In today’s pass-happy NFL, how do you stop a quarterback like Tom Brady–or any other QB for that matter?
It looked, through three quarters, like the Atlanta Falcons had that answer diagnosed and ready to go for Super Bowl LI. How did they do it? And why then did they wind up losing?
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Super Bowl LI: Atlanta found the recipe…then lost it, and the game
It turns out, you stop quarterbacks today the same way it was always done back in the day: “the quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.”
That quote, from that famous old reprobate, the late Raiders owner Al Davis, was once the strategy that all teams employed to shut down the opposing team’s quarterback. Sack him, harass him, beat him up, until he has neither the physical ability nor the will to go out there and lead his team down the field.
Lately, however, that strategy hasn’t worked out too well, because the NFL decided that it preferred its QBs upright and throwing TD passes instead of being carted off the field. Hence, these days Tom Brady–along with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, and a host of lesser lights–are able to go out there and do pretty much what they want, without fear of bodily harm.
“…the Falcons let up and played too far within the rules, and thus the Patriots got a chance to slip the noose and keep their roll rolling.”
Gone are the days when Jim Burt could put Joe Montana out of a playoff game and into the back of an ambulance. Today, if a defensive player comes even close to making contact with Brady, he can just turn to the referee, squeal “Uuuuuh, I think I broke a nail!” and the man in the white cap and striped shirt will oblige him by throwing a flag and marching the ball 15 yards down the field for the offense. In that sort of atmosphere, it’s a wonder the defenses are able to stop a competent quarterback at all.
In Super Bowl LI–or at least in the first half–the Atlanta Falcons looked like they had solved that particular Rubik’s Cube. They built a two touchdown lead on their own offensive strength, and kept enough pressure on the Patriots’ offense to get them off the field.
Then came the pivotal Patriots drive, the one that seemed to lock up the game for the Falcons even before Lady Gaga descended from the rafters. New England was making its way down the field, but the Falcons’ pass rush was getting hits on Brady. Eventually, Brady made a bad read and Atlanta got a pick-six from Robert Alford for a three touchdown lead, and it looked for all the world like, indeed, the trajectory was about to end.
It didn’t turn out that way, but at that moment you could see exactly what it took to thwart Brady and the Patriots–and, for that matter, every other high-flying quarterback in today’s NFL.
To all this you say: “Duh. You beat a great quarterback by getting pressure on him. Thanks Captain Obvious.” Yes, there is no revelation in that mere fact. But the interesting wrinkle in that fact is how the Falcons went about it: by cheating.
Think about that drive leading up to the interception. There were three penalties on the Falcons for defensive holding. All three penalties came on third down, so they kept the Patriots’ drive alive. But–and this is a huge ‘but’–those infractions also dragged out those plays long enough that Atlanta’s pass rush was able to get to and rough up Brady. Instead of a typical super-efficient Patriots march down the field–like we saw in overtime–it was a choppy, difficult matriculation across the gridiron. Eventually the toll was taken, Brady threw a bad pass, and Alford took it to the house.
Now, “cheating” is a strong word; but it is clear that by making maximum use of going to and past the boundaries of the rules, Atlanta was getting over on Brady and the Patriots. What is the larger implication of this?
Simple: you’re better off taking penalties to get heavy hits on the quarterback.
Reason it out. Let’s say, instead of defensive holding penalties, that Atlanta actually laid three late hits on Brady on that drive, and got called for a personal foul each time. Atlanta takes three 15-yard roughing-the-quarterback penalties, the Patriots gain 45 yards down the field and three automatic first downs. The Falcons–or any other team in this broadly applicable scenario–are screwed, right?
Not so much. After all, in our example, it’s the damn Patriots–they’re good at offense, so they’re likely to gain 45 yards on any given possession anyway. But in the meantime, the offending team has gotten three vicious licks in on Brady. That’s how you make a quarterback unsteady, how you make his reads poor, his throws wobbly. You lose some yards, maybe you even get fined by the league office–but maybe you get that pick-six that turns the game around, too.
There is an inevitable logic to the fact that, however protected a species the modern NFL quarterback may be, the best way to stop the best of them is simply to pound the tar out of them–even if you need to cross the line and commit penalties to do it. After all, what is the league going to do (beyond the penalty enforcement)? Sure, a fine for the player, or the team, perhaps. But will they make the offending team forfeit a game that they won by committing a series of late hits? The league has been seized by a mania for protecting the quarterback, but I doubt very many teams would be willing to go that far.
So how, then did Atlanta lose? Basically, they stopped playing dirty, at least on defense. There weren’t many penalties called on Atlanta in that second half; indeed, there weren’t any defensive penalties called on the Falcons after halftime, other than the PI call on the second to last play of New England’s winning drive. That meant the Patriots receivers had free rein to run their routes; that Brady had time to stand in the pocket and find opening targets; that Brady had time to avoid the rush and not get banged like a gong, as was happening in the second quarter. The only time Brady got any real hits on him was at the start of the last drive of regulation, when it looked–all too briefly–like Atlanta would hold New England back and preserve the win.
It didn’t happen, because the Falcons let up and played too far within the rules, and thus the Patriots got a chance to slip the noose and keep their roll rolling.
But, at the very least, keen observers of the game–specifically, defensive coordinators around the league–should have seen what there was to see and learned the lesson going forward. The takeaway: get hits on the quarterback, at all costs–even at the cost of 15 or 30 or 45 yards lost. You lose those yards, but in the long run you win the game.