The Atlanta Falcons faced a number of great quarterbacks this season. Drew Brees, Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers – the list goes on. For the most part, they had success against those players, but Sunday will present the Falcons with their biggest challenge yet: Tom Brady.
Atlanta hasn’t faced Brady in more than three years, and most of its personnel has changed since then. There’s a new head coach, a new pass rush and an infusion of young, speedy playmakers on defense.
While dominating Brady and forcing him into three turnovers isn’t likely, the Falcons do have the talent on that side of the ball to stop him. Here are five ways they can do that, most of which begins up front.
Disguise coverage before the snap
You’re not going to fool Brady. With Peyton Manning retired, Brady is arguably the smartest quarterback in the NFL. Pre-snap, there may not be anyone better than the man they call Touchdown Tom.
Now, the Falcons may not be able to trick Brady into misreading their coverage, but disguising it will help them throughout the game. Even if it means bluffing Brian Poole as a blitzer off the edge, or having three defensive linemen get up out of their three- and four-point stances, roaming the line of scrimmage as to disguise which rushers are coming and which are dropping back.
That won’t necessarily force Brady into a mistake, but it will make him think. And if that happens, it may cause him to hang onto the ball for a half-second longer, hesitating on a throw that he might immediately make.
This is also possible by showing Cover 3 initially before rolling the down safety back into a two-man shell. Subtle nuances like those can cause Brady to think and second-guess what he reads before the snap.
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Stop the run
It may sound counterintuitive and unrelated, but stopping the run is a key step in limiting Brady’s production. The Patriots are a rhythm team that likes to ride the hot hand. If LeGarrette Blount gets it going early, there’s a chance Josh McDaniels will pound the ball until the Falcons can stop him.
Should this happen, it would set up the play-action for New England, thus opening up the passing game even more for Brady. He thrives when he can get linebackers and safeties to bite on play fakes, and that typically happens when Blount is running the ball well.
It makes it that much easier for him to hit crossing routes over the middle, as well as deep posts to his newfound deep threat Chris Hogan. On multiple occasions against the Steelers, Brady used play-action (once on a flea flicker) to get Hogan open for big gains across the middle. The Falcons and their young core of rookies can’t bite on play-action and allow receivers to get behind them the way they did against Pittsburgh.
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Play press-man coverage
The Steelers made a colossal mistake against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, opting to play more zone coverage than man. Despite having corners who thrive in the latter, the Steelers sat back and played zone coverage against Brady, attempting to keep their eyes on him in the secondary. They even tried to fool Brady with three-man rushes by dropping their best pass rushers, Bud Dupree and James Harrison, into coverage fairly often.
Obviously, that plan didn’t work as they were shredded by the Patriots with Brady making the secondary look foolish. The Falcons have to learn from Pittsburgh’s misstep and play man coverage – particularly press-man. This will allow Atlanta’s cornerbacks to be physical at the line of scrimmage.
It will disrupt the timing between Brady and his receivers, particularly Julian Edelman out of the slot. Sure, you typically get more interceptions when playing zone by having seven defenders facing the quarterback, but the Patriots' receivers are good at finding holes in the coverage and know when to sit down to get open for Brady. Man eliminates this possibility and closes the throwing windows, as long as Atlanta’s corners can keep up with receivers and navigate through the traffic of crossing routes.
Utilize stunts and creative fronts
The Patriots’ offensive line has been great this season, largely thanks to line coach Dante Scarnecchia. They’re stronger on the edges at tackle than they are on the interior, which should make the Falcons’ plan of attack a bit clearer. Using stunts on the defensive line to confuse the Patriots’ linemen can be effective, allowing guys like Vic Bealsey and Dwight Freeney to use their speed against the Patriots’ interior pass protectors.
Additionally, the Falcons can use creative fronts to generate pressure on Brady. That doesn’t mean they should blitz or send six guys at Brady, but using their speed at linebacker to get after him could work. By doing that, they can drop a defensive lineman into coverage, falling back into Brady’s throwing lanes against slants and quick routes of that nature. Generating pressure in the A gaps will be key against the Patriots’ interior line.
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Generate pressure with just four pass rushers
The best way to beat Brady is to generate pressure with just four pass rushers. But it’s one of the most difficult things to do, especially against the Patriots’ solid offensive line. However, if the Falcons can make Brady uncomfortable without blitzing, it’ll go a long way.
They’ll need to knock him off his spot, force him to throw off-platform and in traffic with defenders swarming him. The Patriots have to collapse the pocket on him and prevent him from stepping into his throws. And remember, doing all of this works best when rushing four.
Blitzing Brady is usually a mistake considering how quickly he gets the ball out of his hands. This season, he had the highest passer rating against the blitz in the NFL at 129.6, including the postseason. That alone should indicate how ineffective the blitz is against him. Sending five or more pass rushers at him only makes his throwing lanes wider as he’s still going to get rid of it before the rush can get there.