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How Houston Texans’ Defense Frustrated Tom Brady’s Offense In Last Year’s Playoffs

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The 2016 Patriots, by most standards, were a pretty good football team. They went 14-2 through the regular season before pulling off an unforgettable comeback in the Super Bowl, where they scored 31 unanswered points to beat the Falcons in overtime to secure a championship.

Pretty good!

The 2016 Houston Texans? Well, they were OK. Decent. They went 9-7 and, despite a minus-49 point differential, won the dreadful AFC South and then won a playoff game against a Raiders team that lost its starting quarterback in Week 16.

So when the Texans rolled into Gillette Stadium for a divisional round playoff game, nobody thought much of the team that had lost 27-0 to the Patriots on that very same field when Jacoby Brissett was making his first career start at quarterback. Certainly, if Brissett could lead a 27-point victory, then Tom Brady might win by 100.

As it turned out, Brady did lead the Patriots to a blowout 34-16 victory. But the final score does not at all indicate how difficult the Texans made life for the Patriots that night.

It’s true that the game was never quite in peril for the Patriots, but the home team clung to a one-point lead for most of the second quarter before getting stuffed on the goal line just prior to halftime and settling for a field goal. The game headed to halftime with the Patriots up 17-13, and the Texans had hope; the Patriots outscored the visitors 19-3 in the second half.

Yet it wasn’t all about the Patriots’ offense. Quite the opposite. The Patriots’ defense intercepted Brock Osweiler three times, and Dion Lewis broke off a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Another Patriots touchdown was scored after Logan Ryan returned an interception to the Houston 6-yard line.

The Patriots’ offense managed 377 yards against Houston, but it was anything but easy. Brady threw for 287 yards with two touchdowns but also with two interceptions, while taking two sacks. Brady posted the single-worst completion percentage from any playoff game in his career at 47.37 percent — and that was against a Texans team that was missing J.J. Watt.

That all should serve as a reminder that scoring against the Texans’ defense is no easy task, and with Watt looking like a fully healthy Watt thus far in 2017, the job only gets more difficult.

Though some players from last year on both teams are either gone or injured (or suspended), it’s worth a look back at some of Houston’s best defensive plays to see how the Texans likely hope to frustrate Brady’s offense once again. We’ll also take a look at the plays where Brady’s offense did succeed to see what might be successful this year.

The Play: Third-and-1 at New England 48
The Situation:
Patriots’ opening drive
The Result: Houston win

The Patriots sure do love scoring on their opening drive. And after Julian Edelman’s punt return set them up to start at their own 39 following a three-and-out for Osweiler, they looked to be in good shape. But they were stuffed on third-and-1.

It came after Dion Lewis ran for three yards on second down. The Patriots hurried to the line to try to get the same results. Here’s how the defense looked, with 10 players near the line of scrimmage expecting run:

capture37 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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The Texans won the initial push …

capture38 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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… leaving nowhere for Lewis to run.

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He lost a yard. The Patriots punted.

The Play: First-and-10 at Houston 13-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots’ second drive, scoreless, early first quarter
The Result: New England win

The Patriots flew down the field, thanks to a 30-yard pass interference penalty and a 22-yard completion to Chris Hogan on a play where Brady was protected long enough to have a clean pocket for more than four seconds.

From there, it took them just one more play to score.

This play was simple. After motioning James Develin out of the backfield to the left side, Brady took a snap from under center and hit Lewis on a swing route on the left side. Lewis had one man to beat: Benardrick McKinney. Beat him, Lewis did.

untitled 24 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

capture9 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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Linebacker Brian Cushing (suspended for the 2017 contest) was too busy trying to end Martellus Bennett’s life (seen in first pic above) than following the play, which helped open up some space for Lewis. And Develin ran right past McKinney, instead running up field to block safety Corey Moore — an immensely easy job for a fullback of Develin’s caliber:

capture39 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

This is something that could come in handy for the Patriots’ offense this week. A quick release to Lewis in space, allowing him to beat linebackers in the open field, is a play that will work more often than it will fail.

