CLNS Media Headquarters — the Patriots’ two-game winning streak came to an abrupt end with a disappointing 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday.
Just when New England gave its fans hope after defeating Lamar Jackson and the Ravens last week, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson halted all the momentum for Bill Belichick’s team.
Watson was terrific in the win, throwing for 344 passing yards and two touchdowns with a superb 0.43 expected points added per play as he continues to be a thorn in Belichick’s side.
Last season, Belichick came after Watson by blitzing the Texans quarterback on 17 of his 28 drop-backs (56%), and Watson threw three touchdown passes against the added pressure.
After Watson made him pay in their last matchup, Belichick played coverage this time around, only blitzing Watson six times, and the Houston quarterback had answers for that too.
While the Pats sat back and read Watson, Houston and Romeo Crennel went with the opposite approach, attacking the line of scrimmage against the run and blitzing Cam Newton.
Ultimately, the Texans exposed two Achilles Heels’ for the Pats all season long: defending the middle of the field in coverage and handling pressure on offense, which was the difference.
Here are ten things we learned as New England falls to 4-6 in their roller-coaster season:
1. Patriots Offense Succumbs to Texans’ Blitz-Happy Game Plan
Texans interim head coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver went with an aggressive approach against the Pats offense.
Houston’s answer to the Patriots’ 21-personnel package was to play a four-man line, not their typical 3-4 defense, and insert an eighth run defender in the box, forcing the Pats to throw.
Crennel and Weaver then blitzed Newton on 17 of his 42 drop-backs, with Cam averaging only 4.6 yards per attempt while taking two sacks against the blitz.
The Patriots’ first issue appears to be pre-snap recognition of the blitz by Newton, who either doesn’t have the control or isn’t getting them out of bad plays before the snap.
Here, the Patriots ran play-action on first down, a fine play call. However, the pre-snap look shows a blitzer over tight end Ryan Izzo on the right side. Izzo even points to the blitzer as if to say, “Hey, who has that guy?” The Pats block down and pull the backside guard, Joe Thuney, to simulate a run on the play-action attempt. The issue is that Thuney has no chance at picking up the blitzer over Izzo, and Justin Reid has a free run at the quarterback.
The fourth-down play that effectively ended the game was a nice design by the Texans on a new left tackle, but Newton was again slow to react.
This time, Houston puts seven defenders on the line with three rushers over the left side. The running back in blitz pickup, James White, is blocking inside out, taking the nearest threat to the QB. The Texans then drop the two interior stand-up rushers into coverage and blitz Lonnie Johnson off the edge on the backside. The scheme confuses backup tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, who entered the game for an injured Isaiah Wynn, and Johnson gets a free run at the quarterback. If Newton senses the unblocked rusher sooner, he has an open Damiere Byrd on a slant at the bottom of the screen. Instead, he’s eventually pressured into turnover on downs.
Between Newton’s failures to sense pressures before and after the snap and his blockers failing to pick up rushers post-snap, we have a problem.
2. Texans QB Deshaun Watson Shreds Pats Middle of the Field Coverages
Although Houston’s rushing attack is abysmal, the Patriots defense has corrected most of its issue in that regard. However, they’re still struggling mightily in coverage between the numbers.
New England entered this week as the worst middle of the field coverage defense in football, allowing an EPA success rate of 64 percent in their first nine games, dead-last in the league, and it only got worse on Sunday.
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson entered Sunday’s action as the sixth-best middle of the field thrower in the NFL, and he exposed the Pats weakness and then some.
The Texans attacked the Patriots’ middle of the field coverage by throwing off leverage against man coverage and with Watson manipulating second-level zone defenders.
In this play, the Patriots play cover-one double-robber where the man coverage defenders take outside leverage to funnel receivers into their inside help. Pats rookie Kyle Dugger plays the tight end into his help, but Devin McCourty gets locked onto the quarterback and doesn’t get underneath Jordan Akins’ crossing route, and Watson threads the needle.
One of the most underrated aspects of Watson’s game is his ability to manipulate zone-droppers with his eyes, and he did it numerous times.
Here, Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche drop off the line of scrimmage into short zones. Uche gets pulled out of his zone by the running back releasing out of the backfield. Dugger is just covering grass in the middle of the defense. Two inexperienced rookies getting fooled by the scheme and locking onto the QB, losing sight of the receivers.
The Pats’ problems defending the middle of the field is a case of picking your poison; either let the young, athletic players make mistakes or live with slow-footed veterans in coverage.
Either way, coverage between the numbers has been a significant issue for this defense all season.
3. Pats QB Cam Newton’s 365-Yard Performance Marred By End Result
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton had a busy afternoon with his second-most pass attempts in a game this season.
Newton averaged a strong 9.1 yards per attempt and 0.23 EPA per drop-back, but a handful of low throws hurt his downfield accuracy with a completion percentage over expected of -0.4.
Despite those inconsistencies, Newton still made some great plays. Above, Newton manipulates the coverage by staring down the middle of the field. The boundary defender in coverage on Damiere Byrd follows Newton’s eyes into the middle of the field, vacating his zone. Then, Newton essentially makes a no-look completion to a wide-open Byrd along the sideline.
On the whole, Newton played well other than the pre-snap issues with blitzes.
Here, Cam feels J.J. Watt’s rush around the right tackle and slides up in the pocket with his eyes downfield. Newton gets to Meyers’s crossing route with the coverage pushed upfield for a critical third-down conversion late in the game after sliding up to avoid the rush.
Although Newton isn’t free of blame for the loss, he also was a big part of why the Patriots were in the game in the first place.
