Man trouble: How can Tom Brady, Patriots combat latest defensive blueprint?

Man trouble: How can Tom Brady, Patriots combat latest defensive blueprint?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady sat on the visitor's bench at NRG Stadium in Houston and had a message for his receivers. He wanted them to play faster. He wanted them to be more explosive. That was the portion of the message that the football-watching world saw up close on NBC's broadcast of the game.

But another part of his message received less attention. That came later.

"C'mon let's go grind this [expletive] out," he said. "It ain't gonna be easy. It's gonna be all man. We're not gonna be wide open."

He punctuated the address with a thumbs up. But the Patriots have seen their fair share of man-to-man coverage lately -- some weeks seeing significantly more man coverage than opponent tendencies would suggest -- and they're having a hard time putting up points.

The Texans played a great deal of man coverage last weekend, holding the Patriots to single-digit points until Brady and his offense scored twice late to make the final 28-22. The week prior, the Cowboys -- who utilize primarily Seattle-style Cover 3 and Tampa-2 zone coverages -- were willing to adapt against New England.

According to NFL Media, the Cowboys played 24.1 percent more man coverage against the Patriots than they do on average. The Eagles, in Week 11, played 15.2 percent more man coverage than they typically do. The Browns in Week 8 played 14.4 percent more man.

But why?


Part of the reason teams might be willing to play more man-to-man against the Patriots is because Brady has been so effective at carving up zones over the course of his career. If you play zone, you're doing him a favor.

Man hasn't always been a good option, though, because Brady has had weapons who could win one-on-one. Some years they had several. When defenses wanted to check, for example, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and James White, they couldn't double them all. One-on-one, someone was going to defeat their matchup and get open.

What's happened lately is Edelman has been doubled. White has been mirrored by a defensive back. There's been no consistent third option to win one-on-one matchups or draw coverage away from Brady's two favorite targets. 

Mohamed Sanu has been slowed by an ankle injury. N'Keal Harry, someone who was not really a separator in college, is still getting accustomed to the offense. Jakobi Meyers and Phillip Dorsett are complementary pieces who haven't been treated as threats to run away from defenders.

That's why man-to-man, even for zone defenses, has been favored. It'll be interesting to see if Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo opts for man coverage on Sunday afternoon since he favors pattern-matching zone coverage schemes. That style of defense often ends up looking like man-to-man -- it's not a "spot-drop" zone defense, meaning defenders lock onto receivers once pass patterns are identified -- but maybe Spagnuolo will end up having his players simply mirror Patriots options because it's worked elsewhere.

So what's the answer for Brady and Josh McDaniels?


Sanu is expected to play Sunday and could be a difference-maker for Brady against man-to-man. If his injured ankle is closer to 100 percent -- he played just 19 snaps against the Texans last weekend -- then he could be that third option that the Patriots need. Either he'll be a threat to win his matchup or draw coverage away from others.

More of a big-body receiver who uses physicality and technical skill to create openings for his quarterback, Sanu won't necessarily threaten the deep part of the field and create space that way. But having him healthy could still change the geometry of the game for opposing defenses.

Sanu would represent another middle-of-the field target for Brady, meaning Edelman could be freed up to play more outside the numbers, which is something McDaniels has been trying to do with him for years now.

"Julian plays a lot outside the formation," McDaniels said last spring. "Does Julian do some of those things inside the formation? Absolutely he does. But he does a lot more on the outside in the running game and passing game. It's what he's become. There's a little bit of a difference based on the way we've used him than [other slot receivers]."

Getting Edelman outside would not only help him avoid the beating that he so often receives over the middle, but it also might make it difficult for defenses to bracket him everywhere he goes. Even if they do double Edelman outside, that should free space between the numbers for Sanu to go to work.

A healthy Sanu would also help the Patriots to scheme up a bit more in terms of manufactured separation. If they don't have a gaggle of separators at their disposal outside of Edelman, then they might be able to create separation with pick routes and alignments that create traffic for defenders to navigate.

Those plays require significant attention to detail and good decision-making on the run, and they might be difficult for rookies to execute. But if Sanu is at full strength, or close to it, he has the type of experience to make those "man-beater" plays work.

