The Patriots are evil. They’re evil in that there’s this sense of foreboding doom that wells up inside of you. It always works out for them. They always have the other team’s number. New England finds the sore spot is and pushes it. For the Texans, that spot was in their secondary.
Despite what you’ve read, the game last Sunday wasn’t won or lost in the last moments by a missed interception or poor clock management during the Texans’ final offensive possession. It was lost at various points during the game by a series of errors on the part of Houston’s safeties. In typical Patriots fashion, they punished these errors with precision.
Before we go into what went wrong, let’s talk about what the Texans tried to do against the Patriots’ offense last week. The Texans focused specifically on neutralizing the Patriots’ running backs out of the backfield and restricting the space allowed to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. To do this, the Texans primarily employed two coverage schemes. One is Cover 1 and the other is Cover 4.
Cover 1’s strengths lie in the ability to get tight man coverage across the board while also having safety help across the middle in both the intermediate and deep zones. Former NFL DB Matt Bowen did a breakdown of Cover 1 awhile ago in which he described the basic principles and goals of Cover 1:
Cover 1 is a first-day install scheme with defenders playing man coverage from an outside leverage position and using the free safety help in the middle of the field.
The core idea is to take away outside breaking routes by alignment (outside shade) and force (or “funnel”) receivers inside of the numbers to the free safety and underneath the “hole” defender.
Simply put, Cover 1 asks defensive backs to sell out against out routes, go routes, and fade routes in order to push the wide receivers back towards the middle of the field where there is safety help. From the Texans’ perspective, Cover 1 works quite nicely for them in terms of creating favorable match-ups against the Patriots’ plethora of weapons.
The Texans ran tight man coverage on both Gronkowski and James White with Eddie Pleasant and Zach Cunningham (I’ve marked the player and his corresponding coverage assignment with the same color circles). As for the wide receivers, the Pats have Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks on the outside; each is given a healthy cushion by Johnathan Joseph and Johnthan Banks. Kareem Jackson is playing tight man coverage against Danny Amendola in the slot. This look gives the Texans some room in regards to any potential deep threats by hopefully allowing the corners to stay on top of the routes while any routes that come over the middle will run right in Andre Hal. On the surface, this looks like it’s got all the bases covered, yet things are about to go really bad really fast.
Here the Patriots start James White out wide alongside Brandin Cooks. They do this kind of thing all the time to sniff out what kind of coverage the defense is running. The Texans stay rather disciplined by not throwing a man out with White to tip their hand that they’re running man coverage. As you can see below, Pleasant and Cunningham are almost on the opposite sides of the line of their coverage assignment.
Once the ball gets snapped, Gronk helps out against J.J. Watt by throwing a quick chip block before releasing out into the flat where Eddie Pleasant is waiting for him. Zach Cunningham has slid over to meet James White just as he prepares to break out into the flat. Hogan and Cooks meanwhile are running go routes.
Check out Johnthan Banks’ stance here. He is matched up at the bottom of the screen against Cooks, and he is selling out hard against any deep or sideline route. He’s turned his shoulders outwards in anticipation of flipping his hips so he can run with Cooks should Cooks run the go. Banks can also break hard on Cooks if he’s running an out route.
If Cooks is running a post, there is no corner in the NFL who will be able to recover from that stance and not give up separation to him. Not that it would matter, because as we discussed earlier, inside breaking routes are what Cover 1 tries to force offenses into.
Cooks isn’t running a post, though. He’s running a go, and to him, this kind of tactic by defensive backs is nothing new. Cooks has seen this throughout his career. Defensive backs dare him to try and beat them over the top with his speed. Cooks’ speed is what the Patriots wanted when they traded for him. They wanted a guy who ate the five yard cushions DBs give him and wouldn’t give a damn if corners were selling out to stop him running by them. This scenario isn’t helped by the fact that Banks isn’t the most fleet of foot. Coming out of college he ran a 4.61 at the NFL Combine. He’s going against Cooks, who ran a 4.33. This is already a mismatch and it’s about to get a lot worse.
In the image above, you see Corey Moore, who is playing as the deep safety, shade slightly more towards the side of the field where the Hogan-Joseph match-up is. There’s a very good reason for that.
This is where the play falls apart for the Texans. As Moore is dropping deeper into his coverage, he’s reading Tom Brady’s eyes the entire way. If you watch Brady’s helmet very closely, you can see he is reading from right to left. Only at the last possible second does he actually look in Cooks’ direction. Brady’s eye discipline keeps Moore in place by making him think he’s looking either to Hogan on the right side or Gronk underneath. Moore plays simply what he sees. The problem is Brady is playing him like a fiddle. He’s keeping Moore in that spot to make sure he won’t be able to get over to provide cover for Banks against Cooks. The result of this deception is this:
Cooks runs by Banks. Moore can’t get over in time. Brady flings a absolute dime to Cooks for a 44 yard completion. This ends up leading to a Patriots field goal, but it is an omen of things to come.
