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

December 12, 2015 - 10:56 am
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[caption id="attachment_83906" align="alignright" width="350"]Tom Brady will face a sizable challenge this week in the Houston pass defense. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Tom Brady will face a sizable challenge this week in the Houston pass defense. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)[/caption] Here's everything you need to know when the Patriots (10-2) take on the Texans (6-6) Sunday night at NRG Stadium in Houston: WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL Who knows? There's been no rhyme or reason as to how the Patriots have approached the running game the last two contests, which means it's anybody's guess as to how it's going to shake out this week. For what it's worth, LeGarrette Blount (155 carries, 650 yards, 6 TDs, 4.2 yards per carry), Brandon Bolden (19 carries, 59 yards, 3.1 ypc) and James White (15 carries, 39 yards, 1 rushing TD) will get the work on the ground, but who knows how much that will be. On paper, the ground game figured to be a relatively good matchup against both Denver and Philly, and for whatever reason, the Patriots didn't spend much time running the ball. It's not clear if it was an issue with the backs, or a lack of faith in the offensive line when it comes to run blocking, or a lack of faith in the overall execution across the board, but for key stretches as of late, the New England offense was fundamentally one-dimensional. On the other side of the ball, Houston is 21st in the NFL in run defense, having yielded an average of 114.1 rushing yards per contest. That suggests that the Texans might be more vulnerable than most when it comes to slowing Blount, Bolden and White, but Houston's run defense numbers have been up and down all year long. There were four games where the Texans allowed 135 yards or more, including an astounding 187 yards on the ground in a loss to the Bills last week. Of course, there were four games where they held opponents to under 75 rushing yards. Bottom line? It's an offense that hasn't made a commitment to running the ball as of late against a defense that has been inconsistent when it comes to slowing the run. It's anyone's guess what is going to happen Sunday. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL This is the biggest and most important matchup of the evening. Can Tom Brady (64 percent completion rate, 3,912 passing yards, 31 TDs, 6 INTs, passer rating of 102.8) overcome the fact that he'll be without Julian Edelman and (likely) Rob Gronkowski once again, as he goes up against the third-best pass defense in the league? The Texans allow just 218.3 passing yards per game, thanks in large part to the work of defensive lineman/all-star pitchman J.J. Watt and his ability to get after the quarterback. Watt leads the league with 13.5 sacks, but many of the Texans do an excellent job of playing off him and taking advantage of when he commands double teams. Guys like linebacker Whitney Mercilus (6.5 sacks) and old pal Vince Wilfork (who is coming off his best game of the season against the Bills) do well when Watt gets the bulk of attention. Meanwhile, Houston will rely on cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph and safeties Andre Hal and Quintin Demps on the backside to try and slow Brady. For the Patriots, it'll be Danny Amendola 56 catches, 73 targets, 582 yards, 3 TDs), Brandon LaFell (25 catches, 56 targets, 369 yards), Scott Chandler (23 catches, 41 targets, 259 yards, 4 TDs) and White (22 catches, 32 targets, 210 yards, 2 TDs) who will be charged with getting the New England passing game through another week without its leading options. One more thing: it'll be interesting to see what sort of role ex-Houston receiver Keshawn Martin (10 catches, 16 targets, 148 yards, 1 TD) might play on Sunday. When he's been healthy, he's delivered a nice dose of quickness to the Patriots' passing attack. His working knowledge of how the Texans' defensive backs operate could be an interesting wrinkle. WHEN THE TEXANS RUN THE BALL To this point in the season, even with the Patriots taking a bit of a step back when it comes to run defense compared to the first 10 or so weeks of the year, this is a matchup that favors New England. Without Arian Foster in the lineup, the Texans have had issues running the ball consistently -- through 12 games, they've averaged 100.1 rushing yards per game as a team, 19th in the league. (That includes 3.5 yards per carry, 29th in the NFL, and five rushing touchdowns, tied for 25th.) The primary ball carrier for Houston is the 6-foot-2, 223-pound Alfred Blue (127 carries, 444 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 3.5 yards per carry), a powerful runner who has had his moments this season, but is a step down from Foster. Meanwhile, Chris Polk (70 carries, 252 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3.6 YPC) also provides depth. Despite their recent slippage, the Patriots are still 11th against the run, having allowed an average of 99.6 rushing yards per game. As of late, that includes four straight games of 80 rushing yards or more by opponents, although it's probably not a coincidence that