It’s been 18 years, but Drew Bledsoe remembers Sept. 7, 2003, as if he just threw that seven-yard touchdown pass to Dave Moore. As if that Bills’ defense just picked off Tom Brady four times. As if Lawyer Milloy were just cut by the Patriots and signed by Buffalo last week.
Absolutely, yes, that experience—Bills 31, Patriots 0—sticks with him.
“I only beat them one time,” Bledsoe said this week, from the road, on business running his wine company in the Pacific Northwest. “But that one time felt awfully damn good, man. You can downplay it all you want. It matters. And it certainly will matter to those guys.”
Bledsoe can’t say he knows exactly what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are feeling ahead of this week’s showdown in Foxboro, given just how distinct this reunion is in terms of the length of time and level of accomplishment that working relationship had. But he is familiar with the emotion of going home again, to face the coach who let you go—and the sort of moment Brady will be out there pursuing on Sunday night under the lights at Gillette Stadium.
Thing is, though, Sept. 7, 2003 wasn’t the first time Bledsoe returned to New England in an unfamiliar uniform, and it wasn’t the first or second time he’d played his old team. It took three tries for him to get one over on the Patriots and, as he said, he never pulled it off again.
Such is the challenge Brady’s facing this week.
Now, to be sure, Brady isn’t facing the Patriots of Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour. And Brady’s bringing the cavalry back with him to Massachusetts—he’s got a veteran line in front of him and as talented and balanced a group of skill players alongside him as there is in the NFL.
Still, what’s in front of the greatest Patriot ever as he preps for his old team is something that’s routinely turned other quarterbacks in his position into fractions of what they’d usually be. It’s not really the players Brady’s going against (though they’ll obviously be a part of it) so much as it’s being up against a coach who plays on an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone in NFL history facing a player he knows inside and out.
Belichick vs. Brady means plenty to Bill and Tom, regardless of what they say.
But there’s more to the matchup than just pride or any unresolved grievances. There’s also what’s going to happen in the game itself, and how Belichick’s knowledge of Brady plays into it.
Week 4 is here, and that of course means the most anticipated regular-season game in years—and maybe NFL history—is upon us. But we’ve got more than just Pats-Bucs for all of you in this week’s GamePlan column. Inside the column, you’ll get …
• A look at a very big weekend in the NFC West.
• What to watch for, should Justin Fields get the nod Sunday in Chicago.
• An examination of just how bad a gambler I’d be.
• A good reason why the Niners are playing it cool with their quarterbacks.
But we’re starting with, you guessed it, the greatest quarterback ever and the greatest coach ever.
Matt Cassel can’t remember any specific example of Belichick’s keying on a weakness of his in his only game against the Patriots—a 30–7 New England rout of the Vikings in Week 2 of 2014. But he threw four picks that day, and he can also recall what it was like in Patriots team meetings seeing Belichick address the defense on the other team’s quarterback. So there are certain assumptions he feels comfortable making.
“I remember sitting in some of those meetings and listening to him talk to the defense, how We can’t let this guy escape the pocket to the right, we gotta make him escape the pocket to the left. Because when he’s escaping to the right, he’s much more accurate. He likes to escape to the right because he throws better on the run going to his right than his left,” Cassel said. “I just remember those types of conversations taking place.
“And I’m sure due to familiarity with certain players like me, being around those players a long time, there’s part of it that might come into play in how they approach it, how they game plan it.”
Likewise, Bledsoe couldn’t put his finger on any one thing that Belichick might’ve culled from their three seasons together in New England (1996, 2000 and ’01), but the results indicate that the coach was able to use that background effectively. And really, the results indicate that Belichick’s always used that background effectively against every quarterback he’s worked with.
How much so? Well, we dug into it, and went all the way back to when Belichick first called a defense in 1985 with the Giants, and found six quarterbacks in that time who he worked with and then later competed against. Here are the numbers …
Drew Bledsoe (11 GP, 11 GS): 209-for-370, 2,438 yards, 13 TDs, 19 INTs, 65.4 rating
Vinny Testaverde (9 GP, 8 GS): 162-for-284, 1,847 yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs, 79.4 rating
Jeff Hostetler (2 GP, 2 GS): 20-for-40, 159 yards, TD, 68.7 rating
Matt Cassel (1 GP, 1 GS): 19-for-36, 202 yards, TD, 4 INTs, 39.1 rating
Jimmy Garoppolo (1 GP, 1 GS): 20-for-25, 277 yards, 2 INTs, 79.5 rating
Brian Hoyer (1 GP, 1 GS): 11-for-22, 155 yards, 73.1 rating
Eric Zeier (1 GP, 0 GS): 13-for-20, 173 yards, TD, 109.0 rating
That’s 24 starts, and Belichick is 16–8 in those games. On only two of those occasions did the quarterback in question post a 100 quarterback rating—one was Testaverde playing for the Ravens against the Patriots in 1996; the other was Bledsoe playing against the Jets in ’99. In 21 of the 24 games, Belichick’s defense held the quarterback’s passer rating under 86.
