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:
Roby read that the whole way. pic.twitter.com/4IbODoneiV
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 2, 2019
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
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|
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.
Jacob Martin past Marcus Cannon. pic.twitter.com/bOZxIai9Hh
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 2, 2019
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:
Yet another Reader pressure. pic.twitter.com/W0cCL1rEZc
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 24, 2019
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|
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.