If Washington (7-9) is going to upset the Buccaneers (11-5) in the first round of the playoffs Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC), the pass rush must be a big factor. Washington's strength all season has been its defensive line and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Brady is rarely sacked. There's a reason he's 30-11 in the postseason and owns six Super Bowl rings.
"When [Young] was born, Tom was winning championships," said Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former head coach whose teams were 1-9 vs. Brady in the regular season and playoffs. Brady threw 25 TD passes and one pick while being sacked 19 times in those games. "For us, we're not playing 20 years of Tom, we're playing one game."
Washington ranks sixth in the NFL with 47 sacks and fourth in the percentage of sacks per pass attempt (8.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information. But here's the problem: Tampa Bay ranks second in the lowest percentage of sacks per pass attempt (3.5) and fourth in fewest number of sacks (22).
"I know we're gonna go," said Young. "It's not just Tom Brady; it's every game. Every game, watch out for our front four."
Here's how Washington must achieve its goal:
Change it up
In a 20-18 win in the 2015 postseason, Denver sacked Brady, then with the Patriots, four times. The Broncos' defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, said via text messgae, "Very hard to fool him -- we played a few coverages he hadn't seen from us -- mixed things."
For example, Phillips said, they used a three-man rush for the first time all season. It helped, too, that they had Von Miller, who had 13.5 sacks that season, plus other pass-rushers such as DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray. Phillips said they hit Brady 20 times that day. It also helped having cornerback Chris Harris cover Julian Edelman in the slot.
Denver recorded 42 sacks that season with four players having at least four. Washington has four players with at least five sacks.
In the 2010 postseason, the New York Jets sacked Brady five times in a 28-21 win. One month earlier, in the regular season, the Patriots beat New York, 45-3. In the playoff loss, Brady's total QBR was 16.2 -- his low during the season was 44.9 and his average was 74.4.
Then-Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said New York coach Rex Ryan kept 11 defensive backs on the 45-man game-day roster.
"We just matched them speed for speed," Tannenbaum said. "That's a big reason we won the game. I don't think we ever had more than two linebackers on the field at any point."
Under Del Rio, Washington has excelled with in-game adjustments -- in the second half of games this season, it ranks first in yards and points allowed. Washington also has used different looks, from five-man defensive lines to changing its coverage strategy in the red zone vs. various formations. Washington coach Ron Rivera said the key is showing something they've done in the past, but then doing the opposite.
Brady is 4-4 in the playoffs when he has been sacked three or more times; he's 14-6 when sacked at least twice. During the regular season, he's 62-24 when sacked at least three times.
"You have to be very judicious when you play against him. Sometimes you've got to do the unexpected against him," said Rivera, who went 2-0 vs. Brady in Carolina. The Panthers sacked Brady five times in those games and intercepted one pass while allowing three touchdown passes. "If ... he has time, he will pick you apart."
Pressure with four
Washington's front includes first-round picks in Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Ryan Kerrigan. Those five have combined for 27.5 sacks. Tim Settle, who was a fifth-round pick, also has five.
"If you can get pressure with just your four-man rush, you can have success against anybody," Rivera said. "Not just him, but anybody."
It allows for more creativity in coverage.
This was @TomBrady's response when asked about Chase Young's comments saying, "Tom Brady, I'm coming. I want Tom!"— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) January 6, 2021
Bruce Arians said earlier this week, "You better watch what you wish for." pic.twitter.com/FvRNGoro2q
"Washington has the ability to get their rush with four, and cover," Tannenbaum said. "And whatever Del Rio and Rivera think is the No. 1 [receiving] option, you have to double that. You have to take away [Brady's] initial read and make him hold it and try to win the best [pass-rushing] matchup on the line."
That's not easy.
"I had a defensive coach once tell me the goal was to make Brady make his decision post-snap," Tannenbaum said. "If he knows pre-snap where he's going, you're dead. The ball is coming out so fast."
Rivera said that several years ago, while coaching the Carolina Panthers, they studied interior pressure. What they found was the importance of an interior push. That means Washington's tackles must have a strong game. Allen and Payne have combined for five sacks, but both have caused issues. According to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Allen ranks seventh in pass rush win rate with Settle and Payne also ranked in the top 20.
That, combined with edge rushers, prevents the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket.
"When you have the successful interior rush, it [means] a lot of good things for the rest of your team," Rivera said, "whether it's getting sacks, creating takeaways, creating interceptions."
Again, it's not easy.
"Because he understands defenses really well," Kerrigan said of Brady. "He knows when he's getting pressured and understands offense, and he knows where the outlets are and where he can dump the ball off. He has a good line."
Control the ball
The best way to combat a talented offense like the Bucs' -- the most talented Washington has faced this season with wide receivers such as Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin -- is to keep them off the field.
In nine of Brady's 11 playoff losses with New England, the opposition won time of possession. In eight of those games, New England scored 14 points or less. Tampa Bay is 5-4 this season when it lost the time of possession battle and 6-1 when it didn't.
That means, of course, being able to run the ball effectively. In that Jets' playoff win in 2010, New York held a 9 minute, 52 second edge in time of possession.
"One of the things Rex used to talk about was if we have the ball and the lead in the second half and we get four yards or more on a run, we run it again," Tannenbaum said. "Every run play was a play they couldn't have the ball."
The problem in 2020: Tampa Bay ranks first in both rushing yards allowed per game and yards per carry. This season, Washington played seven games against teams ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed per game; it went 1-6. But it needs to find a way to possess the ball.
And then it needs to stop Brady.
"He does not look like somebody tailing off as the year goes on," Del Rio said. "I was hoping to see that. He's moving around well and his arm is live. We've got a big challenge."