By any measure, Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and, arguably, the greatest quarterback of the last 15 years.
He has a very impressive resumé that includes a 107-29 career record (.787 career winning percentage) — including a 14-3 record in the postseason (.824) — 213 touchdown passes versus only 91 interceptions, has compiled a career passer rating of 93.4, has won six division titles, four conference championships, and three Super Bowls. Whether he is evaluated qualitatively, quantitatively, or athletically, he passes with flying colors.
He has very rarely shown himself to be vulnerable or beatable throughout the course of his career and the mystique surrounding his invincibility was even stronger prior to Super Bowl XLII. Prior to that game, he had been ineffective for one game stretches and had been rattled from time to time in the heat of the moment, but hadn't broken down and been ineffective and rattled for an entire game when the stakes were at their highest.
On the biggest stage the NFL has to offer, the New York Giants broke Tom Brady down and held the most prolific offense in league history to 14 points, even though Brady attempted 48 passes.
Brady then missed all but eight minutes of the 2008 season with a knee injury. Since returning for the 2009 season, he still has most of the tools that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time — pinpoint accuracy, the ability to go through multiple progressions and regressions quickly, excellent decision-making skills, fantastic vision and awareness, and a very powerful and often underrated arm — but he has, for long stretches during games, been missing the one thing that set him apart from all other quarterbacks in the league: the fact that he is unflappable and often immune to the fact that, about 50 times in three hours once a week, there are a bunch of large men that would like to kill him.
He repeatedly showed signs of breaking down against the Jets in Week 2 and again against the Broncos in Week 5, both losses. He also broke down on occasion against the Ravens in Week 4 and the Dolphins in Week 9.
What to Look For:
Brady's mechanics are impeccable and, when he is in control and on his game, they are smooth and incredibly consistent to that point that you could watch him from the shoulders down for three different plays at three different points in that game and not be able to tell that the play or situation was different.
Steve Young once said that you could tell how good or bad a game he had by watching his feet. When his feet were working in time with the patterns his receivers were running — the hallmark of any effective West Coast Offense — he had a good game. When they weren't, he didn't.
The same is true of Brady. When he is off his game — again, this is a small sample size, but it is also incredibly consistent — there is a great deal of wasted motion in his mechanics. He rolls his shoulders. He shuffles his feet. He pats the underside of the ball with his left hand.
When he steps up or away from pressure — something he does better and more fluidly than anyone when he's on his game — there is a great deal of wasted motion by his standards when he is off his game. In order to escape pressure, he'll move his arms unnecessarily almost as though he's trying to fly away from it. He'll hop or occasionally skip forward in the pocket while rolling his shoulders and pass the ball when he's off his game rather than simply striding forward as he would if he were on it.
Throwing his mechanics off has a trickle-down effect on his delivery. His throws become rushed. He begins to try to escape pressure and get rid of the ball before pressure arrives, usually checking down when a bigger gain would've opened up. He tends to overlook things that he does naturally, such as looking off safeties and linebackers. Generally speaking, he makes more bad decisions, forces more throws, and is off target more often than he would ordinarily be.
Now, given that there are only four examples of this kind of behavior from Brady for a total of a game and a half in the last 18 months, it obviously difficult to break him down, though it has happened far more frequently this season than in any other season in his career.
How to Do It:
Bring pressure: This does not mean blitzing him, as blitzing Brady is only slightly more effective than blitzing Peyton Manning (meaning not effective at all). Since the Colts focus on pressuring the quarterback with their front four or possibly one additional rusher, over-blitzing will not be an issue, though the Ravens and Jets were successful in rattling Brady on occasion by bringing six or seven defenders.
Dwight Freeney needs to take full advantage of the fact that he's facing a rookie left tackle on Sunday. Robert Mathis needs to outhuscle Nick Kaczur. Raheem Brock and Eric Foster need to come in in known passing situations — possibly even using Keyunta Dawson or lining Philip Wheeler up as an end, sliding Mathis to tackle. The first step is to bring pressure from the edges and force Brady to step up.
When you do that, you need to make sure that he steps up into pressure, otherwise you're just moving the pocket for him. That's where Brock, Foster, and Dawson come into play, as well as Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson when the Patriots pass on first and second down.
Take away his first two options: Simply bringing pressure won't work because Brady will simply use his first, best option and, whether he gets a big gain out of it or not, he will live to fight another play. The Jets and Giants in particular were effective in doing this, especially when they took away Randy Moss.
But, Indianapolis doesn't have Darrelle Revis, so they will need to hope that Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey can jam their man at the line and at least delay Brady's release long enough for the pressure to get to him.
Keep it in front of you: The biggest thing Brady has that sets him apart from other quarterbacks is his confidence level and his selective amnesia. His confidence and selective amnesia can be broken down, but they can easily be built back up if he hits on a big play. By keeping the play in front of them, the Colts will be able to keep Brady from getting that breath of fresh air.
Those three steps are not easy to accomplish and nearly impossible to maintain throughout an entire game — which makes the defensive performance the Giants turned in in Super Bowl XLII that much more impressive — but they are attainable and, if recent history is anything to shout about, more readily attainable in the last nine games than at any point this decade.
Breaking Brady is the key to beating the Patriots. The reason both have been so successful is because it's very, very hard to do. But it's exactly what the Colts need to do on Sunday if they want to win.
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