NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England’s biggest test of the season thus far comes on Monday Night Football against the current leaders in the AFC; Houston dominated the Baltimore Ravens back in week seven and has won six straight games. The Patriots carry a six-game winning streak of their own in the contest and will be contending for playoff positioning and a potential first-round postseason bye. Read on for ten keys to New England’s most difficult matchup yet.
1. How might the outcome of this contest affect playoff seeding in the AFC?
The Patriots and Texans have already secured playoff berths at this point in the season; however, the AFC playoff seeding is still yet-to-be-determined. The Texans currently sit atop the conference with an 11-1 record; if the season ended today, New England (9-3) would be ranked third, behind Houston and the Denver Broncos (10-3).
Houston already holds a tiebreaker over the Baltimore Ravens (9-4) by virtue of having won their head-to-head matchup, and a win over New England would give them the tiebreaker in that regard as well. They would become almost assured of a first-round bye. This game is also critical from New England’s perspective; at this point, they may have to win each of their remaining games in order to earn the second seed. Denver is on an eight-game winning streak; if they beat the Ravens in Baltimore next week, they will be almost assured of finishing 13-3.
However, New England provided Denver with their last loss and holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos; with a win this week, the Patriots would be ranked second in the AFC, just one game behind Houston. The Texans have three fairly difficult games remaining on their schedule (two against the Colts and one against 7-6 Minnesota), so it’s possible for New England to finish atop the conference by winning out.
2. How frequently will each team be able to convert in third-down situations?
New England’s third-down offense is the most efficient in the NFL this season; they have converted 90/171 attempts, a rate of 52.6%. By comparison, the Dallas Cowboys, the league’s second-most effective third-down offense, are converting 44.9% of their attempts. The Patriots have been successful rushing the ball in short-yardage situations; Tom Brady is arguably the best in the league in terms of third-down passing.
However, New England may struggle to convert third downs regularly against the Texans this week; Houston’s third-down defense is the best in the league. Over 162 attempts, the Texans have allowed just 46 conversions (28.4%); they are three percent more effective than the second-best third-down defense (San Francisco), as well as 14.6% more effective than New England’s third-down defense (43.0%.)
The Patriots may typically have difficulty getting off the field in third down situations, but fortunately the Texans are not particularly proficient on third-down attempts; thus far, they have converted just 39.% of their tries, good for 15th in the league. However, the Patriots and Texans are ranked first and second in terms of points per game, so it will be interesting to see whether or not the two teams can move the ball on third down and engage in a high-scoring contest.
3. Can Sebastian Vollmer block Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner J.J. Watt?
Simply put, J.J. Watt is light-years ahead of the competition for Defensive Player of the Year. Watt has batted down 15 passes this season, and his 16.5 sacks are complemented by 17 quarterback hits and 21 pressures. He grades out as one of the league’s elite run stuffers as well. As Houston’s left defensive end, Watt will be matched up against Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who struggled last week against Dolphins left end Cameron Wake, allowing two sacks, one hit, and four pressures last Sunday.
Nonetheless, Vollmer is arguably New England’s most productive offensive lineman, having surrendered just one sack on the season prior to last week’s matchup. The Patriots would be wise to line up one of their tight ends (likely Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui) on Vollmer’s side to chip Watt; leaving him in one-on-one matchups could prove disastrous against both the run and the pass.
Vollmer has also been fighting through back and knee injuries this season, which may be a factor tonight.
4. Will Stevan Ridley be successful rushing against Houston’s defensive front?
Stevan Ridley has already surpassed 1,000 yards on the season, but aside from carrying New England’s offense on a clutch fourth-quarter drive, he looked less effective than usual against the Dolphins. Although Miami’s ninth-ranked run defense was certainly a factor in Ridley’s performance, the Patriots face an even more stout defensive front this week against Houston’s second-ranked unit, which is allowing just 87.6 yards per game on the ground.
In addition to J.J. Watt, the Texans have a deep rotation of effective defensive linemen including Antonio Smith, one of the top five-technique defensive ends in the league, as well as nose tackles Earl Mitchell (293 snaps) and Shaun Cody (151 snaps.) Rookie fourth-round pick Jared Crick, an end who appeared to fit well into New England’s defense, is playing well over 142 snaps as well.
Fortunately for New England, starting left guard Logan Mankins is expected to play this week; he should improve the effectiveness of New England’s interior rushing attack. Rookie running back Brandon Bolden will also return from his four-game suspension; he joins a deep stable of Patriots ballcarriers which includes Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead.
5. Can Tom Brady successfully recognize Houston’s pre-snap defensive looks?
The Texans are effective pass rushers not only because of their defensive talent, but also because they rush a wide variety of defenders with some regularity. That means Tom Brady must successfully identify which defenders will be blitzing on any given play and adjust his protections accordingly.
J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are both effective one-gap penetrators at the defensive end spots, and Houston boasts two talented edge rushers at the outside linebacker spot: Connor Barwin and rookie first-round pick Whitney Mercilus (Brooks Reed is expected to miss the next three to four weeks with a groin injury.) Barwin and Reed have been less effective than expected this season, but they must still be accounted for.
