What to Take From Wade Phillips’ Recent Success Against Tom Brady

The last two times Tom Brady faced a Wade Phillips defense, it wasn’t pretty. The numbers are below:

Comp-Att: 43-88 (48.9%)
Yards: 498
Yards Per Attempt: 5.66
TD-INT: 1-2
QB Rating: 60.7
Points Scored: 34 (17.0 PPG)

Phillips was with the Broncos for both of those games (A Week 15 Patriots win in 2016, and a Broncos AFC Championship Game victory in 2015). Yes, we acknowledge that those teams were different. The Broncos had a much better pass rush and a better secondary than the Rams currently have. The Patriots had a different offensive line, much less of a running game, and Rob Gronkowski did not play in the 2016 contest.

However, both Gronk and Julian Edelman did play in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots also currently use most of the same schemes in their passing game they used back in 2015. To understand how Phillips might approach the Patriots Offense in Super Bowl LIII, you can bet that Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Brady are taking a good hard look at that 2015 game. For similar reasons, so did we (You can check out our All-22 breakdowns at the bottom of the page).

The overarching takeaway from that game is that Phillips was willing to deploy a different scheme than what his defense had been playing all season. That year, the Broncos were an aggressive attacking-style defense. They liked to blitz and play lots of man-press coverage behind it. In that game, however, they altered their approach, and it kept Brady and the Patriots Offense off balance.

The Broncos used a ton of 3-man rushes and dropped the extra defender to help out on some of New England’s underneath routes. Phillips’ game plan was clearly to take away those inside easy throws that Brady loves to make. Denver wanted Brady to throw the ball to the outside, which gave their defenders more time to rally to the ball carrier and eliminate those easy yards after the catch that come from quick throws inside.

Across the board, Denver defenders were ready to take away and even jump those short throws inside. Denver safeties spent most of the afternoon playing flat, meaning they didn’t gain depth at the snap. Instead, they sat inside, ready to pounce on anything underneath.

The Broncos were also very conscious of disrupting Rob Gronkowksi at the line of scrimmage. They had defensive ends hit him as he went into his route. They had linebackers disrupt him. Whoever was assigned to him in man coverage (most often safety T.J. Ward) was conscious of getting his hands on Gronk. They had multiple defenders regularly accounting for the extra-large tight end in some way. While Gronk doesn’t quite move the same way now as he did three years ago, Phillips will likely still want to deploy a similar approach in key situations in the Super Bowl.

Last week, we highlighted that the Patriots love to use motion-to-stack formations. This makes it difficult for defenders to get their hands on the receiver in motion, who is also back from the line of scrimmage. The Patriots used pass concepts off of these formations back in 2015 as well, and the Broncos defended them by playing the releases instead of the receivers in man coverage. This means the inside defender took the receiver who released inside, and the outside defender took the outside release. This enabled Denver defenders to get their hands on Patriots receivers a little sooner after the snap than if they had locked up on receivers regardless of where they released.

You have to make Tom Brady hold the ball to enable your pass rush to have a chance. Physically disrupting receivers at the line is one way to do this. Disguise is the other. In that AFC Championship Game, we saw Phillips use a couple of hybrid coverages (man to one side and zone to the other). We also saw Denver show man coverage, play man for the first second or two of the snap, and then fall off their receivers into zone. They nearly forced an interception this way.

Again, the Broncos were a more talented defense with a fiercer pass rush than the Rams currently have. But the schemes used by Phillips contributed mightily to the indecision Brady played with during that game. The Rams will need to utilize something similar to have a chance in Super Bowl LIII.

Check out our breakdowns of Wade Phillips’ approach below:

1st Quarter, 3rd-and-8: Notice Rob Gronkowski split to the left. To the right, the Patriots motioned to a stack formation.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Broncos responded by playing the receivers’ releases. The inside corner went with the inside route, and the outside corner went with the outside route. This was still man coverage, though.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Notice the two safeties deep. This was 2-man coverage. Those safeties were not getting depth, though. They were sitting on New England’s underneath routes, ready to jump them, which they did here. The corners were also playing with a “trail” technique. They were underneath and inside the receivers, which took away the easy throws.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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1st Quarter, 3rd-and-3: Notice Gronk on the outside to the right, and motion to a trips-bunch formation at the top of the screen. The Broncos started in a 2-shell look, but the safety at the bottom of the screen came down after the snap to cover the running back.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

You can see that the Broncos rushed 3 and dropped a defender out underneath.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Look at all those defenders in the middle of the field taking away those easy throws inside. Also notice the defender covering Rob Gronkowski getting his hands on him and being physical.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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The Broncos weren’t giving up anything easy.

2nd Quarter, 2nd-and-10: Watch how the Broncos treated Rob Gronkowksi at the top of the screen.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Not only did the Broncos rush 3 and drop out defenders to take away the underneath middle, they hit Gronkowski multiple times during his route.

3_Brady INT.gif

Brady looked like he was reading the flat defender to his right, who dropped to the outside. Brady then came off of the flat thinking he had Gronk in the resulting void. He didn’t account for the extra man in coverage. Interception.

3rd Quarter, 2nd-and-10: On the play below, watch how the Broncos handled this pick-wheel route (something we saw the Patriots do vs. Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game). Below, you can see the route concept.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Pay attention to those two circled corners and that linebacker. The Broncos again rushed 3 and dropped the linebacker out inside.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Because the inside corner knew he had help from the linebacker, he didn’t have to worry as much about Edelman potentially releasing inside. This let him play on top of Edelman. The extra cushion game him the ability to get over the top of the pick route quickly and defend the wheel.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

4_3rd quarter - defending pin-wheel.gif

4th Quarter, 1st-and-10: On this final play we want to show, keep an eye on the two circled defenders.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

They appeared to be playing man coverage pre-snap. Even after the first couple of seconds they appeared to still be playing man coverage. Instead, this look ended up being a hybrid. The defenders on the bottom of the screen were playing man. Those circled defenders at the top fell off their receivers and were actually playing zone. This fooled Brady and almost resulted in an interception.

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This was a tactic we saw Wade Phillips use with the Rams against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. It fooled Drew Brees too.

Phillips clearly knows what type of approach gives Brady trouble. It will be interesting to see how similar his game plan will be in Super Bowl LIII, and if this Rams team can actually execute it.

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  1. […] We wrote about how Wade Phillips used an approach (as the Broncos Defensive Coordinator in the 2015 …. Denver defenders jammed Rob Gronkowksi repeatedly. In man coverage, they played receivers’ releases instead of playing to a pre-snap assignment. Linebackers, safeties, and even defensive linemen provided lots of help inside to make it difficult for Brady to complete those in-breaking routes that are a staple of the Patriots’ passing attack. The Rams will need to utilize a similar approach to disrupt New England’s passing game in Super Bowl LIII. […]

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