Patriots Report Card: Defense out of sync in rare down day vs. Texans
The Patriots defense has been so strong throughout the course of the season — outside of a hiccup against a unique scheme in Baltimore — that it was fair to wonder how a more traditional offense would sniff 30 against them.
The Texans did just that. And they did it with a talented quarterback, explosive weapons and good coaching. Not every offense the Patriots play has that formula, but when it's successful, it's enough to provide a defense as deep and intelligent as New England's with consistent problems.
We'll start our Report Card on the defensive side this week . . .
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots have only had five true defensive linemen on their roster for most of the season: Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, Deatrich Wise and Byron Cowart. (They added a sixth in Albert Huggins on Monday.) Cowart was inactive Sunday night, but the other four played well despite the team giving up 28 points on the scoreboard. Guy and Shelton were key in holding the Texans to just 2.3 yards per carry in the game. Wise chipped in with a run stop on 12 snaps. Butler, meanwhile, sees a lot of work in the pass-rush and had a pair of rushes on Deshaun Watson. That rush wasn't always there when the Patriots needed it, though . . .
Not a strong day from what has been a strength of this team's all season. Jamie Collins played a season-low 31 snaps and you wonder if the illness that limited him throughout the week impacted him in Houston. For only the second time this season, he didn't record a quarterback sack, hit or pressure. Part of that is game-planning. The Patriots clearly wanted an extra set of eyes on Watson, playing a lot of zone defense in order to have a view at the Texans backfield in case the quarterback took off. Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy all kept a close watch on Watson at different times, whether as zone defenders or dedicated spies. (continued...)
But even when the Patriots decided to send numbers at Watson in order to rattle him, they didn't get home often enough. Credit the Texans with having things blocked (for the most part) inside-out. Butler snuck through for a quick pressure up the gut, but otherwise the unblocked Patriots rushers — when they sent more players than the five-man Texans protection could handle — came from the edges. Longer distance to travel. More time for Watson to survey and throw. Two of the biggest plays in the game came when the Patriots seemingly had a shot at Watson but couldn't finish. One was when John Simon couldn't wrap up Watson on a first-down play in the second quarter. The Texans picked up a chunk gain on the next snap and eventually scored on the drive. (continued...)
The other was on Watson's 35-yard touchdown pass when Van Noy used a speed rush to get a step on his blocker. He got far enough up the field, though, that Watson was able to step up, buy time and strike. (Van Noy had an argument for holding on the play.) Patriots linebackers also had a hard time keeping up with backs in the passing game — particularly when the backs released outside and then cut hard across linebackers faces to get inside. Both Elandon Roberts and Van Noy were beat on those types of releases and gave up key plays.
Jonathan Jones saw five targets, but he was arguably the team's best defensive back in the game. The touchdown he allowed deep down the field was perfectly-thrown and he was in tight coverage. Tip your hat. He had two big pass-breakups, meanwhile, in a game when the Patriots had a hard time getting their hands on footballs. Stephon Gilmore was a step behind DeAndre Hopkins on well-executed slants, and he got picked a bit at the line of scrimmage in one obvious passing situation with Hopkins running from the slot. He may see more of those as his preferred style — tight at the line of scrimmage — could make him susceptible to those types of looks. (The Cowboys tried similar plays in Week 12 but couldn't execute.) Patrick Chung had a missed tackle that led to a big gain, and J.C. Jackson might've tracked too far inside, taking out the pitch man but not accounting for the quarterback, on Houston's reverse near the goal line that led to a touchdown. Tough play against an oddball look, but the Patriots defense has made tough plays all season that they didn't make Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Jake Bailey continues to impress. Not only with his punting (he dropped three of his four punts inside the 20 Sunday). But his kickoff skill has been impressive for someone who had to take on that role mid-season due to Stephen Gostkowski's injury. All three of his true kickoffs went for touchbacks. One of his two onside kicks was perfectly executed. The other — a side-winding spinner — came up short of the 10-yard marker. This grade isn't higher, though, because of a missed extra point from Kai Forbath. Mohamed Sanu also fair-caught a punt at the Patriots seven-yard line that had a chance at bouncing into the end zone. Seemed like a risk worth taking.
Tom Brady wasn't thrilled with what he was getting from some of his receivers — and rightfully so. But he had his share of issues Sunday night. He appeared to miss an open Phillip Dorsett in the back of the end zone early in the game. He sailed one out of bounds to Julian Edelman down the field on second down when he had Matt LaCosse open in the flat to make it third-and-manageable. He spiked one in front of Jakobi Meyers in the third quarter. Flat-footed, he missed Rex Burkhead headed to the sideline. Not his best night. But his throw to LaCosse down the seam, multiple throws to Julian Edelman, his third-and-13 conversion to Meyers late in the game, and his touchdown throw to James White on the move were all darts.
RUNNING BACK: B+
This was about as well-rounded a performance as we've seen from Sony Michel and James White. A scheme change from the Texans — adding a defender closer to the line — all but took Michel out of the game, but before that he looked dynamic. Running behind pulling guards and makeshift fullbacks, Michel racked up 45 yards on 10 carries. White was strong as both a runner and a receiver in this one. He carried 14 times for 79 yards, taking advantage of lighter boxes as the Texans defended him with a defensive back throughout the game. He also still chipped in eight catches for 98 yards — 36 of those yards coming late with the Texans apparently not interested in tackling him — as a receiver. Rex Burkhead only played four snaps but was targeted once and carried three times for 15 yards.
Whether it was N'Keal Harry running a route that resulted in an interception, Jakobi Meyers not understanding where to find open space during a scramble drill, Mohamed Sanu not catching a catchable fourth-down target, Julian Edelman chipping in with two costly penalties, or Phillip Dorsett missing a signal that led to an incompletion — this group had a hard time. Edelman was sure-handed when he needed to be, and Meyers came through with a few nice grabs (a couple of which were erased due to penalties), but they need more from this unit. Sanu getting healthy — he only played 19 snaps as he apparently continues to deal with an ankle issue — and Harry getting more reliable would go a long way in helping the overall efficiency of the offense. The turnover on downs when targeting Sanu and the interception when targeting Harry were game-changing plays for the offense.
TIGHT END: C
The work Matt LaCosse has done as a blocker has been better than I anticipated before the season. It's clear that when he's on the move, he has the ability to help open up running lanes. He's not a road grader, by any means, but his size and athleticism help make him effective in that regard. And he had a nice seam-ball reception from Brady that has been lacking from this offense since Rob Gronkowski's retirement. But his drop in the red zone was ugly, and he now has two drops on the season on just 11 targets. Ben Watson played 47 snaps and made the most of his one target, breaking a tackle and getting up the field for 23 yards.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Anyone head from Whitney Mercilus all night? Anyone mention Isaiah Wynn's name? No? That's a good thing. Wynn played well on Brady's blind side and allowed just one hurry. Joe Thuney had trouble with D.J. Reader's power at times, but he was stout for the most part and used his athleticism to his advantage on power plays where he would pull around the right side in the running game. Shaq Mason might've had his best game of the season in pass protection, allowing just one hurry and opening up space in the run game pulling around to the left side; if he's healthy, that is the type of game the Patriots can expect from him moving forward. Marcus Cannon looked like he was still dealing with the lingering effects of illness as he allowed a pair of sacks and a pair of hurries. James Ferentz played exactly half the snaps after Ted Karras' injury and held his own. Protection wasn't the issue. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady had 3.25 seconds to throw on average against the Texans.