3TFO: Texans @ Patriots, Week 14
Kudos to the schedule makers for slotting this battle of AFC heavyweights for Monday Night Football as the Houston Texans travel to take on the New England Patriots. First round byes, as well as homefield advantage throughout the playoffs will be at stake as the 11-1 Texans look to extend their advantage over the 9-3 Patriots. Both teams have won their last six games and they’re the top two scoring teams in the league, so the stage is set for an epic battle.
Houston is looking to prove that they belong in the conversation as Super Bowl favorites in the AFC, while New England is trying to remain among the conference’s elite. The Texans appeared to be without weakness early in the season, but recently, the secondary has been exploited in part due to a number of injuries. New England’s secondary has taken its yearly criticism as well, but the defense has played well in recent weeks and this game will go a long way to showing if they have a championship-caliber unit.
There are a number of great matchups in this one, let’s take a look.
Texans Running Game vs. Patriots Front Seven
The trench battle will be one to watch as the Texans pit their zone blocking scheme up against a stout Patriots front seven. Running back Arian Foster has not made defenders miss as much as last season as his Elusive Rating has dropped from 28.0 to 11.8. Despite the drop-off, he’s found the end zone 13 times and his one-cut style generally makes good use of the Texans’ offensive line. Up front, the line has not blocked as effectively as last season, but they still feature potential Pro Bowlers in left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers. Brown is our top-rated tackle overall and he ranks second in run blocking. Myers is grading well as a run blocker too and the Texans’ running backs love to run right off his backside in the zone scheme — 37 percent of their rushing yards have come directly to either side of Myers at 4.6 yards per carry. Foster will be seeking out holes from Myers on Monday night.
Despite the criticism the Patriots’ defense has faced in recent years, they’re built to stop the run. It starts up front with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork who’s been on a tear since I questioned his production this season. He’s graded at +7.1 over the last three games and vaulted to 11th at the position in Run Stop Percentage at 7.9 percent. At linebacker, Brandon Spikes does a great job of blowing up blocking schemes to help fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo make plays. Mayo ranks second among 4-3 outside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage at 11.0 percent and he’s missed only four tackles this season. The Texans’ offense revolves around their running game and play action so the trench battle is one to watch on Monday night.
Patriots Running Game vs. Texans Front Seven
The Patriots have developed a running game of their own and it starts with the blockers up front. Center Ryan Wendell is grading as our best center in the league while left guard Donald Thomas has more than filled the shoes of injured Logan Mankins, though Mankins is expected to return this week. LT Nate Solder earned a PFF Game Ball last week on the strength of his run blocking and he’s up to +5.8 on the season. In addition to the strong play of the line, the Patriots feature a diverse running game that combines both man and zone blocking to keep defenses off balance. The made a concerted effort to stick with the ground game this season and they may have some success against Houston who loves to play their lighter 2-3-6 dime package 50 percent of the time.
For Houston, the entire defense revolves around DE J.J. Watt, but he deserves his own section of analysis. He has some stout run defenders around him on the line, particularly defensive tackles Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody. Mitchell ranks ninth among the top 86 qualifiers at the position with a Run Stop Percentage of 9.7. Cody returned to the lineup last week and his RSP is the best in the league at 13.2 percent. Rookie DE Jared Crick has played well as part of the defensive line rotation. He’s grading at +4.0 against the run.
Watt to do with J.J.?
Run away from him, and he’ll track you down. Throw over him, and he’ll bat it down. Throw away from him, and he’ll sack you. That’s 2012 in a nutshell for Watt who, despite a recent surge by Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, is still the likely favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s elite in every facet of the game as he leads all 3-4 defensive ends in Run Stop Percentage at 19.0 percent and Pass Rushing Productivity at 10.1. His +40.7 pass rush grade is off-the-charts and his +73.7 overall grade is just as ludicrous. Now that we’re finally passed the accolades, how will the Patriots look to slow Watt down?
Watt generally lines up at left end in the Texan’s base 3-4 before moving to defensive left tackle in their four-man sub packages, so the onus is likely to be on right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Unfortunately for New England, both players are battling injuries as Connolly left last week’s game early while Vollmer may not have been playing at 100 percent and had a tough outing against Miami Dolphins DE Cameron Wake. Connolly ranks 61st out of 73 qualifying guards with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) of 95.3, so the Patriots may look to give him some help when Watt is lined up over him on passing downs. When healthy, Vollmer is a fine option as he’s garnering Pro Bowl consideration even after last week’s rough performance. He fell to 22nd in PBE among tackles at 95.5 while providing solid run blocking. It’s very difficult to game plan for a disruptive force like Watt, but expect the Patriots to mix up their offensive line looks as best they can.
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