The Texans did not have a good offense last year. The Patriots defeated Houston 27-6 in week 14 of the 2015 season because the Texans just couldn’t move the ball. At all.
Houston had an All World wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, but they didn’t have anyone else. Brian Hoyer was at quarterback. Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes split time as the lead running backs. Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III were the number two and three receivers. Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz were at tight end.
Hoyer is now quarterback for the Bears since Jay Cutler is hurt. Grimes has two touches for the Texans this year and Polk is out of football. Shorts is with the Buccaneers and Washington is out of football. Griffin and Fiedorowicz are still the tight ends.
The Texans spent their offseason overhauling their offense by signing Brock Osweiler at quarterback, Lamar Miller at running back, and spending a first round pick on speedster wide receiver Will Fuller. It’s undeniable that the Houston offense is far better than what it was in 2015.
But the Patriots defense still matches up well against this talent.
While I don’t have access to the Texans line-up usage rates, I can look at their snaps to see pretty clear trends. The offensive line and Osweiler are on the field for every snap, which is standard, but it’s the skill players that are interesting.
Miller has played 76% of the Texans offensive snaps, while Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, and Jonathan Grimes have combined for 23% of the snaps. In other words, the Texans will generally always have a running back on the field, just like the Patriots offense. Miller is the work horse and the other three come off the bench if Miller needs a breather.
This means that the other four skill positions on offense are divided by the wide receivers and tight ends.
At tight end, Fiedorowicz, Griffin, rookie Stephen Anderson, FB Jay Prosch, and then OT Kendall Lamm have combined to serve as extra blockers in the offense. The Texans mix in multiple tight end sets, but Fiedorowicz (54% of snaps) and Griffin (42%) are the leaders.
At wide receiver, Hopkins and Fuller are the full time starters- both played 90+% of offensive snaps in week 2- while Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong have combined for 86% of snaps this season; with Miller out with an injury, Strong should be more heavily featured.
In other words, the Texans use a lot of 11-personnel, likely around 80% of the time, which involves one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. The rest of the time, the Texans will have an extra blocker in the form of Prosch (12% of snaps) or a second tight end.
In 2015, the Patriots paired Logan Ryan against Hopkins for the entire game and limited him to 3 receptions for 52 yards, with 40 of those yards coming on one pass in the 4th quarter when the game was already over. That 40-yard catch is actually why Ryan is a perfect match for Hopkins.
“I think Logan has very good playing strength, and although he's not as big as some of those guys he still has decent size and playing strength and instincts,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in a week 3 press conference. “I mean he's a very instinctive player. I'd say he has a good understanding of what those guys are going to try and do versus what a smaller, quicker receiver would try to do. He does a good job. He's a very good technique player. Those big receivers - if they want to be physical and push off - have to have something to push off against, so by using good techniques to try and minimize the amount of getting open physically that those guys can do.”
Hopkins is one of the savviest receivers in the league when it comes to using physicality to create separation and to get his hands on the football, so Ryan’s solid technique will come in handy. While Hopkins got the best of Ryan on this catch, Ryan did a great job matching Hopkins for the rest of the day.
There’s also been some talk that the Patriots used a safety to help Ryan and, sure, that’s true, but it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. They bracketed Hopkins in the red zone, just like they would with any other wide receiver that aligns in isolation, and they had a safety in the vicinity in the rare times they used Cover Two.
The Patriots featured a lot of single high coverage with Devin McCourty, so there wasn’t a lot of freedom for safety help.
Fuller is a fast player and the Patriots will likely use Justin Coleman in coverage, in the same way they used Coleman in coverage of Dolphins WR Kenny Stills in week 2. This will leave Malcolm Butler on the third wide receiver, Strong, and it would allow the safety to give more focus towards Hopkins.
We have to remember that the Patriots didn’t really need to give Ryan too much help over the top because Hoyer doesn’t have a strong arm; he wasn’t a threat to go deep. The Texans love when Osweiler chucks it down the field, so McCourty will have to give more attention to the deep ball.
Safety Patrick Chung will likely receive the draw against Fiedorowicz and Griffin and I would expect Chung to do fine against them. Both are solid role players, but neither are physically dominant players.
If the Texans play with 12-personnel, or with two tight ends, then I would expect Butler to shift into coverage of Fuller, Chung and McCourty to cover the tight ends, and Duron Harmon to come on the field to play the deep safety position.
The Texans offense doesn’t feature as many combinations as, say, the Patriots. There’s no game plan running back- it’s just Miller- and there’s a pretty standard X (Hopkins), Y (Fiedorowicz), Z (Fuller), and F (Griffin) player.
Houston spent this offseason upgrading their offense and it is undeniably better. But they were an awful group last year and the Patriots still match up well against the new talent on the Texans roster.