Tom Brady the difference between Patriots being contenders and pretenders

When you talk to scouts, coaches, and executives from teams who have or will play the Patriots, the conversation inevitably will include something along the lines of:

“Well, at the end of the day, the Patriots have Tom Brady.”

The Texans are probably saying that as well after the Patriots’ 42-14 Monday night beatdown.

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The Patriots certainly have more than their share of talented players on each side of the ball, but this game perfectly illustrated where all but a few teams fail to measure up against the Patriots: quarterback.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub entered the game without a signature victory. It was his time to state to the rest of the league that he had arrived.

The Texans probably left privately questioning whether Schaub is ever going to be more than a good game manager.

We were able to get a fairly equal comparison between Brady and Schaub because both of the defenses brought nearly relentless pressure to gain an edge.

The Texans sent more than four rushers at Brady on 44.2 percent of his dropbacks. That’s the second-highest rate on the season and the most since the 51.2 percent the Rams threw at Brady in London (not coincidentally, a 45-7 Patriots win).

The Patriots were even more aggressive, bringing extra pressure against Schaub on 52.5 percent of his throws. That’s the most since at least the start of the 2010 season.

Cornerback Aqib Talib’s man-to-man coverage ability doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the Patriots’ pressures. The Patriots blitzed on 38 percent of the throws before cornerback Aqib Talib left with a hip injury and 68 percent after he departed — despite a 21-0 advantage.

This was clearly a game plan choice by the Patriots, similar to the approach taken against the Bruce Arians-coordinated Colts (this season) and Steelers (the previous two). Both the Texans and Arians rely on play- action and deep drops by the quarterback to threaten the defense vertically.

The difference between the Texans and Patriots in this game was how the quarterbacks and offensive lines fared against the pressure.

The Texans’ offensive line allowed 2 sacks, 5 hurries, and 9 knockdowns (16 total quarterback pressures) for a 40 percent pressure rate.

Schaub was 10 of 18 for 96 yards with a sack and interception (47.5 passer rating) against the Patriots’ pressure. By the tail end of the first half, Schaub was playing with wildly happy feet in the pocket and didn’t see some wide-open receivers as he rushed to get the ball off.

The Patriots’ line allowed just 1 sack, 2 hurries, and 7 knockdowns (10 total quarterback pressures; three before it was 21-0) for a pressure rate of 23.3 percent.

Of course, a lot of it had to do with Brady and his ability to interpret the look from the defense and know where to go with the ball. He released the ball in a season-low 2.25 seconds on average, which was more than a quarter of a second faster than Schaub (2.54). It might not seem like much, but it is against NFL defenses.

And Brady was 13 of 16 for 159 yards and three touchdowns against the Texans’ blitzes (147.7 rating).

The difference seems clear to us.

Here are the positional ratings for the Patriots against the Texans:

Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)

This was one of those games in which Brady’s statistics (outside of the four touchdown passes) didn’t tell the whole story because of all the different pressures he had to deal with. There were certainly some throws he would like to have back, and Brady probably would have liked to change a few runs into bad fronts, but that’s the perfectionist in him. Nobody finds matchups for his receivers better than Brady. Great job by Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — who is really in a groove now that he’s comfortable with the personnel — getting the linebacker on Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield on the first touchdown. The Patriots will take that every time. How good was Brady’s play fake on a 13-yard pass to Hernandez on the second drive? Blitzing linebacker Tim Dobbins tackled Stevan Ridley while Brady still had the ball. It was the same play (different personnel and alignment) in which the Patriots scored on the very next play with Brandon Lloyd. Looks like McDaniels has been doing a lot of work with Ryan Mallett on his mechanics because his one pass — dropped by Visanthe Shiancoe for an interception — showed an improved and quicker release of the ball. We’d like to see more.

Running backs (2.5 out of 5)

This rating is strictly for Ridley and Danny Woodhead fumbling once each because, even though the Patriots recovered both, those are the types of mistakes that will quickly end a season. Some really good inside running from Ridley and Shane Vereen, who has greatly improved in this area from the start of the season. Really nice 9-yard run by Vereen on the opening drive of the second half. Despite Hernandez getting blown up on his wham block by Connor Barwin — Hernandez did get in the way, so still a “good” block — Vereen smartly read the cutback lane and then undressed safety Quinton Demps for another 5 yards.

Receivers (3.5 out of 5)

Three more drops out of this group, with two from Wes Welker (a team-leading 12). Debated giving him two more, but the passes were in tough spots. If he catches them, they’re plus catches. So, while technically not drops, they were passes Welker usually handles. That said, Welker again got his left ankle rolled up on. He’s gutting it out and it has to be affecting his consistency. Hernandez is nearly back to full strength in the pass game, but he’s not showing much interest in blocking, probably because he’s afraid to get rolled up on again. Lloyd had a very nice bounceback game when his vertical prowess was needed in the game plan. Dobbins is probably having nightmares about having to cover Hernandez and Woodhead.

Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)

Considering the 44.2 percent blitzes, exceptional end J.J. Watt (five knockdowns, two hurries, despite extra attention on 43 percent of his rushes), and that the Patriots allowed just 13.3 percent of the rush attempts to be stuffed for 1 yard or less outside of short yardage (second-lowest to 3.6 vs. Denver), this performance was right there with the Rams game for best overall effort. Center Ryan Wendell (no impact plays allowed) and left guard Logan Mankins (knockdown) were exceptional, and left tackle Nate Solder (knockdown, half stuffed run) wasn’t far behind. Sebastian Vollmer (sack, knockdown, penalty, shared stuffed run) and Dan Connolly (two knockdowns, hurry, two half stuffed runs, penalty) had a tougher chore on the right side. One thing to watch: Solder was favoring the left side of his rib cage for much of the game.

Defensive line (5 out of 5)

When Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick weren’t blowing up the zone blocking scheme themselves with penetration or sheer brute strength, they were maneuvering blockers so the linebackers could clean it up. Wilfork is on a tear and keeps topping himself. On second and 14 with 7:21 left in the first quarter, great job by Rob Ninkovich shedding standout left tackle Duane Brown at the point, and then just a phenomenal athletic play by Wilfork to not only fight around a double team but to help make a tackle on a play that was run 6 yards away from him. Then, on second and 10 with 5:54 left in the first half, the Texans tried to run a wham tackle trap play against Wilfork but the only whamming was done by Wilfork against Brown on his way to a big 2-yard loss. Both were All-Pro plays. Right before Devin McCourty’s interception, Deaderick completely blew up the inside zone run that only went for 2 yards and was impressively cleaned up by Wilfork, who hurdled a cut block. There was no letup in the second half. On the first play, Ninkovich shed the tight end on a 3-yard run. On the next play, Ninkovich made Brown look bad while Deaderick dusted an excellent center in Chris Myers on a 2-yard loss. Chandler Jones looked decent but definitely rusty and a little unsure of himself in his return. He had 1.5 hurries, but his pad level was too high on the Texans’ first touchdown and he got steamrolled (and tackled by Brown). Jones started to look more like his old self with 13:12 left in the fourth quarter when he penetrated and held the edge while Ninkovich and Kyle Love cleaned up a 1-yard gain on second and 2. Justin Francis (two knockdowns) needs to settle down with the friendly fire on Kyle Arrington.

Linebackers (3.5 out of 5)

There were some coverage errors but luckily Schaub was too gun-shy to find the open guys. Jerod Mayo had a slew of impact plays (three knockdowns, three stuffed runs, half hurry), and two missed tackles and contributed to a plus-20 pass play. On McCourty’s interception, it looked like Mayo got lucky on a blitz — like the play on which he sacked Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins — because Arian Foster leaked out of the backfield completely uncovered. Great play by Mayo to attack downhill on the second-and-10 run with 2:38 left in the first half and to avoid the block of tackle Ryan Harris to take Foster down for no gain. Dont’a Hightower (two knockdowns, hurry, 1.5 stuffs) was in the same boat with a couple of miscues. Both players are joining an obviously injured Brandon Spikes (ankle) — he was invisible and slow — in attacking linebackers. Good to see the coaches turn this group loose.

Secondary (4 out of 5)

Breaking up six passes and taking points off the board with a goal-line interception is a good day’s work for a group that obviously has benefited from a small but difference-making uptick in pressure generated in the past four games (31.1 percent of dropbacks; 24 percent in previous seven). Really nice play by Talib, whose size is a deterrent (where have you gone Ras-I Dowling?) to quarterbacks more than anything, on the pass breakup before leaving with an injury. He’s much more consistent when given a target to focus on. Arrington was again a standout with everyone else but Steve Gregory (three missed tackles, plus-20 play) extremely solid. The group’s improvement is identical to last year’s but with more (inconsistent) talent.

Special teams (4.5 out of 5)

Great 31-yard punt return by Welker — thanks to standout blocks from Talib, Marquis Cole, and Matthew Slater (another Pro Bowl coverage game) — to get things started. Zoltan Mesko was very good outside his shanked second punt (3.59 seconds of hang time). The Patriots’ linebackers had a huge edge on the Texans’ on special teams. Stephen Gostkowski has 10 touchbacks on 13 kickoffs in the past two games.