FOXBOROUGH — We obviously should have known.
One of the favorites for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, Texans end J.J. Watt, comes to town on the same night that longtime left tackle Matt Light was honored for his standout 11 years and he was shut down by Light’s former Patriots teammates.
Yes, that was predictable.
And the Patriots delivered a performance worthy of Light’s approval in the Patriots’ dominating 42-14 victory on Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
Watt, who was second in the league with 16½ sacks entering the game, did not have a sack and did not have a tackle for a loss for just the second time all season.
“I’d say most of the night it went pretty good,” said left guard Logan Mankins, who returned to the lineup after missing three games. “I think we owe a lot to it being Matt Light Night. It was like we had six guys out there. So he helped us a lot.”
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The Patriots had a game plan against Watt, and executed it nearly flawlessly.
Officially, Watt had three quarterback hits. But his final total was actually five knockdowns of Tom Brady, two hurries, and a forced fumble, which came down the field on a screen pass.
“I don’t know that they did a whole lot,” Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of the Patriots’ plan against Watt. “We got some hits on the quarterback. He gets rid of the football. He’s not sacked a whole lot anytime in his career, and especially this year. They get rid of the football.”
In the running game, the Patriots tried most often to run away from Watt, often with attempted cut blocks by the tackles, Nate Solder on the left side and Sebastian Vollmer on the right. But the Patriots did run at Watt on occasion, usually with their power guard pulls where the guard and tackle double Watt and try to shove him out of his gap.
Watt only had two half-stuffed runs for no gain.
“You have to make him prove it, you just can’t be afraid of someone and run away from them all the time,” Mankins said. “You have to make them earn it out there, so we tried to stay balanced and do what we normally do.”
In the passing game, the Patriots mixed things up a lot against Watt, who lined up all over the line from outside the tackles, to the outside shoulder of the guards [three technique].
“He’s the best defensive player in the league so we definitely planned for him,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They have a lot of good players. Our line, they knew they had a big challenge and they prepared hard. They stayed in this week watching extra film, really studying up. I thought the offensive coaches had a good game plan, we had a good way to attack them but most importantly the players played well.”
In total, Watt was doubled on 15 of 35 pass plays (42.8 percent), including penalties. He only had one knockdown when he was double teamed.
“He’s a good player,” Mankins said. “He has a good skill set and is a relentless guy and I think he fits that defense perfect, the way they run it.”
Watt was single blocked 16 times (45.7 percent), and that resulted in three knockdowns and a hurry. Right guard Dan Connolly drew Watt one-on-one nine times and allowed two knockdowns and a hurry.
Watt, who dropped into coverage once, was unblocked three times. One was a mix up in the blocking scheme that led to Brady getting drilled. The other two were schemed for Watt to be unblocked on screen passes (hurry, forced fumble).
In the pass game, the Patriots basically single blocked Watt when they were throwing quick passes. When the Patriots wanted to take a shot deep down field, they doubled Watt to make sure Brady had time to let the route develop.
“They do a great job of moving him around,” center Ryan Wendell said. “You say, ‘Who’s going to block J.J. Watt?’ Well, every guy has to. Throughout the night everybody did, and that includes tight ends and backs. So I think [offensive coordinator Josh] McDaniels did a great job calling different formations and things like that, which allowed us to get different looks.”
With McDaniels spinning the dial with his assorted schemes and plays, and the players doing the job on the field, the Patriots ended up accomplishing what many thought was impossible this season: Watt was almost a non-factor until the game was out of reach.
Watt’s first quarterback pressure didn’t come until there was 3:36 left in the first half. By that time it was 21-0. And Light was getting ready to be feted by the revved up Patriots fans.
It’s almost like Light’s former mates planned it that way.
“We worked all week to make sure we could keep the pressure on him and he’s a tough guy,” Wendell said. “I think our secret weapon was Matt Light Night. That’s what inspired us.”