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Texans-Patriots Preview: SIX Things to Watch For

The past is already past. Here are SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Patriots.

Hull Daily Life Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots spent 20 years with Tom Brady as their primary starting quarterback. During that time the Patriots went 291-64, won 17 division championships, 9 conference championships, and 6 Super Bowls. They transformed their team from a brutal defense with him as a game manager, to a frenetic quick passing attack, to a vertical high riser, to a dual tight end monstrosity, and then back to a quick passing attack, until the break up happened. Bill Belichick had a bare cupboard for a Brady led offense, and Brady turned Tampa Bay into Tompa Bay, ordained with flowers and Hawaiian t-shirts, riding off into a Panama tequila sunsent. Nothing ever stays the same, but the hard part is admitting when it’s gone forever.

New England continuously evolved with Brady at the helm. Utilizing his changing skill set, along with the rule book changes, to morph along throughout an entire lifetime and continue to roost among the NFL’s precipice. Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Randy Moss, Mike Vrable, Teddy Bruschi, Logan Mankins, Ben Watson, Wes Welker, Asante Samuel, and so many others, came in and out, and throughout that entire time, one thing remained at the center—Tom Brady.

Every head coach and general manager works in unison to build a franchise’s culture. For the Patriots, the mantra was Do your Job. If your job was to drive the cornerback upfield and sit so the linebacker couldn’t cross to open up your teammate’s route you did it. If you had to plow into 650 pounds of fat to open up the loop for your teammate you did it. If you were tasked with mugging the offensive tackle to box the outside zone inwards you did it. It was never a question of what your role was. It was defined. It was clearly communicated. You carried it out. You did your job.

The culture carried the Patriots dynasty. Players came in and out, carrying out their tasks, so they could replace those that came before them. Tom Brady was the cart though. He’s the greatest quarterback of all-time, still, and always will be. He was a team building cheat code. The structure, the foundation, the framing. The Patriots way exists, but the Patriots way is really, draft and develop the greatest quarterback of all-time and have him take a discounted contract year after year, so you can fill in the gaps with veterans who will take a pay cut to make a run at it.

New England consistently evolved around this central premise. Now the mitochondria is gone. The Patriots polarity has filliped. The Do Your Job mantra is now the cart instead of the horse. The culture has taken over for the talent, but without the talent, the culture becomes empty words and listless phrases.

For the first time since Adalius Thomas, the Patriots went all in on free agency. New England spent $320 million, and $170 million guaranteed to add starters across the roster. Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Jalen Mills, Nelson Agholor, Davon Godchaux, Kendrick Bourne, Kyle Van Noy, Henry Anderson, and they traded for their former right tackle Trent Brown. Before they would rely on veterans taking cheap deals here and there to fill the holes and complete the roster. Without him, the Patriots finally needed to spend.

In unison with this, New England drafted Mac Jones with their first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He beat out Cam Newton this training camp for the starting job. The esoteric Instagram posts were deleted. The posters were pulled off the walls. The Patriots finally went supernova. After orbiting around Brady for two decades, they built a new sun, to mold their team around.

The Patriots have changed season after season, while maintaining the same quarterback, bending to his abilities, and the game’s own reverberations that they created. That is finally gone forever. Last year was a wake. His clothes in the closet, his cologne on top of the vanity, his Sudafed in the medicine cabinet, it’s all been tossed away. The Patriots finally went from adjusting, to a complete and total renovation.

This is more than a new era. It’s an end to what happened before. This is Blockbuster removing late fees, an IPod without a touch screen, the purring of a diesel engine. The change last season was easy—moving on from Tom to an optimistic future. Previous impossibilities has clanged into reality. What was is no longer here. The days in the sun are gone. It’s all over. The Patriots aren’t the Patriots without Tom Brady, and as much as they fight this fact, as much as they do everything to turn things back, those things that occurred, merely did that, they occurred. The present is no longer tied to the past.

