Put all the hype and hoopla and drama aside for a moment, and consider the following.
Tom Brady knows the Patriots know.
The Patriots know Tom Brady knows the Patriots know.
And vice versa. On and on in perpetuity.
That's what makes the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Bill Belichick one of the most fascinating regular-season Xs and Os matchups in recent NFL history.
"He's as tough as any quarterback there is or ever has been," Belichick said this week when asked about preparing for his former quarterback. "Enough said. I mean, his numbers are incredible. He's about to pass the all-time passing record. He's done more than any other player at that position in whatever measurement you want to take, whether it’s yards, completions, touchdowns, championships. You name it, so put anything out there you want, but it doesn’t get any tougher than him."
"We're going against a guy that knows what you're in," Devin McCourty said of Brady this week. "He knows what you're trying to do. He's reading every man on the field. He's seen it all, and obviously he's seen this [defense] more than anything because of his years in the system and going against the defense in training camp and OTAs."
That's why it might be a fool's errand for the Patriots to try to confuse Brady. What would be the point? But if the Patriots could force Brady -- a super-computer quarterback with all the answers -- into choosing the answers it wants him to choose, they might be onto something.
The Patriots put Peyton Manning and the juggernaut Broncos offense in a choose-your-own-adventure situation back in 2013. Belichick forced the future Hall of Famer to take what was simultaneously a) the path of least resistance for the Broncos offense and b) the path Belichick preferred. In some ways, it was similar to the Belichick game plan from Super Bowl XXV, where he tried to coax Jim Kelly's "K-Gun" offense to hand off to Thurman Thomas, that now rests in the Hall of Fame.
To open that game against Denver eight years ago, the Patriots played two safeties 13 yards off the line of scrimmage. Manning understood Belichick was practically giving away free yardage on the ground. So he handed off to Knowshon Moreno for 12 yards. First down.
But the Patriots stuck with their plan and did the same thing on the next three snaps: They deployed two high safeties with underneath defenders dropping into zones.
Manning, perhaps already frustrated knowing that Belichick was trying to take the game out of his hands, threw the ball on all three snaps. The Broncos gained just nine yards and punted.
Eventually Denver did what the Patriots wanted. They handed off time and time again. Moreno rushed for a whopping 224 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries. Manning threw for 150 yards on only 19 attempts. The Patriots won in overtime, 34-31.
"Peyton is a smart quarterback, man," Patriots corner Aqib Talib said after the game. "We knew we were going to come out and show that two-high shell. He sees that two-high shell, he’s going to run the ball. That was our plan, to get him to run it more than he throws it.”
The Patriots have for years been among the league leaders in man-to-man defensive snap percentage, and that has continued to be the case in 2021. According to PFF, Belichick calls for Cover 1 -- man-to-man defense with a single safety deep -- at the second-highest rate in the league.
But Belichick may not have the talent level on defense to run man for man with Brady's Buccaneers in Week 4. Without Stephon Gilmore (on the physically unable to perform), matching up with receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate would be a tall order.
The Patriots secondary -- led by McCourty, safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips and corners JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones -- have held their own without Gilmore through through three weeks. The team is seventh in expected points added per play allowed, according to Ben Baldwin of the Athletic, and fifth in dropback EPA allowed. They're also seventh in dropback success rate allowed, and they're eighth in yards per pass attempt allowed.
But the secondary hasn't seen a collection of talent like Tampa Bay's in three games against the Dolphins (31st in the NFL in yards per pass attempt), Jets (28th) and Saints (27th). That means a little more zone, like what the Patriots showed Manning early in that game in 2013, may make sense. There may be larger windows for Brady to pick apart if that's the path the Patriots choose, but if Patriots zones are paired with "two-high" looks, that may encourage Brady to hand off.
It would be the easy thing to do. It might be the smartest football decision to make. But it also might qualify as a mini-victory for Belichick and his defense. Better to allow 5.0 yards per carry and have Brady hand off 35 times than have Brady throw 40 times at 7.7 yards per attempt (his 2021 average).
If Brady can't be patient enough to take what the Patriots give him in that scenario, if his affinity for the pass wins out -- particularly on the night of his grand return to Foxboro -- then the Patriots would be in better position to defend thanks to an added layer of help deep.
That still doesn't mean they'll be able to stop him. They'll need to generate some pressure.
