TAMPA — At this point, he is a bit player in the grand history of the Super Bowl.
A vaguely recognizable name with a couple of championship rings and a hefty resume. Yes, a few years from now, Steve Spagnuolo could be retired and living the simple life after several decades roaming NFL sidelines.
Or he could go down in history as the Brady Slayer.
This is the legacy that potentially awaits the Chiefs defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 55 on Sunday. He has a chance to shut down Tom Brady and the Bucs offense to poke another hole in the invincibility of a legend.
Just as he did in a different Super Bowl 13 years ago today.
“That game,” Brady said on Monday, “is one of my least favorite football memories.”
You remember that game? Of course you do. You remember the Giants’ David Tyree making a leaping 32-yard reception in the final minutes that may be the greatest Super Bowl play in history. You remember Eli Manning finding Plaxico Burress in the end zone a few plays later to take the lead with 39 seconds remaining. You remember the 17-14 loss marked the end of New England’s undefeated season.
But did you remember that it was Spagnuolo’s defensive game plan that completely frustrated Brady and a New England offense that, at that point, had scored an NFL record 36.8 points per game that season?
“That was a long time ago,” Spagnuolo said.
He’s right about that. And he’s right when he says New York’s victory over New England in that 2007 season has no correlation with Kansas City’s game against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Different teams, different players, different era.
But there is one similarity. One intriguing, important, inescapable similarity.
It’s Brady vs. Spagnuolo on a 100-yard long chessboard.
“Spags runs a great scheme and he really caters to the strength of his players,” Brady said. “His schemes have evolved. I’ve played him several times over the last 13-14 years, and I think he’s a tremendous coach.”
Including that Super Bowl, this will be the fifth time Brady has come across a Spagnuolo-run defense since Feb. 3, 2008. And it’s one of the few rivalries capable of haunting Brady’s sleep.
In his previous four games against Spagnuolo, Brady has thrown seven touchdowns against only two interceptions, but he’s also been sacked 12 times. Brady’s teams have lost three of those four games, and the only victory required a last-second, 54-yard field goal in 2015.
Again, that doesn’t mean a lot in 2021. In their first Super Bowl meeting, Spagnuolo had one Hall of Famer (Michael Strahan) and two Pro Bowl players (Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora) on his defensive line.
His plan was to put as much pressure on Brady as possible while keeping his safeties deep to protect against Randy Moss downfield. Instead of using Tuck at his normal defensive end spot, Spagnuolo moved him all around the field to confuse Brady. Tuck would be a down lineman on one play, a middle linebacker on the next, and a standup edge rusher on the one after that.
The result? Brady was sacked five times, had one fumble and was hit eight other times. It was the most Brady had been sacked in four years.
“You have to get him off his spot,” said Chiefs assistant coach Sam Madison, who was a Giants cornerback in that Super Bowl. “Since that game, that’s what a lot of people have been trying to do, but it’s hard. It takes the players who are able to understand the game plan that the coaches implement and then execute it at a high level.”
Spagnuolo has a computer file of data on Brady, but says much of it is outdated. Offensive protections have grown more sophisticated, which makes blitzing more of a risk. The ideal situation would be to get enough pressure with the front four — and the Chiefs do have two Pro Bowl linemen with Chris Jones and Frank Clark — because Brady is too good at reading blitzes.
“He’s a step ahead of everything,” Spagnuolo said. “Every film clip you put on he’s putting guys in the right (place). That’s always the challenge when you go against a guy I would call a cerebral quarterback, and we know Tom is like that. He has total control. He gets (the offense) out there in time to change things. We’re going to have to be really good on the back end not to show him things or, as we say, don’t let him read our mail. Because if he can read our mail he knows exactly what to do.”
Spagnuolo is correct when he says the game has evolved, and you can’t attack Brady the same way you did in 2007. The good news for Tampa Bay is the Chiefs only sacked Brady once when they played in November, although they did hit him eight times.
But one truth remains unchanged. The way to beat Brady is to make him uncomfortable. In Tampa Bay’s five losses this season, Brady was sacked 11 times. He was sacked only 10 times in the other 11 games.
“You can’t sit in one (scheme). Tom is too good. He going to figure out what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to take away, and he’s going to expose you somewhere else,” Spagnuolo said. “I’m hoping, if anything, we can mix it up enough that we can be one or two steps ahead of Tom on a couple of plays here and there. One or two plays can make the difference in a game like this.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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