Todays topic then is Tom Brady, the wild haired wonder of New England, who looks more like he should be shooting commercials for shampoo than playing football, and who will forever be known as much for "that" fumble which has become synonumous with the Tuck rule and for "that" low hit which has lead to what some call the "Brady" rule, as he will be for the fact he's won three Super Bowls, won a whole bunch of games, set a bunch of records and generally been - along with Peyton Manning - in an elite class of quarterbacks quite apart from the rest of the pack.
What I want to look at though is something odd about Brady that I noticed a while back when he played the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in week one. It's an issue that I'm surprised hasn't been picked on more by defensive coaches, because it's actually considered a fairly serious flaw. Well, it is in lesser quarterbacks at least, who lack the accuracy and decision making of someone like Brady.
The problem is that - surprisingly - Brady has a major tendency to stare down his receivers. I don't just mean a quick look down before he throws. I mean from the snap to the release, he often fixes his eyes right on a receiver and never looks off. In a moment we're going to look at some video, but for now we'll just address quickly some of the problems with this and some of the factors that seem to mitigate it.
The main issue when a quarterback stares down his receivers is that you tip of what you're thinking. You're basically telling the defense who you plan to throw the ball to. There are certainly times that you can get away with this, especially against man coverage when the defenders are busy looking at the receivers and not the quarterback.
Where this becomes a more serious issue is against zone defenses, where the defenders are dropping back and reading the quarterbacks eyes. By looking at a quarterback who is staring down his receivers, the defenders are able to figure out who the intended target is and to close in on him. In particular, safeties and dropping linebackers can take more of a gamble against a "stare down" quarterback displacing to the edges of their zone of responsibility in order to improve their chances of getting the pick.
This works especially well when accompanied by pressure, which forces the quarterback to make a quick read and throw. A linebacker spying on the quarterback knows the pressure is coming and that if the quarterback is to have any chance of getting the ball out then he needs to make the throw quickly, so when he sees the direction the quarterbacks eyes are headed he can bite and go looking to make the big play.
With safeties you see the effect more in single high coverage and with a free safety who has buckets of mobility, say someone like an Ed Reed of the Ravens. Sitting in the middle of the field they can read the quarterbacks eyes and at the snap follow where he's looking, zooming across to appear out of seemingly nowhere to make the interception.
Now of course it's not as easy as all that. Any over reaction by the defense creates a tendency that can then be exploited by a savvy offensive coordinator and a savvy quarterback... like Brady. It also helps to have receivers like Brady does. They're quick, have great hands and their route running (apart from maybe Chad Ochocinco) is among the best in the league.
There's also the element of how the plays are put together that works in the Patriots favour. I've seen Patriots playbooks from the mid-2000's and I imagine the same basic concepts are still in use today that were back then. If that's true then it means they're still often packaging routes together that are designed to work halves of the field.
To give you an example, they might have a four receiver set with a running back in the backfield, where two receivers on one side of the field are running routes designed to compliment each other. On the other side, the other two receivers will be running two different routes, again designed to work together, and possibly with the backs route incorporated to add another level of coordination.
The advantage of this kind of scheme is that you can put together a single pass play that is designed to beat two different types of coverage. The two receivers on the right side could be running a route combination designed to beat a Cover 2, zone defense, while the receivers on the left can run a route combination designed to beat man coverage.
All you need now is say.... a top tier veteran quarterback with great accuracy, pretty good arm strength and a good understanding of how defenses are put together and how to recognise them. Like Tom Brady for example. Throw in a little motion to try and tip the defenses hand, combined with your quarterbacks knowledge of the various defensive 'tells' that exist, such as the alignment of the safeties on the hash marks and how they line themselves up over the receivers, and what you have is a recipe for helping Brady to break down his reads into much smaller chunks.
Now instead of reading the entire field, he can anticipate the coverage he's going to face and select the receiver combination he thinks will work best against that coverage. At the snap he looks right across to that side and starts keying the defenders for the tell tale signs that let him confirm the coverage. Then it's simply a case of reading how the defenders are responding to the routes and hitting the open guy.
Of course if those defenders happen to be looking right back at you and reading you for tell tale signs, then the whole merry go round begins again....
Right, enough of the theoretical side, let's get to the practical and start looking at some videos. Now, given that I don't have access to the NFL's extensive library of end zone tapes, we're going to have to do this the hard way. That means you're going to have to turn down your speakers, unless you happen to enjoy listening to McDonald's and Papa John's commercials, and brave the world of hurt that is NFL.com's video library.
