The New England Patriots needed almost every available second to defeat their week three opponent, the Houston Texans. The back-and-forth battle saw the visitors take a 33-28 lead late in the fourth quarter. The defending world champions led by reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady had one final chance to win the game – all they needed to do was drive 75 yards and score a touchdown.
75 yards they drove and a touchdown they scored. Let's take a look at the film to see how exactly New England was able to do just that.
1-10-NE 25 (2:24) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to D.Amendola (A.Hal). HST-A.Hal was injured during the play.
Following a Texans kickoff – they had just scored a field goal to go up by five points – that resulted in a touchback, the Patriots started what was likely their final offensive possession of the game at their own 25-yard line. As coordinator Josh McDaniels noted in the “Do Your Job: Part 2” documentary, the team wants its best players on the field for high-pressure situations. A do or die drive late in the game certainly qualifies.
It was therefore not surprise to see the team start its possession with an 11-personnel package consisting of James White (#28) at running back, Rob Gronkowski (#87) at tight end, and wide receivers Brandin Cooks (#14), Chris Hogan (#15). and Danny Amendola (#80). The group would remain on the field for all eight plays of the Patriots' potentially game-winning series – the first play of which ended in an incompletion.
Quarterback Tom Brady (#12) attempted a pass intended for Amendola, who ran an in-route from the right-side slot. And while the pass was placed very well, the wide receiver was unable to make the catch: Houston safety Andre Hal (#29) reacted perfectly to the play by reading Brady's eyes. He was able to make contact with Amendola the moment the pass arrived and the pass fell incomplete.
2-20-NE 15 (2:11) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to R.Gronkowski to NE 23 for 8 yards (M.Gilchrist, K.Jackson).
On the ensuing 2nd and 10, Brady tried to hit Cooks on a deep in-cut but the pass again was broken up by the Texans defense. To make matters even worse, center David Andrews (#60) was also flagged for offensive holding. The penalty moved the Patriots back to their own 15-yard line, from where they started their next attempt to gain a first down on 2nd and 20.
New England approached the play in an empty 2x3 set with a slot formation to the offensive left and trips to the right:
Houston countered with a cover 2, man-to-man defense that played around 10 yards off New England's receivers due to the situation. However, that allowed them a free release – and the Patriots took advantage: Only 1.8 seconds passed from the snap until the football left Tom Brady's hands towards Rob Gronkowksi, who ran a slant route from the formation's Y-spot. Brady hit him for a gain of eight yards.
3-12-NE 23 (2:00) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski to NE 38 for 15 yards (Z.Cunningham; M.Gilchrist).
The completion to Gronkowski set up the Patriots with 3rd and 12 from their own 23-yard line. On the down, New England used the same basic formation as on the previous play. However, the team ran a different set of routes from it:
As opposed to the 2nd down, the Texans opted to be more physical on the line of scrimmage on this particular play – especially in regards to Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, two of Tom Brady's favorite third down targets. Still, despite linebacker Zach Cunningham (#41) immediately hitting the NFL's best tight end after his release and playing close downfield coverage, Gronkowski was able to make the catch.
There are two reasons for that: 1) Brady placed the ball perfectly to a spot where only his intended target could catch it (out and in front). 2) New England's left-side route combination cleared up space for Gronkowski's crosser:
Running back James White, aligned on the boundary in the side slot formation, ran a hitch around six yards down the field. This, in turn, forced the defender in coverage – Marcus Gilchrist (#21) – to move up towards him. Simultaneously, Brandin Cooks attacked the left-side seam, which moved cornerback Kareem Jackson (#21) up and freed up an area close to the sticks for Gronkowski to exploit.
The big tight end did just that for a gain of 15 yards and a new set of downs.
1-10-NE 38 (1:33) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to B.Cooks ran ob at HST 44 for 18 yards.
After the 3rd down conversion, the Patriots moved James White into the backfield to align to the left of Tom Brady in the shotgun set the team used on the ensuing 1st and 10. Other than that, the formation changed just slightly. While Brandin Cooks was moved further towards the boundary on the left side, the skill position players on the right remained in the same trips alignment:
The Texans countered with a variation of cover 4 that allowed them to double-cover Danny Amendola. With Corey Moore (#43) patrolling over the top near the offensive left hashmark, the two outside receivers – as well as White and Gronkowski, who chipped J.J. Watt (#99) before releasing into the flat – were left in one-on-one off-man coverage.
To counter Houston's defense, Cooks and Hogan ran identical routes: They attacked deep before coming back towards Brady around 17 yards down the field. The quarterback did initially not look to Cooks and instead had his eyes focused his right side. With Amendola double-covered, though, Brady decided to throw to the other side of the formation.
There, Cooks had been able to shake Kareem Jackson at the top of his route (luckily for him, he was not flagged for the push-off). With no defender within five yards, Cooks made the easy catch for a gain of 18 yards and a new set of downs. Furthermore, the first-year Patriot smartly stepped out of bounds to stop the clock with 1:28 left in the contest.
1-10-HST 44 (1:28) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady sacked at HST 48 for -4 yards (M.Gilchrist). FUMBLES (M.Gilchrist), recovered by NE-D.Andrews at NE 48. D.Andrews to NE 48 for no gain (J.Watt).
After two big plays, the Patriots went backwards on their next one. The Texans brought pressure off Tom Brady's left side on a well-disguised corner blitz by Marcus Gilchrist: Instead of the safety dropping into coverage of James White, linebacker Benardrick McKinney did just that. Gilchrist, meanwhile, ran a stunt around him to attack the left-side A-gap.
