When the New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in the early 2000s, they had one of the best linebacker corps in the league. Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer and Ted Johnson all played key roles in creating the early Patriots dynasty. Romeo Crennel, their defensive coordinator, obviously did as well.
On Saturday, the Patriots will face Crennel and Vrabel with a ticket to the AFC Championship Game on the line: Both are on the Houston Texans’ defensive coaching staff. Crennel serves as the coordinator, while Vrabel coaches the unit’s linebackers. As has been the case in the early 2000s, the linebackers are a strength of Crennel’s defense – and among the premier position groups in the league.
While the Texans have eight linebackers on their roster, the majority of snaps is played by the three starters Benardrick McKinney, Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing. In the wild card round against the Oakland Raiders, McKinney and Cushing played all 75 defensive snaps, while Mercilus played one fewer. And as they have done all year long, all three played multiple roles in Houston’s versatile front seven.
The first two series of the game already show how Houston uses its linebackers in multiple ways to create different looks:
1) 1-10-OAK 7 (11:18) L.Murray up the middle to OAK 8 for 1 yard (A.Hal).
After the Texans’ opening drive ended with a punt, the Raiders took over on their own 7-yard line. They opened the game with an 11-personell set; Bill O’Brien’s team countered with a nickel package (five defensive backs on the field). The front six featured three down-linemen and Houston’s starting linebackers:
Two of the Texans’ linebackers played the down on the line of scrimmage. Whitney Mercilus (#59) aligned on the left defensive side, playing as a 7-technique edge in a two-point stance, while Brian Cushing (#56), also in a two-point stance, was lined up straight over the center (0-technique). Benardrick McKinney (#55) played off the line, five yards opposite the A-gap.
At the snap, Mercilus and Cushing engaged their opposing players – tight end Clive Walford (#88) and center Rodney Hudson (#61), respectively. McKinney, in the meantime, waited for the play to evolve and the blocks to develop before attacking the pocket. While the rookie did not have a direct impact, Mercilus and Cushing did and allowed Andre Hall (#29) to stop the run after only one yard.
2) 2-9-OAK 8 (10:37) (Shotgun) C.Cook pass incomplete short left to S.Roberts (J.Clowney).
The very next play had Oakland quarterback Connor Cook (#8) in an empty shotgun set with the offense spread out wide in a 3x2 formation. Houston used the same personnel as on the previous play but was showing pressure with all six frontline players:
Mercilus once again lined up on the left edge, this time in a 9-technique. He predominantly aligns at the left end of the defensive line but also plays off and on the opposite edge at times. McKinney and Cushing align a little deeper but are both in a position to potentially blitz the pocket. Ultimately, though, neither of the two did that.
Instead, Houston rushed four – Mercilus being one of them – and dropped McKinney and Cushing back to guard the underneath zones in the defense’s cover 2 zone scheme.
3) 2-9-OAK 24 (7:10) (Shotgun) J.Richard left end to OAK 21 for -3 yards (W.Mercilus).
The second play of the Raiders’ second possession again featured a nickel package with three down-linemen and the Texans’ top linebackers on the front end of the defense. And once again, they aligned all over the formation:
Cushing and McKinney were responsible for the edge with Mercilus, who is the defensive signal caller, playing off the line of scrimmage. At the snap, the offensive line pulled to its left, which allowed Mercilus to attack the weak-side A-gap at full speed. Consequently, Rodney Hudson was unable to pick up the blitzing linebacker, which in turned allowed him to chase down running back Jalen Richard (#30) for a loss of yardage – showing great speed in the process.
Obviously, those three plays are only a snapshot of how Houston uses its linebackers. But they already show that the team moves them across the formation to put pressure – both physically and mentally – on the offensive line and the opposing quarterback. They also illustrate some of the unit’s main strengths: They are a versatile group, one that plays fast off the edge and in open space and is aggressive when attacking gaps and opposing players. They are very good in the short and intermediate areas of the field.
In order to move the ball against this multiple-fronted and attacking defense, which also employs a talented defensive line headed by Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney, the Patriots offense needs to be on the top of its game. The offensive line has to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of communication and blocking assignments, while Tom Brady and center David Andrews have to set the protecting schemes correctly. The offense also has to find a way to exploit potential weaknesses – and the above-mentioned aggressiveness could be one of them.
Without a doubt it is a key aspect of how Houston’s linebackers play the position: They attack the offense. Simultaneously, though, it is also an area that the Patriots might want to attack themselves on Saturday as the linebackers at times are not patient enough to let plays fully develop. During the wild card game against the Raiders, this was on display as well.
4) 1-10-HST 20 (2:33) (Shotgun) L.Murray right tackle to HST 14 for 6 yards (A.Hal, B.McKinney).
As noted above, Houston’s linebackers play a quick and aggressive style. It is what makes them so successful but it also exposes potential vulnerabilities for New England to take advantage of. One of those was on display late in the first quarter against an Oakland offense which aligned in a shotgun offset-back formation.
