In a week three rematch between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, the Patriots come into this game fresh off a first round bye while the Texans are coming off a wild card game victory over the Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders. Houston travels to Foxboro as a big underdog in this game but also come in boasting one of the NFL’s best defenses. That is a remarkable feat by itself, but makes it that much more special when you consider three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, has been out for most of the season. This is certainly a game that has the makings of being one of more lop-sided playoff match-ups in recent memory, but Houston should not be counted out so easily.
One particular match-up in this game that will have a big effect on it is the match-up between Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Cannon. Clowney has broken out as an upper-echelon defensive end after dealing with injuries for the first couple of seasons following being picked first overall by the Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft. This season, he has not only managed to stay healthy but also be a difference maker for the Texans top-ranked defense. He has proven to be one of the elite edge defenders against the run while being noticeably tricky to keep out of opposing teams’ backfields on occasion.
He will come into this game facing another break-out player from this past season in Patriots offensive tackle Marcus Cannon. Admittedly, I was one of many people who wrote about the Patriots that claimed the team would be better off with Cannon and should have released him a year ago. I was wrong and we have seen why with his better-than-exceptional play at right tackle this season for the team. He has not only become one of the better run-blocking tackles in the league but has also stepped up his pass protection ability as well. His terrific play this season even netted him a shiny five-year, $32.4 million dollar contract extension this season. As one of the best offensive tackles this season according to Pro Football Focus (10th out of 81 qualified), he has a tough match-up against Clowney in this game.
Looking at this match-up, the run-blocking prowess of Cannon and the run-stopping ability of Clowney stands out above everything else. What makes Clowney so difficult to defend against is his size and ability to seal edges quickly and often. Clowney is able to use his strength and long arms to prevent many runners from reaching the outside. He is also able to beat his blocker(s) with either a bull-rush or moves such as a swim move because of his size. LeGarrette Blount’s speciality as a one-cut, power back utilizes the edge on occasion, an area of the field which will be especially important for the Patriots to have in this game.
A reason for Cannon’s terrific turn-around this season that can’t be overstated is the return of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. With Scarnecchia’s return out retirement, he has been able to work with Cannon to further maximize on his strengths as a lineman. One such strength, like Clowney, is his arm length. Scarnecchia said back in early November, “His arms are really long, but he doesn’t use them like a guy that has long arms needs to use them. The more you keep the defenders out and away from you, instead of letting them get into your body and grab things, the better off you’re going to be at tackle. By being able to keep his distance from his assignment and at bay with his long arms, Cannon is able to win more one-on-one battles along with being to move his defender away from the ball carrier and where he needs to be.
In pass protection, Cannon is quite the physical blocker. His play can be described as “mauler-type”, with Cannon using his 6’5”, 335 lb frame to win the battle in defending his quarterback. According to the Washington Post, Cannon has given up only 2.5 sacks in the 15 regular season games he played this season, again speaking to how well he has improved overall as an offensive tackle this season.
In the past two seasons (27 games played), Clowney has 10.5 sacks, including six in 14 games this season. He also has 17 tackles for losses this season, which is tied for second highest amount among players in the NFL. He has become very adept at being in opposing teams’ backfields and causing disruption often. Along with fellow edge defender Whitney Mercilus, the duo became one of the most formidable pairings in the NFL this past season.
While this previous Clowney-Cannon match-up didn’t necessarily have as much build-up behind it when the two teams faced off against each other in week three, there is plenty to warrant it this time around. Both players have stepped up this season and become invaluable reasons to their teams’ success this year. Now, both will face off against each other in the playoffs with eyes on both players and how they perform.