At least early on, their Week 5 game against the Houston Texans did not go as planned for the New England Patriots. Their offense had two more turnovers — a fumble on the goal line by Damien Harris and an interception by Mac Jones — while the defense surrendered multiple big plays and drive-extending conversions.
Down 22-9 early in the third quarter, however, New England successfully flipped the switch. The offense finally started to find some sustained success and ended up scoring on each of its final four possessions of the game. The defense, meanwhile, shut out its opponent and successfully got off the field when the opportunities presented themselves.
As a result of this improved complementary football, the Patriots were able to earn a come-from-behind victory: they beat the Texans with a final score of 25-22; the final points being added late in the fourth quarter via a 21-yard Nick Folk field goal.
Before Folk split the uprights for the game winner, however, multiple plays had to go New England’s way. They usually did, so let’s take a closer look at five of those that helped spark the team’s comeback victory.
3-2-HST 36 (10:29) (Shotgun) D.Mills pass incomplete short left to B.Cooks (J.Jackson).
Following a disastrous opening stretch in the second half that saw Mac Jones throw a pick and the Texans score a 37-yard touchdown just two plays later, the Patriots were in dire need of some positive momentum. They did not find it on offense just yet — the unit went three-and-out following Houston’s score — but the defense was able to finally answer the call.
Following the Patriots’ three-and-out, Houston gained 7 yards on a short pass play as well as 1 yard on a Mark Ingram run. Facing a 3rd-and-2 at the Texans’ 36-yard line, New England’s defense therefore had a prime opportunity to get off the field and give its offense the ball back.
The unit approached the play in a single-high man-to-man coverage look, with J.C. Jackson (#27) lined up on the defensive right-side perimeter opposite Brandin Cooks (#13). The matchup between New England’s number one cornerback and the team’s former wide receiver would decide the down as it turned out.
Jackson won this round, breaking up the quick slant intended for Cooks:
Jackson did not overcommit to one route or another, allowing him to stay square until Cooks made his move to the inside. Once that happened, he reacted quickly to reach around the wideout for the pass breakup. While more flag-happy officials could have penalized the defender for pass interference, his hold was subtle enough to keep any potential yellow flags tucked away.
Quarterback Davis Mills (#10) testing Jackson on a quick-hit play did not come as a surprise. The Texans found success on slant routes for much of the day, and on this third down play tried to do the same. This time, however, New England was ready and an argument could be made that the defense actually was tricking Mills into throwing the slant.
After all, the front-line defenders showed blitz with off-the-ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8). Seeing the two lined up over the two A-gaps might have forced Mills into quick pass against what eventually turned out to be two-man pressure.
4-2-HST 36 (10:26) C.Johnston punts 0 yards to HST 36, Center-J.Weeks, out of bounds.
Possibly the biggest turning point of the game came one play after the third down stop above. Lining up to punt following the incomplete pass, Houston was unable to flip field position. Quite the opposite actually, with Cameron Johnson’s (#11) punt sailing a net total of zero yards.
What happened? A combination of the Texans getting too greedy and the Patriots producing a solid push up the middle of the field:
The first breakdown from Houston’s perspective came before the ball was even snapped. Johnson, in a likely attempt to draw the Patriots offseason to convert on fourth down, left his initial position to move closer to the line of scrimmage as if in a shotgun pass play. New England was not fooled, however, causing the Texans’ punter to retreat again.
However, he did not backpedal far enough which in turn created an issue with the ball trajectory relative to the protection up front — one the Patriots were able to exploit. One pressure player in particular stood out in this regard: defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (#93), aligning directly over long snapper Jon Weeks (#46).
Guy was able to drive Weeks back and in turn moved him into personal protector (and ex-Patriot) Terrence Brooks (#8). Brooks being caught behind Weeks might not have been an issue on any normal punt, but with Johnson too far up the field it put him in harm’s way: the punt glanced off his helmet and ultimately rolled out of bounds at the Houston 36-yard line.
“It looked like they were in some kind of gadget punt formation, trying to, I think, probably get us to check into a safe look and prepare for the fake,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the player after the game. “That strategy, it takes you out of return. So, if you think they are going to fake it and you’re just going to stand there and wait for them to run a fake and then they don’t, then you just don’t get any return setup.
“But we were able to get the call and pressure that, and we had some big guys in there so that if they did fake it, we felt like we were covered but at the same time we felt like we could pressure as well. I’m not sure exactly what happened there, but I know we had guys coming, whether it was a fake or not, and like I said, obviously they missed it there and Lawrence Guy made a great play.”
The Texans left themselves vulnerable with their gadget formation, and Guy’s pressure was all that was needed to turn the punt into a positive play for the Patriots. Belichick was therefore not the only one to praise the veteran after the game.
“We finally stopped them on third down, third-and-short and Lawrence Guy just blocks the punt,” said linebacker Matthew Judon. “He blocks the punt and that’s what turned it around.”
3-7-NE 41 (14:17) (Shotgun) D.Mills pass short right to B.Cooks to NE 38 for 3 yards (J.Jackson).
The Patriots were able to turn the short field after the Texans’ punt fiasco into three points; they later added another three following a Houston drive that gained only six net yards. Down 22-15 in the late third quarter, the team therefore seemingly had the momentum on its side. However, the home team did not go down without a fight.
Three plays after that second field goal, after all, the team gained 27 yards on a 3rd-and-3 to drive into New England territory again. Opening the fourth quarter at the 44-yard line after that big play, the Texans were on the cusp of field goal range — a potentially dangerous situation for the Patriots.
