FOXBORO — The Patriots started the 2018 season on a positive note with a 27-20 win over the Houston Texans in their season opener at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
However, both head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady seemed underwhelmed by the team’s performance despite the win, and as always, stressed that there’s plenty of room for improvement.
With that said, here are ten things we learned from the Patriots’ win over the Texans in the 2018 season opener:
1. Tom Brady Satisfied, But Not Perfect
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told the media after the game that, “I don’t think we played anywhere near what our capabilities are,” on Sunday against the Texans. However, although it wasn’t perfect from #12, Brady was still in complete control and looked like the same player that won the league MVP last season. On Brady’s first pass attempt of the game, he overshot running back Rex Burkhead after Burkhead beat Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham clean off the line of scrimmage, but he rebounded immediately with a terrific throw to favorite target Rob Gronkowski on the Pats’ first touchdown of the 2018 season. The first touchdown throw was nice, but it was the second of three touchdown tosses by Brady that highlights what has separated him from the rest of the league at his advanced age.
On his touchdown throw to Phillip Dorsett, his first read on the play was again to Gronkowski who ran a fade route in the right corner of the end zone. Gronk was double-teamed on the play, so Brady quickly moved off of Gronk and worked his second read where he made a lightning-quick decision to rifle the ball to Dorsett in the back of the end zone. That processing speed and willingness to come off of his first read is what makes Brady the NFL’s most valuable player.
Oh, and also, dimes like this one to Rob Gronkowski. Brady and Gronk have mastered this route, and you can’t throw it any better than Brady did here.
2. Rob Gronkowski Dominates the Texans
Speaking of Gronk, in my opinion, the Patriots tight end was the best player on the field for either team on Sunday. Gronk had a game-high 123 receiving yards, his 27th career 100-yard game, and made two of the best catches you’ll ever see. Gronk had an incredible catch up the seam over multiple Texans defenders later on, but his touchdown reception that got things going for the Patriots in the first quarter exhibited perfectly what makes him such a tremendous player.
The Patriots got Gronk matched up against linebacker Zach Cunningham out wide, and Gronk beat him with a hard inside stem into a fade route down the sideline. Despite safety Kareem Jackson coming over to help Cunningham on the play, Gronk was able to fight off both Texans defenders for the football and haul in his first touchdown grab of 2018. The body control, timing with Brady and ability to beat double coverage are all unique traits that make Gronk one of the best receivers in football. Going into this one, I didn’t think the Texans had an answer on paper for Gronk, and that played out in the game as well.
3. Patriots Pass Rush Finally Catches Deshaun Watson
Another obvious takeaway from Sunday’s opener was the significant improvement from the Patriots’ pass rush. The Pats were able to sack Watson three times and hit him a total of 11 times all while preventing Watson to make throws from outside the pocket. After the game, I spoke with Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, and he insisted that the Patriots had the same game plan against Watson this time around, noting that the only difference was improved execution. The game plan, from this perspective, and with some added context from Flowers, was to keep Watson from escaping to his arm side to prevent him from making throws outside the pocket. When asked about the Pats’ strategy on the edge Flowers said, “you say bend the edge, but you also have to have it tight enough [rush lane] that he isn’t able to step up and continue to get outside [the pocket].”
Flowers’ sack of Watson was a perfect example of this. On this play, Flowers used a two-hand swipe move to free his body after the offensive tackle made the first contact on his punch. As you can see, Flowers wrapped tight around the edge to prevent Watson from escaping after he executed the pass rush move, leading to the sack.
In all, the strategy was based on power rush moves (heavy hand usage, inside chops and swipes) to generate pressure on Watson but also allow the Pats’ defensive line to keep contain. That, coupled with some positionally sound bull rushes from the interior defensive line, let the Patriots smother Watson when they rushed the Texans quarterback.
4. Patriots Offensive Line Up to the Task vs. Texans Pass Rush
The Houston pass rush finished strong, but the Patriots offensive line shut out the Texans defense until J.J. Watt registered Houston’s first quarterback hit on Tom Brady midway through the third quarter. Up until that point, Brady was untouched. Going into the game, I had concerns about Patriots left tackle Trent Brown after some shaky performances in the preseason from the hulking newcomer. However, Brown was terrific throughout on Sunday shutting down former #1 pick Jadeveon Clowney. The Patriots also did an excellent job for most of the game at limiting Watt, who has struggled to produce whenever these two teams play. In my initial viewing of the game, it appeared that Watt saw a heavy dosage of double teams from the Patriots offensive line with right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon or LaAdrian Waddle teaming up to slow down the four-time Pro Bowler. Waddle had some issues with Watt in the second half, but that’s to be expected with a player as talented as the former Defensive Player of the Year. In all, the Patriots offensive line passed this test with flying colors, but they’ll need to deliver again next week in Jacksonville against another tremendous group of pass rushers.
