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Have the Texans Figured Out How to Stop the Patriots Offense?

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By any objective standard, there’s no compelling reason to think that the Houston Texans are going to come to Gillette and rain all sorts of hellfire down on the Patriots the way Kansas City. The Pats aren’t -14 because Vegas doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The Texans have 208 total yards passing on the season, which is fewer  Tom Brady had in the first 22 minutes of the New Orleans game. As a matter of fact, the only teams in the league the Texans are within 100 passing yards of are Miami and Tampa, who’ve played half as many games.

Houston’s strength, the defensive front, has underperformed. Between them JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney have zero sacks. However much weight you give to Pro Football Focus grades is between you and your god (although PFF’s god Cris Collinsworth thinks you should give them tons of weight). But right now among edge defenders, they’ve got Mercilus ranked 45th and Clowney 66th. Well below Lawrence Guy (35th), Trey Flowers (29th) and Deatrich freaking Wise (freaking 18th). (Author’s note: Don’t get pissed at me. I’m just citing PFF’s data. If Rick Smith offered Mercilus or Clowney for all three of those guys I’d have them in his office before he hung up the phone.) And the last time they faced Watt, Week 3 of last year, Dante Scarnecchia’s Brute Squad held him to no tackles and 2 assists even though he took 81 percent of the snaps.

And besides, the Patriots have lost consecutive home games with Brady since November of 2006. And the last time they met, last year in the Divisional playoff, the Pats not only won, they covered an enormous spread. So then why do I legitimately think Houston is a terrible matchup for them?

Because I think it’s possible the Texans may actually have the Cheat Code for stopping Josh McDaniels’ offense. That they have the talent. The familiarity, with Bill O’Brien knowing every microchip in the hard drive, with Mike Vrabel taking over as DC and Romeo Crennel only semi-retired. And also schematically.

Despite that final score, last year’s playoff against Houston’s D was a struggle. A bloody mob war. In the middle of the game the Pats put together a stretch of drives that ended: Interception, fumble, punt, punt, field goal, punt, touchdown, punt, interception, punt. Brady completed 47.4 percent of his passes, the lowest of 34-game postseason career. Only by the grace of Brock Osweiler’s even shittier accuracy (3 picks) and a Dion Lewis kick return for a touch down did they avoid catastrophe.

Something that’s got me especially worried concern, was this piece Andy Benoit of SI did last month. A remarkably in-depth X & O-geek breakdown of how Houston’s “Diamond” defensive front made it game.

[F]ive Houston defenders lined up along the line of scrimmage. On the edges, outside of each offensive tackle (in a wide-9 position), were linebackers Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney. In the B gaps, between New England’s guards and tackles (in a 3 technique), were defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Antonio Smith. Mercilus stood directly over center David Andrews.

At the snap, only Clowney, Smith and Mercilus rushed; Cushing and McKinney dropped into shallow coverage. The QB now had eight pass defenders to sort through. But before Brady could get into his progressions he was engulfed by Mercilus, who’d easily spun past Andrews, an undrafted second-year center with middling size. The Texans had dropped into their “max” coverage, and still they got a premier pass rusher one-on-one against an overmatched lineman. …

But the diamond’s real complexity shows in passing situations, when those five players start running stunts—or what Mercilus refers to as “games.” At the snap, a given defender might attack a blocker’s shoulder or try to cross over a blocker’s face, creating a lane for another defender to loop in and attack. …

Those games can put tremendous stress on an offensive line. On any given play against a healthy Texans team, for example, at least three offensive linemen are led to believe presnap that they’re about to block an elite pass rusher. But that pass rusher may relocate at the snap, with a whole new defender appearing.

So you’re not only dealing with some of the most athletic metahumans in the game, you’re left sometimes using five to block three and still they’ve still drawn up a way to create a 1-on-1 mismatch while nobody’s open because they put eight into coverage. We’ve been hearing for 16 years now about the “blueprint” to stop the Pats offense. And a few times we’ve seen it, like Tom Coughlin’s Giants and Rex Ryan’s D every other year or so. While I’m not saying this is it, it’s at least the closest anyone has come in a while. And it’ll make an otherwise 2-touchdown spread a fascinating game. I just know I wouldn’t touch that -14 line.

@jerrythornton1