Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
With their playoff game on deck, we break down how the Texans offense can exploit the Patriots defense.
I’m not going to lie. Re-watching the Week 14 match-up with the Patriots was tough. It was like watching a car crash that you know could have been prevented if the driver decided to stay on the old familiar highway rather than taking a detour on icy back roads. The hardest part for me was knowing that the game was very winnable, and that it could (and should) have gone the Texans' way if they did not forget how to play their own patented brand of football – run the ball on the edges, play defense, capitalize on turnovers, don’t make mistakes, and just do enough to move the chains and eat clock. Houston did none of those things, and they paid dearly for it.
One bad interception here, a missed fumble recovery there, and a couple ill-advised play calls later, the Texans were down 21-0. They aren't built for that. New England is constructed on the mentality of a cobra – strike quick, strike hard, and don’t stop until the enemy dies. Houston is designed like a python – they grab hold and suffocate their foes to death slowly, painfully, and efficiently. Gary Kubiak can’t come back from 21 points in ten minutes, but if it’s a tie game and you need one ten minute drive to close the half and keep Tom Brady off the field--that he can do in spades.
I don’t expect this game to be anything like the first, especially if the Bengals Wild Card match-up is any indication. Last week I studied arguably the most lethal defense in football (especially over the second half of the season, where in my opinion they were the best defense in the league) and found one weakness – play action passing to tight ends. Low and behold, the Texans happen to be really, really good at passing to tight ends, and Owen Daniels went off for nine catches and over 90 yards (just as I predicted). Also making his return was Garrett Graham, Houston’s second tight end; Graham missed the New England Monday nighter. His presence was felt modestly in the pass game on Saturday afternoon, but in both pass protection and run blocking, he proved just how important he really is. Matt Schaub was barely sniffed by the best front four in the league, and Houston ran the ball with authority on the edges. Schaub also showed much, much better decision making as a passer than in recent weeks (pick six notwithstanding), and finally started getting his three time Pro Bowl running back involved as a receiver of something other than screen passes. Foster was used for the first time in a long time as Schaub’s go-to hot receiver, and he made the Bengals' linebacking corps look silly in open space all day long. It was vintage Foster, and it felt damn good to watch.
After reviewing and making my notes on several Patriots games (including the Texans match-up), as well as reviewing Houston’s wild card game, I've determined four rules that the Texans absolutely must follow if they want to score enough points to upset New England this weekend.
Rule #1 – Do not run up the middle. Ever.
Against all logic, the Texans decided to only run twice outside of the tackles against the Patriots in Week 14. Those two runs happened to go for 24 total yards, thus averaging twelve yards a run. Considering that this is a team that makes its living by running on the edges, the fact that plowing into Vince Wilfork over and over again seemed more appetizing than plowing into, say, Devin McCourty, baffles me. Foster opened up the game on a fifteen yard run off of Duane Brown. That should be Kubiak’s clue to…you know…do that again (and again, and again, and again).
The only explanation I can think of for the lack of edge running was the lack of Garrett Graham being available as a run blocker. Houston runs a lot of "22 personnel", meaning that there are two running backs (Foster and Casey), and two tight ends (Daniels and Graham). With Graham acting as a play-side blocker (because he is after all the best blocking tight end they have) and Daniels being the primary receiver on naked boot-actions, this lets every single run and pass play look exactly the same off the snap, which makes it nigh impossible to discern what the Texans' offense is going to do. Without Graham, Casey had to play tight end on the line, which severely limited the Texans' playbook and threw their entire offense out of sync.
Graham keeps Casey clean enough to block on the second level, and Daniels is one of the deadliest over-the-middle receivers in the entire NFL. Patriots' inside linebackers either have to step up and absorb Casey so that Foster has to cut back into their monster interior defensive line, which means Daniels will be running free for a play action pass down field, or they stay in their zones and risk Foster breaking loose on the edge for a huge gain. It’s a lose-lose proposition that, when banging on all cylinders, is absolutely unstoppable. A lot of casual observers accuse the Texans' offense of doing the exact same thing every single week. That's largely because they do do the exact same thing every single week; it’s just impossible to stop it when everyone does their job.
