Thursday, December 6, 2012 Updated: December 7, 9:52 AM ET
Texans-Pats worthy of MNF hype
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week: hosting the Houston Texans on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET):Mike: There are many intriguing layers to this matchup, so let's start with the big-picture idea that you have one team that has been in these big games quite a bit over the past decade (Patriots) against a team looking to break through to that level (Texans). If you're on the Texans' side, a win in this game makes an authoritative statement.
Tedy: People still might have their doubts about the Texans, even though they are 11-1, which is the best record in the AFC. The thought might be, "Can they do it when it counts?" In a game like this, that type of question can be answered. You come into Gillette Stadium, where you see those championship banners and know that Tom Brady has done it before, and Bill Belichick has done it before, and it's a tough place to play. So they're looking for that breakthrough to make people believe that they are a legitimate contender.
Mike: Since 2002, the Patriots are 71-14 at Gillette Stadium in the regular season, which is the best record in the NFL. This year, the Texans are 6-0 on the road, the only team in the league with a perfect record away from home. Something has to give. Let's get into the breakdown by delving into the Texans' offense.
Tedy: When you're looking at their system -- one read, one cut, get downhill with the zone blocking up front -- you go back to the Denver days when Mike Shanahan was there. Of course, Texans coach Gary Kubiak was once an assistant under Shanahan in Denver, so that explains the connection. Their offensive line moves in unison, it's almost like synchronized swimming, and they block an area -- if you come into that area, that's the player you have to contend with. One thing that can be challenging for a defensive player is some of the tactics they use on the back side of that zone running game; they want to chop you down and they don't care how they do it. I've seen ankle biting, I've seen barrel rolls on film, and there have been times when players are engaged and another offensive lineman comes in and chops them down -- which inside the tackle box is legal. You can talk about the unwritten code in the NFL, about not chopping a guy down when he's not looking, or preserving the health of your fellow NFL member; it doesn't come into account with the Texans. I wouldn't call them dirty, but it's just the way they get the job done. It's tough to watch as a defensive player, always frustrating to go against -- you're going to have to play the cut block and these guys are going to be on the ground. It's a savvy offensive line that works well within the system -- a little undersized, but they're athletic, and they know how to get on your legs and that makes it tough in the running game.
Texans RB Arian Foster has found great success running behind left tackle Duane Brown (76).
Mike: Their best lineman is Duane Brown, the left tackle who was a first-round draft choice in 2008. That was a good pick for them, as there was a run of tackles and Brown was actually the eighth player at the position selected. Some say he now rivals Jake Long (No. 1, Dolphins) and Ryan Clady (No. 12, Broncos) for the distinction of best tackle selected in the draft. Brown is starting to gain more recognition, and the Texans recently signed him to a lucrative contract extension.
Tedy: They don't really want to waste him cutting on the back side, which explains why the Texans are the NFL's No. 2-ranked team in terms of runs to the left side, according to ESPN Stats & Information. I think it's because he is the most talented lineman, so you man him up and he sets that edge, while all the other guys to his right are chopping you down on the back side and then you run to your strength. Brown is one of the better left tackles in the NFL and that's why Arian Foster loves running behind him.
Mike: Foster ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,102 rushing yards this season.
Tedy: He's one of the best in the league. People might say he is a product of the system, but I don't think that's what it is -- he's got size, he's got speed, a great mentality, an intellectual type of guy. Watching him against the Lions on Thanksgiving, you saw great patience from him to let the play develop in front of him. That's huge for a running back; that's what the best do. You always want to rise to the occasion when you're playing against the best and I think that's what is on the mind of Patriots linebackers like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. This is a special running back that deserves special attention this week.
Mike: At quarterback, I've always liked Matt Schaub, and that goes back to the 2005 season when he was a backup with the Falcons and had an impressive regular-season debut against the Patriots. It appeared that the Falcons pulled a fast one on the injury report at the time, adding starting quarterback Michael Vick late in the week, and they eventually started Schaub. If I recall, that didn't go over too well with the Patriots, as there is an obvious difference in preparing for Vick and Schaub. Well, Schaub played great, the Patriots still won, and Schaub ended up making himself a lot of money when the Texans traded for him in 2007. Schaub has played in every NFL city/region except for New England, so this completes the cycle for him.
