HOUSTON — There have been two Tom Brady impressionists in Houston this week. One is the Fake Brady mask dude, who made his most recent public appearance at Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday.
The other, of a significantly less creepy nature, is Matt Schaub.
The 35-year-old backup quarterback has been cast in the role of Brady on Atlanta’s scout-team offense this week. His assignment: to mimic, to the best of his abilities, the Patriots’ future Hall of Fame QB so as to get the Falcons’ defense ready for what they will face in Super Bowl LI.
“There’s not much studying of their offense, I’ve seen it first-hand—just watching what they try to do, how they function,” Schaub says. “It’s hard to really simulate it, you just try to give [the defense] the best look that you can.”
The challenge, of course, is that Brady can hit a defense with guys like Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis and Martellus Bennett. The Falcons’ scout team lines up against its first-team defense with Schaub, a gaggle of practice-squad players (RB Jhurrell Pressley, QB-turned-WR B.J. Daniels, TE Darion Griwold), and any options the actual offense can spare. RB Terron Ward and WRs Eric Weems and Nick Williams fall under that umbrella.
Such is the mountain scout teams must climb every week. The Falcons are not going to give their defense the feel of an authentic Brady passing attack.
But they’re trying.
“It’s very difficult,” says Falcons defensive assistant and DBs coach Doug Mallory. “You feel fortunate that you have two weeks to prepare for [the Patriots], but then you look at the other side and they have two weeks to prepare for you. They’re very multiple formation-wise and personnel-wise.”
They also have Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time and a master at exploiting defensive weaknesses. Schaub has carved out a lengthy NFL career for himself, one which included a league-leading 4,770 yards for the Texans in 2009 and 133 career touchdown passes.
Still, if he were even remotely comparable to Brady from a talent perspective, he—not Matt Ryan—would be getting the starting nod for the Falcons on Sunday. Instead, he’s pulling double duty in practice, helping Ryan and coordinator Kyle Shanahan work with the Falcons’ offense, then slapping on his (imaginary!) Brady disguise to work the defense through its reads.
“For me, those are my physical reps because Matt takes all the offensive stuff,” Schaub says, “so that’s where I ... work on my footwork and accuracy. I get the mental reps when we’re on offense and go through it, but that’s where I get my physical reps.”
Those are necessary, because there is always the possibility that Schaub will have to be thrown into the fire should Ryan suffer an injury. It’s a balancing act, although Schaub declares it “not too difficult.”
There’s also only so much the Falcons’ scout team can do, because of the nature of New England’s offense. On top of the versatility the Patriots possess, they thrive with elements like option routes and sight adjustments—on-the-fly decisions that require the QB and his receivers to be completely in tune.
“That’s tough to simulate in practice,” says Williams, now in his second season with the Falcons. “Because say you have player X running what player Z normally runs, he might read it differently and break out, break in. ... So it’s tough to mimic, but it’s the same as like, how do you mimic Julio Jones? You can’t, so you try to give the defense a look.”
Brady and Edelman, for example, have honed their rapport over eight years together. Considering that Schaub and his scout-team receivers have to change their focus opponent to opponent, and they are often handed a play design mere seconds before being asked to execute it, there’s no denying the exponential rise in difficulty awaiting Atlanta’s defense Sunday.
“Guys have to just know where the personnel is and what they like to do in those certain spots, play what they see, trust their eyes and react,” Schaub says. “But it is hard because when you play the Patriots, there’s going to be so many unscouted looks, on both sides of the ball. ... That’s the hard thing about playing against a team like this: you have to know the basics, but also be able to adjust.”
Scenes From the Walkup to Super Bowl 51
Fans watch a 3D light show as it is projected on a water spray at Super Bowl Live in downtown Houston.
Lady Gaga answers questions about the Super Bowl 51 halftime show.
A fan views Super Bowl Championship rings at the NFL Experience.
A fan holds a sign during opening night for Super Bowl 51.
