There is a path to make the 2020 postseason for the Patriots (4-5) now that they’ve recovered from their four-game losing streak.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Patriots have a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, but the back half of their schedule isn’t as easy as it first appeared.
Due to stiffer competition on the horizon, defeating the Houston Texans (2-7) this Sunday is a must for New England if there’s any chance of them getting really hot down the stretch.
Luckily for Bill Belichick’s team, the Texans are an organizational disaster. After starting 0-4, Houston fired general manager, head coach, and offensive play-caller Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien fell out of favor with former Pats character coach Jack Easterby, who somehow runs the Texans’ football ops now, tagging former Pats DC Romeo Crennel as interim coach. Even Belichick scoffed at the idea of Easterby having a say in personnel decisions this week.
Following an offseason where O’Brien traded star receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a second-rounder and a declining running back, there were countless reports of dysfunction.
The word out of Houston was that players were scratching their heads at practice wondering what O’Brien was doing offensively, and outside of 31-year-old J.J. Watt, the defensive talent is barren.
Although Deshaun Watson is still capable of creating explosive plays, the Patriots’ offense couldn’t have asked for a better matchup this week.
Through 10 weeks, the 2020 Patriots have one of the most prolific rushing attacks of any offense in the last two decades.
Out of 670 offenses since 2000:
9th in success rate (top 1.3%)
13th in EPA/rush (top 1.9%) pic.twitter.com/HHERXvu9F7
— Tucker Boynton (@Tucker_TnL) November 18, 2020
New England is currently pacing the league in EPA per rush, as the Pats are one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the NFL over the last two decades.
On the other side of the line, the Texans are 32nd in DVOA against the run and are allowing ten yards more than the next closest team at 167.4 yards per game.
Watson, who has played Belichick tough throughout his career, has the weapons around him to spoil the party. But it’s a very winnable matchup against a team in flux.
Here’s a game plan for the Pats on both sides of the ball as they head to Houston in Week 11:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England’s formula on offense should give the Texans fits.
Houston’s defense is on a historically alarming pace against the run, and their opponents control the pace of games by running the football down their throats with heavy personnel.
Houston allows 6.2 yards per play against 21 personnel and 5.8 yards per rush against schemes that involve pulling blockers. Music to Josh McDaniels’s ears.
The Pats base out of 21 with the most rush attempts with two wide receivers, a fullback, running back, and tight end on the field (145), and average 5.2 yards on those runs.
New England also loves to pull linemen, particularly starting right guard Shaq Mason, and lead the league in rush attempts with pullers as well (110). Houston, we have a problem.
The ground and pound strategy has worked easily against the Texans, with plenty of evidence of gap, power, and trap schemes working on Houston’s run defense.
Historically, Crennel runs a two-gapping system, but he has adjusted his scheme to more one-gapping allowing Watt and others to fire into gaps. Unfortunately, it’s not working.
Due to failures holding their ground against double teams, the Texans are getting exposed by trap schemes. On the play above, Houston sends #55 Benardrick McKinney, arguably their best run defender who is now on injured reserve, downhill to get the double-team off the B-gap player. The issue is that Watt, playing between the two tight ends on the line, gets turned inside by the second double-team. With McKinney triggering downhill and the backside guard pulling to kick out the edge force, there’s nobody at the second level of the defense to stop Conner.
The Patriots are great at trap schemes these days, with running back Damien Harris piling up yards behind Mason and fullback Jakob Johnson.
Along with trap blocks, the Texans are struggling to stop power schemes too, another Pats staple. Here, the Ravens ran two-back power out of their version of 21-personnel with Lamar in the sidecar formation. Baltimore’s offensive line washes down the defenders on the line of scrimmage, folding the defense, and the lead blockers take out the second level for J.K. Dobbins.
Houston is also having trouble with misdirection and shutting down cutback lanes, so the Pats could call some wide zone or split-zone schemes as well.
From there, McDaniels will likely implement a familiar passing script for Cam Newton that leans on play-action and maximizing drop-backs as they have in the last three games.
In Week 4, the Vikings beat the Texans 31-23 with quarterback Kirk Cousins only dropping back to pass 26 times.
Cousins threw for 260 yards on 22 attempts, 11.8 yards per pass, with half of his throws and nearly 70 percent of his yards coming off play-action. Most of those were out of 21-personnel.
