach. He really knows the ins and outs of defense, and how to stop offenses and how to take away the good that the offense does. He understands what an offense’s strengths are and tries to take those things away.

“So, you know, we beat them, 45-3, last year - didn’t matter when we played them in the playoffs. So what’s going to matter ultimately is the guys on the field and how well we execute, how well we protect, how well we run the ball, how efficient we are in the passing.

“All the basic fundamentals, that’s what it comes down to.’’

PRESSURE POINTS
How line play is stacking up Now that we’re four games into the 16-game season, we can take a look at some of the early pass-rush and protection numbers, and compare them with last season. (These are tabulated by the Globe from the game telecasts.)

The Patriots have 49 quarterback pressures, which combines sacks (6), hurries (21), and knockdowns (22).

At this point last season, they had 57 (7 sacks, 35 hurries, 15 knockdowns).

Here are the team leaders in several categories:

QUARTERBACK PRESSURES

2011: Andre Carter and Rob Ninkovich 8; Vince Wilfork 5.5; Mark Anderson and Dane Fletcher 4.5; Albert Haynesworth and Myron Pryor 3.5; Shaun Ellis, Jerod Mayo, and Gerard Warren 2.

2010: Tully Banta-Cain 12; Wright 8; Jermaine Cunningham 7.5; Ninkovich 7; Wilfork 6; Warren 3.5; Pryor and Brandon Deaderick 2.5; Mayo and Brandon Spikes 2.

SACKS

2011: Anderson 2; Ninkovich and Patrick Chung 1; Carter, Wilfork, Pryor, and Mike Wright one-half.

2010: Banta-Cain 2; Deaderick 1.5; Wright, Mayo, and Spikes 1; Wilfork one-half.

HURRIES

2011: Ninkovich 3.5; Carter, Wilfork 3; Haynesworth, Warren 2; Ellis 1.5.

2010: Banta-Cain 7; Ninkovich and Cunningham 5; Wilfork 4; Wright and Warren 3.5.

KNOCKDOWNS

2011: Carter 4.5; Ninkovich and Fletcher 3.5; Wilfork and Pryor 2; Haynesworth and Anderson 1.5.

2010: Wright 3.5, Banta-Cain 3, Cunningham 2.5, Ninkovich 2, Wilfork and Pryor 1.5.

With Mayo out of the lineup and the Patriots in need of better blitzing from the linebackers, may we suggest Fletcher? He has 4.5 quarterback pressures in just 12 pass-rushing opportunities.

On offense, the Patriots have allowed 47 quarterback pressures: 4 sacks, 30 hurries, and 13 knockdowns of Tom Brady.

In 2010, the Patriots had allowed 36 pressures: 5 sacks, 22 hurries, 9 knockdowns.

The team leaders:

QUARTERBACK PRESSURES

2011: Nate Solder 10.5; Matt Light 8; Dan Connolly 6; Logan Mankins 5.5; team/fault not discernable 5, Danny Woodhead 3.

2010: Light 9; Sebastian Vollmer 7; Dan Koppen 5.5; team 4; Stephen Neal and Connolly 3.5.

SACKS ALLOWED

2011: Solder, Woodhead, BenJarvus Green Ellis, and team 1.

2010: Koppen 2.5; Light and Vollmer 1; Neal one-half.

HURRIES

2011: Solder 7.5; Light 6.5; team 4; Mankins 3; Connolly and Woodhead 2.

2010: Light 7; Vollmer, Koppen, and team 3; Neal 2; Connolly 1.5.

KNOCKDOWNS

2011: Connolly 4; Mankins 2.5; Solder 2; Light 1.5.

2010: Vollmer 3; Connolly 2.

ETC.
Cassel receives a wakeup call Chiefs coach Todd Haley is taking criticism for his sideline argument with quarterback Matt Cassel during last week’s win over the Vikings . Some are using it as ammunition for why Haley should be fired. The truth of the matter is, Haley’s going after Cassel, which came after he threw a ball in the ground on third down in the red zone without being pressured, worked. Before the dustup, Cassel had completed 3 of 8 passes for 58 yards. Afterward, Cassel went 10 of 14 for 158 yards and a touchdown in the second half. “I seem to respond well when I’m pushed and when my back is up against the wall,’’ Cassel said. “Coach tries to create an environment in practice where he challenges you and he rides you. He wants to make an environment to where, when you get to game day on Sunday, it’s easy. You have dealt with it throughout the week. I understand his purpose.’’

