The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.
It is almost impossible to surprise a player like Tom Brady.
As the Washington Football Team attempts to get its first playoff win since 2005, it will need to figure out how to stop a future Hall of Famer who has won six Super Bowls. But at 43 years old, Brady has seen and done it all, head coach Ron Rivera said, and he is throwing the ball like he is 23 years old.
Rivera has faced off against Brady twice as a head coach -- both were wins, for what it is worth -- and based on his experience, the best way to defend against him is to be judicious with what is called. By judicious, he means using different coverages and bringing pressure at the right times.
"To me, it's really about circumstances and situational football," Rivera said. "You have to be truly on it with your game. If not and he has time, he will pick you apart."
Washington's secondary has been better than most this season. Its Pro Football Focus cover grade of 83.4 is the second-best in the NFL, and its starting cornerbacks, Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby, have combined for 27 pass deflections and interceptions, which is the most of any starting duo.
Washington is hopeful its secondary will have similar success to that of the Los Angeles Rams, who faced Brady in Week 11 and limited him to 215 yards while completing 54.2% of his passes -- his worst completion rate of the season. But the coverage cannot give the same looks consistently, otherwise Brady will quickly figure out the scheme.
"All of these little details [are] things that you've just got to understand in what you're doing and how you do it," Rivera said. "Whether it's something as similar as a linebacker tilting one way or the other or a guy standing there like a statue because that's the true indicator that he's blitzing, a guy that fakes up into the line on top of us."
Since Brady is completing at least 65% of his passes for the eighth time in his career, giving Brady different coverage schemes will not be enough.
That is why pressuring him will be so vital. Brady's accuracy drops to 33% when pressured, and four of Tampa Bay's five losses have come when Brady is pressured on at least 18% of his dropbacks.
Rivera believes teams have success if they can rush with just their four-man fronts, and it just so happens that Washington is one of the best in that area. The team is fourth in pressures despite being 13th in blitz percentage. But even then, that isn't enough to stop Brady, given that the Buccaneers have given up just 22 sacks all year.
"He's smart, he's seen it and he's accurate when he throws the ball, so it's really pretty simple," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "He makes good decisions, and he's accurate with his passes."
The only true way to stop Brady is by using different coverages and a consistent pass-rush together, which is what the Rams did to force two interceptions. The first came when linebacker Justin Hollis cut inside and got within arm's length of Brady. That forced him to throw an errant pass to safety Jordan Fuller, who was playing zone on the left side of the field.
Fuller got his second interception on Brady in the fourth quarter, only this time he ran to the opposite end of the field to help John Johnson III cover Cameron Brate. Brady overthrew the pass since Brate was in tight coverage, and Fuller arrived just in time to secure the game-sealing pick.
Rivera said the players are excited to take on the Buccaneers, which is a good sign to him, but he has also mentioned it will require a team effort to advance to the Divisional round. Whether Washington is rushing Brady or trying to catch him off balance with coverages, it will have one of its most difficult challenges.
"We've got to do like you always do to play a good pass defense," Del Rio said. "It takes a combination of rush and coverage. If you're not getting one or the other, you're going to have problems."
-- "We're trending up": Alex Smith was listed as "questionable" heading into Saturday's game, and Taylor Heinicke received most of the starting reps in practice this week, so there are still some questions about who Washington's starter will be and even how much each signal-caller will play against the Buccaneers. Either way, the quarterback will need to distribute the ball to Washington's weapons, and Rivera believes a handful of players could become consistent playmakers in the NFL. They have shown growth over the past year, and whether they were found in free agency, the draft or were already on the roster, Washington's investment in them has paid off.
"I think as far as our team's concerned -- we're trending up. We've got a group of guys that we think can become playmakers in this league. They've shown they're playmakers. A good example is what happened last week with the two touchdowns and who scored. I think Terry [McLaurin] and Logan [Thomas] both showed that they are guys we can go to in the red zone and get the ball in their hands. You look at what J.D. [McKissic] has shown us over the course of the season, and he's a playmaker. Cam [Sims]'s a playmaker. Peyton [Barber]'s a physical, downhill runner. Guys like that, you've just got to get the ball to them. I think that's what the quarterback has to do whether it's Alex or it's Taylor. We've got to get the ball into those guys' hands."
-- "I think these guys are excited": The Buccaneers are still favored by more than a touchdown against Washington, but that has not affected the way Washington has practiced. In fact, he thinks the players would have been fine if they were the favorites. Despite being considered an underdog, the players have been positive in practice all week and worked hard. Rivera believes they have all embraced the excitement that Chase Young had at the end of the Eagles game for facing Brady.
"I think these guys are excited. I think they're energized," Rivera said. "I think that's the challenge. I think they're excited about it. I think this is a team led by one of the iconic players, and many of them consider him the 'GOAT.' I just think the guys think it's a cool challenge. That's the fun about this week. We'll see how it goes. That's why we show up. We'll play out and see how things unfold."
-- "He's a complete player": Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski officially retired from the NFL after the 2018 season but made his return once Brady signed with Tampa Bay. The year off seems to have been useful for Gronkowski, because the 31-year-old is still a productive pass-catcher for Brady. He has caught 43 passes for 623 yards and seven touchdowns, but that is not all that he can do. Del Rio said Gronkowski is still a "pretty darn good" blocker as well, making him a complete tight end in the defensive coordinator's eyes.
"He's a guy that blocks, runs routes, catches, does a little bit of everything," Del Rio said. "He's a complete player. Some tight ends you match up and you're worried about and they're good receivers. Some guys are good blockers and they're not receivers. I think he's a blend. He's been a really good player for a long time."
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