By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to the great state of Texas to take on the Houston Texans on Sunday. Game time is scheduled for 1p.m. EST. The game will be televised by CBS and for the 4th time this season with Greg Gumbel (play-by-play) and Dan Dierdorf (analysis) on the call.
The Patriots (8-3) had a dramatic come-from-behind 34-31 victory in overtime against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos last Sunday night as Tom Brady ignited a 34 point second half explosion.
The Texans (2-9) have dropped nine in a row, from a slew of injuries to QB Matt Schaub being benched, to head coach Gary Kubiak collapsing at half-time, it’s gone from bad to worse. This was a team that many picked to compete to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, now…it looks like many changes are coming for the Texans this offseason.
Shane Vereen has been a big factor in the offense since returning from IR.
(USA TODAY Images)
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots Texans have met five times including the playoffs with the Patriots holding a 4-1 edge. The teams have met twice in Houston with each team winning one, the last one in 2009 when Wes Welker tore his ACL on the poor turf of the stadium.
The teams met twice in Foxboro last season with the Patriots dominating them twice including 41-28 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The New England offense is quickly rounding into shape and becoming much, much better across the board. An already solid running game was augmented by the return of Shane Vereen as was the passing game. Vereen has caught 16 passes in the two games since returning from a broken wrist, (8 each against Carolina/Denver) for 125 yards. His presence creates mismatches on LBs in coverage.
Tom Brady who was facing more questions than at any time in his career early this season is now on a roll. In his past three games Brady is completing 70 percent of his passes (86 of 123), for 1072 yards, good for 8 TDs and only 1 INT for a QB rating of 120. Third down efficiency, hovering all season at approximately 30 percent has risen also in the last three games to 50 percent, 18 for 36.
Patriots RBs vs Texan’s Front Seven- NE 125.9 YPG, 4.3 YPC Edge Patriots
Stevan Ridley who is in the midst of a tough streak fumbling the football, may sit for this game as the coaches and he try to right his issues with putting the ball on the ground. But with LaGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen there are still plenty of options to go around.
The Patriots and the offensive line have done a solid job overall in run blocking all season and should be able to run on the defense of the Texans, who haven’t been as solid as in the past.
Injuries for the Texans have taken their toll; their linebackers have struggled at times in run support. Look for the Patriots to try to establish the run to set up play-action passing as they’ve done in the past.
Patriots WRs vs Texans Secondary- NE 245 YPG Edge Patriots
The Patriots passing attack is finding its rhythm with Tom Brady and his new fleet of receivers. Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that every week the team seems to have a different top receiver. What that means is, like days of old, Brady’s favorite receiver is the open one.
Rob Gronkowski is poised for a big finish down the stretch for New England.
(USA TODAY Images)
Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have been steadily gaining experience with Brady and now with the return of Shane Vereen providing a big presence out of the backfield, the passing game is becoming what was envisioned during the spring/summer.
Houston is very good against the pass, allowing only 171.8 YPG which ranks it as #1 in the NFL and it starts with the pass rush and J.J. Watt. Watt changed the way the Patriots practiced, with his propensity for knocking down passes at the line, the Patriots last adopted the use of coaching assistants at the line with racquet ball rackets swatting at Brady’s passes. It continues today as a now valuable tool.
Watt has 9.5 sacks and Whitney Mercilus has another 5.5 for the Texans who also have a solid pair of corners with Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. But twice last year the Patriots and Brady made short work of this defense putting up more than 40 points in both games.
The key here is to run the ball to set up play action, protect Brady, and use Gronkowski to attack the middle of the field. Houston’s safeties Shiloh Keo and rookie D.J. Swearinger are at a distinct size advantage against Gronk and he should be a focus this week. The Patriots offense gets the edge here because they’ve proven they can attack Wade Phillips’ defense and have been successful doing so in the past. Brady should find plenty of success throwing the ball.
The Patriots defense remains a beat up unit, with Mayo, Wilfork and Kelly gone for the season, and in the secondary with Talib, Dennard and Arrington all playing hurt it has been a rough stretch for a unit that looked so promising this summer.
But Bill Belichick remains a master game planner and as long as he’s roaming the sidelines the Patriots remain a very effective game-plan specific team. They can change their focus from week to week and will be competitive.
