fb-pixel Skip to main content

How the Texans exposed flaws in the Patriots’ offense

Tom Brady was sacked twice and hit five times by the hard-charging Texans Saturday night. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Patriots should be worried about Sunday’s AFC Championship game, and not just because the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

The Texans exposed some flaws in the Patriots’ offense in Saturday’s 34-16 divisional round loss, and this wasn’t a repeat of last year’s game against Denver, when the Broncos’ pass rushers simply overwhelmed the Patriots’ offensive line. The Patriots’ inconsistent performance on Saturday was just as much a result of the Texans’ scheme as it was the dominance of Houston’s individual players.

The biggest wrinkle the Texans showed was using their outside pass rushers on the inside. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus moved all over the formation, often lining up in a 2-point stance, but their biggest damage came when both were lined up across from interior offensive linemen.


By lining the two players next to each other, the Texans were able to get a 1-on-1 matchup for Mercilus on center David Andrews, and Mercilus beat him badly for two sacks with his power and speed.

The Texans often brought their defenders through the same gaps, like when linebacker Brian Cushing blitzed right behind Clowney and pressured Tom Brady into a modest 4-yard completion to Martellus Bennett.

Overall, the Patriots’ interior offensive line of Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason combined to allow four pressures, two hits, two sacks, and a run stuff.

The Texans also made life tough on Brady by dropping eight and even nine defenders off into coverage. Against a three-man rush, Brady was just 1 for 7 for 7 yards (plus a 30-yard pass interference penalty) and was sacked twice by Mercilus. The Patriots went 0 for 2 on third-down conversions when the Texans dropped eight into coverage. When the Patriots got down to the goal line, the Texans only rushed two and dropped nine, blanketing the receivers and forcing Brady to scramble short of the goal line.


Attacking the interior and forcing Brady to hold onto the football got Brady flustered. He threw too far in front of Michael Floyd on one interception, threw behind a wide-open Julian Edelman to miss an easy third-down conversion, and never saw Bernardrick McKinney scanning the middle of the field, leading to a second interception. For long stretches of the game, Brady’s best weapon was the chuck-and-duck pass, with Edelman and Chris Hogan answering his prayers with miracle catches.

And the Texans made the Patriots one-dimensional by stacking the box with an extra defender for much of the game, taking away the run game.

Needing to run out the clock in the fourth quarter, the Patriots had to result to gimmick plays just to move the ball — an end-around to Edelman for 12 yards and a reverse to Danny Amendola for 15 yards. Of the Patriots’ 15 third-down attempts, nine were 6 yards or more. The Patriots only converted 3 of 9.

Patriots fans shouldn’t dismiss Saturday’s game as a one-off performance against a good defense. Clowney, Mercilus and Cushing (two pressures) are great players, but the Patriots also got handled by defensive end D.J. Reader (two run stuffs and a pressure), who isn’t exactly a household name.

The Steelers’ James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier are just as capable of wrecking the Patriots’ day.

Other observations after rewatching the tape:

When the Patriots had the ball

■  Brady faced legitimate pressure on 15 of his 40 drop-backs – eight pressures, five hits and two sacks. Mercilus had quite a day, finishing with two sacks (both against Andrews), 2.5 hits, a pressure, and a run stuff. Clowney was everywhere, as well, finishing with two hits and two pressures.


■  Although the Patriots’ interior was the biggest culprit — particularly Andrews and Mason — Marcus Cannon had the cleanest day, allowing just one QB hit (Mercilus and Christian Covington both blitzed at Cannon and got to Brady). Clowney absolutely destroyed Thuney (and Brady, subsequently) to mess up a screen pass. Even on Dion Lewis’s 13-yard touchdown reception, Clowney beat Nate Solder to the inside and almost sacked Brady, who was able to flip the ball out to Lewis just in time.

■  Meanwhile, the Texans struggled when they blitzed Brady. He was 6-for-12 passing against the blitz (10 of them a five-man rush, the other two a six-man rush) for 116 yards, a touchdown and 3-of-4 conversions on third down. Lewis’s 13-yard touchdown came against a blitz, as did Hogan’s 45-yard catch.

■  Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye was one of the breakout players of this NFL season, so it was interesting to see Brady attacking him early and often. We’re told the Patriots wanted to test Bouye’s groin injury, which popped up in the middle of the week and limited him during practice.

Three of Brady’s first five passes went right at Bouye, resulting in a 30-yard pass interference against Hogan, a 22-yard catch for Hogan, and Brady’s first interception. Brady also targeted Bouye on his second interception, and almost threw another pick on a slant pass to Floyd with Bouye in coverage. Overall Brady was 4 for 6 for 69 yards while targeting Bouye, plus the pass interference.


■  Brady also went after safety Corey Moore, a special teams player who was forced into the lineup because of an injury to Quintin Demps. Moore allowed Hogan’s 45-yard prayer and a 21-yarder to Hogan, and successfully defended a deep pass to Edelman and Bennett’s drop along the sideline.

■  Moore could have been in a position to help defend James White’s touchdown, but he was frozen in the middle of the field by Bennett, who was running a deep post.

That left White 1-on-1 with McKinney, and White created separation with a beautiful stutter step.

■  This was Brady’s best deep passing game of the season. He had seven passes of 20-plus yards, tying his season-high (Bengals, Week 7) and two passes of 40 yards, also tying his season high (Ravens in Week 14, Browns in Week 5). The Browns game might have been a little better, because Brady had six passes of at least 30 yards. But, it was the Browns.

■  Interesting to see White only play 12 snaps, and LeGarrette Blount not get his first snap until 10:40 was left in the second quarter. Even with his two fumbles on Saturday, Lewis is clearly the Patriots’ No. 1 running back, and has the unique speed/power/soft hands combination to play on all three downs. The final snap count was 33 for Lewis and 27 for Blount, but a majority of Blount’s came in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Blount’s usage had little to do with his illness earlier in the week, and everything to do with the fact that he’s not nearly as dynamic a running back as Lewis.


■  Anyone who watches the Patriots know they love to throw that quick slant to the left side on first down to get the chains moving. Brandon LaFell was the recipient for the last two years, and Hogan has been on the receiving end of it for most of this year. So it was interesting to see Brady throw one interception on that play — the first one to Floyd — and almost a second interception. Brady clearly doesn’t have his timing down with Floyd, who seemed to slow up on the near-interception.

■  Also interesting that the Patriots’ two worst games of the season came after a bye — the Week 10 loss to Seattle, and Saturday’s win over the Texans (not counting the Week 4 loss to the Bills when the Patriots didn’t have a healthy quarterback, of course). Bill Belichick might have to mix things up a bit if the Patriots reach the Super Bowl and have another bye week.

When the Texans had the ball

■  The Patriots had a similar game plan, often stacking the box with an extra defender to take away running back Lamar Miller and force quarterback Brock Osweiler into long down-and-distance situations.

The Patriots played a lot of Cover 2 zone to take away the deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, with Duron Harmon playing his most snaps (48) since the Week 7 win over Pittsburgh. And the Patriots didn’t really match up their cornerbacks, with Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe all taking their cracks at Hopkins, based on where he lined up. The Patriots also used more press coverage than usual to slow down the Texans’ receivers, knowing they had two safeties to help over the top.

■  The Patriots also had a lot of success when they only rushed three defenders, but this is the Texans, and the Patriots had success no matter what they did. On a three-man rush, Rob Ninkovich and Malcom Brown each picked up sacks, and Devin McCourty and Ryan also intercepted Osweiler. The Texans had a little more success when the Patriots zone-blitzed, with Osweiler completing 3-of-6 passes for 45 yards and three first downs, but he also was sacked by Ryan. The Patriots sent a five-man blitz six times, with Osweiler missing on all five of his passes and right tackle Chris Clark picking up a holding penalty.

■  Trey Flowers had a dominant first quarter, picking up a run stuff (an impressive shed-and-stuff on left tackle Duane Brown), a pressure to force an incompletion on third down, and two quarterback hits. But he was a little quiet the rest of the way, drawing some double-teams. Alan Branch had three run stuffs and a pressure, completely manhandling Texans’ backup center Greg Mancz. Clark, the backup right tackle, also had a rough day, allowing Ninkovich’s sack, a QB hit from Chris Long, and two pressures. The Patriots did a great job of generating pressure from all across the formation, with 10 different Patriots hitting Osweiler throughout the game.

■  Boy, is Osweiler terrible. He miscommunicated on an easy short throw to Fuller, missed two open receivers to his left and almost threw an interception to Ninkovich, missed tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz streaking down the seam for a potential touchdown, didn’t see McCourty waiting to pounce on an out pass to Hopkins that was intercepted, threw way too high and late to Hopkins in the middle of the zone, leading to a tip-drill interception for Ryan, then badly sailed another throw at the end of the game that was intercepted by Harmon.

It didn’t help that Fuller dropped a certain touchdown on Osweiler’s only great pass of the night, and that Fiedorowicz had two bad drops.

■  Credit the Texans for a nice play call inside the red zone, freezing Harmon on a double play-action fake while Fiedorowicz faked a block, then bolted for the corner of the end zone.

By the time Harmon realized what was happening, Fiedorowicz had an easy 10-yard touchdown.

■  Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Jabaal Sheard, Ninkovich and Long all played their usual number of snaps (between 27 and 38), but Shea McClellin only played seven snaps. He did log a quarterback hit in his limited action.

Special teams

■  Belichick said it took a total team effort for Lewis to spring his 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, and we counted seven great blocks on the return, plus great vision by Lewis to cut back to his right to the open field.

■  Texans fans had to be disappointed to see their team punt three times from Patriots territory, two in the second half (on fourth and 4 and fourth and 5). The Texans didn’t try any fake punts or gimmick plays, and didn’t show any fortitude by going for it on fourth down. An undermanned team such as the Texans needs to take chances to beat the Patriots in Foxborough.

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