"Be strong against a team's strength. Be alert for anything that they have shown. If they do beat you, make them do it with something they haven't shown before" - Steve Belichick
The Patriots put on a coaching clinic on Sunday Night Football. It was one of the most well coached games of the season, featuring one of the most impressive game plans on both offense and defense, intended to stifle a rejuvenated Texans team.
The premise, as always with Bill Belichick led teams, is simple; Don’t let their best players beat you. Force their secondary and tertiary options to step up and make plays that could potentially win the game.
For most of the night the Patriots double-teamed perhaps the best wide receiver in the game, DeAndre Hopkins. They camped their second cornerback Logan Ryan on Hopkins and covered over the top with safety help. As the game wore on, Ryan did such an impressive job disrupting Hopkins at the line of scrimmage that the Patriots began to disguise the back-end. Giving the allusion that they were doubling Hopkins but rolling the free safety (Duron Harmon/Devin McCourty) back to centerfield.
It was up to Brian Hoyer to diagnose whether New England were doubling Hopkins or disguising, all while a hellacious pass rush continued to smack Hoyer around. In effect, it was as if they were playing with twelve men. Hoyer had no time to make decisions and when he did he made poor ones, trying to breakdown the Patriots' disguise while under pressure.
The Patriots front-seven, when healthy, is as dynamic and talented as any in the game. They have their speed-rusher (Chandler Jones), edge setter (Rob Ninkovich), heavy-set interior run stuffers (Malcom Brown, Alan Branch), sub-pack pass rushing lineman (Dominique Easley, Jabaal Sheard, Akiem Hicks) and twitchy linebackers who can cover, defend the run and rush the quarterback (Jamie Collins, Jonathan Freeney, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo). As a unit they're third in net yards gained per pass attempt, fourth in percentage of drives ending in a score and fifth in adjusted sack rate.
At present, the Patriots are missing Hightower and both Freeney and Easley went down with injuries on Sunday night. But when healthy they are as fearful and intelligent a unit as there is in the league.
The display they, and coordinator Matt Patricia, put on last night was nothing short of remarkable. Individually, a game ball should go to Jabaal Sheard who just dominated Texans right tackle Derek Newton (when the Texans even tried to block him). The Patriots picked up Sheard from the Browns last offseason in what was a typical "what? The Patriots picked him up? Goddamn you know he’s going to be great there" signing. And he has been.
Sheard is a versatile player who can do a little bit of everything at a high level. He can align as a five-technique, out as a wide-nine or move inside as a three-technique and plays some snaps stood up as an outside linebacker like he did during his time in Cleveland.
He is an explosive player, who is very good against the run, can anchor/change directions at the point of attack and can get after the passer by beating tackles inside or overpowering them with the bull-rush. As players have dropped all across the Patriots depth-chart, Sheard has stepped up to be an integral part of their impressive defensive unit. He has played 43% of their defensive snaps this season and is a force on each down. He was signed to a bargain two-year $11 million deal this past offseason, with just $5.5 million guaranteed. He earns just $3 million of that deal this year and has been worth every dime to the Patriots, capped off with a huge game on Sunday night.
On offense, the game plan was the same. Take away the Texans best player and ask someone else to beat you. Houston has seen this a bunch this year. Teams have tried to get the ball out of their quarterbacks hands quickly, in under two-seconds, in order to negate the pass rush of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. It’s one thing when you’re facing league average quarterbacks it’s another story when you’re facing Tom Brady.
Not only did they get the ball out quickly but the Patriots routinely double-teamed Watt and Clowney (even triple-teaming Watt on occasions). They had a very simple tell, but even when the Patriots tip things with their formations they’re very difficult to stop.
When the Patriots double-teamed Watt is was likely to be a five-step or seven-step drop with an intermediate or deep throw. They doubled Watt with their tackles and guards, chipped him with running backs and used tight end Michael Williams to crack block (or wham block) back inside to hit Watt horizontally and move him off his spot. Nothing irritates a pass rusher more than being hit in the side or the ball getting out of the QB’s hands just as they’ve engaged with a lineman.
Regardless of where Watt aligned - and he was hampered due to his broken hand - New England had double-teams set whenever they needed them. They even doubled Watt on play designs that were intentionally run to the opposite side of the field (second pic).
The game plan put emphasis on Clowney to make plays one-on-one or vs his own double-team. Watt was somewhat hobbled with a hand injury and Clowney did indeed step up. He busted a double-team to get to Brady once and killed Brady on a stunt that was not picked up by the offensive line. Clowney has been playing better than he’s been given credit for and this was easily his best performance of the year and certainly his best performance vs double-teams.
As the game wore on the Texans did a quality job of generating favourable matchups for Clowney and company. Watt was negated for the most part but that allowed Romeo Crennel and the Texans defense to get more inventive with their overload looks and stunts to the opposite side of the formation from where Watt was aligned. They did as good a job as possible halting drives and disguising their coverages, forcing three straight punts in the third quarter.
However, they were facing a Patriots team with more mismatch threats; a returning Rob Gronkowski (61% snaps) who cannot be covered by human beings and a fully healthy Danny Amendola who took advantage of the lack of an in-space coverage linebacker for Houston.
Overall, the Patriots game plan on offense and defense suffocated the Texans. It was a bastion of the Bill Belichick era and his footballing philosophy. They nullified the two best Texan players on both sides of the ball and marauded to a victory that re-established them as the number one seed in the AFC.
Oliver Connolly is the editor-in-chief of UKEndZone and a football columnist. He’s a former recruiting advisor for Western Michigan University, a contributor to SI Draft research and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can find him on Twitter @OllieUKEZ, listen to his podcast here.