Challenge for Brady is deciphering Jets' D

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Challenge for Brady is deciphering Jets' D

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO Last January, the New York Jets hatched a scheme that had Tom Brady hearing footsteps and the Patriots receivers seeing . . . not much.
The defense unveiled by Rex Ryan took away the inside of the field where Wes Welker does so much damage and dared Deion Branch to beat coverage to the outside. Seven and eight defenders dropped into coverage to deal with Brandon Tate, the tight ends and backs leaking out of the backfield. The defensive line was charged with generating pass rush with minimal blitzing. The plan worked. Brady struggled. But he didn't only struggle post-snap, he seemed to have a hard time pre-snap as well. And that's the time Brady usually sets himself apart, deciphering defenses before the play begins so he knows where he's going with the football. The Jets and head coach Rex Ryan make that hard to accomplish. "Basically, they have enough variety and flexibility in their defense that they do a number of different things," Bill Belichick explained Wednesday. "You don't too many times look at them and say, 'Geez, there's something we've never seen before.' But they give you a lot of different looks. It's not like you can say, 'Well, I knew what we were gonna get here.' ... It's unusual you see something (they put in specifically for a single opponent). There's a lot of carryover in what they do in the system but they do it out of a lot of different looks."The presence of Darrelle Revis, arguably the best corner in the league, allows New York so much freedom to show different things defensively. Since he can lock down an opponent's best receiver by himself,offenses are reallylosing thewhole quadrant in which Revis works as an area to attack. Belichick doesn't deify Revis like Ryan does, but the scout-speak of the Patriots coach shows he holds Revis in high regard. "Very good player," said Belichick. "Solid. Does everything well. Good run force, good tackler, covers well in man-to-man, instinctive in zone, good ball skills, doesn't get very many penalties in tight coverage. He's good. Very good. Both those guys (Revis and Antonio Cromartie)are good. They line up every down and play a lot of man-to-man coverage (and do well)."Cromartie isn't the solid, consistent player Revis is, but he is stunningly athletic. There are times when he can be exploited (small, quick receivers) and times when he can't be thrown upon (downfield, long-striders). The Patriots would be well-equipped to attack the Jets if they were at full strength offensively. They aren't. Danny Woodhead's got an ankle issue, Aaron Hernandez is still working back from his MCL injury and may not play, and Chad Ochocinco still hasn't made himself a viable target. If Welker, Branch and Rob Gronkowski are bottled up, someone else will have to emerge. And Belichick cautioned against the Jets having another across-the-board down day like they did against Baltimore. "It wasn't one of their better days," he said. "We've all been there before. But I think on balance, when you look at the team across the board and not just a handful of plays, they're a solid team and do a lot of things well. ... I'm impressed with them and I have a lot of respect for them. ... I wouldn't overreact to the Baltimore game."Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."