Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday road game against the Houston Texans (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: One of the themes this week is the mental challenge facing the Patriots. After two prime-time exciting games against top teams in Carolina and Denver, now it's a matchup against a two-win Houston team that has fallen on hard times.
Tedy: They haven't won a game since Sept. 15, so it's been a long time. That can wear on a team when you consider that to lose two in a row in the NFL often seems like a lifetime of hurt. You walk through the hallways of the facility and it's like a morgue in there because everyone is searching for answers and trying to fix problems. If you're playing defense for the Texans, you're just hoping your offense doesn't give away the game. They've had six returns against them for touchdowns this year. The defense is trying to play hard. They lead the league in fewest yards allowed, but the offense is giving up points. A lot of players are still playing hard, but you get to this point and I'm sure part of the mindset is looking for this season to be over.
Mike: We spoke with Texans coach Gary Kubiak on the weekly opponents' conference call, and he had the health scare Nov. 3 with the transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke. He's back at work now, trying to find ways to keep players motivated.
Tedy: When you get to this point in the season, there are certain weeks that you still look forward to because it's an opportunity to get a signature victory. Whenever you play the Patriots, every team in the NFL knows that when you beat them, it's a feather in your cap for the entire season. The Patriots are usually one of the best teams in the league and this year is no different with an 8-3 record. So this is a big game for the Texans.
Mike: In turn, any concern for the Patriots experiencing a letdown?
Tedy: I can see where this can be a trap game for them. Watching the Texans' loss to the Jaguars last Sunday in Houston, there were times when the Texans just looked so bad. Quarterback Case Keenum really struggled at times. So you can almost overlook this team. They do play hard, but you saw Jacksonville get a 10-0 lead and it looked like the Texans lost their way and were just waiting for someone to make a play. So one thing critical for the Patriots this week is starting fast. No matter what you saw on film last week in their game against the Jaguars, it's not what you will see this week. They can expect a team's best effort because a win over the Patriots would bring a certain status to their team, and also they certainly remember the two embarrassing losses they had last year versus the Patriots late in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Mike: This game sort of reminds me of the Patriots' late December trip to Jacksonville last year in the sense that they might have to bring their own energy. It would be easy to turn on the tape of the Texans-Jaguars game from Sunday and maybe lose a bit of their edge.
Tedy: The way Coach Belichick has been approaching the week has been to focus on the Texans' close game against the Colts, the one-pointer at Kansas City, the overtime loss to Seattle. You don't watch film of the team you're playing losing to the Jaguars. I wonder if Coach Belichick will even show the players that film, in part because of the lack of respect the Jaguars have in some NFL circles. The Jaguars were more physical than the Texans, running the ball down their throats.
Mike: Let's get into the Texans offense. There's no Arian Foster at running back, which is where we'd usually start. So let's go to the quarterback spot, which is where they've run into problems.
Tedy: Matt Schaub has had a terrible year. T.J. Yates came in and threw a pick-six. Now it's Case Keenum, who started off the season as the third-team quarterback. He's popular in Houston as a local kid, but it doesn't look like he's on the same page as his receivers all the time. There are times when he's throwing to Andre Johnson or DeAndre Hopkins, and the receivers are looking around and thinking "Where did it go?" So there is still some chemistry that has to be developed there. There have been some other games where you look at it and think maybe the Texans have something in Keenum. Coach Kubiak said that Keenum has shown spurts, but to be successful in the NFL and especially beating a team like the Patriots, you have to do it over four quarters and especially in the fourth quarter. That's something he hasn't been able to do.
Mike: A game against the Texans, under Kubiak, means a return to the old Denver Broncos-style running game.
Tedy: You have to be on your toes with these guys, especially on the back side of runs. The front side, they want to run the stretch play, one cut, downhill. The Patriots are used to that, but the young guys at defensive tackle -- Joe Vellano, Chris Jones -- have to be prepared to get chopped down. You may be engaged with a blocker but someone is going to be at your knees and if they don't get you that way, they'll barrel roll. It's like when you're trying to put out a fire as a kid -- stop, drop and roll -- and that's sort of what they do to block you on the back side. They'll grab your ankles, cut block you, get on the ground and roll so you stop pursuing on the back side. It's not illegal, it's part of the game, and the Texans offensive line takes advantage of that. It's almost laughable when you see guys go down in synchronized chopping of the back side, and how the defensive linemen fall like oak trees at the same time.
Mike: They obviously miss Foster at running back after placing him on injured reserve Nov. 12 because of his back.
Tedy: That has thrust Ben Tate to the forefront. He has had bruised ribs the past few weeks and doesn't look very explosive. He's no Arian Foster. He's a bigger runner than their other running back, Dennis Johnson, who I think is more explosive and was more productive last week (74 yards). The Patriots need to be more aware of Johnson.
Mike: Likewise, receiver Andre Johnson could draw a one-on-one matchup with cornerback Aqib Talib.
