When Tom Brady is going this good, he’s almost unstoppable.
At the age of 38 and in his 16th season, Brady is on pace to post his best season ever. Four games in, Brady would set career highs for passing yards (5,558, which would break Peyton Manning’s NFL record of 5,477), completion percentage (72.5), passer rating (121.5) and yards per attempt (8.7). He also hasn’t thrown an interception yet, while he has tossed 11 touchdowns.
Best of luck to the Colts, New England’s next opponent on Sunday night. In a normal season, they’d merely be the next victim. Considering what transpired in the AFC Championship Game and the Deflategate circus it touched off, Brady could be looking for some payback. Brady, in his usual statesman-speak this week, deflected any added importance for this game.
“I’m always pretty motivated regardless of the opponent, regardless of the team or the week, whether it’s a preseason game, whether it’s a regular season game,” he said. “They’re all important because there are so few of those where you get an opportunity in your life, so I don’t take it for granted.”
It’s difficult to imagine Brady not having a little bit extra for these Colts. It was one thing for them to alert the league before the AFC Championship Game to keep an eye on the footballs because it was known around the NFL the Patriots like to take some air out of the balls. Teams routinely alert the league office to different shenanigans prior to or after games. It was quite a different situation when Colts equipment personnel used a pressure gauge on the sideline to measure a Patriots ball, then ratted out New England to a game official and other NFL personnel. Then things really went off a cliff when someone, in direct violation of league protocols, leaked word to Indianapolis columnist Bob Kravitz that the league was looking into the matter.
And that is how the entire saga was born. Right on the Colts’ sideline.
Everyone in the Patriots’ organization knows this, and this game has been circled for months. A reckoning is coming on Sunday night.
Do the Colts even stand a chance at thwarting the oncoming onslaught? Not likely, since they don’t have the right personnel, but with 10 days to prepare thanks to a Thursday night appearance, the opportunity is there for Indy to at least put together a well-layered plan to slow Brady down.
To have a chance against Brady and the Patriots, an opposing defense must do the following:
1. Be diversified up front. Brady is in charge of everything at the line of scrimmage, from setting the protection to changing plays. He’s so good because he wins the play before the snap. Brady knows where he’s going to throw the ball before the snap, so the opponent has to delay his decision-making. The first step is to make sure he has to spend time setting the protection. If you just go with four down linemen and the occasional blitz, forget it. He’s already won. You have to vary the looks around the line of scrimmage so he has to spend part of the play clock declaring the right Mike linebacker.
2. Get home with just four rushers. It can’t be the same four every time, but a majority of the time it can only be four defenders rushing the quarterback. You’ll need the rest of the defenders in coverage. The Cowboys did a great job in the first half against the Patriots using just three down linemen and then rotating which linebackers were the extra rushers, if they needed them. Much of the Cowboys’ pressure was created by showing five on the line of scrimmage and then rushing just three. However it happens, an opponent has to hit Brady early and often with the hopes of getting him to speed up in the pocket. But Brady didn’t panic against the Cowboys despite their five first-half sacks, so good luck with that. The Colts don’t have much of a pass rush, so outside linebackers Trent Cole and Robert Mathis are going to need to come up huge.
3. Play man coverage. When the Patriots were using play-action to open up the passing game, you could get away with playing a little softer in the secondary. No more. The Patriots are now just fine going into the shotgun with the empty set (no running backs), spreading out opponents and letting Brady pick them apart with a short, quick passing game. Brady has been instructed to take the “easy money” throws, so if an opponent is going to play 10 yards off a receiver, Brady’s going to take the easy yards every time. To slow that down, opponents have to play tight to the receivers and tight ends. But make sure the defenders are prepared for pick plays, especially on third downs. The Patriots use the legal tactic as much as or more than any other team.
4. Play small. Invite the Patriots to run the ball by playing five or six defensive backs. Most teams will run against that look, but New England will not, perhaps because it doesn’t yet have great faith in its offensive line, which could be playing with four new starters from last season. It would help if the opponent has a lot of players built like safeties, because they’re going to need to tackle extremely well against the Patriots. They’re one of the best at making players miss, from tight end Rob Gronkowski’s power to the elusiveness of Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola.
