New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for praising opponents regardless of their status. The Houston Texans, entering the two teams’ Week 11 matchup with a 2-7 record and as one of the worst teams in the NFL, are a good example for that. And yet, there was a clear difference when Belichick spoke about the team’s offense compared to its defense judged by his opening remarks during Thursday’s media conference call.
While Belichick said 124 words about the Texans offense and the challenge the unit presents, his statement about the team’s defense was limited to only a fraction of that — the following 11 words: “Defensively, as always, Romeo [Crennel]’s teams are sound, well-disciplined, good fundamentally.”
Belichick limiting his praise to a generic minimum should not be a surprise given how the Texans defense has performed so far this season. The unit is ranked 26th in scoring (27.2 points/game), 27th in third down rate (47.9%), 29th in yards per play (6.1) and dead last in both takeaways (5) and turnover percentage (5.4%). Houston’s defense also is ranked near the bottom in the major advanced statistical categories.
The Texans are 27th in success rate (49.3%), 28th in DVOA (10.0%) and 32nd in EPA per play (0.184). They are just not a good defensive team, and one the Patriots should be able to find some success against on Sunday.
With that said, let’s find out what New England has to do to effectively challenge its opponent this week.
Run the ball
Led by running backs Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead as well as dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, the Patriots have been one of the best rushing teams in the NFL this season. New England has averaged 161.1 yards on the ground over its first nine games, and simultaneously built its entire offensive identity around attacking opponents with the running game — be it by incorporating read-option designs or heavily featuring play-action concepts.
The Patriots will have a prime opportunity to move the ball on the ground this week as well given that the Texans, and it has to be said in this clarity, are just terrible when it comes to trying to stop the run. No other defense has surrendered up more rushing attempts (291), yards (1,507) and yards per attempt (5.2) on the ground this season, and the unit is also ranked last in the league in both EPA (0.100) and DVOA (5.5%).
While some of the volume statistics are tied to the game scripts — the Texans have trailed by double-digits at the half in four of their nine games — the fact remains that the team has not been able to effectively slow down opponents when they have taken to the ground. New England is expected to do this as well, and there should be plenty of openings for Harris and company to exploit.
While the players up front get moved off the spot too easily, the biggest issue for Houston might just have been the play of the team’s second-level linebackers. The group has struggled to react to misdirection or zone concepts, and has also not been able to fill the gaps up front properly. Offenses have repeatedly taken advantage of this, with the Cleveland Browns the latest benefactor.
Cleveland gained 233 yards on just 39 carries in Week 10 with both of the Browns’ backs, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, being able to cross the 100-yard barrier and ending up gaining an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. It was a bloodbath, and the following example shows why:
The Texans were aligned in a 4-3 under front with five players on the line of scrimmage and linebackers Zach Cunningham (#41) and Tyrell Adams (#50) playing off. Both of them had a big role in the play turning into a 9-yard touchdown run: they flowed with the offensive line’s zone blocking scheme, which in turn left the back side of the formation open — especially with them getting sucked up in traffic while pursuing too aggressively.
Add the fact that backside 9-technique J.J. Watt (#99) failed to contain the cut-back run by attacking to the outside shoulder of tight end Austin Hooper (#81), and that all of the front-linemen were easily pushed off the ball, and you get a recipe for disaster. Cunningham and in particular Adams could have helped, but they too were part of the problem which in turn allowed Nick Chubb (#24) to get into the end zone without much of a problem.
The following play illustrates the Texans’ shortcomings even more drastically:
Running out of the i-formation behind fullback Andy Janovich (#31), the Browns’ offensive line again used a wide zone approach versus the Texans’ 4-3 under look. While Adams played the down less aggressively than the one above to seemingly account for quarterback Baker Mayfield (#6) on a potential roll-out to the backside, Cunningham shot his gap quite vigorously. The problem was that he attacked the wrong one.
Had the fourth-year linebacker played more patiently and tried to get over the top versus left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (#71), he might have had a chance to clog the lane that was being opened between Wills Jr. and Hooper around the left edge. However, Cunningham completely ran himself out of the play to allow it to get to the second level.
As is the case on the first play, however, the Texans did not just fail because of one bad play from a linebacker. It failed because of insufficient team defense across the board: strong-side edge linebacker Jonathan Greenard (#52) failed to set the edge versus Hooper, the defensive line was again moved off the ball rather easily, and Watt was too slow from the backside. To make matters worse, both Cunningham and Adams missed tackle attempts against ball-carrier Kareem Hunt (#27).
So, what does this mean for the Patriots?
For one, their offensive line should be able to create space for the backs or Cam Newton if the blocking works in unison no matter if using man or zone concepts. Luckily for New England, the line has done just that very well recently: with the top-five set in stone over the last three games, the Patriots have averaged 173.3 yards on the ground despite going against strong run defenses like the New York Jets’ and the Baltimore Ravens’ along the way.
