Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are rightly being universally praised for the game plan that resulted in last night’s complete ass whupping of the incompetent Texans. But the Patriots’ 3-0 start with a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks not named Tom Brady, and a total of 14 snaps with banged-up Rob Gronkowski, is the culmination of both tactical genius and an offseason spent preparing for Brady’s suspension, and, ultimately, for his retirement.
Belichick and McDaniels, his offensive coordinator, deserve a victory lap for their airtight pregame and in-game strategies. The same goes for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, plus special teams coach Joe Judge, whose unit was perfect and basically dictated the terms of the game. But more on all that in a bit. The Brady/Garoppolo/Brissett question has dominated the headlines surrounding the Patriots for months, and in the end it has turned out to not matter all that much.
The NFL is laughably short on quality quarterbacks, and most teams would be screwed if they were to lose a starter for any extended period of time. The Pats drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in 2014 specifically to groom him as Brady’s potential successor. This year, they took Jacoby Brissett in the third round, 44 spots ahead of where the Cowboys took Dak Prescott. Of the four quarterbacks taken ahead of Brissett—Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg—only Wentz has seen playing time so far. And while the plan was to sit Brissett, too, Brissett had been mentored by none other than Bill Parcells, who happens to be Belichick’s mentor. A mutual acquaintance of the two told Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB that Parcells had instructed Brissett to be prepared to dissect everything about his college film during his pre-draft visit with the Pats. Vrentas later went on to explain that it was “no accident” Brissett was picked by Belichick, given Brissett’s relationship with Parcells.
Even though they were without a first-round pick because of Ballghazi, the Patriots did plenty this offseason to build everything around their quarterback position. They traded defensive end Chandler Jones just as his $7.79 million fifth-year option was going to kick in. The move netted them guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick that was later flipped to the Saints for their third- and fourth-round picks. The Pats used those selections on Joe Thuney, who’s starting at left guard because Cooper is out with a foot injury; and Malcolm Mitchell, a depth receiver who converted a third down with a 27-yard catch during last night’s first scoring drive.
The day after the Jones trade, the Pats pulled off another blockbuster by acquiring tight end Martellus Bennett and a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fourth-rounder. They then flipped that pick into a package that allowed them to draft wideout Devin Lucien, who’s now on the practice squad, plus a fourth-round selection for next year. Belichick is always planning ahead.
The Bennett acquisition gave the Patriots an enormous, pass-catching tight end to complement Gronkowski, something they haven’t had since Aaron Hernandez. It creates another matchup nightmare for a league that’s trending toward smaller, faster linebackers and the common deployment of extra defensive backs—innovations Belichick himself spurred because of his heavy reliance on slot receivers. And last night, even with Gronk slowed by a hamstring injury, Bennett was twice able to draw pass interference penalties in the red zone. Just imagine what Belichick and McDaniels can cook up with Bennett working opposite a healthy Gronk.
How did Patricia scheme things to make the Texans look so helpless? Defensively, the Pats neutralized wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller by keeping both safeties deep as an added last line of defense, which forced Brock Osweiler into frequently checking down against the Cover 2. Tight end Ryan Griffin, who had three catches in the Texans’ first two games, wound up as their leading receiver last night. This is what Osweiler was looking at during his second-quarter interception:
The Pats were able to do this because their four-man front consistently got pressure on Osweiler, especially off the edge. Jabaal Sheard was credited with both sacks, but on the other side, 31-year-old Chris Long—plucked from the scrap heap by Belichick in another offseason find—was also frequently in Osweiler’s face. Lamar Miller managed to rush for 80 yards, but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and found nowhere to go up the middle, where 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown was impenetrable for the Patriots. Did anyone even notice Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich didn’t play?
On offense, McDaniels and the Pats kept it simple for Brissett by having him make short, quick throws. According to Pro Football Focus, Brissett attempted just two passes of 20 yards or more, after not throwing any in two-plus quarters last week against the Dolphins. Throws like that aren’t much of a change from what the Pats did with Brady and Garoppolo: Per PFF, Brady’s average time to throw last season was 2.35 seconds, the fastest in the league. Before his injury, Garoppolo (2.35 seconds) was getting rid of it just as quickly. And Brissett took just 2.41 seconds to throw.
The Pats also had Brissett take off and run twice in his first 13 snaps, but both had their Belichickian touches. The first was a counter option in which wideout Julian Edelman motioned into the backfield for an old-school
T split back formation:
The second went for a 27-yard touchdown, and it was a simple bootleg trap in which right guard Shaq Mason wiped out the edge and Mitchell provided a huge downfield block:
The Pats kept the Texans off balance by occasionally motioning Edelman, who carried the ball three times on option sweeps. But New England also went heavy, with extra tackle Cameron Fleming reporting as eligible on 23 percent of their snaps, and fullback James Develin playing a season-high 38 percent. As a result, the Pats were able to pound LeGarrette Blount, particularly with a lead in the second half. The offensive line, which includes a third-rounder, a fourth-rounder, a fifth-rounder, plus an undrafted free agent—all home grown—mauled the Texans. Seventeen of Blount’s 24 carries came after halftime, and by the time he raced 41 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Texans were thoroughly beaten. Develin was his lead blocker on that TD, and he was five yards upfield before he could find anyone to block:
Then there were special teams. Belichick has long stressed the specials, and the Pats already earned a victory over the Cardinals because Belichick and Judge found a way to game the new touchback rule by kicking off short. They did it again last night, and the Texans twice fumbled kickoffs. Of course the Patriots—who didn’t turn the ball over at all—converted both fumbles into touchdowns. But what about Patriots punter Ryan Allen? His seven punts averaged 47.6 yards, but
five six of those punts pinned the Texans inside their own 15-yard line. Field position really did mean everything in this game.
The Patriots have been winning with uncommon regularity for 16 years. They’ve been doing it because of Belichick’s masterful Xs and Os, but also because they’ve been uncanny at finding players at all positions who are capable of executing what’s expected of them. None of that is news. But what the Pats are proving so far this season—if they didn’t already prove it when Matt Freaking Cassel won them 11 games in 2008—is that they’re set up to withstand the loss of any player, even if that player happens to be a surefire Hall of Famer who plays the game’s most important position. It now looks like Brissett may need surgery on this throwing thumb. If Garoppolo still isn’t ready by Week 4—when the Pats host Rex Ryan’s stinkshow Bills, with 10 days to prepare—does anyone doubt Belichick will find a way, even if he has to stuff Tom Hodson back into a uniform?
And, hell, the week after that, the Pats get Brady back. Then what?