New England Patriots Game Preview: Defensive Strategy Game 12 vs Houston Texans

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New England Patriots vs. Minnesota Vikings, December 2, 2018 (cred USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots improved to 10-1 following a win over Dallas and have now won 10 or more games for an NFL record 17 straight seasons (2003-19). To put that record in perspective, among current NFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs are second with four straight seasons (although 2019 should bring them five consecutive), followed by the Saints (three, including 2019) and the Los Angeles Rams with two.

The Patriots battled the elements and the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday and came away with  a win in their second-consecutive game against the two front-runners from the NFC East. The prior Sunday they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 17-10 on the road and last week 13-9 over Dallas in soggy Gillette Stadium.

This week the Patriots should have much better weather as they make their longest road trip of the season heading out of the Eastern time zone for the only time this season. The Patriots head to NRG Stadium in Houston, TX to face former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans.

This week’s game will be broadcast nationally as the NBC Sunday Night Football game. The game can be seen locally on NBC 10 Boston or on WJAR NBC 10 Providence in Southern New England. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work from the sidelines. 

On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast on 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network and all of the network’s 38 stations carry the game live. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who provides his own unique color analysis.

Sunday’s game will also be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Kugler will call the game with Miami Dolphins’ great and NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor providing analysis. Taylor is familiar with Tom Brady having sacked him 12.5 times in his career. Brady also wrote one of the most complimentary letters of support for Taylor when the defensive end was up before the Hall of Fame voters.

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.

Just when everyone was ready to call out the New England Patriots’ defense after the Baltimore Ravens piled up 210 yards on the ground and 30 points on offense (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted), a week off for the bye had the entire defense back to normal. The Eagles and Cowboys combined for less than 200 yards rushing and just 19 points in the two games since the bye week.

The Houston Texans host the Patriots and have one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL with the strong-armed, athletic Deshaun Watson. With almost 2,900 yards passing and 20 touchdowns in his first 11 games of 2019, Watson has blossomed at the age of 24 into a superstar.

With an improved offensive line, the Texans looked unstoppable until the past two weeks where Baltimore and Indianapolis slowed their momentum significantly. However, the usual problem for Houston is the depth behind top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. While Carlos Hyde has been solid, the question remains if Houston has enough weapons to outscore Tom Brady and the Patriots. 

How do the Patriots plan to continue their strong defensive performances when facing another young, athletic and elusive quarterback who can extend plays and make game-changing plays with his legs and arm?

Key Match-ups: 

Houston’s Offensive Line vs Patriots’ Defensive Line:

This was traditionally the Achilles heel of the Texans–until they went all in and sent a pair of first round draft picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Add in first round draft pick Tytus Howard at right tackle and second-round draft pick Max Scharping at left guard, the Texans only have two holdovers on the line in center Nick Martin and guard Zach Fulton.

The offensive line gets a lot of blame for the sacks allowed, but a lot of that is due to Watson’s slow decision-making. He too often holds the ball or tries to extend plays rather than trust the system and take the throw available to him. Anytime the sack occurs after three seconds, the blame shifts to the quarterback and receivers and away from the offensive line.

The Patriots’ sack rate has dropped in recent weeks as they failed to pick up a single sack of Dak Prescott last week after getting to Carson Wentz five times the week prior. The Patriots are tied for fifth in the NFL with 37 sacks.

New England has depth and versatility up front. They use their linebackers as edge rushers on third down and love to bring pressure from anywhere. They have seven defensive players with three or more sacks despite no one player having more than six sacks.

The interior defensive line has two surprising pass rushers with Adam Butler (5.5 sacks) and Danny Shelton (three sacks) bringing more pressure than in past years for the Patriots. Add in the versatile Lawrence Guy, and the Patriots could make Watson uncomfortable pressuring and not giving him room to step up in the pocket.

The Texans’ offensive line is much improved, but the slow decision-making by DeShaun Watson leads to sacks. The Patriots should remain disciplined in the pass rush and contain Watson and keep him from extending plays outside the pocket. If they can generate interior pressure, it could be a long day for the Houston offense.

