Havoc versus Tom Brady: A brief recent history
One thing that stands out about Baltimore’s recent defense, outside of them being more open to disguise than most teams, is how often they blitz. They were the most blitz-happy team of 2018, and they are the most blitz-happy team of 2019.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
In 2018, the Ravens blitzed 39.6% of passing dropbacks, per SportsRadar’s data. In 2019, the Ravens have gotten even more aggressive, notching up to 48.0% blitzes. They were in first place in 2018, and are narrowly hanging on to first place by a percentage point over Tampa Bay in 2019.
The point of acquiring all these defensive backs — the point of Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marcus Peters, Earl Thomas, et al at the same time — is to tell your opponent that you can single-cover any receiver they have. We’re coming after you either way. Best of luck stopping the rush.
That takes us very neatly to how the Patriots play offense. They’re having one of their worst offensive years in a while, but even before this year, they were struggling to deal with pressure. In 2018, Tom Brady’s DVOA declined from 63.0% to -66.9% when he was pressured. That was the 27th-highest jump of 34 quarterbacks who threw 200 or more passes. If you’re unfamiliar with DVOA is, just imagine a theoretical “average” quarterback. Brady was 63% better than that quarterback without pressure, and 67% worse than that quarterback when he sustained it.
This year, everyone saw that number and decided to blitz Brady. He’s taken 100 blitzes already in 2019 — he’s almost up to last year’s number of blitzes in only half of a season. His average target distance has declined by 0.7 yards, which is a lot over an aggregate sample. His on-target percentage has declined slightly as well — Sports Info Solutions has it at 68.6%, from last year’s 72.3%.
So what we have here is a couple of extremes melding together: The Patriots are already getting their skulls blitzed in, and Baltimore is already more than happy to let the pack loose. I would bet we’re going to see at least 50 percent blitzes this Sunday night.
The elephant in the room with the Patriots for the past couple of years have been that their receivers just haven’t been all that physically impressive. They’re well-coached, and their scheme is put together so well that they can absolutely still play well enough to win championships. But Rob Gronkowski was moving like a bus last season, and Julian Edelman is more shifty than speedy at this point.
With Gronkowski retired, they didn’t have an obvious player that could beat man-coverage from a jam on a consistent basis — at least, they didn’t until they traded for Mohamed Sanu.
Sanu’s quiet debut was about game script — Cleveland was down 17-0 before they knew what hit them — and it’s kind of funny to imagine this move as a counter to the move for Peters. Sanu is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. He’s not going to be an easy target to jam, and he’s got a high catch rate.
When you shorten the game as much as I expect these two teams to do on Sunday night, you put a lot of pressure on the receivers and a lot of pressure on the defensive backs. Two recent further investments into the area could very well be the moves that decide how this side of the ball goes.
Rivers McCown is a writer and editor who has written for ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Deadspin, among other places. He’s edited for Football Outsiders, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue.