How do you stop Tom Brady? How Eagles' defense is preparing for the ultimate challenge
The Eagles' defense could play extremely well in Sunday afternoon's wild-card playoff game against the Buccaneers and Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady is still almost surely going to enjoy some degree of success.
A seven-time Super Bowl champion and five-time Super MVP, Brady has seen and done it all. At 44, he passed for most yardage (5,316) and had the second-most touchdowns (43) in his illustrious 22-year NFL career. He led the league in completions (485), pass attempts (719), passing yardage and TDs during the regular season.
"We understand the task at hand," said Eagles safety Rodney McLeod. "We're going to have to execute at a high level because that offense executes at a very high level because of him. We're going to have to do our best at creating some indecision."
Part of what makes Brady so difficult is his ability to get rid of the ball so quickly. He was only sacked an NFL-low 22 times this season while facing 176 blitzes and attempting 719 passes. He identifies his secondary receivers in a hurry and gets the ball to them while being protected by a very good offensive line.
In plays in which he had less than 2 1/2 seconds to throw, Brady completed 74.3 percent of his passes (compared to 54.8 when he had 2.5 seconds or more) with 34 TDs and just 6 interceptions.
"We know that it’s very hard to get to him, but feel like we're up for the challenge and got some things that we're going to try to do," said Birds defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
The Eagles didn't sack Brady in a 28-22 home loss to the Bucs on Oct. 14.
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The dilemma for Gannon is wanting to mix up the defensive schemes and looks while understanding occasional blitzes are preferable to being too blitz-happy because of Brady's rapid decision-making.
That means the bulk of the responsibility for pressuring Brady should fall on the Eagles' four defensive linemen on the field at the time. Tackle Javon Hargrave and end Josh Sweat tied for Philadelphia team-high honors with 7.5 sacks this season.
Tampa Bay had three offensive linemen selected to the Pro Bowl in center Ryan Jensen, guard Ali Marpet and tackle Tristan Wirfs. The only Eagles' defensive player to make it was cornerback Darius Slay, who had a team-best three interceptions.
"They're good upfront (and) we're good upfront," said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, whose 3.5 sacks tied for the second-lowest in his 10-year pro career. "I think it's going to come down to which side of the ball can execute the most. ... I'm really excited about it. I know it's a good matchup for us upfront and we're accepting the challenge."
Confusing Brady by trying to disguise coverages isn't an easy task, given Brady's vast experience. He's very good at audibling from the line of scrimmage and identifying what plays are effective against particular defensive alignments.
"He knows what's going on," said linebacker Alex Singleton, who again led the Eagles in tackles with 137. "He understands (what coverage) you could be in (like) if you're disguising something too much. He's really a coach on the field."
A season-ending torn ACL to favorite target Chris Godwin from Delaware and Penn State, plus the Week 17 departure of Antonio Brown, weakened Brady's receiving corps, but he still has a group featuring veteran Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the regular-season win over the Eagles due to a rib injury.
"Tom has seen it all," McLeod said. "We understand that he can throw the ball anywhere on the field. He finds a way to will his team, regardless who is out there."
The Eagles forced just one turnover on Oct. 14 – an interception by safety Anthony Harris. It's likely they'll need more Sunday in Tampa if they plan on advancing to face the top-seeded Packers in the divisional round.
With only 16 regular-season takeaways, including four fumbles (second-lowest in the NFL), the Birds had less than half of the Cowboys' league-leading total of 34. The Bucs were close behind at 29.
"The biggest thing for us is creating more turnovers," Singleton said. "If we create that, it gives our offense a lot more opportunity to score and it takes (the Tampa) offense off the field."
That becomes even more important when Tom Brady is the other quarterback.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly