For 16 seasons, the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East. They have won the division title in every year but two – 2002 and 2008. The Patriots finished in second place both seasons. Since Bill Belichick took over as the franchise’s head coach in 2000, New England is 204-73. They are absolutely dominant, but the Tom Brady-led defending Super Bowl champions have a chink in their collective armor. It is something that the rest of the NFL is trying to exploit.
It was the Houston Texans who revealed New England’s weaknesses in last year’s AFC Divisional playoff game. A late field goal and touchdown made a pretty close football game look like just another Pats blowout. Early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots led just 24-16 thanks to a Texans defense that ranked first overall in the NFL in the 2016 regular season giving up 301.3 total yards per game. If not for an untimely Brock Osweiler interception, Houston and not New England Patriots could have been playing for an AFC title in 2016.
So, how exactly did the Texans do it?
Houston held the All-Everything Brady to just 18 completions in 40 attempts. The future Hall of Famer has a career completion percentage of 63.9, yet the Texans were able to keep Brady from hitting even 50 percent of his passes. It was his worst performance, as far as completion percentage, in 34 career playoff games.
The Houston defense started with an atypical 5-man front. It was the first step in confusing the Patriots’ offensive line and Brady. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, now serving as the team’s assistant head coach, put defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Antonio Smith in 3-techniques, normal alignment for defensive tackles. With linebackers Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney aligned outside of the Patriots’ offensive tackles, Crennel put super-quick DE Whitney Mercilus right over New England Patriots center David Andrews.
The alignment confused the Patriots because on most occasions the Texans rushed only three of the five defenders. The problem for New England was that they never knew which three would rush. Plus, by rushing only three defenders, Houston could cover the Patriots receivers with the remaining eight. The different coverages forced Brady to, at times, make more than just one single read. In doing so, Houston forced Brady to hold the ball longer than the usual 2.57 seconds that he averaged during the regular season. Holding the ball longer allowed the Texans to get two sacks, eight hits, and 18 pressures on Brady.
What the Texans revealed in that divisional playoff game was one of the things opponents must do if they want to beat New England Patriots – get pressure on Brady. The more hits a team can put on the four-time Super Bowl MVP the greater the likelihood of beating the Patriots.
Take the 2017 season as an example
New England has been far from impressive this season. They are 3-2 through five games and if the defense doesn’t get fixed, the AFC East may not be theirs this season. The offense has had its share of troubles too. Through five games, Brady has already been sacked 16 times, which is more than all of last season (15). Brady has been hit a total of 32 times. Six or seven hits per game over the course of a 16-game schedule will take its toll on anyone let alone a 40-year-old quarterback.
The second part of the equation for beating the Patriots involves coverages. So many teams in the NFL like the aggressiveness of man-to-man coverage. Lockdown corners on the outside allow teams to come up with all sorts of exotic blitzes. The difficulty in using these types of schemes against the Patriots is that their offense is built to beat them. New England uses a large number of man-beating pass concepts and the Patriots receivers are experts at running those man-beating routes. Brady can sniff out a blitz with man coverage behind it in his sleep. He is then able to do what he does best – make the right read and get the ball out quickly. His ability to get the football out in an average of 2.57 seconds helps to negate opponents’ pressure.
Instead of playing more man coverage against New England, the answer is to play more zone. Zone coverage forces Brady to make more than one read. It also forces the New England receivers to run their pass routes differently. While the Patriots receivers run man-to-man routes with perfection, running routes into zone coverage takes some finesse. Receivers cannot just run away from their man, instead they must find openings in a coverage.
The beauty of what Houston did to New England Patriots in last year’s postseason is that their three-man rush allowed them to mix their coverages. With eight pass defenders, there are a multitude of coverages that can be presented to Brady. A team can play any different number of zone coverages – Cover 3, Cover 2, and Cover 4, or quarters coverage. Teams can also play any variety of man coverage such as Cover 0 or Cover 1 (man-free). With eight pass defenders, it is also possible to mix both man and zone into a hybrid coverage on any given down. Playing the multiple coverages is something that can affect Brady and his pre-snap reads. Teams that do not change up their coverages and give Brady different looks are usually the teams that he carves up.
Tactics to Beat the New England Patriots
If you are an NFL team looking to dethrone last year’s Super Bowl champs, here’s your recipe for success.
- First, devise a defensive front that will disguise what you are doing and create matchups that are favorable to your pass rushers. Whitney Mercilus on a center? That’s a Houston win.
- Second, play zone coverage more often than man. Zone coverage forces Brady to hold the ball a little longer making it easier for your pass rush to have an effect on the play.
- Finally, mix the coverages so Brady can never get a bead on exactly what you are doing. If you sit in the same coverage all the time, you will get picked apart.