It was the opening kick off. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has the strength to knock the ball out of the back of the end zone, but throughout the season he has lofted the ball down the field to the goal line to entice a possible return. Gostkowski has the leg to create plenty of hangtime so Football Outsider's #1 ranked kick off coverage unit can get down the field and make a play before the 20 yard line- essentially the only way to beat a touchback.
The Patriots had been hearing all week (well, at least we the fans had been hearing) about how the Texans were the great underdogs and how the couldn't play on the same field. And with the opening kick off, the Texans were able to prove how wrong the pundits were.
The Texans' Danieal Manning returned the opening kick off from 6 yards deep in his own end zone and returned it 94 yards to the Patriots own 12 yard line. The Patriots were able to muster a fantastic stand that set the tone for the rest of the game, but New England had a glaring problem on their hand- how were they going to stop Manning from tilting the field on every kick off?
Advanced NFL Stats shows that, essentially, every 20 yards of field position increases the expected scoring by a full point. A ball at the 40 is expected to result in a point more than a ball at the 20 yard line. That is to say Manning's opening kick off produced an expected point value of 3.4 greater than the Texans starting with the ball on the 20 yard line- essentially a field goal more of value. Those are the expected points that will inevitably turn into real points if the Patriots consistently let Manning walk all over the field- and of Manning's three returns that started the Texans beyond midfield, Houston walked away with an absurd 17 points.
Those are point the Patriots won't be afforded against the Ravens. They need to figure out what went wrong against the Texans and how they can fix it. Let's see if we can help.
Here's a layout of the opening kick off:
As you can see, Manning is circled around the five yard line and is rushing towards the lane produced by his blockers. The Patriots kicked off to the left side of the field and, as a result, overloaded their coverage to that half of the field. The orange line of the far side has the Patriots R1 and R2 players sealed off by the Texans as the Patriots designated fewer players. With seven Patriots below the near hash mark, the Texans are able to establish a wall (yellow line) to establish a cutback lane for Manning.
Manning has a lead blocker in front of him as his wedge seals off the near side Patriots coverage unit. All that is left is Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski on the far side of the field- and with an unblocked Texan ready to engage McCourty, all Manning has to do is avoid Gostkowski (not that hard, right?) and he has open field in front of him.
Here we see the alternate view of this return and the lane is that much more clear. Kyle Arrington is trailing the unit on the left side, while McCourty has the same role on the right (and lost in McCourty's hustle on this play is that Arrington was in position to make the same tackle to save the score). Arrington's role is to ensure the return man doesn't break through on the left so he is unable to cheat towards the center of the field until Manning commits to his return.
Circled is Niko Koutovides. He's the player in the best position to make a play on Manning before he breaks free or, if he can't make the play, at least set an edge so Manning doesn't have such open space to run.
Bad coaching? Bad scheme? I'm leaning towards lapse in intensity. The Patriots coverage unit just uses such poor judgement on this kick off- almost every single player falls directly into the Texans' seal blocks- that this has to be just pure sloppiness and not a fault in the system...right? We'll see.
On this second return by Manning, the great Horse Collar save by Gostkowski, the Patriots do a much better job of coverage. Manning doesn't have such a sweeping channel to jog through and is forced into traffic. Arrington does an excellent job of stepping into the open space and creating more traffic. Maybe he did it a little early, but he did what he had to do to prevent Manning from breaking through into open space.
Unfortunately, Brandon Bolden is charged with setting the edge of this return unit and he is charging directly towards Manning. The Texan blocking Bolden uses the rookie's momentum to draw Bolden away from the edge and to allow Manning a cut back lane into the open field. Arrington's step up is for naught and, due to Bolden's inability to corral Manning, actually weakens the coverage as Arrington is expected to be one of the last lines of defense.
But unlike the opening kick off, this wasn't a terrible play by the coverage unit. It was Bolden getting moved out of position and not being able to plant his foot to match Manning's change of direction. That can be fixed.
