The New England Patriots only managed 20 points against a Houston Texans team that entered Week 11 with a 2-7 record, so it might seem slightly out of place to deliver optimism about the team’s offense.
But quarterback Cam Newton and the Patriots’ wide receivers have shown significant progress this season, and Sunday’s performance against the Texans underscored those improvements.
Newton completed 26-of-40 passes for 365 yards with a touchdown. It is important to note that 50 of those yards came on a complete but short Hail Mary caught by tight end Ryan Izzo. But still, Newton threw well Sunday, especially intermediate-to-deep. He had five passes batted at the line of scrimmage and missed some short throws but he’s improved significantly over the last five weeks of the season.
The Patriots also have seen advancement from their wide receiving corps. It still might be among the worst groups in the NFL, but gaining separation certainly was not an issue Sunday.
There was maybe one instance when a lack of separation from Patriots pass-catchers led to an incompletion or sack. Newton threw the ball away near the goal line when running back Rex Burkhead was well-covered. Otherwise, New England receivers got open, and Newton made the right reads.
As Patriots top wide receiver Jakobi Meyers drew more attention from the Texans defense and only caught three passes on three targets for 38 yards — lows since he emerged as Newton’s top target in Week 7 — Damiere Byrd was able to step up with six catches on seven targets for 132 yards (a career-high) with a touchdown.
Byrd produced much in the same way Meyers had in recent weeks by gaining separation at the top of his routes and finding holes in zone coverage. He also was able to catch a 42-yard touchdown pass from Newton over cornerback Phillip Gaines in tight coverage.
The case of N’Keal Harry is still a curious one and it’s worth wondering if the Patriots would be better off with a more efficient receiver in that role by replacing him with Donte Moncrief, Isaiah Ford or Julian Edelman when he returns off of injured reserve.
Harry caught five passes on eight targets for 41 yards. He also dropped a pass and was flagged for holding and pass interference, but both penalties seemed bogus and possibly called on the wrong player. It’s probably a bad sign that a five-catch, 41-yard performance by a 2019 first-round pick was viewed as somewhat promising, however.
In 15 career games, Harry has averaged less than 10 yards per completion eight times, been held catch-less three times and averaged 10 yards or more per completion just four times (once this season).
There’s enough of a sample size at this point to determine there’s a reason why the Patriots don’t target Harry downfield. Harry has the sixth-lowest average targeted air yards (6.1) among qualified wide receivers this season, per Next Gen Stats. The problem with that is Harry also ranks just 48th out of 94 receivers in yards after catch per reception (4.2). He is at least gaining .7 more average yards after catch per reception than expected and he ranks fourth among qualified receivers in broken tackles per reception. So, it’s possible his inefficiency is as much usage-based as it is talent-based.
Comparatively speaking, Byrd is averaging 13.4 targeted air yards, Meyers is averaging 11.1 targeted air yards and Edelman was averaging 10.1 targeted air yards.
Most players who average less than seven targeted air yards are tight ends. Players like Gerald Everett, Drew Sample, Jonnu Smith, Evan Engram, Darren Waller, George Kittle and Noah Fant all average more than 4.2 yards after catch per target, however.
Regardless of Harry’s odd usage, the Patriots’ passing game was a strength, not a weakness in New England’s Week 11 loss. The Patriots’ issues with bringing down Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and their inability to prevent Houston pass-catchers from picking up yards after catch were much more to blame for the loss. Texans wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller and tight end Jordan Akins all ranked in the top 11 among qualified receivers in yards after catch per reception this week.
Byrd’s performance was a real plus. Meyers and Byrd deserve the majority of credit for their progress this season. But don’t overlook the instruction of wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi, who has rounded this receiving corps into shape as the season has gone along. Byrd is suddenly on pace for 750 yards this season, which would double this career high. If Meyers keeps his pace from the last five weeks of the season, he’d finish with 852 yards.
That’s pretty remarkable for two players who were no guarantees to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster out of training camp.
Newton also deserves mention. He’s shown faith and confidence in two players who might have never found their way in the previous Patriots quarterback’s trust tree.