Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ Week 11 road game at the Houston Texans and one of only two touchdowns scored by the visitors during their 27-20 defeat.
Despite going up against the worst statistical run defense in the NFL, the New England Patriots’ main method of moving the football down the field versus the Houston Texans was via the pass: the team dropped back to pass 42 times on the day, compared to only 23 rushing attempts. While some of that had to do with the game script, it also was tied to the Texans’ defense focusing on stopping the run which subsequently created opportunities through the air.
Accordingly, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton finished with 365 yards passing. A sizable portion of this yardage went to wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who had the most productive game of his career: the first-year Patriot caught six passes for 132 yards — his first 100-yard contest in six seasons in the NFL — and a touchdown.
“I think I’m proving to myself that I can be consistent and that I can continue to improve week-in and week-out,” Byrd said after the game when talking about his performance. “It’s a long season, as we all know, and my goal is just to continue to get better as the season progresses and playing my best football in November and December and just continue to find ways to help our team win games and score touchdowns.”
One of his six catches turned into the Patriots’ best offensive play of the day, a 42-yard touchdown in the third quarter that cut into what was an 11-point deficit at the time. Let’s take a closer look at it.
1-10-HST 42 (8:21) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass deep middle to D.Byrd for 42 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
After New England and Houston exchanged three-and-outs to open the second half of their meeting, the Patriots started their next possession at their own 18-yard line. While they gained no yards on their first two plays a 30-yard completion to Byrd on 3rd-and-10 kept the series alive and gave the team some wiggle room. Another third down conversion on a pass to James White, meanwhile, kept the series alive a second time and set up the offense at the Texans’ 42.
New England approached the 1st-and-10 situation with an 11-personnel group on the field aligned in a 1x3 set: tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) played an in-line role next to left tackle Isaiah Wynn (#76), with the wide receivers — Damiere Byrd (#10), N’Keal Harry (#15), Jakobi Meyers (#16) — in a trips look on the opposite side; running back James White (#28) lined up in the backfield, offset to the right of quarterback Cam Newton (#1).
Schematically, the Patriots’ offense line up as follows:
Houston’s defense, meanwhile, was countering with a man-to-man post-safety look. That one deep player atop the defense, Lonnie Johnson Jr. (#32), played a pivotal role on the play as he came down hard to help double-cover Jakobi Meyers.
Meyers, who had been New England’s top wide receiver the last few weeks, started as the inside option in the Patriots’ three-player bunch and released on an in-cutting over route with Bradley Roby (#21) initially on him from nine yards off. Once the second-year wideout made his cut, and with Roby keeping outside leverage, Johnson Jr. decided to make a move at potentially undercutting a pass coming his way. However, the ball never came.
Instead, Newton decided to test the Texans’ one-on-one coverage elsewhere by throwing a deep post to Damiere Byrd who reeled in the pass for 42-yard score:
“Damiere was just doing exactly what he’s been doing all year, pretty much, in practice,” said Newton during his post-game media conference call. “For it to show up in the game is just what Coach always talks about. Practice, preparation and execution turns in to in-game reality. Damiere has been doing a great job on those routes, and for him to keep coming downhill and for it to show up on game day, it just showed what he’s capable of doing today.”
Byrd started as the perimeter option in the Patriots’ trips look, with Philip Gaines (#29) in coverage on the other side of the line of scrimmage. However, the wideout moved to the inside behind a natural pick from N’Keal Harry on Eric Murray (#23). This, in turn, left Gaines trailing against New England’s speedy wideout. While he recovered nicely and was able to stick with Byrd throughout his route, the lack of deep help created an opening.
That opening was exploited by Cam Newton, who placed the football where only his intended target could get it.
The quarterback in general played the down well. While he could have checked down to James White, who was open against linebacker Zach Cunningham (#41) in the flat, or attempted a risky pass to Jakobi Meyers on the over route, he let the Texans tip their hand before making a decision. Once he found the matchup he liked, he threw one of the better passes of his season so far — a high-arching deep ball that allowed the wide receiver to adjust while giving the defensive back no chance to break it up.
“Cam made a great read, and a great throw,” Byrd said after the game. “I was just trying to shield off the defender and make a good over-the-shoulder catch.”
All of that, of course, would not have been able without some stellar pass protection up front. While the pass rush was not always contained as well as it should have on Sunday, especially against the blitz, the blocking up front worked very well on this particular play:
Houston used three down-linemen on the play, with all of them attacking the pocket. While the interior was tremendously well contained with Shaq Mason (#69), David Andrews (#60) and Joe Thuney (#62) not giving up any ground, the play of tackles Michael Onwenu (#71) and Isaiah Wynn (#76) played an equally big role in helping the play succeed.
Wynn went up against outside linebacker Jacob Martin (#54), who was chipped by Ryan Izzo after the tight end’s original release. Afterwards, the Patriots’ left tackle mirrored the Houston pass rusher well and forced him to cover plenty of ground around the corner, not giving up ground until it was already too late from the defense’s perspective.
On the other side, meanwhile, the Patriots also used a chip to slow down the edge rush. James White helped against J.J. Watt (#99) before releasing into his pattern, which made Onwenu’s job easier. Even when left one-on-one against the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, however, the sixth-round rookie fared very well: he adjusted perfectly to Watt’s inside move and attempt at a left-arm swim move, and pushed him through the pocket and out of harm’s way.
All in all, the play was well-executed across the board — something the Patriots will need more of on a more consistent basis on offense and particularly defense moving forward and with the playoff window getting smaller by the week.