|Limiting JJ Watt's destructive plays will be key for the Pats tonight. Photo via the Houston Chronicle|
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. This week, the Patriots find themselves in an unfamiliar position: trying to avoid losing their third consecutive game for the first time since 2002. They do find themselves facing a familiar foe, as the Texans are loaded with prominent former Patriots. The Texans are also an interesting matchup for this particular time in the Patriots season, as their powerful JJ Watt-led defensive line figures to be tough on a struggling Patriots offensive line. Without further ado, here's a closer look at this week's matchups.
It's been a struggle at times for this unit, which currently ranks 22nd in the league in scoring (21.1 points per game). The plan going into the season was for this team to once again be fueled by it's running game, but that simply hasn't happened. A preseason groin injury to star halfback Arian Foster didn't help matters, but the Texans have struggled to generate consistent production on the ground all season, even during the brief period Foster was healthy. Instead they've surprisingly leaned heavily on Brian Hoyer and the passing game, as only two teams (one being the Patriots) have topped their 500 passing attempts this season.
That would have been considered a recipe for disaster by most going into the season, but Tom Brady's former backup has responded with a solid season. He's guided the team to a winning record in his seven starts (Ryan Mallett was 1-3), completing 61.2% of his passes for 2,202 yards, 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. As he showed during his time in New England, Hoyer is a cerebral player who knows his limitations and does a good job of taking what the defense gives him. He doesn't have the arm to make the "wow" throws, but his low interception rate shows how well he's done at not forcing the issue.
|Hopkins routinely makes spectacular catches look effortless|
Hopkins is complimented by a pair of veterans in Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts. Despite his age (32), Washington remains a deep threat capable of taking the top off a defense. His field stretching role has resulted in a low catch percentage (39 receptions on 76 targets) but high yardage totals (543 yards, 13.9 per reception), along with three touchdown catches. The slot is typically occupied by Shorts, who is less of a big play threat but more dynamic after the catch. Shorts is coming off of his most productive game of the season (six catches for 91 yards against Buffalo, but he's listed as questionable this week with a balky hamstring. If he can't go, his role will likely be filled by rookie Keith Mumphery, whose primary contributions have been in the return game. Mumphery has struggled when he's seen the field, catching less than 50% of his targets while committing three fumbles, but he's still been ahead of fellow rookie Jaelen Strong, who has hardly even seen the field.
The gap between Hopkins and the rest of this group is more than sizable enough to justify shadowing him with number one corner Malcolm Butler. It's an interesting matchup for Butler, whose fluid athleticism makes him a pure cover corner capable of hanging in there against some of the league's best route runners (Odell Beckham Jr, Antonio Brown). However, size can give Butler trouble at times (Erik Decker was able to overpower him a few times) and Hopkins is an interesting hybrid of both types of receiver.
As Bill Belichick said earlier in the week, the key to defending Hopkins will be taking away any easy plays from him. Hopkins is more than capable of making the spectacular catch against good coverage. With the Texans being as dependent as they are on Hopkins for production, I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots use bracket coverage against him, with safety over the top to make it even more difficult to force the ball to him. Belichick always schemes to take away the opponent's strength, and Hopkins is undeniably the strength of this offense.
Fortunately for the Patriots, their underrated secondary should be able to handle the rest of the Texans receiving options, making it easier to devote extra resources towards limiting Hopkins. Logan Ryan typically takes on the bigger, more physical of the opponent's receivers, and thus will likely spend the bulk of his time on the 6'1", 183 pound Washington. If Justin Coleman makes his return after missing the past three games with a hand injury, he'll likely take over his former role as the slot corner. If not, Patrick Chung could continue to play in that role, although the newly signed Leonard Johnson also has extensive pro experience playing in the slot and could get worked into the mix.
|Griffin has added another threat to the Texans passing game|
The Texans other tight end, CJ Fiedorowicz, was mocked as a potential Patriot by many during the buildup to the 2014 draft. He's developed into a rock-solid blocker, but brings very little as a pass catching threat. He's caught the vast majority of his (admittedly limited) targets, but for minimal yardage, as his lack of dynamic athleticism prevents him from being a coverage mismatch.