HIT IT

1. WHO? MAC JONES. WHO? MAC JONES.

It’s a sour year for rookie quarterbacks. Five were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft: Trevor Lawrence, who is now a zone read quarterback, Trey Lance, who is afraid of being tackled and can’t control the ball, Zach Wilson, a deep throwing demon who loves to make mistakes, Justin Fields, trounced behind an offensive line blocking six with five, and Mac Jones, who is unlike them, is completely fine.

The one thing the Patriots have done, that the other teams haven’t, is put Mac Jones in an offense that works to his skillset. Jones has some athleticism, but is mainly a decision maker with a quick release. He’s at his best in empty and five wide receiver sets where he can read the coverage and in an instant, spit the ball out to his receivers.

Against cover one, in the redzone, Jones fakes the flat once, and in the process, he sees Antoine Winfield Jr. (#31) picking up Hunter Henry, who breaks off mesh to something upfield. A kid’s meal compared to something Super Sized, Henry shields off Winfield, catches the pass, spins through the tackle and scores.

On 2nd and 9, Jones fakes the hand off from the shotgun. He checks the safety. Sees him sit deep middle and understands the middle of the field is closed. With Jakobi Myers running a dig across the formation, without safety help, against cornerback Paulson Adebo, who has struggled in pure man matchups, Jones locks onto him. Without pressure, calm, he puts it right on Myers.

3rd and 4. Jones motion Henry wide into a stacked set. The #1 receiver runs upfield, carrying the press coverage with him. This also creates clutter. Making it impossible for the switch cornerback to break and take the #2. Henry runs an angle route, sneaking behind the mess, before exploding nude from behind the dumpster. He’s open. Jones sees it. It’s an easy conversion.

Against cover three, he takes the snap, and quick hits the seam.

On deep passes, Jones has stayed away from the deep middle. Most of his completions have been touch passes down the sideline. Especially taking the form of wheel routes. The ball is a sativa, high and warm, landing in his receiver’s arms.

He doesn’t have the arm strength to really sling it. Deep posts are fuzzy, allowing the safety to scorch to the ball and make a play. Zapping one to a receiver 30 yards in stride isn’t an option. It’s a moon bounce. The ball floats.

Without perfect technique, and footwork, the arm isn’t here to really drive the ball. He can play point guard from a spread attack, but if the feet aren’t set, and the throw is all arm, the ball is wobbly to its end destination. He has to hold the button to charge his throw.

Jones is the most steady of all the rookie quarterbacks. He doesn’t have the flashes Lawrence, or Fields, or Wilson have, but he’s consistent. A -16.9% DVOA isn’t good, but it’s the highest mark of all the rookie quarterbacks. Josh McDaniel has done a fine job using spread shotgun formations so Jones can hit his receivers quick, play action to attack the middle of the field, and atypical sideline route combinations where his touch can come into play.

There’s one glaring mark in his game. Under pressure, especially on the interior, he tosses balls to the center of the field, blind, into traffic, and these have turned into interceptions.

I’m at the point where I wouldn’t draft a quarterback early unless he can create on his own with his legs and his arms. Jones isn’t a sloth, but you can’t expect him to take off and get seven on 3rd and 6. He has zero rushing yards this season. In the pocket, he can’t dodge rushers, or quickly eject, which forces him to make a throw he can’t make, leading to horrific incompletions, or maddening interceptions.

Jones is like Brady after 27 Budweisers. It’s the same dumpy body. It’s the same quick spread offense. It’s just dumbed down. The number of beers it takes for someone who loves the GUNPOWDAH to forget the past, and move onto the current future, is about 27 beers. The brain isn’t as sharp. The ball isn’t as crisp. Jones is currently a middle manager. Unlike the other rookie quarterbacks who have shown elite traits to build upon, Jones is showing all around competence. He’s a quarterback who will have to win with brains and accuracy. Through four weeks, Jones has been the best rookie quarterback, but the future potential is missing.

