Stats don’t always explain a game; this one does. The Broncos hit Tom Brady 20 times yesterday. No NFL quarterback has been hit that many times in a full decade.
There’s something almost refreshing about the clarity of any top-level analysis of Denver’s 20-18 win over New England. Denver’s purely terrifying pass rush exercised complete dominance over the Patriots’ patchwork offensive line—that’s really all you need to know. The blueprint to beating Tom Brady was a familiar one for anyone who remembers the Giants’ two Super Bowl wins: Get to Brady. Get in his face. Get in his head. Everything was dictated by the pressure.
“I got hit pretty hard today,” Brady said. “...We never could play on our terms.”
Part of it is that New England O-line, which, through a combination of injuries and a curious season-long strategy of rotating linemen, was a puzzle whose pieces never quite came together yesterday. This season, the Patriots started 13 different offensive line combinations—an NFL record for as far back as that specific record has been kept. Heading into Sunday, they had used 37 different line combinations overall. The system had largely worked.
But nothing seems to work against this Broncos pass rush. For any weaknesses the Patriots’ protection may have, Denver has done this all season, to everyone. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson made Brady’s life hell. So much of the Patriots’ success is based on giving Brady time to let plays develop, but with his limited mobility, a near-complete shutdown of New England’s run game, and the constant pressure, Brady was throwing off balance, rushing passes, throwing the ball away, or just eating turf.
What is perhaps most impressive is that the Broncos weren’t selling out to bring the heat on Brady. (Or, to look at it another way, that they didn’t have to sell out.)
Those are incredible numbers because of what they meant for Denver’s pass coverage. The Broncos’ secondary is very good on its own (even down its two starting safeties, as it was by the end of the game, when New England finally got some lengthy drives going), and the pass defenders were able to play a lot of man coverage—were even free to regularly double-team Rob Gronkowski—without having to sacrifice any extra time for Brady to throw. With the Patriots unable to run, the Broncos’ blitz-like pressure without actually blitzing gave them something that must have felt like a power play.
It got to Brady. It couldn’t not.
“He knew that we were coming early,” said Wolfe, who had six tackles, a sack and four quarterback hits. “That kind of got in his head like ‘Oh the D-line, they’re coming to take my head off.’”
The Patriots’ O-line gave some of the credit to the Denver fans, who were so loud that New England had to go with a silent count, giving the Broncos more opportunities to jump snaps.
But even when they weren’t getting to Brady, he was thinking about them. Especially as the game went on, you could see Brady reacting to phantom pressure, footsteps only he could hear (knowing that that yet another hit would be coming soon after the sound).
“There were definitely times where I had opportunities to hold the ball and didn’t really have great awareness of where people were around me,” Brady said. “Maybe sometimes I had more time.”
It’s a testament to the Patriots, with a gimpy receiving corps and their two best runners on IR, that they came within a tipped two-point conversion attempt of tying the game. But the Broncos’ rush bulldozed any margin of error that was left. It could be a different story in two weeks, when Denver faces a much more creative offense led by a quarterback who thrives when running away from pressure. I can’t wait to see it shake out.