1) Our first play is from the Dolphins game and it's the 10 yard TD pass to Gronkowski. The Patriots have a receiver in motion and looking at their reaction to it plus the alignment of the safeties, you can bet Brady sees cover-2. To the right he has his tight end on an out and the outside receiver running up and over the defense on something approximating a post. The outside corner gets pulled inwards and Brady hits Gronkowski. Watch his head though (you get a better look on the replay). Brady is watching that thing all the way; http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d8222fd2e/QB-Brady-to-TE-Gronkowski-10-yd-pass-TD
2) Next, same game, this time the Patriots are down at the two. Brady has two receivers left and sees the blitzing safety coming from a mile away, pointing him out to his line. As soon as he has the ball in his hands he looks immediately left to Welker. Not the greatest example of the stare down (it's a blitz read) but just a good example of Brady's quality thrown in there; http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d82230718/QB-Brady-to-WR-Welker-2-yd-pass-TD
3) Still the Dolphins game, Brady gets man coverage across the board in an empty set, single high safety. As soon as the ball is in his hands he's looking at Hernandez for the throw. Here's where it gets interesting. I'm wondering that if safety was dropping back and reading Brady's eyes, might he have got across for the break up? http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d822307cc/QB-Brady-to-TE-Hernandez-30-yd-pass
4) This is Brady to Welker in the Raiders game and gives us a great shot of Brady staring it down all the way. He's literally just standing there, looking, looking, looking, then throws: http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d822c5f5c/QB-Brady-to-WR-Welker-32-yd-pass
5) Again from the Raiders game, this play-action pass gives us a great look from behind the line on the replay. You see Brady just fix right in on Welker after the play fake. It's literally tunnel vision. And this highlights what I was talking about a while back with playing bump and run. When the Browns did that to Welker last year it put Brady in a bind, because everytime he looked straight at Welker there was nothing there to be had, forcing Brady to then revert to reading the field. If Welker had been bumped or delayed on this route, Brady would have found himself holding that ball and awful long time: http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d822c6563/QB-Brady-to-WR-Welker-28-yd-pass
6) This next example demonstrates precisely that problem. It's actually a sack from the Jets game. Brady only has one receiver to his left and he locks right in on the guy. The coverage is tight and Brady just stands there holding the ball, waiting for his guy to come open. At which point he gets taken down; http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d822fa5a4/Jets-defense-sack-9-yd-loss
7) This next play sees Brady looking for Deion Branch to his right, who he hits on a out (word of advice Branch, the reason you're running an out route during the two minute drill is so you can get out of bounds easier and stop the clock, not cut inside and get tackled, costing your team nearly 20 seconds). The stare down is intense; http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-fantasy/09000d5d822fa5f8/QB-Brady-to-WR-Branch-29-yd-pass
8) Another sack this time, from the Cowboys game. This is short yardage and the Cowboys make an effort to get their hands on the Patriots receivers. Brady looks right and holds his vision there. By the time he realises there is nothing on and looks back to the middle he's sacked. Again this is one of the problems with making pre-snap decisions on where the ball is going; http://www.nfl.com/videos/new-england-patriots/09000d5d8232df24/Cowboys-defense-sack-5-yd-loss
9) And one more sack for luck (as opposed to "suck for Luck"). Again we see Brady look left right off the bat and hold his vision there, eventually letting the pressure get home; http://www.nfl.com/videos/new-england-patriots/09000d5d8232e525/Cowboys-defense-sack-8-yd-loss
10) From the Cowboys game again, it's the 5-yd TD pass to Welker. Brady sees the defense and makes an adjustment, then takes a few peeks across to his left at Welker before the snap, followed by a quite obvious look to finish before the ball comes. Then as soon as it's in his hands, he's looking at Welker all the way. If Welker gets jammed, the pressure would probably get home as Brady likely wouldn't have enough time to reset; http://www.nfl.com/videos/dallas-cowboys/09000d5d8232ebbb/QB-Brady-to-WR-Welker-5-yd-pass-TD
Annnnnd to finish, we go back to that Patriots/Dolphins games courtesy of some complete random Pats fan on YouTube, who posted every offensive snap for the Patriots in that game, in two parts. He also posted the whole NFL Films documentary 'A Football Life; Bill Belichick', both parts 1 and 2. Here's the user ID so you can find those if you're interested.
And here's the Patriots offense. Just try and ignore everything else and focus on Brady's head, especially when they do the replays with the Skycam, still the best camera angle in football. It's a stare down master class.
Well I hope you enjoyed watching those vids (and the horrific amount of commercials). The conclusion? It's not a deal breaker, staring down the receivers. Not with someone like Brady. But it does throw up some interesting ideas for game planning to beat one of the most prolific passers of the contemporary generation. I'd be interested to know what NFL defensive coordinators do to exploit such a vulnerability if anything.
More importantly for me it reaffirms something I've always believed in when it comes to Football and life; everybody has a weakness. Find yours, so you can cover it up. And find your opponents, so you can exploit it.
I'll be back tomorrow with my picks.