While the Houston Texans’ defense is one of the worst in the NFL and a favorable matchup for the New England Patriots, the team’s offense is a different animal. While only ranking as the 23rd best unit in the league in terms of scoring, averaging 22.2 points over its first nine games this season, the unit has an impressive quarterback running the show and plenty of firepower even after trading away standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
“This is probably as explosive or more explosive a group than any in the league, certainly anyone that we’ve seen,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the Texans’ offense during a recent media conference call. “The tight ends are good, the backs are good, the quarterback’s good and they have great depth and quality at receiver, from [Brandin] Cooks, [Will] Fuller, [Kenny] Stills, [Randall] Cobb. It’s a very explosive team.
“They move the ball. They don’t turn the ball over. [Deshaun] Watson’s done a great job of protecting the ball and making good decisions, while at the same time being at the very top of the league in explosive plays and yards per completion and so forth. They have a good complement with their running game and the RPO schemes that they run. It’s very challenging to defend.”
Houston’s offensive potential cannot be denied, but so far the unit has also not quite lived up to it. While some of this has to do with the opponents the team had to play — Houston has played five of the top-nine teams in the AFC playoff picture so far, plus the NFC’s current top seed — it also has to do with some inconsistent performances and an attack that very much lacks the ability to move the ball on the ground.
Just look at it this way: the Texans offense as a whole is ranked 14th in EPA per play (0.077), 15th in DVOA (0.9%) and 16th in success rate (46.6%), but near the bottom of the league in run-based categories. Houston’s ground game is ranked 31st in success rate (33.7%) and 32nd in both EPA (-0.201) and DVOA (-33.3%).
Let’s find out how the Patriots can therefore challenge this unit.
Don’t get fooled by Deshaun Watson
As was pointed out by Bill Belichick, Deshaun Watson is a pretty good quarterback. How good? There is an argument to be made that he might be in the MVP conversation if not for the fact that his team as a whole has struggled so far this season and not given him the support he might need for a serious run at the trophy.
Watson, however, has posted some impressive numbers in his fourth year in the league — statistics that do not need to hide when compared to his Pro Bowl campaigns the last two seasons. The former first-round draft pick has completed 205 of his 301 pass attempts so far this season for 2,539 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is on pace to set new career-highs in most important categories.
While Watson’s innate ability to throw the football and ability to extend plays with his legs stand out, his most impressive skill might just be his manipulation of defenders. There are few if any quarterbacks better in the game today at not tipping their hand until the very last second. Needless to say that the Patriots have to be ready for this as well.
The following play from Houston’s loss against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4 is a good example of how this ability goes hand-in-hand with the talent the Texans have on offense:
Houston aligned in a spread 2x3 formation, one of the standard sets used by offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Minnesota, meanwhile, countered with a look the Patriots also often employ on defense: a one-deep coverage with man-to-man across the board. That lone safety — George Iloka (#43) — is actually a key player in that he is responsible for the deep portion of the field in the Vikings’ Cover 1 defense. Where he goes, the ball ideally goes not.
Watson knows this. He also knows that keeping Iloka occupied for as long as possible could give him the matchup he wants with wide receiver Will Fuller (#15) aligned against rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney (#20) in the right-side slot. Houston’s quarterback reacts accordingly after the snap, freezing the deep safety for as long as possible before firing a bullet to Fuller, who has gotten open against Gladney.
The pass is perfect, but Watson’s manipulation before the snap is what really makes the play work. This is but one example of that, but it shows how good he is at the little things — and how the Patriots’ underneath defenders and defensive backs need to trust their instincts and film study not to fall victim to the QB’s eyes and attempts at sending them where he wants them to be.
Having veterans at both the safety and cornerback positions should help, but the off-the-ball linebacker group headed by Ja’Whaun Bentley and rookie Anfernee Jennings will be the true key to this matchup. If they get fooled by Watson, New England’s defense could have a long day even without giving up deep passes like the one shown above.
