The New England Patriots had a pretty simple defensive game plan against the Houston Texans that was acted out to perfection. When I call the defense simple, I’m not saying it was easy. I’m just saying that the Patriots dictated the game for the Texans and were in control the entire time.
“We knew we had a big challenge,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said after the game. “They convert a lot of deep balls and have two really good receivers that can take you vertical, so the game plan was simple, just don't give them the big plays. Make them try to drive it down the field. Make it tough for them.”
What makes the Patriots execution so impressive is that the Texans saw it happening in front of their face and they weren’t able to do anything about it.
“If you go back and you watch the tape they were playing a lot of two-high defense and they were very aware of our receiving threats and they weren't going to let us throw the ball down the field,” Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler said after the game. “They gave us a great challenge tonight and they executed their game plan very well.”
So what exactly did the Patriots do? Let’s look at the interception by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins.
The Patriots dropped eight into coverage and each player has a specific role in this Tampa 2 coverage.
The safeties are responsible for eliminating the passes in the deep field outside of the hashmarks, while the middle linebacker Collins is expected to drop into the deep middle of the field.
A typical counter to a linebacker dropping into coverage is for the receiver in the middle to cross in front of them, but the Patriots counter that by dropping edge defender Chris Long into coverage to remove the quick pass.
The corners get their hands on the receivers in order to disrupt the timing, before dropping into zone coverage- and this zone is crucial.
The Patriots left two safeties sitting over the top for much of the night because both Texans receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller are capable of going deep; the Patriots wanted the safeties to keep an eye on both.
“It wasn't just a 2-shell,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said about the Patriots safety usage after the game, “it was the type of 2 [shell] that they were playing which was very difficult. It was man-to-man underneath most of the night and they did a nice job covering us.”
The Patriots played enough man coverage that Osweiler expected the linebacker to drop with the receiver- which is a good match-up for Hopkins- but instead Collins came screaming in from the middle zone to force the turnover.
The scouting report on the Texans offense included their reliance on the deep pass and their inability to sustain drives with lots of passes underneath. The Patriots spent much of the day with five or six defensive backs on the field to challenge the Texans to run the ball and eliminate the home run plays the Texans have needed during the first two weeks of the season.
When the Patriots built up the lead, then the Patriots nickel and dime defense became less about allowing the run and more about matching up against the Texans offense. But the two safeties over the top were the kryptonite for the Houston offense because it meant Osweiler had to throw short passes.
The Patriots used a lot of press coverage underneath not only to prevent the Texans from getting a free release out of the snap, but also to eliminate the quick passes that Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill used to pick the secondary apart in the second half of week 2.
As a result, the only passes that the Texans were able to complete were either garbage time passes in the middle of the field, or perfectly placed sideline passes as the receiver tried to cut away from the corner in his hip pocket and avoid the safety over the top.
The end result worked out pretty well for the Patriots.
“Coach always talks about points in the biggest thing on defense,” McCourty said about Bill Belichick. “Keep them off the board, don't let them score points. No matter what happens in the game, if you hold a team to zero points, you've got a good chance to win.”
The Patriots simple, yet perfectly executed defense held the Texans to zero points and the Patriots had a pretty good chance at winning the game.