Another game, another Patriots win. New England has been so dominant over the past few seasons, and they started the 2018 season off with yet another win, beating Houston by 7. While many just say, well of course the Patriots won and move on, I’m going to take a closer look into how they won, along with how the Texans almost came back.
The game started off with the Patriots attempting to establish a ground game. On their first play they had a fullback in and rushed for 6 yards, however on their next two plays they ran the ball from a singleback set (your standard set with 3 receivers a tight end and a running back). It didn’t work out too well for New England, as they only gained 1 yard on each run, and they had to punt it away. One interesting note is they ran the ball slightly better when a fullback was in the game, out of a singleback set they averaged 3.67 Yards per carry, and with a fullback they averaged 4.17 yards per carry. However the Patriots found the most success by far running the football with Multiple tight ends, as they averaged 8.92 yards per carry with more than one tight end in the game.
As for Houston, they struggled early on getting things going. They fumbled on their first play of the game, and then went three and out on their subsequent drive. On their third drive they made an effort to put the personnel best suited for each play in the game. Houston rushed out of a two tight end set, and it resulted in a 31 yard gain. On the very next play they did the opposite, passing from a 4 wide set, which paid off again, as they gained another 13 yards. However the next three plays were all from singleback sets, and they only got 4 yards out of them, resulting in another punt. Rushing the ball out of a multiple tight end set worked out well for Houston, out of their 13 plays with multiple tight ends, 8 were rushes, and they averaged 9 yards per carry. However they only gained 5 passing yards from their 5 passing attempts from those sets, so if they had more success throwing the ball with multiple tight ends, in theory New England would’ve put less focus on stopping the run, and Houston rushing on multiple tight end sets could’ve been huge all game. Instead, the last three times they ran it they failed to get more than a yard.
Speaking of multiple tight end sets, nobody loves to throw an extra tight end or a fullback in the game more that the Patriots. In week one, singleback sets were the most common set used by all 32 teams. However, New England used the least amount of singleback sets in the NFL last week, as they only ran 20 plays from that set (28.9%). The Patriots ran 23 plays with a fullback, and 23 plays with a tight end, (30.3% each). New England gained 4.85 yards per play from singleback sets, 5.22 yards per play with a fullback in, and 7.01 yards per play with multiple tight ends in. They love to throw in different personnel, and it’s probably best exemplified by the way they scored a touchdown at the end of the half. Despite only having a minute and twenty eight seconds left in the half, New England came out with two tight ends and a fullback. Houston was still playing to stop the pass due to the low amount of time left on the clock, and so Patriots play was hidden in plain sight, and they ran the ball for 8 yards. On their next play they did the same thing, this time rushing for 11 yards. On the next play they went out in a three receiver two halfback set, which is a set they only ran three times all day. Houston now had to respect the ground game, and Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski for a 28 yard gain. A couple of nice throws later and the Patriots were into the endzone, and up 21-6.
Houston was down, but they weren’t going to go down without a fight. On their second drive of the second half, they got in a little bit of a panic, as every play from that drive was either from a 4 wide or singleback set. However on their next drive they did the opposite, they ran just 2 plays from a singleback set, and none from a 4 wide set. They mixed things up, they ran 3 plays from 5 wide, 4 plays with two tight ends, and even threw in a fullback in for a play. They had found their rhythm, 4 plays went for over 10 yards on that drive, and they ended up with a touchdown. However New England wasn’t going to let them come back so easily. On the Patriots very next drive they put two tight ends and a fullback in, and rushed for 12 yards. Two plays later they passed for a 4 wide set, and gained another 12. The element of surprise proved to be a bit overrated for the Patriots when it came to multiple tight end sets, they gained 4.67 yards per passing attempt, but 8.92 yards per rushing attempt.
After having success passing in clear passing sets and rushing in clear rushing sets, New England fooled the Texans a few times. They passed and gained 9 yards when they only had 2 receivers in the game, and then they ran from a singleback set twice in a row, gaining 4 yards each time. After that they passed for 8 yards from a two tight end set, and then they passed for 10 yards with a fullback in the game, they went against the grain, and it worked out. There wasn’t any massive gain, but they steadily got themselves into field goal range. Maybe the one controversial decision was when they ran out of a three tight end set on a third and 14 at Houston’s 17. I understand the thought process though, the chances of getting the first down from that position are very slim, so they felt they’d be better off just getting a few yards and making a chip shot field goal. They didn’t gain any yards, but did make the field goal and went up by 14.
The game was looking like it was over, but Houston found new life after a muffed punt. The Texans tried to fool New England with a run on the first play of the drive, but they lost a yard on the play. They decided that was going to be it for their run game, and in every play from that point on, the ball was in Watson’s hands from a singleback or 5 wide set. It wasn’t the prettiest touchdown drive ever, they only averaged 2.67 yards per play on the drive, but they still found a way to get the ball into the endzone to made it a one score game. Houston had a pretty decent chance, they had all three timeouts and it was before the two minute warning. New England needed a first down, and after a two yard run, they went out in a 4 wide set, and put the ball in the hands of their best player. Brady passed to James Develin of all people, and it resulted in a 10 yard gain. While that wasn’t the dagger, it essentially put the game away. Houston got the ball back with 43 seconds left and no timeouts at their own 1 yard line. They ran 6 straight passes from a singleback set, but it was to no avail, and New England was able to get their first win of the season.