Think you know what's coming Saturday? Texans may have something else in mind

Mike Petraglia
January 13, 2017 - 12:59 pm

Bill Belichick will be reading every situation on the field Saturday night. (Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO - Expect the unexpected.

The Houston Texans realize the only way they can stay remotely close with the Patriots Saturday night is to go the unconventional route.

Bill Belichick knows it. Tom Brady knows it. And Texans coach Bill O'Brien and his staff know the only prayer they have in the AFC divisional showdown at Gillette is to constantly throw out new looks and situations the Patriots could not have possibly prepared for.

It's really the only thing that should keep Belichick and his massive mainframe of a football mind up late Friday into Saturday. What in the world will O'Brien and Romeo Crennel possibly concoct to keep things interesting? The Patriots have the clear advantage in experience, personnel and talent.

"I'm not saying that regular season is the same as the postseason - it's not - but as far as decision making, I mean you always try to make good decisions," Belichick said. "But when you get into the postseason it changes a little bit. Yeah, it changes a little bit. It's a one game season, so whatever you think your best thing is, I mean that's probably what you want to do, whatever that is. It could go either way as to whether that's to go for it, not go for it, to blitz, not blitz, to rush the return, whatever. But whatever you think your best thing is, I think that's what your choice would be at this point."

But the irony is that's EXACTLY how Belichick would like O'Brien to play it. Go strength on strength and Belichick will be most prepared for that.

If O'Brien and Crennel come out predictably and do what they have done all year and apply that to Tom Brady, then the Patriots will likely be up, 21-0, after the first quarter.

The Texans have positively, absolutely nothing to lose by going unconventional Saturday night. Whether it's going with no down linemen or playing six defensive backs (which they might have to anyway if Brady comes out in the spread offense), Crennel must find a way to give a look to Brady he wasn't expecting.

I asked O'Brien this week if knowing Brady from his offensive coordinator days with the Patriots from 2009-11 might provide an edge for him in the ‘cat and mouse' game.

"I think it's more about execution," O'Brien answered. "We're not going to show him anything that he hasn't already seen. He's been doing it for years, 17 years or whatever it is. I mean, that's part of what makes him who he is. He's seen it all. He's very well-prepared. He's played against a lot of these players. He's played against this scheme.

"We just need to kind of do what we do and execute and play every play. Be very focused on every single play, I think that's big for us."

Don't believe that for a second. If O'Brien comes out and shows Brady everything he's seen before, the Texans are a dead-team walking. When Tom Brady knows what you're doing before the snap of the ball, you're dead. And O'Brien and Crennel know this all too well.

This week, Belichick spoke at length and in detail about how the Texans like to line up star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on the offense's left side and what his tendencies are in the 3-4, 4-3 and sub packages. He knows that linebacker Whitney Mercilus lines up in various spots because "he's not a defensive lineman" in their base defense. We heard all about how Belichick loved what he saw out of linebacker Bernardrick McKinney out of Mississippi State and his tendencies in the Texans base D. The Belichick computer knows all about the tendencies of the Texans.

But here's the one thing going for the Texans, O'Brien and Crennel know a lot about the tendencies of Brady. Where he can handle the blitz and where it affects him the most, where he looks under pressure and what he might change to, and how a newcomer like Michael Floyd might fit in.

"I think the key is basically the philosophical alignment that they know, that's how they operate," O'Brien said of the Brady offense. "There's going to be a certain turning of the roster or maybe we bring a guy in late in the season that helps us as a team and we have to be ready to teach that guy. We have to understand how to teach that guy. We can't throw the kitchen sink at them. We just have to do a really good job of - what's the information we need to give to them that applies to the game coming up or the practice coming up. I think that's something that their coaching staff does a great job of."

Julian Edelman, the most-likely hot read on any blitz read Brady might make, assumes the Texans will have a completely different game plan than the Week 3 attack.

"You've got to prepare like you're playing a new team, which we pretty much are," Edelman said Thursday. "When a team is going through September, it's usually a team trying to find its identity. Around the league, everyone is trying to find where they're at. Completely different teams – this will be the best team we've played all year. Any time you play a team that's won a playoff game already, it's most certainly going to be the best team you've played thus far. It's going to be a big battle. We know Billy O. He's going to have that team coming in here fighting hard. They're going to be well-coached; they have a lot of good players."  

As much as the Patriots have Tom Brady and his wealth of weapons, the Patriots bigger advantage is likely their defense against Brock Osweiler and a Texans offense so devoid of playmakers that they scored 17.4 points per game, tied for fourth fewest in the NFL this season. As a matter of fact, the three teams below them (Jets, Browns and Rams) were among the dregs of the league this season.

The Texans need to land a punch or two in the first quarter to let the Patriots know that A, they mean business and B, they have prepared unconventionally for this game.

Here are three ways the Texans could change things up:

1. Throw deep early and often. Everyone is expecting the Texans to run Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue as part of the offense to play keep away from Tom Brady. Everyone believes that Osweiler is the obvious weak link in the Houston offense. Well, if Brock Osweiler comes out and throws a 70-yard bomb to DeAndre Hopkins or Will Fuller on the first play, that could calm the jitters that are sure to be there for Osweiler in his first career playoff start on the road. The only hope for Osweiler throwing deep is to throw in running situations and run in passing situations. The Patriots had better be ready for a lot of draws and traps Saturday.

"I think he's a very big, tall quarterback," Rob Ninkovich said of Osweiler. "In the pocket, he likes to stay in the pocket and look down the field. He's so big he can pretty much see everything. He can make every throw. He's a really good pocket quarterback but he can also get out and run. So as a defensive lineman you have to be aware of situations where he can pull the ball down and try and run and that's up to the front."

2. Run more wildcat offense. If the idea is to put it in the hands of the best players on offense why not just take out the middle man and snap to Miller, Blue or even the speedy Fuller for that matter. The Texans best shot of beating the Patriots defense is getting the ball to their best players in space and letting them try to outrun the looks. In 2008, the Dolphins pulled off a shocking upset using this strategy. Now is the time for the Texans to try something similar if they're serious about making life even remotely difficult for the Patriots defense.

"He's really fast. He's explosive," Ninkovich said of Miller, who ran for 1,073 yards and averaged 4 yards a carry. "He has the ability to catch and run. He's an overall good running back. So when you have a guy like that you just have to be alert and aware of where he's at, at all times."

3. Run hurry-up. If the Texans want to limit the defensive packages on the field, running some sort of hurry-up at the line of scrimmage could accomplish this. If O'Brien can keep the same 11 defenders on the field, that limits what Osweiler needs to read in terms of personnel.

Let's be honest. The Texans could do everything the right way. They could make the right adjustments. They could have an unpredictable game plan and execute it very well.

They could do all of that and still lose by 21. But it would make things a lot more interesting if they came in and threw convention to the wind.