The New England Patriots don’t play this week, but they’ll find out their divisional round opponent in the coming days. In preparation for the postseason, ESPN reporters “asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each [playoff] team” to try and understand how teams are viewed.
These sources were asked how to best pressure Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, how to slow down the run game with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, and how to defend the Patriots deep ball with Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett.
These are the responses, and click here to see the analysis for all of the other playoff teams.
On how to pressure Tom Brady:
“I don't think blitzing is the answer. I think he picks up blitzes well, moves side-to-side in the pocket better than anybody in the league. So the best way is to pressure up the middle. I think a lot of guys put more speed in the inside. They move the defensive ends to 3-technique, do a little speed package. They try to get that inside pressure because once he moves in there, he's deadly. It's about speed up the middle and getting him off that spot initially, because he'll reset and still throw it.”
Pressuring Brady is easier said than accomplished, but this has always been the true way to slow the Patriots offense. New England likes to keep a running back in the backfield to serve as blitz pick-up, so teams that succeed at getting after Brady do a good job disguising pressure to remove the running back from the protection and overload the opposite side.
On stopping the run game led by Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead:
“They just make such great adjustments. In the first half, you think you got them bottled up. But then they'll put a jet sweep on it, so it moves everybody's gap. They also try to confuse the nickel cornerback, and then everything gets confused from there. They're very good knowing if you're in man or zone coverage, knowing what gap you got. They try to manipulate that.
“The best way is just playing man-to-man, staying in your gap. But when you play man-to-man, it means somebody is man-to-man on Rob Gronkowski, so they'll throw that little counter pass where they fake the run and dump it to him. It seems like he's open every time.”
Lewis has been able to run and produce against every opponent, so he’s reaching the realm of “transcendent player.” New England needs their run game to work in the playoffs to slow down the opposing pass rush and to open up the play action pass for Rob Gronkowski up the seam or the wide receivers deep down the field.
On containing the vertical threat with speedy receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan:
“Just knowing their best routes. Cooksie loves the post. When they see you in off-coverage against Cooks, they love the double moves. Dorsett loves the straight go route. If they see you in press on Dorsett, they'll throw the fade ball just because they know he's all speed.
“Kenny Britt is a deep threat also; they like to just throw the ball up to him, whatever team he's played on. It's just limiting them and containing them. I don't think you're going to stop all of the deep balls, but just containing them to a few a game would be good.”
The Patriots ranked seventh with 120 deep passing attempts (15+ yards down the field) and ranked sixth in the NFL by converting 43.3% of these passes into first downs.
Cooks led the Patriots with 46 deep targets, the fourth most in the NFL, and reeled in 24 catches for 755 yards (both second in the NFL behind only Antonio Brown) for a catch rate of 52.2% (seventh for players with 30+ targets). Cooks is going to “get his,”
So will Rob Gronkowski who has 15 catches on 29 targets; He’s good for one big play per game. Danny Amendola has also been clutch with 5 catches on 10 targets. Cooks, Gronkowski, and Amendola are all dangerous for opposing teams.
The other players have been less successful with the deep pass, with Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan combining to catch just 6 of 24 targets (25.0%) and the tight ends Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen combining for 1 catch on 6 targets.
Either these players need to step up, or the trio of Cooks, Gronkowski, and Amendola need to be unstoppable on the deep pass in the postseason.