One of the biggest challenges in facing the Patriots’ potent offense is whether to focus on bringing extra pass rushers to try to get to Tom Brady and force him to make quicker decisions and knock him around, or drop more defenders back into coverage to better cover the variety of weapons Brady has at his disposal.
Either way, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable, which is what makes the Patriots' offense such a challenge to game plan against.
"I think there’s risk/reward to bringing pressure or not bringing pressure,” Brady explained in his weekly interview Monday morning on Boston sports radio station WEEI. “If you’re not getting there with four guys and you’ve got to bring extra guys, then that’s what you’re going to do, which leaves fewer guys in coverage. It’s tough to single cover our guys all day. Because our guys, when they catch it, they’re going to make some yards with it. If you drop more guys into coverage, then I’ll have more time back there to figure things out."
Teams that have had success against the Patriots in the postseason -- namely, the 2007 Giants, 2009 Ravens and 2010 Jets -- have been able to have their cake and eat it, too: pressure Brady primarily with only three or four rushers while devoting extra players in coverage at the same time.
The Broncos tried that strategy Saturday with virtually no success. According to charting by ESPN Stats & Information, Brady completed 88 percent of his passes against four or fewer rushers and had five of his six touchdown passes in that situation.
"We had great protection, there's no question about that,” said Brady, who was not sacked in the game and was only hit twice. “I thought (the offensive line) played well, really as they have all year. The offensive line has been our biggest strength on offense. It was that way in the regular season and it continues to be that in the playoffs."
The Ravens chose to drop more players into coverage against the Houston Texans on Sunday. They sent four of fewer pass rushers on 29 of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates' 35 dropbacks, intercepting Yates three times in those situations. Though they did not sack Yates and hit him just two times, the strategy proved effective.
That mirrored the success Baltimore had when devoting more defenders to coverage all season long. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Baltimore pass defense allowed the lowest completion percentage and second-lowest yards per attempt during the regular season when sending four or fewer pass rushers.
What will the Ravens do on Sunday against the Patriots?
“It’s like on offense, there’s different strategies we use. We certainly don’t use one. We try to mix in all, so they’ve got to be prepared for all of them,” Brady said. “I think that’s the same thing Denver tried to do to us. It wasn’t all blitz. There’s definitely times when they covered us. But if we’re hurting them, they’re going to change. I’m sure we get into this game, they’re not pressuring us and we’re hurting them, they’re going to start pressuring us. And vice versa. We’ve got to be prepared for everything. Last time we played them, we played them last year, they pressured quite a bit.
“They have a good team. They’ve got a ton of talent, the guys that I really respect and have played against a bunch of times. So, it should be a great game. I’m looking forward to it."
With the Patriots, it’s a pick your poison situation. The Patriots have more weapons than any other team in football. If you devote more to the pass rush, you’re not going to be able to pay close enough attention to one of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez or Deion Branch. If you drop more in coverage, Brady has more time to, in his words, “figure things out.”
"A lot of your adjustments to blitzes are on the inside part of the formation,” Brady explained. “Between Aaron and Rob and Wes on the inside, and what Deion was able to do on the outside of the field the other night, along with Julian [Edelman] made a few catches, Chad [Ochocinco] had an opportunity that I missed him on. There were definitely some plays we had some great chances on, both the inside and the outside.
"Once again, it goes to where they cover. If they’re not going to cover Deion running up the sideline, then we’re going to try to make that play. If they do, we're going to try to throw it somewhere else. It's just a matter of where they're not."