Thursday, December 31, 2009
Look for Pats to rest offensive players
By Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi
Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots visiting the Texans on Sunday (1 p.m. ET):
Mike: It's probably safe to say this breakdown will be a little bit different than the norm, given the situation.
Tedy: With the division already wrapped up and the Patriots already guaranteed a home playoff game, it's a smart thing to rest certain players, and the team has shown in the past that is what it does in situations similar to this one. I'd look at a handful of starters on offense -- Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Randy Moss -- as those who should rest, as well as a few other guys with aches and pains. Defensively, besides Vince Wilfork (foot) and Ty Warren (ankle), I think most of those young players need to play a lot. You have a young defense and you need as many reps as you can get together. The Houston Texans are one of the top-ranked teams on offense, and when you look ahead to some of the teams the Patriots might go against in the playoffs, they can use this as a good learning experience.
Mike: I have played out the different scenarios in my mind, and I could see it going in one of two directions. I could see Brady, Moss and company not even making the trip. The thinking would be that you want them back at the facility, ready to dive into whoever the first playoff opponent is when that becomes clear, especially considering that game could be on Saturday, which would be a short week of preparation. The other scenario is that they travel, play to stay sharp, and a decision is made after a few series depending on how things are going. The one scenario I don't see unfolding is that players like Brady and Moss go wire to wire. It sort of reminds me of the 2005 finale in a way, when Brady came out after three series. You were inactive that game to rest up for the playoffs, as were cornerback Asante Samuel, running back Corey Dillon and tight end Daniel Graham.
Tedy: That was the Doug Flutie dropkick game. A lot of key contributors didn't play much. That's the benefit of the situation the Patriots find themselves in; they can rest up some players and also focus on who they are going to play next week. The other part is that coaches can also take advantage of this week, when you know the game plan will be vanilla and there won't be a lot of complex formations or defensive adjustments. You can focus a little on Baltimore or the Jets, other playoff teams you might be playing. That extra preparation can't be overlooked and Bill Belichick will take advantage of any additional second he has to watch film or game-plan against an opponent.
Mike: That crossed my mind Wednesday when Brady didn't practice. I was wondering if he might be spending his time this week catching up on the Ravens. If the Ravens win at Oakland on Sunday they're in the playoffs, and when I look into the football crystal ball, the Ravens seem like the most likely wild-card matchup for the Patriots. One line of thinking is that Brady should play a little to keep momentum going. The other side is to say "Why risk it?" Do you see Brady & Co. playing much on Sunday in Houston?
Tedy: I don't think they should play at all, if you ask me. At the most, maybe you get a series in. My thought is: Why not take advantage of this week to the fullest? You can let players focus on getting healthy. The other part of making that decision is that it would help the players who are going to play prepare. So if you're Brian Hoyer, and you know Brady isn't going to play, you can go into this saying, "This is my week and I have to be ready." That's different than a coach telling him, "We'll see how it goes. When we feel like we're going to pull him out, then you're in"
an approach like that takes a sense of urgency away from a player. Let Hoyer have an entire week to prepare like a starting quarterback. The other part of this is that it can give the Patriots some answers as to what Hoyer will be for them. He's had a whole year of development but hasn't had a lot of playing time in games. The Patriots value practice time, but now this is a chance to see what he can do in a game. If he goes out and looks like the Colts' Curtis Painter last week, you know you have some problems and maybe he's not ready for the big time, so you might think about bringing in another quarterback. But if Hoyer plays well, the coaching staff can come out of that saying, "We might have something here. This backup quarterback might be even better than we thought."
Patriots offense vs. Texans defense
Mike: From your time with the team in training camp, did anything catch your eye about Hoyer? It seems every year, there is one surprise rookie free agent who makes the team, and this year it was him. He beat out 2008 third-round draft choice Kevin O'Connell.
Tedy: The one thing Hoyer isn't short on is confidence. He's very confident in his ability. In training camp, I never saw him doubting himself. That can be a good trait for a young quarterback.
Mike: Assuming Hoyer is in there for a good portion of the game, what type of challenge is he facing Sunday in Houston?
Tedy: Let's start up front with Mario Williams and Antonio Smith, the defensive ends. Williams is a Pro Bowler. When players are going into the last game of the season and they know their season is most likely over, especially on defense, you start looking at how you did individually during the year. Williams has eight sacks. Usually, the mentality of a pass-rusher is that you want to hit double digits in sacks, so I expect him to be motivated to get those two sacks. On the other end, Antonio Smith has 4.5 sacks and needs one to tie his career high. These are benchmarks you can expect these guys to be shooting for.
