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Film room: Middle of the field remains a weak point for the Patriots defense

Related: What went wrong for the Patriots defense in Houston? It all starts with Deshaun Watson

NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung decided to take advantage of the NFL’s Coronavirus opt-out clause, the New England Patriots did not just lose more veteran leadership after already seeing Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins depart via free agency, they also were suddenly left with some big shoes to fill in the middle of the field. Ten games into the 2020 season, it seems as if the Patriots have yet to properly fill them.

Sunday’s 27-20 loss against the Houston Texans was another example of that. New England has repeatedly had inconsistencies over the middle of the field no matter if playing man or zone coverage, but Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson took it to another level by exploiting the matchups: he attempted 16 passes over the middle, completing 12 for 188 yards and a passer rating of 113.5.

This efficiency allowed Houston to methodically drive the football down the field all day, eventually score on five of nine drives, and simply keep controlling the flow of the game. The Patriots’ defense, meanwhile, repeatedly found itself one step behind Watson and company.

So, what did happen? And how can the team get better heading into the home stretch of the season? Let’s take a look at three plays to find out.

2-9-HST 21 (:44) (Shotgun) D.Watson pass short middle to D.Fells to HST 37 for 16 yards (D.McCourty, A.Phillips).

One of the first chunk plays of the day that successfully targeted the middle of the field came in the late first quarter on a pass from Deshaun Watson (#4) to Darren Fells (#87) — a 16-yard pickup that saw the Texans’ tight end get inside position on second-round rookie safety Kyle Dugger (#35):

NFL GamePass

New England approached the play in a one-deep man coverage with Devin McCourty (#32) as the centerfielder over the top. Given Houston’s skill position talent across the board not over-committing to one side of the field versus the other is key from his perspective, but this still gave Watson an opportunity to stress the coverage look on an in-cutting route to his talented tight end.

Also contributing to this was the general flow of the coverage in relation to the patterns run by Houston’s strong-side personnel. The Texans designed two in-cutting route on that side of the field, with the Patriots playing outside leverage against them to funnel them into the middle where McCourty and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) would clog any passing lanes. With Bentley caught in the middle after chipping tight end Jordan Akins (#88), however, a lane was opened.

Also adding to this was the fact that safety Adrian Phillips (#21) followed Akins as his man-to-man assignment into the heart of the defense where both Bentley and outside linebacker Tashawn Bower (#96) were manning the underneath zones. This, plus New England’s rather inconsequential three-man rush, gave Watson an opening

At the end of the day, he and Fells simply made a tremendous play in a well-designed setting against the Patriots’ man-to-man call. McCourty moving up faster might have helped prevent the connection, but with the quarterback pulling the trigger at the last second he simply was caught in the middle of the field — having to make a decision between over-committing or playing it safe.

However, McCourty being caught in the middle became a theme later on as the next two plays will show.

3-4-50 (5:28) (Shotgun) D.Watson pass deep right to J.Akins to NE 25 for 25 yards (K.Dugger).

Up three points late in the second half, the Patriots had a chance to get off the field on third down to give the offense an opportunity to add to its 10-7 lead. Instead, however, the Texans kept their series alive thanks to a 25-yard pass from Watson to Jordan Akins. Once again Kyle Dugger was in coverage, but our focus has to be on Devin McCourty:

NFL GamePass

New England again was in a man-to-man look on this play — as was the case on most third downs versus Houston and also in the red area. Jason McCourty (#30) served as the deep man in the Cover 1 scheme, with his twin brother playing a robber role underneath (something Adrian Phillips is also doing on the other side of the field). The call is meant to strengthen the middle with New England’s cornerback talent locking down the perimeter.

While Phillips was able to get inside leverage with Stephon Gilmore (#24) playing the sideline and re-routing his assignment into the robber bracket, McCourty was caught in proverbial no-man’s land: instead of dropping back deeper to help Dugger against Akins’ the crossing pattern, he remained locked onto Watson. This, in turn, opened up the space between him and his brother — right were the Texans were attacking.

Dugger was playing the down pretty well, meanwhile. He opened up for the inside release and went into a trail technique. With no help from McCourty, however, he was in an unfavorable position and had to see Akins come down with another well-placed pass. While the pass goes into the books as one given up by New England’s second-round draft choice, McCourty being caught out of position contributed to this play.

The next play, which happened later during the second quarter and with the Texans driving to increase what was then a 14-10 lead, looked similar.

2-1-NE 42 (1:20) (Shotgun) D.Watson pass short left to J.Akins pushed ob at NE 18 for 24 yards (J.Williams).

New England approached the 3rd-and-1 with a similar coverage: Jason McCourty was again serving as a deep safety in the Cover 1 defense with his brother being employed as a robber underneath. As was the case on the previous play we looked at, however, Watson is able to freeze him in the middle:

NFL GamePass

McCourty started the play on the boundary-side hash mark and was again in a bind: either he stayed in place and help Stephon Gilmore on the same side or commit to the crossing pattern that Jordan Akins ran against Joejuan Williams (#33) out of the defensive left-side slot. The decision again was made by Watson for him, with the quarterback being patient with his eyes until the last moment and delivering a strike once he made his decision.

This, in turn, kept McCourty out of potential harm’s way once more from Houston’s perspective. Additionally, Williams giving up ground against Akins further hurt the integrity of the Patriots’ coverage. It was, again, a good play by Watson and one that saw New England’s most experienced defensive back neutralized.

All in all, New England’s inability to consistently shut down the middle of the field was not the only issue against Houston, but it was on full display: Watson decided to target those areas and the matchups he had against New England’s depth defensive backs and aggressive coverage calls. His ability to throw pin-point passes, manipulate coverage and extend plays both in and out of the pocket certainly helped, but so did the Patriots’ lack of consistent execution.

While something like that can be expected when it comes to youngsters such as Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams, New England needs more production out of a veteran like Devin McCourty. With the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung not walking through that door until 2021, he needs to limit mistakes in order to put the young talent around him — both at defensive back and in the front seven — in better positions to be successful.

McCourty was far from the only culprit on Sunday, but his play has been on a high level throughout the years and a key factor for the Patriots’ defensive success last year and before that. He is a cornerstone defender still, but also one who has less leeway this year given all the offseason departures suffered by New England. At the end of the day, the young players asked to replace the likes of Hightower, Chung and company will make their fair share of mistakes.

However, the Patriots need more consistent play from McCourty and the other veterans in the secondary — a play like the second example above just cannot happen. There’s no magic formula, it’s just playing better football.