How Tom Brady continued to be cheat code for Bucs' passing game vs. Washington

/ by Phil Perry
Presented By Nissan

For three hours, a math major pursuing an engineering degree went nose to nose with Tom Brady and gave the Bucs all they could handle. But it was Brady who put up the performance of the year against one of the best defenses in football.

What Brady has done this season -- particularly through the second half of the year as he and his new team hit their stride down the stretch -- has been remarkable. And unusual. And not just because of his age.

The 43-year-old has been the league's most frequent deep-ball thrower while simultaneously throwing quickly enough to rank among the fastest triggers in football.

That seemingly-incongruous style continued in Saturday night's Wild Card game, largely diffusing Washington's menacing pass-rush with quick strikes that traveled deep down the field. Brady's patented lighting-quick processing married up with Bruce Arians' no-risk-it-no-biscuit attack resulted in a 31-point performance with 381 passing yards, 9.5 yards per Brady pass attempt and a 104.3 quarterback rating for the future Hall of Famer.

Brady's recent play gets even more eye-opening when you dig into some of the numbers.

Coming into Saturday, Brady ranked first in the NFL in air yards per attempt through the second half of the season (9.7). But in that same span, according to Pro Football Focus, he was the third-quickest to throw (2.32 seconds to attempt). 

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Why is that odd? Well, typically the league's deepest throwers take more time behind the line of scrimmage to launch. The league's quickest throwers don't let their targets travel long distances and so their (typically) dink-and-dunk style leads to less time with the ball in their hands.

Simple enough.

But consider the other quarterbacks near the top of the league in air yards per attempt through Weeks 9-17. Derek Carr (9.2), Deshaun Watson (9.1) and Josh Allen (9.0), Patrick Mahomes (8.8) and Russell Wilson (8.8) -- the next five to follow Brady in air yards per attempt -- rank 23rd, 22nd, 31st, 24th and 30th in time to throw. 

Brady ranked third. The discrepancy there is . . . staggering.

Against the Football Team, Brady averaged 2.53 seconds to attempt. That would've ranked him 12th in the NFL in time to throw this season -- not quite the pace he was putting up through the second half of this season, but still above average.

And when you factor in how frequently down the field Brady was targeting his passes Saturday, you get a sense for just how impressive it was that he was dealing so quickly. His air yards per attempt in the game, per Ben Baldwin of the Athletic, checked in at 11.4. That's two full yards more than Brady's league-leading air-yards-per-attempt figure for the season (9.4). 

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Brady's 27 air yards on his touchdown to Antonio Brown required just 2.81 seconds behind the line of scrimmage. His touchdown to Chris Godwin, which covered 22 air yards, needed just 2.60 seconds behind the line. His deep strike to Mike Evans to help ice the game? It covered 29 air yards, and Brady lofted it just 2.24 seconds after the snap.

Keep in mind, this was a Washington defense that hadn't allowed more than 309 yards passing this season and on average gave up 191.8 yards through the air. Brady put up 381. The Football Team was the third-best defense in football in terms of yards per attempt allowed (6.4) and expected points added per dropback allowed (-0.031) in 2020. Brady blew those numbers out of the water (9.5 yards per attempt and 0.455 EPA per dropback).

Before Wild Card weekend, the thinking went that Brady's down-the-field passing attack with the Bucs may run into trouble against a dynamic pass-rushing unit for Washington. He had a rating of only 51.1 under pressure in the second half of the year (26th in the NFL) and a 63.1 adjusted completion percentage (24th). Maybe Brady wouldn't have time to strike deep and Washington would force him into mistakes.

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He didn't need much time, though. Despite being sacked three times and taking three hits to go along with four Washington hurries, he was still pressured on just 23 percent of his 43 dropbacks. 

Brady and his all-star cast have been a cheat code for months now. He's throwing deeper than anyone, but he's chucking it quickly too. They'll play either the Saints or Rams next week in the Divisional Round -- both defenses who forced Brady into multiple-interception performances in the second half of the year. 


But if the Bucs can continue to throw it deep, to remain explosive, and yet keep Brady protected by throwing quickly, they're going to be awfully hard to slow down.