In a league built on the principles of parity, stability is rarely found. Of course, one team is a major exception and has been since the turn of the century: the New England Patriots. No organization in the NFL has contended on this consistent a level over the years. Come what may, the Patriots being good is one thing that can always be counted on in this cold, cruel world. 2018 is no exception as New England sits at 7-3 while enjoying its bye week.
However, in some ways this year is still different than others. Rarely are the Patriots this inconsistent this late during the season, rarely does their Hall of Fame quarterback not find himself in the MVP discussion. This is what is happening through the first 10 weeks of the current regular season, though. Tom Brady is still having a good year — just not as good as his historic 2015-2017 stretch when he was the unquestioned best passer in the league.
Statistics play a big role in this image being created, and one of the statistics that does not work in Brady’s favor is passer rating when getting blitzed. While passer rating is an inherently flawed stat, it can still be used to roughly compare players. And according to the metric (via ESPN), no quarterback in the league is as bad as Brady when a defense brings five or more rushers. The consensus greatest of all time has a rating of just 59.6.
For comparison, the league’s highest ranked passer against the blitz — the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson — comes in at 129.4 (on a scale that goes up to 158.3). Something appears to be not working properly for a player and a team that have historically been very good in countering extra pass rushers. For head coach Bill Belichick, the answer is simple: “It always comes down to team execution, and so we just have to do a better job of that.”
“We have to handle blitz on every play,” Belichick said earlier this week in an interview he did with WEEI show Ordway, Merloni and Fauria. “We cover it on every play. We just have to do a good job of trying to be in good plays that handle it, but also when we do get it — and you can’t always predict that — part of the play is to handle the extra rusher. [...] Whether there is or isn’t pressure, the overall passing game has to execute on time and in a smooth fashion.”
Belichick knows that his quarterback is only one part of the execution. “[It] includes everyone,” Belichick pointed out. “It’s the protection. It’s the receivers. It’s the distribution of the routes. It’s the quarterback. It’s the play and the coverage that we get it against. All those things are related.” Running back James White sees it the same way: “Everybody has to be on the same page in order to pick the blitzes up if they’re running some funky looks and things like that.”
White was asked about the Patriots’ issues against the blitz on Wednesday, and for him communication is the key: “Definitely need to be better just communicating,” he said. “When we do — when we are on the same page — a better job of getting Tom enough time to read the coverage out and if he decides to hold the ball, still give him enough time to do that too, so we definitely could be better at that.”
“We’re all communicating between offensive line, quarterback, running back,” White continued, stressing the chemistry and interaction between the members of an offense that has seen plenty of personnel turnover over the course of this season due to injury and new players getting introduced into the system. “It’s not just communicating — you actually have to block the guys too, so you’ve got to give them enough time.”
“There’s definitely things that we can fix when we get back [from the bye week],” White noted. The running is in the middle of an outstanding season but has shown some deficiencies when it comes to picking up the blitz this season. “It’s nothing different. It’s just execution. We just haven’t been doing a great job of that,” he continued. “It’s really nothing crazy. It’s just us going out there and doing it and doing a better job of it.”
The man in the middle of the questions about handling the blitz offered a pragmatic answer when asked about dealing with defensive pressure this season. “Anytime you’re last in the league in anything, that’s probably not very good,” Brady said on Wednesday. However, the 41-year old — who has a solid 96.8 rating versus the blitz according to Pro Football Focus (which defines blitzes simply as “unexpected pressure”) — sees opportunity in this.
“If they blitz it gives us great opportunities to make plays and if we’re not doing that, then we’ve got to figure out how to do it,” Brady said during his press conference. “I think if you rush three, or four, or five, there’s going to be opportunities, really in any case. It’s just what you do with the opportunities. Hopefully we can figure that out, get out of the basement and move our way up.”
Communication and execution are at the core of this quest to move up the rankings. No matter what kind of measurement you use, if those two aspects of the offense improve so will the numbers — and by extension the success the Patriots and their quarterback will have against the blitz.