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

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Oct 29, 2018; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the third quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 29, 2018; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the third quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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 offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.

The Patriots’ offense has struggled the past two games scoring 30 points combined in the two games after averaging almost 30 points per game previously. Despite the lower point production, it comes as a caveat as the Patriots have struggled with injuries at the wide receiver position losing both Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett

The biggest positive from the last game was the return to form of running back Sony Michel. After struggling much of the season, the return of left tackle Isaiah Wynn from the injured reserve list ignited the rushing attack. Michel had 85 yards on twenty carries against Cowboys (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).

The New England Patriots offense faces a Houston Texans’ defense which is very different from the unit from last season’s thrilling open game of the 2018 season. Safety Tyrann Mathieu is in Kansas City, cornerbacks Kareem Jackson (Denver) and Kevin Johnson (Buffalo) moved on in free agency as well, edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney was traded to Seattle, and defensive ends J.J. Watt (on injured reserve yet again) and Christian Covington (signed with Dallas in the offseason) are gone. 

How does the New England Patriots’ offense get back on the right track in 2019 against the Houston Texans’ defense? 

Key Matchups:

Patriots’ Offensive Line vs Houston’s Defensive Line:

The Patriots face a defensive line that lacks the high-end talent up-front that usually heralded the arrival of the Texans’ defense. The unit currently is middle-of-the-pack ranking 17th in points allowed, 20th in yards allowed, 25th in passing yards, 17th in rushing yards and 29th with just 22 sacks.

Watt, Clowney and Covington are key losses on the defensive line. Angelo Blackson and Brandon Dunn are solid players, but neither has any sacks in 2019. Remember, last season Watt and Clowney alone combined for 25 sacks. Covington had just 3.5 sacks in 2018, but he was a big reason for the league-best 3.4 yards per rushing attempt for the number one ranked defense.

Whitney Mercilus, a 2012 first-round pick in Houston, leads the team with 5.5 sacks, but has just a half sack in the last six games combined. After starting the season with five sacks, he struggled with the extra attention he has received.

Brannan Scarlett, a fourth-year undrafted free agent has made the most of his increased playing time, has a career-high 3.5 sacks this season. However, he (and Blackson) have been limited with shoulder injuries and their status for Sunday in up in the air.  Back-up Carlos Watson is also questionable with a hamstring injury.

The Patriots’ offensive line looked back to as close to normal as it has all season last week with Isaiah Wynn back at left tackle. This week he, like back-up Jermaine Eluemunor, have been out with the cold/flu ravaging the New England locker room. Marcus Cannon–who was ill last week–is still limited as well.

If the Patriots can get their tackles healthy and hydrated for Sunday night (for once, a little extra time for the night game may be a benefit) their offensive line should be ready to face a depleted Houston front.

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The Patriots’ offensive line has a tough match-up against the Texans, but Houston will not be sending elite pass rushers at a depleted offensive line. With Isaiah Wynn back at left tackle, the offensive line is at full strength for the first time since week one. If the offensive line can win up front and keep Brady upright, the Patriots will be able to attack the Houston secondary.

ADVANTAGE: Patriots

Patriots’ Running Backs vs Houston’s Linebackers:

The play of running back Sony Michel has been a hot topic so far in 2019. After a strong post-season that saw him rush for six touchdowns in three games, he has just 600 yards rushing in 11 games averaging just 3.4 yards per attempt.

The effectiveness of Michel increased as for seemingly the first time he was gaining yards before contact. The Patriots are hopeful that their starting tackles (Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon) are able to play after not practicing or being limited due to illness.

Houston had the number one rush defense last year and were third in the NFL against the run just a few weeks ago, but have struggled mightily in 2019. Much of that decline has been in the past two weeks as the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson torched them on the ground (which sounds familiar in New England) and the top-flite offensive line of the Indianapolis Colts had their way with the Houston front seven. 

Houston’s run defense is anchored by D.J. Reader in the middle of the defense. Running a 3-4 defense (coordinated by old friend Romeo Crennel), everything stopping the run keys off the big nose tackle. Reader is a handful who can occupy multiple blockers and push the pocket as a pass rusher (he had two sacks against the Patriots on opening day last year). Reader will be a handful for the New England offensive line.

Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney are solid inside for Houston. However, asking them to cover Rex Burkhead or James White is a huge match-up victory for the Patriots. Look for Brady to look to isolate the running backs 

For Houston, problems against the run began when J.J. Watt went out. With less attention on him (and Clowney, who was an underrated run disrupter) the extra attention has focused on the inside linebackers and Whitney Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett.

The Texans are still a solid run stopping defense. While they have been exposed without J.J. Watt, it has been against some of the best rushing offenses in the NFL. If the Patriots can refrain from falling into an early hole like they did versus Baltimore, they should be able to run the ball effectively and run their entire offense. 

ADVANTAGE: Even

Patriots’ Pass Catchers vs Houston’s Secondary: 

The New England Patriots face a very different Houston secondary from the last time the two teams matched-up. While 35 year-old cornerback Johnathan Joseph remains a constant in the Houston secondary, it may get an upgrade Sunday night with the potential return of former Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby.

Roby has missed five games and in the interim the Texans turned to former Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley and rookie Lonnie Johnson. Johnson injured his ankle and missed last week’s game against Indianapolis, but the rookie has been impressive so far in 2019. Conley is also on injury report with a hip injury. Without Johnson last week, the Texans leaned on veteran Vernon Hargreaves.

At safety, last year’s impressive find in the third round, Justin Reid, is joined by former Jaguars strong safety Tashaun Gipson. Reid was out last week with a safety and back-up Mike Adams was also out with the same. Former Chargers’ safety Jahleel Addae suited up and Houston was fortunate Gipson (who had missed two games with a back injury) was able to go.

New England has the difficult match-up of Julian Edelman. In the past, they had Aaron Colvin, but he was surprisingly released prior to the season. Phillip Gaines was supposed to be the answer but he is out for the season with an ankle injury. If Roby can return to action, his ability to play in the slot makes him the favorite to match-up Edelman.

On the outside, the Patriots have Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett practicing this week, which would be a big boost to the passing attack. While rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers played well last week, against savvy veterans like Joseph, they may prefer to counter with a veteran receiver.

Injuries have been the biggest problem for the Houston secondary as they’ve struggled to have a healthy unit. However, none of that can mask the 22 passing touchdowns allowed in 11 games and just five interceptions. If the Patriots are going to get their passing game on track, this may be the week to do it.

New England should be able to move the ball at will through the air against the Texans’ still banged-up  secondary. Julian Edelman should be effective inside and if Mohamed Sanu is healthy enough to play, he could be a match-up problem. Look for the Patriots to come out throwing until the Texans show any ability to slow them down.

ADVANTAGE: New England

The New England offense faces a defense whose reputation from last season does not match their play in 2019. The Texans lack play-makers at linebacker and the pass rush has been non-existent. The Patriots should be able to hold-up on the offensive line and give quarterback Tom Brady time to pick apart the depleted secondary. Unless the Texans can suddenly force some turnovers, it will be a long day for the Houston defense against a potentially rejuvenated New England offense.

NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS SCORED: 24

-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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