Coming off an eventful, but ultimately somewhat uninspiring win over the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday, the Texans enter into another prime time showdown with the greatest (and longest-lasting) dynasty in NFL history, the New England Patriots. They are the team that Bill O’Brien wants to model the Texans after, and they are the team that has ended two of the three longest playoff runs in Texans history in the divisional round. Simply put: They are the measuring stick if you want this team to compete for a championship.
The Texans come in to this game with a few very real advantages. The extra rest after Thursday night football acts almost like a mini-bye week. (Please, together, let’s not remember what happened the last time the Texans had a bye week.) The Patriots have been decimated by the flu — five different starters missed time with illness this week and two of them missed multiple days — and are also in the position of having to replace kicker Nick Folk after an emergency operation.
History has not been kind to the Texans in this, er, “rivalry.” The only time Houston has won was in Week 17 of the 2009 season, a win that could have sealed them a playoff spot had the Cincinnati Bengals not let the Jets kick their asses on Sunday Night Football on purpose. The last two games — the game with Deshaun Watson — have been single-score affairs, though it’s worth noting that the Texans were down 24-6 in 2018 and only came back after a baffling Bill O’Brien punt decision was muffed by the Patriots. Watson had perhaps the worst start of his NFL career in that game, completing just 17-of-34 passes for 176 yards and taking three sacks. He missed Ryan Griffin in the end zone multiple times.
Vegas initially posted the game at Patriots by 4.5 points, but has dialed it back to 3 or 3.5 in most books. The over/under has climbed a bit as well, from a 44.5 open to about 45 or 45.5.
When the Texans have the ball
If you have been living under a rock, the Patriots are on a historically great pace, particularly as a pass defense. By DVOA’s standards, the Patriots are the third-best defense they’ve ever tracked through 11 games, behind only the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs and the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. If you prefer more rudimentary statistics, let’s talk about how the Patriots have allowed four passing touchdowns in 11 games, and have intercepted 20 passes.
Needless to say, almost all receivers struggle against this unit, which is primarily a man-coverage unit. They are No. 1 in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts (-39.9%), No. 2 wideouts (-66.8%), and Other wideouts (-47.2%) while holding tight ends and running backs in negative DVOA figures as well. There is something to be said for the individual talent that the Texans have in their receiving corps and can use to stretch the field, which is a game that they always want to play. But the Patriots aren’t rolling out the welcome mat — they are in the top-10 in blitz rate at 35.0%. The only other team the Texans have played with that sort of blitz rate is Baltimore. Houston did not exactly set up many pristine deep shots. My supposition is: Go to Duke Johnson underneath and let him force the Patriots into some less-aggressive sets.
I would be lying if I told you I expected that to happen. Instead, I think the Texans will be asking their wideouts to win convincingly early in routes. I don’t want to cap the upside that Will Fuller has had, because his mere presence changed the entire Texans-Colts game, but this has to be a good Will Fuller game if the Texans can win. Zero drops. The Patriots love to run shadow coverage, and though Bill Belichick has a history of using his No. 1 DB on the other teams’ No. 2 WR, then shading the safety towards the No. 1 WR, I would be surprised if we didn’t get a Hopkins versus Stephon Gilmore battle. That’s what happened in Week 1 of the 2018 season, and Gilmore held Hopkins to 57 yards on eight targets, five of which were completed.
Bill O’Brien has a primordial need to run the ball, and luckily for him, it actually is important that the Texans run well in this game anyway. The Patriots have an incredibly huge split in effectiveness between 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers), allowing a 50% success rate (45% on pass, 54% on runs) to 12, but just a 35% success rate to 11. The Texans have had success running out of 12 in small bursts this year, but it’s been game-plan dependent. Since Week 8, the Texans have a 54% success rate running out of 11, and just a 46% success rate running out of 12.
The real problem isn’t the Pats run defense, which has been bullied at times this year, but the fact that Houston’s run offense has wildly declined in effectiveness. The Texans have been in double-digit negative run offense DVOA figures for three of their last four games. The other game, Jacksonville in London, came out to -8.2%. I don’t necessarily think this is a Carlos Hyde problem, as he’s still been running well. I just think Houston’s read-options haven’t been working well and that has made O’Brien want to run a ton of zone plays even though his team isn’t any good at blocking them. That is his base game plan.
Duron Harmon sort of tipped that the Texans will see a lot of Cover-2 in his press availability this week. Not surprising given how much they focused on how explosive the Texans are. I suspect you’ll see New England’s defense focus on limiting the big play.
