With kickoff finally drawing near, we wanted to take one last chance to chronicle a few thoughts on the Patriots-Texans matchup from an X's and O's perspective.
1. Power on the edges. One thing we saw the Patriots do some of in Week 17 was invert their power defensive linemen (Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick) from the interior to the end of the line. That helped, at least in part, collapse the pocket on the edges, as the Patriots were able to overpower the Dolphins tackles and box quarterback Ryan Tannehill in, preventing him from using his elusiveness to buy time and space. While Matt Schaub is not the athlete Tannehill is, Houston likes to move him around and expand the pocket horizontally for him by using bootleg play action. It might make some sense for the Patriots to approach this game similarly to Week 17 and try to box Schaub in to prevent him from throwing outside of the natural pocket.
2. Linebackers in coverage. Arian Foster was largely contained on the ground against the Patriots in Week 14, but he did manage his most receiving yards in a single game this season. Foster was able to outflank the Patriots linebackers on underneath routes, allowing him to gain sufficient yardage as a check-down receiver. The Patriots did well to cut down on big plays against Houston in the first meeting, and would be likely to stick with their plan of conceding shorter gains to Foster rather than compromising their downfield coverage. Nonetheless, it's worth watching Foster out of the backfield in the passing game.
3. Scheming mismatches. The Patriots are as healthy as they've been since the start of the season, with their best receiving options set to be on the field Sunday. We've discussed how the Texans are going to have to account for both tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Keep an eye out on how the Patriots dictate coverages as well, however, as that was something they were able to do in the first matchup. Hernandez was aligned in the backfield near the goal line on his first touchdown, creating a favorable matchup against linebacker Bradie James in man coverage. With their full cabinet of top receiving targets, the Patriots have countless formations at their disposal this weekend. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels likely has concepts in mind to try to dictate how the Texans will have to account for them.