The New England Patriots did not play their sharpest game of the season against the Houston Texans. Turnovers, missed assignments, mental errors and – needless to say – a very good performance by Houston’s defense all had an impact on the Patriots’ at times sloppy day. In the end, though, New England still won rather decisively and advanced to the AFC Championship Game.
One of the victory’s standout performers was running back Dion Lewis, who amassed 188 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns (he also had two fumbles, though, losing one). Lewis became the first player in NFL history to register a receiving, a rushing and a kick return touchdown in the same postseason game. The latter furthermore set a franchise record for longest playoff kick return.
Let’s take a closer look at it and find out how New England’s special teams unit was able to allow Lewis to run a kickoff back 98 yards.
N.Novak kicks 63 yards from HST 35 to NE 2. D.Lewis for 98 yards, TOUCHDOWN. 1st postseason kickoff return TD in franchise history. New England Patriots at 1:15
Late in the first quarter, the Texans have just scored their first points of the day on a Nick Novak field goal. Thus, New England was leading 7-3 when Novak executed the subsequent kickoff – and 18 seconds after the ball left his foot, the Patriots led 13-3 (later adding the extra point to make it a 14-3 game).
New England had a 3x3 formation as the first line of blockers on the 50-yard line. Behind that the team used two 1x1 lines and Dion Lewis (#33) as the lone deep returner standing on the goal line:
As the ball was kicked off it sailed towards the Patriots’ left sideline. Consequently, the right side of the team’s coverage team had to move to the other half of the field to set up its blocks. They – as well as the players already on the left – did a good job of that as Lewis had both teammates and open space in front of him when he fielded the kick:
On Lewis’ side of the hashmarks, the Patriots had a 9-8 numbers advantage, which allowed them to set up the first line of blocking. Three Texans were still unblocked but by the time the returner started to head upfield, they were ultimately taken care of by the three-man wedge of James Develin (#46), Geneo Grissom (#92) and Matthew Slater (#18):
Those three blocks allowed Lewis to make an in-cut and head towards an open lane to his right. At that point, Texans safety and former Patriot Don Jones (#20) had beaten Patrick Chung (#23) to the inside and had a free shot at Lewis. However a small but quickly executed route-adjustment to the left allowed New England’s star running back to run by Jones and head upfield:
With the rest of the right side blockers holding up, Lewis was able to take advantage of the lane in front of him to gain additional yardage. He was then faced with the decision whether to turn out towards the boundary or move in towards the middle of the field:
With Shea McClellin (#58) sustaining his block, two players in front of Lewis were open to potentially take him down: kicker Nick Novak (#8) on the left and cornerback Robert Nelson (#32) on the right. Lewis read the situation perfectly and turned to the right, where Nelson’s momentum – created by mirroring Lewis’ movements – carried him towards the boundary:
This slowed Nelson down substantially and forced him to wait for Lewis to make a move before trying to tackle him. The returner did just that and the defender tried to tackle him low. However, Lewis was moving at full speed and thus in a better position; he simply ran through the tackle without being affected too much:
With Nelson beat, all Lewis had to do was outrun the defender McClellin was originally blocking – linebacker Brian Peters (#52) – to get to the end zone. With New England’s blockers turning around quickly to head upfield as well, Peters and running back Tyler Ervin (#34) were left as the only players originally unaccounted for. They were still not able to catch Lewis, though, who returned the kick to the endzone.
Not only was the second of Lewis’ three touchdowns the Patriots’ first ever postseason kick return score, it also gave the team a 14-3 lead. With the team turning the ball over on its next two possessions, this turned out to be some much-needed cushion. And beyond all that, it is a great example of Lewis’ vision as a runner, his ability to make quick moves, and all the little parts that constitute a successful kick return.