The Patriots are extremely beat up on offense heading into the Monday night AFC showdown against the Texans at Gillette Stadium.
Don’t expect Houston (11-1) to feel sorry for New England (9-3). The Texans have some serious injury problems on the defensive side of the ball.
The Texans put All-Pro inside linebacker Brian Cushing (ACL) on injured reserve in October, and outside linebacker Brooks Reed is a few weeks from returning because of a groin injury.
But the bigger problems are in the secondary, where promising slot cornerback Brice McCain was placed on in-season injured reserve. That’s in addition to Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring/groin) missing the past two games, and reserve Alan Ball (foot) being out last week against the Titans.
Things are so bad the Texans signed Stanford Routt, who bombed as a free agent with the Chiefs and was released on Nov. 5. He’s a tall (6-2) speed demon (4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine) but is known for terrible ball skills and not being very tough.
In the 24-10 victory over the Titans, the Texans had a pair of second-year corners, Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael, heavily in the mix. Carmichael started opposite solid Kareem Jackson, and Harris played the slot. The Texans are hoping Joseph, who ran Monday, and Ball can return against the Patriots.
A look at the rest of the Texans:
Coach Gary Kubiak calls the plays for one of the few teams that would prefer to lean heavily toward the run, though they’ve slipped from a team that runs on 54 percent of their downs, to 49 percent in recent weeks with some shootouts. The Texans love the zone stretch runs to the outside, in which defensive linemen have to watch their knees from cut blocks. Running back Arian Foster has only averaged over 3.5 yards per carry once in the past four games, but few have better vision and cutback ability. Justin Forsett has been a nice change-of-pace back. Quarterback Matt Schaub is big (6 feet 5 inches), smart, has a good arm and deft touch. But he’s a statue in the pocket and does not like pressure. Receiver Andre Johnson, at 31, isn’t quite the player he was three years ago, but he’s still elite and tough. Kevin Walter (6-3) knows how to work coverages and has sneaky deep speed. Tight end Owen Daniels is very underrated, and H-back James Casey is a good blocker and receiver. Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean are getting a few snaps at receiver. On the line, left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers are elite. A key for the Patriots is not to allow Myers to get to the second level on runs. Left guard Wade Smith is decent, but the right side of the line with guard Ben Jones and tackles Derek Newton and Ryan Harris is below average.
Coordinator Wade Phillips loves to bring pressure in his 3-4, but injuries in the secondary have limited that. Still, his front four gets after it and it starts with extraordinary end J.J. Watt, who last week became the first player in NFL history to have at least 15 sacks (15.5) and 15 passes defensed in one season. Watt (6-6, 295 pounds) is very strong, quick, and doesn’t stop. End Antonio Smith (6-4, 284) has played very well up front with five sacks and moves well. Nose tackle Shaun Cody is a strong run stuffer. Smith and Watt are the tackles in nickel, with outside linebackers Connor Barwin, and first-round pick Whitney Mercilus the ends. Barwin has started to come on in the pressure department, while Mercilus has failed to impress yet. The Texans are down to veterans Tim Dobbins and Barrett Ruud, and 2010 fourth-round pick Darryl Sharpton at inside linebacker with Cushing and Bradie James (who may return) out. Even before his injury, Joseph was having an off year. The Packers’ Jordy Nelson torched him. Both safeties, Danieal Manning and Glover Quin, struggle at times in space.