Running backs (3 out of 5)
Because of the performance of the offensive line and the score, Arian Foster didn’t get a chance to do much against the Patriots. He was his vintage self against the Bengals when he made a terrific cut on a 13-yard gain midway through the second quarter. There’s no one better in the league at sticking a foot in the ground and getting up the field. But against the Patriots, for some reason, the Texans didn’t run many outside zone stretch plays — Houston’s bread and butter — and instead stayed with inside zones. Considering the middle is the strength of the Patriots defense, expect Houston to test the edges a bit more.
Receivers (2 out of 5)
Houston was surprisingly a bit of a mixed bag in the two games at this position, but one thing is for certain: The return of No. 2 tight end Garrett Graham (he missed the Patriots game) had a positive impact against the Bengals. Think of Daniels as Hernandez and Graham as Gronkowski light. Graham gave the Texans much better blocking on the edge against the Bengals. Daniels and Casey have been mediocre in that department. Johnson is still elite. Schaub and head coach Gary Kubiak just have to find a way to get him more targets. Walter was a nonfactor against the Patriots and Bengals. They’ll need more from him. DeVier Posey is now the third receiver and hasn’t been a threat.
Offensive line (1.5 out of 5)
This group, long known as one of the best in the league, has not been good enough down the stretch, mostly because the play-action game — almost a sixth offensive linemen for the way it helps slow the pass rush — has not been as effective as it was early in the season. Left tackle Brown and center Chris Myers are still elite. Left guard Wade Smith played well against the Patriots but had his struggles against the Bengals. The right side of the Texans line has been a circus. Derek Newton is back after missing the Patriots, so there are now rotations at both right guard (Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and right tackle (Newton and Ryan Harris). Against the Patriots and Bengals, those two positions yielded one sack, seven hurries, six knockdowns, and 5.5 stuffed runs (1 yard or less outside short yardage). Brooks and Harris were the best combination against the Patriots — Jones was chewed up by the Patriots — but Brooks struggled against the Bengals. It’s incumbent on the Texans that they find the right combination Sunday.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
This group was terrific in both games. Of course, it was led by incomparable end J.J. Watt. The Patriots did a great job of limiting his impact, but he still produced five knockdowns, a hurry, and a forced fumble down the field. Against the Bengals, Watt had a sack, five hurries, and a pass breakup. Phillips has to find a way to free him up against the Patriots. Backup nose tackle Earl Mitchell deserves a longer look. End Antonio Smith was quiet against the Patriots but made an impact against the Bengals.
Linebackers (2.5 out of 5)
Among Bradie James, Connor Barwin, and Whitney Mercilus, the Texans are getting a decent amount of splash plays, mostly against the pass. They’re going to need more consistent play against the Patriots, who will take advantage of any matchups against linebackers in the pass game. They victimized both James and Tim Dobbins (now on injured reserve) in the last matchup. The return of Brooks Reed at outside linebacker did not have much of an impact against the Bengals. He must still be fighting through the groin injury.
Secondary (2.5 out of 5)
A tale of two games for this group, probably because of the disparity in quarterback play (Tom Brady vs. Andy Dalton). The Patriots looked as if they had game-planned to take advantage of Quin’s aggressiveness in base defense, probably because he’s an attacker in the dime. Quin completely fell for the run fake by Brady on his 37-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd in the first quarter. Quin took the bait again on a similar play — to Hernandez — with 10:49 left in the third quarter, and then again on the first play of the fourth quarter when the Patriots flashed an audible that they’ve thrown to Wes Welker in the past. This time they went to Hernandez, and Quin couldn’t make the play. At times, the Texans effectively used both safeties to double Hernandez and Welker. But what are they going to do with Gronkowski back? Quin was outstanding (five broken-up passes) in coverage against Cincinnati’s Gresham. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph looks nearly fully recovered from his injury. His explosiveness is back. Kareem Jackson played well against the Bengals but the Patriots will target his aggression. Continued...