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ADVANTAGE: Even

Houston’s Running Backs vs Patriots’ Linebackers:

Houston starting running back Lamar Miller tore his ACL in the preseason ad is out for the entire season. Forced to trade with Kansas City for journeyman Carlos Hyde, Hyde has been revitalized in Houston rushing for 836 yards through 11 games with an impressive 4.8 yards per attempt average.

On third down, the Texans have former Cleveland Browns receiving back Duke Johnson. Johnson has averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt and has added 25 receptions for 240 yards so far in 2019. Johnson will look to isolate the bigger linebackers such as Hightower or Van Noy in coverage where he can use his athleticism to create space.

For New England, the improvement in run defense last week against Dallas started with a return to disciplined play. Jamie Collins has reined in some of the “freelancing” that highlighted his prior tenure in New England, but the more disciplined he plays on running downs the better the defense plays as a unit. 

As well as Eladon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley have been against the run, they don’t have the discipline that Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower have playing the inside linebacker role. In addition, getting Patrick Chung–even at less than 100 percent–on the field is a huge boost to the run defense. There are few tougher players pound-for-pound than Chung.

The Texans are another team which has excelled in running the football all season. With their struggles against the run, this should be an advantage for the Texans. However, the Patriots seemed back on track against the run last week versus Dallas. Unless Houston gets a lead early, whether they run well or not could be irrelevant. 

ADVANTAGE: Houston

Houston’s Pass Catchers vs Patriots’ Secondary: 

For Houston, it is the DeAndre Hopkins and then everyone else. Hopkins has 112 of the 356 passing targets for the Texans in 2019. He has 81 receptions for 830 yards and six touchdowns. 

Expect him to see a lot of Stephon Gilmore in coverage on Sunday night.

To paraphrase Terrell Owens, “Get your popcorn ready ‘cause they’re gonna put on a show!”

Former Notre Dame star Will Fuller is second on the team in receptions but the 2016 first round draft pick has never lived up to his potential. This season a hamstring injury has slowed him. He has been the epitome of inconsistency: a non-factor for four weeks before an otherworldly performance against the Falcons (14 receptions for 217 yards and three touchdowns) and then once more a non-factor before getting hurt. He had a strong game against Indianapolis last week but he seems incapable of carrying over the consistency from one week to the next.

Deep threat Kenny Stills (27 receptions) and slot receiver Keke Coutee (16 receptions) are one-trick ponies. Houston has had success throwing to Darren Fells (brother of former Patriots tight end Daniel Fells) and Jordan Akins (a third round draft pick last season) although neither is more than outlet or occasional zone buster.

For New England, if Patrick Chung can go he will get Fells or Akins while Jonathan Jones should be able to lock up Coutee in coverage. Jones has played at a Pro Bowl level all season in the slot. 

With Gilmore and Hopkins entertaining the masses, JC Jackson or Jason McCourty (limited with a groin injury and he missed last week’s matchup versus Dallas) will be tasked with Fuller. 

Houston struggled mightily passing the ball against the strong Baltimore pass defense. Houston has to play from ahead to run the ball and set-up play action passing. If they fall behind like they did against Baltimore, the passing offense will struggle to move the ball through the air.

The Texans have suddenly struggled to move the ball through the air and it will get no easier Sunday night against the New England secondary. A heavy dose of the tight end Daniel Fells  and running back Duke Johnson is the best game plan from offensive coordinator Tim Kelly and head coach Bill O’Brien.

ADVANTAGE: New England

The game plan on defense is the same as it has been for the Patriots for 2019: take away the running game early and have the pass coverage force DeShaun Watson to hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get pressure. Forcing him to make multiple progressions under pressure with will create short drives and increase the turnover opportunities.

If New England’s defense remains strong on third down, it could be a long day for the Texans’ offense. If the offense is clicking early for the Patriots and takes an early lead, it could force Houston to abandon the run and keep the raucous fans quiet. The defense has a golden opportunity to get continue their dominating ways in pass defense this week.

NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 13

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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