As they went into the game as 16-point underdogs, no one was too surprised that Houston was brushed aside (34-16) in New England last Saturday night. In the aftermath, not too many accolades came Houston’s way – even though they went into the half trailing by only four points and stayed within one score of the mighty Patriots until there were just 12 minutes and 16 seconds left in the game.
In the eye of the storm was Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose predictable struggles hamstrung the offense. Inside the game, though, was a much more interesting story – the story of the NFL’s number one defense (Houston’s) against the high-powered New England offense. As Houston surrendered 34 points, one might assume that the New England offense dominated Houston’s top-ranked defensive squad.
That was pretty much the story of their Week 3 matchup. In an overwhelming 27-0 victory, the Patriots (behind third string QB Jacoby Brissett) bludgeoned the Texans for 185 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Yes, New England only had two drives that went for more than 50 yards – but this was their third string quarterback, after all. The Patriots were able to run the ball even though Houston knew they wanted to run. The Patriots also fashioned touchdowns out of two fumbles they recovered deep in Houston territory and added a third TD on a drive that started on the Houston 47 after the Texans were forced to punt from deep within their own territory. The first game was over early.
Even though the score of the re-match was decisive, the struggle between the Patriot offense and the Texan defense was a lot more even than might be suspected. Houston’s special teams allowed one touchdown (Dion Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return). Houston’s offense gave up another after an Osweiler interception was returned to the Texan’s 6-yard line. The Texan defense was only scratched for two touchdown drives that started in the New England side of the field, and one of those required a 30-yard pass-interference penalty against rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye on a pass that Chris Hogan might not have caught up to.
At game’s end, New England had been held to 98 rushing yards (and 3.6 yards a carry). More impressively, Tom Brady and the passing game finished just 18 for 38 (just 47.4%) for 287 yards. His 2 touchdown passes were off-set by two interceptions (matching the total number of interceptions he had thrown all year). Tom ended the game with a passer rating of only 68.6. It was just the second time in 13 games this season that Brady’s passer rating ended below 89 (Denver had held him to a 68.2 figure earlier).
Did the Texans give the NFL a blueprint on how to defend the New England passing game? Sort of. But it’s not the kind of game plan that any team can necessarily employ. Looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs, I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of Houston’s game plan that will translate to either Pittsburgh, Atlanta or Green Bay. Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel lines his defense up in many confusing looks – causing more than his share of identification problems. (Brady’s second interception came on a play where ten of the eleven Houston defenders were in man coverage, but outside linebacker Benardrick McKinney sat in a zone in the middle of the field and batted Brady’s pass in the air.) But the principles of the Houston plan were pretty basic. Pressure up the middle and tight man coverage.
Six years ago in the Divisional Round, Rex Ryan – then the coach of the NY Jets – knocked off Brady and the Patriots 28-21 by pressuring him up the middle. At that time, it was something of a revelation. Tom was sacked 5 times that evening and rushed relentlessly. Brady can usually sidestep pressure that comes from outside his pocket, but when the pocket collapses from the inside and Tom is forced to scramble he becomes much more mortal.
In last Saturday’s game, Brady got plenty of inside heat and threw a great many balls away while scrambling out of trouble. Houston got significant pressure from budding stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but the unsung star of this game was a lightly regarded backup tackle taken in the sixth round of the 2015 draft – Christian Covington. Covington had only one sack all year and has just three in his 31-game NFL career. Listed generously at 295 pounds, he looked something like a Borg cube as he repeatedly menaced New England in this game. Not someone you would generally think is all that quick, Covington consistently beat rookie left guard Joe Thuney to the inside. He didn’t register any sacks, but his persistent collapsing of the pocket forced Brady out of his comfort zone.
None of this is a news flash. Most fans who have followed Brady’s career know about his issues with inside pressures and I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh noted the struggles of the rookie guard. At this point, I almost expect to see James Harrison frequently line up inside over this guard. What Houston was able to do, though, that other teams can’t necessarily do is put consistent pressure on Brady without blitzing frequently. Blitzing Brady carries with it its own set of risks.
But “A-gap” pressure is only half the formula. What made it work so well for Houston was the coverage in the secondary. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Bouye, and even Kareem Jackson (who did get picked on a little) did what few secondaries are able to do. They hung with New England’s super quick receivers both vertically and horizontally the entire game. Even on those occasions when his offensive line gave him ample time, Brady’s receivers frequently struggled getting separation. Even linebacker McKinney also held up very well in man coverage against patriot tight end Martellus Bennett (who caught one pass for four yards).
As strategies go, there was some hit-and-miss to this. When his receivers did get some separation, Brady usually turned it into a big play. With his 18 completions accounting for 287 yards, Tom averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per completion and finished with six pass plays of at least 20 yards and another 19-yard touchdown pass to James White (beating McKinney, who had less success covering the backs).
But, because they challenged every pass and held the running game mostly in check, Brady had difficulty sustaining the offense.
And this is the part that I don’t see any of the other teams still in the playoffs able to execute. The Steelers, Falcons and Packers are predominant zone teams and much less skilled at man coverage. While guys like Julian Edelman can find easy seams in zone schemes, Brady will always have a quick outlet.
With three games left in the NFL season, the Patriots remain the NFL’s most daunting challenge. In addition to a defense that just does not surrender points and a dangerous running game spearheaded by battering ram LeGarrette Blount, all-everything quarterback Tom Brady has a collection of super-quick receivers who are exceedingly adept at finding the open spaces in most zones. How Pittsburgh attempts to slow this offense will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the Championship Round.