Few things in life are more fascinating than seeing Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach of all time, get knuckle deep on some coaches film. The Patriots do an (almost) bi-weekly film session on Patriots.com called "The Belestrator" where the Hoodie breaks down game tape with host Scott Zolak. You should be watching these, they are delightful.
When the Patriots lose, Belichick might not necessarily show up to chat, but after a win, he is willing to look at some key plays. He did just that this week after the victory over the Texans, and the two plays he and Zolak broke down were incredibly revealing, for completely different reasons.
First was a play in which the Patriots leaned on a preseason situation in order to burn the Texans. Belichick said that, back when the two teams played in August, there was a play in which Tom Brady threw a deep out route to Chris Hogan that was intercepted by safety Andre Hal.
"The Texans are in what we call a Cover-4 here, it's really four across with the safeties and the corners against a two-by-two [receivers and tight ends] formation," Belichick said, while describing the preseason game. "On this play there's play-action pass, so the safeties ... when their guys don't come vertically, come down the field, then they free up and go to help out on the outside guys. So what happens down here is Hal, the safety, goes to undercut this out cut by Hogan and intercepts the ball and ends up falling out of bounds on a close play."
The Patriots took that play in question and knew how the Texans would view a similar play when the two teams played in the regular season because, as Belichick put it, "we noticed they were driving outside to play these outside routes."
So during the Week 3 matchup, the Patriots ran a similar play, except instead of having the wide receivers cut to the outside, Brandin Cooks runs a post route on the inside.
"So based on [the preseason play], we put in a play that was similar to that but had the inside routes. So this was from the game on Sunday against the Texans," Belichick explained. "It's a little different action, but it's the same idea and so, here are the safeties, and nobody comes out, so they look to go help on the outside guys to their respective sides and instead of going out like we did before, we're going in and post. The corner here stays over the top and the in cut gets behind Hal and Cooks is able to just run away from the safety."
The result? A long Cooks touchdown.
When you look at the All-22 from this play, it's pretty amazing how the setup worked. The guys in the Texans secondary were driving down and out to cover the same route they saw in the preseason. Cooks fakes like he is going to the outside, and by the time he is heading back inside on the post route they're already toast.
What's funny about this is how during the offseason Belichick discussed the importance of practicing with and playing against a team in the preseason and how learning things about another team is "not what the middle of August is all about."
"I mean, honestly, I don't think it's that big of a deal. I mean, I think this is another event that's hyped up by a lot more of the people who are watching it than the people who are involved with it. So, I mean, look, we played this team three times in the last two years. Half their coaching staff coached here. It's not a big secret how we run a certain play or how we coach a certain defense, and I'm sure they're coaching it the same way when we played against them," Belichick said at the time. "That's not really what this practice is about. It's not what the middle of August is about. It's about building your team's conditioning, building your team's fundamentals, building your team's awareness, having them learn to play together with each other against good competition. That's what we're going to do this week. We're not going to show them our triple reverse and they're not going to show their triple safety blitz and a bunch of other garbage.
"That's not what this is about. It wouldn't be about that with any team, but it's certainly not about that with these guys."
That's not to say that Belichick was lying here. He's not wrong: the practices aren't for picking up tendencies, and Bill O'Brien and the Texans coaches all know the Patriots coaches really well, with most of them having coached or played in New England previously. And it would be idiotic not to take things that happen in a preseason game and utilize them in your favor. If the Texans players are running a certain type of coverage against a certain type of play, you can bet they might use it again. The Texans got played by a nice job of coaching and a good job of executing on both the part of Cooks and Brady.
The more impressive play, though, came on a later Chris Hogan touchdown. In this instance, the Patriots once again set up the Texans, but this time around they did it on the fly, in the middle of the game. Belichick pointed out a play in the first quarter, with the Patriots trailing 10-7 on a second-and-16 near midfield.
"What happens is Hogan comes down and turns out and, again, they're in Cover 4 ... and Hogan turns out away from this linebacker. And here's Hal who's kind of too far away from him and Hogan makes the catch here for a decent game here on the play," Belichick described. "Kind of an interesting party of this play is as you see Hal, when Hogan breaks out, Hal is kind of working over the top here and he's kind of anticipating the corner will come down and trap this and take the receiver to the flat while he goes over the top to the outside guy.
"This is kind of a key part of the play: Hal and [cornerback Johnathan] Joseph talking about this afterwards."
So watching the film on the sideline, it occurred to Josh McDaniels and Belichick that "Hal was telling Joseph 'the next time they do this, you're going to trap and I'm going to go over the top' and all that." Instead of waiting to see how those guys reacted to a similar play, the Patriots decided to gamble and see if the Texans were going to play it aggressively the next time around.
Spoiler: they were.
"Josh had the foresight ... to put in the out and go, so here's Howell going over the top, here's Joseph trapping, but no one's on Hogan on the vertical route," Belichick said. "That would be an in-game, sideline adjustment. Great job here by the players making the adjustment. Because this is a play we didn't have. We put this in based on what they were doing and by Chris and by Tom here seeing this and Josh recognizing the situation."
You watch the play and you see clearly that Hogan fakes the outside route, the Texans secondary completely bites and Hogan is off to the races, wide freaking open.
Every football game comes down to one or two plays. How coaches and players are able to leverage their opponents and execute on specific plays can flip a game. The Patriots won on Sunday at home against the Texans thanks in large part to a pair of plays where the coaches used a major pregame and in-game advantage to out-think and out-execute the Texans and score 14 points. We talk about Brady's incredible game-winning drive, but at the end of the day, these coaching moves and execution of the plays were the difference in the game.
It's why the Patriots are playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.