NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots will try to build on last week’s victory over the Denver Broncos when they visit the Houston Texans, who have lost nine straight games but somehow rank eleventh in the league in offense and first in the league in defense. Read on for ten keys to this week’s contest.
1. How can Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia disrupt Case Keenum in the passing game?
After a season marred by an inability to protect the football, resulting in a four-game streak in which a Matt Schaub pass was returned for touchdowns by an opposing defender, Gary Kubiak decided to pull his starting quarterback midway through an embarrassing loss to the Rams, instead opting to go with his backup, T.J. Yates, who promptly threw a pick-six of his own, finishing the game with two total interceptions.
The following week, Kubiak decided to start second-year passer Case Keenum, a University of Houston alum who threw for 271 yards and a touchdown in his debut effort, averaging 10.8 yards per attempt in a one-point loss to the then-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, effectively claiming the starting role moving forwards. Houston has yet to win with Keenum at the helm, but he is averaging 7.26 yards per attempt to Schaub’s 6.62, and possesses an eight-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio, which helps offset his 55% completion percentage.
Thus far, Keenum has struggled to operate the short passing game, but has been more effective on intermediate and deep routes, with all eight of his touchdown passes coming at those depths. New England must prepare for Keenum to test their deep coverage despite his lack of arm strength, but can take some solace in knowing that he hasn’t been able to dissect opponents in the short passing game, instead favoring his receiving options, most notably Andre Johnson. By employing different pre-snap looks and coverage shells, the Patriots may be able to bait him into committing mistakes. Keenum hasn’t played well under pressure, with his completion percentage dropping to 50% against the blitz, so this may be a game where it’s beneficial to overload some of Houston’s protections, which will also limit the amount of time Keenum’s receivers have to get open on deep passes.
2. Can Ben Tate and Dennis Johnson take advantage of the Patriots’ porous run defense?
In order to undergo a microscopic lumbar discectomy on November 13th, running back Arian Foster was placed on injured reserve just under three weeks ago after an injury-plagued campaign in which he took just nine snaps over his last two games combined, and 334 overall. Foster’s absence has cost the Texans, but despite their losing streak, the team maintains the fourteenth-ranked rushing attack in the league, a testament to the consistency of their coaching staff, including head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, in producing on the ground via the team’s zone-blocking scheme.
Tate has been limited in recent weeks by rib, ankle, and toe injuries, with his production suffering as a result, culminating in a seven-carry, one-yard performance last week against the Jaguars, but the game also marked rookie Dennis Johnson’s breakout game in the league, one in which he rushed for seventy-four yards on thirteen carries, breaking free for a twenty-nine-yard gain and also contributing thirteen yards on two receptions.
The Texans have one of the top centers in the league in Chris Myers, who plays next to a powerful run blocker in right guard Brandon Brooks, part of a unit which also includes left tackle Duane Brown; their offense is currently ranked fourth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle according to Football Outsiders. Knowshon Moreno gashed the Patriots for 224 yards last week, so now that Peyton Manning is out of the picture, this may be a week in which we see the team work nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga into the mix more thoroughly.
3. Will Aqib Talib be able to play his shadow coverage against Andre Johnson?
Drafted third overall in the 2003 NFL Draft, Andre Johnson has generally ranked among the league’s top receivers since entering the league, save for injury-shortened seasons in 2005, 2007, and 2011, but what he’s done so far in 2013 with a revolving door of ineffective quarterbacks has made his eleventh professional campaign one of his most impressive.
At 6’3” and 230 pounds, Johnson is one of the most physically-overwhelming receivers in the league, and has used his combination of strength, leaping ability, and route-running to catch seventy-four passes thus far for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns, bringing in 63.8% of the throws in his direction, a figure which ranks slightly below his typical numbers but is nonetheless an impressive total given the combination of Matt Schaub’s early meltdown and the difficulty of developing chemistry with an inexperienced new quarterback midway through the season.
Stopping Johnson is clearly one of the most important elements of beating the Texans, as all of the team’s games in which he has gained over seventy-five yards have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the exception of the team’s 38-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams. Houston hasn’t come within a touchdown of winning in any other contests aside from their road loss at Arizona in which Johnson gained just thirty-seven yards but caught two touchdowns against All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. Responsibility for defending him this week will fall upon Aqib Talib, who did a good job against another big, physical receiver last week in Broncos top option Demariyus Thomas. Talib was first used in shadow coverage last season against Johnson, limiting him to two catches for seventeen yards before leaving the game prematurely with an injury.
4. Do the Patriots have the personnel to defend against H-Back Garrett Graham?
Despite losing versatile fullback James Casey to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency and starting tight end Owen Daniels in week five to a non-displaced right fibula fracture which has kept him out of action since, the Texans have had some success this season throwing the ball to Garrett Graham, a 2010 fourth-round pick who lacks ideal size, being listed at 6’3” and 243 pounds, but who possesses short-area quickness and has contributed to the team on short passes, particularly those across the middle of the field.