2. DAVIS MILLS IN A DAVID CULLEY OFFENSE

Back in 2014, the Texans opted to not draft a quarterback in the second round, and instead chose offensive guard Su’a-Filo. Instead they selected quarterback of the future Tom Savage in the fourth round. Savage was a tall, slow, big armed quarterback, the archetype that Bill O’Brien lusted for. He lasted his entire rookie contract in Houston, and the entire time he was awful. Easy missed passes. Drowsy dropbacks. Clumsy footwork.

During this time there was hope, and there was a clamoring, that Savage only needed enough time to develop into a good quarterback. This wasn’t true. This didn’t share the same solar system as the truth. Savage was older in college, and was bad in Pittsburgh, and was still bad in the NFL.

The Texans are going through a similar set of circumstances this year. With their first selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, despite being slated to select third because of the Laremy Tunsil trade, the Texans selected Davis Mills in the third round. He wasn’t good in college. He lacked the down to down accuracy to consistently move the chains, he didn’t have the athleticism to overcome this, and he was inebriated in the pocket. The only thing he pulled off well was throwing to the sideline with touch.

Through ten quarters of football, the Texans have a point differential of -65 with Mills at quarterback. Mills is averaging 5.3 yards an attempt, is averaging 1.63 net yards an attempt, has a completion percentage of 56.7%, and has taken 8 sacks. He has the second worst DVOA in the NFL at -71.9%, which is only ahead of Justin Fields. Last week, in Houston’s 40-0 loss to Buffalo, Mills had the third worst quarterback rating in franchise history with 23.4, outlasting only David Carr in 2005 with 12.1, and Carr again with 8.2 in 2002.

Mills can only throw three routes. He can barely throw screen passes. His only completion in the first half against Buffalo scraped the turf.

He can throw curls and comebacks to Brandin Cooks.

And he can throw quick outs when rolling out.

That’s it. That’s the route tree. There’s no real quarterbacking. Mills is a turd and Tim Kelly is out of glitter. Without a run game to speak of, playing behind an offenisve line that has problems with stunts, this league entrance couldn’t have gone any worse. Mills wasn’t ready in the preseason, he still isn’t ready, and no, if he stayed for another season he wouldn’t have been a first round pick. Mills hasn’t shown anything pointing towards him being a possible starting quarterback. Tick, tick, tick, the clock is moving. He has another month to do so before Tyrod Taylor comes back.

3. DOMINANCE AND ATTRITION

The Texans have morphed from a cover two to a cover three defense last week against Buffalo. Like those of us who were born too late to travel the Earth, and too early to travel the universe, the 2021 Houston Texans don’t have the cornerback play to play man coverage, the linebacker play and pass rush to play cover two, or the safety play to play cover three. No matter what they have tried, it hasn’t worked out.

Last week in their cover three defense they played Lonnie Johnson Jr. as their deep middle safety. He was mogged by Josh Allen multiple times.

Allen double pump faked, pulled Johnson Jr. over, and hit Dawson Knox for the easy score.

Using a pin concept (deep post over a deep in), Allen left the pocket, escaping pressure, and put one right on the sideline to Emmanuel Sanders.

Against cover one, Allen used his eyes to hold Johnson Jr., then hit the deep post against Desmond King for an easy gain.

Houston can’t play man coverage, since their cornerbacks are Tremon Smith, Vernon Hargreaves III, Tavierre Thomas, Terrance Mitchell, and Desmond King, they can’t blitz. They are relying on their front four pressure so they can spot drop into coverage.

Jacob Martin is a meme. He isn’t a football player. He doesn’t generate pressure. His chopping and flailing creates enough open paths where his speed can close the gap and finalize his rush. Overall, tackles set on his deep pass set, and laugh at his bullrush. Until he has an inside move, nothing he does really matters.

Opposite of him has been Charles Omenihu. He doesn’t have the speed or bend to rush the exterior, and is better off as an interior pass rusher where he can use pink lungs and long arms to get to the quarterback. Whitney Mercilus has three meek sacks. Demarcus Walker has been better as a run stopping defensive tackle than as a pass rusher. Janoris Jenkins doesn’t exist. The Texans edge rushers haven’t done much of anything. They’ve combined for five sacks, and ten quarterback hits through four games.

