On its face, the pairing of Bruce Arians and Tom Brady seems like a match made in heaven: The greatest quarterback in NFL history aligned with the “Quarterback Whisperer,” who has earned the title over the years. But so far, the marriage has been quixotic at best, and rocky at worst. Brady, who came off a 2019 season in New England in which he threw 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions in the regular season and no touchdowns and a game-clinching (for the Titans) interception in the postseason, has already matched that nine-pick total through 11 games. This includes two games against the Saints — Tampa Bay’s primary NFC South opponent — in which he’s completed just 60.8% of his passes for 6.05 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, and five interceptions.
In Monday night’s 27-24 loss to the Rams, Brady completed just 62.5% of his passes for 4.5 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. After the game, Brady was quite candid about the second interception, which came with 1:57 left in the game on a deep pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
“Just a bad read,” he said. “Cam was running up a seam and at the last second I saw the safety coming over and just popped it over Cam’s head. Just a bad read, a bad throw, decision – everything. Can’t happen.”
It can’t, but it is, and there are multiple reasons for it. Right now, Brady is not on point with his new team. The “whys” are certainly intriguing.
Brady is walking into bad situations against opponents who know Arians’ tendencies.
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In the season opener against the Saints, Brady couldn’t get a quick out thrown without a Saints defender picking it off, which you could perhaps write off to early issues with communication between quarterback, coaches, and the overall playbook. But there was a nugget from New Orleans cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who picked off one of those passes for a 36-yard touchdown. “Well, we knew they hadn’t run it all game,” Jenkins said after the game of the speed out. “And as we were watching film earlier during the week, we noticed that they like to run it. And me and Latt [cornerback Marshon Lattimore] were on the sideline talking to each other, telling each other what was going to come out in the second half. And in the second half of the first drive, that’s what they did, ran double out. “That was a Tampa play. Something Tampa ran a lot last year, speed outs. We just knew that they were going [to] add [that] in the second half. And that’s what they did coming out on the first drive. And I just read it and broke on it.” https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2020/09/16/anatomy-of-a-play-saints-cracked-bruce-arians-code-on-tom-bradys-pick-six/
Brady and his receivers are not on the same page.
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The Week 9 rematch saw Brady throw no touchdowns and three interceptions in a 38-3 loss that was his third-worst game ever from a quarterback rating perspective. Even more disconcerting in the second Saints game were several examples of Brady and his receivers… well, they weren’t just not on the same page; they weren’t even in the same book. Check out this deep boundary throw to receiver Chris Godwin. Problem is, Godwin is running a switch release with receiver Antonio Brown, and he completes a comeback at the boundary while Brady clearly thinks his target will run up the field. New-guy route yips are not what you want to see in Week 9. One of Brady’s three interceptions came on a play in which Brady thought Antonio Brown was running deep, but Brown stopped along the way, and two Saints defenders were fighting for the ball instead. Safety Marcus Williams was the lucky recipient. Finally, there’s this airball in the general vicinity of receiver Scotty Miller, in which — guess what! — Brady throws deep, and Miller stops too soon to be part of the concept. When was the last time you saw this happen three times in an NFL game? «It kind of was with Scotty [Miller],» Arians said of the various miscommunications, where Brady and his targets were seeing different things in coverage. «The interception to A.B. – that was just a poor throw. The one to Chris [Godwin] – Chris read the route properly, [but] Tom thought he was going deep. He stopped, [and] those things can happen sometimes when you’re doing it on the run.»
A lack of pre-snap motion is taking away what Brady’s used to…
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…and this really surprises me. Brady’s deep-ball splits have become a real problem for multiple reasons. https://twitter.com/JamesPalmerTV/status/1331342427190390789 ESPN’s Jenna Laine has the data on Brady and disguised coverages, and it’s not good at all this season in a comparative sense to his last four years in New England. https://twitter.com/JennaLaineESPN/status/1331316558573039620 One way to break defenses out of disguised coverages, and to remove defenders to make the deep ball more of a positive possibility, is to employ pre-snap motion to create communication issues for a defense. As ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky pointed out regarding the Rams loss, that ain’t happening. https://twitter.com/danorlovsky7/status/1331214875645927424 Why does this surprise me? Because although the Buccaneers used pre-snap motion at a comparatively low rate in 2019, Jameis Winston was far more effective and efficient when he had the benefit of it, and Brady has used it to his advantage for years. From my September piece on pre-snap motion: NFL teams used pre-snap motion in the first three quarters of games on 39% of passes, 49% of rushes, and 43% of all plays in the 2019 season. The 49ers led the league with pre-snap motion on 66% of their passes, followed by the Patriots (65%), the Titans (63%), the Ravens (57%), and the Chiefs (53%). Two of those teams made the Super Bowl, the Ravens were the AFC’s number-one seed, the Titans made it to the AFC Championship game, and the Patriots ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA metrics despite a receiver group that couldn’t bust a grape. Other teams used pre-snap motion at below-average rates, yet saw clear improvement in efficiency when passing with it. Overall, NFL teams had 0.2 more yards per attempt, a 3% success rate increase, and 0.02 more EPA per attempt with pre-snap motion. The Vikings, who used the 20th-most pre-snap motion on passing plays last season, saw a bump of 1.6 in yards per attempt, a 6% success rate improvement, and an increase in EPA per attempt of 0.25. The Buccaneers, who could have desperately used