When reminded on Wednesday that NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young had rather publicly stated his desire to put him on the ground, Tom Brady didn't take the bait, beyond a light joke about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. Instead, Brady acknowledged what most of the analysis regarding Tampa Bay's Wild Card matchup with Washington has focused on: Young and the Football Team's loaded defensive front is the biggest challenge the Buccaneers will face on Saturday night.
"He's obviously a great young player," said Brady. "We've got our hands full with that D-Line – one of the best D-Lines in the league.
"I think we're going up against one of the biggest challenges we've faced all year – a team that's got five first-round picks on the D-Line. Just a real tremendous group. They put pressure on the quarterback almost every play, so we've got to step up to that challenge. Hopefully we're ready to meet it. It's going to be a big test for us, but I certainly love going to battle with those guys up front."
Those guys up front, of course, are the Buccaneers' offensive linemen, who have formed one of the best blocking units in the league this year. Tampa Bay's new quarterback and those blockers up front had never worked together before August, but five months later they are fully in sync and Brady has complete trust in his offensive line.
Brady's affection for his offensive line is evident every time he is questioned about it because he never speaks about them as a single unit but rather makes a point of naming them one by one. His starting line of blockers is comprised of left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet, center Ryan Jensen, right guard Alex Cappa and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, with reserves like Joe Haeg, Josh Wells and A.Q. Shipley (now on injured reserve) also pitching in. Those players have combined to allow just 22 sacks (21 on Brady), tied for third-fewest in the NFL. Tampa Bay's 3.51% rate of sacks allowed per pass play is second best in the league. They've been well-coordinated by Offensive Line Coach Joe Gilbert and Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin.
"They've done a tremendous job," said Brady of his line. "That group up front with Donnie, Ali, Ryan, Cap, Tristan, Joe Haeg's played a role, A.Q. has played a role, 'Wellsy' has played a role. They've really come together, they're really well coached with Joe and 'Goody.' It's a unique relationship, the quarterback and the O-Linemen. I love that group of guys. They work their [butts] off, they're tough, hard-nosed guys, they want to do the right thing. The communication has continued to improve over the course of the year, and we've got a great relationship. We're going to keep building it [and] keep working at it."
Those linemen, in turn, are well aware of how important it is that they continue to perform at a high level. That would be true with any quarterback behind them, but given how thoroughly Brady has carved up opposing defenses over the last month while enjoying outstanding protection, it is probably the single biggest key to victory in Saturday's playoff game. Marpet said the Bucs' offensive line has to "put it on [their] shoulders" now.
"Our expectations for ourselves are always very high," said Marpet. "I think that we always are critical of how we can do things better, but I think that we've taken steps in the right direction. I think that we've done some things that we can build on. Hopefully we can start playing our best football."
The Buccaneers seem to be peaking on offense at exactly the right time, and a lot of that has to do with the necessarily gradual process of a new quarterback meshing with a new scheme and a new set of teammates. There were some communication problems early in the season, not unexpectedly after the whole experiment began without an offseason program or a preseason slate of games. It's not a finished product yet, but it's a lot closer to optimal efficiency, and just at the right time.
"I'd say every week is getting a little bit better and a little bit more consistent [with] better communication," said Brady. "We're all understanding each other a little bit better each week. Football season is tough – there's a lot of things to coordinate, there's a lot of moving parts, different players and in and out, you're running different schemes. But I think we've just tried to not take the foot off the gas pedal [and] tried to understand each other a little bit better each week and try to put ourselves in a decent position."