Tedy: Johnson is a prideful guy, well respected throughout the league. It seems to me that he's a guy who needs to be inspired. He wants to have a quarterback he can trust, a quarterback he knows when he busts his butt running a route, the ball will be there. It's understandable -- first with Schaub and now with Keenum -- why he'd be frustrated. You run your route, work hard to get open, and you just don't know if the ball is going to be there. That's the situation these receivers are in. Keenum has had some success throwing the ball deep this year, but he just hasn't shown consistency. I'd think they try some more play-action because it seemed Jacksonville was happy to let Keenum sit back there in shotgun and playing the drop-back pass game. When the Texans offense is succeeding at a high level, they have the stretch run scheme going, and off of that, the play-action. They've always had tight ends who are good salesmen; Owen Daniels, who is on injured reserve, was one of the best and they've missed that. It takes a little while to learn to be a salesman (sometimes I call them "con" men) because they want to sell one play, and when you buy it, that's when they have you and they hit the play-action. And just when you think the play-action is coming, they get position on you and block you in the stretch-run scheme. That's something they haven't been efficient with this year.
Mike: It seems like the defense can keep them in games as the more competitive unit.
Tedy: Yes, but this is also why I created the defensive index. It's easy for Coach Belichick to tell his team and the media that they lead the league in defense this week. They do -- in fewest yards allowed per game (290). But this is a terrible situational defensive team; the Texans rank 26th this week because yards aren't a consideration. They are tied for 30th in forcing turnovers, 30th in the red zone and 12th on third down. So they don't take the ball away, can't prevent touchdowns in the red zone and are average on third down and points (adjusted to not include returns against them).
Mike: Tom Brady referred to their defensive front as one of the best the Patriots will play this year.
Tedy: They have one of the best defensive players in football in J.J. Watt, and he hasn't received as much attention this year because of the tough year they're having. I can't find a play where he isn't playing hard. That's one of the best compliments for him, especially on a team that has lost nine in a row. He's a very prideful player. He plays with heart. He plays with passion. He has the prototypical body for a 5-technique. They'll move him all along the line of scrimmage. He can stop the run. He can two-gap you. He can slip you when you think he's going to take you on, going backdoor to make a play in the backfield. He can rush the passer. He has 8.5 sacks. If there is any doubt about how hard a player plays, you can look at the field goal block team. It's easy to say, "We stopped them, they're attempting a field goal, let's see if they make it or miss it." But Watt blocked a field goal last week in the third quarter. It doesn't matter what the score is with him. I don't think it matters that they've lost nine in a row. You know you're going to get Watt's best -- every play. He's the same guy every week. They'll break out the paddles this week because of his ability to bat down passes. He's a guy you always have to account for.
Mike: They've also been hit hard by injuries on defense, but unlike the Patriots, just haven't been able to overcome them.
Tedy: Losing Brian Cushing was big for this team. They moved him around and he was their primary blitzer. He was coming off a leg injury and they were excited to have him back, but then to lose him against the Chiefs when Jamaal Charles got him on a cut block, it was really unfortunate. Losing your best inside linebacker on defense is almost like losing your quarterback on offense. It's an underrated position throughout this league. You bring the next guy in and say "next man up" but that position is the orchestrator on defense, just as the quarterback is on offense. So when you look at the Texans this year, their quarterback on both sides has been an issue -- Schaub didn't play well on offense, and now Cushing on the other side is lost to injury. For the Patriots, that would be like losing Tom Brady and Jerod Mayo. It's a huge blow.
Mike: It's another reminder on the importance of quality depth. They also thought veteran safety Ed Reed was going to be a difference-maker, but they've already moved on from him.
Tedy: Another thing that stood out watching them last week against the Jaguars is that they miss tackles, especially at the linebacker level -- Darryl Sharpton, Joe Mays. This isn't the best tackling defense. They were trying to arm tackle Jaguars players Maurice Jones-Drew, Jordan Todman and Ace Sanders and there were a lot of yards after contact. You saw some shorter passes from them, forcing them to tackle. That's right up the Patriots' alley.
Mike: Two other points before we wrap things up. Let's keep an eye on the playing field. We remember the 2009 season finale when Wes Welker tore his ACL in a non-contact situation. It's natural grass and it's pieced together like a puzzle, so viewers will notice some seams and discoloration in certain areas. Also, while the Texans have struggled, the Patriots better be ready to pass protect. The first play of the Texans-Jaguars game last week was a good example of that -- a sack.
Tedy: Scheme-wise, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will mix things up. They'll move Watt all over the front. They'll send blitzes off the edge; I always thought Brooks Reed was a good rusher from the outside linebacker position. So there's some good individual talent on this team, they just aren't playing together. They want a reason to play hard and that's why the first quarter of this game is important for the Patriots. They want to get out to that 10-0 lead like Jacksonville did. You have to be ready to go from the start, because if you give this team life, that individual talent can come out and hurt you -- Watt making plays, Andre Johnson waking up from his slumber.
Mike: The Patriots should win and keep things rolling. I could also envision it being a bit tougher than anticipated. Patriots 24, Texans 20.
Tedy: This Texans team is a prime example of how individual talent is meaningless in the NFL if a coaching staff can't get them playing as a team. They've had some hard times down there in Houston and I see the Patriots coming away with a victory. Patriots 30, Texans 17.