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The Bills defense vs. Tom Brady: A thorough, schematic examination

What is the best way for Buffalo to limit Brady’s effectiveness in Week 8?

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Last year, the Bills lost twice to the Tom Brady-led Patriots. Both games were decided by one score.

In Week 2, Brady went nutso on Buffalo’s defense, torching it for 466 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions while completing 38 of 59 pass attempts.


In Week 11’s Monday Night Football clash, the Bills lost 20-13, but Brady wasn’t anywhere close to as productive or efficient. He went 20 of 39 — (51.2%) — for 277 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

I figured an outing with a completion percentage below 52% and fewer than two touchdowns is quite the rarity for Brady. Turns out, it is.

Starting at the beginning of 2011, it’s happened six times in the regular season. The Patriots’ are 2-4 in those games.

Notice anything about his opponents?

Keep looking.

Yep, that’s right. Four of the six instances have come against either the Bills (recently) or when Rex Ryan was the Jets’ head coach. Of course, Brady didn’t play in the second half of the 2014 season finale, but his first half of that game was brutal.

In his entire NFL career in the regular season, Brady has had 22 games — under 10% of his starts — in which he finished with a completion percentage under 52 while tossing fewer than two touchdowns. Somewhat unsurprisingly, New England’s record is 9-13 in those contests.

Because, like you, I vividly remember a noticeably frustrated Brady in that Week 11 game, I wanted to uncover what Buffalo did in its second meeting with the Patriots last year.

I recalled Brady being under pressure quite often in that game, so, naturally, I figured the Bills must have blitzed much more in Week 11 than they did in Week 2 and had much more success in doing so.

Some of my good friends at Pro Football Focus sent over the following info regarding Brady against the blitz in both tilts with the Bills in 2015.

Here are his numbers from Week 2:

Pro Football Focus

Pretty much as expected, right? Brady did whatever he wanted in that game, so it’s not shocking to see a graphic illustrating his amazing productivity against Buffalo’s blitzes.

Here are his Week 11 numbers:

Pro Football Focus

Hmmm. Not nearly as much volume from Brady in this game, but he actually was more efficient against the blitz. Higher yards-per-attempt average, higher QB rating, no sacks. Basically... the works.

Take note of how much worse Brady was when he wasn’t blitzed in this game compared to his first meeting with the Bills last year. He wasn’t as good under pressure either.

In Week 2, he completed 27 of 43 passes for 343 yards with two touchdowns when Buffalo decided not to blitz. In Week 11, those numbers dipped dramatically to 13 of 28 for 149 yards and one interception.

What the heck did the Bills do so well in Week 11’s game then? They got more creative. I re-watched that contest and took notes. About halfway through the “film session” in my living room, I realized Buffalo’s defense thrived doing the exact opposite of blitzing... sending a three-man rush.

I know, I know... the aversion to the three-man rush is strong among most fans, but it stymied Brady in Week 11 last year and was an integral facet in the Bills’ decimation of Carson Palmer in Week 3’s victory this season.

On plays when Buffalo sent just three pass-rushers at Brady in that MNF game, he was 3 of 10 for 18 yards.

These weren’t obvious, bland three-man rushes though... which possibly (likely) was the main reason they were so successful. On every single one of the 10 three-man rushes, the Bills showed some type of pressure package before the snap then backed out of it, typically dropping a linebacker (or two) into the shallow portion of the field the Patriots love to utilize frequently. On a few occasions, Jerry Hughes sank into coverage.

Brady is as good before the snap as he is after it. Seriously.

If you show him anything obvious... he’ll have the perfect counter almost every time. The clear-cut three-man rushes immediately indicate to Brady he won’t have to worry about pressure and can comfortably scan the field for, essentially, as long as he wants.

If he thinks he’s getting, let’s say, a double A-gap blitz — right up the middle — there’s a (decent) chance he, and his offensive line, will get confused. That’s when Brady gets flustered, can make mistakes and look human.

After flashing the double A-gap blitz often in the first half before dropping two inside linebackers into coverage, the Bills actually sent one of those ‘backers on a pass play in the third quarter. Likely due to the element of surprise, he — Nigel Bradham — got to Brady untouched, which led to an incompletion.

Actually blitzing is the easy and logical wrinkle to deploy after simply threatening to blitz. If the Brady and New England’s offensive line are routinely playing a guessing game, that’s a big positive for Buffalo’s defense.

Back to the Bills implementing this tactic in 2016.

Also via Pro Football Focus, against the Cardinals in Week 3, Buffalo used seven defensive backs (with just one down lineman) on 45% of Arizona’s 60 passing plays. A colossal figure. After the game, Rex referred to it as the “turbo” package, which was the most used defensive personnel grouping for the Bills in that game.

They rushed three on 20 of Palmer’s 60 pass plays and sent more than four rushers just 15 times. The 25% blitz rate against the Cardinals was very similar to Buffalo’s 27.6% blitz rate in last year’s Week 11 game against the Patriots.

Obviously, Brady > Palmer... and, actually, PFF recently named the Patriots’ signal-caller as the best quarterback in the NFL against pressure so far this season.

It’s really not about how often a defense can pressure Brady. It’s about disguising pass-rush packages so that defense can pressure Brady when he’s least expecting it.