In addition to those five players, Houston also rushes their inside linebackers relatively often (94 rushes for Bradie James, 36 for Tim Dobbins.) Pressure is not limited to the defensive front seven; although cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have yet to blitz, free safety Glover Quin (46 rushes), strong safety Danieal Manning (27 rushes), and nickel corner Brice McCain (12 rushes) are options. Each of those three players has recorded a sack this season.
6. Will New England’s receivers be able to gain separation in the passing game?
Brandon Lloyd was expected to provide New England with more of a true number one receiving option this season, but his production has fallen off over the past three weeks, culminating in a one-catch performance against the Dolphins last week
Whether or not he will be able to gain separation from highly-regarded Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has held opposing receivers to 41/73 receiving for 537 yards, is something to keep an eye on. Houston typically moves Joseph around to cover specific receivers; Lloyd seems like that receiver this week.
In addition to Joseph, former first-round pick Kareem Jackson has finally matured into a top cornerback, having allowed just 46.4% of his targets (32/69) to be completed on the season. Houston’s only weakness in the secondary is slot cornerback Brice McCain, who has allowed 475 yards on 31/55 passing with a 95.6 quarterback rating against. Look for Joseph and Jackson to cover Lloyd and Welker all game.
7. Can New England remove Houston’s rushing attack from the offensive gameplan?
Texans running back Arian Foster hasn’t been quite as dynamic as he at the beginning of his career. Foster averaged 4.9 yards per carry during his 1,600 yard, 16 touchdown 2010 campaign, and then battled through injuries last season en route to just over 1,200 yards at 4.4 yards per carry in 2011. This season, Foster’s yards per carry have dipped yet again; he is averaging 3.9 yards per attempt through 12 games.
Some of Foster’s decreased efficiency can be attributed to changes along the offensive line; the Texans surprised everyone by releasing elite right tackle Eric Winston this past offseason, and right guard Mike Brisiel left Houston in free agency for a five-year, $20 million offer from the Oakland Raiders. Nonetheless, Foster is still on pace for 17 touchdowns and almost 1,500 yards; the Texans are ranked fourth in the league in rushing attempts and seventh in rushing yards.
New England must take advantage of Houston’s replacements for Winston and Brisiel; right guard Ben Jones and right tackle Derek Newton are the weak points along the Texans’ line. If players such as Kyle Love and Rob Ninkovich are winning one-on-one battles along the left side of New England’s defensive front, the Patriots will be able to overload the opposite side, where the Texans prefer rushing the ball.
8. How will right end Chandler Jones perform in his return from an ankle injury?
Chandler Jones has been nursing an ankle injury as of late, but he is expected to play tonight against the Texans. His presence could be very valuable, as he will be asked to contend with Houston’s elite left tackle, former first-round pick Duane Brown.
This season, Brown has allowed just one sack while limiting opposing pass rushers to just eight quarterback pressures, meaning it may be difficult for Jones to make a significant impact in that facet of the game. Nonetheless, Jones can still make himself valuable by defending the run effectively.
On the season, Houston’s has had a great deal of success running behind Brown: Arian Foster’s 25 attempts behind the left tackle have yielded 131 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry which ranks as his most successful direction. Houston also favors running off the left end; they have attempted rushing in that direction more often than the right end spot by a margin of 53 to 40 carries.
9. Will Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard be able to defend receiver Andre Johnson?
Andre Johnson is enjoying something of a career renaissance at age 31; thus far on the season he has caught 74 of his 110 targets (67.3%) with 1,114 yards and three touchdowns. Over the past three weeks, Johnson has caught a total of 28 passes for 517 yards, nearly half of his season’s output
Because New England’s cornerbacks typically play sides instead of shadowing one specific receiver, responsibility for covering Johnson will likely fall on a combination of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. Johnson lines up on both sides of the field; his combination of size and strength may force New England to bracket him in coverage with safeties Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, or Patrick Chung.
Alfonzo Dennard has been effective in coverage this season, but he may not have the size or speed to cover an elite receiver such as Johnson. Aqib Talib’s skillset may be better suited to such a task, but over his three games with New England he has allowed 17 completions on 25 attempts; his production must increase if he hopes to secure a lucrative long-term deal this offseason.
10. Can the Patriots cover all of Houston’s fullbacks and tight ends in the passing game?
Although Houston’s auxiliary options at wide receiver leave something to be desired – Kevin Walter is the Texans’ number two receiving option – the Texans have a group of fullbacks and tight ends which may challenge New England’s linebackers in coverage.
The Patriots have been ineffective in that regard this season; Houston will likely test the likes of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower by throwing passes to fullback James Casey as well as tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Casey was originally drafted as a tight end and converted to fullback; on the season, he has caught 29 of his 35 targets (82.9%) for 274 yards, an average of 7.83 yards per catch.
Both Daniels and Graham function as H-Backs in Houston’s offense; Daniels has caught 50 passes and six touchdowns this season, while Graham put together an eight-catch, two touchdown performance against the Jaguars back in week eleven and is expected to play through a concussion this week.
The Patriots may wish to employ their three-safety sub package fairly often to give their linebackers some help.