some of those increased numbers have come when linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been on the sidelines. But on paper, even if Hightower isn't able to play, this certainly sets up as an area where New England has an advantage. WHEN THE TEXANS PASS THE BALL Brian Hoyer was one of the most popular guys in the New England locker room when he was with the Patriots, but the Houston passing game certainly isn't overwhelming. Hoyer (61 percent completion rate, 2,202 passing yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, 94.4 passer rating) does a really good job protecting the football. His primary target this season has been the 6-foot-1, 214-pound DeAndre Hopkins (86 catches, 152 targets, 1,169 yards, 10 TDs), who has shown a real ability to beat teams on all three levels. However, his greatest strength is as a home-run hitter, as his 13.6 yards per catch is impressive. (The Hopkins-Malcolm Butler matchup should be worth the price of admission.) The Texans have two other options in the passing game worth noting in wide receivers Cecil Shorts (40 catches, 71 targets, 475 yards, 2 TDs) and Nate Washington (39 catches, 76 targets, 543 yards, 3 TDs). Overall, the Texans are 11th in the league when it comes to throwing the ball, averaging 266 passing yards per game, while the Patriots are 15th overall when it comes to pass defense, having yielded an average of 242 passing yards per contest. While New England might not be able to come away with a pick against the sure-handed Hoyer, this is a matchup where the Patriots enjoy a slight edge. SPECIAL TEAMS The Patriots are looking for a bounce back contest from their usually reliable special teams unit, which has struggled at key moments over the last two weeks. Stephen Gostkowski, who is 24-for-25 on field-goal attempts and 43-for-43 on extra points, is also second in the league in touchbacks with 50. Ryan Allen, who had his first punt of the year blocked last week against the Eagles, averages 45.5 yards per punt (tied for 15th), but thanks in large part to Darren Sproles' 83-yard touchdown return last week, his net has dipped to 39.2 (20th) and the average yards per return is now 8.3 (17th). If he's back to full health, expect Danny Amendola to jump right back into his return role -- he leads the team in punt (12.6 yards per return on eight chances) and kick (21.5 yards per return on eight chances) returns, with his best coming when he took that 82-yard punt return back against the Giants last month. For Houston, kicker Nick Novak is 8-for-9 on field goal attempts and 21-for-23 on extra points, and he's 32nd in the league with just 14 touchbacks. Veteran punter Shane Lechler has had an impressive career and is tied for the league lead in punt attempts (74), but is 47 yards average is ninth in the NFL, while his 38.6 net is 25th. The 9.7 average yards per punt return by opponents is 23rd. The good news for the Patriots? Returner Keith Mumphery handles punts and kick returns, but isn't really a game-breaker. He averages 7.7 yards per punt return and 24.1 yards per kick return, and he has no return touchdowns this season. In addition, the Texans have not blocked a punt this season. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF... Watt wrecks New England's struggling offensive line without remorse, and if Brady's pass catchers (LaFell, Chandler, White) can't find consistent separation. Bottom line? The Patriots need someone to step up in the passing game. THE TEXANS ARE IN TROUBLE IF... they can't be a two-dimensional offense. Houston has to find even a small level of success when it comes to running the ball for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it'll keep some heat off Hoyer. BY THE NUMBERS (tie): .571 -- Bill Belichick's winning percentage when he has worked against former assistants who have become head coaches at the NFL level. He's won eight of the 14 matchups. This will mark the first time he will go head-to-head with former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. 13, 25 -- According to STATS, Houston's quarterbacks have been sacked at least once in 13 consecutive contests. The Patriots have sacked opposing quarterbacks at least once in 25 straight games -- the longest active streak in the NFL. 7.4 -- According to the NFL Network research team, the Patriots have dropped 7.4 percent of the catchable passes from Brady this season, fifth-most in the league. UNDER-THE-RADAR PERFORMER: Watt gets a ton of press, and deservedly so, but Mercilus has shown himself to be plenty impressive at times coming off the outside as a pass rusher. He has 6.5 sacks in his last seven games, and while some of those numbers are inflated (3.5 sacks came in one game against the woeful Titans), the 6-foot-3, 261-pounder remains the sort of presence who could come back to haunt New England if he's not accounted for off the edge. QUOTE OF NOTE: "I feel good. Fresh as lettuce." --Brady, asked about the number of hits he's taken over the last few weeks. Since Week 11, Brady has absorbed 32 quarterback hits, most in the NFL in that stretch. PREDICTION (aka, tl;dr) DraftKings DraftKings has your shot to play for FREE in the $1 Million Fantasy Football Contest THIS SUNDAY! First place takes home $100,000! FOR FREE ENTRY, CLICK HERE.