- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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When it comes to defending Tom Brady, it's a case of pick your poison.
Blitz and get burned.
Cover and get carved.
New England's opponents apparently have decided that the second form is slightly less potent.
Buffalo blitzed the Patriots crazy in Week 4 and was bitten in the butt: no sacks and 17.5 yards per completion allowed. In the three games since, defensive coordinators have called off the dogs and gone after Brady with fewer people. Particularly on third down, New England is seeing more basic four-man rushes and getting a heavy dose of three-man rushes, leaving the zones crowded with as many as eight defenders.
Though the tactic hasn't quite been effective enough to end the Patriots' 21-game winning streak, it's helped to "limit" Brady to 76, 231, and 230 yards, respectively, after his near 300-yard outing against the Bills. Fortunately for the Patriots, they've had Corey Dillon to keep defenses honest.
Though Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger figures to face a sterner test against New England's defense, Brady expects that his patience will continue to be tested, if not against "Blitzburgh," then down the line.
"It's something we're going to keep facing," Brady said after the Jets game Sunday. "Teams are going to look at it and say, 'Oh, that works?' even if it's something they don't usually do.
"We've just got to execute. We've got to hit the throws. Because it's something we're going to see more of."
Miami followed Buffalo on the Patriots' schedule but didn't follow the Bills' tactics. That isn't a big departure from the Dolphins' philosophy, as they aren't a big blitz team anyway, but from time to time they'd drop Jason Taylor into coverage against New England. Down three receivers against the league's best pass defense, Brady passed for the fewest yards in his career.
Seattle mixed a few blitzes with four-man rushes early the following week and, like Buffalo two weeks earlier, failed to faze the unflappable Brady. Brady can anticipate from where the blitz is coming, recall the protection, and get the pass off -- accurately -- before the pressure arrives. And New England's offensive line, though unheralded, works well together. Blitzing only leaves the defense exposed to the big play.
The Seahawks made several plays in the second half when they dropped eight into coverage. The eighth man often was defensive end Grant Wistrom, Seattle's best pass rusher. Wistrom made an open-field tackle on Dillon when Brady had to check down on third down, forcing a three-and-out possession. Seattle rushed three and dropped Wistrom again on the third-down play you've surely seen by now, when a scrambling Brady lost his helmet and the ball on a hit by Michael Boulware. Wistrom was also in coverage when Brady threw an interception to Boulware.
Perhaps the Seahawks were onto something. Sunday the Jets, by design, blitzed less than usual on third down and instead frequently rushed three, usually John Abraham, Shaun Ellis, and Dewayne Robertson. Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said he didn't copy Seattle coordinator Ray Rhodes' plan from the week before (it also worked well against the Patriots two years ago, when Rhodes was directing Denver's defense), which may be true, but everyone knows the NFL is a "copy-cat" league.
The Jets had mixed results laying off of Brady. Abraham and Ellis combined to drop him for a nine-yard loss in the fourth quarter on what looked like a coverage sack. On third and goal from the 7-yard line in the second quarter, New York rushed four and Ellis got to Brady. But given a do-over from the same spot with 11 seconds left in the first half, Brady, with the Jets rushing three, adjusted. He escaped the pocket and bought enough time to find David Patten coming free in the back of the end zone for New England's only touchdown.
Trying to pass against eight in coverage is difficult because there are few places to go with the football. There can be at the most five receivers on a pass play, meaning the defense can double as many as three. The risk is that Brady will "dink and dunk" the Patriots down the field, but the reward is that he'll make a mistake or hold the ball long enough for the rush to get there.
"If you can make him hold the ball, you can get to him, in my opinion," Henderson said Sunday before departing Gillette Stadium. "If you blitz, they can block you. And that doesn't faze him. If you drop eight, you might get a coverage sack. It worked a bit, but when we needed it to work, it didn't. That was the problem."
More than just making the throws, as Brady said, the Patriots may have to tweak their passing game to adjust to what has become a popular way to defend them. Steelers coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, both lovers of the blitz, meanwhile have a decision to make as to how much to adjust their aggressive scheme this week.
"No one has come up with the answer yet," LeBeau said Thursday. "They've moved the ball well against everybody. They moved the ball against the Jets (Brady completed 20 of 29 passes and did not throw an interception), but the Jets did a good job of holding the scoring down against them.
"The answer is, they've been able to make plays against whatever you're doing."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Teams have had a little more success sending just three rushers at Tom Brady instead of blitzing.