Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Texans over Patriots

New England Patriots QB Tom Brady
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

It's not actually news that the New England Patriots don't have a great offense anymore. It feels more urgent than it did at this time last year because those Patriots teams had Rob Gronkowski, arguably the best receiving tight end to ever play, banged up for much of the season. There was the expectation that the Patriots would fall back into that cushion in the playoffs, and they did. Gronkowski caught 12 of 18 balls in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl for 166 yards. (That does not mean the Patriots looked good in the Super Bowl on offense -- in fact, many of the problems that belied them in that Super Bowl have lingered.)

The story of Tom Brady's decline this year is fascinating territory, well-treaded. I think the more overlooked story to be told is actually that of the part of the offense in which the Patriots invested to prop up Brady: the running attack. That is where the most significant investments the Patriots have made over the last couple of years have been. The Patriots invested in a pair of Georgia products in the first round of the 2018 draft: Sony Michel and Isaiah Wynn. Wynn has been oft-injured, and Michel has not been impressive as either a tackle-breaker or a DVOA story. Michel has the lowest DVOA of any runner in the backfield this year, and had just a -2.7% DVOA in 2018. Among runners with more than 150 touches coming into Week 13, Michel had fewer broken tackles than any back at 16. Only Todd Gurley, playing with a leg frozen in carbonite, joined him with less than 20. If we look at running backs with more than 200 carries in 2018, Michel is -- again -- last in broken tackles, at 23 in 216 touches. Broken tackles don't catch everything about playing running back, but they do tell the story of how explosive a back looks. So far, Michel has been a plodder. The Patriots were worried enough to spend a third-round pick on Damien Harris last offseason as well, but he's also contributing little.

Now, to be clear, it is rather unfortunate that the Patriots lost fullback James Develin before the season could really kick into gear. It was unfortunate that David Andrews has barely been able to play. But plenty of teams lose players like that and still operate a solid running game. The Ravens lost their center last week and -- yes, yes, I know they're a special case -- put up 178 rushing yards on the 49ers. The Maurkice Pouncey-less Steelers actually did more in the rushing game without him. The number of fullbacks operating in the NFL is at record lows -- only 12 of them currently have more than 100 snaps, and only three of them have more than 200 snaps. If this was such a hidden value opportunity, why did the Patriots not keep feeding them after Jakob Johnson went down? Why did they start giving fullback snaps to Elandon Roberts?

In a way, Bill Belichick was very right about the long-term design of his team versus the league. Running is alive in 2019, and the Ravens and 49ers -- and to some extent the Vikings and Seahawks -- have proved that. But it's not the power run game alone that makes the 49ers and Ravens dangerous, it is tying the uncommon skill sets of their best players together. Patrick Ricard and Kyle Juice-check go get balls as receivers. Nick Boyle isn't a dominant target, but he can catch an open pass and block like a tank. (And, yes, Lamar Jackson is a quarterback who can also play running back.) When those players are on the field, they don't tilt a team away from being able to pass so much as they sucker an offense into forgetting that they can. Then, just when a defense buys into the run, they sting you with a well-designed play-action pass and hit a wide-open target because you're playing linebackers instead of defensive backs.

Belichick's investment in making the power run game the calling card of this team has mostly failed. The high-risk moves he took to acquire receiving talent that could have helped out (Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon) over the past few years have failed. Well, OK, I'll give Gordon this: at least teams had to play him honest on the outside. That's more than they have to do against first-round pick N'Keal Harry. The Pats threw Harry out there against the Texans, then he got out-physicaled by Bradley Roby on the route that changed the game:

Houston's game plan was to put a defensive back on James White -- countering one of New England's original offensive innovations in a way that a lot of teams are doing this year -- and doubling Julian Edelman with safety help. That left New England's starved tight end group, a still-dinged Mohamed Sanu, and a bunch of hopefuls out on islands to make plays. Even with that advantage, the Patriots completed just 10-of-24 passes to non-White and -Edelman targets for 124 yards. Brady gained -53 DYAR on those targets.

So are the Patriots dead? Nah, we're not going to throw dirt on them. Sanu will get healthier. They'll find ways to get White past a defensive back and Edelman into zone coverage. But it is clear that their investment in becoming a power run team is not working as currently constructed. Without that, they have the waft of legacy rather than innovation.

