The New England Patriots defense did a nice job against the run on Sunday, limiting the Houston Texans to just 55 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. The problem was that it did not matter in the grand scheme of things: Houston was able to move the ball through the air without much of an effort as quarterback Deshaun Watson carved the unit up for 344 passing yards and two touchdowns and a completion rate of 75.7 percent.
New England simply had no answer for the former first-round draft pick, especially when it came to keeping him confined in the pocket. Time and again Watson successfully bought some time and kept plays alive by maneuvering either inside or outside the pocket. Even when the Patriots appeared to have him in their grasp, he was able to break away and buy extra time for his pass catchers to get open down the field.
Unfortunately, the Patriots were unable to do anything about it.
“We knew that even though they were 2-7 they were legit,” said safety Adrian Phillips after the Patriots’ 27-20 defeat. “We knew that we were going to have to come in here and just contain Watson and really contain the passing game. We knew everything that we had to do, we just didn’t get it done. That’s the most frustrating part. Even though they’re a good team, that was a winnable game, and we didn’t do enough to win it.
“We just let Watson control the game, and we can’t do that. In the second half, we did a better job of containing him, but we just couldn’t get off the field. And when we did get off the field, we let them into the red zone and then ended with a few field goals. The main thing was we knew we just had to contain him. He’s a great player. He’s one of those magical players who, if you let him out of the pocket, it’s going to be a long day.”
A long day it was indeed for New England’s defense. The unit surrendered not only 27 points and 399 total yards, it also allowed Houston to score three touchdowns on four red zone trips and control the flow of the game whenever it was in possession of the ball. Despite a solid performance on third down — Houston converted 5-of-11 for a success rate of 45 percent — and against the run, as mentioned above, the Patriots therefore struggled.
The main reason for this was Watson’s ability to repeatedly break contain and buy extra time.
“Watson’s dynamic, so it’s not like he’s a statue back there,” said team captain Devin McCourty during his postgame media conference call. “He was able to buy some time and it’s tough for everyone out there. He did a good job, even when it felt like we had him, of escaping. The coverage when he’s escaping, you’re trying to cover your guy; sometimes we’re in zone so it’s a coverage mix where we’re trying to go get them. He put a lot of pressure on us overall on our pass rush and our coverage with some good throws.”
Watson was able to do that despite missing some important pieces around him, which makes it all the more frustrating for the Patriots.
The Texans entered the game without their starters at left tackle and left guard — Laremy Tunsil and Senio Kelemete — who were both out because of injury. Houston also lost wide receivers Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills early during the game to further weaken the supporting cast around Watson. And yet, he was able to march his troops down the field again and again and again.
Even though the Patriots had the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, back in the lineup, Watson was able to methodically attack the team’s defense. He did it by throwing some precise passes along the way, but also by simply extending plays and escaping New England’s pass rush.
“Any time you play a player like Watson, you’ve got to contain him. You can’t let him out of the pocket,” said Phillips after the game. “He’s going to get out of the pocket eventually, but he’s just one of those players that the play breaking down or the play extending is a good thing for him. For some quarterbacks, if the play extends, they make questionable decisions. But for guys like him, it’s a good thing.
“And then you’ve got all those receivers that are running fast and are able to get open, and they’re stretching the field, and he’s able to run all day. It was just a bad job by us of containing him. It’s just frustrating, because we know what we had to do, and we didn’t do it.”
Watson finished the game with 36 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries, but those numbers were rather inconsequential compared to how he set himself up for success in the passing game — similar to last year’s regular season, when he and the Texans beat the Patriots 28-22. There was one major difference between the two contest, though.
While New England blitzed Watson 17 times in 2019 and saw him complete 11 of 15 throws for 169 yards and 3 touchdowns, the team relied on three- and four-man pressures for most of Sunday’s game (he was blitzed five times, going 4-of-4 for 46 yards and a touchdown). The result was more of the same: without regular pressure coming his way, and the rush lane integrity being challenged by the elusive passer, Watson was able to attack the creases in the Patriots’ coverage.
“We talked about it all week how explosive the offense was,” said McCourty. “At times we did a good job, they just made more plays than us in some key situations whether they be third down, red area, the two-minute drive before the half. They executed it a little bit better than us and that was the end result in a seven-point game.”