The Play: First-and-10 at New England 20-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots’ first drive in a long time, thanks to a long Houston scoring drive and the Dion Lewis kick return TD. Patriots leading 14-3
The Result: New England fail

Brady lined up under center, with Martellus Bennett on his right side and James Develin split out wide right. Julian Edelman was in the left slot, and Michael Floyd was split out wide left. LeGarrette Blount was in the backfield.

Three Texans defenders were down on the line, with two defenders standing up on the ends. Edelman motioned to the right side before the snap:

capture41 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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All five Texans rushed, so Brady got the ball out immediately on a slant to Floyd. A lack of experience catching passes from Brady likely was the cause of Floyd not running his route all the way through. Instead, he semi-stopped when the ball was released, thus forcing him to reach for the ball in front of his body. He deflected the pass into the air, allowing cornerback A.J. Bouye to pick it off.

capture42 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

This was simply poor route running. It wasn’t anything the Texans did in particular. It should have been a win for the Patriots, with Floyd perhaps being able to turn it into a huge catch-and-run. It just came down to simple poor execution.

The Play: Third-and-5 at New England 23-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots leading 14-13, early second. The New England offense had taken just nine snaps to this point.
The Result: Houston win

With Brady in the shotgun, Houston once again showed a five-man front.

capture46 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

But only the three interior linemen rushed on the snap:

untitled 33 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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Whitney Mercilus slipped right past David Andrew in a 1-on-1 blocking situation, forcing Brady to scramble to his right.

untitled 41 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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With Brian Cushing (who had dropped off the line into coverage at the snap) bearing down on him, Brady had no choice but to take a sack to bring on the punt team. It wasn’t without hesitation, either, as Brady wanted to make something happen. As a result of not going down, Brady took hits from both Mercilus and Cushing.

capture44 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

capture45 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

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Tom Brady (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

With five players running routes on this play, the Patriots probably liked their chances, given the look of a five-man rush. But when eight dropped into coverage and Andrews quickly lost his matchup with Mercilus, the play went haywire.

Brady was forced to a side of the field where Floyd was his only receiver, and Floyd wasn’t even looking for a pass (he was instead engaged with the cornerback 15 yards up the field.

untitled 110 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Even if Andrews had stopped Mercilus at the line, it would have been a tough play to make, given the eight men in coverage. But it at least would have had a chance.

Josh McDaniels this week stressed the importance of winning those one-on-one matchups, something he said likely with this very play in mind.

The Play: Third-and-10 at New England 18-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots still leading 14-13, mid-second. Brady had just thrown two incompletions deep to Lewis after consecutive three-man rushes by Houston.
The Result: New England win

This play probably shouldn’t have worked for the Patriots. But sometimes, sports are sports.

The Texans sent a well-timed and well-executed blitz around the right side of the Patriots’ line, forcing Brady to heave up a prayer over the middle of the field:

untitled 112 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

untitled 34 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFl.com/GamePass)

Hogan was covered fairly well, but the wobbly prayer was so badly underthrown that the receiver was able to adjust to the pass and make a catch for a 45-yard gain.

untitled 25 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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Those types of receptions can be made when a defensive back knows he’s the last line of defense against an 80-plus yard score, like Moore knew on this play:

untitled 42 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Though that wasn’t exactly how the Patriots would have drawn it up, the message remained the same: blitz Brady at your own risk. He knows how to tear you apart.

The Play: Third-and-6 at Houston 33-yard line.
The Situation:
Three plays after the long completion to Hogan, mid-second
The Result: Houston win

Once again, the Texans crowded the box but rushed just three. And once again, Mercilus took Andrews’ lunch money. He used a spin move to slip right past the center:

If Brady had had more time, he might have been able to find James White running an in-cut at the sticks. Everyone else was covered:

untitled 51 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screenshot from NFL.com/GamePass)

But even without the pressure, the Texans were well-prepared to defend the play.

The Patriots sent on Ryan Allen for his third punt of the half.

The Play: Third-and-9 at New England 34-yard line
The Situation:
Still a 14-13 score, 3:08 left in the half
The Result: New England win

The Texans rushed three and clogged the middle of the field with six bodies. Brady took a shotgun snap, flanked by running backs on both sides of him.