Texans RBs vs NE Front Seven- Houston 116.4 YPG, 4.4 YPC Edge Patriots
Last week Denver gashed the Patriots for 280 yards in the OT game in Foxboro. Rookie tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were overwhelmed at the point of attack. That’s the bad news… the not-so-bad news is that was largely by design.
The Patriots played the entire game in a six man box with sub-packages designed to stop the pass. Denver ran, and ran very effectively, in the game plan I doubt Belichick decided to give up over 6 yards per carry, but they planned on taking the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and it worked….to a degree.
Just a week earlier, the defense held the Carolina Panthers running backs to just 41 yards on 16 carries using a heavier 3-4 base defense. So while the run defense remains a problem area, it is not time to completely overboard with it.
The Texans under Gary Kubiak have been a run-first team with Arian Foster opening up holes for play-action passing, but he’s on IR and his backup Ben Tate has been hurt with bad ribs. Last week their leading rusher undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson, ran for 71 yards against the Jaguars.
Look for the Patriots to go to a more of a base 3-4 this week while facing the Texans. NT Isaac Sopoaga only played 14 snaps last week; he should see much more action in this one. The Patriots also activated DT Sealver Siliga from the practice squad. Siliga is 6’2, 325 and has the girth similar to former Patriot Kyle Love and should see some action in the running game.
Texans WRs vs NE Secondary-Houston 247.1 YPG Edge Patriots
The banged up Patriots secondary played an outstanding game against Denver. They played tight man coverage, were physical at the line of scrimmage and held Manning to under 200 yards passing (150) for the first time as a Bronco.
Devin McCourty is having a Pro-Bowl type year and if Aqib Talib didn’t miss so much time with an injury, he’d be in line also. The pass rush with Chandler Jones is improving; Jones has 10.5 sacks and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November.
Aqib Talib has been outstanding this season.
(USA TODAY Images)
Matt Schaub has been benched after one too many pick sixes and will likely be cut loose after the season. The Texans are going with Case Keenum down the stretch. While he’s given them a spark at times, he’s had some issues reading defenses and picking up blitzes. His production the past three games has gone down and last week could only manage 169 yards against the Jags. The Texans pass protection has been shaky this season as well.
Houston still has Andre Johnson who has 74 catches for 1002 yards on the season and rookie DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson has big play potential, has only 39 catches for 554 yards thus far, a big drop-off in terms of production from Houston’s #1 to #2 WR.
The Patriots should be able to handle the Texans passing game, Belichick will likely mix up his coverages and disguise some blitzes as well. If Talib, Arrington and Dennard are in the lineup, that should bode very well for the Patriots.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
The Patriots have a big advantage in the kicking game, with Stephen Gostkowski who is having a Pro-Bowl year and has missed only one kick all season, his kickoffs, even in the wind Sunday night were excellent. Texans kicker Randy Bullock has struggled badly and is only 9 of 14 from the 40-49 yard range and 1 of 5 from 50+.
The Pats STs had two huge turnovers in the Denver game, the second which ended up being the difference as they won the game in overtime.
Punters rookie Ryan Allen and Shane Lechler for Houston are fairly even in terms of average but the Patriots coverage units have been much more solid than Houston’s and give them a bigger advantage here.
New England gets a slight advantage in the punt return game with Julian Edelman over Keshawn Martin even though Martin has an 87 yard return for a TD to his credit. Martin gets the edge in the kick return department over LaGarrette Blount or Devin McCourty. The team used Josh Boyce for KR duty in Carolina but none were returnable, so he may get some work this week.
Patriots Player to Watch- Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski is getting better and better every week as he is rounding into shape after his numerous off-season surgeries. Last week against Denver he was the most physical we’ve seen from him yet and one play nearly carried three defenders into the end zone.
When Gronkowski is in the zone, he’s hard to stop and he and Brady are finding their rhythm together. This week, the Texans safeties Keo and Swearinger have a distinct size disadvantage against Gronk as we previously mentioned, but neither has stood out particularly well lately and look for Brady to target them in the passing game using Gronkowski.
This is the kind of game where Gronk could have a big afternoon and since every week it seems that Brady has a different leading receiver, Gronkowski may be his target of choice. Get ready for the Gronk spike….