NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
New England’s postseason begins this weekend as the 12-4 Patriots host the 13-4 Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Patriots’ 42-14 victory over Houston on December 10th is certainly cause for optimism, but can New England avoid underestimating a dangerous Texans team?
Read on for ten keys to this weekend’s game, presented by Seatcrunch.com – a platform to help fans buy and sell tickets.
1. How healthy is New England’s roster heading into this week’s matchup?
The bad news for New England is that the Patriots had listed twenty players as being limited in practice this week. Players who were a part of previous injury reports included wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, offensive guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes, cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, and strong safety Patrick Chung.
The good news is that many of the aforementioned players were removed from Friday’s injury report (with the notable exceptions of Gronkowski and Dennard), meaning that the Patriots are expected to take the field on Sunday with the full availability of their entire active roster. Of course, one of the major storylines in the game (discussed in further depth later in this article) remains Rob Gronkowski’s surgically-repaired forearm; obviously, Gronkowski was unavailable during New England’s previous matchup with Houston, so any contributions he can provide will be appreciated.
At cornerback, Dennard’s injury may be mitigated by a relatively thin Texans receiver corps; aside from Andre Johnson, their most dangerous receiver is Kevin Walter (41 catches, 518 yards, two touchdowns.) No other Texans receiver has over ten catches.
2. Can New England’s rushers pressure Texans quarterback Matt Schaub?
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia called for a considerable amount of blitzing the last time New England played Houston; the Patriots rushed additional defenders on 14/34 dropbacks in week fourteen. As a result, Schaub was unable to establish the deep or intermediate passing games: he attempted just eight passes which traveled more than ten yards downfield, completing four while being intercepted on a deep throw vs. the blitz. In total, Schaub was far less effective against the blitz: 8/13 for 81 yards (6.2 YPA) and one interception against additional rushers, 11/19 for 151 yards (7.9 YPA) against four or fewer rushers.
Thus, it may be beneficial for linebackers such as Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower to be utilized as pass rushing options. Unfortunately, Texans right tackle Derek Newton will be back this week after missing the last matchup between Houston and New England; he replaces Ryan Harris, who allowed three quarterback hits and two pressures in week fourteen. Through fifteen starts (including last week’s contest vs. Cincinnati), Newton has allowed four sacks on the season, although the Bengals were able to pressure Schaub three times as a result of Newton’s blocking.
3. Will New England’s run defense be able to limit Arian Foster once again?
The Texans’ eighth-ranked rushing attack was of no use against New England during their first meeting; Arian Foster gained just 46 of his 1,424 yards in that game, gaining only 3.1 yards per carry on fifteen attempts. However, it’s probably unrealistic to expect another performance as poor as week fourteen’s; with right tackle Derek Newton returning, it’s reasonable to expect somewhere between 80 and 110 yards for Foster. The running back is averaging 92 yards per game on the season, including last week’s 140-yard performance against Cincinnati’s defense, which entered the wild card round ranked twelfth against the run with 107.2 yards per game allowed.
Houston was most successful running to the right side in their last contest vs. New England; on fifteen carries to the left side of the center, Texans runners gained 65 yards, compared to eleven carries for 34 yards to the left side. One possible contributing factor behind Foster’s unimpressive performance earlier in the season was Houston’s unwillingness to attack the right side of New England’s defense; left tackle Duane Brown is Houston’s most effective offensive lineman, but the Texans were surprisingly reluctant to test the right side of New England’s run defense last month.
4. Is Aqib Talib healthy enough to mirror Andre Johnson in man coverage?
One of the most exciting aspects of New England’s defensive gameplan back in week fourteen was the decision to implement more man coverage looks. In addition, rather than assigning cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard to different sides of the field, Talib was tasked with shadowing Houston’s elite wide receiver, Andre Johnson, in man coverage. As a result, Johnson had caught just two passes for seventeen yards before Talib left the game with a hip injury.
Following Talib’s departure, Johnson began to perform more like a top wide receiver against New England’s zone defenses, finishing the game with eight catches for 95 yards. The likes of Alfonzo Dennard (2/3, 24 yards vs. Johnson) and Kyle Arrington (1/1, 16 yards) are not big or athletic enough to reliably limit Johnson’s offensive output, making Talib perhaps one of the most crucial players on the field this weekend. Unfortunately, despite Talib’s comprehensive snap count in the following contest, vs. San Francisco (64/68 defensive snaps), he has not been healthy in recent weeks. He played just eight snaps against the Jaguars in week sixteen and sat out the season finale.
5. How will Texans tight end Garrett Graham change Houston’s gameplan?
New England’s difficulties covering tight ends this season have been well-documented in previous iterations of this column; this week, the Patriots will be forced to account for not only tight end Owen Daniels and H-Back James Casey, but also second tight end Garrett Graham, who missed the last meeting between Houston and New England. The Texans utilized Daniels on 60 snaps and Casey on 50 snaps in week fourteen, but never included a second tight end in their offensive formations.
That marked a significant departure from their preferred offense, in which Graham has been on the field for an average of 41.9 offensive snaps per game when active; he has also started ten games for the Texans, including last week’s wild card game, in which he caught three passes for 29 yards. New England must be especially careful in regards to the middle of their defense; half of Matt Schaub’s passes in week fourteen were on throws targeting the middle of the field, and 29 of Graham’s 38 targets on the year (76.3%) came over the middle.
