By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Deshaun Watson is a pretty good quarterback. Some might even say he’s great. They might be right.
But here’s the thing: When you give any NFL quarterback all the time in the world to set his feet, stand tall and scan the field, he’s going to end up looking like some lethal combination of Peyton Manning and Joe Montana. On Sunday against the Patriots, Watson might have been even better than that.
Watson obviously deserves a ton of credit for delivering some of the most absurdly accurate lasers that have ever been launched on an NFL field. You know, passes like this one …
… or this one …
or this one …
All of those came on the same drive, which was rude. But they also show how much time and space Watson had to deliver those strikes. Had he been forced to deal with even the slightest bit of pressure, it’s unlikely he’d have been able to deliver his passes with such precision.
That would be a theme on the day. The Patriots recorded just two quarterback hits all day (one for Lawrence Guy, one for Deatrich Wise). Watson was not sacked in a game for just the fourth time in his 48-game career. (The Patriots sacked him three times last year.)
Here’s how Watson’s pockets looked like on some other key passes on the day.
On a third-and-4 in the second quarter, the Patriots rushed three and dropped eight. Bad idea:
On a first-and-10 before halftime, the four-man rush didn’t even get close:
Very next play, same story:
Later on that drive, immediately after a dynamic Watson touchdown pass was called back due to an ineligible lineman drifting up the field, Watson had all the time and space he needed to get the Texans inside the 5-yard line:
The Patriots finally felt inspired to send an extra rusher in the form of rookie Kyle Dugger. Running back Duke Johnson picked him up though, and no other pass rushers got near the QB, allowing Keke Coutee to run himself open in the end zone:
Some might argue that Johnson grabbed a hold of Dugger’s jersey. Nevertheless, his initial block was enough for Watson to buy time and space to deliver the pass he needed to throw.
This might be getting redundant, so here are a few more key plays:
Given the rarity of the Patriots sending extra rushers and pressuring Watson, it’s easy to second-guess the strategy after the loss, during which Watson threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns. Head coach Bill Belichick, though, indicated that the Patriots’ game plan was the right one.
“Yeah, well, I mean, those are the choices you’ve got to make,” Belichick said. “I mean, they’ve got a lot of good receivers. They’ve got a good quarterback. They have done pretty well against pressure. It wasn’t very good for us last year. We mixed it in there some, but they did a pretty good job with all of it, to tell you the truth.”
It’s a fair point. Had the Patriots went blitz-heavy and got beaten, we’d all be wondering why they didn’t drop more defenders into coverage.
Yet at a certain point, it became necessary to apply some pressure, because the secondary was (understandably) having a bear of a time trying to keep those receivers and tight ends in check for 4-5 seconds every snap.
The end result was Watson’s best game of the season, and a devastating loss for the Patriots.
Want some more leftover thoughts from the 27-20 New England loss in Houston? Sure, why not? Let’s party.
–The Burkhead injury is a real downer. Rex entered the game with 267 rushing yards, 187 receiving yards, and six total touchdowns (three rushing, three receiving). He’s still the only Patriot with more than one receiving touchdown, as he accounts for half of the team’s passing TDs through 11 weeks.
And even when the statistics don’t show it, he more often than not makes plays that keep drives moving toward the end zone. Take, for instance, the athleticism he showed in making this catch on an inaccurate short pass from Cam Newton (a theme of the day).
Catching that ball without missing a beat, and then bowling over a defender is a skill, and even though Sony Michel is ready to return to the backfield, the Patriots will sorely miss Burkhead’s dual threat ability. And on the “football is so cruel” scale, it’s worth noting that Burkhead took a pay cut to stay with the Patriots this year, and he’ll be a free agent in the offseason, entering his age 31 season. It’s a rough way to make a living.
–Keeping things in the backfield, Damien Harris remains very good. So good, in fact, that we’re all left to wonder why the Patriots went away from him.
Harris ran for 25 yards and a touchdown on five carries on the Patriots’ opening drive. He looked, once again, like the real deal, especially when he turned nothing into something. Here’s a 4-yard gain and a 7-yard gain, coming two snaps apart.
Suffice it to say, a high number of NFL backs get stuffed at the line on both of those plays.
Despite that early success running with Harris, the Patriots went away from him. Here’s how the second-year back was used throughout the game.
First Drive: 5 rushes, 25 yards, TD
Second Drive: 2 rushes, 11 yards
Third Drive: 1 rush, 3 yards
Fourth (real) Drive (excluding second quarter kneeldown): 0 rushes
Fifth Drive: 3 rushes, 4 yards
Sixth Drive: 0 rushes
That was … notable.
Belichick was asked after the game if the Patriots’ going away from Harris had anything to do with the injuries Harris has dealt with over the past two weeks.
“No, I don’t think so,” Belichick answered.
Well, OK then.
Belichick then sort of bristled at the suggestion that the offensive game plan wasn’t great.
“Well, I think that Houston, the Texans made some adjustments in the running game, and I think we had some good opportunities in the passing game, which we took advantage of. We threw the ball pretty well. So I think that’s — look, we were able to move the ball. That really wasn’t the issue,” Belichick said. “Some penalties stopped us and then we had some missed opportunities when we moved it across the 50 or into the scoring zone.”