4. Texans Force Pats Away From Ground Game With Strong Run Defense
Another theme of the afternoon was the Patriots going away from their rushing attack with the Texans game-planning to slow down Damien Harris and company.
As we mentioned, Houston was loading the box and sending run blitzes up the middle to shut down New England’s interior runs, so McDaniels had some early-success with crack tosses.
The defense put eight defenders between the tackles on Damien Harris’s touchdown, giving the Patriots a walk-in opening drive TD.
However, Houston began to sit on the crack tosses, and their outside cornerbacks aggressively attacked the Patriots’ lead blockers. Above, the outside corner at the top of the screen fires downhill at Isaiah Wynn’s pull block and gets underneath the Pats left tackle to set the edge. Rex Burkhead also tore his ACL on the play, which is a massive blow (more on that later).
On the one hand, the Pats are a run-first unit that needs more than 24 rush attempts in a game. But on the other hand, the passing game was working because Houston was loading the box.
The Pats offense still had a net-positive day despite the ending, so it’s hard to get on McDaniels for going with what was working over running Damien Harris just to play to their strengths.
5. Damiere Byrd Has Career-High 132 Yards, Touchdown in Loss
One of the bright spots in the loss was a breakout performance by the Patriots’ Damiere Byrd, who has been quietly solid all season.
The speedy Byrd and Newton finally connected on a deep pass on a 42-yard bomb in the third quarter, the longest touchdown of the season for the Pats.
The Pats use a switch release out of a bunch formation to get Byrd inside leverage on the play. At the snap, Byrd, the outside receiver, releases inside with N’Keal Harry creating a rub by releasing outside as the point man. Harry’s route gives Byrd a free release and gets him inside positioning, allowing him to get over the top of his defender. Then, Byrd makes an excellent late adjustment to catch the ball over his outside shoulder for a score.
Byrd and Newton also found success on deep dig routes with underneath patterns clearing out the second-level of the defense.
Here, Harry and Meyers’s routes open the middle of the field, and Byrd finds the soft spot in the zone and runs away from the coverage for a 30-yard gain. Byrd also had a 17-yard completion on a deep dig, and in both plays, Byrd does an excellent job of coming downhill at the top of the route to make himself a friendly target for the quarterback.
Lastly, Byrd made a great run after the catch on a tunnel screen to pick up a third-down conversion.
Newton checks into a tunnel screen with the defense showing blitz, and Byrd army crawls his way to the first down marker, showing incredible strength to keep himself off the ground.
Byrd has been used as an example of the Patriots’ limited pass-catching weapons, but he’s got great speed and gets open every week. Finally, Newton found him down the field.
6. Rookies Kyle Dugger & Josh Uche Continue to Make an Impact
Although both players had issues in coverage, Dugger and Uche flashed once again on Sunday.
Dugger continues to make an impact in run support in a “big” slot role where he’s mainly responsible for taking the quarterback if Watson or Lamar Jackson kept the football.
In this play, Dugger is the cutback/bootleg player responsible for Watson if he keeps. Watson hands the ball off, and when the interior run defenders do their jobs, Dugger times-up the running back to deliver a big blow to bring down Duke Johnson.
As for Uche, he made a great play peeling off in coverage to tackle Watson on a scramble.
Above, the Pats bring an overload blitz to Watson’s right and drop Uche off the line to Watson’s left to replace the blitzers in coverage. Uche falls underneath the in-breaking route and then tackles Watson in space when the Texans quarterback takes off to run.
The Patriots need to live with some of Dugger and Uche’s rookie mistakes because their athleticism is sorely missed when they come off the field.
7. Jakobi Meyers Starting to Get #1 Receiver Attention?
One of the focuses of my film review this week will be on how the Texans defended Meyers, who only had three catches on three targets for 38 yards despite playing every offensive snap. With Bryd’s eruption, the assumption is that Houston was paying extra attention to Meyers, whose breakout is well-known across the league at this point. Either the Texans schemed to take him out, or he was shut down by their secondary, which would take some of the wind out of Meyers’s sails. The coaches film will tell the entire story.
8. Costly Injuries for Patriots Offense Add Insult to Injury
Along with taking a loss, the Patriots offense had two key contributors leave the game due to injury, with running back Rex Burkhead likely out for the rest of the season. Burkhead tore his ACL on the toss play we highlighted above and left tackle Isaiah Wynn was rolled up on late in the fourth quarter and didn’t return. Hopefully, Wynn’s injury isn’t serious. The Pats can’t afford to lose their starting left tackle.
9. Pats Passing Game Opens Up in 11, 20 Personnel
The Patriots, who typically ride their fullback groupings with Jakob Johnson, were only in 21-personnel on eight of their second-half plays on Sunday. Instead, New England rode its three wide receivers sets with standard 11 or 20-personnel with two running backs on the field. Although it has its limitations, the Patriots’ pony packages put their five most dynamic offensive weapons on the field at once: Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry, Damien Harris or Rex Burkhead, and James White. McDaniels is also starting to get creative out of pony packages with how he’s attacking defenses, so expect more of those moving forward.
10. Play of the Game: Patriots Complete Second Double-Pass in as Many Weeks
After Jakobi Meyers’s touchdown pass against the Ravens, the Patriots dialed up another double-pass on Sunday in Houston.
This time, it was a perfect compliment off their crack toss schemes. Newton tosses the ball to Burkhead, giving the illusion that they’re running a crack toss, and then Burkhead throws back to Newton, who has two receivers open downfield. Newton decides to take the safer option, connecting with Meyers for a 20-yard gain.