Last week against the Bengals, everyone did their job. Graham was the primary blocker in single tight end sets (without Daniels on the field, mind you) for huge chunks of the game and Foster returned to former glory outside the tackles with a beautiful 140 yard performance. Considering that Cincinnati had not allowed a 100 yard rusher since before the midpoint of the season, and their front seven was arguably the best run stopping unit in the entire NFL in the last nine games of the year, that is quite an accomplishment. Houston didn't try to run helplessly into Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, the best interior duo that the sport has to offer. Instead, Gary Kubiak’s game plan returned to featuring Graham and Casey sealing edges and springing the Houston running attack free along the sidelines for nearly forty minutes of possession time. The Texans did what the Texans do, and still nobody has figured out how to stop it. If Kubiak and Rick Dennison want to have a repeat rushing performance against a Patriots' defense that, while improving, is still nowhere near as great as the Bengals', all they have to do is one thing – stay the hell away from Vince Wilfork.
Rule #2 – Use their own system against them.
In my observations of the last four weeks, I noticed that New England is perfectly content to drop their linebackers into zone all day against traditional passing personnel (3-wide or more). Most of the time Matt Patricia, the Patriots' defensive coordinator, doesn't even bother going man-to-man with linebackers unless a blitz is coming (If you see linebackers shift out to man coverage, the Patriots are bringing at least five guys at the quarterback, without fail. Keep an eye out for this). To me, what the Patriots' linebacking corps has in great blitzing and gap-shooting ability they lack in coverage proficiency. Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower are all big, strong, powerful backers that are a load to block at the line of scrimmage, but if you can catch them down field against Owen Daniels or Arian Foster, you have yourself a very favorable match-up. I feel like Matt Patricia’s propensity to drop them in zone is a way to limit their liability against speed backs and shifty route runners (like Daniels) who can expose them man-to-man on whips, arrows, and other routes that focus more on quickness, short area burst, and hip fluidity than pure size and strength. Zones allow the Patriots to keep everything in front of them and force opposing offenses to slowly, methodically work underneath and chip away until they can finally earn some points. Lucky for Texans fans, slow and methodical is Houston’s specialty. Observe.
Houston is in their single wing set with James Casey tight on the left tackle and Owen Daniels as the tip of the wing. Kevin Walter is split wide at the bottom of the screen and Andre Johnson is in the slot. The Patriots come out in their famously unorthodox 2-5-4 base set. In New England’s base package, they employ two massive defensive tackles in Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick that can occupy blockers while Rob Ninkovich and Trevor Scott (because Chandler Jones was injured) play a hybrid DE/OLB position that you might see in a 3-4 nickel package…except this isn't a 3-4…and this isn't a nickel package. I know it’s weird, but it works somehow.
Behind the front four, the Patriots employ a standard 4-3 linebacking corps, bringing the total linebacker count on any given snap up to five (technically, sort of). The sheer number of big bodies in the front seven that are standing up on every snap gives New England the distinct advantage of being able to drop whoever they want, whenever they want. It looks like a zone blitz enthusiast’s dream defense, but strangely enough the Patriots don’t really zone blitz at all with it. Sure, they might drop nine guys into coverage here and there, and on occasion Ninkovich will pick up a tight end in coverage while Hightower rushes the passer, but the Patriots' defense follows a much stricter set of rules than their unique personnel groupings would suggest.
Every Patriots defender has certain keys that they must follow against certain sets, and those keys can change based on the calls and adjustments that get made pre-snap and throughout the game. For instance, when the Patriots blitz, they generally man up immediately all across the line and shove as many people as they can into as small an area as possible in order to jail break somebody straight to the quarterback. However, New England also likes to shake things up quite a bit and employ hybrid man-zone concepts with their irregular personnel in order to bait quarterbacks into sending a hot route right into a linebacker waiting in a zone. If you want to know how the Patriots get so many turnovers, look no further than this bait-and-switch tactic that they have used very effectively since the hiring of Matt Patricia.
