Patriots

Closer look: Texans 'diamond' front could be a handful for Brady, Patriots

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Closer look: Texans 'diamond' front could be a handful for Brady, Patriots

FOXBORO -- The concept really isn't all that difficult to grasp, but it gave the Patriots a hell of a time in last year's Divisional Round game against the Texans.

It's called the "diamond" front, and the Texans have the personnel on their defensive line to turn a simple X's and O's idea into a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

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Here's how it works . . .

Take your typical third-down four-man defensive line, with two wide defensive ends and two three-techniques on the interior. Then place a fifth defender right over the center. And make him an athlete, whether it's another defensive end or a linebacker. Someone with some pass-rushing savvy.

The result is one-on-one matchups across the board for the offensive line. Each blocker in a five-man protection setup has one pass-rusher to account for. If the defense plays it right, it will get the matchups it wants.

When the defense is star-studded up front -- as is the case with the Texans -- the one-on-one matchups are pretty mouth-watering regardless of the alignment. Whitney Mercilus on the interior is a problem because of his athleticism. Jadeveon Clowney has length and speed that create issues against shorter-armed guards and centers. J.J. Watt one-on-one with anyone is almost an impossible ask.

Last year, without Watt in the mix, the Texans had great success with the diamond front against the Patriots in the playoffs. Mercilus beat David Andrews with a spin move for a sack out of that alignment. He beat Andrews again in that game, opening things up for Brian Cushing to sack Tom Brady.

Wining one-on-one matchups will be key, the Patriots know, to give Brady a chance in Week 3 at Gillette Stadium.

"Look, we only have so many blockers and they have just as many rushers," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "At some point, every football game becomes about what you can do, and your individual one-on-one matchup, and there’s no guarantee that you can double-team this guy or that guy. That’s virtually impossible to determine before the ball’s snapped, before they align on defense. They don’t line up in the same spots every play.

"You’ve got to be smart and try to do what you can to move the football -- run, pass, first down, second down, third down, whatever it might be -- against a group like this that’s dynamic at a lot of spots. We’re working hard right now to put together what we want to do."

Where the Texans are able to add a layer of deception to their diamond-front looks is by rushing only three. By showing five at the line of scrimmage and then dropping two of those defenders into coverage, Houston still gets the one-on-one matchups it's looking for (leaving two offensive linemen momentarily blocking air because their assignments dropped) while getting eight bodies into throwing lanes.

It's a similar idea to what the Jets did to the Patriots under Rex Ryan, what the Broncos did to them in the AFC Championship game in 2015, and what the Chiefs did just a couple of weeks ago: Flood the short-to-intermediate area of the field with defenders to force Brady to hold onto the football, and win your one-on-one matchups up front. 

Pressure and coverage. Even the best quarterback in football can't help but be stymied by that combination when it works. 

According to TheMMQB.com's Andy Benoit, who dropped into Quick Slants the Podcast before the season to detail what he found on the diamond front, the Texans used that alignment six times and Brady completed just one pass for seven yards. He was sacked twice. He threw incomplete three times.

Factor in some of the twists and stunts that Watt, Mercilus and Clowney will combine to run, and life only gets more complicated for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's group. Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney and defensive tackle DJ Reader (now in the Vince Wilfork role) also require attention, Bill Belichick noted this week.

"They can power rush, they can speed rush, good counters, they run games well, good technique players, they're well-coached," Belichick said this week of the Texans front. "[Defensive coordinator] Mike [Vrabel] does enough things to keep you off-balance. [But] I’m not looking out there and saying, 'Well, we've never seen this before.'

"There's some three-man rush, there's some four-man rush, there's some five-man rush, there’s a lot of straight rush, there’s power rush, there’s games, multiple games. You're never sure exactly which one of those things you’re going to get. When you start mixing them together you don’t end up with the same thing repeatedly, so it’s always something else different. A different type of rush, a different type of coverage, maybe players aligned in different positions, even though it might be the same players but just different matchups. They create a lot of problems."

Problems, yes. But not unsolvable ones. Should the Patriots be able to withstand the initial rush out of diamond looks, they could provide Brady with the opportunity to make some plays down the field.

Say, for instance, Andrews wins off the snap against someone like Mercilus. If the Texans drop eight, that may leave someone like Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason freed up to double Mercilus later in the play. With some quick recognition, good communication and a few doubles across the board, Brady might be afforded the time necessary for his receivers to run through the muddled short area of the field and into open spaces deep.

For Brady, potentially having Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett (knee injury suffered in Week 2) and Rob Gronkowski (groin) at his disposal -- none of whom were there for the Texans matchup in January -- won't hurt. But Brady knows he'll have to have his internal clock dialed in. The longer he holds onto the football, the most he's asking of his line against one of the best fronts in the league.

"J.J. is an incredible player. He’s been Defensive Player of the Year how many times? Three or four? Something like that," Brady said on Wednesday. "He’s got speed, quickness, power, he’s got all the moves, got all the counters. He’s just a tough guy to block. Then you pair him with Whitney Mercilus, who’s one of the most underrated players, I think, in the league in terms of rushing the passer to everything that he does to help that team. I know practicing against that guy how good he is. 

"And then with Jadeveon, he’s one of the most athletic guys in the league. He does some things that other people can’t do. He’s just size, speed, explosiveness. So all those guys on the same field at one time is a big problem for any offense. You don’t want to be holding the ball too long because you know that they’re going to get home at some point and I think that means we’ve got to really stay on track." 

No doubt it will be a chess match. How will Patriots backs factor into protection? How will the Texans move their pass-rush pieces from snap to snap? If Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion) is unavailable, how do Belichick, McDaniels and Brady provide help for their fill-in right tackle?

The Patriots beat the Texans in the Divisional Round last season, 34-16, but thanks in part to Texans pass-rushers and their diamond front, Brady went just 18-for-38 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. The memory is fresh.

"They’re going to give us everything we can handle this weekend," Brady said.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.