Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people for a series of topics we've been kicking around. The panel consists of two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons.
Today’s question: How do you beat the Patriots?
Scout 1: Control the head, beat the body. It’s all about Tom Brady. If you can hit him early and often, it changes how he plays. He won’t step into throws with the same authority. He won’t scan the field like he usually does. That pressure has to come up the gut, too. If it comes off the edges, Brady still slides and steps up in the pocket as well as ever. But if it is coming through the center and guards, you force him to move laterally. He’s not throwing the ball as well that way, especially if he’s forced to go to his left (like most guys). Behind this pressure, though, I think man is the way to go. I know teams have mixed it up and confused him at times, but their receivers don’t separate off press coverage. Sure, [Brandin] Cooks can get vertical but what else does he do? You know what’s funny about all this, though? The Pats will still get 24 points, maybe more. The Steelers can do that in the AFC, but not anyone else.
Scout 2: I know their defense has finished in the top 10 points against (fifth, actually), but it’s not like they don’t give up yards and let other teams control the clock. I think their run defense isn’t good at all on the edges or at the linebacker level, so in this case running to win makes sense. [Alan] Branch wasn’t the same player this year and while [Malcom] Brown and [Lawrence] Guy are solid, you can wear them down. I have no idea what they see in Elandon Roberts. He’s a guess guy. He can be manipulated both in the run game and then certainly in the passing game. You run, it amps up the play action and has him running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Miami did a nice job with it. Pittsburgh did, too. That keeps Brady off the field and limits the impact that offense can have. You still have to be efficient in the red area. That has been a major issue here for opponents in the second half of the season, but, again, it’s just about being smart and efficient with the football and in play calling.
Scout 3: There’s only one team in the AFC that can beat them -- the Steelers. They have home-run hitters, they have a solid offensive line, they have a running game and -- in theory -- a quarterback who has seen and done it all. How Ben [Roethlisberger] plays, though, is a question mark. I think if they were being honest in Pittsburgh, they’d tell you the same thing. He can be a stud and (be bad), not just in the same game but same drive. Defensively is another matter. I sure as hell think they have the talent to go toe-to-toe with the Pats, but can they change it up? That they let [Rob Gronkowski] beat them in the regular season was --- to me -- a real revelation about their operation. He was the one guy you can’t let do that. How do you let that happen? They didn’t have anyone else in the passing game. So on second thought, maybe they can’t beat the Pats.
Current front office exec: Your best bet versus Brady is to get after him with that interior pressure that makes every QB mortal, but don’t sit in one coverage behind it. Some zone. Some press man. Some off man. When teams find some level of success against him, that’s what they do. If they get [Chris] Hogan back their receivers become more of a problem, but I’d make Brady beat you by throwing outside the numbers and by forcing him to go vertical. If Brandin Cooks beats you, he beats you. Don’t let Gronk do it between the hashes. Or even [Danny] Amendola. Clog all that up. The X factor is what they bring from the running back position. This [Dion] Lewis kid has been something. Maybe pound for pound one of the best backs in the league. He’s not [Le'Veon] Bell or [Todd] Gurley or maybe even [Alvin] Kamara, but he’s something special. You can have bodies at the point of attack and he still makes something out of it. Can an opposing team hold him to under four yards a pop? If they can, that will only increase the weight on Brady’s shoulders.