Tomase: Dick LeBeau is a coaching legend, but Tom Brady owns him

John Tomase
January 08, 2018 - 1:26 pm
Dick LeBeau

Jim Brown/USA Today Sports


Dick LeBeau's credentials are beyond reproach. A Hall of Fame cornerback with the Lions, he has delivered an equally storied career as a coach, primarily in Pittsburgh, where his zone-blitzing schemes changed the game.

Now in his 59th NFL season, the 80-year-old Titans defensive coordinator has one blight on his resume, and it's doubtful he'll erase it this weekend.

He has no answer for Tom Brady.

Brady's teams have met LeBeau's defenses eight times since 2004, and the results skew badly in favor of TB12.

Including playoffs, Brady is 6-2 against LeBeau. He has thrown 19 touchdowns vs. three interceptions, completing 68 percent of his passes for 2,496 yards and a quarterback rating of 110.9.

LeBeau has lost to Brady while sacking him three times and holding him without a touchdown (23-20, 2005), and he has lost to Brady while watching him explode for 399 yards and four scores without laying a finger on him (34-13, 2007).

He has lost in the regular season. He has lost in the playoffs. He has lost plenty of times in Pittsburgh, and during their only encounter with Tennessee after he became defensive coordinator in 2015.

Only once has Brady failed to complete 65 percent of his passes against a LeBeau defense, and that came in their very first meeting, in 2004, when the Steelers rolled the Pats 34-20 en route to a 15-1 regular season before a flu-ridden Brady returned the favor in the AFC title game with a pair of TD passes in a 41-27 blowout.

(It's also worth noting that LeBeau was a defensive assistant with the Bills in 2003 when the sides traded 31-0 shutouts to bookend the season. Buffalo's defensive coordinator that season was Jerry Gray.)

With the Patriots set to host the 14-point underdog Titans on Saturday in the divisional round, LeBeau will once again be tasked with stopping Brady. If the past is any indication, he'll fail.

LeBeau's bread and butter plays right into Brady's hands. The Titans coach traditionally disguises pressure and coverages from his zone defense, sometimes blitzing linebackers off the edge and dropping defensive ends into coverage.

The problem with this approach is that Brady eats zone defenses and edge pressure for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, thanks to his quick release, ability to identify pass rushers, and the vision to spot holes in coverage downfield.

LeBeau has acknowledged the need to change with the times, at least. While elements of Tennessee's 3-4 defense will look familiar to anyone who watched the Steelers over the last decade, LeBeau also knows the game has evolved.

As a result, Tennessee plays a lot more man-to-man defense now, though it still effectively mixed up its zone blitzes to record 42 sacks, tied with the Patriots for fourth in the AFC and ninth overall.

Showing man-to-man looks is essential against Brady. It only took opposing coaches 15 years, but there's finally a book on the quarterback. Pressure him up the middle, play physical man-to-man defense to disrupt his receivers' timing, and don't send extra pass rushers if you can help it. The Falcons executed this game plan to perfection for about two and a half quarters in last year's Super Bowl before running out of gas and being overwhelmed.

The Steelers succeeded with this approach in last month's conference showdown for more than three quarters before Brady led the way to 11 points in the final four minutes of a 27-24 victory.

The challenge for LeBeau will be the same one that faced Pittsburgh -- stopping Rob Gronkowski in man coverage. The Steelers allowed Gronk to flex his way to nine catches for 168 yards and a two-point conversion. The Titans on Saturday were in the process of being destroyed by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce when a concussion knocked him out of the game late in the first half. The Chiefs finished that drive with a touchdown and 21-3 halftime lead, but didn't score again in a 22-21 loss.

Expect the Patriots to attack Tennessee's linebackers in coverage, whether it's with running backs Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead, or with Gronk at the next level. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans ranked dead last in coverage against running backs and 24th against tight ends. Those positions happen to represent Brady's most trusted options at this point.

Combating that will require pressure. The Titans sacked Alex Smith four times in the wild card round, including 1.5 by perennial Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo. Their best defender is probably defensive end Jurrell Casey, who recorded six sacks during the season and led one of the league's stingiest run defenses.

Trying to make it all work will be LeBeau. The Hall of Famer may be one of the most respected defensive minds in the game, but when it comes to Brady, he has continually been left searching for answers.

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