The New England Patriots’ offense was out of sync for most of its game against the Houston Texans. While it ended up gaining 448 yards and scoring its most points in a single game since Week 8, the unit struggled for most of the night especially when it came to moving the football through the air: Tom Brady completed just 24 of his 47 pass attempts, with the quarterback and his receivers oftentimes not being on the same page.
Considering that the Patriots’ option-based system is built on the quarterback and the pass catchers reading plays the same way, this is a problem — and something former NFL passer and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out during the game:
Been saying this for weeks now for @Patriots offense. Outside of the physical-12 has trust in 1 guy. Edelman. That’s it...and it’s warranted. Watch below. @MikeGiardi @patspulpit #SNFonNBC #Patriots @RochieWBZ @BenVolin pic.twitter.com/Vf8mbaUqXg— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) December 2, 2019
Orlovsky’s analysis is quite interesting, and illustrates how Brady and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett are not reading the play the same way: the quarterback wants his receiver to run a stop-and-go route, but Dorsett does not execute the second part. Instead, he runs a curl that ends 20 yards down the field. Brady, meanwhile, launched a deep pass intended to target the area behind where the curl would stop.
Dorsett, of course, should have reacted appropriately to Brady’s hand signal and run the stop-and-go to give the play a chance at succeeding. An argument can be made, however, that the problem has little to do with trust or talent but more with execution. Time and again on Sunday, the Patriots offense simply failed to do its job which led to breakdowns across the board — from sacks, to drops, to incomplete passes, to turnovers.
Let’s therefore take a look at four plays that illustrate how execution not trust or talent are the main cause of New England’s struggles.
Q1: 3-4-NE 25 (2:05) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left intended for N.Harry INTERCEPTED by B.Roby at NE 28. B.Roby to NE 6 for 22 yards (T.Brady).
Let’s start by looking at the game’s only turnover, an interception thrown by Tom Brady intended for rookie wideout N’Keal Harry. The pick, of course, set up Houston’s first touchdown of the day and shifted momentum towards the home team after the Patriots started the game fairly well and took a 3-0 lead. The play in question, meanwhile, came after a short 6-yard pass that put the team in manageable third down territory.
Needing four yards to move the sticks, the Patriots aligned in an empty 2x3 formation with a trips alignment to the right following a motion by Julian Edelman (#11) that indicated the Texans were in man-to-man coverage. Edelman himself played a big role on the play even though he was not targeted: Houston paid special attention to him, which in turn created space in the middle of the field to potentially exploit — something New England tried to do:
With Edelman drawing middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney (#55) to the offensive right side, and with Jakobi Meyers (#16) running an in-route deeper down the field, Brady (#12) and Harry (#15) had the space to turn the receiver’s slant route into first down. The call and play design were perfect and the execution worked in New England’s favor as well — at least initially as Harry was beat to the inside at the top of his route, allowing Bradley Roby (#21) to pick off the pass.
The call itself was a good one, however, and the Patriots simply failed to execute: had Harry been more physical on his in-cutting route, the worst-case scenario would have been an incompletion and subsequent punt. With the rookie getting beat out by Roby for inside position and by extension the ball, however, New England turned the football over.
Q1: 2-7-NE 28 (:01) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete deep left to J.Edelman.
Two plays after Houston’s touchdown, the Patriots found themselves in a 2nd and 7 situation with another passing play being called. New England again had 11-personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers — on the field, aligned in a 2x2 formation with James White (#28) joining Tom Brady in the backfield. Houston, meanwhile, countered with a zone coverage look this time.
After the snap, Brady originally looked to the right side of the formation where White and rookies Jakobi Meyers (slot) and N’Keal Harry (perimeter) had originally aligned. However, with White covered and the two youngsters running nearly identical deep routes against the Texans’ Cover 3 defense, the quarterback was forced to look elsewhere to distribute the football: his most reliable pass catcher, Julian Edelman, became the intended target after Brady’s original read did not develop.
While Edelman was jammed on his out-route, there was a window for Brady to throw the football to. However, the quarterback simply put too much air under the ball and it fell incomplete. New England’s passer was unable to make a difficult throw, but he could also have made an easier one if he had scanned the field more thoroughly after his initial reads led him to Edelman: tight end Matt LaCosse (#83) was open in the flat for what would have been a short completion and maybe even a new set of downs.
Once again, execution was a problem: Meyers and Harry were likely not supposed to end up in the same area, with Brady delivering an inaccurate pass after his original targets were unavailable — all while making it harder for himself with going to Edelman instead of an open LaCosse.
Q2: 3-7-HST 48 (3:18) (Shotgun) T.Brady sacked at NE 48 for -4 yards (sack split by J.Martin and Z.Cunningham).
Facing a 3rd and 7 late in the second quarter, the Patriots again aligned in a 2x2 shotgun formation with Tom Brady and James White in the backfield. Houston, just as it did on the previous third down play we looked at, countered with a man-to-man defense but did rush five on a delayed linebacker blitz. The play, however, broke down due to right tackle Marcus Cannon (#61) being unable to hold his block against Texans edge rusher Jacob Martin (#54):
By the time Brady had to step up in the pocket to evade the pressure, the routes were actually developing quite well as both Jakobi Meyers on a crossing pattern and White on an out-cut towards the flat had a step on their respective defenders. If the quarterback had had more time to throw the football, he might have been able to hit one of the two to keep the series alive. Alas, Brady was sacked for a 4-yard loss to end the play and drive.
This time, the execution breakdown occurred along the offensive line: with Cannon, who surrendered 1.5 sacks on the day, being unable to keep Martin away from the quarterback long enough to let the play develop, Brady had to take a sack after originally stepping up in the pocket. At that time, however, the windows had closed again which led to the takedown.
Q3: 4-1-HST 42 (7:14) T.Brady pass incomplete short left to M.Sanu (J.Joseph).
The final play we take a look at was the Patriots’ doomed fourth down attempt in the third quarter. After Mohamed Sanu came up just short of the sticks on the previous third down play and while down 14-3, New England elected to keep the offense on the field — and the unit came close to delivering if not for football being the proverbial game of inches: Sanu (#14) was unable to hold onto the football on a play-action pass:
The play itself was a good call from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: the Texans clogged the lanes in the middle of the field to prevent a quarterback sneak while simultaneously also taking away the possibility of a run up the middle. A play-action pass into the area behind the defensive line was therefore a sound decision, and one that was initially well executed as Brady had time to read the field and deliver the pass towards Sanu.
However, the veteran wide receiver was unable to hold onto the football even though it was placed well by Brady. The catch was not an easy one to make, yes, but a player of Sanu’s abilities should still be able to haul it in — especially in a situation like this. What did not help him, though, was the fact that Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham (#41) might have thrown his timing off just a bit by chipping him before the ball arrived.
Cunningham could have been called for illegal contact beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage, but Sanu still should have made the catch to keep the drive alive.
While the four examples presented here are a small sample size, they do show that the Patriots were in a position to make more plays against the Texans on Sunday but simply were unable to execute. Talent and trust (and sometimes Tom Brady) are popular scapegoats to point too, but at the end of the day New England’s offense simply needs to become better at carrying out its assignments — whether it is blocking, running routes, or throwing the football.