Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense has spent the last month or so in constant adjustment mode, and they started their 2021 playoff journey with a victory thanks to yet another adjustment.
What do you do when you're down several of your most dynamic pass-catchers, you're facing a defense that emphasizes eliminating big pass plays and you're All-Pro right tackle goes down with an ankle injury in the first quarter? If you're Tom Brady, you speed up what was already a fast-paced aerial attack. And while the Buccaneers did effectively use some hurry-up sequences in their Wild Card win over Philadelphia on Sunday, what we mean by speeding things up is actually getting the ball out of Brady's hand faster than ever.
Because the Buccaneers have faced a lot of cover two safety shells this season, Brady had already been throwing the ball more quickly than he did last year, when he aired it out a lot more often, ranking third in the league with an average air yards figure of 9.3 per throw according to NFL Next Gen Stats His average time to throw (TTT) from the snap during the 2021 regular season was 2.50 seconds, second among all passers with at least 150 attempts to Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2.38).
Not only did Tristan Wirfs get knocked out by a leg injury early Sunday, but his replacement, Josh Wells, and Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen were also limping around with leg injuries through most of the contest. Whether or not that was what prompted Brady to speed up his release, that's exactly what he did. Brady's average TTT against the Eagles was 2.17 seconds, his quickest mark in any game this year.
In fact, that 2.17-second average release is the fastest recorded by any quarterback in any game during the 2021 regular season or postseason.
As it happens, the NGS defines "quick passes" as ones released in 2.50 seconds or less, which is exactly Brady's average this year. "In rhythm passes" are thrown between 2.50 and 4.00 seconds and "extended passes" take more than 4.00 seconds to be released. On Sunday, 28 of Brady's 37 pass attempts fell into that "quick pass" category, and most of them were quite successful.
Brady completed 22 of those 28 quick passes for 179 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, compiling a passer rating of 105.2. He was only pressured once. His average TTT on just those 28 passes was 1.89 seconds, his third fastest in any game this year. That was the eighth time this season that Brady has thrown at least 20 quick passes with an average TTT below 2.00 seconds, and the Buccaneers have won seven of them.
The NGS passing-zone heat map tells the same story as it divides the field into 12 segments. Horizontally it is divided into left, middle and right thirds and vertically it is divided into four zones – passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, passes thrown 1-10 yards in the air downfield, passes thrown 11-20 yards in the air downfield and passes thrown 21 or more yards in the air downfield.
Brady only threw one pass in the entire game that traveled more than 20 yards down the field in the air, and it certainly was a memorable one, as Mike Evans took it in for a 36-yard score. His best zones were in the middle and to the right in the 1-10 yard range. He was 12 of 14 on those passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Brady was also 3-3 for 51 yards when targeting the edges on throws 11-20 yards down the field.
The Eagles didn't want to give up any big plays in the passing game on Sunday, and they really only allowed one, albeit a particularly painful one. They also did a good job of putting pressure on Brady when he held onto the ball just a little longer, hitting him with four sacks. But in the end it didn't matter because for most of the afternoon Brady sped things up, even more than usual, and in this case speed really did kill.