FOXBORO - Before the Patriots and Texans saw each other in Week 3 last season, we made a big deal out of Houston's "diamond front" defensively. We wrote about it. We did a podcast on it. We spent television segments yapping about it.
Then Tom Brady and the Patriots offense went out and handled it. For the most part.
It wasn't perfect by any means when the Patriots were confronted with the diamond look. But it was far better than what happened in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2016 when Brady was sacked twice and completed just one pass on the six occasions the Texans deployed that front.
First, here's a refresher on what the diamond looks like, taken from last year's piece...
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 as star-studded up front Houston's is, the one-on-one matchups are pretty mouth-watering regardless of the alignment. 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 task...
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 [Week 1 last year]: 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.
In their last-minute comeback win, 36-33 over Houston last season, the Patriots saw the Texans diamond front more than twice as much as they did in the playoffs the season prior. In 13 diamond-front snaps, Brady went 7-for-9 for 62 yards and a touchdown. Brady scrambled for six yards -- a play that resulted in a defensive holding call - on one diamond-front snap. He also completed a two-point conversion against that look.
It wasn't all good for the Patriots, though. As Brady's yards-per-attempt number (6.89) would indicate, he had to get rid of the football quickly and accept shorter completions - even when he was trying to convert on third down. Two of his first three completions against the diamond front went for just six total yards on third down plays, both resulting in punts.
The Patriots were called for a hold on one rush out of the diamond front, and on the eventual game-winning drive Brady was strip-sacked by a corner who'd swapped places with a diamond-front defender at the snap.
That wrinkle - where the Texans drop one of their obvious pass-rushers into coverage and bring a rusher from the secondary or linebacker levels - added another level of trickery the Patriots had to deal with, and it nearly lost them the game. Had David Andrews not recovered Brady's fumble, the Patriots would have been looking at a 1-2 record to start the season.
The diamond front could have a different feel to it again in 2018, in part because some of its key components are coming back off of injury.
Watt required multiple blockers in Week 3 - it was often Rob Gronkowski helping LaAdrian Waddle on the right side - but it's unclear exactly how he'll look after just three games last season and eight snaps this preseason. Mercilus played just five games last year, he saw no game action this summer, and was listed on Wednesday's injury report as a limited participant due to a hamstring injury.
Don't tell that to Bill Belichick.
"They’ve consistently been," Belichick said, "one of the top defenses in the league in every category pretty much when they’re healthy...Some of their best and most important players look like they’re ready to go."
"I mean, they’re unreal talents," Gronkowski said. "They’re great players and you definitely need help to block those guys. I mean, if that’s what the coaches ask me to do, if that’s the play call, I’ve got to go in there and I’ve got to get my nose dirty. I’ve got to do what they need me to do for this team, and it’s to block whoever, it’s to maybe help out an offensive lineman, help out a tackle before I go out on a route. No matter what it is, just got to get out there and get dirty with it."
For whatever uncertainty injuries to Texans stars may have created elsewhere, the Patriots sound like they're preparing for the worst. That means seeing the diamond front at its best Sunday.