The Patriots and the Texans will meet Monday night at Gillette Stadium in what some believe will be a preview of the AFC championship game. There are some intriguing matchups on both sides of the ball, and in this edition of “Scout’s Take,” one NFL scout who has watched both the Patriots and the Texans takes a look at some of the points of emphasis for New England heading into Sunday’s game. (Per usual, we have the scout’s statements in italics, with our notes underneath.)
“When it comes to the Patriots’ offense, first and foremost, you have to identify the guys who are threats on the Houston defense, and the first guy you always have to account for is J.J. Watt. He does a great job getting after the quarterback, and is a very active player with a high motor. He has great instincts. He’s a tough, physical, hard-nosed player who goes hard for sixty minutes. He’s a multidimensional player -- usually, when you see a team run a 3-4, the pressure comes from the edge linebackers. But he’s a threat on the line and in the interior. It’s very unique in a 3-4 front.”
The strength of the Houston defense is in its front seven, and it starts with Watt, who has 15.5 sacks and 15 passes defensed (only five players in the league have more PD’s, and all of those players are cornerbacks), an absurd pair of stats that combine to make him one of the most unique defensive threats in the league. One of the reasons Watt has been successful in pass defense is that the Texans have been playing with a lead for much of the season, which allows Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus (five sacks) and defensive end Antonio Smith (also five sacks) to play the pass more than the rush. When it comes to getting after the quarterback, the Texans are ranked third in the AFC in sacks with 36 -- they sacked Tennessee’s Jake Locker six times last Sunday in a win over the Titans. The key for Houston is to make a team one-dimensional, forcing them to pass the ball. Then, as they say in Houston, it’s bulls on parade.
“The other thing with the Texans defense is that their linebackers are very physical -- they can set the edge in the run game, and they also do a good job getting after the quarterback. Their safeties are active, but if there’s a weakness there in terms of how the Patriots might want to attack, it’s their secondary. There could be some soft spots there for the Patriots in terms of areas they might want to attack.”
If there’s vulnerability in the Houston defense, it’s in the secondary -- specifically, at corner. Cornerback Brice McCain fractured his foot during Sunday’s win over the Titans and is lost for the year, while fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph (who has traditionally been matched against the opponents’ best receiver) has been battling a hamstring issue. As good as the Texans are when it comes to getting after the passer, they are strictly middle of the road when it comes to overall pass defense -- Houston yields an average of 235 passing yards per game, 19th in the NFL. (Things have deteriorated to the point where the Texans signed defensive back Stanford Routt off the street on Tuesday.) Most times, Houston has compensated for injuries (or substandard play) in the secondary by dialing up the pass rush. It’s questionable as to whether or not it can do it again on Monday night against the best passing offense it will face all season.
“When you are talking about the Patriots’ defense against Houston, the first thing you have to worry about is stopping the run -- containing Arian Foster. He’s a good scheme fit for what they do, with their zone blocking setup they run. He’s a downhill, one-cut runner who can get very good yards after contact. He’s a very good cutback runner. Teams have to be aware of that -- when it comes to Foster, you have to play the point of attack, but you also have to account for the backside because of the way he runs and the Texans style of blocking, and the scheme they’re running.”
The primary offensive option for the Texans is Foster, the 26-year-old running back out of Tennessee who has rushed for 90-plus yards in eight of the first 12 games this season and is fifth in the league with 1,102 rushing yards on the season on 283 carries. He runs behind the Texans zone-blocking scheme, which dictates that offensive linemen block an area -- not necessarily a man -- and usually with an emphasis on double-teaming a single man. The effect is where Houston wants to operate its running game laterally, using a well-choreographed front to create lanes for the running back, who can then stay to the front side or utilize cut back lanes due to gap vulnerability created by the offensive line. Not many teams use a zone-blocking scheme -- it will be interesting to see how the Patriots prepare for it this week.
“The second thing to me when you’re talking about the Texans is the play-action pass. They’re a heavy play-action team -- that’s a big element of what they do on offense for several reasons, not the least of which is because of the high level of the running game. When they work that play-action, you have to have your linebackers and safeties react, and that creates a lot of open space downfield.”
“In the passing game, you have to ID the threats, and that starts with Andre Johnson. He’s a big play player who, if given the opportunity, can get big chunk yards in the passing game at the drop of a hat. You have to always account for him, and take him off the field, whether it’s short, intermediate or deep. You always have to keep an eye on Kevin Walter, as well as tight end Owen Daniels, who is ideally suited for their passing game because once the play-action gets established and he becomes involved, you have him matched up in single coverage a lot of times on linebackers, and that’s a winnable matchup for the Texans.”
The fact that Houston has attempted more running plays than anyone in the league (413 -- the Patriots are second at 401) and still have some quality targets in the passing game opens up play-action, and few teams are more reliant on their play-action scheme than the Texans. Houston not only uses standard play-action, but will frequently augment that with a bootleg so that quarterback Schaub is throwing on the run, rolling out in the same direction as his intended target. When executed properly, it can be a difficult play to defend: Lions’ coach Jim Schwartz told reporters after the Houston-Detroit game, “The only way to really stop it is to play tight man-to-man coverage, and that opens up a lot of other cans of worms. It’s a zone-defense killer. It’s a lot like a 3-pointer against a packed zone in basketball.” Johnson (74 catches, 114 targets, 1,114 yards, three TDs), Daniels (50 catches, 82 targets, 598 yards, six TDs) and Walter (35 catches, 55 targets, 444 yards, two TDs) are the three key elements in the Texans’ passing attack.