The only real way to beat the scheme is to scout out every scrap of film you can find and discern all of the keys that the Patriots operate under and hope that they don’t significantly change anything before your next meeting. With these keys you can control what they see, what they do, and how they adjust (until they re-adjust, of course) and use their own rules against them. For instance, in the still below (I’m just re-posting the first screen shot so that you don’t have to keep scrolling), Rob Ninkovich is lined up way wide at the 9-technique, which is a tip off that he is pass rushing and not dropping into coverage because he doesn't want to get caught up in traffic when the tight ends release down field. Steve Gregory, the safety towards the top of the screen, has Owen Daniels as his key. If Daniels runs anything towards the far sideline, Gregory will jump on him in man coverage. If he breaks towards the middle of the field (which Daniels does), Gregory will peel off and play a middle Tampa-2 style zone behind the linebackers as a security blanket against Johnson and Walter. Devin McCourty, the Patriots' outstanding free safety, is playing a very, very high zone and will bracket either of the receivers if they run a fly route behind Gregory’s zone. Don’t’a Hightower is lined up over James Casey and is giving a man coverage look. Brandon Spikes is a wild card that can blitz up the middle or stay in a zone to bait the hot route right into him, as stated previously. In this particular play, he stays in zone. Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib take Johnson and Walter in man coverage.
So, after all of this, the entire Patriots defense is playing man across the board and is using Owen Daniels, Matt Schaub’s favorite hot receiver, as their primary key to dictate coverage. Either the safety takes Daniels man-to-man and leaves Brandon Spikes to freelance it underneath, or Spikes takes Daniels and the safety peels off to help with the wide receivers. All of this is determined by whether or not the Texans take the bait. On this play, they didn't. In fact, as talked about earlier, the Texans used these keys against the Patriots and gave themselves a first down.
After the ball is snapped, Gregory (circled in red) sees Daniels break in towards Spikes and starts to peel deeper. Hightower is working against Casey while Dennard and Talib work on the receivers. Spikes recognizes Daniels coming into his zone and begins to "wall" him off of his route.
As Daniels comes underneath, Spikes takes a couple steps up to get into the path of the route. This technique is called "walling", and it’s essentially a way to get around pass interference rules by having "incidental" contact down field. It’s basically the football equivalent of "I didn't hit him, he hit me!". Meanwhile, Casey runs a deep clearing route towards the far sideline to keep the linebacker and safety away from Daniels. Note that Casey runs this route towards the sideline just in case the Texans misread the keys and had to draw Gregory away from the middle of the field and closer towards the sideline. It’s a very, very smart fail-safe wrinkle built into this play just to make absolutely sure that Daniels has room to work with.
However, before Daniels runs into Spikes’ wall, he cuts very sharply back towards the middle of the field into the space vacated by Casey’s route. This creates instant separation, and Schaub is already releasing the ball as Daniels makes his break. Circled in red is Talib panicking because of Johnson’s cut on the deep dig route and committing a horrible illegal contact penalty that didn't get called. I’m not sure why, but any time Talib plays in off coverage, he has awful down field technique and has no idea which way to turn his hips as his receiver approaches. We’ll get into it later, but I just want to point out that despite Johnson only having two catches against Talib in man coverage, he was open a lot whenever Talib played anything other than press-man at the line of scrimmage.
Circled in red is Daniels making an easy catch for 13 yards and a first down. Circled in blue is Talib falling flat on his face, with Andre Johnson running free in yellow.
That’s thirteen yards from a perfectly orchestrated play to exploit New England’s defensive keys. You can see Johnson running uncovered in the foreground, but Schaub has already released the ball based on the play design. Schaub did not expect anyone else to be open because the entire play was built to beat that one defensive look. I’d say it worked out just fine anyway.
Here we see the Texans in a "three-on-two" look down low. Daniels, Casey, and Johnson are all in this quasi-bunch set with Walter split wide up top. Gregory, the safety, is manned up with Casey to cover the dump-off route while Talib is manned up on Johnson. Dennard is matched up with Walter, and McCourty is the single deep safety once again. Underneath both Hightower and Spikes are dropping into shallow zones because they expect either Daniels or Foster to leak out as the hot route. What they don’t expect, however, is for Daniels to run a deep post behind the shallow zones.
The ball is snapped. Gregory breaks on Casey’s route while Talib is trying to gain outside position and force Johnson to stem back towards McCourty. Daniels has a free release and is about to pass the shallow zones.