5. Don’t put a linebacker on Gronkowski. If the Patriots see a linebacker on Gronkowski, they’ll bet on his athletic ability every single time. An opponent has to have a player with some length and good quickness to annoy Gronkowski. The Cowboys used rookie Byron Jones (6'1", 205 pounds) with some success. The Colts can’t put D’Qwell Jackson on Gronkowski. Perhaps Nate Irving, if he’s all the way back from ACL surgery, or Sio Moore, because they aren’t your typical linebackers: They can run. The Colts don’t really have a good option, so they may be forced to think outside the box and use either of their athletic cornerbacks, Vontae Davis or Darius Butler. Butler’s a former Patriot, so Brady might trip over himself with excitement if he sees Butler on Gronk. Like I said, the Colts don’t have many good options.
6. No big plays. Make the Patriots earn every touchdown with 12-play, 80-yard drives. That means tackling well and quickly after the catch, and not getting picked on crossing routes. Opponents also have to have a plan for when the Patriots use tempo to get some easy yards. It will happen.
If the Colts do those things, then they stand a chance of staying on the field against Brady and his teammates. Considering what the Colts started in January, the long memories in Foxboro and Brady’s start to the season, it still might not be enough.
WET BLANKET REPORT
1. Don’t bury anyone in the AFC yet. It doesn’t look promising at this point for a team like the Ravens (1–4), and I’m not sure they’ll get the ship righted with that defense, but no team is out of it in the AFC. And I’m not just saying that because I picked the Ravens to win the Super Bowl (thank goodness I don’t get paid for predictions). The four division leaders appear locked in, and the Jets (3–1) and Steelers (3–2) hold the wild card spots. Even the four 1–4 teams are just two games out of the final wild-card spot. The AFC is not good this season. Everyone’s still in it, for this week at least.
3. The Steelers’ decision to go run the Wildcat with Le'Veon Bell for the game-winning touchdown as time expired on Monday night was not a smart move by coach Mike Tomlin, and it only looks good because it worked. Down three points with five seconds left and one timeout to burn, the play should have been a quick pass to the pylon, leaving enough time for a field goal. But Tomlin, after blowing the Ravens game by not giving the ball to Bell twice on fourth down, decided to go double or nothing against the Chargers. Tomlin was more lucky than good this time around.
1. I know the NFL has to draw lines with uniforms because it would open Pandora’s box, but there should be an easy way for players and coaches to make meaningful, personal displays (like DeAngelo Williams wanting to wear pink all season in honor of his mother, who died of breast cancer) if they wish. Is it really that difficult to have a form players can fill out and then for the NFL to decide on those on a case-by-case basis?
2. Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck deserves all the accolades he’s received after leading his team to two wins while Andrew Luck was injured. It’s no stretch to say that Hasselbeck might well have saved Indianapolis’s season.
3. As if offenses didn’t have enough of an advantage on defenses, the amount of illegal pick plays are out of control in the NFL. The officials are only calling one out of every three. That’s not good enough. They call defensive pass interference every time a receiver gets breathed on, so they should call offensive pass interference at the same rate. Enough is enough.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 5 injuries?
LT Nate Solder, Patriots (biceps tear, injured reserve): Odds are Marcus Cannon gets the call here. New England gave him a two-year extension worth up to $9 million, so it better get something for its money. Cannon is an average player, who is a borderline starter at right tackle. Depending on the health status of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots have to give some consideration to playing Vollmer at LT and having Cannon handle RT, since this will be a season-long, not short-term, situation.
QB Tyrod Taylor, Bills (MCL sprain, week to week): E.J. Manuel, who started 14 games the previous two seasons, will be the starter. It’s amazing Manuel’s stats his first two seasons are virtually the same: 58.8/58.0 completion percentage, 6.4 yards per attempt, 77.7/80.3 rating. That’s who he has been. Manuel should be a little better in Greg Roman’s offensive scheme. Roman does a great job of spoon-feeding his offense to quarterbacks.
RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs (ACL surgery, injured reserve): Charles is one of the most dynamic running backs in the league as both a runner and a receiver, so this is obviously going to hurt. The Chiefs have one of the best backup running backs in the NFL. Knile Davis averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season when Charles was out for three games. But the Chiefs really like Charcandrick West, who had ascended to the backup role because he’s a bit quicker and in the Charles mold.
