NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
In what was a closer game than anticipated, the New England Patriots survived an ineffective first half to earn a three-point road victory against a Houston Texans team who played much better than their record would suggest. Read on for five takeaways from this week’s performance.
1. Patriots overcome slow start, early deficit caused by poor field position
If there was one significant storyline to the first quarter of this afternoon’s game, it was the excellent starting field position the Texans earned, which stood in stark contrast to the Patriots’ poor starting field position. Houston wide receiver/kick returner Keshawn Martin returned the opening kickoff fifty yards to the Houston forty-four-yard line; although Houston eventually stalled out, the Patriots were forced to begin the following drive on their own seven-yard line, punting from their eleven and allowing the Texans to start their following possession from their own forty-eight-yard line on a drive which culminated in a touchdown. Tom Brady was intercepted by Johnathan Joseph on an underthrown pass intended for Rob Gronkowski on the subsequent possession, giving Houston the ball on the New England thirty-one in a drive which also ended in a Randy Bullock field goal, giving them a ten-point lead midway through the first quarter, forcing the Patriots to play from behind. The Texans were efficient throughout the game, both in terms of throwing and in terms of running the ball, but their job was a little bit easier because of their favorable field position to begin early drives, which, even if they failed to result in points, also forced the Patriots to begin their drives from deep within their own territory, causing another slow start.
2. Case Keenum successful against frustrating soft zone coverages
Although New England’s pass defense improved dramatically last season by transitioning to more man-coverage concepts, those coverages were largely absent in the early going, with head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia favoring soft zone coverages which allowed Case Keenum to find wide-open receiving options downfield, the first being Andre Johnson on a twenty-nine-yard grab on a crossing route during Houston’s second drive, a play which moved the ball to New England’s twenty-one and preceded a Ben Tate touchdown by three plays. Early in the second quarter, Keenum found a wide-open Keshawn Martin on a well-designed play, with the receiver gaining twenty-seven yards thanks to a blown coverage. Although Keenum was eventually intercepted on the drive, Martin’s catch set up Houston on the twenty-two-yard line, where the team appeared poised to further increase their lead. The first half of the game made it seem as though the Patriots had forgotten all of the ideas that have helped improve their defense over the past year or so. Andre Johnson went over one-hundred yards on the game, catching eight passes; his consistent production was frustrating because on plenty of occasions he was working against a defender other than Aqib Talib.
3. Run defense struggles, allows four rushing touchdowns on the game
One of the biggest concerns heading into the game was whether or not the Patriots could defend the run, and the early going was characterized by a combination of poor gap responsibility and missed tackles. The Texans gained seventy-three yards in the first half, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt (more if Case Keenum’s line attempt is excluded), with starting running back Ben Tate accounting for sixty-one yards and both of Houston’s first-half touchdowns. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano was unable to scrape down the line into the proper gap on Tate’s first run, and the latter was later able to break a twenty-yard touchdown run in which he was given plenty of room to work and eventually shook off a tackle attempt by free safety Devin McCourty, who got a little bit too aggressive with his angle. Tate added a third touchdown later in the game (Houston’s fourth, including Case Keenum’s bootleg), running through an open hole for a ten-yard score which pushed his yardage total on the game over one-hundred yards. The Patriots did perform a little bit better than anticipated, especially in the context of their other recent performances, but any time you surrender four rushing touchdowns, there’s plenty of room for improvement. For New England, that should come via further work on their tackling technique and gap responsibilities.
4. Brady accurate, receives major contributions from Gronkowski, Edelman
In this morning’s Ten Keys article, whether or not the Texans would be able to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski was considered; the answer became apparent when Gronkowski shook former Patriots linebacker Jeff Tarpinian with a double move and came down with a twenty-three-yard touchdown grab late in the first quarter to cut the deficit to three points, then outran inside linebacker Daryl Sharpton on a seam route in the third quarter, breaking one tackle attempt and eventually dragging Sharpton out of bounds for a fifty-yard gain which took the Patriots to the Texans’ thirteen-yard line on a drive which ended two plays later on an impressive one-yard touchdown run by fullback James Develin in which Develin brook numerous tackles and helped cut Houston’s lead to three points. New England’s star tight end also made a seventeen-yard catch on a crossing route late in the fourth quarter to help set up Stephen Gostkowski’s second fifty-three-yard field goal of the game. Gronkowski’s performance was at least matched by an outstanding game by wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is developing into a legitimate threat at all levels of the field. Edelman caught nine balls for one-hundred-and-one yards.
5. Patriots opt to sit Ridley, turn in a decent ensemble performance
After his third fumble in as many games last week against the Broncos, the status of running back Stevan Ridley was unclear until about ninety minutes before game-time today, when the Patriots announced that the explosive but frustrating running back would be among the team’s inactive players for this week’s contest. In his place, the Patriots handed the ball to four different players this afternoon: Shane Vereen carried the ball ten times (adding five receptions and a touchdown through the air), LeGarrette Blount carried the ball on twelve occasions and scored, James Develin punched in a one-yard touchdown and received two more touches, one being a reception, and Brandon Bolden rushed twice and caught an eighteen-yard pass. Overall, there were times when the Patriots looked effective running the ball, but despite their two rushing touchdowns, they carried the ball twenty-seven times for eighty-eight yards, representing an average of less than 3.3 yards per attempt. The Patriots didn’t block particularly well in the run game this week, but it’s fair to wonder whether or not their performance on the ground would have been enhanced by Ridley’s presence, and whether or not we’ll see him back on the field next week.