The New England Patriots defense thrives by eliminating the top threat in the opposing offense. The Patriots will focus on stopping Houston Texans RB Lamar Miller on rushing downs, and covering WR DeAndre Hopkins on passing downs.
But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick believes in playing situational football and understands that there are certain scenarios where the Texans rely on other players- specifically the tight ends.
Texans TE Ryan Griffin has “done a good job for them,” Belichick said. “He’s made some good catches in critical situations – two-minute, third down, red area. They’ve gone to him in a couple of key situations, which tells you they are either trying to get him the ball or have a lot of confidence in him, or both, however you want to look at it.
“He’s been productive for them really pretty much in every game in the passing game, both down the field and on short to immediate type routes. He has a good route tree and he’s definitely evolved and been one of their primary targets more so than earlier in the year where the tight ends were getting fewer balls.”
Griffin has taken a back seat to TE C.J. Fiedorowicz this year, but he was one of two tight ends to record 50+ yards against the Patriots this season. He’s also one of the Texans most productive players in high leverage situations.
Belichick highlights the two-minute drill, third down, and red zone as “critical situations,” so let’s evaluate how the Texans use their players in these scenarios over the past eight games (half a season).
With two minutes left in the 2nd and 4th quarters, the Texans rely on the usual suspects; WR DeAndre Hopkins leads the team with 7 targets, 6 receptions, 104 yards, and 2 touchdowns; WR Will Fuller ranks second with 6th targets, but only has 2 receptions for 20 yards; Griffin and Fiedorowicz have four targets each, three receptions each, and 45 and 30 yards respectively.
In other words, the biggest receivers in the Texans offense remain the focus in the two-minute drill. The big difference comes at running back; Texans RB Jonathan Grimes is the team’s preferred receiving back with 27 yards, versus just 7 yards for starter Lamar Miller.
Additionally, QB Brock Osweiler deserves notice for his scrambling ability, with 17 rushing yards on 5 attempts. He has only completed 53.8% of his passes, though, so accuracy is a concern.
Third (and Fourth) Down
The Texans look to Griffin a lot on third and fourth down. He has caught 11 of 12 targets over the past eight games, which represents the highest catch rate and the second most receptions. Hopkins leads the team with 12 receptions (and an excellent 11 first down conversions) on 20 targets.
Fuller has 10 receptions on 15 targets, while Fiedorowicz has 8 receptions on 16 targets. While the Patriots have to be away of all the Texans targets, Griffin, Fiedorowicz, and Griffin have only converted first downs on 14 of their 29 combined receptions (less than 50%!) and 43 combined targets.
RBs Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue (9 combined rushing attempts for 5 total yards) take a backseat to Grimes, who has 66 rushing yards on 11 attempts, along with 9 yards as a receiver.
Osweiler loves throwing short of the sticks, so as long as Hopkins is covered on third down, the Patriots just have to ensure they tackle the receiver to force a stop. The quarterback is also a threat to scramble, with 65 rushing yards and 5 conversions on 8 attempts.
Griffin and Fiedorowicz lead the Texans with 3 red zone receptions apiece, although they have just one touchdown each. Fiedorowicz leads the team with 7 targets, while Griffin ranks 4th with 4 targets. Hopkins and Fuller have 5 targets each, but they’ve only recorded 1 reception, each.
Inside the 10 yards line, Fiedorowicz (6 targets/3 receptions/16 yards/1 touchdown), Hopkins (5/1/2/1), and Fuller (4/0/0/0) are the primary targets. Griffin (2/1/6/1) is less of a target.
Miller and Blue run a lot in the red zone, but aren’t very productive from the 10-to-20 yard range. Osweiler is a threat to run on goal line plays with 3 touchdowns on 3 carries. Inside the 10 yard line, the Texans have converted 24 running back carries into 5 touchdowns. In comparison, the Patriots running backs have 35 carries over their past eight games and have 7 touchdowns (all by RB LeGarrette Blount). Both teams are converting roughly 20% of their inside-the-10 carries into touchdowns.
Griffin is a huge part of the Texans offense in critical situations, but it’s clear that Hopkins is the top dog. If the Patriots can do a good job of covering Hopkins, then the other players have a much worse success and conversion rate.
Griffin catches everything in his direction, but they rarely convert into successful plays. Fuller rarely catches the ball in these situations, despite having an incredibly high number of opportunities.
Fiedorowicz is the second-biggest threat on the offense in critical situations, which puts a lot of weight on S Patrick Chung’s shoulders. Fiedorowicz was held without a catch in week 3. Chung should be up to the task.