Week 13 Scouting Report: Houston Texans

The Patriots rose to the occasion with a stunning comeback victory last week against Peyton Manning's Broncos. Now they'll have to avoid a let down against a Houston team that is much more talented than their 2-9 record suggests. Here's a look at the matchups that could determine this game.

When Houston has the ball:

Houston's offense has been tough to evaluate this season because they've been unable to stop shooting themselves in the foot. They've racked up a respectable 363 yards per game, a figure that that ranks 11th in the NFL, but a -12 turnover differential starts to explain how those yards have only translated to 18.1 points per game.

Of course, much of those struggles came during the unholy reign of Matt Schaub, whose well-publicized month-long pick-six-fest was the beginning of the end for the Texans playoff chances. Schaub has since been benched in favor of undrafted rookie Case Keenum, who had put a spark into Houston's offense until last week's offensive implosion against Jacksonville.

Keenum presents an interesting challenge for a defense. He's very mobile and has a Romo-esque (and that's meant as a compliment) knack for keeping the play alive and improvising for big plays. Keenum has thrown downfield much more often than Schaub did, adding a big play dynamic to Houston's typically run heavy, play-action based offense.

The result has been an uptick in Andre Johnson's usage, who has shown no signs of slowing down in his 11th season. All five of his touchdowns have come with Keenum under center, including a 9 catch, 229 yard, 3 touchdown performance against Indy. The normally soft-spoken Johnson has recently expressed frustration to the press about the situation in Houston, but he hasn't let it affect his play on the field. Johnson remains a big, physical receiver with phenomenal hands and deep speed and his numbers (74 catches, 1,002 yards and 5 touchdowns) are once again near the top in the league.

Assuming his injured hip cooperates, Aqib Talib will draw the assignment of checking Johnson. It's a familiar opponent, as Talib covered Johnson during both of the Patriots wins over Houston last year. Strangely enough, Johnson posted identical 8 catch, 95 yard statlines in both games. Johnson made his share of plays both nights, but Talib did a good job of preventing big plays (only 11.9 yards a catch) and kept him out of the end zone. The Patriots would surely take a similar outcome this time, as Johnson is easily the Texans biggest offensive threat.

The Texans top secondary targets are tight end Garrett Graham and receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Graham has stepped up in the absence of Pro Bowler Owen Daniels and been productive working the middle of the field against opposing linebackers and safeties. The Patriots linebackers haven't exactly stood out in coverage this year and struggled to deal with the Broncos Jacob Tamme last week. They'll need to do better to prevent Graham from keeping the chains moving as a safety valve for Keenum this week.

Hopkins has been a bit inconsistent so far in his rookie year, but he has flashed the talent that made him a first round pick this past April. Hopkins is 6'1, 218 lbs but plays bigger, as he's displayed the ability to go up and get the ball over defenders. It will likely be up to either Logan Ryan or Kyle Arrington to make sure the talented rookie doesn't breakout with some big plays this week.

Fortunately for the Patriots, there's a sharp drop off after those top three targets. The rest of the Texans receiving depth consists of unproven prospects like LeStar Jean, Devier Posey and Keshawn Martin. If the Pats can keep the Texans stars from beating them, they should be in good shape.

Keenum struggled last week under heavy pressure, but his mobility will make pressuring him a tricky proposition. The Patriots haven't done the greatest job defending mobile quarterbacks this year and will likely scheme to try to prevent Keenum from escaping the pocket and improvising. Houston's offensive line is a mixed bag: LT Duane Brown and C Chris Myers are amongst the best in the business, but other linemen, particularly RT Derek Newton, have struggled. Rob Ninkovich will likely see a lot of Newton and should be expected to make plays against that mismatch.

Houston's offense is largely built around its zone-based running game, but injuries have taken a big toll on the Houston backfield. Arian Foster is out for the rest of the season, leaving Ben Tate to tough it out through four cracked ribs. Tate was extremely ineffective last week, leading to backup Dennis Johnson cutting into his carries.

The Patriots run defense isn't quite as bad as Denver made them look (the Patriots played the entire game in nickel packages), but they've struggled for most of the season with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly up front. The base defense will likely see more time this week against Houston's run heavy attack, meaning Brandon Spikes could be a big factor in this game. The base defense did a good job shutting down the run (at least the running backs) of Carolina two weeks ago; they'll look to build on that performance this week against the Texan's famed zone blocking scheme.

When the Patriots have the ball:

It's all on the offensive line this week. Houston's injury-ravaged defense has holes, particularly in the secondary, but they still have a defensive line that can wreck a gameplan. If the Patriots offensive line can protect Tom Brady, the offense should feast. If not, well, we've all seen what happens when Brady can't get comfortable in the pocket.

Everything starts and ends on the Houston defense with JJ Watt, who is arguably the best player in all of football. Watt's statistics aren't quite at the unthinkable levels they reached last season, but he's still having a monster season. There are stretches where he simply looks unblockable, using his rare combination of strength, length and explosiveness to power through whoever dares to get in his way. Houston has had Watt line up all over the defensive front this season, allowing him to tee off on the opponents weakest lineman.