That, of course, is a staggering rate of success. But, again, if you ask the people involved in those games, they really can’t put their finger on any one edge that Belichick might be leveraging in these sorts of matchups.
“That’s the thing—it seemed like Bill had intimate knowledge on most of the quarterbacks we played,” Bruschi, the ex-Patriots linebacker said. “I mean, you get the same info when you’re going up against Bledsoe in Buffalo, and you believe him when he says, This is what this guy is going to do. But he said that plenty of times with Peyton Manning also, like, This is what they want, right here, and this is what we have to take away.”
So, sure, Bruschi says, Belichick will know what to do against Brady. But is it really different than what he knows going against, say, Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers?
This, to me, is where it gets interesting—because these guys who played for the Patriots, who played with Brady and who know that offense intimately, were able to rattle off, pretty naturally, what they’d expect from Belichick on Sunday.
Bruschi says, right away, he’ll be looking at the personnel Belichick’s putting on the field, and exactly what it’s telling Brady to do.
“He’s gonna look at Tom like Peyton Manning,” Bruschi said. “I remember him coming into a meeting room saying, Fellas, all you’re going to have is six to stop the run, because we’ve got problems on the back end, so we can’t help you by bringing a safety down and having seven and eight in the box. It’s gonna be stopping the run with just you. And we’d know that’s what we were going to have to do, because his whole saying is, Every handoff to Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones is one less throw from Tom Brady—Brady to [Mike] Evans or Brady to [Rob] Gronkowski or Brady to Antonio Brown; we’d rather have to tackle those [running backs].
“So I think you’re going to see some light boxes, you’re gonna see obvious pass defense situations where you’ve got extra DBs, and the football equation in Tom Brady’s mind will be to run the football. And then it’s, can he control his emotions enough to say, O.K., I guess I’m just gonna run it every down?”
And to illustrate the concept, Bruschi told a story. Early in the Brady-Manning rivalry, the ex-Patriot says, New England would dare Manning to check to run plays, and Manning simply wouldn’t do it, playing right into Belichick’s hands. Finally, Bruschi continued, in the 2006 AFC title game, Colts’ center Jeff Saturday and Manning’s receivers convinced the Hall of Famer that they needed to run the ball.
In the first half of that game, the Colts ran the ball just nine times for 32 yards. In the second half, they ran it 21 times for 93 yards, despite facing a 21–6 deficit at the break, and came back for a 38–34 win that delivered Manning to his first Super Bowl.
“Peyton, he had to have his own teammates in the huddle saying, Listen, man, it’s time to run it,” Bruschi said. “There’s definitely a psychology to it, because sometimes, you just know the personality. This is what he does; this is what they’re gonna do. I don’t think that’s Tom. But there’s an emotional aspect that I think Tom’s going to have to control—This is what I see, I know what they’re in and I’m supposed to run it here … but will I?”
“That’s the whole impact.”
And just as Belichick knows who Brady is psychologically, and will play that game, he knows who Brady is physically too, where he’s limited, and how Brady manages those limitations—mostly because he helped Brady manage those limitations for two decades.
“With his experience with Tommy, they’ve had such an unparalleled level of success, but he’s also been with him when things didn’t go well and he knows what that looks like,” Bledsoe said. “If you can push the middle of the pocket so he can’t set his feet, he’s not going to get out and go beat you running the football. What he really likes to do is step up—so if the center of the pocket’s open, Tommy’s gonna be pretty good. If the middle of the pocket gets pushed back into his lap, that’s when he struggles a little bit.”
So what if Brady can maneuver up front? That’s where Bledsoe got to the second layer of it, where more tendencies show up. “They’ve known forever and ever, on third-and-medium, he likes to throw these little short routes to the slot. So I’d expect those to be doubled on third down. In the red zone, certain plays, Gronk is going to have a defensive end hitting him and then he’s gonna have a safety over the top and a linebacker underneath. They’re not gonna let Gronk beat them in the red zone.”
Like Bruschi says, much of this is stuff Belichick would probably pick up on and exploit with any quarterback.
But there’s one more layer to it, one that may be unique to this matchup. Earlier in the week, Belichick said that the Buccaneers’ offense is, in essence, the Patriots’ offense—something Tampa coach Bruce Arians took exception with. Maybe that’s right. Maybe it’s not. Regardless, if Belichick thinks Tampa’s running a “Brady scheme” then that’s worth paying attention to, because that area, using a team’s scheme against it, is one that all these guys raised as an area Belichick excels in.
