NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England may still be one game behind Houston in the race for the AFC’s top seed, but the Patriots looked dominant tonight in a 42-14 victory over the Texans. Tom Brady led New England’s offense, but the majority of credit this week must go towards aggressive gameplans on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Read on for five keys to tonight’s victory.
1. Texans pass rush creates pressure but records just one sack
Houston’s pass rush was a major concern heading into tonight’s game; they recorded six quarterback hits on the night, killing a few Patriots drives in the middle of the contest, but only sacked Tom Brady on one occasion.
Defensive end J.J. Watt, considered the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, hit Brady three times but did not sack him; the Texans rushed Watt from both sides of the offensive line, his most successful rush coming against left tackle Nate Solder. Generally, the Patriots were effective at allowing Tom Brady to step up into his throws; New England also executed well off in play action situations, pulling their entire offensive line to one side of the field at times.
Brady sustained a few hits too many this week, mostly from the edges, but overall the performance should be considered an improvement over last week’s blocking; the Dolphins sacked Brady four times and hit him a total of eight. Like last week, New England’s rushing attack was ineffective early in the game but grew more successful late, when the Patriots were attempting to control the clock.
2. Wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Donte’ Stallworth had big games
The Houston Texans attempted to challenge New England’s wide receivers in man coverage tonight; the results left a lot to be desired for Wade Phillips’ defense. Tom Brady dissected the Texans for 296 yards and four touchdowns on 21/35 passing; significantly, most of Brady’s yardage came on passes to his wide receivers.
Wes Welker caught three passes for 52 yards, but New England’s other receivers were more impressive. Donte’ Stallworth was signed this week after Julian Edelman landed on injured reserve; Stallworth failed to reel in one deep throw by Tom Brady early in the game, but made up for it by making an outstanding 63-yard touchdown catch down the field early in the third quarter.
Fellow wide receiver Brandon Lloyd drew some criticism after last week’s one-catch performance; this week, he was consistently able to separate from Johnathan Joseph, catching seven passes on nine targets for a total of 89 yards. At one point, Tom Brady connected with Brandon Lloyd on a post-route off of play action for a 37-yard touchdown; Lloyd also recovered a fumble in the end zone to extend New England’s lead during the fourth quarter.
3. Tight end Aaron Hernandez makes extensive offensive contributions
Aaron Hernadez received the majority of Tom Brady’s targets tonight; he was thrown 11 passes, catching eight for 58 yards and two touchdowns. His first score came after recovering a Stevan Ridley fumble near the goal line; Hernandez caught a second touchdown on a trick play in which he snuck out to the far left side of the field for a screen pass which was largely undefended by Houston’s defense.
New England employed Hernandez as a tight end, as a wide receiver, and as a fullback. Aside from one ginger moment – after recovering Ridley’s fumble – Hernandez appeared fully healthy after missing extensive time this season with a high ankle sprain. His presence helped offset Rob Gronkowski’s absence at the tight end spot.
In addition to Hernandez, the Patriots were aided by Michael Hoomanawanui, who made a pair of critical blocks in the early going; he functioned as New England’s “Y” tight end tonight.
4. New England’s creative defensive looks give Houston trouble all game
Although Chandler Jones was active, Trevor Scott started the game for New England in Jones’ place; Scott rushed out of two-and-three-point stances, even lining up at five-technique in a modified three-down alignment. His pressure from the left side eventually resulted in a sack shared with defensive end Rob Ninkovich. Jones eventually rotated into the game; he made one tackle for loss and batted down one of Matt Schaub’s passes.
However, the Patriots did not limit their pressure to the defensive line. Linebacker Jerod Mayo ran to the boundaries and functioned as a cornerback on a few snaps; he also recorded two quarterback hits as a blitzer. Rookie Dont’a Hightower hit Schaub twice on blitzes; undrafted free agent Justin Francis recorded a quarterback hit while rushing out of a two-point stance.
In the secondary, Aqib Talib was shadowing Andre Johnson in man coverage before leaving the game with a hip injury; New England has typically resisted man coverage shells this season.
5. Arian Foster, Texans largely unable to establish the ground game
Houston finished the game with 100 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 27 attempts, but their rushing game was largely a non-factor tonight. In fact, New England was even able to outgain the Texans by 30 yards on the ground behind Stevan Ridley’s 72 yards and Shane Vereen’s 40 yards. For the Texans, Arian Foster was limited to just 3.1 yards per carry (46 yards on 15 attempts); Ben Tate gained just 46 yards as well, half of those on a 23-yard rush.
Vince Wilfork was instrumental in preventing the inside rushing game from taking off; he had one of his best performances of the season at the nose tackle spot. As mentioned earlier, New England ran both three-and-four-man defensive fronts; Wilfork finished the game with four tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and one pass defensed. The Patriots also benefitted by blitzing Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes in rushing situations, creating a downhill attack.
Houston tried to establish their rushing attack behind left tackle Duane Brown without much success; they appeared largely unwilling to run behind the right side of their offensive line.