FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The hot topic of conversation in the New England Patriots' locker room Tuesday was the concerning number of hits that quarterback Tom Brady has taken this season: 32 in just five games.
Often one to get right to the point, running back James White said simply, “We have to do a better job protecting him. We’re all accountable for that.”
Indeed, there isn’t just one reason Brady is being battered at such a troubling rate. Everyone has had a hand in it.
Offensive line has been up and down: The starting line of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon can be more consistent, but there are still plenty of plays on which they are providing Brady enough time. It isn’t all on the line, but that’s a fair place to start. An incomplete pass to receiver Chris Hogan up the left sideline early in the fourth quarter Thursday was a good example: Hogan was open, but Brady was rushed to throw as Robert Ayers hit him. "We hate to see him get hit. Keeping him clean, keeping him upright, that's our goal every week," Solder said.
Running back blitz pickup a wild card: White is the ace in this area, but he wasn’t in the game on the play on which Brady was strip-sacked and lost a fumble in Thursday’s win over the Buccaneers. As linebacker Adarius Glanton looped around Cannon, it appeared as if Mike Gillislee never saw him coming. Boom! Brady had his back turned on a play-action fake and never had a chance.
Tight ends are part of that, too: On the same play on which Glanton dislodged the ball from Brady, tight end Dwayne Allen couldn’t hold the left edge in a one-on-one matchup against defensive end Noah Spence, who arrived at Brady the same time as Glanton. It was a crunching blow and a reminder that tight ends are part of the protection as well.
Brady’s decision-making: Although it doesn’t count as part of the 32 hits, when Brady dropped back to pass on third-and-goal from the 6-yard line late in the second quarter, he seemed to have receiver Danny Amendola open over the middle but instead tucked and ran, absorbing a hit from nose tackle Clinton McDonald in the process. Brady might have been referencing that play when he said on Westwood One radio, “We'd score more points if I made some better plays in the red area. So that's really where it starts for me." He also talked about holding on to the ball too long at times, which is a result, in part, of the team having more of a vertical attack in 2017.
Josh McDaniels’ approach: The offensive coordinator has had his hand forced at times, calling so many pass plays because the Patriots have had to play catch-up. The Patriots have attempted 195 passes and had 128 rushing attempts. Turning more to the running game at times is one easy solution to limit hits on Brady; the key is striking the right balance between preservation and aggressiveness.
Receivers can uncover more consistently: When Brady was sacked on third-and-1 early in the second quarter against the Buccaneers, the Patriots showed a pass-based look by emptying the backfield and spreading things out. The Buccaneers rushed four, and as Brady looked down the field the Buccaneers appeared to have all five pass-catchers covered well. It wasn’t as if the rush got there immediately. Even CBS analyst Tony Romo noted, “The ball has to come out at some point.” Not if no one is open, though.
Credit to the opposition: The Patriots have played some of the NFL’s better defenses, a point Brady made in his Westwood One interview, saying, “We’ve played some of the best defenses in the league. That’s part of it. We’ve been in very competitive games where we’ve had to throw the ball at the end.”
Bill Belichick’s take. During his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, the coach said of the hits on Brady, “We need to work on everything. The passing game is timing, between the quarterback and receivers; getting the ball out on time. It's protection; giving the quarterback enough time. It's having the right play that gives you those options. So all the above. I think we need to do a better job all the way across the board. We can all do better."