The difference on this play was that the offensive line held up, giving Brady time to stand like a statue in the pocket before using the age-old street football signal of pointing deep to tell Edelman what he ought to do.

capture58 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

From the point of the snap until Brady released the ball, 5.47 seconds elapsed.

Edelman was actually covered pretty tightly. Edelman did get away with a subtle push-off on corner Kareem Jackson, though Jackson was also spinning in a circle while Edelman was adjusting to the ball in the air. He made the catch before taking a hit from safety Andre Hal.

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Edelman being Edelman, he withstood the hit, stayed on his feet, and squeaked an extra 12 yards out of the play.

The reason the Patriots won this play was simple. The offensive line blocked the three rushers, and nobody can cover Julian Edelman for six seconds.

The Patriots obviously won’t have Edelman for this week’s matchups, so it’ll be up to the rest of the receiving corps and running backs to try replicate that kind of improvisation with Brady if the opportunity arises.

The Play: First-and-goal at the Houston 3-yard line
The Situation:
Still a 14-13 score, 1:21 left to play in the half
The Result: Houston win

This was a three-play sequence that really boosted Houston’s confidence before halftime, preventing the Patriots from pulling off their patented touchdown-before-halftime, touchdown-after-halftime method of napalming football games in a flash.

New England came out in the shotgun on first down, sending three receivers and a running back out on routes, while keeping a tight end in to block. Houston only rushed two players, thus giving Brady forever (7 full seconds, to be exact) in the pocket but giving him nowhere to throw the ball. With four receivers and nine defenders crammed into a tight area, there wasn’t any space to be found.

capture47 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

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Brady decided to try to run for the touchdown, but Jadeveon Clowney stopped him at the 1-yard line.

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capture49 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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On second down, the Patriots went big, with Cameron Fleming lining up at tight end and Matt Lengel motioning right behind Fleming on the right side:

capture50 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

It looked like a run, but it was not. Brady faked the handoff to Blount and looked left, where Develin and Bennett were running out routes. Brady completed the pass, but safety Eddie Pleasant showed remarkable awareness to peel off Bennett and make a beeline for Develin, who had caught the pass at the 1-yard line.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

capture51 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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Pleasant held him up long enough for linebacker Akeem Dent to get there to help tackle Develin short of the goal line. Develin would have crossed the goal line if Dent hadn’t aggressively finished the play:

untitled 26 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That’s a situation where the Texans had to feel good about players lower on the depth chart doing the little things right.

So, it was on to third-and-goal from the 1-foot line.

capture52 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

The Patriots did nothing fancy coming out of their timeout: a handoff to Blount. The Texans were ready and got great penetration at the line of scrimmage:

capture53 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Blount actually slipped through a tackle and barreled through another, but he was swarmed at the 1-yard line. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal, and the Texans had a lot to feel good about after that goal line stand.

The Play: Third-and-1 at New England 48
The Situation:
Patriots leading 17-13, first drive of second half
The Result: Houston win

With five on the line of scrimmage, Houston sent all five after Brady — but not in a traditional sense. The ends (McKinney, Cushing) delayed and ran a stunt and looped to the inside, getting a free run up the gut to the quarterback.

untitled 36 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

untitled 43 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Brady was forced to scramble to his left to avoid the pressure from the collapsed pocket. While running left, he actually delivered a dart that could have been caught by Lewis. But Lewis didn’t make the catch, and the Patriots had to punt.

If Brady had a half-second longer to stay in the pocket, he would have had Edelman open for a huge gain.

untitled 37 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

But he didn’t. A well-executed stunt did its job to force the Patriots to punt.

The Play: Third-and-3 at Houston 19-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots leading 17-13, early third quarter
The Result: New England win

The Texans gave Brady (in the shotgun) a familiar look: three down linemen, with two more potential pass rushers standing up on the line. This time, four of them rushed. James White released out of the backfield, Marcus Cannon allowed Mercilus to speed rush far to the outside, thus giving Brady a clean pocket into which he could step up.

untitled 52 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Brady did, and with McKinney on White in man coverage, Brady knew where he wanted to go with the ball.

It worked:

capture54 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

The Texans had a single high safety on the play, and he couldn’t get to the sideline in time to break up the deep lob.

