The Houston Texans pass defense has been among the league's best this year, but it is not without its flaws.
If the New England Patriots want to pick up on a few weaknesses in the Texans defense, they need only turn to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had his best performance of the regular season to date against the Texans, and handed them their first and only loss in a 42-24 rout.
In that game, Rodgers went 24-of-37 passing (64.9 percent) for 338 yards (9.14 YPA), six touchdowns and a 133.8 passer rating.
It was a much-needed change for Rodgers, who had struggled up to that point, and even gave way to his best quote of the season:
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that his team could learn a thing or two from that game.
I would say it was a good night for the Packers; not a good night for the Texans. I don’t know if you can replicate that. There are definitely some things that came up in that game that I’m sure we’ll try to do; I’m sure any team would try to do. Whether they play themselves out or not, I don’t know.
But they'll never know unless they try.
How did Rodgers silence the critics?
Let's break it down one piece at a time and try to crack the code of the Texans defense along the way.
The Texans are licking their wounds in the secondary. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph has missed time with a hamstring injury, and although he'll be healthy, his effectiveness will bear watching, especially since his backup Brice McCain has already been declared out for this week's contest.
Even with Joseph at full health, the Texans still gave up some big plays to the Packers.
Take this play, for example, a 3rd-and-15 for the Packers following a sack by Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. The Packers spread the Texans out with four wide receivers and tight end Jermichael Finley in a two-point stance at the line of scrimmage.
The Texans responded with a 3-2-6 defensive personnel grouping and sent four rushers at the quarterback.
The rush got minor pressure on Rodgers, not to the point where he was in danger of being sacked, but enough to cause him to roll out. As he moves to his right, the cornerbacks freeze for a moment. Joseph doesn't notice that there's five yards between him and wide receiver Randall Cobb until it's too late.
Rodgers made the on-target throw, and Cobb made the sideline catch for the first down.
Brady is not renowned for his ability to throw on the move, as Rodgers is, but he is certainly capable of doing it. Where he's elite is in the subtle movements that allow him to evade the rush while staying in the pocket. Those moves still buy him extra time to find open receivers.
We saw Rodgers make one of those subtle moves on a 1st-and-10 from Houston's 21-yard line on a throw that resulted in a touchdown.
Once again, the Packers spread the Texans out with four receivers, which put the Texans in a dime package with six defensive backs, four defensive linemen and a linebacker.
The combination route at the top of the play is what we're looking at.
James Jones ran an in-breaking route 10 yards downfield, while Jordy Nelson ran a deep post against Alan Ball. This is a route combination that takes time to develop because the receivers have to both come out of their breaks before Rodgers knows where to go with the ball.
The outside pressure nearly got to Rodgers, but he made a subtle step up in the pocket to evade the rush.
Once the safety followed Jones inside, Rodgers knew he has Nelson in single coverage on the outside.
From there, Nelson got inside leverage on Ball and made the catch in the end zone.
Clearly, there are deficiencies in coverage for the Texans.
They rank near the top of the league in defensive passer rating, largely because of their league-low 53 percent completion rate allowed and the league's sixth-highest interception total of 14.
When you consider, though, that a large number of those incompletions are due to pressure from the front seven and that a large number of those interceptions are off tipped passes by J.J. Watt, it's easier to see where the strengths of the defense lie.
The Texans front seven has been like mascara for their pass defense, covering the warts of a secondary that carries its battle wounds up to Gillette Stadium.
Maybe they're born with it? Maybe it's Maybelline. Either way, the Patriots can't hurt their chances by washing Houston's face clean of that mascara with solid protection from the offensive line.
The Texans' aggressive approach in the front seven allows them to get pressure, but it got them burned against Rodgers and the Packers. On this 3rd-and-2 in the second quarter, the Texans brought nearly everyone up to the line of scrimmage. Rodgers knew it was a blitz right from the get-go.
He knew where he was going with the ball right from the get-go, too. He had already burned Jonathan Joseph on multiple passes and went to Jordy Nelson once again here. He had the ball out in right around one second within receiving the snap.
In fact, he threw the ball before Nelson even came out of his break.
Joseph, who may have been skeptical of the short patterns because he had already been burned deep, continued to run even though Nelson had already stopped. This allowed Nelson to get open and make the easy catch for the first down.
Blitzing Tom Brady has been a dangerous enough proposition this year as it is; he's even better when the defense sends extra pressure at him than he is against a standard four-man rush.
Rodgers' performance against the Texans proved that if Houston's defense stick its chin out enough times, it opens themselves up for the knockout blow. Brady could be the one to deliver it, and all he needs to do is look at the one team that's been most successful against them this year..
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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