To battle Tom Brady, Packers secondary hopes to balance subterfuge with playing to their own strengths
GREEN BAY – There is nothing new to show Tom Brady. No defense he hasn’t seen, no alignment he hasn’t beaten, no coverage scheme he can’t diagnose. He’s been playing football in the NFL for the entirety of some of his opponents lives. Of the Green Bay Packers secondary, only safety Adrian Amos was older than 5 when Brady joined the New England Patriots (Amos was 7 at the time).
“He's seen everything,” safety Darnell Savage said Thursday. “He’s seen so many different players, so many different plays, so many different eras, just how the game’s changed. So I would just say his mind, how fast he moves, how fast he works (is his greatest strength). So we got to be ready to communicate and be able to combat that."
How does one combat the seven-time Super Bowl champion? How do the Packers beat him Sunday?
Disguise and lies.
“Just make it hard,” cornerback Eric Stokes said Friday. “Try not to give him anything. I know he pretty much done seen everything. So just give him different looks and hopefully confuse him.”
It’s what Packers defensive backs feel worked for the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, when they held Brady to 18-of-34 passing for 190 yards, one touchdown and a sack.
“Honestly, they didn’t show Brady what he wanted to see,” slot cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “Then they dropped into certain looks and they kind of came after him a little bit as well. Made him move left and right … made him uncomfortable.”
It’s a cat-and-mouse game, according to Douglas, baiting Brady into certain throws by hiding what they really want to do on defense. It’s the only way to beat someone who likely knows the playbook as well as his opponent.
“You gotta be smart,” Douglas said. “Because you gotta know if he understands it’s coming, he has a plan for it.”
The debate about the Packers playing man coverage (each defender being assigned an offensive player to defend) versus zone (each defender being responsible for a certain section of the field) has boiled over in recent weeks, even becoming a point of conversation in the Green Bay locker room. The narrative has long been that Brady can pick apart zone coverage with ease, therefore a defense should play man to win.
But several Packers secondary members pushed back on that belief this week. The reasoning being that Brady, at 45 years old, can’t move as easily or as quickly as he could in his youth. His tendency instead will be to loft passes to get them out of his hands quickly. Coupled with disguised looks, the Packers believe they can lull Brady into turnovers. It echos something Hall of Famer quarterback Peyton Manning said during a Monday Night Football broadcast last season, stating the best way to beat Brady is stay in zone.
The Packers have cover corners capable of playing man, though, and Brady will be playing with receivers who typically are deep on the depth chart. Mike Evans is suspended, Chris Godwin (hamstring) won’t play for the third straight week and Julio Jones (knee) is questionable.
It means the Packers will lean on a combination of defenses, Douglas said: “Sometimes you mix (man coverage) in, sometimes you don’t. You just gotta keep playing that game.”
Brady can adjust, so the temptation is to throw a game plan out the window as soon as something goes wrong. The Packers insist they’ll look for a balance of adapting and staying with what they trust.
“You’ve just gotta go out there and stick to what you is,” Stokes said. “Don't try to switch up anything. Don't try to do too much. OG (defensive backs coach Jerry Gray) always say like, don't be Superman. Everybody ain’t Superman. So don’t try to do everything. Just go ahead and handle your business and everybody else will do the same.”
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Still this is a quarterback who has won multiple Super Bowls with receivers whose names are deep on the list of best to play the game. His accuracy and IQ are what make the difference. It’s a lesson the Packers are reminding themselves in preparation.
“It's still business as usual,” Stokes said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s Tom Brady. He can pretty much make anybody great. So we still just come out here, we still gotta execute and play our type of ball.”
With only two games under their belt, a loss in which they were shown up by Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and a win in which they stifled the Chicago’s passing game, this Packers defense is still finding out what exactly their “type of ball” can be.
Taking those lumps against Tom Brady can be painful. But this Sunday showdown could also allow the Packers to play to the strengths of their personnel while using disguises to frustrate the future Hall of Famer.
Said Savage, “We’re just gonna go out there, try to play together. That’s the biggest thing for us. We wanna keep what we had last week going so we’ve gotta keep growing together and playing together as one.”