Furthermore, the ball-carriers need to keep an eye out for any potential-cut back opportunities against the Texans’ second-level defenders. With Cunningham and Adams susceptible to running themselves out of the play, especially versus zone, holes could repeatedly open on the backside of the formation.
Don’t shy away from challenging Houston’s cornerbacks
The Texans’ cornerbacks have also shown a tendency of putting themselves in challenging situations by oftentimes opening their hips too early or keeping their eyes in the backfield versus potential running plays. Accordingly, the Patriots’ wide receivers could find some favorable matchups at times — no matter if they are named Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd or N’Keal Harry.
Just look at the numbers as an illustration of the Texans’ troubles when it comes to their top-three cornerbacks (those who are expected to go up against Meyers, Byrd and Harry when they are on the field simultaneously and Houston is in a nickel defense):
Texans defensive statistics: Cornerbacks
|Vernon Hargreaves III||505||51||33||64.7||495||2||1||101.3|
All in all, the Texans defense is ranked only marginally better versus the pass than the run. Its DVOA (14.1%) is the 22nd best in the league, with the success rate (52.5%) and EPA (0.252) having the unit ranked 25th and 30th, respectively. Houston has been more effective in the passing game, but still not all that good — a welcome sight for a New England aerial attack that has made some strides recently after some initial struggles this year.
The cornerback trio of Vernon Hargreaves III, Bradley Roby and Phillip Gaines has made some plays, but on the whole has given up ground against opposing wideouts on a semi-regular basis. The Patriots’ top-three will get their chances, in particular if New England is able to...
Get the play-action game going
As noted above, the Patriots’ offense has built its identity based off its abilities to attack teams on the ground. The play-action game is a prominent part of this, with New England among the league leaders in passes out of such concepts. The Texans are also vulnerable in this area, with their linebackers once again in the spotlight: be it Zach Cunningham or Tyrell Adams, the group has had its issues when it comes to diagnosing play-fakes.
They are not alone, though, as the team’s defensive backs are also frequently peeking into the backfield for potential run plays — slowing their processing down and creating opportunities for down-field pass catchers to get open against them. This all together creates a difficult environment that a productive play-action team like the Patriots can take advantage of.
Let’s look at the film for an example of where and how New England could attack, courtesy of Houston’s Week 7 loss against the Green Bay Packers:
The play starts with the Texans in a nickel defense and with a 4-2 over alignment up front. The linemen are of less importance to this play, however, compared to the off-the-ball defenders be they linebackers or defensive backs. At the snap, we can spot a familiar sight: off-the-ball linebackers Cunningham and Adams flow with the offensive line, drifting noticeably forward while doing so.
While Cunningham, just like defensive tackle Brandon Dunn (#92), reacted quickly to the fake hand-off and reversed course to account for the potential end-around, he was caught out of position versus the pass having vacated his zone underneath. He was not the only defender to display a curious moving pattern. Defensive backs Lonnie Johnson Jr. (#32) and Eric Murray (#23) also contributed to the play breaking down the way it did.
While both initially moved with their assignments in the Texans’ Cover 1 man defense, they both keyed in on wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (#82) on the potential end-around. Murray should have stayed with him based on scheme anyway, but Johnson effectively ran himself out of the underneath zone in the middle of the field by inexplicably following Shepherd to the flat.
Simultaneously, Davante Adams (#17) was able to get inside position on his over route against cornerback Phillip Gaines (#29) — attacking an area that was left wide open based on the Texans’ aggressive style up front.
While the Patriots’ passing attack has not been on the same level as Green Bay’s so far this season, it has worked well using play-action concepts built off a potent running attack. With the Texans likely investing considerable resources in stopping the run, more opportunities could come New England’s way on Sunday through the air. The play-action game is once again expected to play a prominent role.
Be prepared to help Michael Onwenu against J.J. Watt
Patriots sixth-round draft pick Michael Onwenu is in the middle of an impressive first season in the NFL — one that would have him in the conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year if not for his rather unglamorous position. Still, the youngster has been outstanding no matter where he lined up. Most recently, he has been used at right tackle: after Jermaine Eluemunor went down with an ankle injury in Week 7, Onwenu took over the starting spot.
Even with Eluemunor now back off of injured reserve last week, the team held onto its young stud. This means, that he is now in for a battle against three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. While Watt is no longer on the same level as he was in the mid 2010s, he still poses a threat to the Patriots’ offensive operation not only because he is the Texans’ most productive pass rusher.
Watt, who has four sacks and 28 total disruptions on his résumé so far this season, brings considerable experience to the table as well. This means that the rookie Onwenu, who is expected to line up on the other side of the veteran most of the time, will be in for a tremendous challenge. While he has shown that he can stand his ground no matter the opposition, the Patriots have to be prepared to possibly give him some help if the game calls for it.
Tight end Ryan Izzo or the aforementioned Jermaine Eluemunor are both options to be added as a de facto sixth lineman to assist against Watt if need be. Of course, however, he would have to find success against Onwenu first — something that not a lot of edge defenders have been able to do this season.