Four Downs: Texans 28, Patriots 22

The AFC glass ceiling shattered on Sunday night, and Texans fans were free to envision something more for the first time.

Houston bullywhipped the New England Patriots, long-time Texans tormentors, in a way that the final scoreline doesn’t even completely address. Houston achieved a 95% win probability (per ESPN’s in-house metric) towards the end of the third quarter, and turned the tables on the Patriots by decisively winning the battle of the game plans, getting around tight coverage with annoying short completions, and frustrating the opposing quarterback into a series of annoying passes. They Patriots’ed the Patriots. And you can tell this game meant a lot more to the Texans than they’d ever let on this week.

Summing up what this game meant to the collective fanbase is weird in the same way that any thing that destroys self-perception is. This game is the moment you dropped below 200 pounds for the first time in eight years. This game is the first time you asked someone out and they said yes. There are plenty of Toro-colored glasses out in Texans Internet land, and they did go to Arrowhead Stadium earlier this year and win, but the Texans have been Little Brother to the Patriots ever since they became relevant, especially since O’Brien has been in town. Big Brother finally stumbled.

My pragmatic side wants to tell you that this does not necessarily mean much. It wants to tell you that the Patriots are still heavy favorites to host a return meeting between these two teams if it happens. It wants to tell you that Bill O’Brien has often come up with amazing play designs and has called good game plans before, but that it’s usually a tease rather than a trend. It wants to tell you that New England’s passing attack has looked broken since Week 5 and that this played into that. It wants to tell you that the real threat is roughly 400 miles west of Foxboro, where the Texans got spanked 41-7.

But it does matter. It matters because we were able to see it. The vision that Bill O’Brien has sold his bosses as Patriots South has always been a fraudulent-ass one that relied on closing your eyes any time the Texans played a real team. They haven’t closed the deed on this season yet, and they’re still not likely to grab a first-round bye. But when you watch this game, and the Kansas City game, you are able to see it.

1 — Deshaun Watson, Duke Johnson, and short game dominance

The mantra all week from the Texans was about avoiding turnovers and playing mistake-free football. They didn’t always do that as a team — they had penalties that set back the cause, and two of Watson’s three sacks taken were from almost entirely unaccounted for rushes:

But what we’ve seen when the Texans have cruised this season hasn’t been that they need to reinvent the wheel on offense, it’s that they have so much skill position depth that all they need to do is have Watson get the ball out and go on with their day. Watson took three sacks, but only four total quarterback hits on those sacks. He was 14-of-18 for 135 yards and two touchdowns on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you go through the ones that weren’t caught — one was defensive pass interference, one was a dropped Kenny Stills slant — they’re not exactly plays that show poorly on Watson.

It’s me, I’m that idiot who said that Duke Johnson was the important player that needed to be involved. I get to be right about things sometimes.

When Watson is operating the short-area game well, the Texans feel unstoppable and inevitable. They were so inevitable in this game that they donated 10 Carlos Hyde rushes to charity (1.7 yards per carry, long of four yards) and still averaged 7.7 yards per pass.

The play where Watson avoided a Kyle Van Noy sack on first down, throwing the ball away, and then found Jordan Akins on a tackle-breaking run after catch to get out of second-and-10 on the second scoring drive exemplifies what’s going on here. The Texans aren’t necessarily avoiding hurting themselves with penalties or bad plays — because every team does this to some extent — but when you throw for 7.7 yards per attempt it doesn’t really matter if you mix in a negative play or two.

2 — The emergence of Jacob Martin

Not only did the Patriots look limited as a passing offense, they looked limited in a way that relied on Tom Brady buying time. I don’t think any of their older receivers besides Edelman looked 100%, and I don’t think either of their younger receivers showed themselves capable in this game. There is no tight end play.

But the Texans also did this by bringing heat — they sacked Brady three times, but they hit him 12 total times. Brady was constantly being harassed. His average time-to-throw was a startling 3.4 seconds, which points to both the trouble his receivers had getting open and how often he had to reset his throwing point.

Nobody sent Brady fleeing as often as Jacob Martin on the edge — the Patriots simply couldn’t give Marcus Cannon enough help on the outside, and Cannon was watching Martin go by him on nearly a by-drive basis.

Brennan Scarlett and Angelo Blackson were missed in the base run game — more on that in a moment — but those extra snaps that Martin got showed us some flashes of how the Texans might possibly be able to recoup a little value on the Jadeveon Clowney trade. I don’t think Martin is some sort of burgeoning superstar — he’s not leaving guys in the dust snap-after-snap or anything like that — but I do think he has enough speed on the edge to be an effective complementary rusher. Like Whitney Mercilus, he does a lot of his living on the initial get-off. Cannon couldn’t deal.

3 — The defensive game plan that the Patriots couldn’t counter off of

The Texans — Romeo Crennel — came into this game with a game-specific plan that actually worked. They decided to force New England’s non-Julian Edelman and James White receivers to beat them in man coverage, and those receivers simply couldn’t do it.

On 24 targets to non-Edelman and White receivers, Brady completed 10 balls for 122 yards and no scores. A vast majority of those balls came on New England’s final three drives of the game, after they were down 21-3.

The Texans were able to create pressure off of guarding White with a DB, and they were able to halt Edelman’s routes to the inside with doubles. Edelman’s 44-yard catch came on a deep in with a picked-up blitz that happened roughly six seconds into the down. Outside of that catch, he had almost nothing happening deep.

When the stakes were their highest, the Patriots went to Mohamed Sanu to try to convert on fourth-and-short. The Texans smartly(!!!) stacked the line, forcing Brady away from the sneak. It was Sanu on Johnathan Joseph, and Joseph was able to break the ball up even if he couldn’t quite hang with Sanu on the initial play:

The amount of situational things that the Texans accounted for in this game that they normally don’t was staggering to me. Maybe it goes blind and unaccounted for and we see it brightly here because it was such a big game, but I’m positive I’ve seen Brady sneak past the Texans for first downs on a regular basis. It was wonderful to see some actual opponent-based game planning that worked. If that sticks throughout the season, it’s cause to praise the coaching staff.

4 — Bradley Roby’s game-script shattering interception and the ensuing touchdown

So of course, Roby’s interception (and near pick-six) was enormous. The Patriots were up 3-0 at the time, and the Texans pounced on that to turn it into seven points when they hit Duke Johnson on third-and-3.

But even more than that, against a Patriots offense that had major issues but could absolutely run the ball in this game, it forced a negative game script from the very beginning. Look at Joseph in run defense on this play:

The Patriots wound up running for 145 yards in the game even though they were always behind. With Scarlett and Blackson out, and the defense up front stocked with guys like Joel Heath, Barkevious Mingo, and Eddie Vanderdoes who had seen very little in the way of playing time, the Patriots were able to pick and choose their way to success in the run game.

You can easily imagine a scenario where the Texans play field position with the Patriots for another couple of plays, then the Pats hit a big run or two, and go up 10, and time is a big ally for the Patriots. That’s why the Roby interception was so big — it wasn’t just the specific purposes of points off turnovers, winning the turnover battle, the short field — it was that it kept the Patriots from executing from a positive game script. If they could have banged away with Sony Michel all game, we might have been looking at a very different final score.

Roby’s pick was, quite frankly, one of the most important plays of the season. It might wind up being one of the most important plays in Texans history if this season continues an optimistic trek. So much hinged on him reading N’Keal Harry’s route and running it for Harry. Even down starting center Ted Karras, the Pats were able to bang away on the Texans.

But because of Roby, they were never able to use the run game as a true weapon — it was a change of pace for three-fourths of the game.

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