The Patriots’ matchup against the Houston Texans (1-3) feels like a college-style tune-up game.
Houston ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric; 30th on offense, and 17th on defense, while rookie quarterback Davis Mills looks like a deer in the headlights against Bill Belichick’s defense.
Mills is only in that spot because star quarterback Deshaun Watson is currently the subject of 22 civil lawsuits which accuse him of “coercive and lewd” sexual behavior, including two women suing Watson for sexual assault. Although he hasn’t faced any criminal charges, Watson is not playing and is seeking a trade, making it unlikely that he’ll ever play for the Texans again.
Along with Watson’s legal issues, veteran starter Tyrod Taylor (hamstring) is on injured reserve after an impressive performance in a win over the Jaguars in Week 1.
Plus, the entire Houston organization was the subject of a Sports Illustrated story exposing the dysfunction in the front office with former Patriots staffer Jack Easterby at the center of it all. Easterby is now joined by former Pats Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio, who is trying to clean up the mess without his star quarterback.
With Taylor under center, Houston beat the still winless Jaguars, who are dealing with their own issues, in Week 1. But come into Sunday’s game on a three-game losing streak with Mills at quarterback.
As much as Houston’s bleak roster and dysfunction present an easy target, the Patriots (1-3) are in no position to take any opponent lightly.
New England’s offense has issues of its own as they break in rookie quarterback Mac Jones, especially along the offensive line.
The Pats placed starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Mike Onwenu on the COVID list on Tuesday. Then, their two starters on the right side, Trent Brown (calf) and Shaq Mason (abdomen) aren’t practicing.
It’s safe to assume that the Patriots will play the Texans without multiple starters on an offensive line that’s already underperforming, so the game plan offensively for Josh McDaniels is tricky.
If we had to guess, what the Patriots’ starting offensive line will look like on Sunday, here’s our prediction:
LT – Justin Herron
LG – Ted Karras
C – David Andrews
RG – James Ferentz/Alex Redmond
RT – Yasir Durant
(note: we originally predicted that LG Mike Onwenu could return in time for Sunday’s game. But Onwenu did not practice on Friday, indicating he’ll likely be out.)
What do you feel best about with a patchwork offensive line? Running the football or protecting the quarterback? Either strategy can work effectively if the offensive line survives the matchup.
Before we get into how the Patriots’ offense can attack the Texans defense, a quick primer on Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith: Smith’s roots in the NFL are in the Tampa-Two system as the linebackers coach for the vaunted Bucs defense that won Super Bowl XXXVII. Smith, along with head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, popularized the Tampa-Two (cover-2) and Lovie still calls more Tampa-Two than any other coverage. From the front (4-3 over) to the coverage, Smith is sticking to what he knows in Houston. When teams go under center, the Texans play some cover-1 and cover-3 in the backend, but the system is what it is.
Bringing it back to Mac Jones and the Patriots, Houston’s defense is predictable in that New England’s formations will dictate what defense the Texans play. How do the Pats want to play it?
SHOTGUN SPREAD PLAN
In our film review last week, we wrote about how the Pats are more prolific when they put Jones in the shotgun, spread the field, and run a quick-hitting short and intermediate passing game.
Houston’s pass defense is the strength of their team, ranking eighth in DVOA. Their weakness is against the run, but if McDaniels feels that running the football is out due to the offensive line issues, then here is how teams are finding success throwing the ball.
The most significant difference between the Tampa-Two defense and a standard cover-two scheme is that the middle linebacker plays in the deep hole between the two deep safeties rather than in a five-under, two-deep structure.
The coverage stresses the middle linebacker. Smith had Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher in that spot back in the day, so he felt comfortable running the scheme.
Houston is deploying veteran linebacker Christian Kirksey in the deep hole now, and Carolina attacked Kirksey and the Tampa-Two rules with their tight ends (hello, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith).
In this play, tight end Dan Arnold threatens in his vertical stem to get Kirksey to flip his hips upfield to run with the tight end up the middle of the field. Then, Arnold stops his route down and sits between the two underneath linebackers for an easy pitch and catch.
This week, sending Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, or even Nelson Agholor from the slot on similar vertical stems is a must. It’ll game them into foot races up the seam with Kirksey, and if the Texans linebacker matches their routes, it opens space underneath the deep hole player.
Here, Arnold splits the deep safeties on a four verticals concept, and it pushes Kirksey upfield. Then, the Panthers release running back Chuba Hubbard into the vacated area in the middle of the zone defense, and he picks up an easy ten yards.
Along with putting Kirksey in conflict, Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold and the Bills’ Josh Allen successfully moved Houston’s zone coverages to open passing lanes.
Carolina runs a variation of the smash concept to the left here, with an out route and corner pattern threatening the cover-two structure. Houston does a nice job of covering Darnold’s first read. Still, by staring down the left side in his drop, Darnold moves the middle linebacker enough to come to his rhythm throw on the backside for a big completion (the tight end’s route holds the strong hook linebacker, which is a nice design by Panthers OC Joe Brady).
Mac Jones manipulated Tampa Bay’s cover-three zone similarly last week to take the underneath linebacker out of the passing lane underneath Kendrick Bourne’s dig route.
The Pats find more success when Jones is operating out of the shotgun, getting the ball out quickly, and attacking on throws under 20 yards, which is a product of Jones’s skill set, the weapons around him, and the failures of the offensive line to allow deep routes to develop.
Regardless of why that’s the case, New England can expose Houston’s Tampa-Two defense by attacking the Texans’ linebackers in a stressful coverage for defenders in the middle of the field.
