The Secret to Beating Tom Brady is Universally Known, but Bill Belichick is a Genius

By Warren Sharp

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The secret to beating Tom Brady is a strong pass rush that can get pressure with 4 and play solid coverage behind.”

Wow, I’m not sure about you, but I’ve heard that one before.  AD NAUSEAM.  Guess what, if you believe that one, here’s another one for you:  that will beat any team, and is much more difficult than it sounds:

“We’re going to have our 4 D-linemen beat their 5 O-linemen and pressure and sack their QB frequently, and then we’ll have our other 7 defenders play coverage against their 5 players (WRs/TEs/RBs).”

Yes, if you can beat 5 with 4, and use 7 to cover 5, guess what: it probably will work out well for you.  Against any team.  I get it, though.  It’s the “easy” analysis to cite against the Patriots.  It takes absolutely no work to look back at the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowls from the 2007 and 2011 seasons and suggest that all a team needs to do is to pressure with 4, so strong defensive lines should have success.

It’s the easiest storyline to use against New England, so that is exactly what is suggested by the media.  Over and over and over.  It wouldn’t have been so excruciatingly painful if there weren’t two weeks of it heading into this game.  It wouldn’t have been as mind numbing had they not played the “Sacksonville” Jaguars the week before that, Tom Coughlin new franchise.

The problem with easy that often it’s also lazy.  And with laziness comes inaccuracy.

Here’s a funny contradiction:

It seems EVERYONE knows how to beat the Patriots, and EVERYONE knows the Eagles have the defensive line to do it.  Yet at the same time, EVERYONE thinks Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL, and is right up there with best of all time.

So if Belichick is smarter than most EVERYONE, don’t you think he knows what the Giants did to beat him in those two Super Bowls years ago?  Don’t you think he’s been trying to find a counter for that style?

I do.  I surely do.

And I surely think he found his counter….  it’s called the RB-pass.

The Jaguars last week had the Giants’ Tom Coughlin on staff.  They had arguably the best defensive line in the league.  They were “Sacksonville”.  They were the team to have the best shot at pulling off the Giants recipe.  So quick – what player led the Patriots in catches last week?

No one had more receptions than RB Dion Lewis (7).  Meanwhile, in a close game, the Patriots had other impediments to overcome.  Like Tom Brady’s skittish to start with 13-stitches on his throwing hand.  And the Patriots loss Rob Gronkowski before halftime.  And the Patriots need to operate in 11 personnel a lot because of the Gronkowski injury, which was the most inefficient way to attack the Jaguars pass defense.

The Patriots are greatness defined.  The Patriots have lost just 11 games since 2014 in which Brady played and which were non-week 17 games.  They averaged 22.4 ppg on offense in those games.  The NFL scoring average for all teams since 2014 is 22.4 ppg.  Yes, you can try to have a great pass rush.  But you also need to score points, and those 11 teams that beat Brady averaged over 31 ppg in those games.  So the Eagles better have their offense focused on scoring early and often, because expecting to beat the Patriots in a 17-13 game is highly unlikely.

But back to the genius, Bill Belichick and his RB-passes…. let’s take a walk down memory lane, back to the 2011 Super Bowl.

In the 2011 season’s Super Bowl against the Giants, the Patriots leading rusher was BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  Danny Woodhead was their receiving back, and he was 4/4 when targeted, for 42 yards and 1 TD in that game.  But as much as Woodhead has a cult following, he’s not the receiving RB that Dion Lewis or James White are.  And it was too obvious what the Patriots wanted to do when BGE left the game and Woodhead entered.  Belichick tried to keep the defense “honest” and run the ball some with Woodhead on the field, but Danny was 7 for 18 (2.6 YPC), and that just won’t cut it.

Since that 2011 Super Bowl, I’ll list out the Patriots playoff losses and the receiving stats from all RBs that hit the stat sheet (organized by season):

2012 vs BAL:

  • Shane Vereen – 2 for 22 yds
  • Danny Woodhead – 1 for 12 yds
  • Lead back = Stevan Ridley (no receptions)

2013 vs DEN:

  • Shane Vereen – 5 for 59 yds
  • Stevan Ridley (no receptions)
  • Lead back = LeGarrette Blount (no receptions)

2015 vs DEN:

  • James White – 5 for 45 yds
  • Brandon Bolden – 2 for 29 yds
  • Lead back = Steven Jackson (no receptions)

And that’s it.  Since 2011’s loss in the Super Bowl, the Patriots are 11-3 in the postseason, and those are the 3 losses.

The 2015 loss to the Broncos, their last loss in the playoffs, is of particular interest.  That is because of what happened to their RBs during the season.  So let’s back up to the final game of 2014:

After winning the Super Bowl in the 2014 season over the Seahawks (a game in which their leading receiver in catches was RB Shane Vereen, who caught 11 of 12 targets, and was the only RB on the roster to catch a target), the Patriots decided to add a dual threat RB who was as much of a receiving threat as a running threat.  So they added RB Dion Lewis, who played for the first time in 2 NFL seasons at the start of that 2015 season.

In that 2015 season, Lewis averaged 7.8 YPA though the air and 4.8 YPC on the ground.  Absolutely masterful.  But he tore his ACL in November, and was lost for the season.  The Patriots leading RB in terms of total yards that year was LeGarrette Blount.  However, in December Blount landed on IR with a left hip injury.  So the Patriots were without both of their best RBs.  And it showed in that Super Bowl, which was why they even added Steven Jackson to their roster.

