The key to beating the New England Patriots has been the same for the past decade and change- pressure quarterback Tom Brady up the middle and hit him early so he starts seeing ghosts. The four scouts that NBC’s Mike Giardi interviewed all essentially said the same.
There are different ways to accomplish that, of course. One says to use press coverage. Another says to dedicate all the resources to clogging the middle of the field to remove Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, forcing Brady to hold the football longer. A third says to mix up the coverages and force Brady to go vertical with the ball.
But however it’s accomplished, the best way to beat the Patriots is to get to Brady.
One scout, however, suggested a way to beat the Patriots that is a relatively fresh idea.
“I think their run defense isn’t good at all on the edges or at the linebacker level, so in this case running to win makes sense,” a scout told Giardi. “[Alan] Branch wasn’t the same player this year and while [Malcom] Brown and [Lawrence] Guy are solid, you can wear them down. I have no idea what they see in Elandon Roberts. He’s a guess guy. He can be manipulated both in the run game and then certainly in the passing game. You run, it amps up the play action and has him running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Miami did a nice job with it. Pittsburgh did, too. That keeps Brady off the field and limits the impact that offense can have.”
That’s interesting and not a really novel idea, but one that few have expressed. If teams can control the clock by running the ball, they can both keep Tom Brady and the New England offense off the field and they can also set up favorable second- and third- down scenarios for possible home run play attempts.
The Patriots defensive tackle depth took a hit when Alan Branch didn’t play up to the lofty expectations he set in recent years, and while Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy have been dominant run defenders, the Patriots are still vulnerable on the edge.
Teams have challenged the Patriots linebackers on the edge with patient running and outside bounces because they know Elandon Roberts will bite on the running back’s first move and that will put the linebacker out of position for the running back to cut outside.
The Patriots injuries and depth concerns at both edge defender and linebacker makes the defense vulnerable to grinding drives and the Tennessee Titans with their elite offensive line and elite running back duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry are certainly capable of doing just that.
Hopefully the return of Kyle Van Noy will strengthen the Patriots ability to contain running backs in the backfield and James Harrison should see a larger role now that he has more time in the system- but it’s still a clear weakness that teams can exploit.
The Patriots best bet would be to build up an early lead and force teams to throw the ball because their weakness against the run doesn’t matter if Marcus Mariota needs to pass to keep pace with New England. But if a team can grind out long drives and control the clock, then the Patriots won’t be able to build a big lead.
Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills were able to follow this plan in the first half of their games, with each team leading just four drives, but each had one go for 8 minutes. That prevents the Patriots from building a big lead and allows the run game to stay involved. Kyle Van Noy didn’t play in either game, though, so we’ll find out if his presence changes the entire calculus.
The Titans will certainly try to exploit Roberts in run defense because that will be their best chance at pulling off the biggest playoff upset since the Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.