UNDER-CENTER RUN GAME/PLAY-ACTION PLAN
Okay, so we know the Patriots’ rushing attack and under-center play-action game isn’t working, but hear me out for a second.
Houston’s run defense is once again one of the NFL’s worst, ranking 31st in DVOA. They’re also 28th against play-action (9.9 yards per attempt), and that passing average climbs to 11.3 yards when the opponent is under center. By the numbers, that’s how you attack this Texans defense.
If McDaniels feels his makeshift offensive line is better off run blocking than pass blocking, the Texans’ defense is giving up rushing and play-action yards at an alarming rate.
The key to running on the Texans is understanding their base 4-3 over front. The front allows the defense to have the numbers to the tight end (strong) side of the formation. But it leaves the backside B-Gap uncovered, with the WILL linebacker filling the bubble from off the line.
By using fullback Jakob Johnson, the Patriots can get a hat on a hat to the weak side, where the defense only has three defenders to that side of the center. By forming a four-man surface with the center, the Pats can double team, lead through the B-Gap, or run counter or power lead into the uncovered gap.
In this play, the Bills ran counter-lead weak. The strong side guard pulls to kick out the edge defender, and the fullback leads up to the WILL, creating a massive hole for running back Zack Moss.
The Panthers attacked the weak side B-gap by running outside zone lead out of two-back sets. Carolina’s center and left guard combo block the DT, the left tackle kicks out, and the fullback leads up to the WILL to open a hole for Christian McCaffrey.
Once you get the running game going, the Panthers and Bills attacked with under-center play-action. Carolina used vertical stop routes off play fakes to take advantage of the bailing corners on the outside in cover-three, then ran Yankee Concepts to hit crossers against post-safety coverages.
Another excellent play design that the Pats ought to take came out of 12-personnel. This time, Houston falls into a Tampa-Two coverage off of play-action, and the Panthers send both tight ends on vertical routes to put the half-field safety in conflict. The deep safety to Darnold’s right can’t stay over the top of both vertical routes, and the underneath corner is influenced to stay in the flat by the running back releasing out of the backfield. If that flat defender helps the safety on the verticals, then it’s a simple check down for positive yardage.
The Patriots have the skill players to execute either game plan or even sprinkle in elements of both into Sunday’s game. Ultimately, it’ll come down to if the offensive line is up for it.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
We aren’t going to spend a ton of time on the Houston offense because their performances with rookie Davis Mills at quarterback were atrocious.
The one game with Tyrod Taylor is propping up their team metrics. Last week, Mills threw four interceptions, and the Texans only averaged 2.7 yards per rush in a 40-0 loss to the Bills. Since Week 2, they’re the worst offense in football.
Unlike the matchup when Deshaun Watson was available last season, there’s no excuse for this to be a game when the Texans have the ball. New England should be able to play their defensive system, and much like Zach Wilson in Week 2, win the game solely on defense.
With that said, the Texans want to run the ball under new head coach David Culley whose roots are in Baltimore as a part of the staff who re-made the Ravens’ offense around Lamar Jackson.
Mills isn’t a mobile quarterback, but Houston still runs the ball 46.4% of the time (seventh-most in NFL). Culley will likely try to use outside zone blocking to run behind left tackle Laremy Tunsil, so setting the edge and closing down cutback lanes is the name of the game this week.
The Texans also have a deep running back room with Mark Ingram, Phillip Linsday, and David Johnson. Expect Culley to attack the weakness in the Pats’ defense against the run.
If Mills has to throw the ball, it could be another four-interception game for the rookie QB.
1. Pats OTs vs. Texans LB Whitney Mercilus
Who knows who the Patriots will have playing either tackle spot on Sunday. It sounds like they’ll have backups in both spots, and Mercilus is one holdover from the competitive Texans rosters that is still in Houston. We know what Mercilus can do. He can take over this game if the Pats aren’t careful with their tackles.
2. Pats LB Matt Judon vs. Texans LT Laremy Tunsil
A heavyweight matchup between the Pats’ best defensive player in the front seven versus one of the NFL’s best offensive tackles. Judon gave CLNS Media some insight into Tunsil’s game when he said you have to beat Tunsil early, or he can get into a shutdown groove. Houston will try to run off-tackle against the Patriots with their outside zone schemes. This is a big set the edge to get the ball in to Davis Mills’s hands game.
3. Pats CB Jon Jones vs. Texans WR Brandin Cooks
If Jones is fully healthy, we’d expect him to draw the matchup on Cooks with safety help to go speed-on-speed. The Pats could also have J.C. Jackson get physical with Cooks at the line of scrimmage, but it feels like a track matchup for New England. Cooks accounts for 41% of Houston’s receptions this season, so he’s the guy. Belichick will game plan him out of the passing game.
4. Pats Interior O-Line vs. Texans DT Maliek Collins
Collins is having a solid season as the three-technique in Houston’s 4-3 over. He has ten quarterback pressures in the first four games, using a strong first step and rip move to explode into the backfield. The Texans aren’t a big blitzing scheme, but they’ll run Collins on some T/T stunts to get him free. Collins is a pro. He’s good enough to take advantage of backups.
5. Pats QB Mac Jones vs. Texans DB Justin Reid
Going a little outside the box here with a mental matchup. Reid is Houston’s best defensive player, and he already has two interceptions this season. Reid lines up at multiple spots in the Texans secondary and is always around the football. Mac needs to know where no. 20 is on the field.