Tom Brady’s introduction to Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his zone-blitz scheme was a moment of such infamy that it remains easy to remember after nearly 15 years.
In Week 1 of the 2003 season, against a Bills team for whom LeBeau was an assistant coach overseeing the defense, Brady turned in the worst performance of his sterling career. At a time when the Patriots were dazed by the release of Lawyer Milloy, Brady was picked off four times, including a pick-6 by monster defensive lineman Sam Adams. His 22.5 passer rating in that 31-0 loss in Buffalo was the worst of his career, while his four picks matched a career-worst.
In that game, Brady and the Patriots looked discombobulated, confused by the cleverly disguised blitzes and varied personnel schemes that could feature a 370-pound mountain like Adams dropping back in coverage. That New England team wasn’t the only one to suffer such a fate against LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back who is now 45 years into his coaching career.
“He’s a great coach, was a great player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call this week. “He’s been a tremendous asset and has made so many contributions to the game of professional football in the National Football League.
“There are few coaches that I think you could put above him in terms of the amount of what he’s accomplished and how much respect I have for him, how much respect all of us in the league have for him and what he’s done.
“He’s had a tremendous career. He’s made this game a better game and he’s done a lot for the coaching profession.”
Yet while the Patriots hold LeBeau in high regard, that initial introduction of Brady to Tennessee’s current defensive guru represents an aberration. At the end of the 2003 regular season, Brady and the Patriots flipped the script with their own 31-0 win over the Bills on the way to their second Super Bowl title. In the rematch, Brady went 21 of 32 for 204 yards, with 4 touchdowns and no picks.
In nine games beginning with that contest, Brady and the Patriots consistently have dissected LeBeau’s defensive schemes with the Bills, Steelers, and most recently Titans. New England is 7-2 in its last nine contests against LeBeau, averaging 32.6 points per game.
In those contests, Brady has thrown for 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions, completing 68 percent of his pass attempts, averaging exactly 300 yards per game, and posting a passer rating of 112.3. Brady hasn’t thrown an interception in any of his last five games against LeBeau’s defenses.
*AFC title game
Part of Brady’s success against LeBeau likely stems from his mastery of blitzes. The quarterback’s reads are so quick that his ability to find the open receiver typically exceeds the defense’s ability to get to him, particularly in zone schemes that create open pockets in which to target receivers.
That has helped Brady shred blitzes from LeBeau-designed defenses in recent years. According to Stats Inc., in Brady’s last five games against LeBeau’s teams, he’s 42 for 60 with 6 touchdowns, no picks, 2 sacks, and a 126.7 passer rating against blitzes.
Perhaps in deference to that, LeBeau has been more judicious in sending an extra rusher after Brady in recent years. After blitzing a whopping 38 times with the Steelers against Brady in December 2007 (a 34-13 Patriots win), LeBeau’s teams have reduced their blitz totals in each of their last four games with New England. When the Titans faced Brady near the end of the 2015 regular season, they blitzed just 11 times in the 37 instances when the quarterback dropped back.
That said, it remains an open question whether LeBeau will remain relatively conservative in his blitz schemes this week. In a year when Julian Edelman hasn’t been available as the ultimate safety valve against blitzes, the Patriots have been unusually ineffective against a release-the-hounds pursuit of their quarterback.
Whereas Brady posted ratings of 100.0 or better against the extra rusher from 2014-16 — including his NFL-leading mark of 126.7 in 2016 — he had just an 85.0 passer rating (22nd among qualifying quarterbacks) against blitzes this year.
Whether that struggle creates an opening for LeBeau and the Titans to stifle Brady remains to be seen. If the legendary defensive coach does identify a blueprint to control New England’s passing offense, it will represent a distinct change of course from what has been a one-sided dynamic for most of Brady’s career.