|Patriots' defensive tackle Joe Vellano blows up a Texans' 3rd and short, forcing a punt (Keith Nordstrom/Patriots.com)|
...just like the Denver Broncos couldn't handle the week before, and the Pittsburgh Steelers before that and the Carolina Panthers before that and the Miami Dolphins before that - in fact, ever since laying a big goose egg in the second half of the October 20th overtime loss to the New York Jets - the Patriots offense has done their business in the second half of games, scoring in bunches.
But it's not just the offensive effort that turned these games in the Patriots' advantage.
In fact, the common thread in each of the five games since that disputed loss is the effort made by the team as a whole to turn the field position battle in their favor, ultimately forcing their opponent to drive a long field for their points - and the effect on New England's bend-but-don't-break defense is worth noting.
With the exception of the Carolina game when the Patriots had no answer for Cam Newton, the Patriots defense was put in the position to defend a short field 8 times in the first half of the games, New England being outscored by more than a 2:1 ratio at 78-37 - but in the second halves have yielded just two short field scores while making the opposition drive a long field five times...
...the Patriots outscoring their foes by an overwhelming 133-56.
That said, the work by the kickoff team in New England's 34-31 win at Houston was integral to the three defensive plays that helped the Patriots win the game.
On the opening kickoff of the game, the Texans were able to grasp the upper hand in the field position battle when kick returner Keyshawn Martin fielded Stephen Gostkowski's kick 6 yards deep in the end zone and sprinted up the left sideline to the Texans' 44 yard line, setting them up on a short field...
...and it wasn't until the Patriots received the second half kickoff, down 17-7, and drove right down the field for the first of five consecutive scores that New England was able to level the playing field and force the Texans to drive a long field for their points.
And while Houston was able to score twice in the final thirty minutes, it is to be noted that they were forced to rely on the intermediate to deep passing routes against a soft New England zone to move the football in what turned into a second half shootout.
And even in a shootout, there are plays that have to be made by the defense in order for the team to come out victorious, and all three of the defensive plays of the game for the Patriots - the ones that helped to preserve the victory - were all the result of the Texans being backed up in their own end coupled with athletic plays by the New England front seven:
With just two and a half minutes gone in the 3rd quarter, the Patriots had just cut Houston's lead to three and Gostkowski had kicked the ball out of the end zone on the ensuing kickoff, the Texans taking over at their own 20 yard line - quarterback Case Keenum badly missed on a throw over the middle on 1st down, but running back Ben Tate picked up nine yards on second...
|Brandon Spikes stops Tate for a loss|
...the Patriots were in a short yardage defense on 3rd and one when the Texans broke the huddle and came out in a three wide formation - coach Bill Belichick immediately called a time out to get the proper personnel on the field, in the form of a base 3-4. The Texans countered in a run formation with just two wide receivers and Keenum handed the ball off to Tate who was having success going off left guard all game.
But defensive tackle Joe Vellano forced pulling tackle Derek Newton into the backfield and latched onto Tate and dropped him for no gain, forcing the Texans to punt and not allowing them to reset the field position advantage that they had enjoyed the entire first half.
With the field position battle now a stalemate, the teams took turns punching each other in the teeth until, with just three minutes left in regulation and with the Patriots just regaining the lead at 34-31 on the second of Gostokowski's long-range field goals, the Texans took over at their own 20 yard line...
...Keenum immediately going to his big play guy, receiver Andre Johnson moving the ball almost to midfield with two consecutive catches against cornerback Aqib Talib's tight man coverage - but the Texans would get no further.
|Corner Logan Ryan breaks up pass to DeAndre Hopkins|
On 1st and 10 from the 45, linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive end Chandler Jones combined to trap Tate in the backfield for a two yard loss, then on second and twelve Keenum looked for rookie speedster DeAndre Hopkins, but Patriots' rookie cornerback Logan Ryan knocked the pass away and Houston's young quarterback was faced with third and long from their own 43.
Keenum missed connecting with tight end Garrett Graham, bringing up a 4th and 12 and, with the Patriots in a 4-2-5 nickle sub-package, defensive end Rob Ninkovich rushed high on Newton, then broke him down on the edge and, losing his balance, grasped Keenum by the ankles - the second year signal caller still looking down field in desperation, designated pass rushed Andre Carter shed his blocker and bore down on Keenum.
The Texans' quarterback tried to deliver the ball to Graham over the middle but Carter got a piece of it just before leveling Keenum - and the Patriots had their victory.
Photo credits - Keith Nordstrom and David Silverman/New England Patriots