The key to beating the New England Patriots has always been to stop their beating heart. Tom Brady has, is and will be the life-giver for this team and so shall it ever be…or so it seems.
But putting the Patriots offense into a cardiac funk is no easy task. Brady is a master at diagnosing, discerning, dissecting and executing plays that unclog passing lanes and open defenses like angioplasty. Doctor Brady will be performing surgery this Sunday when the Arizona Cardinals visit Gillette Stadium.
Brady may be the doctor of doom for defensive coordinators, but he's not Superman.
When it comes to playing the QB position well, the toughest job in professional sports, Tom Brady arguably has one peer (Peyton Manning); some even say he is without peer. His command of the offense, understanding of schemes, protections and route combinations, pocket presence and general acumen at the position are stunning to watch on video. After the snap of the ball, I don't think there's a better human being alive today at reading coverage than Brady.
But his weakness is clear when trained minds watch him play: Tom Brady is unflappable. He looks so comfortable in the pocket, so resigned to the fact that he is incapable of scrambling, so focused on the coverage downfield, displaying so much confidence in his offensive line it gets him into trouble.
And yet, through all the chaos, Tom Brady is a rock in the pocket. His strength grows from his weakness.
And this is why he is susceptible to four-man rushes. The reasons for this I'm sure are vast and varied, but understanding that his weakness is directly tied to his strength seems evident when observed through the prism of video and the charting of plays. A four-man rush tells Brady all is well; a four-man rush allows him to relax and trust his eyes while trusting his offensive line to block said rush; a four-man rush does not bring with it a sense of urgency.
When teams blitz Tom Brady he knows where the soft underbelly of the blitz is, he knows where to go with the ball, he understands the scheme, devours it, digests it and the ball comes out like the fifth pea in a four-pea pod.
Kurt Warner begged teams to blitz him. The worst thing you could do to Kurt was expose yourself to his greatness by attacking him with blitz packages. Greybeard's ability to anticipate pressure before the ball was snapped and his impeccable accuracy made him a clanging bell, rolling and tolling in the headsets of defensive coordinators. Brady is the same way. The bell tolls the same tune…beware.
For the record, including preseason, Tom Brady has been sacked three times in the season of 2012. Two of those sacks came off a four-man rush and the one five-man pressure that resulted in a sack was because of a protection error by New England's LT.
If the Arizona Cardinals wish to beat the Patriots on Sunday, they're going to have to harass, pressure and sack Tom Brady. The problem is the Cardinals don't have great edge-rushers. If the Cardinals are going to rush four and drop seven into coverage -- a defensive gameplan that has possibly cost the Patriots two Super Bowls -- they need their four rushers to be better than New England's five offensive linemen.
Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and David Carter are all interior pass rushers. Although they are very good interior pass rushers, over the years it has been the edge that has given the Patriots most of their protection problems.
And then there's this. Ray Horton is a master at generating pressure and the Cardinals were seventh in the league last year in sacks (42). But that pressure has come via schemes and the power of the fire-zone blitz.
Tom Brady has seen every fire-zone, every blitz, every nuance of pressure the best minds in the world have been able to throw at him - sound or unsound (Rex Ryan) - and he has cut through it like scalpel on skin.
This makes for a very interesting matchup on Sunday, a game within the game. Will Big Red rise up and get to Brady by beating their offensive line with four or will Ray Horton try to invoke the unimaginable in order to stop the unflappable?
This prognosis is certain, somebody will be holding the scalpel at the end of the day.