With the play initially looking like a three-man rush, New England used two double-blocks up front: Left guard Joe Thuney (#72) and left tackle Nate Solder (#77) both blocked Houston defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney (#90), while David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason (#69) took care of Whitney Mercilus (#59), who aligned in a 0-technique.
With both Thuney and Andrews occupied, Gilchrist was free to get to the quarterback and knock the ball loose. Fortunately for New England, the ball fell right into the arms of Andrews, who at that point had already turned around. Even though he dropped it at first, the third-year man was able to fall onto the football to set up 2nd and 18.
Even though the sack was the fifth one of the game and the offensive line had some noticeable issues against Houston's talented defensive front, the unit generally played some very good football on the final drive. Thuney and Solder in particular displayed sound technique and good chemistry, especially when it comes to defending stunts. A step into the right direction.
2-18-NE 48 (1:00) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete deep middle to B.Cooks.
Following Andrews' fumble recovery, New England was unable to gain any ground on 2nd down either. Playing from their 1x3 shotgun formation with White aligned in the backfield, Brady opted to attack the deep part of the field by going towards Brandin Cooks. While the speedy wideout was able to outrun Kareem Jackson, the Texans defended him like they usually did: with an additional defensive back shaded over the top.
In this particular scenario it was Corey Moore. The safety was in tight coverage down the field and able to outmuscle the smaller Cooks for the football. Moore initially made a solid play on the football but luckily for the Patriots failed to complete the catch as he came down from the jump ball. Instead of a game-ending interception, the pass simply fell incomplete to set up 3rd and long.
3-18-NE 48 (:54) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep right to D.Amendola to HST 25 for 27 yards (E.Pleasant; A.Hal) [J.Watt].
Coming out of the Texans' second time out, taken after the deep incompletion, the Patriots offense again used its standard two-minute personnel. This time, however, the skill position players aligned in a 2x2 set with Cooks and Amendola in a slot formation to the left, and Gronkowski and Hogan in a variation on the right:
Despite the Texans only rushing four players, New England initially used six blockers as Gronkowski joined the offensive linemen with again chipping J.J. Watt. This gave Houston's secondary a distinct numbers advantage down the field – and early into the play it looked as if the visitors would be able to take advantage:
However, despite the four-man line defending the first down marker, the Texans still played a basic cover 1 man coverage scheme with a safety over the top, as usual shaded towards Cooks' side of the field. Fellow safety Andre Hall served as a “robber” in the middle of the field, reading the quarterback's eyes. This, in turn, allowed Danny Amendola to simply run by him as he went into this crossing route:
With Hal focused on Brady instead of the receiver, Amendola was able to gain some separation – enough for the quarterback to trust him to make a play. And make a play the veteran did. After having shaken free from safety Eddie Pleasant (#35), the veteran wideout was able to high-point the football perfectly and come down with a catch for a gain of 27 yards.
Not only did Amendola once again display why he deserves the “clutch” label by running a perfect route in a high pressure situation and following up with a catch, Brady also played the down very well. With the down and distance leading to a longer route development time, the quarterback had to buy additional time in the pocket before releasing the pass. He was able to do that masterfully:
Brady slid slightly to his left, which in turn froze Hal in the middle of the field, before moving up and stepping into the throw. Not only did this allow him to get enough air under the football, it also created the split-second needed before Watt was able to get to him. And even though the All-Pro defensive lineman registered a hit on the play, the offensive line did another fine job to keep pressure of Brady as long as needed.
1-10-HST 25 (:29) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to B.Cooks for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN [J.Clowney].
The completion to Amendola, after which New England did not use its final time out – set up the Patriots with 1st and 10 on the Houston 25-yard line. With the game clock under 30 seconds, the team was still in a position to get multiple play off before time expired but instead it went for the jackpot. To do that, the Patriots used the same basic formation they had run on the previous play – the only difference being Hogan aligning farther to the boundary on the right side:
Houston, defending the end zone and not the first down marker at the 15-yard line, played its safeties deep in a cover 2 zone scheme and its cornerbacks with a seven-yard cushion. The Patriots used a familiar plan to attack: While they kept Rob Gronkowski in to help right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (#68) against J.J. Watt, the wide receivers – as usual Cooks, Amendola and Hogan – ran three vertical routes.
This put stress on the two deep safeties while simultaneously freeing up James White underneath as a safety blanket. Brady did not need to go to his running back, however, because as soon as he saw Kareem Jackson not follow Cooks stride-for-stride, he knew where to go:
With the safeties backpedaling into the endzone, the one responsible for defending the offensive left-side zone, Corey Moore, was just a little late to come over to stop the deep completion to Cooks. The problem, from the defender's perspective, was the possibility of a deep completion down the seam to Amendola. As a result, Moore stayed in his position long enough for the Patriots to take advantage.
The defender would still have been in a good position to break up the pass, though, as he did react quickly. However, the football had been thrown perfectly a) in terms of velocity and b) to a spot where only the intended receiver was able to make a play on it. Cooks did just that and was able to turn around just in time while displaying textbook body control to secure the catch and keep both feet in bounds:
The timing of the play was not only critical in terms of the actual reception but of the football leaving the quarterback's hands as well. After all, another stunt by Houston's defensive line put pressure on the quarterback: Defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney was able to power through left guard Joe Thuney to get to Brady. Had the future Hall of Fame passer waited an instant longer, Clowney might have been able to knock down the pass. However, he did not and the Patriots were able to go ahead 34-33.
A successful two-point conversion, again to Cooks, gave New England a three-point lead – one it would not let slip out of its hands en route to a 36-33 victory.