While Hoyer's aversion to taking risks generally serves him well, he can occasionally be pressed into mistakes when put under pressure. Fortunately for the Texans, their offensive line has been solid in protection this year. The leader of the line is left tackle Duane Brown, who has continued to be one of the league's best in pass protection despite playing through injuries most of the year. They're also expected to get a boost this week from the return of guard Brandon Brooks, who missed last week's loss after coming down with an undisclosed illness. Brooks currently holds the eight highest pass protection grade amongst guards on ProFootballFocus. The Texans also get steady, reliable play from center Ben Jones.
However, right tackle Derek Newton is currently listed as questionable with knee and elbow injuries, and his availability will be key to the Texans ability to protect Hoyer. Newton is currently PFF's 25th highest graded tackle, placing him in the top 10 amongst right tackles. If he can't go, he'll be replaced with Chris Clark, whose been a solid run blocker but a turnstyle in pass protection. If Clark is in the lineup, look for the Patriots to attack him by moving their deep group of pass rushers around, with both Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard being capable of abusing him. The other starter on the line is 2014 high second round pick Xavier Sua-Filo, who like Clark has been a hard-nosed run blocker but a poor blocker in protection. If Dominique Easley is a go (he missed last week with an ankle injury), he'll have a mismatch to attack in Sua-Filo. If Easley doesn't play, the Pats will likely rotated Jones and Sheard inside at times to get all three of their top pass rusher (Rob Ninkovich being the other) on the field at the same time, likely attacking Sua-Filo as the interior group's weak link in protection.
While the Texans line is solid in protection when healthy, they haven't been a particularly good run blocking unit. That's combined with a pedestrian group of backs to form a rushing attack that's averaged a dismal 3.5 yards per carry (only three times have been worse). Since Foster hit the injured reserve list, they've gone with a back-by-committee approach. Alfred Blue leads the team with 127 carries, but he's matched the team's plodding 3.5 ypc average. The other backs in the rotation are Chris Polk, who had the hot hand last week with 12 carries for a season high 61 yards, and Jonathan Grimes, whose contributions have come primarily in the passing game. None of those three offer much in the way of a dynamic threat, although Polk's hard-nosed running style consistently gets the most of his blocking. The bottom line: if the Pats can't stop these guys from running on them, it's time to hit the panic button on this run defense.
The Texans many connections to New England are well documented, one parallel that's flown under the radar has been their embrace of the hurry-up offense. The Patriots come into the game as the team known nationally for using an uptempo offense, but it's actually the Texans who lead the league in offensive snaps played with 864 (the Patriots rank sixth with 814). I could see the Patriots rotating their defensive lineman even more liberally than they have the past few games as a counter to this strategy, ensuring that their bigs all stay fresh throughout the game.
This is where this game gets scary from a New England perspective. We've all seen the Patriots offense noticeably decline over the past month, as injuries to Brady's offensive weapons have combined with a leaky offensive line to limit Brady's options. The Texans defense was hyped as a potential top unit going into the season, and has recovered from some early season struggles to hit it's stride over the past few weeks.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about the Texans without mentioning JJ Watt, who earned the rarest of compliments from Belichick this week when the Patriots coach put him on the same level as Lawrence Taylor. Such praise is well-deserved, as Watt continues to be the most dominant defensive force in football, racking up 13.5 sacks already in addition to countless stops against the run. His unprecedented production becomes even more impressive when you factor in just how much teams attempt to scheme around him, be it by running to the opposite side of the formation or by double or even triple teaming him in protection.