Again, fair enough. But when the Patriots faced just a single third down on an opening drive where they bulldozed the Houston defense, it’s more than fair to wonder why Harris stopped being a focal point after the successful start.
–Kyle Dugger hits other football players very hard.
We need not throw a parade for Belichick seemingly finding himself a player in the second round, but … you do have to give credit for the find from Lenoir-Rhyne. That is a next-level move.
–For the sake of record-keeping, please remove that offensive pass interference penalty from N’Keal Harry’s record. He most certainly did not commit OPI. If anyone did, it was Damiere Byrd, and even then, he didn’t really. But Harry catches enough flak, so it’s worth making a point to not pile on when it’s not warranted.
That one turned a potential touchdown drive into a field goal drive.
–If we’re going to talk about bad officiating, we have to talk about a couple of spots. This was arguably the worst spot in NFL history:
That ball was down at the Houston 46-yard line. A bad spot would have had it down at the 45. The official there gave it to the Patriots at the 44. That is wild.
How multiple NFL officials miss a play that blatant is anyone’s guess, but the NFL should have delayed the game to make the responsible officials run laps around NRG Stadium.
The officials then gave N’Keal Harry the 40-yard line on this play on the Patriots’ late drive, too, for some reason:
Spotting the football at live speed on an NFL field is a tall task, no doubt. But that is some rough stuff from that crew.
–The stat sheet shows that Cam Newton had a good game. It was good, sure. It was also kind of bad.
Newton threw the ball downfield very well, but his shorter passes were a bit of a mess.
This pass to Harry, on what could have been the game-tying drive, was utterly unacceptable for an NFL quarterback. Period.
Look at how much room Harry would have had to run if that ball had been delivered anywhere near his body.
Newton also had no idea that pressure was coming on the Justin Reid sack, which cost New England nine yards and turned another potential touchdown drive into a field goal drive. And he had passes swatted at the line much more often than a 6-foot-5 quarterback ever should.
Like most things, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the quarterback. Mike Onwenu missed his cut block on J.J. Watt on the last one, for instance. But the recognition and rapid reaction hasn’t been there for Cam in spots like that this year as a passer.
Cam was asked postgame if Watt was doing anything different from normal.
“He’s J.J. Watt,” Newton answered succinctly. “What do you expect?”
When told that Watt doesn’t always bat down four passes in the backfield, Newton expounded.
“He is J.J. Watt. He’s an all-pro — perennial all-pro. He’s a Defensive Player of the Year, one of the best players in this generation. So for us, it is what it is. They get paid too. So for us to go against that, I’m not saying we fold up the tent, but at the same time, they’re going to make plays just like we’re going to make plays and we just can’t get bent out of shape when that happens. We just got to move on and still be able to move the ball like we did show sometimes today but not enough.”
Again … fair enough. Still not great.
–There were some positives on offense, no doubt. There was even a case of the Zero Humans Defense coming out to play!
Yeah, no need to force it. Sorry.
–Possibly an insignificant pet peeve, but maybe not: Gunner Olszewski not calling for a fair catch on the final punt.
I mean, did the Patriots think Gunner was finally going to make his big play? The man with a career-long 22-yard punt return was suddenly going to morph into Dante Hall and pull off a dazzling 74-yard punt return to heroically tie the game in the final minute? Was that really likely?
I say no. It wasn’t.
Instead of waving for the fair catch, Olszewski caught the Houston punt at his own 26-yard line with 13 seconds left in the game. He wasted four critical seconds by just standing there and falling forward, making it all the way to the 29-yard line.
The Patriots then used 5 seconds to gain 9 yards, leaving just 4 seconds on the clock. Had they still had those 4 seconds wasted for Gunner, they could have moved up another 10 or so yards with ease, thus getting into Hail Mary range for Newton. Instead, they had to run the Hail Mary from their own 38-yard line, and Newton’s throw came down 12 yards short of the goal line.
There once was a day when the Patriots would do seemingly everything right. Now they’re wasting valuable seconds for Gunner Olszewski punt returns. Everything just feels off.
–Defensively … tough scene:
Ideally, you’re going to want to not need the entire defense to bring down … Pharaoh Brown.
Likewise, Deshaun Watson (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, quarterback) vs. Devin McCourty (5-foot-10, 195 pounds, not a quarterback) looks like a fair fight on paper. But on Sundays, life is hard.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) November 22, 2020
Sometimes, the opponent just wants to win more. In this case, the 2-7 Texans showed more heart and desire than the Patriots. That is what it is.
–With that, it’s all over. No playoffs. No fun. No parties. Ah well. It was a good run. Decent. Can’t last forever.
For me, the question is what comes next. Does a solid 2021 draft, a free-agent addition or two, and the return of Dont’a Hightower get the Patriots back to championship caliber? Probably not. Realistically, if the Patriots are to get back to the top of their conference, they’re going to need Bill Belichick to go a bit crazy — in the good way — in the coming months.
The Patriots have a good offensive line, a solid group of running backs, and still one of the better secondaries in the league. They’ll obviously need a quarterback and some major upgrades at receiver. And even then, it may be a two or three-year job to complete.
For now? For now, there’s this:
The perfect GIF for 2020.