Watt is especially concerning considering the inconsistency of the Patriots interior line. Center Ryan Wendell has never been particularly good in pass protection, while guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins have had off years so far in the passing game. There are issues on the outside as well, as Marcus Canon's injury leaves the Pats down to third-string right tackle Will Svitek. Svitek does have starting experience from his days in Atlanta, but he has barely played this season. The Patriots are also frighteningly thin at tackle should something happen to Svitek and/or Nate Solder, who will look to bounce back after a tough night against Von Miller.

After Watt, there's a bit of a drop off in pass rushers on this Houston D. DE Antonio Smith has 5 sacks and OLB Whitney Mercilus (what a name) has 5.5, but neither have really lit the world on fire this year. Brooks Reed has been quiet as well, with only 1 sack and 30 tackles to his name.

Season ending injuries to LB Brian Cushing and S Danieal Manning have gutted the back end of Houston's defense. Their absences could be especially felt this week, as they likely would be two of the main guys tasked with checking Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen, the Patriots two most important playmakers. Additionally, Houston's depth could be tested even more this week, as Cushing's replacement, Daryl Sharpton, is questionable with a back injury. Starting cornerback Kareem Jackson is also questionable due to his ribs, meaning the already gutted defense could have the likes of Brice McCain and Brandon Harris trying to check the Patriots deep and finally healthy collection of weapons.

Essentially, there should be mismatches all over the field for Tom Brady to exploit. With a secondary starting two rookies at safety, that could prove disastrous for Houston. Once again, it points to Houston's need to win the line of scrimmage defensively, just to have a chance to disrupt Brady's rhythm.

The Patriots also should be able to run the ball, regardless of whether Stevan Ridley gets a chance at redemption this week. Houston has allowed opponents to gain a healthy 4.2 yards per carry this season, and the Patriots have been a strong running team all year regardless of who gets the carries. With Brady's passing offense stretching defenses out and forcing favorable looks, the running game should be able to churn out solid production to complement Brady's aerial assault.

Special Teams

The one weak spot for the Patriots during their two wins over Houston last season were the special teams play. It should be motivation for a unit looking to build off of the positive momentum generated by last week's game winning turnover from the punt team. Houston's Keshawn Martin is dangerous returning both punts (he's already taken one 87 yards to the house this year) and kickoffs, so the coverage teams will have to bring their "A" game this week.

Another thing to watch will be the Patriots kick return game. Josh Boyce was back deep two weeks ago against Carolina but didn't get a chance to return one. He was inactive last week, as injuries in the secondary prompted CB Justin Green's one game promotion to the active roster. If he is active this week, look for him to get a chance to use his speed to ignite a kick return game that has been sluggish all year. The position is there for the taking and offers Boyce a change to make some kind of contribution in what's been an extremely quiet rookie year for him.


Bill Belichick is undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer. Gary Kubiak will see the Texans fanbase riot if he retains his job another year. It's a big mismatch here.

However, Sunday's game will mark Kubiak's first return to the sideline since suffering a mini-stroke at halftime of the Texans Week 9 loss to Indianapolis. That could give the Texans some extra motivation to "win one for Kubiak", although it doesn't sound like Andre Johnson is particularly interested with trying to save this guy's job.


The Texans are one of the few teams in the league that can actually complain about the injuries in front of the Patriots with a straight face. A quick glance at Houston's IR reveals key contributors such as Brian Cushing, Arian Foster, Owen Daniels and Danieal Manning, while starters Wade Smith, Daryl Sharpton and Kareem Jackson are all questionable for Sunday.

Of course, the Texans lack of depth has been exposed in the team's 9 game losing streak. The Patriots have suffered similar losses, with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sebastien Vollmer out for the year, Alfonzo Dennard, Aaron Dobson and Michael Hoomanawanui already ruled out for Sunday, and Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola and Aqib Talib missing significant time throughout the season. The Patriots, miraculously, have survived all of that to stand at 8-3 and the AFC's second seed.

Matchup Intangibles

At this point, some are wondering if the Patriots themselves are directly responsible for Houston's downfall. Remember, last year the 11-1 Texans came into Gillette Stadium for a Monday Night showdown wearing High School letter jackets. The Patriots promptly came out and made them look like a high school team, winning 42-14. The Texans have gone 4-12 since that Week 14 matchup, with a 41-28 playoff loss to the Patriots included in that slump.

Amusingly enough, the Texans deemed this game to be "Homecoming" when the schedule was released this summer. Clearly they didn't expect to be much closer to the number one overall pick than the playoffs this season.

However, the Texans haven't been nearly as bad as their record states. 6 of Houston's 9 losses have been by a touchdown or less, including three point losses to Seattle (in OT), Indy and Arizona and a 1 point loss to Kansas City.

From a Patriots perspective, this game has additional importance because it is on the road. The Patriots have dropped three consecutive road games, dropping their road record to 2-3 (the Pats are a perfect 6-0 at home). Stopping that streak and getting some positive momentum going at home will be big for the Pats, even if it comes against a two-win team.