Patriots at Texans Review: Slowing Down Watt, Hopkins

The race for the #1 seed in the AFC turned in the Patriots favor even before they took the field against the Houston Texans on Sunday night.

Losses by Denver and Cincinnati left the Patriots in the driver seat despite a two game losing streak coming into Week 14.

We pumped up the Texans all week long. They’ve been hot. Winners of four of their last five games.

They have a solid defense with the ability to get after the quarterback, and an offense that can stretch the field and challenge defensive backs on the perimeter.

Having said that, it was apparent very early on who the superior team was, and a Patriots win seemed inevitable.

Let’s take a look at how the Patriots got back to their winning ways:

On Offense

Blocking J.J. Watt: The Patriots had about as extensive of a game plan as you will find for a defensive lineman in preparation for one the league’s most dominant players. Watt tallied just one quarterback pressure on 36 pass rush snaps, an incredible feat when you factor in the struggles of the Pats O-Line over the last month. They limited Watt by throwing a number of different blocking schemes his direction, and Watt looked unsettled and frustrated as a result. The Pats blocked Watt one-on-one 16 times, double-teamed him 15 times, and even triple-teamed him four times. To simplify things, the Patriots threw a number of different bodies at Watt at a number of different angles. This kept the all-pro defensive lineman guessing, and caught him off-guard a number of times as blockers seemingly came out of no where to get a shot in. There also seemed to be an understanding between Brady and his lineman that if Watt was singled, Brady would release the ball around 2.5 seconds after the snap. When they devoted multiple blockers to Watt, Brady knew he could hold the ball a bit longer. On Keshawn Martin’s touchdown grab, Watt goes one-on-one with guard Tre’ Jackson and beats him, but Brady knows this and gets rid of the ball in just 2.86 seconds:

 

Gronk Effect: We all know the matchup nightmare that Rob Gronkowski presents to the opposing defense. His numbers do the talking, and his touchdown on Sunday proves just what a unique combination of size and speed he is. However, Gronk has much more of an effect on this offense than just the stats that he piles up. Opposing defenses have to account for Gronk just like any other star receiver. When they leave him on an island with a linebacker, for example, the end result is the 45-yard strike on the Patriots second possession. But, when they double Gronkowski it leaves other Patriots receivers with favorable matchups. On the Martin TD, the Texans doubled Gronk with safeties Quintin Demps and Eddie Pleasant. This leaves Martin, who runs a nice route, one-on-one with rookie CB Kevin Johnson:

 

On Defense

Shutting Down DeAndre Hopkins: Logan Ryan tracked the Texans stud receiver on all but three snaps defensively on Sunday. Ryan deserves a ton of the praise, as he challenged Hopkins all night long and gave up just one catch for 40 yards (completion down the sideline). The Patriots obviously aided Ryan with safety help over the top, as they stuck to their usual cover-1 defense the majority of the time. We have seen the Patriots deploy this tactic a number of times, even with Darrelle Revis as the #1 CB last season. Instead of having Malcolm Butler track Hopkins, the Pats opted to give that responsibility to Logan Ryan with safety help. That allowed Butler to shut down Texans #2 WR Nate Washington (1 rec, 49 yards), and made QB Brian Hoyer throw to his other targets like TE Ryan Griffin (T-team high 6 targets). Watch here late in the fourth quarter as the Texans try to rally. Hopkins creates some separation on the play, but with Harmon over the top cuts the route off towards the sideline. Ryan makes a nice recovery and breaks up the pass:

 

Front 7: The Patriots secondary deserves a lot of credit for the Patriots defense being better than expected this season, but the front seven is the real workhorse. The Texans managed just 87 yards rushing (26 yds in the 2nd half), and the Patriots got to Brian Hoyer six times and hit him another four times. This was a dominant performance from the Patriots up front, as they pressured Hoyer throughout the entire game. As good as the secondary has been, the improvement of the front seven this season has made things easier on the defensive backs. When you factor in that Dont’a Hightower is on his way back, just scary. Akiem Hicks (team-high four pressures, 2 sacks, run stuff) and Jabaal Sheard (2 sacks, FF) led the way for the Pats up front, both delivering their best performances of the season.

2nd Half Defense: How about this for a stat? After just 136 total yards in the first half (not a lot), the Texans managed just 53 total yards in the second half. Houston’s second half drive chart looked like this: punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt, fumble, downs, punt. 46 of those net yards came on one drive, the following series after the Patriots made it 27-6. This was as dominant a performance in the 2nd half as you will ever see in the NFL.

Special Teams

Martin Muffed Punt: Martin’s muff could have been a turning point in the game, but luckily for the Patriots the defense covered up the mistake. What was most unfortunate about this was that Martin actually looked pretty good returning punts up until that point. He had a big return that was called back due to a penalty, a 21-yard return, and a 12-yard return before fumbling in the third quarter. Martin was winning the job until he fumbled.