When the Patriots and Texans meet again Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the outcome could certainly be different than the 42-14 drubbing New England put on Houston Dec. 10.
And we’re not just talking about margin of victory.
The Texans have more than a puncher’s chance against the heavily favored Patriots (Houston is 12-4 for a reason) but they are only going to spring a huge upset if two people have the game of their lives: quarterback Matt Schaub and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The Texans offense had multiple chances to make plays against the Patriots, but failed almost every time to capitalize. There were three drops, and the right side of the line was overwhelmed, but most of the ineffectiveness fell on Schaub in the pass game. Time and time again, he missed terrific opportunities to burn the Patriots.
On the interception to Devin McCourty in the red zone, Schaub stared receiver Kevin Walter down the entire way and was easily read by McCourty. Schaub missed running back Arian Foster, who was uncovered underneath and could have walked in for a touchdown.
On third down with 10:01 left in the second quarter, Schaub started to feel the effects of the incessant Patriots rush when, despite very good protection, he checked down to receiver Lestar Jean in 1.88 seconds. Vince Wilfork deflected the pass to end the drive. Had Schaub held the ball a beat longer, tight end Owen Daniels was one-on-one with Steve Gregory in the middle of the field.
With 8:32 left in the half, Schaub made a nice read to hit Andre Johnson for 25 yards. But Schaub missed a chance at a much bigger play because the Patriots screwed up their coverage, and tight end James Casey was uncovered down the middle.
Walter dropped a fourth-down pass with 4:49 left in the half, but Schaub should make a better throw toward the sideline, and not lead Walter into cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Two minutes later, Schaub air-mailed Foster in the right flat while Casey was open down the middle as Schaub faced some pressure.
At the two-minute warning, Schaub threw into triple coverage to Johnson — Aqib Talib broke it up at the last second — while Daniels was underneath one-on-one with safety Tavon Wilson. On the next play, fourth down, Schaub made a poor throw under pressure to an open Walter.
Schaub showed a little bit of improvement in last Sunday’s 19-13 wild-card victory over the Bengals, but he still left a few key plays on the field.
The interception he threw for a touchdown was poorly thrown, and Schaub missed a golden opportunity with Walter one-on-one with the safety on a corner route. And on third and goal in the second quarter, Schaub’s throw under pressure to Johnson in the end zone wasn’t good enough.
If Schaub can find a way to make even half of those plays against the Patriots, the Texans are going to be in the game for a while. But will he? Schaub hasn’t shown any signs of that of late. His mechanics have been sloppy, and they get worse — his plant leg opens more and more to the sideline as the game goes on — the more pressure he feels.
As for Phillips, he’s will have to find an effective strategy to defend both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was injured the first time around, and Phillips’s group, outside of a handful of blown coverages, did a solid job, despite the score.
Phillips uses his 3-4 base defense or a dime package with four linemen, one linebacker, and six defensive backs (three safeties). It’s fairly effective against teams with one bona fide tight end. Free safety Glover Quin, who plays linebacker in the dime, was terrific against Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, and had his moments against Hernandez in the dime as well (base was a different story).
But how is Phillips going to handle both Hernandez and Gronkowski? If he sticks with dime, the Patriots will run the ball. Is Phillips confident his players can defend the pass in base defense?
What Phillips draws up, and whether Schaub can morph into an aggressive, confident thrower will determine whether the Texans can pull the upset.
Here are the Texans’ positional ratings from the victory over the Bengals and the first three quarters against the Patriots:
Quarterback (1.5 out of 5)
Schaub has the tools and the smarts, he just hasn’t put it together and doesn’t inspire much confidence that he will. He needs to come out with his hair on fire Sunday, because slow and methodical is not going to deliver a victory. The Texans offense was actually holding its own against the Patriots until the sack on which James Casey and Duane Brown were beaten by Trevor Scott and Rob Ninkovich. The blocking was certainly to blame for the sack, but Schaub had his part in it. It was the usual play-action, deep-drop throw the Texans run all the time. But it took 3.32 seconds for Schaub to get hit. He has to be quicker on that and realize he’s not going to have all day to throw once he goes through the fake. The Patriots don’t fall for fakes like that unless you have established the run. Schaub did a nice job looking off the safety before coming back to Jean for a big first down on third and 12 on the second series. Schaub showed improved recognition against the Bengals, as when he smartly found Casey for 20 yards midway through fourth
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.
Special teams (3.5 out of 5)
Kick returner Keshawn Martin needs to be contained because his speed is terrific, though he hasn’t broken through yet. Veteran punter Donnie Jones was terrific against the Patriots, with an average hang time of 4.7 seconds. He wasn’t as good against the Bengals. It appears that all the injuries to the Houston linebacking corps have affected the kick-coverage units. They’re average in that department, while that’s a big strength for the Patriots. Placekicker Shayne Graham is average.