Irrespective of the results of this game, let me at least float this at you: I think the Texans have the talent to give this defense a run for their money. Star left tackle. Young star quarterback. One of the best receivers in the NFL. Two deep threats. Akins and Johnson underneath. I don’t think this game should be embarrassing. If it is, well, you don’t have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a coaching problem in my eyes. To me, it is wild to watch the Patriots — a team with zero pass rushers of any real repute before this season — run hog wild on opposing offenses. If this defense were in the hands of Matt Patricia, or Gregg Williams, or someone in that range, I think we’d be talking about how the Texans can move the ball with ease on them. This game is, ultimately, all about the coaching. As it usually is.
When the Patriots have the ball
I have read many stats about how the Texans no longer get pass rush without J.J. Watt. Forget the pass rush — they barely do defense without Watt. They’ve allowed 7.4 yards per attempt and 5.4 yards per carry since Watt went down, and though the latter is skewed by the Ravens game, they also just got their asses kicked by Johnathan Williams for 175 rushing yards. They have not turned over a non-Gardner Minshew quarterback. I enjoy the little bursts of hope when I can, and I’m not going to shit on you for enjoying Jacob Martin’s sack last game, but let’s come into this with low expectations and hope they are met.
The good news is that things seem to be trending towards the Texans having almost an entire roster of healthy players. Bradley Roby reportedly will be back, and that sets up a scenario where the Texans have Roby, Gareon Conley, and Johnathan Joseph all healthy at the same time for the first time. I’m guessing Roby plays inside on those sets. We shall see how the trio works together.
Unfortunately, Tom Brady’s troops are also getting healthy. Isaiah Wynn’s return last game helped get New England’s worst starter most of the year, Marshall Newhouse, out of the lineup. Phillip Dorsett has cleared concussion protocol, and Mohamed Sanu appears to be on the right side of questionable after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury.
Brady has had well-documented problems with the blitz over the last couple of years, and that appears to be the case again this season with his QBR declining to 40.6 when he’s blitzed. Romeo Crennel sent only 10 blitzes in 41 dropbacks in their matchup in 2018, and since the bye has declined his usage of blitzes by quite a bit. Jacoby Brissett saw five in 26 dropbacks, and Lamar Jackson saw five in 25 dropbacks. While that could be a sign that Crennel is happier with where he’s at in coverage players now, it’s also not trending in the direction that would make this game fun for Texans fans. Brady can play against this pass defense in his sleep, and if they don’t make him throw off-balance or out-of-structure, the Texans aren’t going to offer a lot of resistance until the red zone.
New England has not had much success running the ball this year, though the return of Wynn appeared to boost that a bit last week. Sony Michel has just not broken many tackles this year — only Frank Gore has broken more among backs with a real workload this year per Sports Info Solutions. They miss fullback James Develin, and have gone as far as using linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback recently to try to jump start something.
Ultimately there’s not a ton that’s impressive or electrifying about the New England offense sans Gronkowski — they’re just going to play turnover-free ball and let their defense win them the game. Against the 2018 Texans, I’d be up here raving about how they had a chance to take Brady down. But against the 2019 Texans, who basically only have coverage sacks and gap shots from Bernardrick McKinney as ways to force a negative play? It’s going to take some luck.
The major difference in these two units is just the field-goal kickers — the Patriots are well above-average to great in the other areas. The Pats have cycled through a few kickers in Stephen Gostkowski’s absence, and with Folk down for this one again will have someone untrustworthy. That untrustworthy player was named on Friday when Kai Forbath was signed.
Ka’imi Fairbairn’s accuracy has declined in every area this year, and he’s now just 6-for-11 beyond 40 yards. Some of that is about the operation — I get it — neither team should have a lot of confidence in their kicker in this game. Dylan Cole’s ACL injury removes one of Houston’s best kick coverage players.
I know they’ve had a historically good defense this year, but there’s a part of me that finds this Patriots team quite vulnerable. Their defense is awesome, but Lamar Jackson punctured it with ease, no matter what New England tried to do to change things around. The offense still has Tom Brady, but nobody on this team scares you in the open field. They don’t miss tackles. They are a short-passing team and I think they’re still looking for a real run identity.
However, there’s another, more subjective part of me, that listens to Bill O’Brien talk at pressers, and hears him talk about turnover ratio and how they have to be flawless and marvel at New England’s operation — and then ends that with “and if we get that, we’ll see what happens.”
The Patriots don’t have the booster jets to roll the Texans unless they add on some defensive scores, but I don’t have much confidence in the way the offense is being coached or the talent the defense has right now. To nobody’s surprise, I will take New England 19, Houston 13 — this is a game with a lot of running and a lot of stalls in the red zone.
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