The Houston Texans' defense was incredible this past season. They were seventh in DVOA at -6.9%. They allowed 20.5 points a game, which was 11th in the league. They were first in yards allowed. They were incredible on their own, and even more so when you remove the best player in the NFL, J.J. Watt, from the roster.
What they did against the Patriots in the Divisional Round surpassed every great regular season feat. They went up against the second-best passing offense and gave Houston's offense a shot in a game they had no ammunition in. Tom Brady had the lowest completion percentage of his postseason career at 47.37%, the worst since last year's AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos. Brady threw two interceptions, as many interceptions as he threw during the entire regular season. The Patriots' rushing attack was limited to less than four yards a carry. New England did score 34 points, but 14 of those were the result of a Dion Lewis kickoff return touchdown and a Brock Osweiler interception that was returned to the Texans' six yard line. Yes, New England would have had two more offensive possessions to pick up points and yards, but Houston actually confused and flustered Brady, stopped the run, and possibly could have held New England to that mystical 20 point mark...if the Texans' offense and special teams was just lousy in a vacuum.
How did the Texans do it? Houston loaded the box to stop the Patriots' rushing attack. In 2x2x1 formations or 2x1x2 formations, the Texans responded with a human wall. At times there would be eight or nine guys in there. The front seven would hold their own, and the eighth or ninth man, Kareem Jackson or Andre Hal, would rocket free or shoot past Julian Edelman blocks to the ball carrier. They played strong. They maintained their gaps. They tackled well.
On this play, it is first and ten. New England has 2x1x2 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, and two receivers). They are trying to run a lead play to the right against a Texans' front that has nine defenders in the box. Houston's defensive line slants to the left. Martellus Bennett doesn't know who to block and fails to take the first derivative. Julius Edelman, as he did the entire game, can't crack inside to make his block.
Because of the slants and confusion, Whitney Mercilus gets doubled by Bennett and Edelman. As a result, both Brian Cushing and Andre Hal are unblocked. They're in the hole and sitting in a recliner, like a cliche movie dad waiting for his teenage daughter to get home. Kareem Jackson is bouncing around in the slot just in case Blount tries to bounce the run outside.
There isn't a great play made here. Everyone holds their ground and stays in their gap. It's the overwhelming front and the stunt that creates free defenders to hold this first down play to an unsuccessful two yards. For the majority of the game, the Patriots' running attack looked like this. Middling yardage against fat boxes. Solid play mixed with the occasional great individual effort. Aside from some big runs over the left tackle and outside on the edges, New England was held in check running the ball.
The key to the Texans' defensive effort was what they did to the Patriots' second-ranked passing offense (according to DVOA). The Texans weren't perfect. There were three things that prevented them from completely replicating what Denver did to the Patriots last year. Kareem Jackson played safety and slot corner the entire game; in the slot, he could not cover Edelman, who had 8 catches on 13 targets for 137 yards. Still, the Texans also gave up too many deep passes in their single high safety sets. Despite having a 47.37% completion rate, Brady still averaged 7.55 yards an attempt. New England took advantage of their running backs matched up in man coverage against Benardrick McKinney.
The Pats are going to find your flaws. The will discover your deepest secrets, and they stick their fingers in them. They are going to score. They did score. These three mismatches were that, yet, for 95% of the game, Houston stifled New England.
The key here was the pressure Romeo Crennel was able to generate. The Texans hampered the Pats. The Texans' pass rush and coverage had to work in unison. Teams can't give Brady all the time in the world. They have to cover long enough for the rush to have a chance to make a difference against Brady's quick decision-making and release. The Texans did that.
Heading into this game, it seemed like getting pressure was going to be a dilemma. Houston's best pass rushers, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, play on the outside. New England has two good tackles in Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder, each of whom can hold their own against the Texans. On the edge, running backs, receivers, and tight ends have the opportunity to and chip and stick knives into pass rushers' ribs before dipping out on their route. Unless you are Von Miller teleporting off the snap, you can't get to Brady fast enough from the edge. It's a longer path to Brady, and he can saunter up into the pocket to get away. When rushing from the outside, Brady had eons to throw the ball. He bobs in the pocket, conducts traffic, and wastes his life away until someone, anyone, breaks free.