Where the Game Swung

Despite the fact that the Patriots started with a bit of a lead, there really wasn't much swing in this game. EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance (GWC) metric has the big plays as follows:

  • Bradley Roby's interception of Tom Brady was worth 8.8% GWC, and the ensuing touchdown pass to Duke Johnson was worth 7.4% GWC.
  • New England's failure to convert on fourth-and-1, down 14-3 in the third quarter -- a good decision in GWC's eyes -- backfired when they failed. When Mohamed Sanu could not come down with the Tom Brady pass, the Patriots lost 10.0% GWC.
  • Deshaun Watson's third-and-10 touchdown pass to Kenny Stills was worth a game-high 11.0% GWC, putting the game to bed as it pulled the Texans to 92.6% GWC.

Belichick's decision to punt on fourth-and-10 from the Houston 39 was a move GWC didn't think much of -- it thought that the field goal attempt was a better decision by 4.2% GWC. This is despite the model knowing that the Patriots had a new and not exactly trustworthy kicker.

I would argue that Roby's interception was even bigger than it looks on a box score given how well the Patriots ran the ball. They could have controlled the clock and played station-to-station football in this game against a run defense that ... well, that we'll talk about in a few sections.

By the (D)VOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
NE 1.4% 18.6% -2.3% -19.5%
HOU 56.8% 0.5% 10.2% 66.5%
VOA OFF DEF ST  
NE 4.2% 32.7% -2.3% -30.9%
HOU 30.2% 2.8% 10.2% 37.5%

This was New England's worst game of the season, and Houston's best game of the season, according to DVOA.

We've also prepared a special table for you separating New England's DVOA into four-game stretches:

New England DVOA in Four-Game Stretches
  OFF DEF ST TOT
Wks 1-4 13.0% -41.5% -3.3% 51.1%
Wks 5-8 1.5% -44.7% -0.3% 45.9%
Wks 9-13 1.3% -11.0% 5.8% 18.2%

I'm told that those numbers are significantly more average than they were earlier in the season.

The Houston Texans' Post-J.J. Watt defense

The surprise in this game wasn't that the Texans had enough offensive talent to hang with the Patriots -- the Patriots are a terrific defense, but the Texans have continually showed flashes of terrific play in that area this season, and have enough skill position talent that you can't easily double away your problems.

The surprise was that the Texans held the Patriots to just 82 passing yards at halftime and 90 passing yards before the game hit 21-3. The surprise was that, well, that Jacob Martin was able to waltz right past Marcus Cannon on several occasions.

The Texans have had 68 quarterback hits on the season. Twenty of those belonged to J.J. Watt, and in the three full games since Watt had been hurt, the Texans had five, one, and four quarterback hits. Against Brady, they put up 12 on the back of nose tackle D.J. Reader and Martin, who was beating a clearly ill Cannon to the edge over and over again. Martin -- the, uh, "main" piece the Texans got in the Jadeveon Clowney trade -- has showed some speed in his snaps with the Texans, but hadn't played more than 20 snaps in a game until Week 12. Almost all his winning moves have come by taking the edge.

Reader has been excellent this season, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from a pure stat-line perspective. A lot of Whitney Mercilus' hot start came on plays where Reader pushed a quarterback back into Mercilus' range:

Houston wasn't able to play two other members of its base defense in the 3-4 Sunday night; Brennan Scarlett and Angelo Blackson both missed the game with minor injuries. That pushed players like Barkevious Mingo and Joel Heath -- guys with little experience this year -- onto the field. It also contributed to a decline that I think is almost more interesting than the lack of pass rush: Houston's run defense has not done well since Watt went down:

Average Game DVOA -- Houston Texans With and Without J.J. Watt
  Defense Pass Defense Run Defense
Weeks 1-7 5.2% 20.6% -22.5%
Weeks 8-13 11.7% 21.5% 1.0%

The Ravens, of course, are going to run on anybody, and did with abandon on the Texans. But even the games without the Ravens have involved a ton of rushing yards. Each of the last three opponents have rushed for at least 145 yards, and the Colts had long drives predicated on running the ball right down Houston's throat. Entering Week 13, the Texans had 102 missed tackles as a team, the third-highest total in the league. And without Watt, they have just 10 run stuffs (runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) since Week 9. In the first eight weeks, they had 28 stuffs.

