HOUSTON – The Patriots will have to be concerned with playing down to their competition Sunday because the Texans (2-9) are not going to make this easy.
There are also moving parts to consider as the Patriots continue to deal with the injury bug. Here's what we'll be watching in Sunday's game.
1. Defending the run -- Last week's run defense against the Denver Broncos was not so much a debacle as it was an uninterested byproduct of defending against the top passing offense in the NFL. But after relinquishing 280 yards rushing and falling to 31st overall in rushing defense (139.7 yards allowed per game), there has to be some sort of course correction. The Texans, led by Ben Tate (544 yards), rush for an average of 116.4 yards per game. Tate gets 4.2 yards a carry.
2. Secondary shuffle -- Steve Gregory (thumb) is expected to play for the Patriots at safety but the team will be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) while Aqib Talib (hip), Kyle Arrington (groin), and Marquice Cole (shin) are all questionable. This secondary is banged up and that's always a concern when facing one of the league's best wide receivers in Andre Johnson (74 catches, 1,002 yards, 5 touchdowns). Case Keenum, the Texans' quarterback, has been known to let it fly. We'll see if the Patriots can handle it.
3. How will the Patriots use Stevan Ridley? -- There's no doubt that Ridley (576 yards, 7 TDs) is a talented running back who has a lot to offer the team. But his fumbling (four on the season) has become a nuisance to turnover-conscious coach Bill Belichick. The team made an extra effort to promote ball security this week in practice. Ridley, for his part, accepted full responsibility for his woes and pledged to work harder than ever to correct the issue. How that plays out on Sunday will be of great interest.
But to give you an idea of how much better the Patriots are with Ridley in the lineup, consider this: In last week's 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos, Ridley carried the ball only four times for 14 yards. He forced two missed tackles. In 25 combined carries, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden combined to force missed two tackles. It's been that way all season, with Ridley forcing 22 missed tackles, more than Blount, Vereen, and Bolden combined (20). Will the Patriots use him against the league's top-ranked pass defense?