If Tom Brady suffered from nightmares Sunday night, you can bet those dreams prominently featured Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Denver’s pass rush hounded Brady relentlessly during the Patriots’ AFC title game loss to the Broncos, recording a QB pressure on 19 of Brady’s 61 dropbacks according to ESPN’s Stats & Information — the third-most Brady’s been pressured in a game since 2009.1 As a result, Brady was inaccurate — he completed just 48 percent of his passes — indecisive and, ultimately, ineffective as New England’s season came to an abrupt halt.
It’s hardly a secret that pressure is Brady’s Kryptonite — the league’s been trying to re-create the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII game plan for years. But while every quarterback sees a dramatic decline in performance with onrushing defenders in his face, Brady is especially susceptible to their deleterious effects. Since 2009, the average QB sees a 61-point dip in Total Quarterback Rating when pressured, compared with unpressured plays. Brady’s QBR, however, dropped 75 points over that span while under pressure — the third-biggest drop-off of any qualified QB, trailing only Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.
The Broncos got to Brady despite blitzing just three times all game, thanks to a front four that has been flattening offenses all year. During the regular season, Denver’s defense led the league by generating pressure on 31 percent of pass plays where a blitz wasn’t called. On Sunday, Miller ran up 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hits, 2 tackles for loss, an interception and a deflected pass. Ware was only credited with half of a sack, but he was just as unblockable, registering 7 QB hits.
Against an offense like New England’s — which relies a lot on underneath passing — that’s especially deadly, because the defensive backs know they only have to stay with their assignments for a few seconds. So it wasn’t totally shocking that, when faced with Denver’s onslaught, Brady suffered his fourth-worst playoff start by QBR since 2006. Denver generated 16 of its 19 pressure plays without blitzing, the sixth-most heat any team generated in a game all season without the aid of extra rushers.
Stats & Info defines a “pressure” as any instance in which a QB is sacked, hit, forced from the pocket, forced to alter his throwing motion, forced to move within the pocket or otherwise hassled by a defender in his line of sight. This makes it a second-order stat — a defense can decide to blitz Brady, but it can’t just up and decide to pressure him. To wit: Since 2009, Brady has the best QBR in football against the blitz, in part because of his quick release and in part because of reads made before the ball is snapped. But when teams are able to get pressure without sending extra defenders, Brady suddenly has one of the league’s worst QBRs — it’s a very different read when Miller and Ware are in your face and those hot receivers aren’t running so hot. Other teams have used the same recipe to beat Brady in playoff games, and Denver’s historically great defense executed that very game plan on Sunday.
Barring a massive personnel shakeup, the Pats will be back, of course. This year’s version was practically a carbon copy of the team that won the Super Bowl a year ago — each was the other’s closest historical doppelgänger, in fact, according to the indexed similarity scores I introduced here. Next fall, our Elo ratings will call for New England to win 10 games for the umpteenth year in a row. But on Sunday at least, Denver’s defense showed how a dominating pass rush can throw even the best of quarterbacks into disarray.