By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to Reliant Stadium in Houston to take on the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
After two straight prime time games on Monday and Sunday Night Football, the Patriots will return to more of a normal schedule this week.
The Texans (2-9) played the Patriots twice last season but this team resembles little of that team that was one of the favorites that was picked to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Injuries to Arian Foster, bad quarterback play by Matt Schaub and a penchant for turning the ball over has the Texans in a free-fall, losing nine in a row. Coach Gary Kubiak is on borrowed time as the head coach and the only question now is when he gets the axe rather than if.
Here are Five First Impressions of the Texans:
Running Game Woes, Hamper Offense: When the Texans were very successful the past couple of seasons, they relied on the tough running of Arian Foster to control the clock, soften up the defense and open up play-action passing.
With Foster on IR and Ben Tate hobbled with broken ribs, the running game has suffered. The last three games against the Jaguars, Raiders and Cardinals, the Texans have only gained 77, 90 and 76 yards respectively on the ground.
Undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson ran 13 times for 74 yards last week but clock control will be of utmost importance this week said Kubiak so expect the Texans to really try to commit to running much more this week.
QB Case Keenum Remains Starter: The Texans’ signal caller has really struggled the past few weeks but Coach Kubiak has stated that Keenum will remain the starter which pretty much signals the end of the road for Matt Schaub in Houston.
Keenum’s passer rating has declined the past three games and he’s having issues with blitz pickups as well as reading opposing defenses. Last week against one of the weaker teams in the league in Jacksonville, he failed to get the team into the end zone and had a completion percentage of only 52.9 going 18 for 34 for 169 yards 0 TDs and one interception.
More concerning was that he only completed two passes to Andre Johnson for 21 yards and one pass to DeAndre Hopkins for 8 yards in the loss. He’ll have to do much better this week, but getting Owen Daniels back may help.
JJ Watt Remains A Force: Lost in the mire of the Texans losing streak is the outstanding play of Texans DL J.J. Watt. Watt remains one of the premiere 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.
This season Watt has 9.5 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. Last week against the Jags, Watt had a sack and blocked a FG attempt.
If there is one guy on the Texans defense that must be accounted for on every snap it is Watt. He’s so adept at knocking down passes; the Patriots have changed the way they practice.
Prior to playing Watt and the Texans last year, coaching assistants would wave big racquet ball paddles trying to bat down QB Tom Brady’s passes. They’ve now incorporated that into every day practice and a frequent murmur heard at training camp when a pass would be knocked down was, “Watt got that one”. Expect him to be the Patriots main focus on offense this week.
Johnson, Hopkins a Potent Pair At WR: Despite the Texans struggles on offense, the Patriots must account for Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins when the Texans have the ball. Johnson has been visibly and outwardly frustrated by Houston’s struggles on offense recently, stating after the loss to the Jaguars, “we suck”.
Johnson has 892 career catches and this season is already over the 1000 yard mark with 74 catches for 1002 yards. Expect a good, physical battle between he and Pats corner Aqib Talib. With more of a spotlight on this game this week, Johnson will be looking to make a statement.
Hopkins the rookie wide receiver from Clemson hasn’t been getting a lot of catches each week but has exhibited some big play potential. On the season, he has 39 catches for 554 yards and as he grows more experienced, should see plenty of single coverage playing opposite of Johnson.
McNair Has Decisions To Make: Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was expecting his team to compete for a Super Bowl in 2013 but instead, they’re mired in a nine-game losing streak. While injuries have decimated their team, they are far from alone in that department, so what happens once the season ends?
Head Coach Gary Kubiak is a goner at this point, but the bigger questions remain, what about GM Rick Smith? It seems that Smith’s fate is still in the air, McNair held a meeting last week with minority owners supposedly to discuss both Kubiak and McNair’s status.
It is a far cry from where the team was expecting to be at this point, but next year’s GM will have to decide on a new coach, a new quarterback but not necessarily a new defensive coordinator.
Wade Phillips has the #1 ranked defense and while it is odd considering the Texans are 26th in scoring defense, part of the reason is the amount of turnovers generated by Houston’s offense. It should get interesting really quickly once the season ends.