However, they forced Houston into a 3rd-and-7 situation following a short run and incomplete pass. That third down play, once again saw J.C. Jackson (#27) and Brandin Cooks (#13) go at each other. Once again, the Patriot came away as the winner:
Houston lined up in an 11-personnel group with a three-man bunch on the right side of the formation. The Patriots countered with man coverage look, pitting their top three cornerbacks at this point in the game against those three players: Jackson was over Cooks, the front-line player, with Jonathan Jones (#31) covering Chris Conley (#18) on the perimeter and Myles Bryant (#41) taking Chris Moore (#15) in the middle of the field.
New England’s defenders played the down well, and were able to properly follow their assignments throughout their routes. As for Jackson, he got his hands on Cooks at the top of his pivot route around 3 yards short of the sticks. He then quickly reset his feet to follow the wideout on his break-out.
At that point in time, the Patriots’ pass rush was getting to quarterback Davis Mills (#10). New England initially showed a five-man rush, but with Kyle Van Noy (#53) backing off to drop into coverage saw only four players attack the pocket. Still, that was enough to create one-on-one blocking situations for the defensive left-side rushers.
Among them was team captain Dont’a Hightower (#54), who originally went up against right guard Max Scharping (#74). Hightower did engage the blocker initially, but quickly changed direction to peel around defensive tackle Christian Barmore (#90). With Barmore still occupying center Justin Britt (#68) just long enough, Hightower was able to get free through the left-side A-gap and into the backfield.
The veteran was eventually taken down before he could get to Mills, but his pressure was enough to move the rookie QB off his spot and mess with the timing of the play. With Mills drifting out of the pocket and the Patriots playing good coverage across the board, he was forced to throw the ball to his closest target: Cooks.
While the ex-Patriot did catch the ball, his route did not take him up the field far enough to convert the third down. Instead, Jackson made a big tackle to stop him 4 yards short of the line to gain. Houston eventually settled for a 56-yard field goal that sailed wide to the right.
3-6-HST 13 (9:36) (Shotgun) M.Jones pass short left to H.Henry for 13 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
New England started in prime field position after the missed field goal, and the offense made it count. With running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson doing most of the work, the offense reached the red zone in just four plays.
At that point, however, the drive started to stall a bit. A 4-yard Stevenson run was followed by another rushing attempt for no gain, setting up a 3rd-and-6. This time, the Patriots did put the ball in their quarterback’s hands — and Mac Jones (#10) made the most of the opportunity, hitting tight end Hunter Henry (#85) on a 13-yard touchdown pass:
Facing a two-deep look, Jones and Henry made an easy-looking pitch-and-catch play.
The quarterback delivered a well-placed football to where only his intended target could get the ball, with Henry’s well-executed corner route allowing him to get open against off-man cornerback Terrance Mitchell (#39): Mitchell was turned around at the top of the route, allowing Henry to get wide open in the end zone; safety Terrence Brooks (#8) staying in the middle of the field too long also did not help Houston’s coverage on the play.
The play did not just work because of Jones and Henry, though. The boundary-based concept, which attacked away from the safety, opened things up for the two as well — as did an offensive line that gave its rookie passer enough time to wait for the routes to develop.
That offensive line was missing four of its five starters but it generally played a good game versus the Texans. This particular play was no exception.
Houston rushed four at the snap, with the blockers picking them up quickly. The only player that was able to come free was 3-technique lineman DeMarcus Walker (#55), using a spin-move against left guard James Ferentz (#65). However, center David Andrews (#60) — the lone starter active for the game — was there to quickly pick him up.
3-6-NE 48 (3:58) (Shotgun) M.Jones pass short middle to H.Henry to HST 42 for 10 yards (L.Johnson; T.Mitchell).
New England forced another three-and-out after the game-tying touchdown throw from Jones to Henry, giving the team an opportunity to bleed some clock and potentially score the game-deciding points. The offense did just that, embarking on a 15-play drive that took exactly seven minutes off the clock and, after a 21-yard Nick Folk field goal, left a mere 15 seconds for Houston to work with.
The Patriots had multiple big plays on that drive. Mac Jones and Jakobi Meyers connected for 24 yards on its first play, while a roughing the passer penalty a short time later helped sustain it after an incompletion on third down. Later in the series, New England also saw Brandon Bolden gain 24 additional yards on a toss run.
The biggest play other than the defensive penalty, however, was another third down conversion. Once again, Mac Jones (#10) and Hunter Henry (#85) teamed up to make it work:
Houston once again played a two-deep zone concept on the play, meaning that the Patriots would have an opportunity to hit a pass down the field between the different coverage areas. They did just that: Henry ran an in-breaking route 4 yards past the sticks, which attacked the open space between the linebacker and defensive back levels.
While the defenders reacted quickly — Lonnie Johnson Jr. (#1) started to come up the field as soon as Jones’ arm started to move — the Patriots’ two best offensive players that day executed to perfection. Jones placed the ball well, while Henry held onto it despite some immediate contact after the reception.
Both men again played the down very well. Jones successfully climbed the pocket with space opening up in front of him, while Henry found his soft spot and made a good catch.
That said, a little luck is also needed at times. After all, DeMarcus Walker (#55) had an opportunity to disrupt the play by quickly bursting into the backfield: the Texans defender, again aligning over left guard James Ferentz (#65), successfully used a swim move to get free and open up a lane through the B-gap. Ferentz did re-route him a bit, which caused him to stumble over the right foot of left tackle Justin Herron (#75). While Walker managed to keep moving forward, the unintentional trip slowed him down just enough.
That play can therefore be seen as a good representation of the game. The Patriots were not perfect, but they did enough to come away successful — even if that meant winning by a hair, or, in that case, by a Justin Herron toe.