Once again, the Patriots won the play because the offensive line held off a four-man rush, and Brady was able to find his matchup in man coverage. White was able to win it.

The Play: Second-and-10 at New England 23-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots leading 24-13, final minute of third quarter
The Result: Houston win

Houston rushed four on what turned out to be a play-action fake. Mercilus simply beat Cannon on the outside, spinning back to the inside and getting a run at Brady to force the quarterback to throw before he wanted to.

untitled 53 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

untitled 82 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

The rushed pass from Brady was a bad one, and McKinney was able to get two hands on the ball. It deflected into the air, and Hal made the easy pick.

It wasn’t anything too complex from Houston — just a good, solid spin move from a talented pass rusher beating Cannon to force an errant pass.

The Play: Third-and-7 at Houston 45-yard line 
The Situation:
Patriots leading 24-16, early fourth quarter
The Result: New England fail

The Texans could only get a field goal after that Brady interception, which meant the Patriots were looking to put the game away on their next possession. A roughing the passer penalty on Clowney helped them in that goal, but they faced a third-and-7 near midfield and stalled out.

Once again, five Texans were on the line. Four rushed, and Cushing dropped into coverage. Brady threw over the middle to Edelman, who was open, but the pass was behind the receiver. Drop. Punt.

Edelman had found a soft spot in the defense:

untitled 92 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

untitled 10 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

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But the execution from the quarterback wasn’t there. An so, it became a missed opportunity to put the game away with a long scoring drive.

The Play: First-and-goal at Houston 6-yard line
The Situation:
Patriots leading 24-16, early fourth quarter
The Result: Dion Lewis win

This play to get down to the goal line wasn’t really about great execution or anything. It was about Dion Lewis being a tremendous athlete.

Lewis took a pitch to the left side and had Nate Solder running out in front of him as a lead blocker on the left side, after a fake jet sweep to Edelman on the right side.

The Houston defense, no doubt demoralized by yet another Brock Osweiler interception, had Lewis bottled up pretty well after Solder missed his block:

capture55 How Houston Texans Defense Frustrated Tom Bradys Offense In Last Years Playoffs

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

But then, as Lewis is wont to do, he made everybody miss. He turned it into a gain of five yards.

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The Patriots then went with a no-huddle, and Brady handed to Lewis out of a tight shotgun formation. Lewis ran into a wall of bodies and lunged across the goal line to officially put the game out of reach.

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Again, nothing fancy. Just a good, hard run by a little guy who’s got surprising strength to finish runs at the goal line.

TAKEAWAYS

As I’ve stated numerous times throughout this story, it’s not rocket science. When the Texans rush just three or four and drop seven or eight into coverage, the Patriots’ offensive line has to win one-on-one assignments. Otherwise, no receiver on earth has enough time to get open, given the glut of white jerseys spread across the field.

There are two factors complicating this matter for the Patriots, however. One is that Julian Edelman will not be in the game. Nobody is better at consistently beating man coverage than Edelman, and it was no coincidence that he caught eight passes for 137 yards that night in January. (The next-leading receiver was Chris Hogan with four catches for 95 yards. After that, only one other receiver showed up on the stat sheet, with Michael Floyd catching just one pass for nine yards on a largely dreadful night for him.)

In that regard, a heavy burden will fall on the shoulders of Lewis and White, who should be able to get open so long as Brady is protected. Lewis had a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a kick return touchdown in January. They may not need all three scores this weekend (Deshaun Watson’s offense is a grisly scene at the moment), but Lewis figures to have his most important role yet for this season.

Which brings us to complication No. 2: Justin James Watt. As we all recall, Watt missed last year’s playoff matchup with an injury. But he’s back now, and lining up alongside Clowney, Mercilus, and McKinney presents more matchup problems for the Patriots’ offensive line. It doesn’t help that Cannon missed practice both Wednesday and Thursday, thus increasing the liklihood that either Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle will have to play at right tackle in a fill-in role.

All of this spells for a difficult day for New England’s passing offense. Perhaps McDaniels opts to go with a heavy dose of Mike Gillislee to try to control the game on the ground any way possible, but whatever course they choose, nothing will come easy on Sunday.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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