The hilarious trivia, to show you how bad the team was set up for those 2015 playoffs, was that in their first playoff game that postseason:

The last season that the Patriots lost a playoff game, they kicked off that postseason with a game in which Tom Brady tied for the lead in rushing attempts (6) and Steven Jackson led the team in rushing yards, with 16 (2.67 YPC).

That’s one UGLY rushing backfield.

Bill Belichick knew what he needed for postseason success against strong pass rushes that the team inevitably would encounter.  He needed dual threat RBs.

In last year’s Super Bowl, RB James White led the team in targets (16) and receptions (14).

After last year’s Super Bowl win, knowing it’s a grueling season, Belichick thought back to 2015 and knew he wasn’t about to lose another Super Bowl because he didn’t have his RBs healthy.  He kept James White.  He kept Dion Lewis.  And he added Rex Burkhead as well as Mike Gillislee.  And those moves paid off.  Because indeed, those RBs have been banged up here and there throughout the season.  Mike Gillislee missed the second half of the season with a knee injury, and with all of the RBs healthy and Gillislee still not 100%, he might be a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl.  (And that’s fine, because he was insurance with the remaining backs healthy.)  Burkhead missed the tail end of the season and played in just 3 snaps against the Jaguars.  He should be healthier with 2 more weeks of rest.  Dion Lewis is healthy.  James White is healthy.

The Patriots enter this game with 3 solid receiving RBs that are all healthy. 

And that’s Belichick’s counterpunch.

“You say that great pass rushes beat the Patriots?  Well have fun dealing with my frequent drop backs, inviting your D-line, and then executing the fast pass game to my RBs, with 3 explosive and effective receiving threats, as your D-line wears out over the course of the game.”

It’s not as if the Eagles have been solid against RBs, either.

Here is what they’ve allowed to RB-pass offenses that rank in the top-10 in RB-Pass efficiency*:

  • MIN (10): 13/14, 71% success, 6.9 YPA, 75% success on early downs
  • ATL (7): 6/7, 43% success, 5.7 YPA, 50% success on early downs
  • SEA (6): 4/4, 50% success, 9.3 YPA, 50% success on early downs
  • LAR (5): 3/5, 60% success, 7.8 YPA, 60% success on early downs
  • WAS (2): 11/13, 69% success, 7.1 YPA, 82% success on early downs

Even some teams that rank close to the top 10 had success, such as:

  • NYG (12): 16/19, 58% success, 5.4 YPA, 67% success on early downs
  • ARI (13): 11/12, 42% success, 6.6 YPA, 83% success on early downs
  • KC (17): 3/3, 67% success, 9.3 YPA, 67% success on early downs

*I removed the Panthers from the analysis, because of how they use McCaffrey as a WR and the Eagles put their stronger outside CBs on him in coverage.

Where does the Patriots RB-pass offense fall into the mix on that list?

The Patriots rank as the #4 most successful RB-pass offense.  The most successful this Eagles defense has seen since the Redskins.  And Kirk Cousins shredded the Eagles defense with RB passes:

  • In their first meeting, Cousins went 3/4 on early down RB-targets, for 11 YPA and a 75% success rate.  On 3rd downs, he went 1/2 for 4 YPA and a 0% success rate.
  • The Redskins learned from that meeting, and wanted to target the RBs more on early downs in their second game against the Eagles.  So instead of only 4 targets, they targeted their RBs 7 times on early downs.  Cousins was 7/7, 86% success rate and 5.7 YPA.

The Patriots don’t have time to learn in game against Philadelphia before this game.  They likely already know they need to target their RBs on early downs.  It’s their secret to success against strong pass rushers.  It will be interesting to see the counter to the counter to the counter:  Jim Schwartz’s counter to Belichick’s RB-pass counter to Schwartz’s pass rush.

How could the Patriots get a lot out of their RB-passing?  How about trying to RB-pass on first down as a weapon of choice?  Why?

Because on first downs this year, the Eagles allow a 65% success rate on RB-passes. That ranks 29th in the league. The 4th worst.  To WRs they rank 4th best in success rate allowed (47%) and to TEs, 14th best (58%).  Their weakness on first down passes is the Patriots’ strength:

  • Dion Lewis averaged 6.5 YPA and a 59% success rate on first down passes
  • James White averaged 7.7 YPA and a 58% success rate on first down passes

This first down RB-pass would attack the Eagles defensive weakness right out of the gates. RB-passes on first down mess with the defensive line’s comfort and rhythm immediately.  Most lines on first down are accustomed to either stopping the run or rushing the QB.  Rarely (far too infrequently) do teams throw to their RBs on first down.  But most designed RB-passes invite the pass rush, and dump the ball before the pass rush has a chance to hit home. It wears out the pass rush while keeping the quarterback upright. And because of the nature of the play, it is easier to set up in no-huddle/hurry up the very next play, which keeps that same defensive line out on the field, without the opportunity to substitute.

While others surely have over the 2 weeks leading up to this game, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that just because the Eagles have a good pass rush, they will wreck the Patriots offense.  It will be imperative the Patriots offensive line play great, there is no doubt.

But Bill Belichick has been hard at work building his offense to counter those strong pass rushes, and it looks like he just might have the most perfect stable of receiving RBs (perhaps in the entire NFL) on his roster to execute it.