The New England Patriots are traveling to take on the Houston Texans on Sunday Night Football. While the Patriots North are seeing players finally return to the practice field, it's unlikely that the offense will be in full operation when they take on Patriots South.
Will the Patriots be able to finally shake their losing streak? Or is Houston catching the Patriots at the best/worst possible time? We watched the tape to find out.
When the Texans run the ball
Houston loves running behind the left side of their line behind left tackle Duane Brown and left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. The Texans use three main running backs in Afred Blue, Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes. Blue is their bellcow, while Grimes is a viable target out of the backfield.
The Texans run the ball in multiple different styles. They can run power up the middle, but they also feature stretch zone runs in a similar fashion to the Broncos and Eagles that gave the Patriots fits. They feature a similar trips unch package as the Patriots past two opponents and catch the defense in traffic to open up rushing lanes for the backs.
What makes Houston so difficult to defend is how their backs never give up on a play. They lower their shoulders and are extremely difficult to take down.
The Patriots defensive tackles are going to be active, especially Malcom Brown and Alan Branch as the Patriots can't let the Texans running game get into a groove. Edge defender Chandler Jones is going to have to be at top form to protect his side of the defense as the Texans left tackle Brown is Houston's version of Matt Light- doesn't stand out, but is extremely consistent every single week.
When the Texans pass the ball
Houston utilizes their three receiver sets with DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts III, and Nate Washington. Tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin are involved in a lesser capacity. Hopkins is involved on every snap, while the other four players rotate around the final three skill positions available (there is a running back on nearly every snap).
Hopkins is extremely talented and his catch radius is one of the best in the league- think the Giants Odell Beckham Jr. The Texans really like to put Hopkins in isolation on one side of the formation, while deploying their trips formation on the other side, to try and put Hopkins in single coverage. The Patriots will have to ensure that Hopkins doesn't ever get open field in front of him, or else he'll make the defense pay.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer does a good job of limiting mistakes and protecting the football. He's extremely comfortable making five-yard passes to set up short downs, and he's also willing to take huge shots down the field, although his accuracy is suspect.
Hoyer's favorite combination is setting up an intermediate crosser behind zone linebackers, where a tight end or wide receiver starts on the right side of the formation, but crosses deep behind the defensive zone and catches the ball on the left sideline.
The Patriots should put Malcolm Butler in coverage of Hopkins with safety help, whether it's Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon, while Logan Ryan should be able to defend either Washington or Shorts well enough. Patrick Chung will be more-than-capable of stopping the Texans tight ends. The big concern is whether or not the Patriots have a third defensive back to cover the three-receiver sets. This could be another Tavon Wilson game.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Texans are very good tacklers when they get to square up the ballcarrier, but they look slightly more vulnerable if the runner can get to the edge. The sideline speed of the linebackers isn't great, but the Patriots don't really have running backs with the ability to take advantage of this flaw. Look for the Patriots to feature Damaris Johnson on an end-around, or two, for similar effect.
Gotta go after the Texans on the edge. pic.twitter.com/kjXW2tEsqS— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 11, 2015
Teams are still able to run up the middle against big Vince Wilfork and J.J. Watt, but the big plays are all around the edge. LeGarrette Blount can be penciled in for a 15-carry day for 50 or so yards, but the Patriots should instead use swing passes to James White out of the backfield as an extension of the rushing game to spread out the Texans defense away from the middle of the field. Of the Texans past four opponents, the Saints and the Bengals had success throwing to their running backs, while the Jets and Bills avoided throwing in their backfield.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Patriots should be able to play their own offense and put up their standard 25+ points on the day. Houston has three very capable cornerbacks in veteran Jonathan Joseph, big-contract player Kareem Jackson, and rookie Kevin Johnson. All three can cover all different types of receivers, so the Patriots will have to be creative in generating their separation.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola should be slightly healthier than last week, and receivers Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin, tight end Scott Chandler, and running back James White should round out the Patriots receiving game. New England can't afford for quarterback Tom Brady to be the team's 5th leading receiver this week.
The challenge the Texans present is their ability to rush three with Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney and get pressure against six-man lines. This allows Houston to drop a ton of bodies into coverage on and-long situations, so the Patriots need to avoid negative plays on first down.
Not only will White be extremely important as a receiver, he'll be called upon to chip block throughout the game. The Texans use Watt all over the line, from nose tackle to defensive end in a 4-man front, which makes it difficult for offenses to simply put an extra blocker on the field, but look for tight end Michael Williams to see as much time as possible.
The Patriots need the Texans to respect the play action run game and Blount will have to produce against the teeth of the defensive line in order to reduce some pressure on Brady in the passing game.