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Beauty of Patriots’ game plan was its simplicity

Cameron Fleming (left) and the Patriots shut down Texans star J.J. Watt by any means necessary.Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

HOUSTON — Bill Belichick has been an NFL head coach for 21 seasons now, and his game plans aren't exactly a secret: Take out the opponent's best options and make them beat you with role players.

Texans coach Bill O'Brien knows this well, having worked for Belichick for five seasons and rising to the level of offensive coordinator with the Patriots.

Sunday night at NRG Stadium, it didn't matter.

The Texans knew the Patriots would try to take out their two star players, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive end J.J. Watt, yet couldn't do much about it. The two were nowhere to be found in the Patriots' 27-6 win.


"Give them a lot of credit. They coached better than us and they played better than us," O'Brien said. "Give all the credit in the world to the Patriots. They came here and did a great job."

The Patriots and Belichick got back on track against the Texans, ending their two-game losing streak and turning in a nearly flawless coaching performance after a few shaky decisions in losses to the Broncos and Eagles.

Hopkins, who entered the game third in the NFL in receiving yards and fourth in catches, was held to three catches for 52 yards, 40 of which came in garbage time. And Watt, the NFL's leading sacker with 13½ this season, had just two tackles and an assist as he played with a club-like cast on his left hand to protect broken bones suffered last week.

"They outcoached us. They outplayed us," Hopkins said succinctly.

The beauty of the Patriots' game plan to eliminate both players was its simplicity. Hopkins, whose three catches were a season low, said he was "doubled the whole game." The Patriots went with their tried-and-true practice of using No. 2 cornerback Logan Ryan and safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon to blanket Hopkins all game, and used No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler in a one-on-one matchup with No. 2 receiver Nate Washington.


Washington caught just 1 of 4 passes thrown his way for 49 yards, getting shut out over the final three quarters.

"We kind of expected them to try to take him out of the game plan, and that's what they did," tackle Duane Brown said. "We had plenty of plays that we left out there, man. We had some one-on-one matchups, some guys that were open. Just didn't quite connect."

It wasn't just Washington who didn't step up for the Texans — no one did. Tight end Ryan Griffin caught just 1 of 6 passes for 20 yards, Cecil Shorts caught two passes for 9 yards, and overall the Texans gained just 159 yards through the air.

Hopkins was asked how the Texans can fix the offense if he is double-teamed again next week against the Colts.

"The guys that are one-on-one have to make plays," he said.

It's easy for Hopkins to blame his teammates for not making plays, and to pin his lack of production on being shadowed by two defenders (he had just one pass thrown to him in the first half, and only two catches for 12 yards with nine minutes left in the game). But Ryan deserves a lot of credit for draping himself all over Hopkins the entire game.

Ryan was officially credited with two pass breakups against Hopkins, but his coverage on the Texans' second-year star was positively island-like. He did misplay the ball that ended up going for 40 yards in garbage time, but also did a tremendous job of not biting on Hopkins's double moves the entire game. Ryan definitely did his homework last week.


"I probably watched every route he ran all year," Ryan said. "Watched every game he plays, every route he's run, and it paid off."

Watt, meanwhile, was taken out of the game by multiple blockers. The Texans tried to move Watt across the defensive formation, but the Patriots ran plays away from Watt's side of the field and consistently used their tight ends, running backs, and extra offensive lineman Cameron Fleming to block, chip, and eliminate Watt from the game.

"Buffalo had the same game plan going in. We kind of expected that," defensive end Jared Crick said. "They put a lot of 'flash' guys on him — the tight end would come across the formation and try to kick him out, and the fullback tried to do the same thing, just from a different spot of the formation. That's what he said he was getting."

Watt did have a tackle for a loss, but he didn't lay a finger on Tom Brady all game.

"They weren't going to leave me one-on-one," Watt said. "That's just the way it goes. That's become the norm for me."

O'Brien said he didn't think the cast on Watt's left hand affected his pass-rushing moves. Watt said, "It poses some problems, but it wasn't that bad," and admitted that he was in a little bit of pain, "but it wasn't that bad."


But it sounded as if they were downplaying its impact on the game.

"It's hard to say what it's like playing with a broken hand. I know it's a little different," Crick said. "You can't really grab onto offensive linemen's wrists or things like that."

This wasn't the first time that Belichick and the Patriots took Watt out of a game. In four career games against the Patriots, Watt has just half a sack. Against the rest of the NFL, he has 70 sacks in 73 games.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.