The Texans play over 60 percent of their coverage snaps in either cover-one or cover-three, single-high structures, to insert an extra run defender in the box.
With eight defenders in the box, that’s leaving tons of space in the secondary for receivers to roam, and opposing offenses are using route combinations that expose post-safety coverages.
Here, the play-action fake gets eight defenders in the fit, and Cousins completes a 26-yard pass to rookie wideout Justin Jefferson on a “burst” corner route against man coverage. The deep safety needs to stay on the post, giving Jefferson a one-on-one against the outside corner on the flag pattern, and it’s too easy.
The Patriots dial-up shot plays to Jakobi Meyers on “burst” corner routes with the same idea as the Vikings’ version above. Similar formation, personnel grouping, route, and result.
Another play-action sequence that Minnesota used to expose Houston’s secondary was the “rage” or “Yankee” concept, a great cover-three beater. The route combination puts the deep safety in conflict. He can either stay over the top of the post or cut the deep over route, but he can’t provide inside help to both patterns.
As we roll the play, two defenders including the deep safety go with the post route. Since the outside corner stays with the post, nobody takes Theilen’s deep over route.
Although their running schemes are fundamentally different, the Patriots can follow the Vikings’ game-script. Minnesota ran the ball 40 times, and Cousins averaged 16 yards per attempt off play-action.
New England’s win over the Ravens last week was an excellent blueprint for them moving forward, and it was akin to what’s working against the Texans this season. Expect more of the same.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Despite getting the shitty end of the stick on the Hopkins trade, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is still piloting a passing offense that ranks respectably in DVOA through ten weeks (11).
With Watson primarily throwing to speedsters Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks, Houston is tied for sixth with 38 completions of over 20 yards this season; they’re still a big-play pass offense. Even their third and fourth wideouts, Kenny Stills and Randall Cobb, have good speed.
The Texans have a few different ways to draw up shot plays to Fuller, who is their big-play receiver over the top, and Cooks, who they use more as a horizontal field-stretcher nowadays.
Last season, Watson shredded the Pats’ man coverages by targeting single coverage down the field. Hopkins is no longer a Texan, but Fuller and Cooks offer enough playmaking that one would expect a much more conservative plan from Belichick.
With Fuller, Watson loves to attack man coverage downfield, giving his track-speed receiver chances to make big plays against man coverage. As they do in the second play, the Texans will also try to stress deep zones with multiple receivers running vertically upfield. The vertical release by the inside receiver puts the deep safety in conflict, and he’s late to open his hips to Fuller’s route.
The Pats typically get physical with Fuller at the line of scrimmage, so he’s impeded from getting up to top speed on his vertical releases.
Looking ahead to Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans on Sunday
*Moving underneath defenders
*Throwing the slant to #3 pic.twitter.com/fOmWB52TXi
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) November 18, 2020
Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, who is calling plays, also loves to put Watson in empty formations to spread defenses. Watson is great at reading and manipulating middle of the field coverage, so going to a quick passing game out of empty is a good fit.
HOW WILL THE TEXANS PLAY THE GAME?
The story of the game when Houston has the ball will be Kelly’s game plan both personnel and play-calling wise.
The Texans have tons of speed at receiver and a great quarterback. But spreading out the Patriots defense, and inviting Belichick to play with six or seven defensive backs is an unwise strategy.
All five of New England’s losses came against teams that had some semblance of a running game outside of the Chiefs, even the pass-happy Bills ran it some.
If Kelly plays out of three and four wide receiver sets, the Patriots will blend together their game plans against the Chiefs and Ravens to shut down Houston’s passing game.
The one thing that’s guaranteed against Belichick is that he won’t get burned the same way twice. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens found that out the hard way last week when they used the same game plan a second time. Belichick was better prepared with a totally different plan, shutting down Baltimore’s rushing attack.
In 2019, Watson led the Texans to a 28-22 victory over New England. The Patriots blitzed Watson on 17 of his 29 drop-backs, and he burned them to the tune of 11.3 yards per attempt and three touchdowns.
Belichick will give Watson several different seven and eight-man coverage looks this time around if Houston comes out with the same game plan, forgoing the heavy blitzes.
The Pats could call some of their man-match zones that they used against the Chiefs in Week 4, where their secondary can either match vertical routes or pass off deep crossing patterns.
