By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots defense over the past three games has noticeably dropped off in one key area: pressure.
Not coincidentally, the Pats have faced three of their toughest tests of 2019 in a row as their pass-rush performance has dipped. It's no coincidence that they faced perhaps the three best offensive lines they'll face all season in that span.
That won't be the case against the O-line of the Houston Texans who, while improved this season, has still struggled in pass protection against good defenses. Overall, they rank 25th in adjusted sack rate (per Football Outsiders) at 7.3 percent, the fourth-worst percentage of any Patriots opponent so far this season. They've allowed the 12th-most sacks with 33.
On the other side of the coin is the Patriots' front-seven, which hasn't quite wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks in the past three games like it did in the first eight.
The Patriots' most-used front-seven defenders based on snap counts (Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, John Simon) averaged 2.9 sacks in games 1-8, compared to just 1.7 in games 9-11. Overall, the defense averaged 3.9 sacks/game in weeks 1-8 and only two per game in the last three. Their total yards allowed per play jumped from 4.14 yards/game to 4.99 yards/game.
A major factor in the relative lack of pressure over this recent stretch is that the Patriots faced the offensive lines that have allowed the fewest sacks in the league (Cowboys) and the ninth-fewest (Ravens). They had a little more success against the Eagles in Week 11 (five sacks, 10 QB hits), especially after Philadelphia lost All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson. But the Patriots have a big opportunity to get back to causing chaos in the trenches against Houston after the secondary has carried the day in recent wins.
Collins is one of the players in most need of a real resurgence. While he played well against the Cowboys with 10 tackles and a forced fumble, it was a far cry from the way he just absolutely tormented offenses earlier in the season. Collins has no sacks, QB hits, or tackles for loss over his last three games, compared to six sacks, eight QB hits, and seven tackles for loss in his first eight.
The Texans have something that doesn't exist on eight of the nine teams the Patriots have defeated: a quarterback in the top-10 in passer rating. Deshaun Watson enters Sunday night's game eighth with a 103.4 rating, throwing 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
However, Watson's continued tendency to hold onto the ball has also factored into the sack total. Of the 16 quarterbacks who have started all 11 games this season, Watson ranks ninth in time to throw (time from the snap to the pass attempt, excluding sacks) at 2.79 seconds. Only Jameis Winston (36), Kyler Murray (35), and Russell Wilson (33) have been sacked more than Watson's 32. He has been sacked on 8.1 percent of his pass attempts, which ranks 26th in the league.
Watson is a mobile quarterback who's effective throwing on the run, and he can combine with a talented receiver group to turn broken protections into big plays down the field. So even if the Patriots can dial up the pressure on him, containment and coverage are still high on the checklist.
"Any time [Watson] gets out in a space it’s a problem," said Bill Belichick on Wednesday. "He can run, he can throw on the run. Usually when he scrambles, he has space to pull up and throw. He’s not scrambling into traffic – he rarely does that. Once he gets out on the move, he has plenty of time to survey the field and make a good decision and throw it in there."
The Patriots may look to the red-hot Ravens for a blueprint to disrupt things for Watson and the Texans' O-line. Baltimore blitzed Watson 19 times on his 29 pass attempts, according to a film review at the Baltimore Sun. They terrorized the Texans with extra rushers, pre-snap movement, and disguises, and trusted their secondary to keep tight coverage down the field to give their front enough time to get home. The Patriots should feel similarly confident in their defense to cook up something similar.
We'll see if this turns into a zero-blitz kind of game for the Patriots defense, like we saw in the "Ghosts Game", a 33-0 shutout of the Jets. They'll probably need help over the top on most passing plays, given the ability of Watson and the receivers to improvise downfield. But you can certainly expect more pressure than you saw against the big boys of Baltimore and Dallas and more potential for "coverage sacks" with everyone working together.
"We’re playing against some of the best [quarterbacks], and I think that’s why you prepare, that’s why you work hard in preseason, throughout the season, is for these games," said safety Devin McCourty. "Deshaun Watson is right in the mix with all of those guys of ability, playmaking out there – not just obviously throwing the ball, but just one of the best playmakers back there playing quarterback. So, we’ve just got to do a good job of trying to contain him, and take advantage of when we do do a good job of keeping him in the pocket, of covering guys."
The secondary has been the clear strength of the Patriots in recent weeks, particularly over the past two games. In Houston, the pendulum has a good chance to swing from the back to the front.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].