LB DeMarcus Ware, Broncos (back spasms, week to week): Ware is still one of the best in the league when he’s healthy, but the Broncos have a much better backup situation than years past. They feel confident Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray can handle the duty with a bye week and rest for Ware looming. Each had a sack against the Raiders after Ware left the game.
HUMANITARIAN OF THE WEEK
The first five installments of the Mayo Bowl raised $890,000 for the Boston Medical Center. This year’s event, hosted by Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo and his wife, Chantel, raised almost half that with $400,000 coming from the event on Sept. 28, which featured over 40 current and former Patriots players. Last year, Mayo pledged $1.5 million to Boston Medical Center, which is the largest safety net hospital in New England. The non-profit center emphasizes community-based care with the goal to provide accessible health services to everyone, regardless of means.
10 THOUGHTS HEADING INTO WEEK 6
1. If the Bengals were going to have a letdown, this would be the week for it. Coming off a huge, emotional comeback against the Seahawks, Cincinnati has to travel to Buffalo and take on a team starting its backup quarterback (E.J. Manuel). With the bye week looming, this feels like a week where the Bengals might have a tough time getting going. But maybe the Bengals are really different this year. A nice, mature road trip and victory in Buffalo would be a nice accomplishment before the bye.
2. Keep a close eye on Peyton Manning at Cleveland on Sunday. He’s made some progress to this point, but he needs more. Sunday’s forecast: 48 degrees and 17-mph winds could be an issue.
3. The Texans have really struggled on defense to this point, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel needs to change some things. For one thing, there’s too much slanting going on with the defensive line in order to scheme pressure and take advantage of J.J. Watt. The Texans should just let Wilfork play two gaps. Jared Crick has been a big problem at end; he’s getting washed out of gaps way too much. Might want to think about replacing Crick with rookie Christian Covington. And the inside linebackers have to be much better. Whether it’s the run or pass, Brian Cushing and Akeem Dent are not reacting quickly enough.
4. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has shown progress this season. One key area: the red zone, where he’s thrown eight touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception. Eight touchdowns in 15 trips (53.3%) is about average. The Jaguars were 31st in the league (40.6%) last season.
5. Speaking of red-zone touchdown percentage, the Seahawks are last at 27.3%. They finished last season at 52.1%. This is where they need to do a better job at featuring TE Jimmy Graham.
6. The Packers are 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game and 30th in rushing yards per play, but expect them to improve quickly. Last Sunday’s game was the first with end Letroy Guion back after suspension. He looked strong and forceful in his return. A three-man front of Guion, B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels should work well for Green Bay.
7. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is ready to return after missing three games with a concussion, but Panthers fans shouldn’t forget about A.J. Klein. Losing a middle linebacker, especially one like Kuechly, is like losing a quarterback on defense. But Klein did a great job with 23 tackles and an interception while Kuechly was on the sidelines. The Panthers thought so much of Klein’s performance they named him a captain for their last game against the Buccaneers.
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8. Big game for the Chargers against Green Bay. After Monday night’s gut-punch loss at home to the Steelers, San Diego has to pick up the pieces and go into Lambeau Field, where the Packers haven’t lost a game started and finished by Rodgers since the 2012 season opener against the 49ers. If the Chargers can pull the upset, they’re set up for a little run with Oakland (2–3), Baltimore (1–4), Chicago (2–3) and Kansas City (1–4) next on the schedule.
9. Washington’s offensive line was the toast of the league (including in this space) when it averaged 171.5 yards the first two games. Since then, Washington has averaged 88.7. Rookie Matt Jones has just 31 yards on his last 18 carries. Down and distance hasn’t helped. Just 44.9% of Washington’s first-down plays gain four or more yards, good for 27th in the league.
10. Since when did Eagles receiver Riley Cooper become good enough to complain about the passes coming his way? Against the Saints, I saw at least two occasions when Cooper started throwing tantrums because QB Sam Bradford didn’t make a good pass. When Cooper catches the ball with regularity and can beat man coverage without scheme help, then he can talk. Until then, he should shut up and play.