Nickel package 1. If you have a chance, watch for the coin toss in the Jaguars-Bengals game. There will be a special moment when Jacksonville center Brad Meester watches his buddy, 6-year-old Luke Akerstrom, come out as honorary captain. Luke suffered a 35-minute seizure Dec. 31 and was diagnosed with a rare form of encephalitis. After four months in the hospital, he has made a dramatic recovery and become a favorite of the Jaguars. Luke told his mother early in recovery he needed to be able to walk again “because Jaguars don’t roll, they run.’’

2. Here’s hoping that the Patriots, end Mike Wright, and his agent are making the smart move regarding his return from a second concussion in less than a year. The Patriots desperately need his pass-rush ability, but certainly not enough for Wright to put his health at risk.

3. Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has been a much better fit in the 3-4 than many thought, and he has been a very productive pass rusher. But Broncos linebacker Von Miller deserved to be Defensive Rookie of the Month instead of Kerrigan. Miller is a much more complete player, and he didn’t have Elvis Dumervil on the other side to take heat off for three games.

4. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t need to take the high road anymore on Brett Favre, who resurfaced to tell an Atlanta radio station that he is surprised it took Rodgers three years to win a Super Bowl. Rodgers should have said, “I don’t care what Brett says. I’m the quarterback here now, my fourth year, and we have one title. Like Brett did in 16.’’

5. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie dared Tom Brady to throw at him. Yeah, he did that in the 45-3 game and gave up two touchdowns.

By the numbers 2: Teams on pace to break the NFL record for total yards allowed, set by the Colts in 1981 with 6,793: Bears (6,813) and Patriots (7,640).

6: Teams on pace to break the NFL record for net passing yards allowed in a season, set by Atlanta in 1999 with 4,541: 49ers (4,544), Vikings (4,581), Bears (4,824), Dolphins (4,912), Packers (5,373), and Patriots (5,900).

21: Losses in his last 26 games for former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He lost 17 of his final 22 as head coach in Denver before being fired, and the Rams are 0-4 with him as offensive coordinator.

New England update Former UMass receiver Victor Cruz watched the Giants bring in BrandonStokley for veteran experience because Cruz wasn’t working out in the slot in the preseason. “We think that Victor Cruz and [Jerrel] Jernigan have some ability and eventually will be the experienced players that can utilize the physical skills they have and the pass-catching skills that they have,’’ said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride when the Giants signed Stokley after Week 1. “Right now, there is so much happening so fast that they are not playing at the speed and the confidence that they need to have. We feel that they will reach that level.’’ A month later, Stokley had his contract terminated and Cruz is making a name for himself as a trusted target of quarterback Eli Manning. Cruz made two big touchdown catches against the Eagles, and was the source of some controversy when his apparent fumble late against the Cardinals was ruled not a fumble because the officials said he had given himself up. Cruz has 208 receiving yards the last two games.

Short yardage The Tampa-2 defense, a variation of the Cover-2 with two deep safeties, is no longer being played by the Buccaneers. They made the scheme popular when coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin were roaming the sidelines, but neither is there. With so much personnel turnover since general manager Mark Dominik took over in 2009, coach Raheem Morris has been able to put his own spin on things, and it involves a lot more man coverage. “This wasn’t Monte’s ideology,’’ said cornerback Ronde Barber, who was drafted in 1997. “[Kiffin] wanted to play safe, keep everything in front of you, and then tackle. That has its own merits, but Rah’s a lot more aggressive as a play-caller.’’ . . . Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson are the breakout stars of the Lions’ 4-0 start, but tight end Brandon Pettigrew is also having a huge impact in his third season. The 6-foot 5-inch, 265-pound Pettigrew has 22 catches, only two fewer than Johnson’s team-leading total . . . The Bills could continue to come back to Earth today against a desperate Eagles team. It won’t help that Buffalo left tackle Demetrius Bell (shoulder) is out and will be replaced by fourth-round pick Chris Hairston, who will make his first start. He gets to face Eagles end Jason Babin, who has seven sacks.

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