An NFL defensive coordinator analyzes the men who make the offenses click
THE BIGGEST problem for a defense facing Tom Brady is that he hardly ever makes mistakes. Most quarterbacks will give you three or four chances to make an interception, to turn their throw into a big play for the defense, but Brady's too smart for that. He's got a quick release, so sacking him is almost impossible. And he throws to so many guys—16 Patriots have caught passes this season—that there's no single receiver to key on. You can't blitz him, because he sees the blitz as well as any QB in the league, especially from all those spread formations. Want to make Brady's day? Send a zone blitz at him. He'll pick you apart. He involves everyone and doesn't turn it over. That's why he's so good in the postseason.
Almost half of Brady's passes this year traveled fewer than five yards downfield. That puts added pressure on the cornerbacks to get to the receivers at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots are like the 2002 Raiders: lots of four-and six-yard passes, low-risk, used almost as running plays. To defend that, you have to hit those receivers early, tackle well and be strong in man coverage on the outside. Because if you jump a short route too aggressively, Brady will kill you with the pump-and-go.
All those receivers—guys like Troy Brown and Deion Branch and David Givens—are the same: small, quick, smart. They're interchangeable, so when they spread the field, you don't have enough good corners to match up, and Brady's great at finding the mismatch. Maybe your safety can play man coverage for 10 snaps, but not 40, and you're forced to play man because if you go zone, the receivers are all really good at finding the soft spots for those six-yard hits.
Their ideal series is first-and-10, second-and-six, third-and-two, move the chains. They know you know that, and they still beat you with the run, because Stephen Davis knows exactly what every blocker is going to do and hits holes that, a split-second before, didn't exist. And whereas most teams pass from multiple schemes, Carolina will run out of any formation: Three-wide or two-tight-end/two-back, the Panthers are coming with counters, traps, leads, pulls. Your defense has to stay disciplined: If you miss one gap, Davis will find it, and DeShaun Foster can cut it back and make you pay. Carolina almost never loses yardage on first down, but if you can change the formula to first-and-10, second-and-12, then the offense is vulnerable.
Jake Delhomme is like most quarterbacks on running teams—you want to get him to third-and-long and make him beat you. I think he's been lucky in a few of the games they've won, just throwing it up and hoping, like the TD pass to Muhsin Muhammad in the NFC Championship Game. And in third-and-long, the Panthers have only a few patterns they like to call: the screen, the dash, the deep curl. Get them in enough passing downs, and their offense gets predictable. But Delhomme is good at making something out of broken plays. He's effective when he's creating. Stay in zone coverage and don't blitz him, because he doesn't have the arm to beat you.
The Panthers will rely on the big play to get two scores, hoping that's all they'll need from the offense. With a ground game that can pile up 200-plus yards, two or three big plays make a huge difference, so shutting down the run is paramount.