Is Cover 1 not dealing with those deep threats? Are you feeling vunerable to Tom Brady manipulating your safeties with some ancient witchcraft? Well, fear not. Cover 4 is here to save the day (sort of). As Matt Bowen describes it:
Cover 4 (or "Quarters" coverage) is a four-deep, three-under zone defense that uses man-to-man principles while creating opportunities for both the free and strong safety to double (or "bracket") the No. 1 wide receivers.
Think of both cornerbacks and the two safeties in a standard four-deep look (cornerbacks align at seven to eight yards off the ball, safeties at 10-12 yards) with two underneath flat defenders and a linebacker playing the "middle hook" to wall off any inside breaking concept.
In essence, this is a concept that has four deep zones with three short to intermediary zones like this:
*Bear with my crude John Madden impersonation, please.*
The Patriots are running three wide receivers and two tight ends. They are looking to overload some of the Texans’ zones to create an easy short completion. The Texans, meanwhile, are going to try and bracket the two outside receivers; they want to see if Tom Brady will throw into double coverage (he won’t).
As you can see, the Patriots are trying to create a overload in Johnathan Joseph’s zone by having Brandin Cooks feign a deep route while Chris Hogan works an out route underneath. To defend this requires excellent communication and timing on the part of Andre Hal and Johnathan Joseph. Joseph needs to pass off Cooks to Hal, who is ranging over to help, while Joseph crashes back down on Hogan’s route underneath. This doesn’t happen.
It’s a miscommunication that leads to a easy first down. It’s what happened afterwards that’s quite interesting. Hal and Joseph both realize the mistake and confer, making sure that the next time the Patriots try something like that Joseph will attack the underneath route while Hal covers over the top. There’s one small problem with this. The Patriots know this. Bill Belichek and OC Josh McDaniels know exactly what’s going on with the Texans’ Cover 4. They hatch a brutal plan to punish it.
This is almost identical to the formation in the play before. More importantly, it’s the same alignment, with Cooks and Hogan working against Joseph and Hal. To Hal’s and Joseph’s credit, they get the call right this time. When Cooks accelerates and Hogan breaks on his out route, Joseph drops onto Hogan and Hal goes over the top to protect against Cooks.
This is heartbreaking to watch. It’s a car crash in slow motion. As you can see, Hogan isn’t breaking to the outside. He’s breaking upfield to those many hectares of greenery that make up the deep middle of the zone. The irony is that Cooks isn’t actually going over the top at all. Much like he did above, he’s breaking back towards the sideline on a comeback route, right into Joseph’s zone, while Hogan is running where Hal would typically be. This is partially evil mastery by the Pats to recognize what the Texans’ safeties were doing and partially on the Texans’ safeties (Corey Moore included) for not being more disciplined in their zones. Moore has shaded all the way across like he did before to help Kareem Jackson with Rob Gronkowski, but in the process he’s also vacated his zone.
The Patriots are not done destroying Houston’s safeties. They have one final horror to unleash.
Thus, we arrive at this play. There are 30 seconds left. The Pats have driven down the field and need a TD in order to take the lead. The Texans are in prevent defense with four safeties and two linebackers on the field. One of those linebackers is Benardrick McKinney; he’ll be blitzing along with Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney. Meanwhile the other linebacker, Zach Cunningham, is going to take the deep middle zone. Eddie Pleasant and Marcus Gilchrist will take the two shorter middle zones while Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph take the shorter boundary zones. Corey Moore and Andre Hal take the two other deep zones.
Here’s where things fall apart. Brady keeps his vision firmly on the two receivers to his left, never looking at Chris Hogan on the opposite side. The Texans’ safeties think they’ve seen this movie before, but unfortunately they haven’t. Corey Moore is kept in place by Danny Amendola running up the seam and Tom Brady keeping his eyes firmly locked on those two routes on the left. Zach Cunningham is sprinting to get into the middle zone to help relieve Moore’s obligation so he can help cover Cooks. Amendola is running a post route to the middle of the end zone where Cunningham should be covering. Brady is already in his wind-up.
Moore is too slow to get to Cooks, and that’s what kills the Texans. All day, the Patriots knew where the Texans were weak, and they kept going after it. Time after time, both Moore and Hal were caught out of position or were too easily manipulated by the Patriots’ offensive scheming.
The larger problem here is that the Texans don’t really have great deep corners to help the safeties with these faster receivers. Kareem Jackson is still shuffle-stepping like he’s back at Alabama. Johnthan Banks and Johnathan Joseph just can’t keep up on deep routes. It puts more and more strain on Moore and Hal, who just aren’t good enough to deal with it.
The Patriots were ruthless in their dismantling of the Texans’ secondary. The question now is whether or not the Texans can adjust to this over the rest of the season.