Each week going forward, we’re going to look at some of the commonly held misconceptions regarding the upcoming Patriots game. This week, we take a look at the five myths surrounding New England’s Monday night matchup with the Texans at Gillette Stadium.
•Brandon Spikes is a two-down linebacker who can’t play vs. the pass.
The third-year linebacker has really managed to come into his own this season -- it’s not a complete coincidence that one of the reasons he’s played so well is that he’s been consistent healthy since the start of the year. Already considered one of the best young thumpers in the game, his greatest gains this year have come in pass coverage.
Midway through the 2011 season, he was something of a liability when it came to pass defense -- when it came to nickel coverage, he was routinely rotated out in favor of an extra defensive back or a faster linebacker. But the improvements started late last season, and by the time the Super Bowl came around, assistant coach Pepper Johnson was openly wondering (alberit tongue-in-cheek) why Spikes wasn’t on the field on a consistent basis on third down and other passing situations.
And after some rough patches where we was exposed at times earlier in the season, it’s clear that Spikes has been more than competitive while on the field as a pass defender -- he’s actually third on the team in passes defensed with 7 (trailing only defensive backs Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington). He's never going to be confused with Darrelle Revis, but he's improved to the point where he deserves to be on the field on passing downs more and more. You could make an argument that he sees more passes come his way because opposing offenses see him as a liability in coverage, but regardless, the idea that Spikes now has more PD’s than Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Ras-I Dowling combined should tell you all you need to know about how far he’s come.
•The Patriots need to get into a shootout if they want to win.
New England beat the Dolphins on Sunday, 23-16, with only two offensive touchdowns to show for it. It was the fewest number of points the Patriots had scored in a win this season, and it marked the second-fewest number of points and touchdowns they had scored all season. (New England managed 18 -- with just one touchdown -- in a Sept. 16 loss to the Cardinals.)
For all the talk about this team setting all sorts of offensive records, Sunday was evidence that they can grind it out with the best of them, with the highlight coming in the fourth quarter when they bullied the Dolphins. Against one of the best run defenses in the league, the Patriots were able to assemble a 16-play drive that featured 12 running plays, moving the chains on a soul-crushing sequence that may have been its best offensive series of the year.
In addition, while it wasn’t able to force a ton of turnovers (more on that later), the defense and special teams made several timely plays at the right times, including a fourth-quarter sack by Jerod Mayo that forced Miami to settle for the field goal. The Patriots also took advantage of two key special teams errors by the Dolphins (a botched punt that gave the New England offense a short field and an ill-timed penalty on a punt that returned the ball to the Patriots).
•The Patriots don’t blitz.
Whether it’s the fact that they fancy themselves a game-plan defense (and that it’s been more advantageous to bring more rushers over the last few weeks), the fact that there’s more confidence in the secondary and their coverage skills, or they are trying out some different looks when it comes to creating pressure, but New England has appeared to increase its’ blitzing frequency over the last few games. We checked the numbers with two different statistical sources:
•Pro Football Focus says the Patriots have blitzed more often over the last three games -- 32.7 percent of the passing plays against Indy (second-most on the season), 27.5 percent against the Jets and 25 percent of the time against the Dolphins. That’s the first time this year they have blitzed on more than 25 percent of the passing plays over three straight games, per PFF. (By way of comparison, New England blitzed the most against the Seahawks at 41.2 percent, while they blitzed the least against the Ravens -- 6.4 percent.)
•Per ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots have steadily increased the number of rushers on any pass attempt, sack or quarterback scramble since the start of the season. In September, they sent five or more rushers on 12 percent of those plays. In October, that figure rose to 18.5 percent. In November, it moved to 22.3 percent.
Two big blitz moments stood out last week against the Dolphins. On one occasion, the Patriots sent defensive back Kyle Arrington off the corner, and he was able to get to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill as he threw. And late in the game, Mayo came on a delayed blitz up the middle, which led to a sack. The second play was a huge play, as if forced the Dolphins to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
(One other reason for the possible increase in blitzes? The fact that defensive end Chandler Jones has been on the shelf for the better part of the last three weeks. The rookie, who suffered an ankle injury in the Week 11 win over the Colts, was the Patriots leading pass rusher to that point in the season, and the fact that he was on the sidelines forced New England to try and get creative when it came to getting pressure on the quarterback.)
•The Patriots will dominate the Texans because that’s how they roll at home in December.
New England comes into Monday night’s game with a 20-1 mark at home in the month of December. (Try and come up with the team and the year before scrolling to the end of this segment.) But the Texans are the best road team to come into Gillette in December. Ever, and it’s not even close. Going all the way back to when the place opened up in 2002, there’s never been a visiting team with a better record than 11-1 Houston.
Houston has gone 11-4 on the road (including the 2011 playoff loss to the Ravens in Baltimore) dating back to the start of the 2011 season, and has won in all sorts of circumstances and environments. Despite the fact they’re relatively young, they’ve proven to be more than mentally tough enough to go into a hostile setting, and don’t figure to be intimidated by their surroundings on Monday night.
For the record, there were three teams who were almost as good as the Texans record-wise, and two of them made it as far as their conference championship game:
•There was the 2010 Jets’ team, which entered their Dec. 6 game against New England with a 9-3 mark, but was curb-stomped on the way to a 45-3 defeat at the hands of the Patriots. (They reached the AFC title game.)
•Later that same month, New England barely escaped with a 31-27 win over a Green Bay team on Dec. 19. The Packers were only 8-5 coming into the game, but that would be its last loss of the season, as Green Bay would go on to win the Super Bowl.
•And in 2007, the Steelers entered their Dec. 9 game against New England in Foxboro with a 9-4 mark. One blown guarantee from a rookie defensive back later, they left town with a 34-13 loss.
(For what it’s worth, the 2008 Steelers nearly bucked the trend. They came into Foxboro on Nov. 30 of that season and absolutely crushed New England, 33-10, in one of the more dominant late-season performances by any visiting team in Gillette Stadium history. The one team that did win in Foxboro in December were the 2002 Jets, who came into Gillette Stadium and won a Sunday night game on the strength of a terrific performance from Chad Pennington, who was 23-for-33 for 285 yards and three touchdowns.)
•The Patriots’ defense needs to force a bunch of turnovers to thrive.
Likewise, the New England defense was able to come away with just one turnover on Sunday against the Dolphins. It marked just the fourth time all year that the Patriots did not finish the game with at least one interception (defensive end Trevor Scott forced one fumble, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork) and just the second time all season New England had just one takeaway (the other one coming in a September loss to Baltimore).
Considering the fact that the Houston are almost as stingy as the Patriots when it comes to protecting the ball (the Texans are +14 when it comes to takeaways), expect it to be another slow week when it comes to forcing fumbles and interceptions. The one area of weakness when it comes to ball security is likely quarterback Matt Schaub, who has thrown nine interceptions on the season. (Backup T.J. Yates has thrown one.) It’s not much, but Houston does a good job in every other area when it comes to protecting the football.