Over the course of an NFL season, a lot of things get talked about. Some factors are overblown, some aren’t addressed enough.
Sunday’s 41-28 win over the Texans by the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs gave us ample reason to get back to something that had been apparent several times this season but fell through the cracks: Patriots running backs mentor Ivan Fears is one heck of a coach.
His group’s performance against the Texans was the icing on the cake in what has been a terrific season, especially considering that, outside of Danny Woodhead, the guys in Fears’s meeting room had played a grand total of 226 plays (less than 20 percent of a full season) combined.
Sure, the offensive line opened up some huge holes, and the Texans couldn’t get lined up and forgot to cover people, but Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Woodhead (injured on his first snap) were flawless except for one quarterback hurry allowed by Ridley in pass protection.
It’s really amazing what Fears has done with this group in two areas in which young backs struggle: choosing the right hole and pass protection.
Of the more than 500 running plays the Patriots have executed this season, you can just about count on one hand the amount of times a back’s decision on where to run the ball could be questioned: Vereen five, and Ridley and Woodhead one each.
That’s not quite as good as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead last season (one total), but it’s still impressive. Young players try to do too much, sometimes get impatient, or don’t see things the right way. Fears has drilled his guys repeatedly so they know how to read their keys, and they don’t hesitate. They just go.
Vereen has come a long way this season with the ball in his hand. A very smart player, Vereen always has been the best downfield receiver of the group, and he has shown the ability to play well in space and to make a guy miss because of his outstanding agility. But there were lingering doubts inside the team about his toughness, especially inside the tackles. Vereen never will be Ridley in that regard, but he has greatly improved and is a much more well-rounded back.
As far as pass blocking, this year’s group has really stood out. In 2011, Green-Ellis and Woodhead combined to allow 14.5 total quarterback pressures (3.5 sacks, 7 hurries, and 4 knockdowns).
This season, the running backs have allowed half as many quarterback pressures (7): 1 sack, 2 hurries, and 4 knockdowns.
The backs were poor in this area in training camp. We wrote on Aug. 13: “The running backs were fairly pathetic trying to block linebackers in one-on-one drills — losing each rep until the last.”
Against the Texans, the running backs executed four of their five blitz pickups to perfection.
Fears is known as a relentless perfectionist. On game day, he assumes the role of teacher, always consulting and discussing with his backs what they saw on the previous play and how it should have been done. He rides his backs hard on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, and you know he was doing extra work leading up to the Texans game.
Not only do the Texans blitz often (44.2 and 42.9 percent vs. the Patriots, which trailed only the Rams for frequency this season), but the running backs got sloppy at the end of the season. Vereen looked bad giving up a sack against the Jaguars, and Brandon Bolden and Woodhead couldn’t keep Tom Brady from being planted in the turf. Ridley let Brady take a shot against the Dolphins.
Vereen and Bolden were so poor you had to wonder if they would see the field again in that situation in the playoffs. Well, when Woodhead went out against the Texans, the Patriots had no choice but to trust Vereen and hope that Fears had brought him along.
As always, Fears had his guys ready in a big spot.
The positional ratings against the Texans:
Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)
Brady missed a few throws, but his decision-making was terrific and he made some key adjustments that burned the Texans. It was Brady being Brady on the second-and-1 play with 3:36 left in the third, where he likely audibled out of a run play. It was amazing that he identified Brooks Reed as the “Mike” linebacker — meaning the line was responsible for him if he rushed — when he was standing out in the flat. Wouldn’t you know it, Reed rushed and was picked up. The result was a 14-yard gain. It was a testament to Brady’s steadiness that he felt pressure much more than it appeared (31 percent of dropbacks, fourth-most this season). That was some throw by Brady on third and 8 with 13:31 left in the second quarter to Wes Welker. Logan Mankins allowed a little penetration so Brady couldn’t step into the throw, yet he still threw a dart. Don’t know how he did it, but Brady completed a 14-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez in the third quarter that fit between the flying arms of J.J. Watt and Barrett Ruud. The deep throws to Welker and Vereen were just dropped in a bucket. Phenomenal.
Running backs (5 out of 5)
Ridley and Vereen combined to break four tackles for an additional 47 yards, with almost all of it coming from Vereen. The Patriots adjusted to take advantage of Houston playing so much base defense against two-tight-end sets by splitting out the backs in the second half. Ridley had a few tough runs inside. Vereen saved offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from a lot of second guessing when he turned the second-quarter third-and-2 — on which Brady faked to Welker and then tossed to Vereen — from a 7-yard loss into a 6-yard gain when he eluded Connor Barwin.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Outside of Welker, who was terrific minus his big drop, this group was a mixed bag. There were some definite highlights, particularly Hernandez’s 40-yard catch on which it looked like he finally cut it loose with his ankle. He is not going to be pre-injury Hernandez, but that was a great sign; he had played tentatively before that. Hernandez still had another drop (seven in four games), a penalty, and one iffy run block, but he seemed much more willing to block. Michael Hoomanawanui had three standout blocks, but he also allowed two hurries, 1.5 run stuffs, and two other poor run blocks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was clearly in pain even before he fell and re-broke his forearm. Terrific catch by Welker on the first third-down conversion (third and 11) between two defenders as he got belted by Kareem Jackson. Brandon Lloyd should have had a big gainer after the Hernandez offensive pass interference in the fourth when Brady kept the play alive. For some reason, Lloyd cut across the middle. All the safeties were underneath him. If he turns it up — which is where Brady was leading him – it would have been a huge play.