5. Patriots Secondary Improved Communication Leads to Win
The Houston Texans coaching staff did their homework on the Patriots defense. As a result, the Texans and head coach Bill O’Brien unleashed a number of bunch and stack formations which gave the Patriots defense fits last season. The Patriots secondary, thanks to improved communication, did a fantastic job at defending Houston’s stacked receivers. Patriots safety Duron Harmon said, “the good thing is nobody was running scot-free, which lets us know that we did a good job of communicating and getting on the same page.” If you rewind to last season, the Patriots got gashed by these types of schemes, especially by the Carolina Panthers in Week 4 and the Eagles in the Super Bowl. The improved communication and execution against these types of formations bode well for the defense moving forward.
6. Phillip Dorsett Breaks Out With Best Performance as a Patriot
The Patriots desperately needed one of their wide receivers to step up in Julian Edelman’s absence, and it was Phillip Dorsett who led the way behind Gronk on Sunday. Dorsett credited improved timing and route running to his career-high seven receptions against the Texans. Speaking to Dorsett after the game, the Pats receiver said, “the timing [with Tom Brady] has definitely gotten a lot better…that just came with practice and throwing sessions in between periods and after practice.” Dorsett also interestingly noted that the Patriots coaching staff has emphasized route running with him since the Pats acquired the receiver last season from the Colts. Dorsett said, “that’s definitely something they’ve instilled in me here. Just trying to get better at the little things.”
On his second-quarter touchdown catch, we saw Dorsett improve at the little things. Instead of running a straight out route, which the defender might have read easily, Dorsett gave a slight body/shoulder lean to the inside before breaking the route out towards the sideline. That got the defender to cheat to the inside while Dorsett opened up towards the sideline, creating plenty of separation for Tom Brady to fit the pass into Dorsett for the touchdown. Those little details are something we didn’t necessarily see from Dorsett on a consistent basis last season.
7. Pats Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels Has Fun With Formations
With low numbers at the wide receiver position, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got creative with his personnel groupings on Sunday. The Patriots featured a heavy dosage of 21-personnel (two wide receivers, two running backs, one tight end) with fullback James Develin as the second backfield player on 30% of their offensive snaps, which was their most frequently used personnel grouping in Sunday’s game. The Patriots only lined up in traditional 11-personnel (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end) 26% of the time and filled in the rest of the snaps with more multiple backfield players and multiple tight end sets. Also, the Pats ran nearly 15% of their snaps with two running backs, putting both James White and Rex Burkhead on the field at the same time. It was a heavy look from the Pats as McDaniels got creative to cover up the thin wide receiver position (formations data courtesy of @BPhillips_SB).
8. Stephon Gilmore, Duron Harmon Combined to Limit Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins
Before Sunday’s game, I wrote about the possibility of the Patriots using bracket coverages to slow down Texans All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and that’s exactly what we saw in the game. Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Duron Harmon spent most of the day playing the Patriots “cone” coverage scheme on Hopkins, which is an inside-out bracket scheme aimed to split the responsibility of covering a prolific wideout like Hopkins between two defenders. Hopkins ended up recording eight catches for 78 yards, but he worked for every reception and ultimately was kept in check by Gilmore and company. After the game, Harmon said of Gilmore and his performance on Hopkins, “I felt like it went well. Obviously, there were some plays that we felt we could’ve had tighter coverage on, but I felt like we did a good job.” In all, the Patriots defense held Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson to 176 passing yards on Sunday, a far cry from his 302 yards through the air when these two teams faced each other last season.
9. Defensive Lineman Lawrence Guy Deserves More Love
When the Patriots signed defensive lineman Lawrence Guy last offseason, not many people knew of the former NFL journeyman that played for three different teams before arriving in Foxboro, and still, Guy flies under the radar here in New England. Guy’s versatility is what stands out in his game. He can play both inside the guards as a defensive tackle or over the offensive tackle as a five-technique defensive end. That allows the Patriots to move Guy all over the defensive front depending on the matchup and the other personnel they deploy in the front seven. However, Guy is also a productive player on top of being versatile. He has a high motor, solid technique, and gets off the ball exceptionally well at the snap.
On Stephon Gilmore’s interception, it was Guy that provided the interior pressure to hit Watson as he threw. Despite his initial rush going nowhere, Guy continued to work his hands and feet to eventually gain leverage and blow past his blocker to meet Watson on his release. Those types of high-motor plays with fundamentally sound hand usage are what make Guy a perfect fit in the Patriots’ scheme.
10. Kick Coverage Units Struggle in Opener
If you’re looking for a negative takeaway from the Patriots win, it was on special teams, and I’m not talking about Riley McCarron’s muffed punt in the fourth quarter. The Patriots, typically one of the best teams at covering kickoffs in the NFL, allowed Texans running back Tyler Ervin to return five kicks for 156 yards, a 31.2-yard average. Plus, Irving’s 36-yard return in the second quarter was the longest return the Patriots have allowed on a kickoff since Week 8, 2015 against Miami. The Patriots coverage unit didn’t get down the field as quickly as usual and didn’t get off very many blocks in the kicking game either. As a former special teams coach, I’m sure Belichick was less than thrilled with the teams kick coverage units in this one.
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