It’s the time of the NFL season to highlight what could derail each contender come January. The 10-3 Patriots have few deficiencies, but what could plague them in the playoffs is the offense’s inability to find consistency throwing to the outside and deep downfield.
I’d argue that Tom Brady has been the second best quarterback in football this year, with Aaron Rodgers leading the way by a mile. Rodgers does nearly everything better than everyone else, except for throw down the middle of the field, which Brady does at least as well as him, if not better.
Take a second and picture Brady stepping up in the pocket and firing it 20 yards down the seam to Gronk, or even 10 yards to Julian Edelman for a first down between two linebackers. Or perhaps think back to that first drive against then-undefeated Cincinnati. Yeah, Brady is still the best between the numbers.
(Disclaimer: This will not be analytical. This is the “eyeball test” based on what happens on the field each week.)
On the other hand, it’s tough to readily recall Brady succeeding on throws along the sidelines, especially those traveling 15+ yards in the air. It feels like ages since we’ve seen Brady drop a perfectly placed ball in to a receiver who’s beaten the corner on the edge, just a second before the safety comes to help.
Rodgers has perfected that throw. As has Luck. Hell, even Peyton still drops them in to Emmanuel Sanders with his signature touch. Brady, for a variety of reasons, simply doesn’t attempt that kind of throw very often.
Part of it is personnel. Gronk and Edelman are so prolific between the numbers that it’d be inefficient to go outside with them too often. Brandon LaFell is getting there, as we’ve seen Brady target him repeatedly with back shoulder throws near the sideline. While the duo has improved in that regard, there are still instances like Sunday night’s third quarter against San Diego, when they don’t connect and the offense stagnates.
Part of it is Brady not wanting to endanger his receivers. Remember the hit Sanders took against the Rams a few weeks ago? That’s what happens when the safety does get there in time and the receiver is still looking up. Brady has made a career out of perfectly placing his throws both to complete the pass and prevent his receivers from decapitation. The same cannot be said for Manning (Austin Collie sadly nods).
In addition to neglecting the outside, successful deep throws, featuring Brady’s newer technique of putting extra air under the ball, have been few and far between. Unless I’m missing something, the only true deep pass the Patriots have completed this year was Brady’s bomb to Brian Tyms against Buffalo. That play required a great throw and better catch, but it’s rarely worked in recent seasons. It’s a combination of the system they run, slightly decreased confidence and accuracy on Brady’s part, and lack of a big play X receiver.
Given the choice, I’m sure the Patriots would be content with their current ability to move the ball, control the clock, wear down a defense, and generally score at will rather than being more proficient on the deep ball. After all, that is how you win in January, so I’m told. Still, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, there’s something to envy watching Andy Dalton toss one down the sidelines 40 yards to AJ Green, or Joe Flacco hitting Steve Smith on a home run ball. Now I feel dirty and need to shower. At least I feel better knowing Dalton would never hit one of those in the playoffs.
Again, we’re picking nits here, and while we are, a brief aside on another potential weakness: lack of a pass rush. It’s troubling that the Pats never seem to generate pressure with four guys, though Akeem Ayers has given them the ability to get some with five. Keep in mind we’re yet to see a front seven of Jones, Wilfork, Siliga, Ninkovich, Ayers, Hightower, Collins. If and when that group is healthy together, the pass rush should be adequate at the very least.
The Patriots have the look of a special team with a balanced offense. The best way to beat them is to get pressure with four and clog the middle of the field, forcing Brady to go deep and to the outside without having time to step up. Not all teams have the discipline and personnel for that, but the playoff loss to the Jets in the 2010 season has my guard up permanently.
The line, Sunday night aside, has been strong. The running game, when Josh McDaniels dials it up, can move the ball. And Brady is lethal over the middle. Divisional games are usually a struggle (two of three have been so far), but if the Patriots find themselves with any room to experiment during these final three contests, they’d be well served to take some aerial risks.
Fully embracing a vertical passing game isn’t realistic, or necessarily wise, at this point. However, if New England can learn even a couple new tricks outside the numbers, it could boost their chances when the games matter most.