The now two-loss Patriots no longer control their own destiny in the AFC playoff picture after falling to the Houston Texans 28-22 on Sunday night.
Head coach Bill Belichick summed it up best when took the podium following the loss, “it wasn’t good enough in any area, and they were the better team,” he said.
That’s where we’ll start with the coaching staff. In a rare turn of events, head coach Bill O’Brien out-coached his former boss in his first victory over Belichick in Houston.
O’Brien gave Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson the answers to the test by scheming one-on-one matchups for his receivers against man coverage and finding weaknesses in zone coverage.
On the other side of the ball, Romeo Crennel held his defense together by continuously doubling Julian Edelman and putting his top cover guys on James White. Plus, he had some tricky disguised pressures up his sleeve, and Josh McDaniels left his creative juices at home.
Seeing Belichick and his staff get out-coached is a rarity that we won’t see with any regularity, which leads us to the bigger question at hand: do the Patriots have enough on offense?
Every year we go through something similar to this. Just last season, the Pats sat at 9-5 following a second-straight loss in Pittsburgh, and the dynasty was over, and then it wasn’t.
There will be no grand proclamation from this scribe that the Patriots title hopes vanished on Sunday night, but what we learned is the Patriots must execute the details better on offense.
The margin for error is smaller than in years past, and they’re slacking on the little things that lead to points.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots fall to 10-2 on the season:
1. Patriots Wide Receiver Outside of Edelman Need to Clean It Up
The national pundits will bury the Patriots and likely say it’s a product of Tom Brady falling off the proverbial cliff, but Sunday night’s struggles were more on the receivers than Brady. And it’s not only the young guys, some of the vets are guilty as well.
Time and time again, we saw Patriots receivers in the wrong spot, failing to finish routes, cutting routes off short of the sticks, and to a lesser degree but still costly in crucial situations, drops. Mental mistakes that the Patriots can’t afford given the talent level they have at receiver.
Here’s the first example that’ll surely stir up some conversations this week. Patriots rookie N’Keal Harry, whose route running struggles are well-documented, lets Texans corner Bradley Roby cross his face way too easily, beating him to the spot on the slant. Harry’s release and footwork at the top of the route do him no favors, but the receiver has to finish the route and fight to box out the corner to avoid an interception.
Another area where the Patriots receivers struggled was cutting routes off short of the sticks.
On this critical third down play, veteran Mohamad Sanu runs an in-cut at the bottom of the screen. Instead of taking his route to five yards, Sanu breaks it off at four, and due to an iffy spot, he’s marked short of the line to gain.
On the very next play, Sanu dropped a fourth-down pass that would’ve kept the offense on the field.
For those that want to know what that first route should look like, let Julian Edelman show you. Edelman runs an out on second and seven. He carries his stem two yards past the sticks and then snaps it off back to the quarterback past the first down marker.
In any NFL offense, but especially in New England’s system, precision route running and having a strong mental grasp of the game are critical elements to playing wide receiver.
On Sunday night, and far too often this season, the Pats receivers outside of Edelman saw the little things turn into big problems for the offense.
2. Tom Brady Isn’t the Problem With the Patriots Offense
The six-time Super Bowl champ has undoubtedly had better nights, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to blame him for the struggles on offense. In the first half, Brady was seven-for-19, his lowest completion percentage in a first half of his career (min. 15 attempts). There were some uncomfortable throws, and Crennel got Brady a few times with pressure, yet it never felt like Brady was a significant issue.
For example, on the interception, here’s what Brady is looking at as he begins his throwing motion. Harry has a step to the inside on Roby, and if he finishes his route like Brady expects, then it’s at least an incomplete pass rather than a pick.
Outside of costly mistakes by receivers, Brady’s pocket movement and connection with familiar faces serve as flashes of his old greatness.
On James White’s second touchdown, backup center James Ferentz gets beat up the middle. Brady eludes the rush, and White works himself free against a double team for the score thanks to a well-placed ball by Brady.
Even on throws to the young guys, Brady made some good downfield rips when they created separation. He threw a 21-yard rope to Jakobi Meyers here to convert on third down.
As we mentioned earlier, if there was one area where Crennel and the Texans defense confused Brady, it was with pressure up front.
Here, Brady thinks that Bradley Roby is in man coverage on James White, where he was most of the game on third down. Instead, Roby blitzes and leaves White to linebacker Zach Cunningham. Brady was fooled by the disguise, and Roby comes through the line unblocked for a sack.
If his supporting cast cleans things up, Brady will have no problem shredding defenses like we’ve seen him do throughout his career.
3. Patriots Limit DeAndre Hopkins at the Expense of Other Texans Pass Catchers
Although Hopkins came up with two critical third-down conversions, the All-Pro wideout had a below-average day with Stephon Gilmore tracking him in coverage (five catches, 64 yards).
However, with Hopkins drawing all the attention, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson had no issues feasting one-on-one matchups elsewhere.
For instance, Houston’s first touchdown of the game came on a play where they got pass-catching back Duke Johnson isolated on linebacker Kyle Van Noy. With Hopkins doubled by Gilmore and McCourty, everyone else is singled up on their man, and the Pats drop KVN in coverage off the edge to bring pressure up the middle. Van Noy whiffs on a jam attempt, and Johnson gets loose.
On Kenny Stills’s touchdown, we’ll ignore the blatant hold on Van Noy to pay attention to the coverage. The Pats bracket Hopkins with Gilmore (outside leverage) and Harmon (inside) leaving Jonathan Jones one-on-one with Stills on the other side and Stills wins over the top for a 35-yard touchdown.