Tedy: I think we saw how valuable Schaub was to the team last year. They were having a great year, but Schaub got hurt and it slowed their momentum. When I look at this Texans offense, it demands a certain type of quarterback -- one who has good fakes on play-action, one who is athletic enough to run the "boot keeps" over to the open side. He does have the arm, he does have the accuracy. I like the way he runs this system.
Mike: One other stat on Schaub -- he's 18-4 in his last 22 starts, which is the best mark of any quarterback over that time. When you look at the weapons he is throwing to, veteran receiver Andre Johnson is a good place to start.
Tedy: In the last month or so, he has been putting up big numbers. A lot of what you see from him is coming off play-action passes, shots down the field, the deep in-cuts. I see this as a tough matchup for the Patriots, because that's one of their weaknesses. Schaub goes deep down the field on play-action; the Patriots will probably see the most shots down the field on play-action that they've seen all season. That's part of what the Texans are based on, and Johnson is a big part of that. Yes, he's slowed down a bit the last couple of seasons, but he's still a tough receiver, with solid hands. We should also mention their tight ends and fullbacks -- Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, James Casey -- and these are guys I refer to as "con men." I say that with the utmost respect, because they are trying to fool you. A lot of this offense is based off deception and play-action. They'll run the tight end screen where they go on to the ground, they'll run a double-move off play-action where you see them being the good salesman -- they stab out one side and make you bite and go back the other way. This is a big element of this offense. It's almost trickery. They're selling something they want you to buy -- like a double-move on Antonio Cromartie off play-action against the Jets earlier in the year. They want you to bite on the route, or the play-action to Foster, and it creates situations where players can be wide open down the field. This is why it was always a tough matchup against this system. You aren't playing your basic rules against this system. It involves a second level of defensive interpretation, and really tests your discipline.
Mike: Let's look to the Texans' defense, which stands out in a few categories such as third down (No. 1 ranking in the NFL, opponents converting 28.4 percent of the time) and in the red zone (league-low 27 opponent trips and a league-low 12 touchdowns allowed). Under coordinator Wade Phillips, they are a heavy blitzing team, and the player everyone is talking about is defensive lineman J.J. Watt (16.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, 15 passes defended).
Houston's J.J. Watt earned the nickname J.J. Swatt thanks to his knack for deflecting passes.
Tedy: The sack total is even more impressive when you consider that Watt is a "5-technique." This isn't an Aldon Smith outside linebacker type player, or a Jevon Kearse/Derrick Thomas edge-type rusher. To have that many sacks when primarily rushing from inside is insane. He is clearly, without a doubt, the defensive player of the year in the NFL. This is going to be a problem for the Patriots. This 3-4 scheme under Phillips is different from the old 3-4 the Patriots used to run; there is a lot of movement, and they trust those defensive linemen to let the linebackers flow and run and make plays. On the back end, they'll play some man and some exotic zone techniques, so it's a complex scheme. The Patriots have seen it before, they know what to expect, and the true star and focal point is on that defensive line and it starts with J.J. Watt.
Mike: There's a connection here to last season's Super Bowl that you've referenced this week when it comes to Watt and batting down passes.
Tedy: I remember watching the "Soundtracks" from that game, and on the bench Tom Brady had a comment about the Giants' defensive line after Jason Pierre-Paul batted down a pass. He said, "It's like throwing through a forest out there." Brady doesn't like that at all. That's why they'll probably bring out the rackets this week. There were always racquetball rackets that they'd give the defensive linemen, and in practice they'd rush, then stop and put up the racket, which was taped with athletic tape so he [Brady] couldn't see through it either. That's going to come in practice this week. There was a perfect picture of it Sunday in the Texans' win over the Titans, as Watt has rubbed off on some of his teammates, the idea being if you don't get there, just put your hands up. That's a force that Brady is going to have to contend with on Monday night.
Mike: Brady said this week that there's something extra special about playing on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." He is 12-4 all-time on Monday night, and the Patriots are 10-1 in their last 11 Monday night contests. The Texans move Watt around the line of scrimmage, so it could fall on any offensive lineman to block him. It would help the Patriots if starting left guard Logan Mankins, who returned to practice Thursday for the first time in weeks, could suit up for action.
