TAMPA — You don’t last 22 years in the NFL by playing scared.
You also don’t last that long by being shortsighted, reckless or stupid.
So when Tom Brady got blindsided on Tampa Bay’s third play from scrimmage Sunday against Washington, his survival training took over. And it was the Bucs’ game plan that took a beating instead.
Brady, who is given an option to throw downfield or underneath on virtually every pass play in the Bucs playbook, went into immediate checkdown mode. He rarely threw deep, and instead unleashed a barrage of bubble screens to his wideouts and short passes to his running backs.
Mind you, this was the NFL’s leading passer facing one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. And when it was all over, Brady had thrown for a skimpy 220 yards. And the Bucs had lost 29-19.
“We’ve got to protect our quarterback better early in the game, and maybe we’ll take some shots down the field like we normally do when he’s protected,” coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “But if he’s getting hit a bunch early, he ain’t holding on it too it very long. I don’t know (a quarterback) who does.”
How noticeable was the change in Tampa Bay’s passing attack?
Brady came into the game averaging almost exactly 9.0 yards downfield on every passing attempt. Against Washington, he averaged 5.7, according to Pro Football Focus. He was getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible instead of waiting for plays to develop downfield.
And it seemingly can be traced back to the third-and-8 play on Tampa Bay’s first drive when defensive tackle Jonathan Allen shoved guard Ali Marpet inside, then took an outside route toward the pocket.
Brady was looking right and had just delivered the ball when Allen drilled him in the left shoulder and took him to the ground. Brady got up after the play, but Tampa Bay’s swagger was left splattered on the turf. It was the first sack of the season allowed by Marpet.
“We got whipped up front,” Arians said. “And that hasn’t happened much in our interior this year.”
And, yes, the defensive scheme played a role in this, too. Washington played a lot of two-deep zone, which usually means Mike Evans is running into a crowded secondary on deeper routes.
But it’s not as if that came as a surprise to Tampa Bay. Arians’ no-risk-it, no-biscuit philosophy is well known in the league and so most opponents utilize a deep zone against the Bucs.
The solution is to make the defense pay with either a punishing running game — which the Bucs do not have — or with a ball-control passing attack. And then, when the defense starts adjusting to the shorter game, attack them over the top.
That didn’t happen enough on Sunday.
If that was because of the Allen hit, Brady wasn’t saying. In fact, he wasn’t saying much of anything after the game. He briefly answered three questions before stepping away from the microphone.
But if you want a glimpse into the Brady mindset, go back to a news conference in early September when he was asked about the knee injury that wiped out his 2008 season in New England.
“I’d rather play and lose than not play at all, as crazy as that sounds,” he said days before the season opener. “If you’re not playing, then it means you’re at home. And I remember that was a tough year just sitting and watching all my teammates.
“I made a pretty conscious decision that I was going to do everything I could at that point to stay as healthy as I could my entire career.”
Is than an indictment of Brady’s willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit?
Of course not. Brady passed Brett Favre earlier this season for the most sacks in NFL history (and has since been passed himself by Ben Roethlisberger) and that doesn’t include all the other hits he’s absorbed.
But protecting his body has to be a consideration for a quarterback who is 44 and likely feeling aches and bruises more than the average NFL quarterback.
Basically, this comes down to a calculation for Brady. If the game is big enough, if the play is important enough, you can probably expect he will do whatever it takes to get the ball downfield.
And he did, in fact, have the Bucs in position for a fourth-quarter comeback after hitting Evans on a 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter with about 11 minutes remaining. Unfortunately, Washington practically controlled the ball for the rest of the game.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another calculation to consider:
Every time Brady takes a hit, so do Tampa Bay’s chances of winning another Super Bowl.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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