AFC East: Danieal Manning

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
12:00
PM ET
Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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Tom Brady and JJ WattGetty ImagesThe Texans sacked Tom Brady, left, just once in their first meeting with the Patriots. Can J.J. Watt and the front seven do a better job in the rematch?

The Patriots seemingly snickered after they blew out Houston on "Monday Night Football" back on Dec. 10.

The Texans arrived in New England wearing letterman jackets that they thought showed team unity, but instead came off as high schoolish, particularly after they were easily dispatched in what Andre Johnson called the biggest game in franchise history.

For the Patriots it was the next game on the schedule.

Before the Texans got on the bus, middle linebacker Bradie James said the Patriots had delivered a lesson in championship football. The Texans headed back to Houston, humbled and officially in a slump. They lost two of their next three, fumbling away the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

A win over Cincinnati in the wild-card round earned the Texans a trip back to Gillette Stadium.

Can the Texans put up a better fight as major underdogs Sunday? James Walker of the AFC East blog joins me to discuss the game.

Paul Kuharsky: Tom Brady shredded the Texans in that regular-season game, James. He threw four touchdown passes in no time, recognizing Houston couldn’t keep up with his targets, particularly Aaron Hernandez. Now, Brady has Rob Gronkowski back.

Do you see any way the Texans can get Brady off his game at home in the playoffs?

James Walker: The key to stopping Brady is not a secret: You must beat him up. Brady doesn’t like getting hit in the face, especially at age 35. The problem is that is much easier said than done. New England is extremely good at self-scouting and schemes very well to keep Brady upright. Houston got only one sack against Brady in the first meeting, so it was no surprise that he threw four touchdowns. I expect New England to once again keep some running backs and tight ends in protection to keep Houston’s pass rush off Brady. The Texans will need to throw caution to the wind and blitz more defenders than New England has blockers, and that’s where the chess match begins. Brady is tremendous at reading the blitz and rarely gets fooled with coverages. That's why he's so difficult to beat. Speaking of quarterbacks, what do you expect from Houston counterpart Matt Schaub in his first divisional-round playoff game?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Mike Carter/US PresswireMatt Schaub's ability to connect on big plays downfield could be key for the Texans.
PK: Schaub finally had his first playoff experience last week and he’s now 1-0 in the postseason. But facing Cincinnati at home and New England on the road are two different things. He did fine against the Bengals, but I felt like coach Gary Kubiak was especially careful not to require many throws that were even moderately risky -- especially after Schaub threw that bad pick-six. Schaub has a bit of an unfair reputation for not being good in big games, mostly because he hasn't been in many big games. To spring an upset here, he’ll have to supplement the run game with some big plays and, obviously, avoid killer mistakes. To have a chance, the Texans need to really ride Arian Foster. He has gone over 100 yards in all three of his playoff games. He had 19 touches in that regular-season blowout. To maximize their chances, I’d say he’s got to have close to 30 this time.

JW: Paul, I agree: Foster is the biggest key for the Texans in this game. He enters with some momentum after rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bengals. Getting Foster 30 or more productive carries would not only wear on New England’s defense, it would keep the Patriots’ high-scoring, up-tempo offense off the field. New England has thrived this year by getting off more plays and offensive possessions than its opponents. Houston's best chance is to slow down the game and make it ugly. Teams that beat the Patriots this year, such as San Francisco and Baltimore, ran the football well and limited New England’s possessions.

PK: What’s the status of the Patriots' run game? Stevan Ridley ran fine in the regular-season game, gaining 72 yards on 19 carries. He earned a little doghouse time late in the season because of some fumbling issues. Has he regained the trust of Bill Belichick and the staff? And how much does it matter? It’s not as though New England needs to run or is afraid to play a game without handing it off a lot and we know that they will keep throwing it even in a blowout situation. So does it even matter if they can run it?

JW: Trust is big in New England, and Ridley has yet to earn it in the playoffs. Last year Ridley fumbled in the divisional round and didn’t play for the remainder of the postseason. The Patriots do not have the luxury to bench him again this year, which makes Ridley a key player to watch. New England’s offense usually passes to set up the run, but the ground game is more important than most people think. The Patriots rarely blow leads because they can run successfully when they need to. That time usually comes in the second half once they’re ahead.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/John BazemoreStevan Ridley may not figure heavily in the game plan, but he needs to make the most of his opportunities and limit mistakes.
I don’t expect Ridley to be a huge part of the game plan. His carries probably will be in the teens. But he needs to make the most of each carry and take care of the football. If Ridley doesn’t step up, look for the Patriots to go to a more dependable and sure-handed option such as Danny Woodhead. The Texans' defense allowed 42 points and 419 yards in the first meeting. What adjustments will Houston’s defense need to make to be more successful in the rematch?

PK: The coverage has to be way tighter. Johnathan Joseph played in the first meeting but had not been practicing and had missed time with groin and hamstring injuries. Brandon Harris was starting for the first time as the nickel after Brice McCain’s foot injury. The Texans set out to slow Wes Welker and they did, then got killed by everyone else. They know they aren’t going to get more than a sack or two on Brady because of how he gets rid of the ball and how skilled he is at changing protections. I expect they’ll mix it up on Hernandez and Gronkowski but they won’t be afraid to treat them as receivers.

The secondary had a bad night in Foxborough and a bad final quarter of the season. Joseph and Kareem Jackson and safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are all better cover guys than they showed that night, when they were even getting beaten by Donte' Stallworth, who had been back in the league for barely five minutes. They simply have to be better if the Texans are going to be in this game.

JW: I was with you in Houston last weekend, and I noticed the secondary played much better than the last time I saw the Texans in Foxborough. Joseph looked more like himself and did a good job, for the most part, on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. On the other hand, I think an intriguing matchup will be Patriots corner Aqib Talib against Houston’s Johnson, who had another monster season. Big games and matchups like this are why the Patriots acquired Talib in a midseason trade. He instantly became New England’s best cover corner. The Patriots usually play a lot of zone, but they’ve been able to mix zone and man coverages a lot better in the second half of the season with Talib in the lineup. Houston will have a few opportunities to take shots down the field with Johnson against Talib one-on-one, and I think whoever wins those battles will have an impact on this game.

PK: It’ll be hard for the Texans to pull a surprise if there aren’t a couple of big Schaub-to-Johnson connections.

Houston will arrive in New England with an "us-against-the-world" mentality, because the Texans are heavy underdogs. The Patriots aren’t invincible. But if they start fast, they may look that way to the Texans yet again.

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