The New England Patriots’ passing game has not been up to its usual standards over the last few weeks. Be it because of the personnel turnover at the wide receiver and tight end positions or inconsistent offensive line play, Tom Brady and company have failed to regularly challenge teams through the air for continued stretches of play. Luckily, however, a chance to get into a rhythm and take another step forward presents itself this week.
11 games into its season, the Houston Texans’ defense has been underwhelming so far. Ranking only 20th in the league in scoring with an average of 22.5 points surrendered per contest, the unit has had its fair share of struggles particularly in one area: the passing game. Houston is currently ranked just 26th in DVOA — a metric created by Football Outsiders to basically compare plays across the NFL based on situation — with a score of +20.9%.
The Patriots, for comparison, rank first in pass defense DVOA with -50.2%: teams are only half as productive against New England when throwing the football than they are against the average team. Versus the Texans, however, clubs are actually better when it comes to advancing the ball through the air. Needless to say that the Patriots should try this approach as well on Sunday, especially considering the personnel Houston has at its disposal.
With former first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney traded to the Seattle Seahawks before the season, and with fellow standout defender J.J. Watt on season-ending injured reserve because of a pectoral injury, the Texans’ pass rush has suffered this year. Overall, the team ranks only 29th in the NFL with 22 sacks and is even worse when it comes to pressuring the quarterback (i.e. sacking, hitting, and moving off the spot: Houston is dead-last in the league with a disruption rate of 17.8%; the Patriots are sixth with 27.1%.
Of course, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made sure to point out that the Texans’ defense still presents a challenge during a media conference call earlier this week: “The one thing you know is they’re going to be sound, they’re going to play really good fundamental football, they don’t beat themselves, they rarely give up big plays, they do a great job of communicating and disguising what they’re doing.”
“They’re well coached, they play hard, they’re never out of position and they do the things that they’re being asked to do within the scheme extremely well and they play physical,” he added. “The one thing that you know you’re going to have to do is you’re going to have to consistently execute against this team because they’re not going to give it to you in three plays. You’re going to have to string together eight, 10, 12 plays of good, solid execution.”
Despite McDaniels’ flattering words, however, there is no denying that the Texans defense has struggled at times this season and that its rankings are reflective of the inconsistent play that has plagued the unit throughout the season so far. And with the pass rush having a hard time impacting the game in a meaningful way, the team’s secondary has also been unable to consistently keep up with its assignments.
Neither the cornerbacks — led by Johnathan Joseph, Gareon Conley and in-season acquisition Vernon Hargreaves III — nor the safeties — primarily veterans Tashaun Gipson Sr. and a Justin Reid — have played particularly well this season. This, in turn, has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 268 of 406 pass attempts so far this season for 2,852 yards, 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions for a passer rating of 101.0.
Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots in the early 2000s, plays primarily a zone scheme but is willing to adapt depending on the game plan. Against New England and a pass catching group that has had its weaknesses when facing press-man coverage, Crennel will likely call more man-to-man concepts but it is questionable whether or not his defensive backs will be able to execute it properly on a down-to-down basis.
This is all good news for a Patriots offense that has not been able to get into much of a rhythm over the last few weeks. The lack of pass rush should help an offensive line that visibly improved last week with left tackle Isaiah Wynn — a player that missed the first two days of practice this week because of an illness — back in the lineup, while the struggles in the secondary should allow New England’s pass catchers to find some openings.
All in all, the Patriots should therefore come out slinging the football even though the aerial attack has not necessarily been the team’s strong suit recently. But with the signs of life that the unit — especially quarterback Tom Brady — showed against the Dallas Cowboys last week in combination with Houston’s struggling pass defense, the game plan will likely include a considerable portion of pass plays.
Of course, however, in the end it all comes down to execution as McDaniels pointed out: “You’re going to have to stay out of long yardage, avoid penalties and negative plays to give yourself an opportunity to put together scoring drives. That’s the challenge. Playing down there is always an extra burden because of the noise. This is a really good unit. We’re going to have to have a great week of practice and preparation for them.”