This is the first game where they should have a chance to really get pressure going. The Patriots have had problems protecting on the exterior, even when their offensive tackles were healthy.

The only conundrum is New England runs a quick passing offense. New England tries to scheme to get the ball out quick. Jones is still a rookie. It takes him time to find the open receiver, if there is one, and if there isn’t, he doesn’t have the feet to do anything with the ball. The key to rushing the passer against the Patriots is to attack Jones off play action. This is when they run their longer developing deeper pass concepts, and it opens the door to get to him.

Trent Brown lasted one half. Isaiah Wynn is on the COVID-19 list. Justin Herron and Yasir Durant have been the type of messes seen in the basements that third wave emo crawled out from. This week four of their five offensive line starters are listed as out. With Jones’s lack of mobility, the offensive line play, and the injuries New England’s offensive line is facing, this should and could finally be the game where the Texans pass rush brings something to the table.

4. NFL BLITZ

The Patriots have a great pass defense. They are one of the rare teams with the cornerback talent to be able to play man coverage. They use a lot of single high looks, where they expertly pass receivers around off the snap, stick to routes, and attack receivers at the snap. Like Miami, the Patriots can play pure man, and because of this, they can bring the blitz.

The only difference maker on their front seven up to this point has been Matthew Judon (#9). You can’t run boot legs away from him because he will go through outside shoulders to pick up the sack.

He overwhelms secondary blockers who shouldn’t be attempting to block him.

Josh Uche had a bullrush through a tripped rookie left tackle once. Aside from this, their pass rush hasn’t done much.

The blitz forces quick throws though, and when this happens, they have the secondary who can defend the quick passing game and leap onto passes. The best player on this defense is J.C. Jackson (#27). So far, quarterbacks have a rating of only 60.1 when he’s targeted.

He can run the route for the receiver and pick off passes.

Like every New England cornerback, he plays the ball well. They are all trained to do this. Even when their cornerbacks are beat, they aren’t beat. They pull hands, they shiv sides, they scrape scalps, they do everything they can to play the ball. Here Jackson defends the deep drag after getting beat because of what he does at the catch point.

He’s a tremendous tackler too. After losing on the drag, he goes low on Marquez Callaway’s stiff arm, and takes him out of bounds short of the marker.

Against a rookie quarterback, on the road, the Patriots are going to blitz the hell out of Mils. They’ll play zone coverage, they’ll pattern man match, they’ll overload the line of scrimmage, they’ll loop, they’ll twist, and they’ll blitz, to rain fury onto Mills. The Patriots have the second best pass defense by DVOA, and the seventh by adjusted yards an attempt. Mills is getting an easier opponent than Buffalo, but its still one that has its own set of challenges.

5. IF IT WAS EVER GOING TO HAPPEN IT THIS IS THE WEEK FOR IT TO HAPPEN

Despite a new offensive line coach, moving Tytus Howard to left guard, signing Justin Britt, and trading for Marcus Cannon, the Texans still can’t run the ball. They are 31st in DVOA at -38.6%, and 32nd in yards per attempt at 3.2.

I wrote about their run issues earlier this week. The experiment to move Howard to guard hasn’t worked, Laremy Tunsil is allergic to run blocking, Justin Britt is an outside zone center without an outside zone line, Max Scharping still isn’t strong enough to play the position, and the perfectly fine right tackle Marcus Cannon is expected to be out for Charlie Heck.

The good news is the Patriots can’t stop the run, still, even after adding Davon Godchaux, Kyle Van Noy (again), Judon, and getting Dont’a Hightower back after sitting out last season. The Patriots have a run defense DVOA of 2.1%, which is 29th, but hey, at least they’re ahead of Detroit, Houston, and Kansas City.

If Houston could, or if they finally do the run the ball, this could be an interesting game. Since they can’t, it’s two wet pieces of paper rubbing against each other. Maybe this is the week where Houston’s offensive line finally brings it, but probably not.

6. WE BUY BALLOONS, WE LET THEM GO.

I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.