Tom Brady is sacked by Whitney Mercilus.

James Lang/USA Today Sports

Tomase: Destructive Texans defense looms as major test for Julian Edelman-less Patriots offense

John Tomase
September 18, 2017 - 12:18 pm
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When the Saints finish 5-11, we'll recognize Sunday's victory for what it was: not much.

But a real test looms on Sunday that should give us a much better handle on life in a post-Julian Edelman offense -- the Texans.

Last we saw Houston, it was getting run off the Gillette Stadium turf in a 34-16 division round loss that sent the Patriots to their 13th AFC title game and eventually, their fifth championship.

But lost within that seemingly one-sided score was a legit scare. The Texans, playing without a quarterback or All-Pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt, nonetheless made Tom Brady's life miserable.

Brady was only sacked twice, but the Texans spent the day in his face. He completed just 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The way Houston did it -- with relentless interior pressure from Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus -- provided a blueprint that the Falcons nearly rode to the Super Bowl and that the Chiefs exploited in their Week 1 shocker.

Not every team has the personnel to pull off such a scheme. The Saints most assuredly don't, which is why Brady picked them apart in Sunday's 36-20 victory despite the Pats only dressing three receivers.

The challenge will be very different on Sunday, because Watt is healthy, the Texans look every bit as strong defensively as they did last year, and their brain trust is uniquely qualified to understand Brady's wiring.

Head coach Bill O'Brien was Brady's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2008-11. Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel won three Super Bowls with Brady as a defensive coordinator. Defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel played on those teams as an edge-setting linebacker.

Together, they know what makes Brady uncomfortable and they know how to exploit it. Ever since the Giants shocked the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, the blueprint for throwing Brady off his game has become clear. Pressure him up the middle with three- or four-man rushes, drop everyone else into coverage, and try to take away his immediate quick reads before he shreds you into tiny ribbons.

It's easier said than done, because most teams lack the interior push to pressure Brady without blitzing. When clubs start sending extra attackers off the edge, like the zone-blitzing Steelers, Brady destroys them.

The Texans, however, deploy a diamond front that starts five men on the line before one or two drop into coverage. They had Brady seeing ghosts last January. He was pressured 18 times, hit eight times, and dropped twice. Had Brady not completed a handful of downfield bombs into coverage -- including 45 yards to Chris Hogan and 48 to Julian Edelman -- the game might've ended very differently.

"They were the No. 1 ranked defense in the league last year," Brady told K&C on Monday. "I don't think I completed many passes in that game, either. I think I was below 50 percent in that game. I think they just did a good job of putting pressure and when you put pressure, the ball has to come out quick and they were playing — they had a lot of guys in coverage too. It was just tough to get rid of it quick. The one positive we took out of that game was we made a lot of big plays. Some teams are going to decide to take away some shorter throws, and they give up longer plays. I think we had seven plays over 20 yards in that game. We moved the ball pretty well. It just didn't look super rhythmic."

As it was, even with Brock Osweiler basically playing himself out of the NFL with three interceptions and numerous misfires, the Texans only trailed 24-16 in the fourth quarter.

The difference was Edelman. Brady targeted him 13 times and completed eight of them for 137 yards. He went 4-for-4 throwing to Hogan (95 yards) and just 5-for-21 throwing to everyone else. When the two teams meet on Sunday, Edelman won't be playing, and it's possible that his replacement, Danny Amendola, won't either. We don't yet know the severity of Rob Gronkowski's groin injury (it's supposed to be minor), but we do know that Watt will be playing alongside Clowney and Mercilus after missing last year's game because of a back injury.

The Texans allowed 29 points in a Week 1 loss to the Jaguars, but seven came on a fumble return, and 10 more came after Texans turnovers. On Thursday, the Texans silenced the Bengals in a 13-9 victory that saw them limit Cincinnati to 98 yards passing, costing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese his job.

"We have to find a way to play against this defense that is going to be ranked in the top five, if not the best defense in the league because of Clowney, Mercilus and Watt, who are three of the best players in the NFL in rushing the quarterback," Brady told K&C. "And then they have a solid group of linebackers and a very good secondary. It's a challenging defense. Very fundamentally sound. They've got really great coaches and they will be prepared. They've have 10 days to prepare and I am sure they've been preparing all offseason. We practiced against them. We play them quite a bit, so we have a lot of familiarity. There will be some new game-plan things they will have for us."

The Patriots should still prevail, because the Texans' offense is anemic. But that's beside the point. The game will provide a much better barometer of how their offense matches up against the kind of defenses they'll see in January and February, which are the only games that matter.

The Saints weren't remotely a test and we should forget that game ever happened. The Texans? An entirely different story.

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