Throughout the season, Crennel had made up for the lack of interior pressure by blitzing McKinney and Cushing and using stunts. In this game, Crennel took it a step forward. He played Mercilus and Clowney on the interior. He used both these players how he used J.J. Watt when he had THE CLUB in 2015; he had them rush from the A and B gaps to get to Brady quicker and take advantage of lesser pass blockers.
Here, Mercilus is a "0" technique lined up over the center. To the right of him is Clowney as a "3" technique on the outside shoulder of the left guard. McKinney and Cushing are on the edge and dropping back in coverage. When the ball is snapped, Mercilus takes one step and immediately spins inside. The center is left aghast. He tries to recover back inside but never even gets a real punch off. Mercilus is in Brady's face when he plants at the end of his drop.
This sack on 3rd and 6 takes New England out of field goal position and keeps the score 14-13.
Even when the defender doesn't get there, interior pressure leads to a premature, immediate, and forced ejection of the football. Instead of reading the field from deep to short, it keeps the quarterback's eyes down. He's forced to react and look for his checkdown, settling instead of really living.
Here, Jadeveon Clowney is standing up as a horrifying inside linebacker on the inside shoulder of the left guard. He bolts inside and the guard reacts quickly, leaping from helping with D.J. Reader to picking up the blitz. This leaves the entire center of the line open, with Blount running to the left to catch the pass. Cushing blitzes from a deep linebacker position. He screeches free through the hole and gets close enough to spew spittle into that pretty face. Brady does the smart thing and checks the ball down to Bennett, who's running a dig in the short middle part of the field.
Coverage-wise, the Texans are in Cover One Robber. Corey Moore is the deep safety with Jackson (who played safety quite often against the Patriots) playing underneath him, roving the center of the field. Jackson recognizes the play instantly and knows where Brady will have to go with the ball with the open blitz coming at him. He comes downhill, clubs Bennett's legs, and makes one of his signature tackles.
This play is a perfect example of coverage and rush working together. The rush forces a quick pass. The coverage is suds in a rabid mouth. They are all over the dump-off. They don't allow the quick pass to take advantage of the blitz as it so often does.
Aside from stacking the box and generating inside pressure, Crennel also confused the heck out of Brady at times. The Texans used multiple fronts throughout the season, but they never were as androgynous as this. They used Bear fronts, the usual 3-4, the Clowney/Mercilus ILB combo as shown earlier, 4x4x3 defenses, and they spread out formations with fluid camouflage rushers to go along with six defensive backs.
It worked. Tom Brady wasn't as sharp, crisp, and perfect as he usually is. The decisiveness wasn't there the entire time. Because of the coverage in the secondary and the anti-plot looks, Brady had to delay and hold onto the ball longer than usual. This led not only to his low completion percentage, but to two interceptions as well.
Since the Patriots loooooooove to throw quick passes and passes to the flat, Houston countered by showing blitz, only for their backers to scurry into zone coverage. Here, New England is running a play-action pass and is pulling their right guard to really sell a power run play out of the shotgun. Cushing and Moore both sit in the box in reaction. They stare down both Blount and Bennett in case they sneak off. McKinney drops back in coverage once he recognizes pass, reads Brady's eyes, and comes to the middle of the field.
After taking two steps backwards, McKinney breaks on the ball. It pops back off his hands like a volleyball set to the diving Andre Hal, all while A.J. Bouye plays excellent coverage on Edelman in the slot and Mercilus beats Cannon with a spin, forcing Brady to toss something before he was ready. It is yet another example of the rush and coverage working in unison.