The presence of Graham, a reasonably effective run blocker, should also help Houston’s rushing game.
6. Will New England’s blockers be able to neutralize Houston’s pass rushers?
Arguably the most influential factor in week fourteen’s outcome was Houston’s surprising inability to pressure Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Texans ultimately finished tied for fifth in the league in sacks with 44 on the season, but just one of those sacks came against New England, when Whitney Mercilus beat Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer; all told, New England’s blockers surrendered just five quarterback hits and three pressures on the night.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called for extra rushers on 22 of Brady’s 37 dropbacks, with absolutely no effectiveness: Brady completed 14/21 passes against the blitz, with three of his four touchdown passes coming against additional pressure. In fact, Houston had (slightly) more success by rushing four or less, limiting Brady to 7/14 passing for 137 yards and one touchdown. Brady’s success vs. the blitz has been incredible all season: he has passed for 18 touchdowns without throwing an interception against five or more rushers.
Houston would be wise to adopt a more conservative defensive look and hope they can get pressure from just four rushers; they may benefit from the return of outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who was unavailable during the Texans’ last meeting with New England and who recorded a sack last week vs. Cincinnati, bringing his total to 3.5 on the season.
7. What type of impact can be expected from tight end Rob Gronkowski?
Easily the most notable difference between this matchup and the last is the added presence of inline tight end Rob Gronkowski, who returned to the field last week after breaking his forearm on November 18th vs. Indianapolis. Gronkowski was targeted on four passes in the season finale vs. Miami, catching two balls for 42 yards and a touchdown.
Gronkowski’s ability to separate from defenders in the passing game is obviously going to be valuable, but it’s reasonable to wonder how effective he will be as a blocker. He appeared unwilling to expose his injured forearm in the blocking game two weeks ago, which would be a detriment against Houston’s powerful defensive front.
It will also be interesting to see what kind of workload Gronkowski is given. He was on the field for just 25 offensive snaps vs. the Dolphins, although his participation could be much higher this week considering the game’s significance; Bill Belichick has revealed himself to be conservative when dealing with injured players, but he may ultimately find that he has no choice other than to rely on Gronkowski’s ability to stay healthy all game.
8. Will Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez be able to replicate prior success?
Rob Gronkowski’s absence and Wes Welker’s uncharacteristically poor game (three catches for 52 yards on eight targets, including three drops) were offset back in week fourteen by impressive performances by wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Lloyd was covered throughout the game by Houston’s Johnathan Joseph, a $48.75 million free agent signing prized for his ability to shut down opposing receivers in man coverage; this season, Joseph has allowed just 57/101 passing for 718 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions (including one in last week’s wild card game.) However, Lloyd found himself consistently able to beat Joseph in one-on-one matchups, catching six of seven passes for 52 yards with Joseph in coverage (he also added a 37-yard touchdown on a post route with Texans safety Glover Quin trailing.) It’s possible that Joseph’s performance was negatively impacted by a recent hip injury; regardless, he will have to perform much better this week.
Hernandez may be an even bigger problem: he caught 8/11 targets for 58 yards and two touchdowns, with his receptions coming against six different defenders: linebackers Connor Barwin, Tim Dobbins, and Bradie James, and defensive backs Kareem Jackson, Danieal Manning, and Glover Quin.
9. Will the Patriots be able to run against Houston’s top-ten run defense?
The Texans enter this weekend’s game having allowed an average of just 97.5 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh in the league; last week, Cincinnati averaged five yards per attempt on the ground but gained just 80 yards throughout the game. Concerns about New England’s ability to run against Houston have a logical basis: the Patriots gained 130 yards on the ground against the Texans, but much of their output can be attributed to the lead New England was attempting to protect throughout the game.
The Patriots rushed 33 times during the first contest, gaining just 3.9 yards per attempt without breaking a run longer than fourteen yards all night; more than half of New England’s yardage on the ground came after initial contact. A month ago, they relied on a combination of Stevan Ridley (eighteen carries) and Shane Vereen (eight), with five additional touches split between Danny Woodhead (three) and Brandon Bolden (two.) Look for a similarly diverse rushing attack this weekend, with Woodhead being a prime candidate for an increase in touches: he’s been averaging over ten touches per game since. However, make no mistake: New England’s ability to score points on offense will still depend on Tom Brady’s effectiveness passing the ball.
10. Can New England’s coaching staff keep the Patriots roster focused?
The parallels between this season’s divisional-round matchup and New England’s playoff game against the New York Jets in the same round two years ago have been repeatedly delineated this week, and for good reason. Two seasons ago, New England embarrassed the Jets in a 45-3 week thirteen victory, only to drop a divisional round rematch just over a month afterwards. Because New England’s convincing victory against Houston remains fresh in everyone’s minds, New England’s coaching staff must prevent Patriots players from looking ahead to a potential AFC Championship Game rematch against either the Broncos or the Ravens next week.
Although the Patriots match up well against the Texans, Houston remains one of the most dangerous teams in the league, with top-ten rankings in scoring offense (eighth), offensive yardage (seventh), scoring defense (tied for ninth), and defensive yardage (seventh.) With another four-quarter effort, the Patriots will be in position to advance into the championship game, but sleepwalking through the early going could bring an early end to New England’s postseason run.
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