BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Tom Brady carves up zone coverage. You can blitz him, but you had better get home ... or else he can shred a weakened secondary.
The tried and true way to have success vs. Brady and the New England Patriots' passing game is actually to not blitz — to rush four men — and play man defense.
"You can't blitz Tom Brady at all," Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said on the Doug Gottleb Show on Friday. "You got to literally play man-to-man, not zone, and rush four. Your four have to get pressure on Tom Brady."
Bell is right. But even that might not work if one of the Patriots' signature concepts is working. Offensive players call them rub routes; defensive guys, with more of a negative connotation, more often call them pick plays.
The rub concept is designed to have two defensive backs run routes in close proximity to each other, often criss-crossing off the line, and hope the defensive backs covering them get bollixed up. It's not very effective against zone or off coverage but can be lethal against bump-and-run.
There's a one-yard area past the line of scrimmage where the players can get away with contact, but after that it's pass interference if either the offensive player impedes a defender or a defensive player makes contact with the receiver. So it's also a play that can draw a lot of flags.
Attention, conspiracy theorists: The Patriots drew the third-most penalties in the 2017 season, and they had far and away the most defensive holding calls (17) benefit them; no other team drew more than 12. They were tied for fifth in most DPI calls drawn, but those plays drew the most penalty yardage (355) in the league. The Patriots were fifth in the NFL in yards per reception, too, despite not having a lot of true burners outside Brandin Cooks.
So how can the Eagles play the Patriots' rub concepts, which they run with regularity?
"Don't be in man coverage," cracked Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Hence the dilemma for his defense. Zone — at least a lot of it — is out. Off coverage is an option, which takes away some of those run plays, but then it sets up Brady with play action and double-move potential. That's how the New York Giants had success against the Eagles in Week 15.
Schwartz knows it's coming. He knows it's a play every team runs — especially in short-yardage situations and in the red zone.
"It's part of the league now, and not every run is illegal," he said. "It's not illegal to run you into one of your own players. It's illegal for them to run into you, but they can set it up where your guys are colliding. We need to be communicating that beforehand. They can legally interfere with you within a yard from the line of scrimmage.
"You had better plan for them and be one step ahead, because if you don't you're going to look bad."
The beauty of the Patriots' scheme is that almost any player can be involved in these plays. It could be a two-receiver stack with Cooks and Chris Hogan. It could be Danny Amendola out there, whom offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said is "great in tight windows." Running backs such as Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead all can operate as perimeter receivers, too. They'll even use bigger bodies out there — usually tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been cleared to play in Super Bowl LII.
One player Brady likely will be watching closely is Eagles CB Jalen Mills. Although Mills has sometimes gotten a bad rap among Eagles fans, he actually is a pretty instinctive playmaker. But he's also hyper-aggressive at times and can get out of phase or get handsy. His five defensive holding calls led the team (no one else had more than two), as did his four defensive pass interference flags (no other defender had more than one).
Brady and McDaniels will try to bait Mills with rubs until he shows he can stop them.
"For one, you have to know they're coming," Mills said. "They run them a lot in shorter downs and distances. And then you have to know where they are on that field. That one yard from the line of scrimmage ... they use it well."
Mills laughed. He didn't outright suggest that the Patriots might get away with a little extra contact without getting flagged, yet he did everything but wink when he said it. But the rules to defending them are in place, and Mills knows it's as much the responsibility of the defender as it is the coordinator calling the coverages to help the secondary out.
"You have to have guys on different levels," Mills said. "If you have guys on the same level [playing even with each other], two guys pressing, next thing you know it's a chip. And if you're too far off the ball, you can't get over the top quick enough when they cross over you. It's all about knowing when it's coming and trying to be ready for that action."
Eagles safeties coach Tim Hauck said game situations will dictate a lot of when a pick play is coming.
"Third and short, most teams in the NFL are going to be man to man," Hauck said. "You have to know who's on the ball, who's off the ball, what are our indicators for how they're lined up and who they have out there.
"They'll switch that up; they do a good job with their personnel. But you can still have good awareness about the obvious situations and be ready for them. We basically tell them, 'Don't put yourself in a pick situation.' We also have some tools we use to battle it, and we switch that up week to week just so teams can't pick up on what we're doing."
Hogan said the Patriots spend a lot of time practicing the plays because there's a lot involved. First of all, it's a timing play, so getting the footwork and synchronicity down takes ample reps. Second, as Hogan notes, they don't assume they'll get one more inch past a yard to make contact — even if every defensive player on the planet would argue that the offense tends to get the benefit of the doubt on those plays.
"Everyone in the league is looking for those pick plays," Hogan said. "So I think as long as you are not trying to do something extra, like draw a flag, those plays are pretty effective against the right coverage. It really depends on how they're playing you."
Hogan added that the Patriots talk about the officials working the game and how often they call certain penalties. Gene Steratore is the lead official for the Super Bowl, and though they use all-star official crews, it is worth nothing that Steratore did work the Patriots-Bills game back in Week 14 and called Gronkowski for an OPI that led to his frustration in later hitting Bills CB Tre'Davious White after a play leading to suspension.
Steratore's crew also called three defensive holds in the Patriots' win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8. He only worked one Eagles game this year, but there were three defensive holds called (one against Mills) but zero DPI calls.
"I think you also see how they're calling it early in the game," Hogan said, "and whether they're calling it tight or maybe giving us a little more."
Added Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea: "At the end of the day, we try to teach it a certain way, within the legal bounds. But we're always aware of what the officials' history is with certain calls. It's something we do a lot of research on, but it still comes down to getting the right look and calling it at the right time."
So it comes back to how the Eagles want to play it defensively and what they're willing to live with. Assuming they play a lot of man coverage, is there a desire to take these plays out of the equation? Schwartz says no — at the end of the day it's still Brady running a diverse attack where almost anyone can beat you.
"With a quarterback like Tom Brady, if you scheme to take one player out, he's going to make you pay with all the other players," Schwartz said. "It's the same with [defending] one type of play. They can run the ball, pass the ball short, pass it deep ...
"We can't just focus on one player or one concept."