"It’s more every week," Bill Belichick said of Sanu's understanding of the Patriots offense. "Each week there’s building blocks and you can add some things or repeat things that have come up in previous weeks to improve the execution on him and communication. We’ve made a lot of progress. Definitely headed in the right direction. We’re definitely not there yet either, but we’re gaining ground."


Brady explained this week that there are a few ways to beat man coverage, including the scheme-it-up plays that Sanu might help with.

"I think when it’s man-to-man, you’ve got to get away from the guy, or you’ve got to use plays to try to help you do that," he said. "So, they could be more player-oriented, they could be more scheme-oriented, it just depends on how we’re playing and so forth."

What makes Harry such an interesting fit for the Patriots offense is that he might not fall into either category at the moment. 

He's green enough where it might be hard to ask him to effectively execute a scheme play like a high-low crosser combination to pick off the defender of a teammate without being penalized. And "to get away from the guy," as Brady put it, isn't exactly his game.

But at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Harry could be the type of player who's open even when he's not. He was a contested catch virtuoso at Arizona State, and we've seen flashes of back-shoulder brilliance from him in his limited game-day work with the Patriots this year. 

Using Harry on catch-and-run plays, another area in which he excelled as a collegian, might also make some sense as McDaniels and the Patriots try to squeeze what they can out of their first-round rookie. 

Watching how the Patriots have used Harry, the call from some to simplify things for him -- particularly after his lone target last weekend was intercepted -- rings a bit hollow. They already have. 

In the 68 routes he's run in three games, Harry has aligned outside 82 percent of the time and to the left of the formation 75 percent of the time. He has just 12 routes run from the slot and 18 when he's to Brady's right. He's been used in one bunch formation, six stacks (with a receiver aligned behind him), and he has not yet been used in motion before the snap. 

There's a pattern to the routes he's been asked to run as well. 

His most frequently-run route has been a hitch (13 times). He's also taken on plenty of go routes (11) and deep overs or digs (11). He's handled a half-dozen shallow under routes (including the one that resulted in the interception in Houston), as well as six comeback routes (including one where he created plenty of separation against the Cowboys but dropped the pass). 

Harry has seen posts (4), corner routes (4 times from the slot), and slants (4) less often. The back-shoulder plays (3) we assumed would be his bread-and-butter haven't been to this point, and he's seen just one receiver screen, which might've gone for more yardage had it not been for a missed Marshall Newhouse block.

Most of those routes have been one-man shows, meaning he hasn't been asked to help others get open all that often. Three of the slants Harry has run appeared to be part of a slant-flat combination, which can serve as a pick play. He ran one high-low crosser combination that resulted in an incompletion. He has one double-move under his belt -- a post-corner -- that didn't result in a target. 

The Patriots could take more off his plate. That's a possibility. But what he's been asked to do looks like it has already been simplified in terms of his alignments and routes run. In Houston, there were no motions, stacks or bunches for Harry. 

“Everything they ask me to do is reasonable,” Harry said this week. “Everything they ask me to do is something I can do and something I’m capable of doing. So, it’s just putting in the work and getting it done. No excuses.”


Odds are the Patriots are going to continue to see Edelman doubled, White mirrored by a defensive back, and man-to-man coverage across the board. That's what has worked against them, and it's a copycat league. 

Having a healthier Sanu should help. Using Harry's size and his catch-and-run ability to his advantage could help. Generating traffic with route combinations might help. 

Whatever they do -- Brady said it -- it ain't gonna be easy. But they know they have to find an answer. Because until they improve against those man-to-man coverages, they can expect to keep seeing them. 

"It’s like anything," Brady said this week. "If you hurt it, they play less of it. If you don’t hurt it, they play more of it. That’s what any smart team does."

Curran's Patriots-Chiefs Preview: Can they keep up with KC?>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

The New England Patriots reportedly have made an addition to their coaching staff.

According to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe, they've hired ex-Los Angeles Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Fisch's official role with the Patriots offense is to be determined. But now that there's an opening at wide receivers coach with Joe Judge joining the New York Giants, Fisch could be a candidate for the job.

He brings plenty of experience to the table having coached Denver Broncos wide receivers in 2008 and Michigan receivers from 2015-16. Fisch also coached Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks in 2010 and was the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator from 2013-14.