Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, continues to give us his insight on the intricacies of the game.
INSIDE THE TEXANS OFFENSE
It has been only five weeks since the Patriots last saw the Houston Texans and not much has changed for the Texans’ offense. They’re still relying on their inside and outside zone stretch concepts in the running game, mixing in other base NFL concepts such as Power and Toss to complement their running game. All of this has continued with 11, 12 and 21 personnel, as expected. The last time the two teams met, the Patriots did a solid job slowing down the running game, holding running back Arian Foster to 3.1 yards per carry.
It helped that the Patriots were able to get an early lead on the Texans, forcing them to throw more than they prefer, but the front seven also did their job. They were disciplined (for the most part) and aggressive in slicing through the gaps of the zone blocking scheme.
The Patriots mixed in Under and Over fronts, along with an Even front that saw both Houston guards covered up by the interior defensive linemen. This was a big help to the linebackers because they had more time to get downhill opposed to immediately being washed out by the Texans’ combination blocks. It also helped that nose tackle Vince Wilfork was able to collapse the protection by manhandling the guards. Wilfork and his teammates will once again have to do this to quiet Foster, who had 140-yards rushing in their wild card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the game against the Bengals, Matt Schaub registered his first career playoff victory but it wasn’t without mistakes. He threw a pick-six interception and overall didn’t make enough big throws when they were needed. Against the Patriots in Week 14, Schaub and the offense’s West Coast Offensive passing game was neutralized by a variety of coverages, most notably Cover 1 (Man-Free) and its variations and Cover 4 (Quarters).
INSIDE THE TEXANS DEFENSE
The Texans’ defense has continued to be one of the most impressive this season, led by defensive lineman J.J. Watt.
Watt was a handful last week for the Bengals and will be one to watch in this game as well. He will line up at the three and five-techniques on separate downs and has exceptional hand quickness. He’s a part of the Texans’ 1-gap, 3-4 defense that also utilizes various other alignments, including the four man front.
As I noted in the Week 14 preview, “Phillips uses Over and Under fronts (along with double 3-techniques) that are popular in 4-3 defenses, which is basically what Phillips’ defense is. The 3-4 pre-snap alignment is a mask for the 4-3 rush concepts, which is done to present multiple looks for quarterbacks.” Moreover, it’s very difficult to run at the defensive line because they’re incredibly stout, thus the big runs will have to come off the edge where the ball-carrier can work in space.
When it comes to the passing defense, the Texans play a variety of coverages and are a very aggressive secondary. They will sit on routes in order jump them and create turnovers. They will mix in Cover 1, Cover 2 Man (Man Under), Cover 2 (zone), Cover 3 and many others.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Texans' running game vs. Patriots' front seven – As noted, the Patriots did a good job of penetrating into the backfield the last time the two teams met and they will have to do it again. This is the biggest concern when going up against the Texans, who heavily relies on their run concepts to set up the passing game, particularly play action.
- Patriots' tight ends and Welker vs. Houston linebackers and safeties – This was the big matchup in the last game and will be in this one as well. The Patriots get back star Rob Gronkowski from injury, which presents a matchup problem that the Texans have yet to deal with. Safety Glover Quin played some tight man-to-man coverage last week against the Bengals’ towering tight end Jermaine Gresham and did well, but Gresham is unlike Gronkowski. The latter is simply more talented and could take advantage of indiscipline or poor technique that Quin sometimes plays with.
- Furthermore, the linebackers will also have to deal with tight end Aaron Hernandez again as well as slot receiver Wes Welker. This is a concern for the Texans because their linebackers are very slow and have only gotten slower since the initial meeting because they lost inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton to injury. Keep an eye on how the linebackers cover Hernandez if or when he lines up in the backfield, which we should see more of with Gronkowski back in the mix.
- Patriots' play-action passing – Play action passing is always a factor in every game, especially against the Texans because of their aggressiveness. The cornerbacks and safeties attack downhill every chance they get and as a result, leave vacant spaces down the field for receivers to run through.
- Tight end Owen Daniels – Owen Daniels is arguably the most important pass catcher for the Texans, as they like to throw to him quite a bit when Schaub’s rolling out on play action. Daniels is quick and a very good route runner. He is particularly dangerous on shallow crossing routes, as he does an exceptional job of working behind linebackers and finding the soft spot in zone coverage.
- Matt Schaub – If Schaub has to throw the ball often, the Texans will be in trouble because he has not played well. He doesn’t throw outside breaking routes very well, as he tends to leave them to the inside of the receiver, and he struggles throwing against the blitz. Against six or more rushers this season, Schaub has a quarterback efficiency rating of 76.3, which is worst of the remaining playoff passers (h/t John Pollard). He will give the Patriots’ defenders chances to make plays.