Tedy: It's no secret that a defensive coordinator like Wade Phillips will single out matchups along the offensive line. One of the best things about J.J. Watt getting pressure on the quarterback is that he doesn't try to be fancy. He knows his strengths. One of the things that really disrupts this Patriots offense is up-the-middle pressure and Watt, I'm not sure he gets enough credit for how physical he can be in terms of a bull rush and pressing a guy back into a quarterback's lap, and then putting his hands up or getting a sack. That type of pocket push is something to contend with on Monday.
Mike: We've touched on how this is a matchup of strength versus strength in certain areas, and here's another one for you: ESPN Stats & Information notes that no defense blitzes more than the Texans (43.7 percent), while quarterback Tom Brady is lethal against the blitz (15 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) this season.
Tedy: That's one thing in the team meeting, when Coach Belichick addresses the team on a Wednesday, he'll talk about "got to have it" situations. That could be a third-and-3 in the red zone, or a certain situation where the offense has to convert. So for a coordinator like Phillips, in a "got to have it" situation, you pretty much know he's bringing the heat. They'll be prepared for that.
Mike: The Texans signed veteran cornerback Stanford Routt this week as their depth at cornerback has been thinned. Brice McCain, their slot corner, is out with a foot injury and that could be a big matchup advantage for Wes Welker and the Patriots if they can protect up front. That protection is where it starts.
Tedy: The Texans do a great job of working in conjunction with the defensive front. Those D-backs have a clock in their head -- when you have a pass rush and a pressure package like Wade Phillips has, they can play free and have comfort in knowing "I have to cover hard for at the most, 3½ seconds, and if I have to go longer than that, something went wrong up front." The Texans get pressure consistently and that secondary has to have it, because it's going to be tough to stop Tom Brady if he has more time than that.
Mike: One other thought: Both teams have been hit with injuries. The Texans' defense has lost some key players in linebackers Brian Cushing (injured reserve) and Brooks Reed (sidelined with groin injury), but it looks like they could get starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) back and that's significant.
Tedy: If there is a weakness I see with the Texans' defense, this is it. How much can you ask of some of these players who are filling in? It's a testament to Wade Phillips and how he coaches that depth.
Mike: Also, too, with general manager Rick Smith and how he's filled in the roster with some talented players. When we hear about some of the best in the business on the personnel side, I think Smith deserves some recognition. There are a lot of talented players on that team, especially on defense. How do you see the Patriots attacking them?
Tedy: When you have a scheme like this, or a talent like Watt coming at you, you don't want them to settle in. You might be a little outmatched, especially if left guard Logan Mankins can't play against Watt, Antonio Smith, Shaun Cody & Co. So what do you do? You speed up the tempo and get the hurry-up running game going. That can keep them off balance and discourage substitution. Coachingwise, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels find mismatches, and they can use their scheme to attack this front and cover up their own weaknesses. That's a game-plan technique we might see from them on Monday night. The first drive, in particular, will be exciting to watch to see what they came up with.
Mike: On special teams, both kickers (New England's Stephen Gostkowski and Houston's Shayne Graham) are below the league average in terms of field goal percentage. The Patriots also are without punt returner Julian Edelman, who was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. I look for Wes Welker to be the primary option to assume those duties. If the game comes down to a field goal, it will be interesting to see how the kickers respond.
Tedy: This is a crucial two-game stretch for the Patriots, and every point is going to come at a premium. We're talking about playoff positioning and possible byes. Those kicks are even more important now.
Mike: Let's get to our predictions. This has all the makings of a great game. I could see either team winning, but in situations like these, I often ask the question, "Are you ready to bet against Tom Brady?" I'm not, and part of that is that the Texans are playing their third road game in three weeks, which can take a lot out of the team. I'm excited for a potential thriller. Patriots 31, Texans 27.Tedy: A couple of weeks ago I looked ahead on the Patriots' schedule and saw this matchup against the Texans. At that point, to me, a Patriots victory looked slim. Things have changed. Over the last three weeks, the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense is giving up the most yards in the NFL with an average of 452 per game. The Texans are second worst, allowing an average of 445 per game. Injuries are taking a toll on this defense and that will be the difference. It will still be close and Gostkowski will make a game winner. Patriots 27, Texans 24.