New England also played their double-robber man coverage against Mahomes, which gave them answers against crossers and keeps eyes on the quarterback to limit scrambles.
If the Texans go to their RPOs and full-house package, we’ll see more of what they did against Baltimore and Lamar Jackson with lots of big nickel defense.
Although they don’t use it often, it’s Houston’s under-center outside zone series that scares me the most this week.
Even though the Texans are dead-last in rush DVOA, they’re primarily an outside zone team that plays out of two tight end sets occasionally.
The Pats need to prove that they can stop under-center outside zone, which isn’t Baltimore’s games. The Ravens run pistol and sidecar formations with fewer players on the line of scrimmage, which allowed the Pats to play nickel or dime groupings. The Texans can get into schemes that are more 49ers-like. Above, David Johnson rattles off a big gain out of a two tight end set with eight blockers on the line.
The Texans will then go to play-action from under-center off outside zone, similar to the 49ers, and Watson is hitting Cooks on deep over routes with Fuller clearing out the coverage.
New England defended outside zone extremely well against Baltimore by setting wide edges and chasing down plays with defensive backs, and the Ravens allowed them to by using fewer players on the line.
Houston’s offensive line is far worse than other teams that successfully ran on the Patriots this season, so the Pats should be the more physical team. Still, defending play-action between the numbers was a problem against the Ravens, and all season. Watson can do that, and maybe the Texans can gain some yards on the ground with good scheme.
Watson has only attempted 27 passes from under-center, but the Patriots defense is at its best when they’re playing extra defensive backs.
Lastly, the Patriots will need a plan to contain one of the most dangerous scramblers and passers on the move in Watson, who has shredded New England in the past in scramble mode.
We went over some of the ways Belichick limited Patrick Mahomes’s ability to create on broken plays by playing with two robbers and dropping players off the line of scrimmage as spies.
Belichick could do more of the same, but in the past, he usually implements two strategies against Watson: putting him in the Star Wars trash compactor or spying him with a defensive back.
Back in 2018, the Patriots went with the trash compactor strategy, using four-man rushes with disciplined rushing lanes to collapse the pocket on Watson so he couldn’t escape.
The Patriots will also put a defensive back in the box as a spy against mobile quarterbacks to play man coverage. Above, the Patriots let Chase Winovich go after Lamar while Jonathan Jones rotates arm-side to spy Jackson. When the Ravens quarterback looks to extend the play, he has to attempt a low-percentage throw because Jones is there.
Belichick always says that offenses dictate the terms of the game to the defense based on personnel and formations.
For Houston, there’s a lot riding on Kelly’s ability to design a game plan that will attack New England’s weaknesses.
1. Michael Onwenu vs. J.J. Watt: the Pats standout rookie has a matchup against a future Hall of Famer on Sunday afternoon. Watt isn’t at the peak of his powers, but he’s still grading out as a top tier defensive end. His combination of explosiveness and length gives everyone problems. This will be a fascinating matchup to study in film review.
2. Jakobi Meyers vs. Bradley Roby: Roby is the only respectable coverage player in Houston’s secondary, which means he’ll probably draw the Pats’ new breakout receiver. Meyers is averaging 86.5 yards per game over his last four contests and is defeating man coverage at a great rate. I’ll have more on Meyers over the weekend.
3. Chase Winovich vs. Laremy Tunsil: Tunsil is fighting an illness that held him out of practice this week, but if he plays, it’ll be big for Houston. The former first-round pick is the one offensive linemen playing above replacement level for the Texans, and they could find success running behind him on outside zone schemes. Winovich and John Simon will need repeat performances of last week to hold up against a talented left tackle.
4. JC Jackson vs. Will Fuller: assuming Stephon Gilmore sits again, Jackson will draw Fuller with a strength-on-strength matchup — Fuller’s vertical route-running versus Jackson’s deep ball coverage. As we mentioned, Fuller struggles with physical press-man coverage. If you can prevent him from opening up his strides, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony.
5. Jon Jones vs. Brandin Cooks: when the Patriots deal with burners like Cooks, they typically match speed-on-speed with their fastest cornerback, Jonathan Jones. Jones might have a role in the middle of the field as a spy on Watson, but Cooks’s usage in the slot is up from previous seasons, and he’s running mostly intermediate and deep crossers as a horizontal field-stretcher; sounds like a job for Jones.