New England Patriots: Can Tom Brady Throw Deep?
While that seems like a drastic overstatement for a guy who threw for 50 touchdowns in 2007—including 23 to deep threat Randy Moss—it's worth examining, given his struggles with deep passes early this season. Brady's already had a few missed connections on sterling touchdown opportunities this year, including two in a gut-wrenching loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2.
Of course, without knowing the designed play, it's often weird science to try and figure out who's at fault when a plan isn't executed. But we can take a look at the film, watch the play unfold and make educated guesses as to what might have gone wrong.
Let's look at some NFL Game Rewind coaches' tape, so we can analyze a few of the Pats' big-play attempts that didn't quite work out the way they were drawn up.
1) Week 1 vs Titans: Brady-to-Lloyd
Here's a look at a prime scoring opportunity that Brady and WR Brandon Lloyd would almost certainly like to have back.
It's a perfect chance for a deep-strike touchdown, and the Pats simply don't capitalize.
New England starts out in a singleback formation, with H-back Aaron Hernandez motioning towards center before the snap. As the ball is snapped, Hernandez pulls to the left and blocks Titans stud DE Kamerion Wimbley effectively. The rest of the line blocks to the right as if to set up a run to that side.
The corner bites on both play-actions, first charging in toward the line of scrimmage, then setting his feet as if to ready himself for an open-field tackle on the end-around. He completely disregards Lloyd, who motors past him.
Titans safety Michael Griffin is playing over-the-top, supporting the left half of the field in a Cover-2 zone. He bites on Brady's fake too, charging in six or seven yards towards the line of scrimmage.
With the Titans' defensive backs frozen, Lloyd takes off behind the defense. He's now wide open; there are 10 yards of daylight between him and the nearest defender.
Brady recognizes the opportunity instantly, and throws a frozen rope in Lloyd's direction.
By this point, Lloyd has slowed up on his route just a little bit, and has to make a split-second decision. He's either got to keep running all-out to try to catch the ball over his shoulder, or slow down, turn and make a play on the ball above his head.
Lloyd picks the latter, and it's the wrong choice: The ball sails just out of his reach, grazing his fingertips and falling harmlessly to the turf.
This one's on both Brady and Lloyd to some extent. Brady needs to put a little more air under that ball—given the space Lloyd had on his defender—in order to make the ball more easily catchable for Lloyd.
But for the Pats' new number 85, that's a ball he's got to catch in the future.
Lloyd is a phenomenal receiver with incredible balance and body control. Look for him to make these kinds of catches as his chemistry with Brady improves through the course of the season.
2) Week 2 vs Cardinals: Brady-to-Lloyd
I don't mean to pick on Brandon Lloyd: In fact, he's been one of my favorite receivers to watch since he came into the league.
Plus, it doesn't look like this one is on him.
Let's start from the top: The play begins with a jumbo set (two tight ends tight to the line) and Ridley in the backfield. Lloyd is lined up wide on the right side. It looks like a pretty standard run formation to kick off the second quarter.
Lex Hilliard (No. 30 in the fullback position) motions to the strong side before the snap. Brady snaps the ball and the whole offensive line blocks to the right while Brady sells the play-action beautifully.
Everyone and their mother on the Cardinals defensive line buys the run, and both linebackers underneath rush to attack the line of scrimmage. The weak-side safety, playing a deep zone, doesn't fall for the fake but comes up to help cover TE Rob Gronkowski.
Thie leaves Lloyd in an one-on-one matchup with the corner, who plays Lloyd tight but isn't in position to stop a throw over the top.
Brady, who has rolled out to the left with no rushers anywhere near him, simply launches a bad throw to the wrong shoulder.
Compare this play to Randy Moss' first touchdown catch with the Patriots. Moss runs a sort of deep crossing route in which he starts out lined up on the right side, burns the corner, then comes across the deep middle to catch a ball in his bread basket on the left side of the end zone.
Brady should have done the same thing with Lloyd. But instead of leading his receiver in the direction he's running, Brady tries to throw it to Lloyd's right shoulder. It's possible Brady is afraid of a possible INT by the opposite safety, who by this point has left Gronkowski to make a play on the ball.
But Brady needs to trust his receiver's playmaking ability: Lloyd had a step on both the corner and safety, and a pass down the left side of the field would have given Lloyd a much better shot at a touchdown.
3) Week 2 vs. Cardinals: Brady-to Gronk
Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski is one of the surest-handed receivers in the NFL.
But the big fella missed a big play in Week 2, one that might have changed the Pats' fortunes in that game.
Let's break the play down.
The Cardinals counter with a nickel defense featuring four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. They're in a zone: The linebackers are covering the shallow middle, the nickelback covers the flat, the corners are responsible for the sidelines and the safeties are in charge of the deep zones.
That's just the kind of defense the Pats' personnel is fit to pick apart.
Welker runs a crossing route that draws both linebackers, and Gronk streaks up the right seam. He beats the safety covering deep (and you can see the safety tug Gronk's jersey around the 27 second mark), and the opposite-field safety does little to help. Brady scoots forward, then left, managing the pocket beautifully to give himself space to step into the throw.
Then he fires a strike to the streaking TE down the field. It's a perfect throw with perfect touch, a beauty that comes down just over Gronk's left shoulder.
Gronkowski dives for the ball with his body in perfect position to make the catch.
But he doesn't: The ball slips right between his hands.
This play, more than anything, demonstrates that Brady is still capable of throwing deep. He recognizes the mismatch and makes a perfect throw down the field. Gronk needs to come up with that ball; a touchdown before the half almost certainly would have turned the game around.
Brady and the Pats haven't hit that deep pass yet, but they're getting closer. Look for more long strikes in the upcoming weeks, and look for the Pats' talented playmakers to take advantage of future opportunities.