Running backs (5 out of 5)
Ridley and Vereen combined to break four tackles for an additional 47 yards, with almost all of it coming from Vereen. The Patriots adjusted to take advantage of Houston playing so much base defense against two-tight-end sets by splitting out the backs in the second half. Ridley had a few tough runs inside. Vereen saved offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from a lot of second guessing when he turned the second-quarter third-and-2 — on which Brady faked to Welker and then tossed to Vereen — from a 7-yard loss into a 6-yard gain when he eluded Connor Barwin.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Outside of Welker, who was terrific minus his big drop, this group was a mixed bag. There were some definite highlights, particularly Hernandez’s 40-yard catch on which it looked like he finally cut it loose with his ankle. He is not going to be pre-injury Hernandez, but that was a great sign; he had played tentatively before that. Hernandez still had another drop (seven in four games), a penalty, and one iffy run block, but he seemed much more willing to block. Michael Hoomanawanui had three standout blocks, but he also allowed two hurries, 1.5 run stuffs, and two other poor run blocks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was clearly in pain even before he fell and re-broke his forearm. Terrific catch by Welker on the first third-down conversion (third and 11) between two defenders as he got belted by Kareem Jackson. Brandon Lloyd should have had a big gainer after the Hernandez offensive pass interference in the fourth when Brady kept the play alive. For some reason, Lloyd cut across the middle. All the safeties were underneath him. If he turns it up — which is where Brady was leading him – it would have been a huge play.
Offensive line (4 out of 5)
OK, this time the Patriots definitely shut down Watt, who had just one half-sack and two stuffed runs (1 yard or less outside short yardage) after having 5 knockdowns, 2 hurries, and 1 stuffed run in the first matchup. The Patriots doubled him less this time around (42.8 to 36.1 percent) yet did better. Order of performance on the line: Nate Solder (run stuff allowed), Sebastian Vollmer (half-sack, hurry), Mankins (two hurries, half-knockdown), Ryan Wendell (half-sack, half-knockdown, 1.5 stuffs), Dan Connolly (3.5 knockdowns, half-stuff).
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Fundamentally sound and terrific against the run. Of the Texans’ 24 run snaps, 54.2 percent went for 2 yards or fewer. That basically won the game. Vince Wilfork (hurry, knockdown, two stuffs) was terrific. On the first play of the second quarter, LT Duane Brown and LG Wade Smith — two Pro Bowlers — tried to double Wilfork on an inside zone run and he beat them both to stop Arian Foster for no gain. Rob Ninkovich (two knockdowns, stuff, half-hurry) was his usual self. If Chandler Jones (ankle) is out, the Patriots are going to have to scheme up more pressure. Justin Francis (1.5 hurries, half-knockdown in 50 snaps) is a good hustle player and works stunts well with his quickness, but he’s not an every-down player. This is a concern because the Patriots managed to get pressure against Matt Schaub on just 20.8 percent of his dropbacks — the second-lowest rate (49ers) since Thanksgiving. The Patriots didn’t blitz (17 percent, second-lowest since Nov. 11) after Ninkovich’s huge interception.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
The backers sharpened their focus — even the usually up-and-down Dont’a Hightower — and were very solid. Jerod Mayo is on top of his game at this point and looks very quick in coverage. Great read by Mayo to snuff out the little waggle to Owen Daniels early in the second half – you know, the play that was a fumble but wasn’t. Brandon Spikes went from almost being off the field on what he thought was a substitution to making a tackle with 9:58 left in the fourth. On the 21-yard run by Foster on Texans’ first touchdown drive, it looked like a rare mistake by Mayo peeking into the wrong gap and Hightower failing to squeeze on the edge because he fell for the fake end around.
Secondary (4.5 out of 5)
This group, minus safety Steve Gregory, who is probably the weak spot, was terrific (even with five pass plays of 20 yards or more) although I think it’s fair to factor in the opponent. Schaub looks hurt and was unwilling to even look deep, and the Texans’ route combinations are elementary. But the Patriots executed terrifically in any event. Aqib Talib had his best game as a Patriot — he was all over Andre Johnson the entire game — even with a few technique miscues. He made a great tackle on the near fourth-down stop of Foster. Alfonzo Dennard set up a key fourth-down stop when he made a great tackle against Kevin Walter 1 yard shy of the marker with 13:45 left. Forget the cornerbacks, Devin McCourty has been the key to the improvement on defense. Rock solid. Continued...