Of Graham’s fifty-nine targets on the season, twenty-four have come on those throws, accounting for fifteen of this thirty-eight receptions on the season. Two weeks ago, Graham enjoyed a 136-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Oakland Raiders in which he caught seven-of-eleven targets, including a forty-two-yard grab, then contributed thirty-two yards last week, catching five-of-eight balls thrown his way. He doesn’t project as much of a factor as a run blocker, but it may be difficult for some of New England’s bigger linebackers to neutralize him in man coverage.
This may be a situation where the Patriots can benefit from the presence of someone like Dane Fletcher in the defense, who has become more prominent in recent weeks, including in a fifty-seven-snap capacity last week, representing a larger total than starters Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins combined. New England’s defense allowed Denver tight end Jacob Tamme to catch all five of his targets for forty-seven yards and a touchdown last week, but none came against Fletcher; rather, rookie strong safety Duron Harmon was the victim on all but a six-yard catch versus Collins.
5. Can New England’s defensive front capitalize on a pair of weak blockers up front?
Although the Texans have historically favored running the ball primarily behind the right tackle in their offense, doing so in each of head coach Gary Kubiak’s first six seasons with the team, Houston’s 2012 campaign marked a departure from that tendency, as the team attempted far more carries off of the left tackle that year. The shift was understandable in the context of the team’s personnel turnover prior to the season, in which the Texans unexpectedly jettisoned Eric Winston, their starting right tackle since the beginning of Kubiak’s tenure, replacing him with Derek Newton, a former seventh-round pick from Arkansas State who at the time was entering his second season in the league, having participated in just eighteen offensive snaps as a rookie in 2011.
Thus far, Newton has been something of a weak link in the offensive line, committing seven penalties throughout 2012 and having already been flagged on thirteen penalties in 2013 (although four were declined or off-setting.) Newton has already allowed more quarterback hits and pressures than he did last season, with an identical four sacks having been surrendered, and Houston’s Adjusted Line Yards on rushing attempts behind the right tackle have dropped from 4.84 in 2012 (second-best in the league) to 3.70 this year (twentieth.) However, Newton has showed some improvement in recent weeks, making the play of left guard Wade Smith a bigger concern.
Smith has been starting for the Texans for the past four years, somehow ending up in the Pro Bowl last season, but at thirty-two years old, he is having a miserable season and should be a serious candidate for replacement this offseason, having allowed a staggering four sacks, eight hits, and twenty-three pressures and not succeeding as a run blocker, either.
6. What will Will Svitek be able to do against All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt?
He hasn’t received the same coverage attention he did last season, likely owing to Houston’s disastrous year overall, but Texans five-technique defensive end J.J. Watt is currently in the midst of another stellar season in which his sack numbers have dropped somewhat, but he is nonetheless constantly disrupting opposing offenses, whether they’re attempting to run or pass the ball, having recorded 9.5 sacks, twenty-five quarterback hits, and twenty-six pressures while also leading the league’s defensive linemen with thirty-seven stops in the run game according to Pro Football Focus.
Watt hit Tom Brady four times in the first Patriots/Texans contest last season, then recorded a sack in Houston’s divisional-round exit at New England, and both of those games came against Sebastian Vollmer, the team’s opening-day starter. Vollmer’s replacement, Marcus Cannon, has not allowed a sack since taking over as the team’s starting right tackle in week eight, playing well against the likes of Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and Panthers end Greg Hardy, but he has already been ruled out with an ankle injury, which means the team will start their third right tackle of the season, Will Svitek.
The Texans move Watt to different positions frequently, but if, as anticipated, Svitek proves unable to handle him in the early going, expect to see Watt lined up at left end for the majority of the game. The Patriots would be wise to consider chipping Watt with tight ends to disrupt his rushes; if Houston’s top player is able to reach Brady early, New England’s passing game may start to sputter. While running the ball in the playoffs last season, the Patriots had success by running stretch plays to the opposite side of the formation.
7. How will the rest of the Patriots’ line fare against Wade Phillips’ aggressive fronts?
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a well-deserved reputation as one of the league’s most aggressive coaches, ranking last in the league in four-man rushes in 2012, but sixth in five-man rushes (pressures) and first in rushes of six or more defenders (blitzes.) Phillips likes to mix in various different looks, including lining up linebackers (particularly outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus) on the line in a three-or-four-point stance, calling for his defensive ends to run stunts and twists, and working in delay blitzes from his linebackers.
