3TFO: Texans @ Patriots, AFC Divisional
Whether an NFL team considers its season a success or a failure often comes down to perspective. This time last year, the Houston Texans proudly celebrated their franchise’s first playoff win in their first-ever playoff game. They then traveled to Baltimore and were done-in by T.J. Yates’ three interceptions. However, reaching the doorstep of the AFC Championship game with a third-string rookie quarterback was an admirable accomplishment. After their running game and defense carried them last week in yet another Wild Card round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Houston finds itself in the same position, but with greater expectations.
The Texans had an 11-1 record with a clear path to home-field advantage when they visited Gillette Stadium four weeks ago. But an embarrassing 42-14 defeat, along with two more losses in their next three games, has forced Houston to return as heavy underdogs. A win this Sunday will be no easy task, but that’s what’s necessary to avoid a disappointing season defined by a December swoon.
As for the New England Patriots, a team that’s reached five of the past 11 Super Bowls, the bar has been set above mere playoff victories. This is a seemingly ideal matchup for them after their Monday Night December drubbing of the Texans. But in 2010, the New York Jets returned to Foxboro just a month after a humiliating 45-3 primetime loss, only to hand the top-seeded Patriots a stunning early exit from the playoffs. It’s Super Bowl or bust for New England, but Bill Belichick’s men should know by now that past success gives no guarantees for the future.
As these AFC giants both aim to fulfill their increased expectations, here are three matchups that could decide the outcome of this rematch.
J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith vs. Patriots Run-Blocking
We just keep pouring the accolades on for J.J. Watt this season, and for good reason. He became the first player ever to top the 100-point PFF grade mark and ran away with our Defensive Player of the Year award in a season stacked with top-notch defenders. He didn’t slow down once he reached the playoffs, terrorizing the Bengals offense with six quarterback pressures, two batted passes, and four run stops last week.
There were times against the Patriots in Week 14 when he was fighting a one-man war, hitting Tom Brady four times while the rest of his defense was repeatedly burned. A microcosm of Watt’s hard-luck day came early in the fourth quarter, when he caught Danny Woodhead from behind and caused a fumble, only to have Brandon Lloyd fall on the loose ball in the end zone for a Patriots touchdown. Against the run, Watt battled back-and-forth with the New England linemen all day, yet was held to just one run stop in his only game all season without a positive run grade.
Whatever gains Watt had against New England were offset on the other side by the Texans’ worst-graded defender of the game, Antonio Smith. Smith has the sixth-highest PFF grade of all 3-4 defensive ends this season, but his game isn’t exactly balanced. His 47 quarterback pressures is second only to Watt at his position, but only a handful of Smith’s peers have a worse Run Stop Percentage than his mark of 5.4.
His flaws in run defense were on full-display against the Patriots, particularly with 2:18 left in the third quarter, when Logan Mankins absorbed Smith’s rush and shoved him to the ground, leaving a big hole for Stevan Ridley to easily pick up the first down. On 3rd-and-4 with 7:28 left in the fourth, Smith was aggressively rushing the passer when Ridley ran right by him for a 14-yard score.
Every starter on the Patriots’ offensive line earned a positive run blocking grade this season, and Ryan Wendell’s +24.2 mark led all centers. Mankins has also come on strong with a +9.5 run block grade in his past four games. Smith showed in Week 16 that he is capable of playing the run with four stops against Adrian Peterson’s Vikings. He needs to bring that effort this week to see that Watt’s next great performance isn’t for naught.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Glover Quin and Danieal Manning
Amazingly enough, the Patriots were able to thrash the Texans defense without Rob Gronkowski, our highest-graded tight end this season. The big storyline before the game was that New England practiced with racquetball paddles to prepare for the Texans’ ability to bat down passes, but New England may have just decided that it was easier to go over Watt’s arms than between them. Brady threw 42.4% of his passes over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage — a higher rate than his 33.3% for the season. He gained 177 of his 296 yards on such throws, often victimizing Houston safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning.
With 2:55 left in the first quarter, Quin bit hard of a play-action fake and left Lloyd wide open on a post-route for a 37-yard touchdown. Manning later incurred a costly third-down pass interference penalty on a deep route to Wes Welker in the second quarter. And with 11:04 left in the same quarter, Manning was slow to get over to cover a split-wide Aaron Hernandez. Brady snapped the ball quickly and hit his tight end for the embarrassingly easy score.
After surrendering 123 yards and a touchdown in Week 17, Quin rebounded to become one of Wild Card weekend’s Secret Superstars. He allowed just 13 yards on six targets while covering Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins. Manning, however, has no such positive to point to. With 2:57 left in the game, he inexplicably let A.J. Green behind him and would have allowed a go-ahead touchdown if not for Andy Dalton’s overthrown pass.
Gronkowski will challenge these safeties to cover every inch of the field. He leads all tight ends by far with 2.43 Yards Per Route Run. He’s third with 1.91 YPRR when lined up as a slot receiver. And he’s dangerous on deeper routes, with 463 of his 790 receiving yards coming on passes over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Hernanez hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s breakout season, but this will be only the sixth time he and Gronkowski have started together. If this tight end tandem plays at the level they did last year, Houston’s defense could again find itself helpless to stop New England’s offense.
Arian Foster vs. Patriots Front Seven
Arian Foster hasn’t had the elite season that we’re accustomed to seeing from him. His 17.9 Elusive Rating is one of the lower marks among starting running backs, and he’s last with 0.60 Yards Per Route Run a year after leading his peers with 2.35 in that category. However, as he reminded us against the Bengals last week, he is still the engine that powers the Texans’ offense. Eighty of his 140 rushing yards against Cincinnati came after contact, and he caught all eight of his targets to keep the Houston offense moving. His 15-yard run with 6:35 left in the second quarter, with multiple cuts in traffic, was vintage Foster.
Much of New England’s success against Houston in Week 14 stemmed from holding Foster to 46 rushing yards on 15 carries. The Texan back didn’t have any negative plays, save for a dropped pass, but he just didn’t have many holes to run through. We can attribute that to the Patriots’ front seven, all of whom have earned a positive run grade this season.
Midway through November we were asking ourselves What’s wrong with Vince Wilfork?, but the anchor in the middle of New England’s line has since upped his game. He ranks fourth among all defensive tackles this season with an 8.7 Run Stop Percentage. On the second level, Brandon Spikes leads all inside linebackers with a +14.0 run defense grade, and Jerod Mayo has the second-highest Run Stop rate of all 4-3 outside linebackers with a 10.6 mark. If Houston is looking for a weakness in the Patriots’ run defense, targeting its rookies on the outside could be a start. Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower both rank in their lower half of their positions with 5.0 and 6.8 Run Stop Percentages, respectively.
Despite the Patriots’ strength up the middle, the Texans still puzzlingly directed 22 of their 27 runs inside the tackles. Perhaps that was because Houston was missing it’s best blocking tight end, Garrett Graham. Fullback James Casey instead lined up in Graham’s spot, earning just a -0.6 run block grade. With Graham in the lineup, Foster carried for a 4.7-yard average on runs outside the tackles against the Bengals versus 4.3 inside. Graham suffered a concussion near the end of that victory, and having him back healthy will perhaps encourage Houston to run more to the edges. Against a high-powered offense like the Patriots, the Texans need a successful ground game this time around if they hope to pull off the upset.
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