Fake Tom Brady is seen at Super Bowl Opening Night.
NFL Senior Counsel of Legal Affairs Michael Buchwald holds up Super Bowl 51 tickets as he explains the anti-counterfeit features of legitimate tickets.
Tom Brady works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl 51.
Alex Mack snaps the ball to Matt Ryan during a Super Bowl 51 practice session.
A fan ice skates at Discovery Green during Super Bowl LIVE in Houston.
A general view of NRG Stadium, site of Super Bowl 51.
Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons stretches out before practice.
Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn greets Julio Jones during a Super Bowl 51 practice.
The Texas-shaped swimming pool at the Marriott Marquis.
A general view of the inside of NRG Stadium.
Simone Biles takes a selfie with New England Patriots defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard and running back Tyler Gaffney during Super Bowl LI Opening Night at Minute Maid Park on Jan. 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Guillermo Rodriguez of 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' interviews New England Patriots players during Super Bowl LI Opening Night at Minute Maid Park on Jan. 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Luke Bryan answers questions at a news conference for Super Bowl 51.
New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo answers questions from the media during a press conference.
Dwight Freeney of the Atlanta Falcons reacts to a question.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia talk during a practice session.
Tom Brady works out during a practice session ahead of Super Bowl 51.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks to the bus after arriving at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Matt Ryan, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, arriving for the big game.
Jabaal Sheard of the New England Patriots goes to the bus after arriving at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Before the NFC championship game, Schaub’s task was to replicate Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback whose playing style is as unique as there is at the position. As soon as the Falcons knocked off Green Bay to punch their ticket to Houston, though, Schaub—and the Atlanta defense—had to shift gears.
“It’s definitely different in what we’re trying to simulate,” Schaub says of Green Bay’s offense vs. New England’s. “Tom stays in the pocket, he moves within the pocket and does a good job finding soft spots to make his throws and reads, whereas Aaron gets out of the pocket. If it’s not there right away, he extends plays and holds the ball and moves around and finds guys off schedule. So it’s definitely different and you try to simulate those looks against the defense in practice.”
Nothing about this is glamorous. Schaub was a third-round pick of the Falcons back in 2004, then became the Texans’ QB following a 2007 trade—he bumped David Carr from that gig. Over seven seasons with Houston, Schaub compiled a 46–42 record as a starter, complete with his breakthrough year in ’09 and a playoff victory in ‘12. (The Texans also won a playoff game in ‘11, with Schaub sidelined by an injury.)
No doubt, Schaub would love to be there with Brady and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers and the other 35-and-up starting quarterbacks. But the window on his time as a starting NFL quarterback closed in 2013; he subsequently bounced from Houston to Oakland to Baltimore and now, finally, Atlanta.
He won’t play on Super Bowl Sunday, barring a disastrous Ryan development. But his presence still may be felt, if the Falcons’ defense can offer any resistance. There is a reason that team after team, coaching staff after coaching staff, almost inevitably praises the work of its practice squad come Super Bowl week. It helps. Schaub’s helping.
“We’re fortunate [to have Schaub],” says Mallory. “From his key progressions, his mechanics, it’s about as close a look as we can get [to Brady].”
Of course, “close” is a relative term here. It’s a distinct possibility that the Falcons’ defense will be overwhelmed Sunday regardless of how sharp Schaub & Co., are on the practice field. Every little bit helps, though, so who knows: maybe something the Falcons’ scout team has done in preparation for Super Bowl LI will give its defense an edge on one critical play.
If his turn filling the Brady role proves even a moderate success, Schaub may claim his first Super Bowl ring Sunday, even if his critical contributions occurred before kickoff.
“At the end of the day, there’s only so many ways to draw a line on paper, so you just try to relate it back to what you do,” Schaub says. “So, for the guys in the [scout-team] huddle, it’s easy to relate and run routes based on what they know. At least [the defense is] going to get a full-speed look, and the guys will know what they’re doing.”