Schaub, for reasons unknown to me or any sane human being, decides to throw it to Johnson rather than Daniels (who is about to be wide open). The play still goes for sixteen yards, however, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.
My point with this frame is that regardless of where Schaub threw the ball, the Texans potentially had a great play that exploited the Patriots’ shallow zones. New England’s linebackers messed up their keys and paid too much attention to Foster and the result was a huge bust in coverage. I don’t think mistakes like this will happen too often in this weekend’s rematch, but they can and do happen. When coverages get busted, the Texans have to capitalize or they will lose.
A staple of the Patriots' defense is taking advantage of low hanging fruit when it is given to them. If a running back is motioned out of the backfield, you better believe that New England will force as many bodies as they can into the offensive line to see if someone can get free and take down the quarterback. As soon as an opposing offense no longer has a numbers advantage in blocking or someone in the backfield that can threaten with a toss to the outside, the Patriots' defense automatically tries to overload the pass protection in an obvious passing situation. Take a look.
Houston is in an offset "I" formation with Casey and Foster in the backfield. Foster gets motioned out wide, which then prompts Spikes to pick him up in man coverage. Mayo then shifts to outside of Ninkovich. Both he and Don’t’a Hightower then prepare to blitz the protection package to make it six-on-six.
Off the snap, all six blockers work to delay the rush long enough to get a pass off. With the entire front seven blowing their load on the pass rush, the whole middle of the field is ripe for the picking on a hot route (and for those unfamiliar with the term, when I say "hot route," I’m referring to a quick route that a "hot receiver" runs as an outlet for a quarterback to dump the ball off to when facing pressure).
In orange is the route that Schaub should have had Daniels run. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s behind the entire blitz where no defender can be seen for ten yards in any direction. In yellow is the route that Daniels actually ran. It’s a deep post underneath the safety that takes far too long to develop and forces Schaub to chuck the ball in the general direction of Andre Johnson.
The same Andre Johnson who manages to draw a pass interference penalty anyway, thus mitigating my rage at the GIANT CAVERNOUS HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD a tiny little bit.
Here’s what happens when Schaub does use a hot receiver against an automatic blitz situation from the Patriots. Foster motions out wide, prompting Mayo to pick him up in man coverage. Circled is the safety, Gregory, changing coverage on the back end. Hightower is lined up in man coverage across from Daniels, but as Foster motions wide both he and the DE/LB hybrid thing tighten up to blitz off the edge while Spikes goes to take Daniels. This blitz, if you hadn't guessed already, leaves the middle of the field wide open.
Like clockwork, running back motions trigger automatic man-to-man across the board with a house blitz underneath. It’s pretty much the only "sure thing" key I could find in the Patriots' defense, and it will no doubt show up many, many times this Sunday.
Rule #3 – When in doubt, Arian Foster is open.
As previously explained, the Patriots' defense operates on the central theme of not allowing big plays (no matter how hard Kyle Arrington tries to prove that theme false). You won’t see many defenders peeling off into flats or playing tight coverage on stick routes, but you will see a whole lot of zone underneath in the middle of the field and along the sidelines. Matt Patricia doesn't really care if his opponents make a catch as long as there are three to four guys around to make sure he doesn't get that far. It’s a very Chicago Bears/Tampa-2-ish mode of thinking that has been mostly responsible for the "bend but don’t break" reputation of the New England defense over the last few seasons. The principle side effect of this scheme, of course, is that the running back will almost always be open as a check down if all else fails. When Gary Kubiak said this week that, "We need to check down efficiently", this is exactly what he was talking about. He saw this trend just like I did, so start penciling Foster in for even higher touch count that he got last week (as if 40 wasn't enough).
I wish I could show every check down that Foster was wide open for in great detail, but I think showing a slide show of the greatest hits will suffice.
There was this one.
These are only up until about six minutes left in the second quarter and it’s already a pretty strong trend. Not every play shown here was a bad play. In fact, the first screen shot ended up being a 24 yard completion to Lestar Jean in triple coverage. These are just meant to illustrate that the Patriots really only care about containing check downs rather than outright stopping them. However, I would much rather Schaub dump off the ball to a Foster who is open by ten yards in every direction than a Lestar Jean who has no less than four Patriots around him.
