Bill Belichick has built a reputation as the NFL’s greatest strategist by taking an obvious approach to game planning: Figure out what the opponent does best, and take it away. Typically that means selling out against a specific player or concept in order to make the opposing offense play left-handed. But against Tom Brady—who’s won seven Super Bowls and broken even more records by taking exactly what the defense gives him—the challenge becomes more complex.
Fortunately for Belichick, he didn’t have to worry about that task over his first 21 years as Patriots coach. But that didn’t stop football fans from wondering how the sport’s GOAT coach would go about defending its GOAT quarterback—and on Sunday night, we finally got to see that matchup play out in what felt like the NFL’s version of Marvel’s What If? series.
Brady led the Buccaneers to a 19-17 win that will earn him bragging rights over his former coach for another year, but it was hardly an impressive physical showing for the 44-year-old. He averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and failed to throw a touchdown for only the 15th time in the past decade. It was also just the third time since Brady joined the Bucs last season that the team failed to score at least 20 points.
After the game, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said he thought the first Belichick-Brady contest was a draw, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. The mental chess match between these two felt like a heavyweight brawl—with Belichick throwing tactical haymaker after tactical haymaker, and Brady fighting his way through them. But the QB landed just enough late counters to outpoint his old coach on the cards, and show that no matter his age, he’s still Tom Brady.
Belichick was the clear underdog going into this bout. Even with Rob Gronkowski out with a rib injury (or four), the Buccaneers were loaded with receiving weapons, which made focusing on any one player an untenable strategy for an opposing defense. You can’t double-team Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. There are only 11 defensive players on the field, after all. So the challenge facing Belichick and his defensive coaching staff heading into Sunday night was: With multiple big-play options for Brady in the passing game, how could the Patriots possibly make the Bucs offense play left-handed?
The Pats coach refused to divulge his master plan after the game, but it was pretty obvious from the start that rather than target any one player, New England focused on cutting off an area of the field: the middle. Take a look at Brady’s passing charts from Tampa Bay’s first three games of the season, via Next Gen Stats:
That’s a lot of green in the middle. Brady came into the week leading the league in completions inside the numbers, and he’s been far more efficient when targeting that area compared to the perimeter.
Tom Brady Pass Locations, Weeks 1 Through 3
|Pass Location||Attempts||EPA/Att||Success Rate||ANY/A|
|Pass Location||Attempts||EPA/Att||Success Rate||ANY/A|
|Inside the numbers||76||0.27||65.8%||9.3|
|Outside the numbers||57||0.14||45.6%||8.6|
In order to better defend that space, Belichick made some concessions elsewhere. He started in the run game, where the Patriots sacrificed strength for speed. New England did not play a single snap of base defense on Sunday night, a first for the season. The fact that starting linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was out with a shoulder injury may have contributed to that, but in the past we’ve seen Belichick play lighter defensive personnel against great passing teams in order to incentivize opponents to run the ball. Whether it was an intentional ploy by the Pats or not, the Bucs did not fall into the trap. Tampa Bay called 44 passes and just 26 runs—but New England had enough speed to deal with Tampa Bay’s talented receiving corps.
Just having more speed wasn’t going to be enough, though. The Patriots needed extra bodies in the middle of the field, so Belichick sacrificed some pass rush in order to free up players to help out in coverage. New England’s go-to tactic was to cram five players on the line of scrimmage as potential rushers, only to have two of them drop into zone coverage in the shallow areas of the field that Brady loves to attack.
With fewer rushers chasing Brady, the Patriots did not get much pressure on the quarterback. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady was pressured on four of his 44 dropbacks and sacked only once. But the extra bodies in coverage did force him to hold on to the ball. Brady’s 2.8-second average time to throw was his second-highest single-game mark since he arrived in Tampa Bay last season.
When the Patriots wanted a fourth pass rusher, they had a safety act as an extra body in the middle of the field who would help on in-breaking routes. During the play below, Myles Bryant ends up taking over coverage on Godwin for Jalen Mills, who then falls off his original assignment and acts as that free defender.
Those two coverage concepts made up the bulk of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. Belichick claimed after the game that Sunday night’s approach didn’t deviate from what his defense had done in the first three games of the season, but the numbers don’t back that up. New England played a lot of man coverage against Tampa Bay after playing it on just 37 percent of the team’s snaps coming into the game.
Belichick kept his matchups consistent throughout, with J.C. Jackson—who has replaced the injured Stephon Gilmore as the Pats’ no. 1 corner—on Evans, Mills countering Godwin, and Jonathan Jones going up against Brown. With Devin McCourty confined to the deep middle, the other safeties were responsible for Tampa Bay’s tight ends.
But the Patriots coach knew he couldn’t just show Brady the same picture snap after snap without him catching on, so he threw some curveballs at his former pupil. Here’s one of those off-speed pitches.
As you can see in the shot above, the Bucs have both of their receivers on one side of the field. The Pats line up their two corners on the same side as well, which typically signals man coverage. Brady was probably feeling pretty good about the Bucs’ play call at this point. They were running a “switch verticals” concept, a popular man coverage beater that creates a natural pick for the slot receiver.
But at the snap, New England dropped into zone coverage. That slowed Brady’s process just enough for the rush to force him outside of the pocket, where he eventually threw it away.
Not all of Belichick’s changeups worked, though. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Patriots tried to surprise Brady with an all-out blitz. The veteran quarterback calmly diagnosed it and connected with Cameron Brate for an easy first down.
New England learned its lesson and didn’t blitz Brady for the rest of the night.
Overall, the Buccaneers moved the ball pretty well—they scored five times and missed a short field goal. But the Patriots’ defensive plan was also successful, as Brady completed only one pass between the hashes all night:
If Belichick’s goal was to force Brady to make difficult throws to the perimeter, he accomplished it. There was just one problem: After an uneven start to the game, the GOAT eventually found his rhythm.
At a certain point in the fourth quarter, it became clear that Brady was just not going to lose this game. With just under 13 minutes remaining in the final frame, the Bucs faced a third-and-6 with the Patriots defense playing man-to-man coverage. Tampa Bay countered with a play designed to create traffic in the middle of the field in hopes that it would spring a receiver open.
New England was ready and passed the routes off beautifully. Nobody was open, and with a statue like Brady under center, that usually means success for the defense. But not on this night. The 22-year pro took off on a rare scramble, bouncing off a hit from Kyle Van Noy and dragging a falling Davon Godchaux just past the marker for the first down.
This wasn’t a vintage performance by any means, but it was a familiar outcome in a familiar setting: Brady made just enough plays to keep his team in the game, and when it was time to win, he found a way. This one result should not be held up as a referendum on either Belichick’s or Brady’s legacy, nor as reason to reassess how much credit each deserves for the Patriots dynasty. But maybe it is proof that great coaching can take you only so far. Belichick’s defensive staff pitched a near-perfect game, and it still wasn’t enough with no. 12 on the other sideline. As it turns out, having the greatest quarterback in NFL history on your side makes coaching a lot easier.