Create pressure through scheme rather than extra rushers
When the Patriots tried to slow Watson down in 2019, they relied heavily on the blitz to get the job done and apply pressure on the young quarterback. The plan did not work, with Houston’s passer torching the New England defense when it sent extra pass rushers his way. According to Pro Football Focus, Watson was blitzed on 17 of his 29 dropbacks last December but he completed 11 of his 15 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns.
Needless to say that New England’s blitz-heavy game plan did not work.
Heading into this week’s matchup, and with a linebacker corps that lacks the depth and quality of last season’s, the Patriots will therefore likely use a different approach. How could it look like? New England might try to merely slow Watson’s processing down by presenting him with exotic coverage looks or imbalanced pressure packages — all with the goal of making him think before and after the snap.
This would not be a first for the team. The Patriots tried the same against another potent passing attack when they went up against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4. Back then, New England used plenty of man-match looks or robber coverage to take away Patrick Mahomes’ primary reads and make him through his progressions. Mahomes still won his battles, but he was unable to get into his usual impressive rhythm.
Slowing down Watson in a similar fashion would go a long way for New England to come away victoriously on Sunday.
Attack the right side of the Texans’ offensive line
The Texans’ offensive line has retained four of five starters from last year’s 28-22 victory over the Patriots, with the lone change as a potential attack point for New England’s defense. Starting right tackle Tytus Howard, who missed last year’s matchup after getting placed on injured reserve in the week leading up to the game, has given up 26 quarterback disruptions so far this season, including two sacks.
This number has tied him with right guard Zach Fulton, who has surrendered a team-high five quarterback takedowns, for the most on the team. Needless to say that the Patriots might be able to find some favorable matchups versus the right side of Houston’s offensive line, especially when employing their speed rushers against Howard.
Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, who have both shown plenty of potential when attacking wide around the edge, in particular could be used extensively in pass rushing situations on Sunday. Winovich has been the Patriots’ best pass rusher, and is coming off a highly disruptive game against the Baltimore Ravens in which he registered a career-high 10 pressures versus quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Uche, meanwhile, saw an increased role versus the Ravens as well and finished with his first career sack on a speed rush from the defensive left side — the one that the Texans have proven themselves vulnerable at.
Be disciplined up front
As noted above, the Texans’ ground game has had some major struggles so far this season, which bodes well for a Patriots run defense that has also had its fair share of ups and downs so far this year. The unit did show some positive strides last week against Baltimore’s unique run defense, but it needs to keep getting better versus the outside zone that Houston frequently likes to use — a scheme that did give the Patriots quite a few issues earlier in the season.
The key, as so often, is discipline even with the team’s leading back, David Johnson, out after having been placed on injured reserve. New England needs to properly close down gaps while also setting a stout edge in order to full runs to the interior where big-bodied defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Carl Davis are clogging any potential running lanes.
Both of them will be important against the Texans’ rushing attack, especially when it comes to slowing down the team’s second most productive runner in terms of attempts, yards and touchdowns: Deshaun Watson himself, who has carried the football 48 times for 233 yards and a touchdown. While Watson is not the same type of runner as Lamar Jackson, he does pose a threat on the ground due to his scrambling abilities.
Just take a look at the following play from Houston’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9:
The Jaguars were in a Cover 2 zone but the depth of Houston’s routes allowed some space underneath for Watson to exploit after he left the pocket — something he was able to do thanks to the aforementioned Howard (#71) and Fulton (#73) clearing the right-side B-gap. While Jacksonville 4i-technique Dawuane Smoot (#94) did get into the backfield, Watson reacted properly to the opening up front by taking off and getting to the perimeter.
The gain on the play was 10 yards — not enough on itself to pick up a new set of downs on a 3rd-and-11 before a late-hit penalty versus the Jaguars — but its significance extends beyond this number: it illustrates just how dangerous Watson can be when allowed to get outside of the pocket, no matter if on scrambles or to extend pass plays.
New England needs to be able to keep him contained, especially against some of the longer-developing concepts the Texans like to run to take advantage of their wide receiver’ speed. As noted above, the edge defenders will be of an utmost importance: the Patriots’ outside linebackers such as Winovich, Uche and John Simon have to be able to keep the pocket’s integrity intact not to allow Watson any space.