When the Patriots run
New England’s ground game struggled early against the Dolphins last Sunday but came to life late when it really counted. It’ll be more tough sledding in this one as the Texans are stout against the run, and it starts with underrated nose tackle Shaun Cody. The 6-foot-4-inch, 307-pound Cody is quick off the snap and uses his strength and athleticism to angle linemen out of their comfort zones and give enthusiastic linebackers Connor Barth and Whitney Mercilus (a great name for a linebacker) clear paths to the ballcarrier. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are exceptional at setting the edge and keeping runners contained. The Patriots need to use all their backs to wear down the Texans. Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220 pounds) has shown excellent vision and lively legs this season. He is clearly the type of player who thrives on a heavy workload and contact. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) is back from suspension and his high-energy, bruising style will come in handy. If nothing else, he should be fresh. Shane Vereen has a quick first step and good vision and acceleration. He lacks power, however. Danny Woodhead lacks size, but his quickness and instincts make him a solid threat in small doses. Ryan Wendell continues to do yeoman’s work at center, especially considering he never knows who will be lining up next to him. Wendell is quick and smart and plays to the whistle — a trait he no doubt picked up from Logan Mankins.
New England offense: 140.8 (Eighth)
When the Patriots pass
Much has been made of J.J. Watt’s emergence as the top defensive end in the NFL. And deservedly so. The 6-foot-5-inch, 295-pound Watt has tremendous size and explosiveness and an impressive wing span. Watt is very smart, reads formations quickly, and is equally adept at shedding blockers and swatting passes. He has elite closing speed and his hits hurt — a lot. Also, Bill Belichick thinks Watt, in just his second season, is the defensive player of the year. Tom Brady will need to be at his quick-thinking, distributing best to counter Watt. Luckily, Brady has the weapons. Wes Welker gets the job done with a nifty blend of quickness and toughness. Welker has dropped 10 passes this season, but he’d have to drop a lot more than that before Brady would give up on him. There’s still nobody you’d rather throw to on a key third down. All-purpose tight end Aaron Hernandez has the versatility and athleticism to line up everywhere. He’s speedy, has soft hands, and will fight for every inch — sometimes to a fault. There’s no need to risk injury or a turnover for 1 extra yard, unless you’re at the goal line. Brandon Lloyd should get more targets with Julian Edelman out. Lloyd has exceptional body control and can stretch the field, but he may have the quietest 50 catches in NFL history. Donte’ Stallworth has great speed and a familiarity with this offense. Houston’s secondary will struggle.
When the Texans run
Arian Foster has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and yet he still may be one of the league’s more underrated players. The 6-foot-1-inch, 228-pounder is a muscular back with excellent vision and patience. He can thump between the tackles — he hits creases quickly and with authority — though his upright running style does leave him vulnerable to big hits. If he doesn’t get low, linebacker Brandon Spikes will rattle Foster’s teeth at least once. Foster does have the speed to get outside and he’s especially adept at finding cutback lanes and turning broken plays into solid gains. Foster appears to glide at times and won’t break a ton of tackles. Ben Tate is a big, strong runner who keeps his shoulders square and will rip off big chunks of yardage. He has a tendency to dance too much (think Laurence Maroney) and in the NFL, happy feet lead to unhappy coaches. Look for Foster and Tate to run left behind tackle Duane Brown (he delivers a stunning initial wallop) and guard Wade Smith (he’s agile and mobile). Center Chris Myers is smart, swift, and strong. Disruptive and destructive tackle Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325 pounds — ha!) leads the Patriots run defense. He teams with Kyle Love (would it be silly to call him mini-Vince at 6-1, 315 pounds?) to sling around offensive linemen and create space for heat-seeking linebackers Jerod Mayo and Spikes.
When the Texans pass
Matt Schaub has developed into a solid, steady quarterback who won’t dazzle teams with his athleticism or stats, but won’t kill his own team by forcing high-risk passes or committing costly turnovers. The 6-foot-5-inch, 239-pounder sets up fast, gets rid of the ball quickly, and has a nice touch — watch out for the screens to Arian Foster. Schaub doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he thrives on short-to-intermediate patterns. Schaub is also blessed with a fine receiving corps — and none is finer than Andre Johnson. A 6-3, 230-pound monster, Johnson has an elite blend of size, speed, and strength. He can beat press coverage with his power, but giving him too much of a cushion is a mistake, as well, as he is a demon across the middle and is exceptional in the open field. He bursts in and out of his cuts without decelerating and his stiff arms stun opponents like a Lyndon Byers uppercut. Kevin Walter (6-3, 218 pounds) is another big receiver with excellent hands. Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin are developing. Tight end Owen Daniels (6-3, 249) has excellent speed and hands. He’s tough, too. He can take multiple hits and will fight for yards. New England’s secondary is improving (no, seriously). Kyle Arrington has put together a string of solid performances. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are inconsistent. The safeties (Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, and Patrick Chung) can play.
Texans’ key player: Arian Foster
J.J. Watt, Matt Schaub, and Andre Johnson are all candidates here, but Foster gets the nod because when he’s in a groove it opens things up for the passing game. If he’s doing his trademark Namaste bow more than once Monday night, the Patriots could be in trouble.
How he beats you: With quickness and vision. Foster has a nice first step and will patiently follow his blocks. If his first option isn’t there, he will slidestep in search of another. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
How to shut him down: By punishing him early. Foster’s not a big fan of the rough stuff. So when the going gets tough, he usually looks to get out of Dodge in a hurry. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes need to set the tone.
TEXANS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.) Cover 2: Houston has to pay special attention to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, because if Tom Brady can hit them quickly, the Patriots will roll.
2.) Squeeze play: Pass rushers J.J. Watt and Connor Barwin need to make their presence felt by beating New England’s tackles and smushing Tom Brady.
3.) Safety first: Matt Schaub is an excellent game manager. He must continue to make smart decisions and protect the ball against a very opportunistic defense.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.) Father throws best: Tom Brady can only shred a defense if he’s upright. Brady’s handlers, particularly Nate Solder, have to bust their butts to keep the Texans out of the backfield.
2.) Corner shop: Texans receiver Andre Johnson is a beast. Aqib Talib is the only Patriot corner with the size and skills to match Johnson’s physicality. He needs to step up.
3.) More of the same: Ginormous tackle Vince Wilfork has been performing at an All-Pro level. He needs to continue to be his disruptive self and abuse Arian Foster and Matt Schaub.