anything to make Jameis Winston more efficient in 2019, used pre-snap motion on just 37% of their plays, one of the lowest rates in the league. The league average was 40%. But when Winston had the benefit of pre-snap motion? His yards per attempt went up from 7.2 to 7.7, his EPA from -0.12 to +0.08, and his quarterback rating ascended from 74.1 to 102.7. Yet, the Bucs used pre-snap motion on just 151 passing attempts. With Tom Brady now on board in Bruce Arians’ offense, expect a big uptick. Brady has utilized pre-snap motion for years to help discern coverage concepts, to isolate and remove specific defenders, and to give his receivers an advantage that their physical gifts don’t always present. Once the Bucs have a new sense of pre-snap trickeration and Brady has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to throw to… well, things could get interesting. Things have gotten interesting, but not in a good way. For whatever reason, Arians is taking one of the things Brady has used to his benefit and throwing it out. This is especially interesting given Arians’ thoughts on Rams head coach and offensive play-designer Sean McVay leading up to Monday night’s game. «I think it’s the collective,» Arians said last week, regarding what he admires about McVay’s offense. «They have a lot of eye candy – they try to disrupt guys’ eyes on defense and break down their discipline with all the different motions and things they do formationally [with] quick snaps to just try to break down your discipline defensively. All that motion, when they run the football, that offense is something special. If we can shut down the run like we did out there last year and get them in a 50-pass game, I like our chances.» A bit more «eye candy» would help, Coach. I charted the Rams game to see how much motion Tampa Bay used. There were few examples of actual across-the-field motion, and many more examples of what I would call «now» motion, where a receiver takes a couple of steps to the side either stays there, or returns to his original position. That’s more for a receiver to get positioning if he’s staying put, or pre-snap momentum if he’s moving to a new spot. One of those examples came on Brady’s first interception, where Godwin motioned to create momentum as opposed to giving a coverage look or removing a defender. We’re not saying, we’re just saying. And yes, folks, we appear to have another route miscommunication. Yikes.
A lack of play-action compounds problems in the passing game.
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Most quarterbacks benefit from play-action for obvious reasons — linebackers and other mid-field defenders tend to cheat up against it, and this opens windows for the quarterback, especially against spot-drop defenses. Not that the Rams are that; they’ve been doing a lot of really nice work with match and combo coverages of late, but the Buccaneers are still not using it enough to help Brady be what he can be. This season, per Pro Football Focus, Brady ranks 18th in play-action attempts with 83, and he’s completed 57 of those attempts for 772 yards, 9.3 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 115.1. Brady ranks first in non-play action attempts with 350, and he’s completed 223 attempts for 2,183 yards, 6.2 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 90.2. Brady’s completion rate with play-action? 68.7% Without? 63.7%. Given PFF’s reach, I’m sure somebody in the Buccaneers’ facility has a subscription and can check this out. The other interesting thing about the Buccaneers’ play-action tendencies this season is that while Arians isn’t giving Brady the benefit of play-action in a systemic sense, he is asking Brady to create a disproportionate number of his shot plays out of play-action — and Brady’s doing his level best. This season, per Sports Info Solutions, the Bills have the highest rate of play-action on passes of 20 or more air yards — 21 dropbacks and 21 attempts with nine completions for 303 yards, 262 air yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The Buccaneers have 15 such dropbacks — the fourth-highest total in the league, and Brady has completed nine of 15 for 257 yards, 227 air yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. The fundamental difference is that Buffalo’s Josh Allen has 123 play-action passing attempts — second in the league behind Jared Goff’s 132 — to Brady’s 83. The Buccaneers are telling Brady that if he wants to drive that particular car, he’s only going to be allowed to do it in fifth gear. And given the increase in efficiency when Brady does use play-action (especially with the high percentage of shot plays, which are never a beacon of efficiency), that just doesn’t make sense.
Is this fixable?
(AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
In the abstract? Sure. Anything is fixable. Arians is one of the smartest coaches in the NFL when it comes to offense, and he’s generally all about making sure his quarterbacks are involved — which makes this schism all the weirder. “I think the one thing we always have done with all our quarterbacks is they’ve really called the game,” Arians told me in 2015. “Friday, we’ll sit down and pick out his 15–20 favorite first-and-10 plays. Saturday night before the game, we’ll sit down and go through the entire third down package and let him pick the plays, the ones he’s most comfortable with. I can call what I think is the greatest play, but if he’s not comfortable with it, it’s probably not going to work. My job is to talk him into running those once he sees the picture on the sideline. He’s a veteran guy who works extremely hard, and you just, as a coach, try to put him into a position to be comfortable and successful.” Carson Palmer, Arians’ quarterback at the time in Arizona, agreed whole-heartedly. I think that’s what makes him hard to defend and makes us hard to defend,” Palmer said back them. “There aren’t a bunch of tendencies that you see on film where you know a certain play’s coming. He’s very, very careful in designing plays and designing a game plan with what’s on film from the previous month or two. He always tries to keep you guessing. One week it will be a whole bunch of runs out of one formation. The next week it’ll be all passes. So he makes it really tough to find a tendency in what he’s doing.” The Arians-Brady union can still work, but it’s going to take adaptation on both sides. From what I’ve seen, though, the onus in on Arians to break his own tendencies, as he has before in his career, and meet Brady in the middle. If that doesn’t happen, those quarterback whispers could turn into screams in a hurry. Perhaps they already have.