By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Texans was won and lost in the trenches. While Houston kept their quarterback Deshaun Watson clean for most of the afternoon, Cam Newton was left running in circles, if he wasn’t picking himself up off the NRG Stadium turf.
Over the course of the game, Newton has hit eight times, and sacked twice. He also had six passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, another indication of a strong pass rush.
“They get paid too. So for us to go against that, I’m not saying we fold up the tent, but at the same time, they’re going to make plays just like we’re going to make plays and we just can’t get bent out of shape when that happens,” Newton said when asked about having hands in his face all day.
When pushed on JJ Watt having four batted passes alone, Newton replied, “JJ Watt, he’s an all-pro, perennial all-pro. He’s a defensive Player of the Year, one of the best players in this generation. So for us, it is what it is.”
There were two key spots in the game where Newton – and the Patriots offense as a whole – failed to register and/or pick up a Houston blitz. Both plays game in the fourth quarter, as the Patriots were chasing a one score deficit.
The first came with just under 10 minutes to go in the game. New England had a 1st & 10 from the Houston 15, down 24-17. Houston ran a pair of defensive backs up to the line of scrimmage off tackle before the snap, and Justin Reid ended up with a nine-yard sack.
Pq o N’Keal Harry não deu a famigerada ~APAVORADA~ no Justin Reid no backfield?— Diego | The Starter (@TheStarterNFL) November 23, 2020
Mas ao contrário, o WR abriu caminho pro Safety sackar Cam Newton e condenar a potencial campanha do empate na redzone.
Te contar, hein... pic.twitter.com/SGE2zhP6F3
Due to the nature of the motion and play action, it was unlikely for a play with an exaggerated set up to develop in time given the potential rush coming off the edge. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but it looks like one of two things needed to happen here to avoid the loss.
Either Newton needed to recognize he wouldn’t have enough time to run play action and change the play, and/or N’Keal Harry needed to chip or fully block Reid as he came around in motion. If the call had been a swing back to Harry off of the motion it may have worked, but Newton comes off the play action and immediately looks deep over the middle, where Damiere Byrd was running a 15-yard in route.
Obviously we would need the play call to know what was supposed to happen, but even if Harry is supposed to be a receiver on the play, not chipping Reid is an odd decision. Assuming he delayed Reid even momentarily, Newton would have likely had time to flip him the ball, and he would have had room to run with the Houston defenders almost all rotating to their right side, following the initial play action.
Instead, the Patriots followed the nine-yard sack with a two-yard run and four-yard completion before settling on a 36-yard field goal. A touchdown would have tied the game – instead they were down four late after driving 75 yards on 16 plays and taking almost 10 minutes off the clock.
The second instance of poor blitz pickup really costing the Patriots came on the final play of their penultimate drive. After moving the ball 51 yards in 10 plays, New England faced a 4th & 4 from the Texans’ 24 yard line.
Houston lined up with eight defenders on the line of scrimmage, and ended up bringing five. The Patriots seem to be caught off guard, as Newton has to bail out to his left to dodge a free rusher, before throwing an incomplete pass to nobody while avoiding what would have been an inconsequential sack.
Just spamming DB blitz calls worked! pic.twitter.com/8W6O8oWz55— Asinine Punk (@riversmccown) November 22, 2020
James White slides from left to right, where Houston backs two guys off the line of scrimmage. Left tackle Jermaine Eluemunor also slides to the inside, allowing safety Lonnie Johnson a free run at the quarterback. It’s likely there was a communication error with Eluemunor, who was playing just his second snap of the game after starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn got rolled up on two plays earlier.
If Eluemunor moves to his left, or White doesn’t switch sides, they likely pick up Johnson. That would have allowed Cam Newton to find Damiere Byrd (bottom of the screen) open on a slant for the first down.
“They brought that pressure multiple times today. We knew that they were a repeat type of defense and if it hurt us one time, which it did, they will come back to it, and surely they did,” Newton said after the game when asked about the play. “So for us, it’s just a matter of understanding situational football and position guys in situations and everyone will be firing on all cylinders. But like I said, we’ll learn from it and be better from it.”
But this isn’t the first time the Patriots have seemed ill prepared in that sort of situation. In their week six loss to Denver, Newton and the offense faced a similar situation with a manageable fourth down deep in opposing territory late in a close game. Much like this week, Newton and the offensive line seemed flustered by a poorly-disguised blitz, and Newton was forced into a rushed throw, which landed incomplete and closed the book on the game.
Again, these are just two instances that stand out from a game that saw the Texans’ pass rushers constantly in Cam Newton’s face – or on his back. Bill Belichick recognizes that his team needs to perform better in pass protection to compete in these kinds of games moving forwards.
“I wouldn’t say it was a lot. I think it might have happened a couple times,” he said of Houston’s blitz calls. “But, yeah, we just got to identify it and block it. They did a good job of timing them up and we just obviously have to collectively as a team execute better against those plays.”
Things won’t get any easier for the Patriots on that front next week as they welcome the Arizona Cardinals to Foxborough. Vance Joseph’s defense is averaging 2.5 sacks per game. They blitz on about 40 percent of their snaps this season, the fifth-highest rate in the league. With Wynn’s status for next week up in the air, the Patriots’ offensive line could have an uphill battle ahead of them.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.