So what about the third return beyond midfield- the one in the fourth quarter? How was Manning so able to break free?
Unfortunately, I have to point to general lackadaisicality as the Patriots were all too willing to take their 38-13 lead and their football and go home at this point. In near identical opposite strategy to the opening kick off, the Patriots kick off to the right side of the side, placing eight on the right side of the hash (left in this image).
In almost the same exact way, the Texans seal off the far-side coverage players (yellow line), and create a wall with the near-side coverage players (orange line). The big difference is that the Patriots don't allow their two middle gunners (Tracy White and Mathew Slater) to get swallowed by the near side wall. They engage the wedge with hopes of slowing down Manning, but the 230 lbs White is washed away by the 290 lbs DT Jared Crick and the 200 lbs Slater is manhandled by the 340 lbs OG Brandon Brooks.
[Note: For a point of comparison, the Patriots have 300 lbs C Ryan Wendell and 265 lbs TE Michael Hoomanawanui as their typical wedge]
Not bad coverage. Just terrible match-ups. The wedge by the Texans was the same as the opening kick-off where Koutovides was unable to shed Crick and you can be certain the Ravens will try to beef up their wedge to take advantage of the Patriots on special teams.
As this play develops, and as Slater and White get washed out, a lane opens up. Arrington notices immediately and rushes to close the gap and to engage the remaining lead blocker. Nate Ebner is on the inside of the orange line and actually tries to shed his blocker by stepping to the outside- directly away from the opening lane and into an additional Texans body. The result is very similar to the opening kick off and there should be no surprise- it was a mirror of the same exact coverage.
As the Patriots look from this week into facing the Ravens, they need to figure out the main reasons for their kick off coverage deficiencies. I believe they are as follows:
1) General laziness. The Patriots allowed the Texans to get into perfect position on these kick offs; if the Ravens do the same, Jacoby Jones will be dancing in the end zone.
Solution: Wake-up. Be aware that lanes are developing and if you see the kick return unit aligning their blockers in a certain fashion, find a way to blow up their protection. While it is important to stay in your lanes, it might help if the gunners (White/Slater) didn't barrel straight through to the returner if the wedge is able to use their momentum and push them out of the play. Maybe slow down and stick in the lanes to allow a couple additional yards, but prevent the big play.
2) Watch the size difference. Watch the Patriots kick return unit and watch the Texans kick return unit. The Patriots wedge is unable to create any openings and McCourty is forced to bounce to the outside every time. The Texans had legitimate blockers on the field that the biggest guys on the field can't move.
Solution: Match-up. Slater is a fantastic gunner and he has a nose for the ball. However, if you know that he will be squaring off against one of the biggest guards in the league in Brooks, perhaps find a way where his roles isn't to engage and lose that match-up.
[Also note that while Hoomanawanui has been a great player for the Patriots, his blocking isn't perfect- perhaps activate Daniel Fells to take that role for this upcoming game to open lanes on kick returns.]
3) Setting the edge. Whether it was Koutouvides, Ebner, or Bolden, the Patriots were unable to hold their ground against the Texans. It's one thing to allow big returns on just being out played- it's another when the Patriots players are removing themselves from the position to make the plays in the first place.
Solution: Back-up. It seems that every time the Patriots were unable to set the edge, it's because the player had keyed in on Manning and forgot that they had a lane to protect. Ebner spun away from the lane. Koutouvides was trapped outside. Bolden moved horizontally towards the inside and was caught flat footed. So the players need to back-up and realize what their assignment is as a coverage unit and ensure that their lane is covered in order to prevent big returns.
The Patriots still managed to walk away with a victory, even after giving up 17 points off of huge returns, but the future is uncertain. You can be certain that the Ravens will be looking to exploit the same weaknesses the Texans found and that they will win the game if they do.
It is up to New England to make the changes on special teams if they wish to slow the Ravens on special teams. Hopefully, the Patriots know what has to be changed.