Successfully anticipating what Phillips will do on any given play and calling the appropriate protections will be one of quarterback Tom Brady’s most important responsibilities this week. In 2012, Brady was able to do just that, throwing for 296 yards and four touchdowns in New England’s 42-14 victory, and then adding 344 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s 41-28 playoff win, even without the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski (more on that later.) Brady hasn’t been quite as good against the blitz this season as he normally is, in part because of inconsistent receiving options in the early season and in part because of the struggles center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly have had in pass protection, but a performance which resembles either of those should be enough for the Patriots to win.
Recently, the Texans missed ten tackles against the Jaguars, twelve against the Colts, and nine against the Chiefs, potentially creating opportunities for New England to integrate plenty of screen passes for elusive runners such as Julian Edelman, plays which would take advantage of Houston’s aggressive rushes.
8. What impact will Stevan Ridley’s fumble last week have on the rushing rotation?
Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball for the third term in as many games last week against the Broncos, being relegated to the bench after just four carries and five offensive snaps, with LeGarrette Blount stepping in for two carries but leaving the game after fumbling on a helmet-to-helmet hit, with Shane Vereen taking forty-six snaps to Brandon Bolden’s thirty-five the rest of the game. Of the two, Bolden was the more effective runner, scoring a touchdown and gaining fifty-eight yards on thirteen carries, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt, while Vereen contributed thirty-one yards on ten attempts.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Ridley’s move to the bench was a temporary punishment, or whether he has exhausted the patience of the team’s coaching staff with his ball-security issues. However, given that Ridley currently ranks second in the league in Success Rate as measured by Football Outsiders, with a 53% figure on the season which is second only to Pierre Thomas, it makes sense to give him another chance. The Patriots have tried benching Ridley in the past, only for their effectiveness on the ground to suffer, a problem which has consistently been rectified by sending their talented third-year runner back onto the field.
Perhaps Ridley needs to be benched in order to respond, and the Patriots do have some effective alternatives on roster, but over a combined thirty-three carries versus the Texans last season, Ridley gained 154 yards and two touchdowns, adding a thirteen-yard reception as well. It would be a mistake to shackle one of the team’s most explosive weapons to the bench in this contest, especially given his previous success against Houston.
9. Regardless of who’s carrying the ball, can Houston’s defense stop the run?
In their embarrassing 13-6 loss last week at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston prevented Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne from doing too much damage through the air, but were ultimately unable to get back into the game because the Jaguars ran the ball well, with starting running back Maurice Jones-Drew averaging six yards per attempt and gaining a total of 144 yards and one touchdown on twenty touches. On the season, Houston is ranked twenty-second in the league against the run after finishing seventh in the same category last year.
Wade Phillips’ one-gap defense doesn’t really translate to quality run defense in general, but when the Texans were more competitive on offense, the defense wasn’t forced to stop the run as much, defending the fifth-fewest rushing attempts in the league last season. Now that opponents are frequently protecting leads against the Texans, the opposite is true: the team ranks first in the league against the pass after finishing sixteenth a season ago, but have already defended 309 rushing attempts from their opponents.
As mentioned before, left end J.J. Watt is one of the most disruptive run defenders in the league, but teams playing the Texans have been able to ignore him for most of the year, rushing off of their left end (the right end of Houston’s defensive line) for an average of 5.67 Adjusted Line Yards, the second-highest average in the league on those runs. Texans nose tackle Earl Mitchell and right end Antonio Smith aren’t known for their run defense, so the Patriots may be able to produce on the ground without taking Watt into account.
10. Which of their defenders will Houston attempt to cover Rob Gronkowski with?
One of the more interesting aspects of this week’s game is in regards to how the Texans will attempt to cover Rob Gronkowski this week, as the dangerous tight end was missing from the field during last year’s regular-season matchup between these two teams, and exited the playoff contest after just seven snaps, meaning that not much film exists of Gronkowski against Houston. Based on how the Texans have defended other tight ends this season, it seems as though the team mixes up assigned defenders regularly, but favors using a defensive back on opposing tight ends, most commonly strong safety D.J. Swearinger but also including free safety Shiloh Keo, with inside linebackers Joe Mays and Daryl Sharpton occasionally drawing those responsibilities.
None of those defenders are ideal, but Houston has been forced to make do with some of their depth options at linebacker and safety after losing strong safety Danieal Manning to a hyperextended knee in mid-October and star inside linebacker Brian Cushing to a broken leg and torn knee ligament not long afterwards; the team’s decision to sign free safety Ed Reed this past offseason also backfired, with the team having already parted ways with him, ostensibly due to a combination of his poor play and comments regarding the team’s coaching staff. As each of the four most logical possibilities for defending Gronkowski – Swearinger, Keo, Mays, or Sharpton – is under six feet tall, this is an area where Houston may struggle defensively.
Final Prediction: Patriots 35, Texans 17