While most of the questions coming out of the New England Patriots’ 28-22 loss against the Houston Texans center around the team’s offense, the team’s defense also had its struggles in certain areas. While it surrendered only 276 yards and allowed its opponent to hold the football for only 25 minutes, the top-ranked unit in the NFL did give up four passing touchdowns and failed to get off the field on six of the Texans’ 11 third down attempts.
For Bill Belichick, however, a different down presented a bigger problem on Sunday as he pointed out during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni and Fauria Show. At one point, the Patriots’ head coach was asked about team’s copying each other to find success against New England’s defense, with the Baltimore Ravens’ running game as an example. Belichick’s answer to the question pointed to a different problem, though.
“Certainly the running game had a lot of elements to the Baltimore running game, but that really wasn’t a big problem in the game. The bigger problem for us was second down,” said Belichick. The hosts unfortunately did not follow up on this nugget from the future Hall of Famer and instead went on to talk about the offense, but a look at the numbers shows why Belichick might be inclined to point to second down as an issue for his defense in Houston.
Not counting a kneel-down by Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson at the end of the game, the Patriots faced 17 second downs on Sunday night — roughly the same as their season average heading into the contest (17.3) — with the offense having to travel 9.5 yards for a new set of downs. This number actually is better than the season average of 8.5 yards-to-go, pointing to some solid play by New England’s defense on first down.
The Texans were able to gain 7.0 yards on the average second down, however, gaining 73.7% of the yards they needed to go in order to prolong a series. Through the first 12 games of the season, this number was at a comparatively low 62.4% as opponents managed to gain only 5.3 yards on the average second down. This also had a trickle-down effect on the aforementioned third down situations.
Heading into the game, teams were able to convert just 18.9% of their third down tries against New England with the Ravens’ 50% mark the best against the defense throughout the first 12 weeks of the season. Houston did surpass that number, though, in large parts because it found itself in more favorable situations compared to other teams — which leads back to second down as the issue Belichick mentioned on Monday evening.
As a result, the Texans had to travel just 7.6 yards on average to move the sticks on third down opposed to 8.7 during the Patriots’ other 12 games. How significant is this? The Texans converted only one of their five third downs of 8+ yards, but they were much more productive in shorter situations by going five-of-six. Had New England been better at limiting yardage on second down, the success rate on third down might have looked differently as well.