Tom Brady took a beating in the AFC championship. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)
SAN FRANCISCO — Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson watched like everyone else as Tom Brady was hit some 20 times in the AFC championship, including four sacks.
His main takeaway?
If the Patriots quarterback wants to keep playing at a high level and the Patriots want him as their quarterback, they need to seriously address the offensive line.
The team has already taken one step in addressing the unit with the dismissal of offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. But Johnson believes reinforcing the unit with some fresh faces through free agency and the draft is necessary as well.
“If Tom wants to play for nine more years like he says, one area you cannot skimp is that offensive line,” Johnson told WEEI.com. “If you’re going to have him as your quarterback for a long time, you’ve got to make sure you keep him upright. In 2014, the season started out 2-2, and I’m getting calls from EEI, ‘What needs to change here for the Patriots to turn this around?’ Protect Tom Brady. Just keep him upright and they went on to win the Super Bowl so that’s the key thing. You’ve got to have an offensive line to protect him if you want him to be your quarterback for the next five-to-seven years.”
Johnson, who works in Houston as a sportsradio talk show host, believes it wasn’t all on the offensive line. He says Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was the one who made adjustments to make it very hard for Brady to consistently find open receivers.
“I give it up to Wade Phillips, who I’ve been critical of as defensive coordinator of the Texans, the team I cover,” Johnson said. “Wade never changed what he did schematically [in Houston]. He kind of ran the same type of coverages, blitzed a lot and just never changed. I kind of thought that’s what he’d do in this game. If you blitz Tom Brady, and you play a lot of man-to-man, he will eat your lunch. By blitzing him, it makes the reads simpler for Tom and the ball comes out fast.
“So when you have an offensive line that is struggling and you have a lot of backups out there, when the ball comes out fast, it really negates their deficiencies. But what Wade did was only rush three guys, four guys, flooded the zones. Tom’s back there holding the ball, holding the ball, holding the ball. He put a really good game plan together.”
As for the Patriots’ own defense, Johnson said the group couldn’t have played much better than they did, save perhaps the two Manning touchdown passes to Owen Daniels on Jamie Collins. Johnson knows the Bill Belichick system as well as anyone and believes players like Collins and Dont’a Hightower anchor a unit that plays the Belichick system perfectly.
“It’s definitely the linebacking corps. But it’s really the front seven, in general,” Johnson said. “There’s just so much team speed. Jamie Collins is that guy, is kind of like that guy that you can use in multiple ways. You can pass rush him, you can have him cover. He’s good against the run. Dont’a is a beast stopping the run. He has a role. Everybody has a specific skill set and role they can do. With Chandler and Rob, they’re great off the edge. They have a legit pass rush and Devin McCourty is a great safety. It was a good move obviously to move him from corner to safety. They just find ways.
“Malcolm Butler, who would’ve thought, right, that he would’ve had the year he had, a Pro Bowl season. Like the defenses I played on back then, very smart situationally. Maybe the proverbial bend-but-don’t-break [defenses]. It’s not going to go down as one of the more dominating defenses in the NFL. But they’re always going to be damn good and very good situationally, and that’s the mark of a good Bill Belichick team.”
Johnson recalled what Belichick always told his teams in the early 2000s, when they were winning three Super Bowls in four years.
“What makes Bill so flipping good is that he can break the game down into simple form,” Johnson said. “Whenever we played against the Kansas City Chiefs, their biggest nemesis for us back then was Tony Gonzalez, particularly in the red zone. So whenever [they] got in the red zone everybody knew on the defense that Tony Gonzalez was going to be targeted [by the quarterback]. That’s where they were going to go to. We would double-team him, we’d emphasize to hit him off the line.
“Wayne Chrebet in the slot on third down, we were going to hammer Wayne Chrebet in the slot on third down. So, he would make the game of these different plays, which can be confusing to process, and break it down into a simple process and break it down into a simple form like that so that we’re all like coaches out there. We knew in those situations what that team liked to do and so we were prepared for it.”