Romeo Crennel is going to have to continually come up with game plans like he did against the Patriots for this defense to continue to punch above its weight, because without their all-world defender they simply don't have the talent to make a ton of negative plays on their own. Certainly, you'd rather have this problem than the No Quarterback problem the Texans have had for so long, but there's a dark humor in the fact that the Texans, seventh in defensive DVOA last season, have finally put together a high-ceiling offense only to now have challenges playing competent defense.

Comments

9 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2019, 3:21pm

1 "there's a dark humor in the…

"there's a dark humor in the fact that the Texans, seventh in defensive DVOA last season, have finally put together a high-ceiling offense only to now have challenges playing competent defense."

It's almost as if it was a mistake to trade away one of their two best defensive players for peanuts instead of paying him what he was worth.

2 "The Pats threw Harry out…

"The Pats threw Harry out there against the Texans, then he got out-physicaled by Bradley Roby on the route that changed the game."

This deal where folks blame the INT on Harry is really crappy. Other QBs don't get that type of flak protection when they stare down a receiver.

3 And Meyers was wide wide…

And Meyers was wide wide wide open on the play.

Just like LaCosse was wide wide open on a play where Brady hopelessly threw to a double-covered Edelman 15 yards past where LaCosse was and in the same line of sight.

 

4 I also think Brady his…

I also think Brady is hearing his career clock ticking and is pressing and has become increasingly rigid, impatient, and hypocritically frustrated with anyone other than Edelman and White.

6 Am I the only one just a…

Am I the only one just a little confused about how the entire article is about how surprising it is that an offense that's averaged 1.4% DVOA in weeks 4-13 producing... 1.4% DVOA?

And not at all about a defense that's averaged between -11 and -40% over that same span producing 18.6%? I mean, I get the comment of "Houston has firepower and they've shown it this season" - but in their previous games against top-10 passing defenses, Watson put up:

Colts (-1.0%) : 93.0 rating
Saints (-2.2%) : 114.3 rating
Carolina (-4.8%) : 75.3 rating
Chiefs (-9.9%) : 77.5 rating
Ravens (-14.6%): 63.7 rating

which is a pretty nice decreasing rating with increasing defensive DVOA.

And then suddenly

Patriots (-42.1%): 140.7 rating

The only passer rating Watson put up *higher* this year was against the 27th ranked pass defense Falcons. I don't get how Houston's *defense* is the surprising thing here.

8 I'm super worried people are…

I'm super worried people are going to come out and say "well, they were all sick" and, yeah, maybe, but that's not really what it looked like - it looked more like they were terrified of Watson running the ball, which is kinda odd, considering he's not been that big a rushing threat. Underneath zones were all pretty tight to the line, which left a ton of space when they left Hopkins on Gilmore one-on-one. And then linebackers were frequently letting receivers right behind them, and Watson just tossed it over them for easy gains.

The focus on the Houston defense is unfortunate because Rivers actually had a play up on Twitter which shows what I mean: the second TD to Fells, where both Hightower and Van Noy are both caught by play action, then apparently worried about Watson running, and Fells gets behind them wide open. It's like the plan was "let's just run off the DBs because the linebackers are going to way overreact to the run threat to keep decent coverage."

9 NE LB's

This was the next in a string of really poor games by the NE LB group that was otherworldly in the first 5 games. Collins & Hightower in particular have disappeared as gameplans have forced them to do things other than stunt offensive lines in blitz & run blitz packages. I think a lot of this is that NE had a "shock & awe" effect at the beginning of the year where offensive coordinators really just didn't believe that they would 0-blitz repeatedly and trust their deep coverage, they did, and opponents didn't adjust for several games worth of tape. I was also been shocked how bad Collins & Van Noy looked vs. Baltimore - when an offense challenged the athleticism of the group they really folded (I chalked it up at the time to a tough road game right before the buy and expected better performance after the buy, but it really hasn't come back). You can also see this in NE's collapsing QB pressure numbers over the last 4 weeks.

Not sure whether this group can recapture their early-season form. Hightower is old and definitely can't bring it week in and week out, maybe he can turn it up for a playoff run? If they keep playing like this NE is going to have problems overcoming their offensive limitations come playoff time.