Offensive line (4 out of 5)
OK, this time the Patriots definitely shut down Watt, who had just one half-sack and two stuffed runs (1 yard or less outside short yardage) after having 5 knockdowns, 2 hurries, and 1 stuffed run in the first matchup. The Patriots doubled him less this time around (42.8 to 36.1 percent) yet did better. Order of performance on the line: Nate Solder (run stuff allowed), Sebastian Vollmer (half-sack, hurry), Mankins (two hurries, half-knockdown), Ryan Wendell (half-sack, half-knockdown, 1.5 stuffs), Dan Connolly (3.5 knockdowns, half-stuff).
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Fundamentally sound and terrific against the run. Of the Texans’ 24 run snaps, 54.2 percent went for 2 yards or fewer. That basically won the game. Vince Wilfork (hurry, knockdown, two stuffs) was terrific. On the first play of the second quarter, LT Duane Brown and LG Wade Smith — two Pro Bowlers — tried to double Wilfork on an inside zone run and he beat them both to stop Arian Foster for no gain. Rob Ninkovich (two knockdowns, stuff, half-hurry) was his usual self. If Chandler Jones (ankle) is out, the Patriots are going to have to scheme up more pressure. Justin Francis (1.5 hurries, half-knockdown in 50 snaps) is a good hustle player and works stunts well with his quickness, but he’s not an every-down player. This is a concern because the Patriots managed to get pressure against Matt Schaub on just 20.8 percent of his dropbacks — the second-lowest rate (49ers) since Thanksgiving. The Patriots didn’t blitz (17 percent, second-lowest since Nov. 11) after Ninkovich’s huge interception.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
The backers sharpened their focus — even the usually up-and-down Dont’a Hightower — and were very solid. Jerod Mayo is on top of his game at this point and looks very quick in coverage. Great read by Mayo to snuff out the little waggle to Owen Daniels early in the second half – you know, the play that was a fumble but wasn’t. Brandon Spikes went from almost being off the field on what he thought was a substitution to making a tackle with 9:58 left in the fourth. On the 21-yard run by Foster on Texans’ first touchdown drive, it looked like a rare mistake by Mayo peeking into the wrong gap and Hightower failing to squeeze on the edge because he fell for the fake end around.
Secondary (4.5 out of 5)
This group, minus safety Steve Gregory, who is probably the weak spot, was terrific (even with five pass plays of 20 yards or more) although I think it’s fair to factor in the opponent. Schaub looks hurt and was unwilling to even look deep, and the Texans’ route combinations are elementary. But the Patriots executed terrifically in any event. Aqib Talib had his best game as a Patriot — he was all over Andre Johnson the entire game — even with a few technique miscues. He made a great tackle on the near fourth-down stop of Foster. Alfonzo Dennard set up a key fourth-down stop when he made a great tackle against Kevin Walter 1 yard shy of the marker with 13:45 left. Forget the cornerbacks, Devin McCourty has been the key to the improvement on defense. Rock solid.
Special teams (1 out of 5)
Never thought I’d see the day the Patriots blew a game solely on special teams, but this was almost it. Outside of his poor punt before halftime, Zoltan Mesko was terrific. Yes, roughing should have been called for contact to his plant leg, but that’s no excuse for the punt. On the opening 94-yard Texans kickoff return, it looked like either Marquice Cole vacated his lane or Tavon Wilson didn’t replace him properly. On the 35-yarder (with the not-needed horse collar tackle from Stephen Gostkowski), Niko Koutouvides didn’t get off a block and Bolden gave up the edge. On the 69-yarder in the fourth, Tracy White and Matthew Slater acted as if they were clearing for another player, possibly Cole, but he lost leverage coming down the field and wound up right where Slater was.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: Trailing, 24-13, with 4:30 left in the third quarter, the Texans were aiming to make it a game with a third and 8 at the Patriots’ 37-yard line on a nineplay drive that included a third-and-16 conversion.
What happened: The Patriots were in their dime package with Tavon Wilson (27) on the field and Jerod Mayo (51) the lone linebacker. Texans H-back James Casey (86) went in motion and Mayo made an audible against the shotgun empty (no backs) look. After some moving around, Justin Francis (94) and Trevor Scott (99) were the ends, and Kyle Love (74) and Rob Ninkovich (50) were the tackles. At the snap, Mayo rushed around the left tackle and Wilson came on a delayed blitz after slightly rerouting Casey. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) thought the middle would be vacated, but Ninkovich replaced Mayo as the middle linebacker after faking a pass rush. Schaub either didn’t see Ninkovich entirely, or just made a poor throw as Ninkovich made a leaping interception to end the drive, and set up a touchdown for the Patriots that made it 31-13.
ON HIS GAME
Shane Vereen, running back
He did a little bit of everything, averaging 5.9 yards per rush (with a touchdown), caught five passes for 83 yards (and two touchdowns), deftly picked up four blitzes, and broke three tackles for 42 yards. Terrific coming of age game.
OFF THEIR GAME
Kickoff coverage unit
This group had a hand in three kickoffs that were returned 94, 35 (plus a 15-yard penalty), and 69 yards to almost single-handedly keep the Texans in the game.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.