New England Patriots alumnus Bill O’Brien is a proud member of the not-so-exclusive fraternity of “half their (the Texans) coaching staff” that’s coached in New England, and if this year’s AFC Divisional Round game was any indication, O’Brien’s one of the only coaches to hit Tom Brady with the right combination of deception and speed to significantly throw off Brady’s game.
Quick, which quarterback’s stat line from the Patriots-Texans playoff game this past year belongs to Tom Brady, and which one belongs to Brock Osweiler?
QB1: 23 for 40, 197 passing yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs
QB2: 18 for 38, 287 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INTs
(OK, fine, 1 is Osweiler, 2 is Brady. Not TB12’s finest hour, to be sure.)
Thanks to some ball-hawking defense and the newly back-in-action Dion Lewis setting an NFL record with a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, AND a kickoff return touchdown, the Patriots cruised to a 34-16 final score that was, as they say, much closer than the box score says it was. Out of Brady’s 40 dropbacks, he was pressured on 18 of them, which is basically every other snap if your math’s not great, and Tom took 8 shots and 2 sacks on the night. How’d a Texans defense without the best defensive end in the game pull that off?
SI’s MMQB took a fascinating dive into how the Texans’ front-seven gets such steady, brutal pressure on the best quarterback in the game, and if you remember Rex Ryan’s defenses in the glory days of the New York Jets (stop laughing; I’m being serious), it’s remarkably similar.
To bamboozle Brady, the Texans frequently lined up five defenders on the line of scrimmage, AKA the “Diamond” defense (their nickname). To hear Houston linebacker Whitney Mercilus tell it, “That front allows me to use my ability against a lesser athlete than myself,” says Mercilus, who since being drafted in the first round out of Illinois in 2012 has grown into one of the league’s most versatile pass rushers. “There are athletic offensive linemen out there, but if you match them up with somebody who’s quicker and smaller, that’s where you change the game. And that’s what we are, a matchup defense.”
Where it gets really tricky is in passing situations where all five players in that Diamond front are complete wild cards - they may rush, they may drop into coverage (as the Texans did occasionally in the divisional round, showing a five-man rush and then only rushing three and still getting pressure), a defender on the line may cross over a defender to create a lane for another blitzer, and it may result in an offensive lineman thinking he’s going to be blocking a 300-pound defensive tackle, only to see someone like Whitney Mercilus, Bernardrick McKinney, Brian Cushing, or JaDeveon Clowney coming at them from out of the corner of their eye. Good times, right?
Bill Belichick, as you may have guessed, has seen this look before, way before a whole two generations of Patriots fans were even born.
“Buddy [Ryan] really popularized the five-down look in the early-, mid-’80s,” says seven-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick, as good a source as you’ll find on just about any defensive subject. “He played it a lot in his base defense. His thing was really to get Dan Hampton [with the Bears], and then Reggie White [with the Eagles] on the nose. So part of it was the [structure of having] five-down, but part of it was to take the best player he had and put him on the center.”
“Back in [Ryan’s] day, you didn’t have the frequent substitutions we do now; for the most part, the same 11 guys were on the field on third down as on first down,” says Belichick. “By the later ’80s, there were more three-receiver sets [and thus] more nickel defenses.
“When I was with the Giants [in the 1980s] we ran five-man out of a 3–4 [defense]. When I went to Cleveland [in the early ’90s] we played a four-man D-line in nickel schemes, but we built a package with a linebacker, Clay Matthews, over the center. We could stem in and out with the linebacker—we could be in five-down, then walk [Matthews] out and be in a 4–2, then back in a 5–1, then in a 4–2. . . .” In the passing game, “five-man changes a lot of protection rules, particularly for the back and the quarterback, especially if you have players on the line of scrimmage who can drop into coverage. If an offensive tackle goes out to block [one of those five players], but then the defender drops into coverage and you blitz up the middle, you create some mismatches.”
Belichick would know; he still deploys diamond fronts in New England. He goes on, dissertating on five-man fronts against various concepts, reaching all the way to read-option offenses in college schemes—then he grinds to a halt. “I mean, we can talk about this all day,” he says with a smile.
And then there’s this - just like Rexy used to do, faking like a big old blitz is coming, and then dropping 8 players, including a couple big boys, into coverage:
Whatever they land on—hybrid-man or zone—they’re fond of eight-man coverages, like the one they used on Mercilus’s postseason sack of Brady. Altogether, the Texans dropped two linemen back in coverage and rushed only three about 30% of the time they were in diamond last season.
The Texans showed a diamond front and dropped into eight-man coverage six times against New England in January. On those plays they sacked Brady twice and gave up just one completion, for seven yards.
To try and crack that code pre-snap, the Patriots frequently send receivers or backs in motion to tip them off as to whether the defense is running man or zone, according to Danny Amendola. New England also can split a running back or a tight end outside, much like they did in the Super Bowl against Seattle when Rob Gronkowski ended up matched one-on-one in man-to-man with linebacker KJ Wright, another 101-level way to diagnose man vs. zone.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter when, as SI’s Andy Benoit notes, some of the Texans’ rushes barely took two seconds to get to Brady. As in, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, BAM.
Houston comes up to Massachusetts in Week 3.