The Patriots will have to do something scheme-wise to limit Watt's ability to single-handedly stifle their offense, as he's a terrifying one-on-one matchup for any of their struggling linemen right now. With their most consistent guard, Josh Kline, ruled out with a shoulder injury, that already terrifying matchup becomes even more difficult to overcome. If I was a betting man, I'd expect the Pats to slide rookie Shaq Mason into Kline's left guard spot, with fellow rookie Tre Jackson manning the other side. Mason has struggled in pass protection all season, making him an obvious target for Watt, who the Texans move all over the defensive formation. If Mason fails to hold up, the Pats could also put rookie center David Andrews back into the mix, with Bryan Stork sliding over to guard. Watt has also spent more time than ever as an edge rusher, where he poses a major threat given how poorly Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer have played recently.
|Clowney's stats don't do justice to how well he's played|
The other edge is typically occupied by Whitney Mercilus, the team's first round pick from 2012. Mercilus has never put up the kind of dynamic production expected from a first round pick but, like Clowney, he's a case in which the stats don't paint the most accurate picture. It took a few years for Mercilus to get fully comfortable as a 3-4 outside linebacker after spending most of his snaps rushing the edge in college, but he's developed into a versatile all-around player who has shaken the "bust" label with his play this season. With 6.5 sacks already, he's rapidly closing in on his career high of 7, and could easily break that mark if the Pats offensive line doesn't show major improvement this week.
Both Clowney and Mercilus are capable of moving inside on passing downs to try to use their quickness advantage against guards. Again, that's another reason to lament the loss of Kline, as Shaq Mason is susceptible to pass rushers with advanced technique, while Jackson can struggle at times with speed. When one of the edge guys does move inside, it normally means that John Simon is coming into the game as an extra pass rusher. Simon lacks the dynamic upside of those aforementioned two, but he's been competitive in that role, with 3.5 sacks to his name this season.
Establishing the running game would be one way to slow down this pass rush, but that could be easier said than done for a Pats team that has struggled all season to get movement on the ground. The running game showed some signs of life last week (albeit against an Eagles team that has struggled to stop rushing attacks), but it was underutilized even before the score forced them to abandon it early. As for the Texans, they've been a bit of a Jekkyl-and-Hyde run defense. One of the league's worst against the run during their rough start to the season, they transformed into a top unit during the four game win streak that propelled them back into the playoff picture. During that stretch, they held opponents to just 70 rushing yards per game (3.68 yards per carry). However, they got shredded for 187 rushing yards by the Bills potent ground game in last week's damaging loss.
Of course, a big factor in the Texans run defense is old friend Vince Wilfork. Vince isn't quite the player he was a couple of seasons ago, but he's still a big, physical force who requires double teams against the run. His size and power will make him a tough matchup for a Patriots line that's built more on speed and agility than pure bulk and muscle. Getting movement on Vince will be key towards establishing any kind of rushing threat.
Getting blockers to the second level will be key as well, as the Texans base features two physical, active linebackers in Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney. Injuries have taken away some of Cushing's effectiveness in coverage, but he remains a physical presence in the run game who plays with unmistakable passion and energy. The team traded up to ensure they landed McKinney in the second round of this spring's draft, and the rookie has rewarded them with a solid inaugural season. He came advertised as a downhill thumper against the run and has done that well, but his work in pass coverage has been a pleasant surprise for them.
|Despite last week's struggles, Johnson has had a good rookie year|
Johnson ascended into the starting lineup due to a sprained ankle to Kareem Jackson, who missed six weeks int he middle of the season before returning to play in the past two games. A former first round pick, Jackson has been a productive starter in the past, but the rookie Johnson's superior play this season will likely keep him in a nickel role for now. The team's top corner is undeniably Joseph, who is quietly having one of the best season's of his excellent career at age 31. Another former first round pick, Joseph currently has the fourth highest coverage grade of all cornerbacks on PFF.
