FOXBOROUGH - It’s a double-edged sword when it comes to defending Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The book says you try to pressure him early, knock him around, and hope that gets him playing faster than he wants, which causes him to be inaccurate.
Teams such as the Cowboys, Jets, and Giants were able to do it better than anyone.
The other side is that there is no one better in the league against the blitz. Entering yesterday’s game against the Dolphins, Brady led the league with a 116.4 passer rating and 62 percent completion rate.
So if you’re a defensive coordinator, what do you do?
If you’re Mike Nolan of the Dolphins and your team is going nowhere, you throw the kitchen sink.
The good thing for Nolan is that his plan was good for a half, as the Dolphins raced to a 17-0 lead.
But Brady and the Patriots figured out the Dolphins eventually, thanks to a few tweaks - to the tune of 27 straight points in the second half in the Patriots’ 27-24 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Nolan blitzed Brady 29 times on his 50 dropbacks (58 percent). That is certainly a high this season (15 against Dallas) and last season (18 in the second matchup with the Jets). It probably ranks up there with the most times Brady has been pressured in his career.
Nolan came after Brady from the opening whistle, with an amazing 16 blitzes in his first 23 dropbacks (70 percent). That’s more than Brady was blitzed in an entire game this season.
In addition to the usual five-man blitz, Nolan went heavy with six rushers on seven occasions.
It worked perfectly in the first half as Brady completed just 7 of 19 passes for 87 yards and a rating of 51.9, as the Dolphins stunned the Patriots and caused the home crowd to boo the boys in blue going off the field at halftime.
“We had him rattled in the first half,’’ said Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell.
But at halftime, Brady, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien got it figured out.
Despite facing another 13 blitzes on 27 dropbacks in the second half, Brady went 20 of 27 for 217 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 109.6.
That’s more like it for Brady.
The Patriots made a few significant adjustments.
For one, they went to the no-huddle more. That didn’t allow the Dolphins to correctly send their rushers. Nolan sent them, but they weren’t nearly as effective.
“We didn’t have time to set up our pressure package,’’ Bell said. “They were going to make sure we didn’t have time to mess around in the second half, so they were getting up on the ball going quick, keeping us on our toes. They were snapping the ball quick and doing things like that. We knew they might do that, but they did a good job in the second half and we just didn’t make enough plays to win the game.’’
The Patriots also spread out the Dolphins more by taking a running back off the field - they were terrible in blitz pickup in the first half, in any event - and going with two tight ends and three receivers. That caused the Dolphins to go away from their man-to-man coverage across the field, and drop the safeties back more.
“In that 0-2 formation [zero running backs, two tight ends, three receivers], that’s a mismatch,’’ Bell said. “So we have to be careful in what we do. And we knew they might do some of that. It did back us off a little bit.’’
That gave the slot players, such as receiver Wes Welker, more room to operate.
Welker was targeted seven times in the first half with two catches for 20 yards. Every throw was contested. In the second half, Welker was thrown at 12 times for 10 catches and 118 yards, including a few coverage breakdowns when Welker was one-on-one with linebacker Karlos Dansby.
The Patriots also junked a lot of the bunch formations they like to use closer to the line of scrimmage. That allowed Brady to see the field better and recognize from where the blitz was coming.
Instead of being unsure and rushed, Brady was back to standing tall in the pocket.
“He was more relaxed in the second half when they were in the no-huddle and we didn’t have time to set up,’’ Bell said. “He already knew where he was going with the ball, and you could kind of sense that because as soon as he was getting the ball, he was letting it go like he knew what was coming. He did a good job of identifying things and we didn’t do a good job of executing and making enough plays.’’
Brady also did a better job of getting rid of the ball quicker. When your starting left tackle, Matt Light, is scratched because of a pregame injury, and then the backup who normally plays left guard, Logan Mankins, gets hurt early, forcing two rookies, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, to man the tackle spots, the quarterback can’t take his time surveying the field after the snap.
“They got rid of the football,’’ said Dolphins outside linebacker Jason Taylor, who has sacked Brady more times than any player. “Getting rid of the football, not allowing Tom to take hits and breaking off routes to get the ball in their playmakers hands a little quicker, it worked out. They did a lot of the same things they did in the first half, window-dressed it a little bit with different personnel groups, and they made some plays.’’
The victory gave the Patriots a first-round bye, but also gave them offensive confidence for the postseason.
The Dolphins used the blueprint that others have found successful. This time, the Patriots had an answer. For a group with Super Bowl aspirations, that is a victory in its own right.