“When you’re playing against the defense I was playing against, when I was playing against the Patriots, really smart players understand by formation, motion and by the release of your receivers where they’re headed,” Bledsoe said. “So then they’d start pattern-reading, rather than just playing coverage. They’re actually looking at what’s going on and anticipating what route is coming.
“So that’s when you’ve got Tedy Bruschi, who looks like he’s gonna run under one route but then all of a sudden he pivots his hips and he’s back in the middle of another route because he recognizes the entire scheme. That’s what makes it really difficult. They’re so well-prepared, they understand what you’re doing from a conceptual standpoint. Rather than just reacting, they’re anticipating. That’s what those guys have done so well for so long.”
Indeed, Cassel explained how Belichick weaponized Norv Turner’s scheme against him in the 2014 game. There were general ways it was happening—the Patriot corners wouldn't let the receivers get outside of them and into the downfield routes that offense favors. There were also specifics. One came early on, when Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty recognized a look and baited Cassel into thinking he was coming down to cover a crosser.
Cassel, seeing that, threw deep to the post. By the time the ball was gone, McCourty had flipped his hips and gotten deep. It was the first of Cassel’s four picks on the day.
There was another thing early in that Viking game that unsettled Cassel. Every piece of evidence they had told the staff and players that the Patriots played a 3–4 defense, right through New England’s Week 1 game. “And we get into that game,” he explained, “and all of a sudden, the first thing we notice—and everything from the run game and our protection scheme, how we were going to pick up stuff was based off that 3–4 defense—they show up and they’re in a four-down front.”
It meant the Vikings had to flip everything upside down in protection and in the run game, and that was the week they lost Adrian Peterson to the commissioner’s exempt list. Then, after the Vikings adjusted, the Patriots had adjusted again. Which was hardly a first, for them.
“One thing I did experience the couple times I played against Belichick-coached defenses, they won’t be static for the entire game,” said Bledsoe. “They’ll give one look the first series or two to try and figure out how the offenses are gonna attack them, and then you’ll see an adjustment mid-first quarter, second quarter and again certainly after halftime, based on what they see in terms of what the Bucs’ offense is trying to do to them.”
Which brings us to the inverse of this theme—how Brady can take any advantage Belichick might have there and turn the tables on him.
Cassel mentioned how well Brady knows guys he practiced against for years, guys like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones. Bruschi pointed out how he knows how Belichick will adjust to different formations, personnel groupings, shifts and motions, and that should, at least, give him insight into what the Patriots are doing before the snap.
“And he can control the tempo—possibly, you’ll see hurry up, just so he can control it, and put a formation out there to get the answers,” Bruschi said. “That’s a lot of what Peyton would do to us. So the Patriots would have to counter that with some very good disguise. They’ve got a good, experienced secondary, and linebackers that know how to do that. So it’ll definitely be a chess match out there.”
This is where we mention that Brady also has the better team.
Ultimately, you’d think that would be the ultimate queen on Sunday’s chess board. And for all this strategic stuff, would give Brady the best chance to walk away with the sort of memory that Bledsoe got 18 years ago.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
Ranking the five best games this weekend.
1) Buccaneers at Patriots (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): The easy answer is the correct one. Let’s not be stupid or too cute here.
2) Cardinals at Rams (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET): Half of a great NFC West round robin day—both teams come into SoFi Stadium unbeaten. One has a chance to rubber-stamp its place as the NFL’s best team through a quarter of the season. The other gets its shot to move up in class, with a young quarterback who’s playing MVP-level football. And speaking of Kyler Murray, he and Matthew Stafford might be running first and second at the still-very-early stage of the race for MVP.
3) Raiders at Chargers (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET): Justin Herbert alone is worth tuning in for. And don’t look now, but Derek Carr is too. To me, the best story line to watch here might be how the Las Vegas defense holds up. Going into the year, the team felt really good about where its offense was, but that the defense could go either way. So far, Gus Bradley’s made a huge difference there. But the Chargers’ offense will present new challenges for his very young secondary.
4) Seahawks at 49ers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET): The other half of that round robin has Russell Wilson and the defending division champs looking to avoid falling three games back (barring a Rams-Cardinals tie) through four games. And how the Niners respond after a crushing loss to the Packers on a big stage should be interesting too.
5) Panthers at Cowboys (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Both these teams have talent, and are off to hot starts. I’d give both a better than 50-50 chance to make the playoffs at this point, and there are lots of interesting game-within-the-game elements to this one. Two I really like: Whether C.J. Henderson is ready to step in and help slow down the Cowboys’ fleet of receivers; and how a proud Dallas offensive line handles the Panthers’ burgeoning defensive front.
Watch NFL games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW
If Justin Fields starts, how will the Bears’ coaches adjust? A few days ago in the MAQB, we raised the reasons why Chicago should try playing its first-round pick under center a little more—after deploying him out of the shotgun on 41 of 45 offensive snaps last Sunday. Of course there could be a lot of reasons why the Bears didn’t put Fields under center against the Browns, not the least of which would be what was best for the other 10 guys in the huddle. But given what happened last week, it’s fair to expect, should Fields be the guy, some level of adjustment to get Fields going. And I think that starts with the Bears’ trying to spark the run game, move the pocket and put the quarterback in position to play faster.
Lamar Jackson vs. Vic Fangio. Because the schedule worked out this way, the 2019 MVP has yet to get his first test against the one of the game’s best defensive minds. Not only that, he hasn’t even played a branch on the Fangio defense tree—he’ll play the Bears for the first time later this year, and he hasn’t had his shot at Brandon Staley in either of Staley’s Los Angeles stops yet. And while Jackson’s numbers are middling through three weeks, the eyeball test shows a player who’s been at his best in pulling Baltimore through major injury problems, and a player who’s delivered in a very big way down the stretch the last two weeks. Getting to see how Fangio combats all that should be a lot of fun.
A Chiefs get-well game. Andy Reid’s back in Philly for the first time in eight years, and he’ll have a lot more to worry about when he gets there than just catching up with old friends. If Patrick Mahomes hadn’t pulled a rabbit from his hat in Week 1, the Chiefs would be 0–3 right now. And part of it, to be fair, was some expected transition, with young players’ dotting the defense and an entirely new offensive line that’s starting three rookies. The good news for Reid & Co. is that the Eagles looked shaky on Monday night and were on the road going into a short week, and that should give Kansas City the opportunity to work out some of its issues in game situations.
The trend lines with taunting penalties. There were three taunting flags league-wide in Week 1, eight in Week 2 and two in Week 3. The argument I’ve made is that it was always going to take a few weeks for the officials and players to really get a handle on this. And maybe it’s happened faster than that, with so few flags last week. Here’s hoping things keep going that way.
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 1–5 (Really bad, I know. Note: I never told anyone to actually take my advice.)
Washington (-1.5) at Falcons: Feels to me like the Football Team is undervalued here (see, I know gambling jargon!). I think they’ll get a big road win to steady the ship.
Panthers (+4.5) at Cowboys: I know the game’s at AT&T, but I think this is a tough spot for Dallas, and it’ll be a field goal (or less) game either way.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Why isn’t Trey Lance playing yet?
I feel like we’ve been over this enough, but the question keeps coming up.
It’s pretty simple, actually, The Niners aren’t like most teams that draft quarterbacks in the first round. And that’s because the Niners aren’t a rebuilding team with little hope to contend right now. So the idea of throwing the season out and riding out the highs and lows of starting a rookie quarterback, like you’re seeing with the Jets, Jaguars and even the Patriots, isn’t happening.
Lance is one of 43 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2008—the year when Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco went in the top 20, started from the jump and led their teams to the playoffs. And if Lance is truly redshirted (sitting the entire year), he’d be just fourth first-round quarterback in that 14-year span to be afforded that luxury. The other three were Jake Locker (2011), Patrick Mahomes (’17) and Jordan Love (’20).
The teams Locker, Mahomes and Love played for had two things in common with these Niners. One, each had a very competent, playoff-tested veteran quarterback (Matt Hassselbeck, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers); and two, each contended through the season (those Chiefs and Packers made the playoff, and the Hasselbeck Titans just missed them).
So everyone should listen to Kyle Shanahan when he talks. Because as often as coaches lie in these situations, the Niners’ coach really hasn’t in this one.
Here’s what he said this week: “Trey’s our backup quarterback. This isn’t the preseason. We’re not just going back and forth all the time. Trey goes in for specific plays or things we want to do. Trey, week-in and week-out, he gets better each week the more reps he gets on scout team. But there’s not a big decision going into that each week. We put in a game plan for our starting quarterback, the backup needs to be able to do all of that if he gets hurt.
“And what’s cool about Trey is because of his different skill set, we always keep him alive with a couple of plays on situations.”
It’s that easy. Jimmy Garoppolo’s the best option right now for a team that was in the Super Bowl 20 months ago, with Garoppolo as its quarterback, and a team like that can’t afford to throw games away in the name of player development. When Lance becomes the best option for the Niners in the here and now, then I’d expect Shanahan will go to him.
No need for everyone to overthink this.
More NFL Coverage:
• Why Rookie QBs Should Consider Trade Demands
• 8 Things to Know: NFL Is Wide Open (NFC East Isn't)
• Mailbag: What Should We Make of Surprising Starts?
• Power Rankings: Rams for Real, Chiefs Still in Top 10