With this capable group of corners going against an undermanned group of receivers, the onus will be on Josh McDaniels to scheme up some openings for Brady's guys. I wouldn't be surprised to see them use an approach similar to the game-plan from the Denver game, when they largely avoided Denver's stud corners and instead attacked their linebackers and safeties in space. McKinney has surprised with his range in coverage, but Cushing has lost a step and neither Clowney nor Mercilus are the most natural when the scheme calls for them to drop into zone. At safety, veteran Quintin Demps is having a solid if unspectacular season, but an injury to free agent pickup Rahim Moore has forced Andre Hal, a seventh round pick from 2014, into a starting role.
The matchups are certainly better against these guys than they are on the outside, and attacking the linebackers could mean more opportunities for James White to develop the chemistry he showed with Brady late in the Eagles game. White's certainly not as dynamic as Dion Lewis, but his natural receiving ability makes him one of the last mismatches standing on offense. His ability to win those one-on-one matchups against linebackers could be key on Sunday, and his open-field skills in the screen game could become an important counter to the Texans pass rush.
Attacking the middle of the field would also mean another game with a lot of targets for the tight ends. The original draft of this post figured that would mean a heavy workload for Scott Chandler, but today's surprising news that Gronk is expected to play changes things dramatically. Even if Gronk isn't as explosive as normal coming off of his sprained/bruised knee, his mere presence should do wonders for the offense. Simply sending Gronk up the seam is guaranteed to attract multiple defenders, which should open up the shallow zones where Brady typically excels. It won't be surprising at all if the same group of receivers who struggled to get open last week against Philadelphia suddenly look much better with Gronk on the field to divert attention from the defense.
The Patriots special teams have been a strength all season long, but they'll be under the microscope this week after uncharacteristic lapses led to several pivotal plays in last week's loss to the Eagles. Fortunately for them, they'll have the chance to rebound against a group that's been far less dynamic than the Philly unit that embarrassed them last Sunday.
The Texans return game rests in the hands of rookie Keith Mumphery, who has been steady but hardly a game breaker so far this season. His unspectacular averages of 7.7 yards per punt return and 24.1 yards per kick return paint an accurate picture of a return man who can take advantage of solid blocking but lacks the dynamic ability to create momentum shifting plays. His ball security is certainly something to target, as he's committed three fumbles in only 57 total touches this year.
However, it's been the Texans coverage units that have brought their special teams down. They've allowed opponents to average 9.7 yards per punt return and 25.2 yards per kick return, which has resulted in opponents starting their average drive in good field position from the 28 yard line. The Pats return game has been strong all year long, and giving their offense a short field to work with could be key against a defense that will make it hard to sustain long drives against.
The rest of the Texans special teams are solid. Veteran punter Shane Lechler remains as reliable as ever in his 16th season, and place kicker Nick Novak's only missed field goal this season came from beyond 50 yards. Novak has curiously missed two extra points this year, however.
It's a fascinating matchup this week, as Belichick will be looking across the field at a sidelined littered with guys who played major roles in his unprecedented reign of success in New England. The New England connections go far beyond head coach Bill O'Brien, as both coordinators (George Godsey, offense and Romeo Crennel, defense) did a tour of duty in Foxborough. Crennel, of course, was Belichick's defensive coordinator when the Pats won three Super Bowls in four years, and current Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was a standout on the Patriots defense for nearly a decade.
Those storylines are fun, but they'll play little to no bearing on tonight's outcome. The more important questions are whether O'Brien can get his Texans to rebound from last week's disappointing loss. If the Texans defense can play at the level they were playing during their four game win streak, they can beat anyone (yes, including a Patriots team with Gronk).
However, the Texans find themselves facing some daunting odds. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find the last time the Patriots lost three consecutive games. For context, I was in the eighth grade at the time (I'm currently 26 and four NFL seasons removed from college). This is a Patriots team that needs a win to stop the bleeding and keep the likes of Cincinnati and Denver at bay as they fight for a precious bye week in the playoffs. It's also a team that was likely galvanized by the return of stars like Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to practice this week. These Texans are not to be overlooked, but it will still be a major surprise if the Pats don't get things done tonight.