The New England Patriots defense has faced its fair share of dual-threat quarterbacks so far this season, with the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys standing out above the rest. This week, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is on the menu — a player that also falls in a similar category, even though he might not be as big a threat on the ground as MVP-candidate Jackson.
Nevertheless, the Patriots need to be able to contain Watson whenever he looks to advance the football by foot. Through his team’s first 11 games, the third-year man has done so 58 times, resulting in 301 yards and a team-high five rushing touchdowns. Some of the runs were designed either through run-pass-option or zone-read concepts, while others were the result of the quarterback scrambling to escape pressure or salvage broken down plays.
As gifted an athlete as Watson is, and as challenging he is to defend both as a ball-carrier and as a passer, the Texans’ ground game goes beyond him — and it will generally be high up on the list of the Patriots’ defensive priorities: New England needs to stop the home team from establishing a presence on the ground on Sunday, something the team will try to do as lead-back Carlos Hyde told the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson earlier this week.
“We definitely need to get the running game going against a guy like [Tom] Brady. You don’t want to give him too many chances at your defense because, after a while, he will catch a rhythm and be having the game of his life,” Hyde said when talking about his team’s approach against the AFC’s number one seed. “It will be good for us to control the ball, sustain drives, score points when we can and do a good job of protecting the ball.”
The Texans certainly know that their best chance of moving the football against the league’s number one scoring offense will be on the ground, something other teams were able to do this season. The Ravens, for example, gained 213 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries for an average of 5.6 yards per carry — helping them control the pace of the game and limit the opportunities for Tom Brady to bring the Patriots back into the contest.
No team in the league is as potent on the ground as Baltimore, of course, but Hyde still thinks that his own club can draw some conclusions from the 37-20 contest played in Week 9: “Teams have definitely had some success running the ball, but not many teams. You don’t see many teams that were able to run the ball other than Baltimore, but we definitely need to get our running game going. Baltimore ran hard [...] They had a bunch of downhill runs. They were able to have success running the ball and Baltimore did a good job.”
The ground game has worked well for the Texans this season, even though they are still a pass-first team thanks to the likes of Watson and All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. However, with teams investing resources to slow down the potent duo — they have connected 81 times through the air for 839 yards and six touchdowns — space for the running game has opened up, and Houston’s offense was able to take advantage.
Through the first 12 weeks of regular season play, the unit of coordinator Tim Kelly ranks ninth in the NFL with 303 rushing attempts and sixth with 1,506 yards on the ground. The numbers may not be particularly outstanding, but the Texans’ abilities on the ground are obvious when taking a look at their yards per carry: the team averages 5.0 yards per running attempt, tied for second in the NFL behind only the Ravens’ 5.7.
First-year Texan Hyde has seen the bulk of the action and has been rather productive in his role as the lead-back: he has carried the football 174 times for 836 and four touchdowns. Fellow offseason trade acquisition Duke Johnson, meanwhile, has served as a versatile change-of-pace back alongside Hyde and has 65 rushing attempts for 349 yards and a touchdown on his résumé — as well as 25 catches for 240 yards and two more scores.
With that much firepower present, the Patriots need to stay disciplined in run defense — something that has not always been the case this season, even though it did not come back to bite them quite the way it did against Baltimore. Either way, they have to set the edge well and patiently read their keys, not over-shoot gaps or over-pursue runners, and also try to keep Watson confined to the pocket while trusting the secondary to hold down the fort in man-coverage.
Considering how Houston plans to challenge New England’s defense, stopping the run has to be a primary goal. And even though the Texans rank only 17th in run-game DVOA — a metric created by Football Outsiders to evaluate the success of plays based on situation and opponent — with -5.6%, they certainly have shown that they are capable of running the ball well to possibly open things up for Watson, Hopkins and the aerial attack.