After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, passing along picked-up notes and observations.
1. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez had two catches on the opening drive of the second half, including one for 40 yards. On Hernandez's first catch, he got just enough for a first down, but tried to weave up the field horizontally, rather than running north-south for a handful of easy yards. On his second catch, Hernandez took a more direct path up the field, showing the precise cuts and agility we are used to seeing from him. Due to an early-season ankle injury, Hernandez has had trouble making those cuts this season, but he looked like his old self on that big play. When he sticks to running up the field rather than trying to get more yards going across it, he's a difficult player to stop.
2. In our first-half review, we alluded to the Patriots running a linebacker trap play with Nate Solder as the player leading the way. On Stevan Ridley's eight-yard rushing touchdown in the second half, it was again a linebacker trap as the play call, but this time Logan Mankins led the way. Mankins dominated Bradie James at the point of attack, with center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly sealing off the inside to create a big lane for Ridley to squirt through.
3. Timing can be everything in the NFL, and the Patriots brought the heat on a first and 15 from the Texans' five-yard line in the third quarter. Houston did a great job of picking up the pressure, and quarterback Matt Schaub arced a throw to running back Arian Foster on a swing route out of the backfield. The Patriots had no one in the area of Foster, who dashed up the field for 27 yards, flipping the field position in a single play. There have been times when some wonder why the Patriots don't blitz more often, and plays like that one exemplify the risk-reward nature of sending more than four rushers.
4. The Patriots held the Texans to just 4-of-13 on third-down conversions, but Houston did complete a third and 16 in the third quarter on a throw from Schaub to Andre Johnson. The Patriots were in two-man defense, which features man coverage on the receivers and two deep safeties over the top. Kyle Arrington had coverage on Johnson, with Devin McCourty as the deep safety to that side of the field. Johnson pushed vertically before turning his route inside past the first-down marker, beating Arrington at the top of his route and sneaking underneath McCourty. A well-placed throw by Schaub and good route by Johnson was too much for the Patriots' defense on that play.
5. There's a term called "fire-zone" that is used to describe a blitz that features zone coverage behind it, rather than the more common man-to-man coverage. The blitz is a disguised one, with a defense sending unidentifiable rushers at the snap. That's what the Patriots had called on Rob Ninkovich's third-quarter interception, as at the snap it looked like he was part of a five-man pressure that also included Jerod Mayo. When the ball was snapped, however, Ninkovich dropped into the middle of the field, with safety Tavon Wilson coming from the defense's left (he was the unidentified rusher). Before the snap, Schaub likely saw that two receivers to his right, James Casey and Owen Daniels, were being covered by just one person, which is why he looked that way on the play. Ninkovich made an athletic play to go up and snag the football, forcing the lone turnover of the game.
6. The Patriots' up-tempo attack caused fits for Houston, and with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter, they hurried to the line and ran off tackle to the left side with Ridley. The Texans were hardly set at the snap, and left tackle Solder, Mankins and Wendell all sealed their assignments inside, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui walling off Connor Barwin on the edge. That was more than enough space for Ridley to break through the line of scrimmage, and the Texans' second- and third-level defense was not ready at the snap for the breakaway run. On the very next play, the Patriots rushed to the line again, with Brady zipping a throw to Brandon Lloyd for an easy score.
7. The Texans ran a play similar to one by the Patriots described in our first-half review in which they faked a hand-off before pitching to Arian Foster for a perimeter run to the left side of the line. The play itself was eventually reviewed because Bill Belichick didn't agree with the spot awarded to Foster (just inches beyond the first-down marker), but the result of the play shouldn't downplay the effort by cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib was in man coverage of Andre Johnson and turned his hips to run down the field, sensing a possible pass. When he saw the pitch to Foster, Talib quickly sunk his weight and accelerated up the field, fending off a last-ditch blocking effort from Johnson to halt Foster right at the first-down marker. The Patriots defend the run extremely well at the cornerback position, and that play was no different.
8. Another play we outlined in our first-half notes was a throw to Shane Vereen on a stop pattern that he turned into a sizable gain. On that play, Vereen was checked in man coverage by linebacker Bradie James, who was playing about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Fast-forward to the second half, and again Vereen was split out wide and checked by a linebacker in man coverage, this time Barrett Ruud. And this time around, rather than pulling up on a stop pattern, Vereen ran a stop and go down the sideline, breaking free past Ruud. Brady put the ball right on target, dropping it into the basket of Vereen's arms, and he made a great catch to score his third touchdown of the day.
9. Here's a play you don't see everyday: With just over nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, linebacker Brandon Spikes was hustling off the field before the snap thinking that he was subbed out of the game. As it turned out, the Patriots wanted him to stay on the field, so he turned and ran back on to the field, and almost right into the line of action. He managed to get back on the field in time and make the tackle on the play, forcing a third and 1.
10. Some general thoughts to tie the game together: It's tough to figure how the Texans felt confident in their defenders to keep up with the Patriots' variety of offensive weapons in man coverage. New England simply had too many targets and too much athleticism on offense for the Texans to keep up with. ... Defensive end J.J. Watt's dominance is evident on a near snap-to-snap basis, as his physical gifts stack up to any other defensive lineman in the league. I also believe a perfect marriage of skills and scheme exists for Watt in Houston, where he is used in one-gap alignments and penetrates on a number of snaps. His quickness and power is too much to overcome on those plays. ... Not to be overlooked in Sunday's effort was the defense's performance. The Patriots allowed 425 yards and 28 points, but the defense was critical early, and many of those yards came when the score was largely out of hand.