The Texans once again countered with a nickel 3-3-5 package with four players on and two – Cushing and McKinney – off the line of scrimmage:
As soon as the ball was snapped, the Raiders’ offensive line moved to its right with the two off-the-line players reacting accordingly. Even before quarterback Connor Cook handed the ball off to running back Latavius Murray (#28), the duo was already playing downhill to attack potential running lanes:
However, their quick reaction caused a few issues on the play. Cushing overran it a bit and had to readjust his lane to turn further to the inside. This forced him to slow down his momentum and left him in a bad spot against guard Gabe Jackson (#66), who simply overpowered the linebacker. McKinney, in the meantime, was lost in traffic. The rookie had to move around multiple bodies to reach Murray, who by the time he was taken down, had already reached the second level:
The aggressiveness with which Houston’s linebackers play naturally also shows up in the passing game. Against the Raiders it led to a lot of successful defensive plays – Whitney Mercilus had two sacks, for example – but also was a weakness at times; one Oakland was unable to take consistent advantage of, though.
5) 1-10-OAK 43 (14:19) C.Cook pass short middle to M.Crabtree to HST 43 for 14 yards (J.Joseph).
One play the Texans’ linebackers attacking style came back to bite them appeared in the second quarter. The Raiders had their standard 11-personnel package on the field, with Cook under center and a tight end as an additional blocker on the right side of the offensive line.
Houston played the down with one of its most-used packages. Again, the team had five defensive backs on the field and used Mercilus as the left side edge defender opposite Jadaveon Clowney (#90). McKinney and Cushing played off the line:
As soon as the ball was snapped, McKinney, Cushing and safety Andre Hal, who played this down close to the line of scrimmage, immediately started to attack the pocket in anticipation of a running play. This would have given Houston a 7-6 numbers advantage had Cook handed the ball of. Alas, he did not and as a result the underneath zones where left unoccupied:
This gave Cook enough confidence to throw a pass to receiver Michael Crabtree (#15), who was running a slant into the open space. The wideout caught the pass for a pickup of 14 yards. Had Cook placed the ball a bit better, Crabtree might have been able to gain more yards on the play – and possibly even score.
So, what can the Patriots make of this? Generally speaking that aggressiveness can be both a strength and weakness. New England has to find a way to make the latter come forward. Luckily for the team, it has the versatility to do that, which in turn means that the Texans cannot simply attack one part of the offense – in Oakland’s case the running game – and hope to be successful.
As the two plays above illustrate, Houston’s linebackers are quick to react to plays and there are concepts to take advantage of this. Misdirection plays are a good way to start: The offense moves in one direction, while the play develops in another. Late in the second quarter of the teams’ week 3 matchup, the Patriots used this tactic to gain eight yards on a Julian Edelman run.
6) 2-3-NE 21 (1:10) J.Edelman right end pushed ob at NE 29 for 8 yards (K.Jackson).
New England approached the down with 11 personnel on the field, a grouping the Raiders predominately used during the wild card round. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett (#7) aligned under center with the skill position players in a 2x2 set and running back James White (#28) in the backfield:
Prior to the snap, Edelman began to motion from the left side of the formation to its right with cornerback Kareem Jackson, in man-to-man coverage, following him. The play was timed perfectly as Brissett received the snap and immediately handed it off to Edelman on a jet sweep.
However, with the offensive line moving across the play’s direction, the two off-the-line backers McKinney and Max Bullough (#53) reacted and moved with them:
This movement combined with a great sustained block by Martellus Bennett (#88) against Whitney Mercilus created space on the offense’s right for Edelman to operate with:
While New England’s number one wideout gained "only" eight yards on the play, it still shows a concept – misdirection – which the Patriots repeatedly used in week 3 to successfully limit the impact Houston’s talented linebacker corps had on the game.
And since the Texans’ style of play did not change since then – even though Cushing replaced Bullough in the base defensive formations – expect the Patriots to follow a similar script on Saturday. And while Houston’s linebackers might not be as aggressive as they have been against the Connor Cook-led Raiders or the Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots – Tom Brady is simply too good of a quarterback to play him that way –, New England can still use similar schemes to attack Houston’s linebackers.
After all, personnel and opponents change easily. However, mindsets – and aggressiveness is one of them – do not. Just look at this play from Houston’s week 13 game against the Green Bay Packers; a team that also has one of the game’s elite quarterbacks leading its offense:
7) 1-10-HST 11 (8:49) (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass short left to J.Nelson to HST 4 for 7 yards (A.Bouye).
The offensive line moves to its right and both off-the-line players Cushing and McKinney do the same:
The misdirection takes them out of the play and allows the Packers to gain easy yardage on the vacated left offensive side of the field.
Those misdirection concepts open the door for related playcalls. Reverses? End-arounds? Even simple play-action? They are all based on the same underlying ideas, which are creating open spaces by making defenders go in the wrong direction. With the Texans’ linebackers often following their instincts to go with the first read, those plays could have a major impact on the game – and a trickle-down effect on other, more simplistic play calls.
The Patriots have shown in the past that they can pull off all of the above at a high level. And even though they face one of the NFL’s premier linebacking groups on Saturday, they have the versatility and personnel to use one of their major strengths against them.