Like I said, pencil in Foster for a lot of touches.
Rule #4 – Make Aqib Talib play off coverage.
I don’t know why, and I don’t care to do enough research to find out why, but whenever Aqib Talib is not playing press-man at the line he becomes the very definition of a "meh" cornerback. It’s as if he loses all sense of timing, technique, and football IQ when he can’t punch someone in the shoulder in the middle of their release and follow them down field with pure speed and athleticism. A technician, he is not.
Here we see Talib lined up across from Randy Moss, quite possibly the greatest deep threat to ever play the game. It makes sense to give the guy some room. Even in his mid-30s, Moss can still smoke most defensive backs in the league if he really wants to. Fortunately for Moss, playing in off coverage is anything but an advantage for Talib. If anything, it’s a hindrance. It takes away the one thing he knows how to do – follow his man and never stop running. When you are ten yards away from the receiver, there is so much more that goes into coverage technique, so many questions you have to ask yourself: Which direction do you turn your hips, when do you turn your hips, do you have safety help over the top or should you stack on top of the receiver to block the fly route, do you have someone in zone underneath to undercut a curl, what direction should you force the receiver to stem his route, can the quarterback throw an effective back shoulder pass, etc. It’s so much more than just jamming a receiver and being physically gifted enough to run faster and jump higher. It’s mental, and Aqib Talib is not a mental player.
As Talib bites on the fake, Moss plants his foot, re-stems outside, and gets in position for Colin Kaepernick to throw a bomb down the sideline.
In a positively "2010 Kareem Jacksonian" maneuver, Talib commits a horrid pass interference penalty and gives the 49ers all of that yardage anyway.
Hilton, who has terrifying straight line speed, bursts off the line and into the fly route immediately. Talib, showing signs that he has no idea what do in this situation, inexplicably decides to try to jam Hilton 15 yards down field (which is illegal) because he isn't sure how to play the route and panics.
This is quite possibly the easiest 64 yard touchdown that Andrew Luck threw all season.
It’s hard to cover elite receivers when they have eighteen inches of separation. It’s impossible to cover elite receivers when they have four yards.
The easiest way to guarantee that a defensive back will give a receiver space is by using a lot of stacks (two receivers stacked on top of each other in formation at the line of scrimmage) and bunches (three receivers all bunched up, usually in a triangle, at the line of scrimmage). Corners are practically forced to play off and give the receivers a free release because trying to play press against a bunch set opens the defense up for screens, pick plays, and all manner of "trickeration" for huge gains. Gee, if only the Texans ran an offense that constantly used bunches and stacks to give their receivers space. Oh, wait – they do.
So there you have it, BRB. The four keys to scoring on the Patriots: never running at Vince Wilfork, exploiting their keys and tendencies with continuous hot routes and clearing routes, taking advantage of Matt Patricia repeatedly dropping their linebackers deep by checking it down to Foster, and forcing off coverage by throwing a never ending supply of stacks and bunches at their defensive backs. I got all of this in one day, and I’m the furthest thing from a professional football coach. Can you imagine what Gary Kubiak, one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, is cooking up? Kubiak's got their blitzes, he's got their tendencies, and he's got all the weapons he'll ever need to exploit them. The return of Garrett Graham means that the Texans also have their entire playbook back. The Bulls on Parade might have a hard time stopping the Brady Bunch, but you better believe that the Patriots will have an even harder time stopping the Texans.
My predictions that are now infinitely more informed than Dan Shaughnessy:
1. Arian Foster has 8 catches for at least 60 yards.
2. Owen Daniels gets at least 8 catches for over 100 yards. He will convert no less than two first downs on dump-offs behind heavy blitzes.
3. Andre Johnson gets at least one reception over 40 yards on a double move against Aqib Talib.
4. Garrett Graham makes two catches of at least 20 yards on naked boot throwbacks.
5. Matt Schaub goes somewhere around 28/39 for 310 and 2 touchdowns. No interceptions.
6. Arian Foster rushes for 130 and 2 touchdowns. Three runs of at least 15 yards will come outside of Duane Brown.
7. Texans 34, Patriots 31 in overtime on the leg of Shayne Graham (gulp). Who needs defense, right?