A few tidbits that jumped out from the Patriots 34-31 victory over the Texans on Sunday:
Tom Brady continues dominant streak vs. Texans blitz
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is probably sick of seeing Brady under center for the Patriots. Brady has owned the showdown over the past two years, but some of his best work has been against the blitz.
His rate of completions is over 2.5 percentage points higher, and his 7-0 TD-INT ratio is superlative. He averages a full two yards per pass attempt more when the Texans blitz than when they send four or fewer defenders on the rush.
Those extra yards don't come from attacking the defense deep -- with a heavy rush, there isn't much time to wait for routes to develop downfield. Instead, Brady earns his keep by getting the ball out quickly, finding the gaps left in the defense by the blitz.
The Patriots had 2nd-and-10 from the Texans' 19-yard line, looking to complete their comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) was given a solid seven yards of cushion by the cornerback, and with five defenders at the line of scrimmage, Brady recognized the blitz prior to the snap.
No sooner was the ball in his hands than his throwing motion had begun, and the ball was out before the rush had a chance to even sniff Brady.
Edelman was able to put his open-field running skills on display by getting around the cornerback, scooting to the edge and running upfield. He went down, but not after a timely lunge toward the first-down marker to move the chains.
Short passes can be just as effective against a blitz, sometimes even more so. With fewer defenders available to tackle, the possibility is greater for a catch-and-run.
That was part of the reason running back Brandon Bolden (38) was able to scoot untouched for an 18-yard gain on a dumpoff, as was some nifty pre-snap orchestration by the maestro.
With the defense showing a blitz, Brady shifted both Bolden and wide receiver Danny Amendola (80) in motion at separate times, getting the players in perfect position to maximize the play. With Bolden hitting the flat quickly, and a blitz coming from that side, this was a prime opportunity to take advantage of some extra space at the second level.
There were defensive backs accounting for both Edelman and Amendola, but no one was accounting for Bolden in the flat. Eighteen yards later, he had finally been stopped -- and it could have been more if the receivers knew he had caught the pass and were blocking downfield.
These are just a couple of examples, but on the day, Brady went 10-of-15 for 171 yards and a touchdown when being rushed by five defenders or more.
Expansion of the 3-4 defense
The Patriots entered the season with the 4-3 as their base, but critical injuries have forced a step in another direction. The 3-4 was the base defense of choice for nearly a decade under Bill Belichick, and it has made a return in recent weeks.
One of the favorite groupings has featured Rob Ninkovich (50) and Chandler Jones (95) at outside linebacker, with Joe Vellano (72) and Chris Jones (94) at the ends and Isaac Sopoaga (90) at nose tackle. Dont'a Hightower (54) and Brandon Spikes (55) are the two inside linebackers -- Hightower on the weak side, and Spikes on the strong side.
Chris Jones and Vellano earned the majority of the snaps, with Sopoaga and newcomer Sealver Siliga (71) rotating on the line. No one spent the whole day at the same spot.
It's hard to be too critical of them, simply because of the situation they've been thrust into. The defensive line was considered paper thin before the season began, and it's the group that's had its depth tested the most this season so far.
The Patriots went back to a four-man line at times, and on Texans quarterback Case Keenum's lone interception, it was a group of Chris and Chandler Jones, Ninkovich, and veteran Andre Carter (96) that lined up in the trenches.
Despite all their changes and injuries on defense, the Patriots have used 186 unique lineup combinations on defense, which is actually the 11th-fewest in the NFL. However, they've fielded 11 different starting units on defense, tied with the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers for the second-most different combinations.
On Sunday against the Texans, 19 different defenders earned playing time on defense -- that's tied for their highest total in a game this season.
Just for kicks, here's another interesting look from them on a fourth-quarter incompletion by Keenum. Chandler Jones and Ninkovich lined up in a two-point stance and shot the A-gaps at the snap. Jones was able to get in the backfield to force some pressure and an off-balance throw by Keenum.
Belichick really is pulling out all the stops to get some stops on defense.
Different players, same plays
Thought it was interesting that running back Shane Vereen (34) caught a touchdown pass and a near-touchdown pass on exactly the same route as tight end Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown against the Texans on Monday Night Football in 2012.
Then I went back and noticed it was the exact same play.
The Texans might want to put that one on film the next time they're preparing to face the Patriots, just in case they decide to run it...again.
Unlike Hernandez's catch last year, which was delivered right in his chest, Vereen had to adjust to the ball in order to make the catch. He did a little pirouette in midair, coming down with the ball and breaking toward the end zone.
It looked like Vereen made it over the goal line, but had he been awarded the touchdown, fullback James Develin would have never had an opportunity to break seven tackles on a one-yard touchdown run on the very next play.
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