What an interesting pairing this is going to make – the explosive yet turnover-happy downfield passing attack meets the ultimate game-manager quarterback who has made a career out of killing defenses via a thousand papercuts.
Both sides have what the other has been lacking. For Head Coach Bruce Arians, it’s a quarterback who will not make stupid mistakes and who can manage any defense or situation thrown his way. For Tom Brady, it’s an aerial attack that puts constant downfield pressure on defenses and has one of the most talented group of pass catchers in the NFL. On paper, it makes sense that Brady was drawn to the Buccaneers as his best possible alternative to the Patriots, doesn’t it?
Arians’ System vs. New England’s
Bruce Arians likes to attack vertically, plain and simple. His route concepts are designed to challenge defenses at the intermediate-to-deep levels and create windows downfield. He is relentless about doing so on any down and out of any personnel package or formation.
Below is a look at the 4-verticals route concept we’ve seen utilized often in Arians’ system. Here, it was run out of “11” personnel and a 2×2 set on 2nd-and-21.
On the below play against the Colts, Arians dialed up the same playcall. Only this time it was on 2nd-and-1 out of “12” personnel with the two tight ends to the backside in a “big wing” alignment.
Defenses always have to be ready for downfield throws against Arians regardless of the situation.
The below “Sail” route is a 3-level-stretch concept Arians also likes to utilize. This is a route combination that aims to create an opening at the outside intermediate level of the field.
The below touchdown came on a “Sucker” route concept. The design of this play is to clear out the middle linebacker and deep safety, allowing the quarterback to read the dig-curl route combination in the middle of the field.
As you can see, no area of the field is off limits in Arians’ system. He’ll attack deep, he’ll attack outside the numbers, and he’ll attack the middle.
It’s not that Brady hasn’t seen or utilized these route combinations before. He’s played 20 seasons in the NFL, he’s literally seen it all. The difference for Brady in Tampa will be in the approach. Arians is not a coach that likes to pick his spots to take shots downfield. The vertical route concepts aren’t a part of the system, they are the system.
The offense Brady has played in for the last decade-plus has been just as relentless about attacking at the short-to-intermediate levels as Arians is about going deep. For years, the Patriots utilized everything at their disposal to target the area of the field right in front of Brady. They used stack releases and motion to create separation at the line. They ran dual crossing routes and picks or rubs to create quick windows inside. Almost everything was designed to get the ball out quickly and centered around keeping the chains moving. Big plays were often created off of short and safe throws.
Moreso, almost everything in New England’s offensive system was match-up focused. The Patriots relied on having unique receiving talent in non-traditional places, and they utilized various personnel alignments, formations, and motion to create significant mismatches on play after play.
At his disposal, Brady had arguably the best tight end of all time in Rob Gronkowski. Few defenses had the ability to match up to his size, strength, and athleticism. He had two of the best (if not the best) slot receivers ever in Julian Edelman and Wes Welker. It often took two defenders to successfully take either of them away. Brady also had a bevy of talented pass-catching running backs, who made linebackers look foolish out of the backfield or on the perimeter. Sometimes they required one of the opponent’s better cover defenders to take them away, leaving openings elsewhere.
The way these players were used all over the field created indicators for Brady that often let him know what the defense was doing before the snap. The notion that Brady had no weapons or help around him on offense, as many “pundits” have claimed for years, is simply comical.
The below two snaps from the 2018 AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs show you just what New England’s system was all about. These were consecutive 3rd downs in overtime. On the first play, the Patriots motioned Edelman to a stack (bottom of the screen). This got him a free release and enough initial separation for Brady to be able to complete the pass.
On this next 3rd down, the Patriots separated their two best match-up pieces. They aligned Gronkowski on the perimeter to one side of the field and Edelman in the slot to the other. This put safety Daniel Sorensen, who was providing help inside, in conflict. He could help out on one or the other, but not both.
Sorensen ended up cheating inside towards Edelman, and that was all Brady needed to hit Gronk on a slant for another first down.
Between the methods for creating windows on these plays, the way personnel was utilized, and the extremely accurate throws, you have the Patriots’ passing game in a nutshell. Brady executed this system at a consistently high level that was as good as anything we’ve ever seen for such a long period of time.
How Will Brady Fit in Arians’ System?
Brady will have to get used to a new system, new players, and a new team approach to winning games in Tampa. In all likelihood, we’re not going to see the exact same system we’ve seen with Arians in the past. There will certainly be elements of Brady’s New England offense that will be incorporated. Arians won’t ask his 43-year old quarterback to hold the ball and target downfield as much as he might a younger power thrower. We also won’t see quite as many of those quick and safe throws as we saw in New England.
What we can be absolutely certain of is that Tom Brady will not throw 30 interceptions. Yes, the system is aggressive, and yes, Brady will likely put the ball in harm’s way a little more often than he did in New England. That said, there were numerous interceptions Jameis Winston threw last year that Brady wouldn’t have even come close to attempting.
This below play is a great example. Here, Winston failed to hit his tight end (aligned to the left) in the void created by the blitzing Colts defenders.
Brady isn’t going to miss a quick completion right in front of him in the face of a blitz.
But it isn’t just the turnovers where the Buccaneers’ passing game will see improvement. Brady keeps the offense moving. He’ll keep Tampa on schedule in ways that Winston often failed to last year. The below incompletion on 1st down was just a nondescript forgotten play from the Buccaneers’ Week 11 game against the Saints. Winston had two receivers open right in front of him but opted for the difficult pass to the sideline.