The rule of thumb with Belichick is that he won’t let the opponents’ biggest threat beat him, and for the Texans, that’s Hopkins, and O’Brien played Belichick on Sunday night.
Knowing Belichick would try to eliminate Hopkins, the Texans let the Patriots double him, and dialed up big plays for their other playmakers relying on their deep arsenal of skill players.
4. Julian Edelman Still Double-Team Proof in Losing Effort
The Patriots offense would be dead in the water if it weren’t for Julian Edelman, who hauled in six passes for a game-high 106 yards and a touchdown in the loss.
The Texans defense focused most of its attention on Edelman, doubling the Pats receiver regularly throughout the game. However, he still found ways to make plays.
On his 44-yard reception, the Texans played a cover-3 zone, which gave Edelman some room to run without two guys chasing him. Houston busts the coverage thanks to a flood concept by the Patriots. The Pats flood the weak side of the field with Dorsett on a vertical, White releasing into the flat, and Edelman coming across the field. As the third guy to that side of the field, it’s on the linebacker/hook defender to track Edelman coming across. The linebacker doesn’t see Edelman cross into his zone, and the Pats wideout is wide open for a long completion.
Although it wasn’t enough, Edelman continues to do things the right way and produce for the Patriots.
5. James White is a Now “Tuesday Player” in Pats Offense
In coaching, there’s an old phrase about players that everyone circles when they turn their page to their next opponent. The essentials or blue-chippers are considered “Tuesday players,” meaning they present big-time threats that need to be accounted for in the game plan.
For the Patriots and running back James White, he’s now a “Tuesday player” in this offense, and every opposing defensive coordinator now has a plan to slow him down.
On Sunday night, the Texans tracked White in the passing game with top cornerback Bradley Roby on almost every third down, and in the red zone, he saw double teams. If you are wondering why White hasn’t been as productive this season, it’s because he’s now second-fiddle to Julian Edelman and seeing top coverage guys on a week-to-week basis.
White piled up some comeback yards in the fourth quarter, but he was schemed out of Tom Brady’s repertoire when Houston won the game in the first three quarters.
6. Deshaun Watson’s Legs Serve as a Threat to Extend Plays
The Houston quarterback only rushed four times and lost yardage on those attempts, but his legs were a factor on all three of his touchdown passes.
As Watson does better than anyone, his ability to extend plays and pull the defense towards him makes him a nightmare to defend.
On Houston’s second touchdown of the night, the Texans were in a “full house” alignment, another game-plan wrinkle by O’Brien, with three players in the backfield plus the quarterback. Watson fakes like he’s reading the DE on a read-option running play, and the Texans slip the tight end out of the backfield into the flat. This route concept is a “follow” design where Fells will follow his teammate into the flat to try to flood a zone. In this case, the Pats were in man coverage, and the linebackers bit on the fake by Watson, leading to a busted coverage.
In the box score, Watson’s mobility won’t look like a significant factor, but the threat of him running along with his ability to extend plays made several big moments happen for the Texans.
7. Isaiah Wynn’s Performance a Silver Lining on Offense
There’s plenty of blame to go around offensively, but for the second consecutive game starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn looked good, and the Pats averaged 5.0 yards per rush on the ground.
In pass protection, Wynn’s ability to diagnose and pick up stunting pass rushers stands out immediately. On the play above, Wynn ID’s the long stunt and picks up the wrap player coming around from the other side of the center to at least keep Brady clean to his left. Unfortunately, one of the other issues was right tackle Marcus Cannon, who couldn’t handle Houston pass rusher Jacob Martin, but Wynn does his job, and Brady scrambles for a first down.
On Sony Michel’s longest run of the day, the Pats ran a guard/tight end counter with the two players pulling from the backside. Wynn and center Ted Karras climb to the second level, getting enough of the linebackers to let Michel cut off those blocks into daylight.
With Wynn back in the lineup, the Patriots have ten rushes of ten-plus yards over the last two games. In the eight games without Wynn, they only had 17.
8. Patriots Run Defense Another Silver Lining
The best player on the Patriots defense Sunday night was defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who helped limit the Texans rushing attack to 2.3 yards per rush on 23 carries.
Guy is nearly impossible to move with one blocker in the running game. He has excellent play strength that he combines with great technique. The Pats DT routinely creates coaching tape on how to play with proper pad level, leverage, and upper-body technique to two-gap at the point of attack.
The Patriots will need their run defense to be a strength of their defense as we head towards the postseason.
9. Patriots Stick to Mostly 11-Personnel With a Few Wrinkles
On New England’s opening drive, the Patriots ran eight of the 14 plays out of a heavy personnel grouping. The Pats ran five plays out of “12” personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) and three out of a “22” package (1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB) with Elandon Roberts at fullback. The Pats ran the ball nine times for 31 yards en route to a field goal, but the score made it difficult for them to get back into those heavy groupings. For the rest of the game, they only ran five more plays with extra bulk on the field, leaning on their dynamic packages with more wide receivers. The Patriots even went with five wide receivers on the field for the first time this season. The Pats found some success with their heavy groupings, and Roberts is sticking as a fullback, so we’ll see if they go to that more when they aren’t playing from behind.
10. Play of the Game: Deshaun Watson Receiving TD and Houston’s Trickery
For Patriots fans, the speed option with Watson handing to Hopkins and then pitching back to Watson for the back-breaker will be one of those plays that’ll get old really quick. As a football fan, the trickery by Houston was pretty cool. Still, it’s perfectly okay to hate everything about it.