Both of Houston's interceptions came off tipped passes that flipped back to someone in the right spot in the right time. These interceptions were the result of consistently great coverage and deflections. Much like how sacks that are the end results of pressures and hits when the stars align, these interceptions were no different. They also handed points over to the Texans' offense. One pick started a drive at New England's 27 yard line and the other at New England's 34 yard line, leading to six points.
What made Houston's coverage so great this year wasn't because they are great at press coverage or sticking all over receivers. What made their coverage great was their ability to play off the ball and recognize routes. Even against the super-secret and very smart Patriots, the Texans were able to read the receiver's body, see where he was angled at the crossroads of his route, and react instantly.
This is Bouye almost intercepting a slant route to Michael Floyd, a play nearly identical to the one that did lead to an interception. Bouye is playing nearly eight yards off the receiver on first and ten. He takes two backward steps, flattens out, and comes down on Floyd once his shoulders turn inside. James Develin's route is too short to pick Bouye. A.J. is free and gets to the ball before it arrives, almost creating a turnover.
Additionally, look across the field. New England is in 0x0x5 personnel. They are spreading Houston's base defense out since they have two backs on the field. In the past, this was how the Patriots crushed Houston. They would go empty from sea to shining sea and find open players littered across the field, with Brady getting rid of the ball before pressure could make the difference. This year Houston finally had the horses to counter and cover these offensive formations.
The last thing Houston did to kind of sort hold the Patriots to just twenty points was just make some goshdarned football plays. Sometimes the most important thing is to just be better than the competition. To just be a talented athlete and make something happen.
This play by Eddie Pleasant was the quintessential example of a game filled with beautiful defensive moments. On second and one, the Patriots, who have one of the best play-action offenses, fake the hand-off to Blount. Brady has two options. He can throw the deeper out to Bennett or the shorter one to James Develin. Brady sees Mercilus come downhill after him, so he throws to the fullback.
Pleasant runs with Bennett, but peels off like he's stopping a fast break in basketball once Brady commits and attacks Develin. Pleasant weighs 40 pounds less than Develin. Yet with his speed and leverage, Bouye is able to come under and explode into him to prevent him from crossing the goal line. Develin's strength keeps him from tumbling backwards. Both players stick like magnets, traveling horizontally, fighting for a few inches. Luckily for Pleasant and the Texans, Akeem Dent sees the pass too. He comes down the goal line and finishes the tackle, making you realize that yes, Akeem Dent is still on this roster.
This play, the one previous, and the one that followed held the Pats to three points before the half on a epic goal line stand, making the game 17-13 instead of a possibly insurmountable 20-13 deficit for this Texans' offense.
This game happened two weeks ago, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was the culmination of an incredible season from an incredible defense that saw its younger players grow, develop, and stand on their own without that star shining all over everything. For the first time, the Texans' defense actually matched the Pats' offense, the team you have to beat to get to a Super Bowl for the last six years in the AFC. Houston stacked the box to snarf down the run, created an interior rush creatively, saw their rush work together with their coverage, reacted to routes, played great coverage, and confused the most prepared quarterback and coaching staff in the game. The Texans simply made plays.
Finally, the Texans played a game against the Patriots where a couple of breaks went their way and they could have won. They finally had the defense to pull it off. Again, it didn't matter. Because again, like it was all year, Houston's offense and special teams were festering burnt flesh masquerading as something with substance. Because again, Bill O'Brien had a passive, keep things close game plan as the head coach of sixteen point underdogs. The Texans let their defense down, like they had all year. Consequently, the winnable turned into a an inflated end result.
There's still good news. It's just the same news as always, just a bit better. The Texans have the defense to contend for a Super Bowl. They have the best defense they've had since 2011. If they resign A.J. Bouye. If Kevin Johnson and J.J. Watt come back fully healthy. If they don't deal with cataclysmic injuries, this could possibly be an all-time great defense. Yet, like the past three years, it's all going to depend on the trash heap that coagulates behind the center.
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