What a difference a couple of weeks make. Two Sundays ago with 14:26 to go in the fourth quarter the Patriots forced the Denver Broncos to punt leading 21-7. The punt was muffed by Chris Harper and the momentum turned and the seemingly on their way to 11-0 Patriots, dropped their first game of the season and fell to 10-1. Last week the Patriots leading 14-0, took a gamble on special teams with a pooch kick by Nate Ebner. The Patriots then blew their second 14 point lead in as many weeks and fell to the Eagles 35-28. Now a team that many were saying could go 19-0 is the number three seed in the AFC east, and suddenly faces a tough test in Houston Sunday night.
The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries that have severely hampered their offense. Tom Brady, without Edelman and Gronkowski has not been able to release the ball as fast, resulting in more hits and less completions. In fact in the last three game Brady has completed 55% or less of his passes. The offensive line has had to protect longer as Barndon LaFell and company have not been able to get open as fast as the players they have replaced. Now going up against JJ Watt and an aggressive Texans defense the Patriots need to devise a game plan that will protect Brady and put points on the board.
Watt is a beast, despite breaking his hand in practice on Wednesday, he has said he will play Sunday night. He leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks, helping the Texans get after the quarterback with a standard four man rush as well as any team in the NFL. The Patriots will need to double and at some times triple team him. The Texans defense also has play making linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney to contend with. Old friend Vince Wilfork has started all twelve games playing 55% of all defensive snaps. Wilfork and the defense has not been great against the run.
How will the Patriots attack the Texans?
I should change this header to how should the Patriots attack the Texans? For the second straight week the Patriots will face a team that gives up yards on the ground. The Texans are ranked 21st against the run letting up an average of 114 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. The Patriots should try and attack the defense this way, allowing the offensive line to be aggressive and opening up the play action passing attack. The Pats were in a similar situation last week against a poor Eagles defense, however once again Josh McDaniels after early success with the run, turned right to the pass. The Patriots ran only 25 times in the game, with six runs being by Brady. The Patriots need to set up some semblance of balance if they hope to keep TB12 upright.
The Patriots showed a pony backfield last week against the Eagles, with two true running backs in Bolden and White with Brady in shotgun. They passed out of the formation each time. It would be nice to see the Patriots try and mix things up a bit and run out of the formation. White may be able to get some yards running if they can set a trap block with Bolden. White had a breakout game for the Patriots accounting for 115 yards on 10 catches with a touchdown. While he may not be Dion Lewis, with the Patriots lack of options right now he is my key to the game.
The Patriots need to find a way to get the quick passing attack back as well. A week after his knee injury Danny Amendola will be counted on to work the short game. Without Rob Gronkowski this becomes a tough challenge. The Patriots have two wide outs that will be playing their former team in Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson. Martin has not done much with his opportunity the last two weeks, catching just four passes for 53 yards. He will need to step up for the Patriots passing game to work. Johnson didn’t see a lot of action last week, that could change this week, if the Patriots see enough in him. He worked a jet sweep well last week. He has the quickness to run the route tree that Edelman has run, without as much success. If Johnson can show consistency he can help move the chains. Expect the Patriots to try and get one on one coverage with Chandler and White on Clowney and Mercilus as neither is particularly great in that area.
How to Defend the Texans.
Former Patriot backup Brian Hoyer is having a breakout season running Bill O’Brien’s offense. He has 18 touchdown passes versus only six interceptions. Hoyer has a great wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins who has 86 receptions for 1169 yards and 10 scores. The Patriots will most likely attempt to slow down Hopkins, even though Bill Belichick has already admitted that Hopkins will make a highlight catch or two. The question becomes which corner will line up on Hopkins. Both Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have been matched up against elite receivers and played well. Butler was great against Odell Beckham and Logan Ryan was great against Demaryius Thomas. The feeling here is it will be Butler on Hopkins, as you could say Butler drew another great wide out in Emanuel Sanders in Denver. Either way the Patriots will have to be up to the challenge. The key will be taken away the quick strike offense and instead making Hoyer covert third downs.
Houston’s running game is not great averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per attempt on the ground. While the numbers are not there, it still has to be respected as the Texans do use the running game to set up the pass. If Donta Hightower is back this week with Jamie Collins, than this will be an area that the Patriots can win. Alfred Blue will get the bulk of the carries. Expect the Patriots defensive line to bottle him up.
The Patriots have not lost three games in a row since back in the 2002 season. The Patriots should get back to their winning ways this week, but it will be close. I predict a 24-21 victory, and the Patriots to be back in the drivers seat as they get back to their standard of winning.