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Super question: Can Rams get pressure on Tom Brady?

ATLANTA -- Pressure Tom Brady: Beat the New England Patriots.

The supposed solution to the Patriots' decades of dominance is easier said than done. Exponentially easier.

Yet, the truest method to slowing the greatest quarterback of all time has been pressure right in his face, particularly from the interior of the defense.

Reaching back to when the New York Giants NASCAR-rushed Brady into submission in Super Bowl XLII, the surest way to slow down the Patriots is to push the pocket right into Brady's lap.

In all three of Brady's Super Bowl losses, defenses have battered the quarterback, sacking him eight times, generating 18 QB hits and 48 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. It's not necessarily getting sacks that effects Brady, but rather forcing him to move off his spot. In last year's Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Brady was pressured on 46.9 percent of his dropbacks -- the only sack came on a Brandon Graham (lined up inside) strip to effectively end the game.

The trend continued in the 41-year-old quarterback's 2018 campaign. Brady threw two touchdowns and two interceptions with a 63.1 passer rating when pressured from an interior pass rusher this season, per NFL Research -- compare that to seven TDs, zero INTs and a 118.7 passer rating against edge pressure.

On paper, the Los Angeles Rams appear to own the perfect foil to discombobulate Brady during Super Bowl LIII, starting with presumptive Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

"You've got myself, you got Dante (Fowler Jr.), you got Michael Brockers, you got Samson (Ebukam), you got (Ndamukong) Suh, there's a lot of guys you've got to worry about," Donald said Monday night. "We're going to do our job and get after them."

In Donald and Suh, the Rams own the pass-rush ability from the interior to make the quarterback's life hell. Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position and pressured the quarterback on 13.1 percent of pass rushes this season (highest among 85 interior defensive linemen with 200-plus pass rushes).

"You've just got to keep rushing that middle, shut that middle down, apply pressure where you think it's not. And I think we're definitely going to make that happen," defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks said. "Shoot, obviously, other teams weren't getting that pressure up the middle. They've got a couple Ls this year, so you look at what (opponents) did and do it better."

Having play-makers on the D-line isn't the panacea for curing a Brady plague, as the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs found out.

In two playoff games against teams with good pass rushers -- including a K.C. defense that was tied for first in the NFL with 52 QB takedowns -- Brady was sacked zero times on 90 pass attempts.


The sackless streak is buoyed by multiple factors. The Patriots boast a solid offensive line that allowed the fewest hurries in the NFL this season (48), including a very good interior. Moreover, Brady gets rid of the ball with lightning-quick precision, picking apart defenses before the rush can become a factor.

Brady averaged 2.59 seconds to throw this season, third-quickest in the NFL. The quick-trigger meant he was pressured on just 17.9 percent of dropbacks, fewest in the NFL -- New England allowed 8.6 percent pressure rate to interior pass rushers this season (fourth-lowest in NFL). TB12 has taken the quick-pass to another level in the playoffs. He averaged 2.33 seconds to throw versus the Chargers and 2.51 seconds against K.C., per Next Gen Stats.

Like a child trying to squirm out of a Chinese finger trap, attacking Brady from just one level only tightens the G.O.A.T.'s grip on the game.

Defenses that play primarily zone coverage or do not press receivers are inviting Brady to pick them apart with quick strikes.

The dichotomy between the pass rush and secondary is one key for the Rams in Sunday's Super Bowl LIII.

"We've got our secondary, they're going to lock things down, they're going to give us opportunities to get to him, we've just got to take him down when he holds the ball," Donald said. "Not let him get comfortable, get him off the spot. He's a great quarterback, but if you put pressure on him (then) just like anybody else it'll be a tough day for him."

With Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot, the Rams appear to have the personnel to press Pats receivers at the line. However, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips confirmed that he switched to more zone pressure late in the 2018 campaign after his squad struggled early in the season.

"We played a lot of zone, we were giving up too many plays early in the year," Phillips noted. "We changed up what we were doing and it worked well for us."

Against Brady, will the 71-year-old DC change it up again?

"I'm not telling you," Phillips quipped with a smirk.

Rams defensive players were just as tight-lipped about how they plan to match Brady's quick-trigger.

"You tell me," Peters replied when asked if the Rams needed to play more press coverage Sunday. "That's our game plan, I'm not going to tell you."

Of course, the Rams aren't going to announce their defensive game plan. That would be folly.

We, however, can search for clues.

When discussing how his defense in Denver was able to hold Brady to one of the worst tilts of his postseason career in the 2015 AFC Championship Game (48.2 completion percentage, 16 QB hits, four sacks in the loss), Phillips provided insight.

"Now that group was able to play a lot of man defense, so we challenged them man-wise and made (Brady) hold it a little bit and then we had such a great rush," Philips said. "I mean DeMarcus Ware had one of the great games ever, besides Von Miller, but DeMarcus had a great game and (Derek) Wolfe and even Malik Jackson. But we had a really strong rush and we covered them well."

Phillips specifically mentioning the use of man-coverage to slow Brady four years ago could be instructive, especially with a player of Talib's caliber at his disposal once again. Would Phillips flip from the zone coverage that worked for the Rams at the end of the season back to a scheme in which they'd struggled, but has proven to be more effective against Brady?

"We know," Talib said. "We ain't really going to talk about the game plan, but you know, we'll see on Sunday."

We shall. And how effective marriage is between the Rams' secondary and its fierce pass rush might play the biggest role in determining the Super Bowl LIII winner.

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