FOXBORO -- Tom Brady sat on the visitor's bench at NRG Stadium in Houston and had a message for his receivers. He wanted them to play faster. He wanted them to be more explosive. That was the portion of the message that the football-watching world saw up close on NBC's broadcast of the game.
But another part of his message received less attention. That came later.
"C'mon let's go grind this [expletive] out," he said. "It ain't gonna be easy. It's gonna be all man. We're not gonna be wide open."
He punctuated the address with a thumbs up. But the Patriots have seen their fair share of man-to-man coverage lately -- some weeks seeing significantly more man coverage than opponent tendencies would suggest -- and they're having a hard time putting up points.
The Texans played a great deal of man coverage last weekend, holding the Patriots to single-digit points until Brady and his offense scored twice late to make the final 28-22. The week prior, the Cowboys -- who utilize primarily Seattle-style Cover 3 and Tampa-2 zone coverages -- were willing to adapt against New England.
According to NFL Media, the Cowboys played 24.1 percent more man coverage against the Patriots than they do on average. The Eagles, in Week 11, played 15.2 percent more man coverage than they typically do. The Browns in Week 8 played 14.4 percent more man.
— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 5, 2019
Part of the reason teams might be willing to play more man-to-man against the Patriots is because Brady has been so effective at carving up zones over the course of his career. If you play zone, you're doing him a favor.
Man hasn't always been a good option, though, because Brady has had weapons who could win one-on-one. Some years they had several. When defenses wanted to check, for example, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and James White, they couldn't double them all. One-on-one, someone was going to defeat their matchup and get open.
What's happened lately is Edelman has been doubled. White has been mirrored by a defensive back. There's been no consistent third option to win one-on-one matchups or draw coverage away from Brady's two favorite targets.
Mohamed Sanu has been slowed by an ankle injury. N'Keal Harry, someone who was not really a separator in college, is still getting accustomed to the offense. Jakobi Meyers and Phillip Dorsett are complementary pieces who haven't been treated as threats to run away from defenders.
That's why man-to-man, even for zone defenses, has been favored. It'll be interesting to see if Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo opts for man coverage on Sunday afternoon since he favors pattern-matching zone coverage schemes. That style of defense often ends up looking like man-to-man -- it's not a "spot-drop" zone defense, meaning defenders lock onto receivers once pass patterns are identified -- but maybe Spagnuolo will end up having his players simply mirror Patriots options because it's worked elsewhere.
So what's the answer for Brady and Josh McDaniels?
Sanu is expected to play Sunday and could be a difference-maker for Brady against man-to-man. If his injured ankle is closer to 100 percent -- he played just 19 snaps against the Texans last weekend -- then he could be that third option that the Patriots need. Either he'll be a threat to win his matchup or draw coverage away from others.
More of a big-body receiver who uses physicality and technical skill to create openings for his quarterback, Sanu won't necessarily threaten the deep part of the field and create space that way. But having him healthy could still change the geometry of the game for opposing defenses.
Sanu would represent another middle-of-the field target for Brady, meaning Edelman could be freed up to play more outside the numbers, which is something McDaniels has been trying to do with him for years now.
"Julian plays a lot outside the formation," McDaniels said last spring. "Does Julian do some of those things inside the formation? Absolutely he does. But he does a lot more on the outside in the running game and passing game. It's what he's become. There's a little bit of a difference based on the way we've used him than [other slot receivers]."
Getting Edelman outside would not only help him avoid the beating that he so often receives over the middle, but it also might make it difficult for defenses to bracket him everywhere he goes. Even if they do double Edelman outside, that should free space between the numbers for Sanu to go to work.
A healthy Sanu would also help the Patriots to scheme up a bit more in terms of manufactured separation. If they don't have a gaggle of separators at their disposal outside of Edelman, then they might be able to create separation with pick routes and alignments that create traffic for defenders to navigate.
Those plays require significant attention to detail and good decision-making on the run, and they might be difficult for rookies to execute. But if Sanu is at full strength, or close to it, he has the type of experience to make those "man-beater" plays work.
"It's more every week," Bill Belichick said of Sanu's understanding of the Patriots offense. "Each week there's building blocks and you can add some things or repeat things that have come up in previous weeks to improve the execution on him and communication. We've made a lot of progress. Definitely headed in the right direction. We're definitely not there yet either, but we're gaining ground."
CLEAN THINGS UP FOR HARRY?
Brady explained this week that there are a few ways to beat man coverage, including the scheme-it-up plays that Sanu might help with.
"I think when it's man-to-man, you've got to get away from the guy, or you've got to use plays to try to help you do that," he said. "So, they could be more player-oriented, they could be more scheme-oriented, it just depends on how we're playing and so forth."
What makes Harry such an interesting fit for the Patriots offense is that he might not fall into either category at the moment.
He's green enough where it might be hard to ask him to effectively execute a scheme play like a high-low crosser combination to pick off the defender of a teammate without being penalized. And "to get away from the guy," as Brady put it, isn't exactly his game.
But at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Harry could be the type of player who's open even when he's not. He was a contested catch virtuoso at Arizona State, and we've seen flashes of back-shoulder brilliance from him in his limited game-day work with the Patriots this year.
Using Harry on catch-and-run plays, another area in which he excelled as a collegian, might also make some sense as McDaniels and the Patriots try to squeeze what they can out of their first-round rookie.
Watching how the Patriots have used Harry, the call from some to simplify things for him -- particularly after his lone target last weekend was intercepted -- rings a bit hollow. They already have.
In the 68 routes he's run in three games, Harry has aligned outside 82 percent of the time and to the left of the formation 75 percent of the time. He has just 12 routes run from the slot and 18 when he's to Brady's right. He's been used in one bunch formation, six stacks (with a receiver aligned behind him), and he has not yet been used in motion before the snap.
There's a pattern to the routes he's been asked to run as well.
His most frequently-run route has been a hitch (13 times). He's also taken on plenty of go routes (11) and deep overs or digs (11). He's handled a half-dozen shallow under routes (including the one that resulted in the interception in Houston), as well as six comeback routes (including one where he created plenty of separation against the Cowboys but dropped the pass).
Harry has seen posts (4), corner routes (4 times from the slot), and slants (4) less often. The back-shoulder plays (3) we assumed would be his bread-and-butter haven't been to this point, and he's seen just one receiver screen, which might've gone for more yardage had it not been for a missed Marshall Newhouse block.
Most of those routes have been one-man shows, meaning he hasn't been asked to help others get open all that often. Three of the slants Harry has run appeared to be part of a slant-flat combination, which can serve as a pick play. He ran one high-low crosser combination that resulted in an incompletion. He has one double-move under his belt -- a post-corner -- that didn't result in a target.
The Patriots could take more off his plate. That's a possibility. But what he's been asked to do looks like it has already been simplified in terms of his alignments and routes run. In Houston, there were no motions, stacks or bunches for Harry.
"Everything they ask me to do is reasonable," Harry said this week. "Everything they ask me to do is something I can do and something I'm capable of doing. So, it's just putting in the work and getting it done. No excuses."
IF IT AIN'T BROKE
Odds are the Patriots are going to continue to see Edelman doubled, White mirrored by a defensive back, and man-to-man coverage across the board. That's what has worked against them, and it's a copycat league.
Having a healthier Sanu should help. Using Harry's size and his catch-and-run ability to his advantage could help. Generating traffic with route combinations might help.
Whatever they do -- Brady said it -- it ain't gonna be easy. But they know they have to find an answer. Because until they improve against those man-to-man coverages, they can expect to keep seeing them.
"It's like anything," Brady said this week. "If you hurt it, they play less of it. If you don't hurt it, they play more of it. That's what any smart team does."
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Man trouble: How can Tom Brady, Patriots combat latest defensive blueprint? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston