The Houston Texans haven't beaten the New England Patriots since 2010. That was the first, last, and only time this has happened. In addition to using a different form of battling to describe his team after losses, Bill O'Brien, like previous head coach Gary Kubiak, can't beat the Patriots. In his first two (and only) two matchups, Bill O'Brien is 0-2, losing by an aggregate score of 54-6. Now the Texans are heading up to that dark and shivery part of the world in another likely fatal attempt to squeak out a win against a team that has eviscerated them twice.
Overall, and based on the entire year, the Patriots are really good. The Texans have been led by a great defense that has carried their offense and special teams like Addie Bundren's vessel to Jefferson, through broken legs with cemented, rigid, insanity bursting in cracked brains and drowned mules. New England has a point differential of +191, was fourth in points scored, first in points allowed, and has a DVOA of 25.3%. That DVOA ranking is first in the league, thanks to their passing offense and rush defense. Houston has a point differential of -49, was 28th in points scored, 11th in points allowed, and has a DVOA of -21.4% (29th in the league). But they did go 8-4 in one possession wins. That's why they are still playing with a shot at a title right now.
No one is giving Houston a chance to win. Unless you see the world in battle red, which is just as it should be. Last week's win against Oakland shouldn't give anyone optimism about Houston's chances this weekend. The Raiders were an empty, soulless husk without Derek Carr. They were a team led by their passing offense, which was a combination of the best pass blocking in the league and Carr playing backyard quarterback with ample time to survey the field. Without Carr, Oakland lost their conductor and the team careened into the abyss. Oakland didn't have the defense or run game to survive Carr's departure. Houston did what they needed to do and what they should have done. They beat a bad team by attacking their horrid inside linebackers. They found DeAndre Hopkins when he was matched up in man coverage. They ran the ball outside. They got pressure against an offensive line rattled by injuries.
Like Oakland, New England has holes in their defense. The biggest is their pass rush. They have an adjusted sack rate of 5.4%, which is 26th in the league, and they have a pressure rate of 20.5%, which is 25th. That past-his-prime sailor Chris Long led the team with pressures with 20, and Jabaal Sheared was second with 19. The Patriots don't have anyone who can rush off the edge or the inside, and they rarely blitz or run stunts. Often quarterbacks can sit back like Le'Veon Bell, have a cup of tea, read about Pantheism, and focus on their third eye, all before attempting a fifteen yard pass.
This is good news for the Texans, who have been an average pass blocking team this year. The bad news is Brock Osweiler is still Houston's quarterback. Osweiler was fine last weekend as he stomped around like Foghorn Leghorn, guffawing and having fun again despite acting very angry. He didn't make mistakes, completed easy passes, and finally didn't throw the ball out of bounds when attempting a deep pass to DeAndre Hopkins.
New England's secondary is much better. Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler have been decent when you look at stats like success rate, but they are better when you consider the amount of single high safety looks and how alone they are on the outside. Eric Rowe is one of the better slot corners in the league and one of the more underrated players out there.
Additionally, Osweiler is awful with or without pressure. Without pressure, Osweiler is 214-334 (64%), throwing for 2,137 yards, averaging 6.4 yards an attempt, with a quarterback rating of 83.9, 13 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. Those numbers are similar to Tom Brady when he's under duress. In other words, Osweiler has league average quarterback numbers when the pocket is warm and cozy. This lack of pass rush is something that Ben Roethlisberger can take advantage of, but not Mr. Osweiler.
The biggest thing Osweiler has to do, aside from not throwing interceptions, is throw the ball down field. When he's tossing it up deep down field, it makes him acceptable and diminishes his inability to lead an offense on his own because of accuracy problems. You can throw downfield against New England. Again, they like to play one safety deep. They have a DVOA of 97.6% on deep middle throws (the league average is 48.3%) and a DVOA of 39.8% on deep right throws (the average is 15.1%).
This is a game where Will Fuller needs to actually do something. He can't be running downfield to the line of scrimmage incessantly without getting looks. Houston's offense needs to scheme to create downfield attempts, and Osweiler has to at least give his receivers a shot when he throws it. He can can't spend Saturday night averaging 4.8 yards an attempt and dumping it off to the tight ends into the flat.
Notice how I didn't mention DeAndre Hopkins. In the past, New England has done what they have always done--take away the other team's best player, something that is now pretty much a NFL meme. In the past, the Patriots have played bracket coverage on Nuk.
They will put Logan Ryan on him, and then use a safety to shadow over the top. This creates infinitesimal windows. To get the ball to Hopkins requires perfect passes and timing. Those are things that Osweiler has struggled with all year. In their last two games against the Patriots, Hopkins has seven catches on fourteen targets for 108 yards. To complete passes, it takes efforts from Hopkins that you'd normally see in a Barnum and Bailey's tent. The Patriots have placed a plastic bag over Hopkins's head the last two games.
This version of New England's defense is evil. To beat the Patriots, you have to hold Tom Brady to eight or nine possessions. You can't give him thirteen. If he has that many chances to score, the game will eventually break open. To do this, a team has to run the ball, throw completions, and chew the clock. New England has a run defense DVOA of -23.7% (4th). They prevent teams from using the offensive strategy they need to deploy to beat them.
New England's entire front seven is littered with strong players who are difficult to move. Malcom Brown, Sheard, and Alan Branch are all big men who are all exactly that. They are great at holding their ground and letting others clean things up. Dont'a Hightower, the one great player on the Patriots' defense, is incredible at shedding blocks and driving running backs backwards.
New England likes to play tight coverage, so they buzz around the box. Even when you block everyone, safeties and corners will teleport like Abra to tackles. They are great at not allowing backs to get to the second level (1.03 adjusted line yards, 7th in the NFL) and the open field (0.27 adjusted line yards, 1st).
On this play, Buffalo is running counter to the right. The Patriots have eight in the box, nine when Malcom Bulter moves over from the corner position. The Bills get nothing on their double teams. Hightower sheds the guard and obliterates the back to goop when he makes the tackle. No one is driven back, Hightower makes a play, and the box is surrounded. This is life when you run at the Pats.
The Texans, on the other hand, finished 8th in rushing yards with 1,859 yards, a number embellished by all those 3rd and 12 draws that went for nine yards. They carried the ball 456 times for 4.1 yards a carry. They were 6th and 19th in these measures. In DVOA, they were 27th at -19.6%. Just because you do something a lot doesn't mean you are good at it. The Texans are an example of that maxim.
Again, and this is something I've said all year long, the Texans need to get outside the tackles. They have to get Lamar Miller in space. They have to get him to top speed. They have to let him take on safeties and linebackers one on one with green space ahead of him. If they come out trying to run power and inside the tackles, the Texans won't be able to do much their offensive line against this front seven. If they do that, it's going to lead to a lot of Osweiler 3rd and 9s, which means screens, draws, and incompletions.
The Texans' offense is bad. New England has spent the entire year playing against horrific offenses. All season long, they have prepared for this game. All those games against the Jets, Bengals, and the NFC West has led to this moment. The main reason why the Patriots have the best scoring defense is they have played the easiest schedule. Opposing offenses have a DVOA of -7.1%. Seattle was the only above average offense they have faced, a game they lost 31-24.
As bad as an offensive match-up this is for Houston, it all comes down to their defense holding the opponent to 20 points or less. No matter how good or bad the defense is, the offense struggles and collapses, purple tongued with bruised lungs whenever they are forced to blow past this mark. The Texans are 8-0 when they allow 20 points or less. They are 2-7 when the opponent crosses that 20 point threshold. This week, the defense is facing an offense that has scored 27.6 points a game and has been limited to 20 points or less twice--once with Jacoby Brissett against the Bills, and the other was against the Broncos, who had the best defense in the NFL this year.
Unlike their defense, New England's offense has played some nasty opponents. They have faced the tenth toughest schedule according to DVOA. Against top defenses like Baltimore (6th), Pittsburgh (11th), Seattle (5th), and Denver (1st), they have scored 30, 27, 24, and 16 points. This is a testament to the variety of styles they can play. Against Baltimore's incredible run defense, New England spread the Ravens out and plucked them apart, hitting deep on their passing attempts. Against Denver, New England used their power run game, and Dion Lewis specifically, to get around Denver's inside your coat jacket pass defense.
The focus here yet again is Tom Brady. Since coming back from suspension, he only went 11-1, completing 291 of his 432 passing attempts (67.4%) for 3,354 yards, with a touchdown to interception ratio of 28:2, 8.2 yards an attempt, and 12.2 yards a catch. He had a DVOA of 33.8% (2nd), a DYAR of 1,295 (5th), and a QBR of 83.1 (2nd).
The Pats' passing offense has been more of the same. Quick passes they create by using a variety of routes and picks. Despite not having great skill players this year, they continue to get open, thanks to Brady knowing where to go with the ball instantaneously and how good Josh McDaniels is at scheming players open. The Patriots are masters of using three different routes to open up underneath gains that go for 14 yards.
Against Seattle here, the Patriots are getting James White open in the flat by having the wide right receiver run a slant, the slot receiver run a give-and-go, and the inside receiver run a curl route. The Seahawks are in Cover Three, and New England is overloading it to get White wide open for an easy completion against one of the best pass defenses in the league.
They are also awesome at spreading out base defenses by going empty with 2x1x2 personnel. Against Baltimore, the Patriots placed White as the outside right wide receiver. He runs a simple slant and beats the very good Zach Orr, who takes a bad angle when he breaks on the ball. White proceeds to take it 61 yards before being chased down from behind. The Pats are so good at stretching defenses and opening the field up.
Lewis, Chris Hogan, and Julian Edelman are all mice skittering across the field. The Patriots also use Martellus Bennett well against smaller corners. Every pass attempt is an opportunity for a mismatch. When it is there, Brady finds it and exploits it.
The other thing the Pats' passing offense has succeeded at is throwing down the field. They set up their deep passes with play-action and short passes so well. Even against the best passing defense in the league, the Patriots were able to craft downfield passes. On this play-action pass, Bennett blocks the outside zone and releases once Brady finishes his play-fake. Brady flows to the right away and from pressure. He doesn't even find Bennett, his most open player. Instead he looks to the center of the field. Chris Hogan runs inside like he's blocking, then cuts outside on a corner route. Brady places the ball perfectly between the corner and the safety.
Despite not having great downfield receivers, New England is one of the better teams at throwing deep down field. Brady is 12-16 for 383 yards with four touchdowns on deep middle throws, 14-28 for 460 yards with four touchdowns on deep right throws, and 11-31 for 334 yards with one touchdown and one interception on deep left throws.
To stop the best passing offense (other than the one in Atlanta), Houston has to continue to play great coverage. A.J. Bouye, Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Andre Hal, and AFC Defensive Player of the Month Quintin Demps all need to have great games. The Pats love to go into five receiver sets. These five corners and everyone they sub in are going to have to be great in coverage when they are on the field. Houston needs to play tight coverage and jam receivers at the line. Scheme be damned, they have to be more talented and just better than the Pats' receivers. If they play off-man coverage, or allow separation on quick slants, outs, or ins, without getting New England into third down, they won't be able to hold them to that magic 20 point mark.
Houston also has to get pressure without blitzing. Their four rushers have to get in Brady's face, take away throwing lanes with their arms, and hit him. They have to rush his footwork and throw off the timing of this passing offense. Houston's pass rush has been average this year; the bulk of their front four pass rush has come from the edge. This team doesn't have an interior rush except for stunts and Romeo Crennel master designed inside blitzes.
The problem with that is twofold. Edge rushes can't get to Brady quick enough unless it is Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware jumping the snap and running around last year's miserable offensive line. The pressure needs to come up the middle. The defender has a quicker route to the quarterback and can actually get there before the ball is released, and the rusher can knock away passes to that part of the field. Interior pass blocking is also the weakness of New England's offensive line. The other is that by blitzing to create an inside rush, you put even more pressure on a secondary stretched across the field. Brady will find Lewis against Benardrick McKinney. He'll find Hogan open against Kareem Jackson. Against the blitz, Brady is 79-120 for 1,024 yards, 8.5 yards an attempt, 15 touchdowns, sacked only three times, and has a quarterback rating of 131.4, according to data provided from Pro Football Focus.
