Belichick couldn't game plan Brady out of trouble
Bill Belichick won two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and three more as coach of the New England Patriots.
His reputation as the NFL's best game planner on both sides of the ball is hard earned.
Belichick's forte is finding ways to minimize the damage an opponent's best players inflict, and on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers he used personnel groupings, formations and play selection to limit the impact of Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews as pass rushers.
But for that to work, his team had to win one-on-one battles against other players. And Packers defenders such as Mike Daniels, Mike Neal and Datone Jones instead prevailed enough to keep quarterback Tom Brady unsettled in the pocket and unable to hit big plays in the Packers' 26-21 win.
The play that stands out is the third-down sack shared by Neal and Daniels on New England's final possession. It kept the Patriots out of the end zone late in the fourth quarter. The sack was even bigger when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 47-yard field goal on the next play, which kept the Packers' lead at six points.
On the sack, a third-and-9 from the Packers' 20, the Patriots double-teamed Peppers, who was rushing from defensive tackle on the left side. That meant Neal and Daniels were blocked one-on-one on the right side.
Neal hit first when he beat left tackle Nate Solder to the outside with a swim move and got a hand on Brady's shoulder pads from behind. Daniels at the same time beat guard Dan Connolly with a bull rush up the middle.
Brady tried to step up from Neal, but when Daniels discarded Connolly, Brady had nowhere to go. If either Neal or Daniels hadn't won his battle, Brady at minimum could have slid around the pocket to get rid of the ball, possibly complete a pass and maybe even convert the third down. But both pass rushers won, and Brady had no chance. That took Patriots points off the board.
Another big play came early in the third quarter, with New England facing third-and-13 from its 17. The Patriots double-teamed Peppers with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Shane Vereen. They also had center Bryan Stork double Daniels, which left Jones matched one-on-one with guard Ryan Wendell.
Jones beat Wendell right off the snap with an inside move, which immediately put pressure in Brady's face. Brady is great at sliding in the pocket, and he had plenty of room to his right to shuffle-step away from Jones. But with Daniels now bearing down, he had to hurry to re-set his feet, and his pass to a relatively open Danny Amendola sailed over the target's head for an incompletion.
Brady is in the discussion of best quarterback ever, but he's 37 and never has been a playmaker on the move. Jones' initial pressure moved him off his spot, and Daniels' late close rushed him into making a poor throw on a third down that ended a possession. That's a play that wins games.
A similar play happened in the second quarter with 1:56 left and the Patriots facing first-and-goal from the 7. Daniels beat Connolly one-on-one and hit Brady as he was releasing the throw. It disrupted him just enough to cause a flutter ball that was off target and incomplete.
In the end, it wasn't sacks but annoying pressure that kept Brady from having a big game. Brady's 102.7 rating was decent, but his 245 yards passing weren't close to back-breaking. He's a relatively stationary target, and the Packers pressure kept him uncomfortable even if the Neal-Daniels sack was the only one of the game.
The same can't be said for the Patriots against Aaron Rodgers (112.6 rating), who excels making plays on the move.
Rookie Jayrone Elliott has been getting some snaps at outside linebacker the past couple of weeks because of Nick Perry's shoulder injury, and so far he's proving to be a one-dimensional player.
Elliott flashes some pass-rush quickness, but as a run defender he's been a liability.
That showed up most on back-to-back plays deep in Packers territory early in the second quarter. On first-and-goal from the 10, Elliott did what an outside linebacker shouldn't do: burst up field 4 yards and turn his back to the sideline. That opened a huge alley for 220-pound running back Brandon Bolden, and only 184-pound cornerback Sam Shields to fill it.
Bolden plowed through Shields' tackle, picked up 6 yards and knocked the cornerback out of the game with a concussion.
Elliott is supposed to stay square the line of scrimmage to limit cutback alleys, and then try to stretch the play by sliding toward the sideline if Bolden tries to go outside.
On the next play, Elliott at least stayed square, but 265-pound tight end Rob Gronkowski, lined up a yard off the line of scrimmage, knocked him back 2 yards. Bolden cut inside, and Gronkowski moved Elliott so far back that they walled off safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerback Michah Hyde from pursuit. In effect, one man blocked three. Bolden scored a 6-yard touchdown.
-- James Starks has not been a good receiver out of the backfield, but Sunday he made a big catch on a downfield throw that set up a touchdown.
It came on the Packers' 2-minute drill at the end of the first half. On a second-and-10, Rodgers scrambled to his right and saw Starks behind defensive end Rob Ninkovich on a wheel route. With a seeming flick of his wrist, Rodgers threw a dart that was a little like a back-shoulder throw to a receiver.
Starks turned toward Rodgers and made the catch as he was backpedaling and falling for a 28-yard gain. Three plays later, Jordy Nelson caught a 45-yard touchdown pass that put the Packers ahead 23-14 going into halftime.
-- Somehow, someway the 34-year-old Peppers makes a play or two each game.
On Sunday he didn't have any sacks or hits on Brady, but he knocked down two passes at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter, when the Packers were preserving their lead. They weren't turnovers and they weren't pretty, but they ruined plays before they had a chance.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty