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Closer look: Texans 'diamond' front could be a handful for Brady, Patriots

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Closer look: Texans 'diamond' front could be a handful for Brady, Patriots

FOXBORO -- The concept really isn't all that difficult to grasp, but it gave the Patriots a hell of a time in last year's Divisional Round game against the Texans.

It's called the "diamond" front, and the Texans have the personnel on their defensive line to turn a simple X's and O's idea into a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

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Here's how it works . . .

Take your typical third-down four-man defensive line, with two wide defensive ends and two three-techniques on the interior. Then place a fifth defender right over the center. And make him an athlete, whether it's another defensive end or a linebacker. Someone with some pass-rushing savvy.

The result is one-on-one matchups across the board for the offensive line. Each blocker in a five-man protection setup has one pass-rusher to account for. If the defense plays it right, it will get the matchups it wants.

When the defense is star-studded up front -- as is the case with the Texans -- the one-on-one matchups are pretty mouth-watering regardless of the alignment. Whitney Mercilus on the interior is a problem because of his athleticism. Jadeveon Clowney has length and speed that create issues against shorter-armed guards and centers. J.J. Watt one-on-one with anyone is almost an impossible ask.

Last year, without Watt in the mix, the Texans had great success with the diamond front against the Patriots in the playoffs. Mercilus beat David Andrews with a spin move for a sack out of that alignment. He beat Andrews again in that game, opening things up for Brian Cushing to sack Tom Brady.

Wining one-on-one matchups will be key, the Patriots know, to give Brady a chance in Week 3 at Gillette Stadium.

"Look, we only have so many blockers and they have just as many rushers," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "At some point, every football game becomes about what you can do, and your individual one-on-one matchup, and there’s no guarantee that you can double-team this guy or that guy. That’s virtually impossible to determine before the ball’s snapped, before they align on defense. They don’t line up in the same spots every play.

"You’ve got to be smart and try to do what you can to move the football -- run, pass, first down, second down, third down, whatever it might be -- against a group like this that’s dynamic at a lot of spots. We’re working hard right now to put together what we want to do."

Where the Texans are able to add a layer of deception to their diamond-front looks is by rushing only three. By showing five at the line of scrimmage and then dropping two of those defenders into coverage, Houston still gets the one-on-one matchups it's looking for (leaving two offensive linemen momentarily blocking air because their assignments dropped) while getting eight bodies into throwing lanes.

It's a similar idea to what the Jets did to the Patriots under Rex Ryan, what the Broncos did to them in the AFC Championship game in 2015, and what the Chiefs did just a couple of weeks ago: Flood the short-to-intermediate area of the field with defenders to force Brady to hold onto the football, and win your one-on-one matchups up front. 

Pressure and coverage. Even the best quarterback in football can't help but be stymied by that combination when it works. 

According to TheMMQB.com's Andy Benoit, who dropped into Quick Slants the Podcast before the season to detail what he found on the diamond front, the Texans used that alignment six times and Brady completed just one pass for seven yards. He was sacked twice. He threw incomplete three times.

Factor in some of the twists and stunts that Watt, Mercilus and Clowney will combine to run, and life only gets more complicated for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's group. Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney and defensive tackle DJ Reader (now in the Vince Wilfork role) also require attention, Bill Belichick noted this week.

"They can power rush, they can speed rush, good counters, they run games well, good technique players, they're well-coached," Belichick said this week of the Texans front. "[Defensive coordinator] Mike [Vrabel] does enough things to keep you off-balance. [But] I’m not looking out there and saying, 'Well, we've never seen this before.'

"There's some three-man rush, there's some four-man rush, there's some five-man rush, there’s a lot of straight rush, there’s power rush, there’s games, multiple games. You're never sure exactly which one of those things you’re going to get. When you start mixing them together you don’t end up with the same thing repeatedly, so it’s always something else different. A different type of rush, a different type of coverage, maybe players aligned in different positions, even though it might be the same players but just different matchups. They create a lot of problems."

Problems, yes. But not unsolvable ones. Should the Patriots be able to withstand the initial rush out of diamond looks, they could provide Brady with the opportunity to make some plays down the field.

Say, for instance, Andrews wins off the snap against someone like Mercilus. If the Texans drop eight, that may leave someone like Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason freed up to double Mercilus later in the play. With some quick recognition, good communication and a few doubles across the board, Brady might be afforded the time necessary for his receivers to run through the muddled short area of the field and into open spaces deep.

For Brady, potentially having Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett (knee injury suffered in Week 2) and Rob Gronkowski (groin) at his disposal -- none of whom were there for the Texans matchup in January -- won't hurt. But Brady knows he'll have to have his internal clock dialed in. The longer he holds onto the football, the most he's asking of his line against one of the best fronts in the league.

"J.J. is an incredible player. He’s been Defensive Player of the Year how many times? Three or four? Something like that," Brady said on Wednesday. "He’s got speed, quickness, power, he’s got all the moves, got all the counters. He’s just a tough guy to block. Then you pair him with Whitney Mercilus, who’s one of the most underrated players, I think, in the league in terms of rushing the passer to everything that he does to help that team. I know practicing against that guy how good he is. 

"And then with Jadeveon, he’s one of the most athletic guys in the league. He does some things that other people can’t do. He’s just size, speed, explosiveness. So all those guys on the same field at one time is a big problem for any offense. You don’t want to be holding the ball too long because you know that they’re going to get home at some point and I think that means we’ve got to really stay on track." 

No doubt it will be a chess match. How will Patriots backs factor into protection? How will the Texans move their pass-rush pieces from snap to snap? If Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion) is unavailable, how do Belichick, McDaniels and Brady provide help for their fill-in right tackle?

The Patriots beat the Texans in the Divisional Round last season, 34-16, but thanks in part to Texans pass-rushers and their diamond front, Brady went just 18-for-38 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. The memory is fresh.

"They’re going to give us everything we can handle this weekend," Brady said.

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Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a topic that no one wanted to touch. Well, almost no one. 

Chris Ballard laughed it off. Mike Mayock was terse. Brian Flores repeated what felt like a well-rehearsed company line. Even the ever-confident Mike Vrabel fidgeted a bit, but in the end, he couldn't help himself. 

So, guys, Tom Brady...any interest?

Right alongside the topic of the new multi-billion dollar collective bargaining agreement being discussed by union leaders and NFL owners, Brady's future whereabouts have dominated early-week conversations here in Indy. The league and anyone associated with it may be in town for the scouting combine, but draftable players and their futures took a backseat to the Brady buzz Tuesday. 

The Patriots are still in play for Brady. Whether or not the Patriots make an effort to retain Brady will be coach Bill Belichick's call, from what I've been told. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wants nothing more than to see Brady remain in New England, as he's stated, and if the difference between Brady staying and going is a manageable amount of money then the owner would happily step in. But Belichick has yet to show his hand, and so the football world continues to wait and see what's next for the 42-year-old quarterback. 

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That means other front-office chiefs and head coaches around the league, those with quarterback questions of their own, will be peppered with Brady-related questions this week.

Even questions that didn't invoke Brady's name -- coaches and general managers are wary of publicly discussing players who are still technically on other rosters, as Brady is, until the new league year begins -- were dodged. 

Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams and receivers coach, was the first up. He was asked if Daniel Jones is his team's "franchise quarterback." 

"It's not going to be fair for me," Judge said, "to go ahead and set expectations for anyone on our roster at this point."

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Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but consistent with Judge's policy of leaving individual evaluations out of his public comments at this point in his coaching tenure. 

So what about Brady? He's owned property in New York City. Maybe he'd like the idea of playing in New York? 

I asked Judge about that hypothetical without mentioning Brady specifically. 

"Could you envision," I asked him, "a scenario in which the best way to teach Daniel might be to sit a year or two and allow him to grow that way?"

"We're going to let our players compete," he said. "Whoever our best player is going to be is going to be on the field. I don't have any scenario of letting anybody sit down if they're the best player for the job at the time. I'm not trying to create a hypothetical scenario where I think there's a timetable for any of our guys to contribute. I don't care how old or young you are. I really don't. I don't care about what your experience is before you get in our building. All I care about is can you help our team improve? That's it."

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was quicker with his dismissal. After acknowledging that any and every position will be evaluated, including quarterback, he noted that one of the things that's critical to playing that position in Vegas is being able to grasp Jon Gruden's offense. 

What if, though, there was a quarterback who'd run another offense better than Gruden's? It stands to reason that any team Brady would join would end up running some variation of Brady's offense. 

So...? 

"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level." 

OK then. 

Brian Flores said essentially what Miami general manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross have said of late, which is, why would Brady want to join a rebuilding team like Miami? 

Curiously consistent in that response have been the Dolphins, but with Chad O'Shea's departure -- the former Patriots receivers coach who was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in Miami after the season -- and Chan Gailey's hiring as coordinator, the Dolphins make less sense for Brady than they did two months ago.

Up next: Chris Ballard, Colts GM.

Indy is flush with cap space. They've been reluctant to commit to Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback of the present or the future. They have a roster, though, that looks talented enough to compete if they had consistent quarterback play. 

Ballard said multiple times that he wouldn't comment on impending free agents potentially joining his team; Philip Rivers has been linked to Indy multiple times already this offseason because of his connection to certain members of the coaching staff there. 

Still, I asked him about Brady. As a longtime competitor, could Ballard envision Brady in another uniform? 

"So," he laughed, "you're going to ask me a question now? You don't want me to comment but you're going to ask me?" 

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said, eventually. "Great career, though."