The incompletion set up 2nd-and-10. Brady takes those easy 5 yards every time and stays ahead of the chains, giving his offense more options on 2nd down.
On the other hand, Winston also made plenty of big plays last year on throws that Brady wouldn’t have attempted.
He’s not sure why he threw that pass but he sure is glad that he did.
While there were other touchdowns and big plays by Winston that Brady wouldn’t have made, that doesn’t necessarily imply that there will be less explosiveness to the Buccaneers Offense with Brady. Because he’ll keep the Buccaneers on schedule and on the field, he’ll create more scoring opportunities in 2020.
Adjusting to a new system shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Brady, especially considering the talent he’ll have at his disposal. Simply put, it is off the charts. Mike Evans is a match-up nightmare. Chris Godwin has speed, explosiveness, and versatility. Arians aligned him all over the field in 2019. The Buccaneers have two talented tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. They also have other complementary players you probably haven’t heard of, like wide receiver Scott Miller, who fits the Julian-Edelman-quick-and-shifty profile, only with more vertical speed. The Buccaneers can attack all areas of the field, and the ability to threaten downfield will keep defenses honest, which will open up many of those underneath throws Brady loves.
Most of these receivers are tall as well. Howard is 6’6,” Evans and Brate are 6’5,” and Godwin isn’t exactly short at 6’1.” Brady will have large targets all over the field and be able to play above the defense in ways he was able to with Randy Moss in 2007 and Rob Gronkowski for all of the last decade.
Another feature of Arians’ system is that he loves to use tight splits. This brings his receivers inside and enables them to attack the middle. While Mike Evans often aligns on the outside and is a downfield threat difficult for any number-1 corner to handle, he also will align inside and be a big-bodied target for Brady to rely on over the middle.
You can certainly expect to see Brady take advantage of Evans in 1-on-1’s the closer the Buccaneers get to the end zone, similar to how he took advantage of Gronkowski’s size and athleticism. In New England, Gronk frequently aligned on the perimeter near the goalline. He’d run a slant or fade depending on the matchup or leverage of his defender, as shown below.
Here he is running a slant (top of the screen).
Here he is running a fade (bottom of the screen).
And here is Evans running a fade on the goalline.
Looks kind of similar, doesn’t it?
What makes Tom Brady arguably the GOAT? It’s his quick release. It’s his ability to read the defense and instantly react. He gets the ball out so fast that it neutralizes even the best opposing pass rushes. But what has made much of that possible? The quick passing game utilized in New England. How much will that be in play in Tampa?
No, Brady likely won’t attack downfield as much as many of Arians’ big-armed quarterbacks of the past. But to be effective in the system, he will need to attack vertically more than he has in recent years. What is required to make that happen? Time in the pocket. Protection. I’ve often thought Brady truly could play another 5 years in New England’s system because it lends itself to less pressure and more glancing blows by defenders on the quarterback. But downfield throws requiring more 5 and 7-step drops often result in bigger hits by pass rushers. Will Tampa’s line be able to keep a 43-year old Brady upright?
Unsurprisingly, Brady is no longer as good of a player physically as he was a few years ago. His decline has picked up speed over the last two seasons especially. Can he still hit downfield passes? Sure, if he has time and room to step into his throws. But can he do so consistently with great ball placement more than just a few snaps per game? This has never really been his bread and butter (except for the Randy Moss years), so it remains a legitimate question. The further downfield and more to the outside he throws the ball, the less special he becomes as a quarterback, especially at this stage of his career.
Pocket movement is another area where Brady’s physical skills have diminished in recent years. This is the one skill to Brady’s game that probably has not been matched in NFL history, yet it has gone downhill the last two seasons. His feet are not quite as quick. Last year, we often saw Brady fail to pull the trigger on open downfield throws because of his feet. The lack of explosive plays in the Patriots’ passing game wasn’t just due to the weapons around him or chemistry with his receivers.
No More Belichick Factor
Under Bill Belichick, Tom Brady benefitted in many areas of the game that he didn’t control. New England has always had one of the best special teams units in the league. This helped the Patriots win the hidden-yardage battles and added points around the margins. The defense kept opponents at bay, game-planning specifically to take away an offense’s best asset(s) and make them play left-handed. Since 2001, the Patriots allowed fewer points than any team in the NFL. They also had the most Top-10 and Top-5 ranked scoring defenses during that span. Sometimes, it seems to be taken for granted in New England how much these factors contributed to the record-setting wins and rings.
Belichick is a master of game-planning, situational football, and in-game adjustments. He gets every edge he possibly can. This permeated its way through all aspects of Patriots football over the last 20 years. As talented as the Buccaneers appear to be, Brady will not have many of those advantages in Tampa. He will likely encounter more games where his defense allows 30+ points, something he rarely had to deal with in New England. Just look at the Buccaneers’ 2020 opponents, and it isn’t hard to see this happening. They’ll play against both Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice. They’ll also square off against Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and the always-dangerous Rams Offense. All of these teams won’t rack up huge points against Tampa, but it’s a good bet that several will perform in ways that Brady wasn’t used to seeing in New England because of the Belichick factor.
Who really knows why Brady and the Patriots finally split. It’s hard to imagine that legacy wasn’t a significant factor. Both Brady and Belichick absolutely want to prove they can win without the other. We’ll now get the chance to see if they can.
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