Blitzing probably isn't the best idea. Odds are, Brady will know it's coming. And if he does, he's shown in Tampa that he's still adept at carving up opposing pressure schemes. He's completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz in 2021, per PFF, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and one interception for a rating of 112.0. In last year's playoffs, he connected on just 50 percent of his attempts when blitzed, but he averaged 7.6 yards per attempt for four touchdowns and one pick for a rating of 101.0.
Instead of blitzing, to achieve their goal of pressure up the middle, the Patriots may want to run some tackle-tackle stunts in the middle of the line, or some games between their outside linebackers and defensive linemen. They may not be able to keep Brady guessing, but they may be able to confound Brady's offensive line.
"The book on Tom will always be the same thing -- pressure in the middle, compress the pocket on him because he’s not running out of there," former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told Sirius XM Radio before Brady won the Super Bowl in February. "He’s got 30 yards rushing for the entire year where [Patrick] Mahomes has got 300. That is what Tom is.
"Tom is an avoid the rush in the pocket within the confines of the pocket, find the opening, get the ball out through the seams and all the rest of it... That’s one of Tom’s saving graces -- he’s a rhythm guy. He gets the ball out fast and he has a pretty good idea of where it is going to go before the ball is snapped. And if he doesn’t he has a pretty good idea of where it’s going to go after the ball is snapped. The key for them is making sure everybody is seeing it the way he’s seeing it.”
It's not impossible to get Brady flustered pre-snap. Every so often he and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would run into a defense that did something it hadn't shown on tape in a given season. It might take the pair some time -- maybe a series or two, maybe a quarter or two or longer -- to scrap that week's game plan and figure out something new.
But odds are the Patriots aren't going to be able to do that on Sunday. Even if Brady is expecting man-to-man coverage, he'll be ready for Patriots zones. If he's expecting zone and the Patriots opt to match up with Brady's uber-talented weapons, he'll be happy to pick his favorite matchups.
That's why the best path for the Patriots might be to dare Brady -- the quarterback with the answers to every test -- to answer correctly the same easy question over and over again.
Two high safeties? Hand it off.
If he does, it certainly won't guarantee the Patriots a victory. But it might help them keep it close.
Bucs 27, Patriots 23
X-factor: Patriots right tackle
There's no name listed here because it's unclear at this point who will be manning that spot in front of Mac Jones. Whoever it is will need to perform better than Justin Herron did against the Saints in Week 3, when Saints end Cam Jordan was a disruptive force throughout (nine pressures) and was a significant factor in the 11 quarterback hits Jones absorbed.
It may be Herron again against the Bucs. It may be Yasir Durant, who filled in for five snaps against New Orleans and didn't allow a pressure. It may be Trent Brown, who has missed all but a handful of snaps in Week 1 against the Dolphins before he suffered a calf injury that has kept him out since then. Brown has been limited in practice this week.
Whoever it on the right side will see a great deal of Tampa's healthiest and most effective pass-rusher this season Shaq Barrett. Only three pass-rushers have worked more often off the defensive left edge (Jordan, Cincinnati's Sam Hubbard and Las Vegas' Maxx Crosby) this season, meaning finding Barrett shouldn't be a problem. Blocking him could be.
The good news for the Patriots is that the Bucs possess the lowest sack rate in football through three weeks, but that could change if the Patriots don't figure out a way to buttress the right side of their offensive line.
Number to know: 2,250,000
That's the number of dollars the Bucs could end up paying Richard Sherman on the contract they handed him this week. Though it wasn't a break-the-bank kind of move, it's also not an insignificant sum, and it's an indication of just cornerback-needy the Bucs have become.
Starting corner Jamel Dean (knee) left last weekend's game with the Rams injured. He's been limited in practice this week. Sean Murphy-Bunting, the team's top nickel option, hit injured reserve with an elbow injury after Week 1. Dee Delaney, primarily a special-teamer, had to play 53 snaps against LA and allowed all four targets sent his way to be completed for a total of 53 yards.
The Bucs secondary would qualify as "opportunistic" when things are going well and "over-aggressive" when they're not. They bit on a variety of double-moves against the Rams in Week 3 on their way to allowing Matthew Stafford to throw for 341 yards on 73 percent passing, including 149 yards after the catch. Through three games the Bucs are allowing more yardage through the air per game (338.3) than any other team and they're 24th in dropback success rate allowed, per the Athletic.
Patriots tight ends could have a hard time finding openings this week. The Bucs are 10th in the league in yards per attempt allowed to players at that position. But if Jones has enough time behind center to diagnose what's happening in the Tampa secondary, he should be able to find some openings.