As the day wore on, a couple of coaches were a bit more loose-lipped. Bruce Arians of the Bucs flat out named Brady as a potential target for Tampa Bay when asked for examples of quarterbacks he'd consider next month. 

"Tom Brady," he said. "Philip is another guy. We'll see."

Tell us how you really feel, Bruce. 

Seriously. And why not? Maybe Arians is an NBC Sports Boston reader. Maybe he knows there's really nothing to worry about when it comes to tampering with Brady because the Patriots probably aren't going to pursue tampering charges involving their quarterback. Tampering might actually help Brady gauge his market more quickly and allow the Patriots to act one way or the other as they construct their team. 

Here's what our Tom E. Curran wrote earlier this month: "My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel, Brady getting some input on that, and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering."

That brings us to Vrabel, the Titans head coach, a friend of Brady's, who straddled the tampering fence as well as anyone Tuesday. It looked uncomfortable for him at first, though. Vrabel looked down when asked about Brady potentially playing elsewhere during a podium session at the Indianapolis Convention Center. At one point he fidgeted with the recorders in front of him.

"Tom's a teammate, former teammate," Vrabel said. "He's a friend. He'll always be a friend. He'll do what's best for him and his family. Wherever that may be, I'm not sure."

Vrabel was quick to compliment Brady as an opponent. Though his defense beat up on the Patriots offense in the Wild Card Round in January, he clearly still holds Brady's game in high regard. 

"Very accurate passer," Vrabel said. "A player that's got great command of the pocket . . . Tom did a great job of staying in the pocket when we mixed some of those three-man rushes in. Great command of the offense. Great leader."

Pressed further on Brady, and told that the Titans look like a good fit for Brady if he was to leave New England, Vrabel interrupted. 

"Why would you see it would be a great fit," Vrabel asked? "I'm just curious."

The Titans have shown they can win now, I told him. Good weapons. Good offensive line. Brady knows the coach.

"We were 9-7," Vrabel interrupted. "We played a couple of good games. I know a lot of players. I played in the league 14 years. Friends with some. Tom's under contract. I was just curious why you thought he'd be a great fit."

Do you agree, I asked?

"Do I agree that I know Tom, or that I'm friends with Tom," he replied?

No. Is Tennessee a good fit? 

"I think when you look at players that are still under contract," Vrabel said, "it's important for us to evaluate each and every position but understand that there's a time frame to have those conversations."

Outside of Arians spelling out his Brady interest, that was as close as we came to another organization acknowledging it'll make a play for the six-time Lombardi-winner. "There's a time frame to have those conversations..." 

Technically that's the legal tampering period, starting on Mar. 16 and running right up to the start of the new league year on Mar. 18. But the reality is those conversations begin now, this week, in Indianapolis, where agents, coaches and executives mingle to discuss their options. 

No one wants to admit it, but if those conversations haven't started already, they will soon. 

Vrabel, while complimentary of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of what was far and away the best season of his career, didn't necessarily commit to Tannehill as the team's quarterback of the future. That might simply be a leverage play; Tannehill is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But it might also mean the team is leaving its options open. 

Vrabel and Brady remain close. When asked about his relationship with Brady, Vrabel said Tuesday, "undefeated," referencing Tennessee wins over New England in 2018 and in the playoffs last season. 

"I asked him for a bigger trophy this year," Vrabel said. "Still waiting for it."

In just a matter of weeks, Brady and Vrabel can legally discuss any kind of trophy they'd like, and how Brady might be able to bring a big one to Tennessee.

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

The Patriots staffers who questioned Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton at the NFL Scouting Combine just came right out and asked it.

How would he feel about replacing a legend at QB?

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Luton, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound QB projected as a late-round pick, told USA TODAY he was a bit taken aback to get the Tom Brady question right off the bat. 

“I think that was a great question," he told Patriots Wire's Henry McKenna. "It was a fair question for them to ask.”

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Luton said his demeanor would be an asset if he was indeed that next guy for the Patriots.

“Those are big shoes to fill. But for me, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I kind of reiterated that,” he said. "I’ve never let any of the outside noise distract me, so I don’t think that would be an issue. I’d bring it every day and prove that I’m a leader, no matter if it’s a high or a low. Keep doing it every day, however that works out. I’m not going to worry about filling anyone’s shoes. Just doing the best that I can do.”

Injury concerns have dropped Luton down most draft boards. He spent six years playing in college between Idaho and Oregon State and a forearm injury kept him out of what would've been his final college game against Oregon.

Luton was one of four QB prospects the Pats have met with at the combine in Indianapolis. Jake Fromm of Georgia, Jordan Love of Utah State (projected as New England's first-round pick in Phil Perry's latest mock draft) and James Morgan of Florida International, who met with them at the East-West Shrine Game, are the others.

It stands to reason that the others were asked the Brady question, too. And it was probably put to current backup Jarett Stidham before he was selected last year in the fourth round.