Scouting Report: What you have to know about Texans-Patriots

January 13, 2017 - 10:01 am
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[caption id="attachment_110521" align="alignright" width="350"] Tom Brady will make the 32nd postseason start of his career Saturday against Houston. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)[/caption] Everything you need to know for Saturday's divisional playoff contest between the Patriots and Texans at Gillette Stadium. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL This may not be a big component of the game in the early going, but it will be before things are all said and done. LeGarrette Blount (299 carries, 1,161 rushing yards, a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns) was able to run for big yardage when these two teams met back in September (24 carries, 105 yards, 2 TDs), and while it's dicey to try and compare these two teams now to what happened a few months ago, stats tell us that the Texans are still vulnerable when it comes to rush defense; they finished the year 12th in the NFL against the run, yielding an average of 99.7 rushing yards per game. One thing with Blount, as we saw in September? There are few guys in the league better when it comes to executing in a four-minute offense. In the second half of that win over Houston, he had 17 carries for 94 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It's not so much Blount's total yards that matter, but when he gets them. One other guy worth watching will be Dion Lewis (64 carries, 283 yards), who got a significant uptick in reps between the tackles over the last month of the season as a changeup offering to the wrecking-ball approach of Blount. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL If they're all healthy, we're an advocate for the idea of dressing all five receivers and giving New England the sort of depth in the passing game that they haven't had in a playoff game in a long time. Basically, give Tom Brady (67 percent completion rate, 3,554 passing yards, 28 TDs, 2 INTs) as many options as possible when it comes to the quick hitters; you get the ball out as fast as possible, it minimizes the chances of the Houston pass rush getting after the quarterback. Expect the bulk of the targets to go to Julian Edelman (98 catches, 159 targets, 1,106 yards, 3 TDs), who has been as rock solid as they come over the second half of the season. Martellus Bennett (55 catches, 73 targets, 701 yards, 7 TDs) and Chris Hogan (38 catches, 58 targets, 680 yards, 4 TDs) will also figure into the mix. Over the course of the season, the Texans were second against the pass (201.6 yards allowed per game), while their 17 takeaways were tied for 26th in the league. Safety Quentin Demps, who has been dogged by a hamstring issue, leads Houston with six interceptions. Per Football Outsiders, the Texans aren't great at slowing backs in the passing game, which means there could be more chances for Lewis (17 catches) and James White (60 catches) on Saturday. Meanwhile, Whitney Mercilus (7.5 sacks), Jadaveon Clowney (6 sacks) and Benardrick McKinney (5 sacks) lead one of the better pass rush groups in the league. Look for lots of heavy sets with an extra blocker (Cam Fleming) when it comes to helping the tackles keep Brady as clean as possible. For what it's worth, Brady has gone up against a Romeo Crennel-led defense on three occasions, and has averaged 20-for-32 (63 percent) for 242 yards, just over two touchdowns, no interceptions and two sacks per game. WHEN THE TEXANS RUN THE BALL Even with Brock Osweiler struggling, Houston's ground game was pretty consistent this season. Led mostly by Lamar Miller, the Texans were eighth in the league in rushing (an average of 116.2 yards per game). Miller has 268 carries for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns on the year. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have gone from allowing 101.6 rushing yards per game over the first half of the year to just 88.6 to finish the season, third-best in the NFL. The New England run defense has managed to be stout up front, with Dont'a Hightower and Alan Branch doing much of the damage over the course of the season. We talk a lot about the Patriots dedicating their efforts to slowing the No. 1 offensive option for the opponent, and this time around, it's going to be about bottling up Miller and making Osweiler beat you. That's a challenge that has worked for several teams over the course of the 2016 season; the Texans (279 points on the season) scored fewer points than the last-place Jaguars (318). Overall, Houston ended the season tied for 28th in scoring average (17.4 points per game). WHEN THE TEXANS PASS THE BALL This is one of the worst and most ineffective passing teams in the league. Osweiler's struggles are well documented (59 percent completion rate, 2,957 passing yards, 15 TDs, 16 INTs). Like New England's improved run defense, there have been improvements across the board in pass defense; the Patriots were allowing 253 passing yards per game at the midway point of the season, but that had shrunk to 238 passing yards per game allowed by the end of the year. The Patriots' pass rush is led by Trey Flowers (7 sacks on the season) and Malcolm Butler led New England with four interceptions. Overall, Houston is 29th in the league in passing, (198.5 yards per game). The lead target is the dangerous DeAndre Hopkins (a team-high 78 catches, 151 targets, 954 yards and 4 TDs). The one area I'd really be concerned