Mike: So it will be a good test for the Patriots' offensive tackles: Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer, Nick Kaczur and Mark LeVoir. Kaczur has been out the past few games with a shoulder injury.
Tedy: Then you go to the linebacker level, where DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing were both named to the Pro Bowl. Cushing is a strong candidate, along with Washington's Brian Orakpo, to be defensive rookie of the year. Ryans and Cushing are turning into one of the best 1-2 linebacker tandems in the league. On the Patriots' side, I think Gary Guyton and Jerod Mayo can look at them and say, "This is where we eventually want to be." One thing about the Texans' front seven, it is a penetrating unit, and Ryans and Cushing do a great job of filling gaps and making tackles. Ryans is tied for the team lead with 12 tackles for losses and Cushing leads the team with 128 tackles. Elsewhere, the Texans have had a revolving door at safety. They just placed Dominique Barber on injured reserve and now John Busing is in. If Hoyer plays, it is a good thing for him to have an inexperienced safety back there. Maybe he can take advantage of it.
Mike: If I recall, I think you had predicted Orakpo as the defensive rookie of the year back in the preseason. Nicely done. Anything else you'll be keeping an eye on specific to the Patriots' offense?
Tedy: I think it's obvious we won't see Tom Brady for long. I think the running game is something they can still develop. Fred Taylor made his return last week, and he still needs work. It would be smart to get his feet wet again. That situation will be interesting to watch to see how the carries are divided in the game. Does Laurence Maroney see the field again? Does he start? Or do Taylor and Sammy Morris get the majority of carries early? If you see Maroney more toward the end of the game, that will be a sign that they're ready to go with Sammy and Freddy.
Mike: Maroney's problems have been holding on to the ball, with the four lost fumbles. I think he's run as hard as I've seen him over his Patriots career, but if you can't hold on to the ball, it's hard for the coaches to have confidence in you. I think they risk losing him if he's not back in the mix this week. I expect he'll get his carries, some of them early.
Patriots defense vs. Texans offense
Tedy: This is one area of the game particularly worth watching. I feel the defense should play and play hard. If you look ahead and anticipate what's ahead in the playoffs, there are some explosive offenses they could play. This Texans offense is also up there, ranking fifth in total yards, second in passing offense. This is a good challenge for this defense to work against, and I think you can look at this game as an opportunity for young players to get quality reps against a top-flight quarterback in Matt Schaub and possibly the best all-around receiver in the game in Andre Johnson. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones are also good receivers in their own right.
Mike: I've been high on Schaub since that 2005 game in Atlanta. That was the game that the Falcons seemed to manipulate the injury report, adding Michael Vick late in the week and then starting Schaub. He was terrific that day, throwing for 298 yards and three touchdowns. I know that was a challenging time in your life, but do you remember that game at all?
Tedy: One thing I remember is that it was like a coming-out party, almost like, "Who is this Schaub kid?" I was thinking, "This kid is about to get a big contract." It ended up being in Houston.
Mike: The Texans look like they have an offense similar to the Colts, heavily skewed toward the pass. They rank 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game (88.7 avg.) and 32nd in rushing average (3.3 avg.).
Tedy: When you look closer at it, the running game can look good at times, but they've had problems because the running backs can't hold on to the ball. Steve Slaton, before he went on injured reserve, had seven fumbles (five lost). Ryan Moats has lost two. Chris Brown lost one. When they start a rookie out of Tennessee, Arian Foster, you know they're looking for answers. Foster did a good job running the ball versus the Dolphins last week, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. When they can get that going, it makes them more dangerous because they can set up the play-action passes, put in some bootleg passes and take some shots down the field.
Mike: Let's wrap this up a little early here, Tedy. I don't think we need to go much deeper at this point. Reliant Stadium has been good to the Patriots. It was the site of Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in a thoroughly entertaining game. So there might be some feel-good memories for the coaches and players who are still around when they walk in there Sunday. On the flip side, one player on the field might bring back some chilling memories because it was his hit that knocked Tom Brady out of the 2008 season.
Tedy: Yes, Bernard Pollard is starting at safety for the Texans. I really felt like we had a shot that year of winning the Super Bowl, and we were looking forward to bouncing back strong after losing a Super Bowl that would have given us a perfect season. That was a huge mental test to come back from the biggest defeat in our careers, and we all looked forward to the challenge. Then Brady goes down on the hit by Pollard in the first week of the year and we realized it would be 10 times tougher on us mentally. Thinking back to the 11-5 season, across my entire 13-year career, that's one that I'm most proud of from a collective team standpoint in terms of mental toughness and not packing it in. Even though the best player on our team went down, our leader and quarterback, we still played hard to go 11-5.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.