Opponents need to pressure Brady . . . and keep him off the field


Opponents need to pressure Brady . . . and keep him off the field

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. 


Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

FOXBORO - Dont'a Hightower was among the missing during Tuesday's OTA that was open to reporters. He was prominently featured on the team's website as a participant in Thursday's OTA, though.

It's a positive development for one of the Patriots best and most versatile defenders. Hightower tore his pectoral in October and missed the remainder of the 2017 season, leading to some shuffling of personnel both at the second level and on the edge. 

Hightower snagged one of the team's photos of his participation in Thursday's workout and slapped it on his Instagram page. 

Hightower's presence on the turf behind Gillette Stadium, even if he was limited in the practice, allows our minds to wander a bit and look ahead to what the Patriots depth chart might look like at linebacker with him in the fold. 

The Patriots are consistently altering their fronts and Hightower's adaptability allows his role to change with whatever scheme Bill Belichick deploys. 

Hightower can play on the line or off. He can be used as a "Sam" linebacker at the second level in a 4-3 or at the end of the line of scrimmage in 3-4 looks. He played on the left end early last season - a spot we identified yesterday as a potential landing spot for Derek Rivers. And if the Patriots needed Hightower to play as a "Mike" linebacker, he has the ability to do that as well. 

Sub packages, base packages . . . Hightower can line up in a variety of front-seven spots for the Patriots regardless of the situation, which is why when healthy he's been able to serve as an every-down player. (He played 92.4 percent of Patriots defensive snaps in 2014 and 83.1 percent of the snaps in 2016.)

How might the rest of the Patriots linebacker corps slot in if Hightower is a full go for training camp? Let's take a look . . . 


Kyle Van Noy is probably the closest approximation to Hightower that the Patriots have on their roster. When Hightower went out last season, it was Van Noy who moved around the front seven and handled a variety of responsibilities. He's probably best suited as a "Will" linebacker, someone who can use his athleticism to make plays in different areas depending on the situation, but Van Noy's ability to handle multiple responsibilities in New England's defense is part of the reason why the team likes him as much as they do. He was handed a two-year extension early last season. 


Elandon Roberts often handled the "Mike" responsibilities in the Patriots defense last season. The third-year player out of Houston might have the inside track on this role in 2018, but he could be pushed by rookie fifth-round selection Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. Both players seem like they're at their best against the run game, unafraid to fill their lanes as prideful "thumpers." What may separate this duo is which player can more consistently cover the correct gaps on first and second down, and which player more effectively communicates the defense to their teammates around them. Whether either player can contribute on special teams could also alter how the workload is distributed here. 


Van Noy would likely be the first choice here for the Patriots, but there are a few others who could be angling for time here. Marquis Flowers re-signed with the Patriots this offseason after an impressive end-of-the-season run where he showed up as a pass-rusher with enough athleticism to be trusted to run with backs in the passing game. Flowers was also a key contributor on special teams last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Christian Sam could also compete for "Will" reps. A defensive back in high school, Sam bulked up at Arizona State but remains a good athlete and could be a fit behind Van Noy. Special teamers Nicholas Grigsby and Brandon King work out with the linebackers and could be options here if they were ever called upon defensively.


NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

Chris Gasper and Michael Holley talk about the inconsistent messaging from NFL owners to their teams' players after they unanimously voted to change the league's policy regarding the national anthem. Watch the video above.