about if I was a New England fan? Houston's two tight ends: Osweiler zeroes in on C.J. Fiedorowicz (54 catches, 89 targets, 559 yards, 4 TDs on the season) and Ryan Griffin (50 catches, 74 targets, 442 yards, 2 TDs). They were two of Osweiler's top three targets in the passing game this past season, and the Patriots have occasionally had issues containing tight ends. For the record, in three career starts against New England, Osweiler is 1-2. In those contests, he's averaged 155 passing yards per game. He has a 57 percent completion rate, and a total of one touchdown pass and two interceptions in those three contests. SPECIAL TEAMS The biggest question for the Patriots' special teams is whether or not Danny Amendola will be good to go as the punt returner. Amendola, who handled the bulk of the duties all year long, suffered an ankle injury in the last month of the season and sat for the final few games of the year. If he's back, that brings some much-needed stability to the position. The rest of New England's special teams look OK at the start of the playoffs: kicker Stephen Gostkowski (27-for-32 on field-goal tries) appears to be over whatever issue dogged him earlier this season, while punter Ryan Allen finished the year strong as well with a 44.7-yard average. The Patriots will likely use a few different bodies at kick returner, including Lewis and White. New England did not have a return for touchdown on the season. On the other side, kicker Nick Novak is 35-for-41 on field-goal attempts and 22-for-25 on extra points. Punter Shane Lechler is still getting it done at the age of 40 with an average of 47.5 yards per punt. Tyler Ervin is the primary punt returner for the Texans, and he averages a respectable 9.7 yards per return. Meanwhile, Ervin is also part of a collective at the kick return spot, a group that includes Akeem Hunt. As a group, Houston averages 10.9 yards per punt return (one of the best totals in the league) and 18.6 yards per kick return (one of the worst totals in the league. The Texans have one punt return for a touchdown this year and no kick returns for touchdown. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Houston offense finds a way to get right in a hurry and drop something on New England it isn't expecting. God only knows what that might be; colleague Mike Petraglia wondered about some possibilities here, like the Wildcat, or some sort of super hurry-up. Basically, the Texans have to manage to find something that Bill Belichick and the Patriots aren't expecting. It's a tall challenge. THE TEXANS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… they can't find a way to get New England off its game in the early going. Whether that's through an unexpected pick-six, a special teams spark or some other odd circumstance, Houston needs a big play in the opening stages of the game to get the momentum on its side. That's not to say it'll be enough; only to suggest that it would be the first step in helping them pull the upset. The bottom line? If the Texans can't keep things manageable early, there's a chance they'll get blown out. BY THE NUMBERS (tie): 6 — A victory on Saturday would put the Patriots into a sixth straight AFC Championship Game; no team in the Super Bowl era has reached six consecutive conference championship games. 14-0 — The Patriots are 14-0 since the start of 2015 when Dion Lewis has been in the lineup. Lewis figures to be good to go for this week against the Texans. QUOTE OF NOTE: "I don't eat avocado. I'm a meat man; I'm a protein guy. He can stick with avocados and all that green stuff. I'm not a rabbit." — Vince Wilfork on his feelings regarding Tom Brady's diet UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: On a defense with several larger-than-life names, cornerback A.J. Bouye has emerged as a key part of one of the better units in the league. The 6-foot, 192-pounder, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, has set himself up nicely for a big payday with an excellent second half of the year. He leads the team with 16 passes defensed, and has one interception in 11 starts this season. If the Patriots do spread things out, he'll be part of the group tasked with trying to slow New England's second, third or fourth options in the passing game. PREDICTION: The nightmare scenarios that are floating around like a Jets 2010 redux? Put them out of your mind. That New York team was miles better than this Houston group, even without their old letterman jackets. Even if the Texans' defense rises up and plays the game of its life on Saturday night and holds the New England offense to 20-plus points, is there any reason to suggest that the Houston offense would be able to match that? Not in the slightest. For what it's worth, this Patriots' team has a genuine respect for the Texans — Julian Edelman's statement about Houston is earnest and heartfelt — but I simply think that the difference between the two teams is too great for the Texans to overcome. My take: Patriots 31, Texans 13. (One more quick note: if this is Vince Wilfork's last go-round, it would be awesome for the Gillette Stadium faithful to remember him in some form or fashion on the way out the door. This is a guy who is a borderline Pro Football Hall of Famer, and a bedrock the team built around for the better part of a decade. He'll be back for his inevitable induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame, but on Saturday, he deserves all the accolades New England fans can send in his direction.)