The last team to beat the Pats with defense alone was the Broncos last year. In that game, they knocked Brady down 20 times. They pressured him on 33.3% of his dropbacks. They sacked him four times and picked him off twice, all while blitzing just 14.6% of the time. That game, they held New England to 18 points. The only offense they needed was two Peyton Manning passes to Owen Daniels.
This is what Houston needs to do to win tomorrow night. Crennel is going to need to come up with some new looks, new blitzes, new coverages, new things that make Brady's mind work a little bit slower, to get him to hold onto the ball for longer. The secondary and pass rush will have to work in unison without blitzing. They'll have to jam the line of scrimmage, cover well, and create an obscene amount of pressure.
Even if I think their secondary can handle New England's skill players, I don't think Houston can get the pressure to pull this off. The Patriots' offensive line is much better this season with Dante Scarrnecchia back as the offensive line coach. Marcus Cannon has improved tremendously this year under him, and Nate Solder is playing left tackle instead of Sebastian Vollmer.
Last week Jadeveon Clowney had a monster game against Menelik Watson. Both of these tackles are much better than Watson. Clowney has been great against bad offensive linemen, but still hasn't had an Oakland-esque game against really good ones. Whitney Mercilus is going to have a tough match-up against either one of these tackles too. This sounds like sacrilege, but D.J. Reader against Joe Thurney is the only pass rush match-up I really like for Houston.
Houston won't have the pass rush success with individual matchups. Instead, stunts to create an interior rush are going to be what they need to use. The only downside is those take awhile to develop, and Brady gets the ball out so quickly. But if the Texans cover well enough, and Crennel can confuse Brady, they can take advantage of New England's murky inside pass blocking.
The Texans already love to use these stunts. Here is Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus lined up to the right against a man blocking protection on that side. McKinney crashes inside to open up the loop for Mercilus. McKinney drives the tackle away in the process, opening up the rush and creating the sack for himself.
Even if the pass game is held in check, the Patriots have shown they can win in other ways. They have a really great power run game going up against a Texans' run defense that has allowed 4.0 yards a carry (13th), has a DVOA of -8.6% (17th), and gave up 185 yards rushing in their first match-up. The DVOA and efficiency isn't there because New England has gone up big in so many games, running the ball in blowouts to go home early. Lewis is bouncy and can create magic out of nothing. LaGarrette Blount is still big and strong; he grinds teeth between the tackles. They are a great inside running team because of what both these backs offer, Shaq Mason's great pulling ability, their strong double teams, and James Develin's CTE-soaked cowboy collar lead blocking.
This play is the staple of the Patriots' run game. It's power and Develin leading the way to the safety. It's a thrashing with bodies and limbs flying everywhere like a blender without the top on.
This is the biggest game of Benardrick McKinney's career. Both him and Brian Cushing are going to be up against Mason and Develin on power and lead runs. They each will need to go through or around these blocks to make plays and stop this inside run game. If not, and if New England runs successfully, it's going to open up a Patriots' play-action game that is fourth in the league, averaging 9.5 yards a play. It will add another dimension to their game and give them an out if the pass defense is incredible.
There's a path for Houston to detonate this monolith. If they run the ball outside well, if they limit the number of possessions Tom Brady gets, if they hit some deep passes to the deep middle or to the deep right sideline, if Will Fuller has a big game, if Brock Osweiler doesn't throw interceptions, if Houston can get pressure on Brady without blitzing (especially on the interior), if they play tight coverage and tackle well, if they aren't caught off guard by their manufactured deep passing attempts, and if they stop their power run game, the Texans will win. If they do enough of these things for them to hold New England to less than 20 points, and if they can pass that mark themselves, the Texans will win. The problem is that's a lot of things.
Prediction: New England 31, Houston 20.
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