When the Patriots run
Much has been made of Stevan Ridley’s fumbling problems. And deservedly so. If you can’t secure the ball, you can’t secure a job (for long) in the NFL. But when deciding whether he deserves yet another chance, it’s important to remember that nearly everyone fumbled last Sunday and Ridley is still an important weapon in this offense. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is an energetic, competitive runner with good vision and leg drive. He has deceptive power and speed and some nifty spin moves. Shane Vereen is fun to watch. He’s neither a bell cow nor a traditional change-of-pace guy, but he has excellent vision and speed and a terrific pair of hands. Brandon Bolden is a one-cut runner who flashes both speed and power — just not often enough. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) is a brute. He’s big and powerful and quicker than he looks. Center Ryan Wendell has had an inconsistent season, but he’s a scrapper who gives maximum effort. Left guard Logan Mankins is a monster who currently is playing like Logan Mankins (that means viciousness from snap to whistle). Texans nose man Earl Mitchell (6-2, 296) cuts off lanes with bulk and quickness. Defensive end J.J. Watt (6-5, 289) is a relentless, destructive force. He can stack and shed with the best of them and combines quickness, agility, and strength to pile up bodies. Inside backers Darryl Sharpton (he’s quick) and Joe Mays (ditto) will make plays.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was outstanding in frigid Foxborough last week. This Sunday he gets to sling it in the controlled climes of Reliant Stadium. That’s bad news for the Texans. Playing with his full complement of weapons, Brady is nearly unstoppable. His presnap recognition is off the charts and he will find mismatches all game. A master distributor, Brady does his best to get everyone involved. Reliable and invaluable Julian Edelman has been target No. 1 because of his quickness and versatility. The 5-foot-10-inch, 198-pounder will line up everywhere. He can work the slot but he can be found outside, too. He’s equally adept at short and medium routes and will go deep on occasion. Edelman has great open-field vision and moves, and he has learned to hit the deck when it’s prudent instead of taking big shots fighting for an extra inch. Rob Gronkowski is rounding into form. The 6-6, 265-pound load takes a beating but he gives one, too. Gronkowski has soft, strong hands and is a demon down the seam and a red zone monster. Danny Amendola is fearless and slippery but he can get muscled out of his routes. Kenbrell Thompkins has size and speed. His confidence is growing. Houston safeties D.J. Swearinger (quick and rangy) and Shiloh Keo (instinctive) are gamers. Corners Kareem Jackson (a solid tackler with good closing speed) and Johnathan Joseph (cagey veteran can press and also turn and go) are above average.
When the Texans run
Arian Foster is out, as myriad nagging injuries (overuse, anyone?) finally caught up to him. That’s the bad news in Houston. The good news is that there are capable backups here in Ben Tate and Dennis Johnson, both of whom proved themselves in the rough-and-tumble SEC. When healthy (and that’s rare), Tate has the muscle to bang between the tackles and the quicks to get to the edge. He will find creases, explode through them, and take on linebackers. He is deceptively elusive but also has the strength to break tackles. He will make mucho yards after first contact. Johnson (5-7, 193) runs low and with great balance. He can be hard to locate but he does a great job finding and exploding through cutback lanes. He has quick feet and effortlessly shifts gears, but lacks true breakaway speed. Fullback Greg Jones (6-1, 251) can lower the boom and open lanes but he’s no longer a threat with the ball in his hands. Houston’s interior linemen — center Chris Myers and guards Wade Smith and Brandon Brooks — are solid but hardly spectacular. The Patriots were gashed unmercifully by Knowshon Moreno last week, but it looks as though it was all part of their plan. Expect the gaps to be a little narrower in this one. Rookie tackles Chris Jones (he’s quick and strong) and Joe Vellano (he has a high motor) will work hard but can get overpowered. Linebackers Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, and Jamie Collins are swarmers.
When the Texans pass
Case Keenum has assumed control of this offense after an abysmal stretch by displaced starter Matt Schaub; has any quarterback fallen further faster? Keenum (6 feet 1 inch, 205 pounds) lacks prototypical NFL QB size and athleticism but he has a strong arm and a nice touch. He shredded defenses in college at Houston but has learned this is a different game; his passer rating has dropped significantly in each of the last four games. Keenum is at his best when he’s dinking and dunking his way down the field. He gets rid of the ball quickly, leads his receivers well, and, most important, he rarely takes unnecessary chances (2 INTs in 160 throws). It hasn’t hurt Keenum’s development that he has two exceptional receivers. Andre Johnson (6-3, 230) has long been one of the league’s preeminent weapons. Blessed with tight end size and track star speed, Johnson also has superior hands. Rookie DeAndre Hopkins is quick and fearless. He plucks balls over the middle and has a bevy of ankle-breaking moves in the open field. He has tremendous body control and will fight for everything. He had a knack for the big play in college and it’s only a matter of time before he is mentioned among the league’s elite. Tight end Garrett Graham is a big target who will get open. New England’s secondary was exceptional last week. At one point, I swear Raymond Clayborn and Mike Haynes were manning the corners.
Texans’ key player: Andre Johnson
This 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound wide receiver is one tough hombre. An excellent athlete who is quick off the line and into his routes (he can run ’em all), Johnson is the very definition of a nightmare matchup. Linebackers can’t catch him and defensive backs fear him.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With speed and power. Johnson is explosive off the snap, runs crisp patterns, and snags everything in his general area. Also, he’s a brutal downfield blocker. He never takes a play off.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: With multiple bodies. You have to press him at the line and then redirect him out of his routes and pass him off to the safeties. Lean on him and he’ll wear down. Eventually.
TEXANS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Star power: Andre Johnson is your best player, so getting him involved is imperative. Last week’s totals of six targets and two receptions? Ridiculous.
2. Electric company: J.J. Watt needs a big game. The defender with the big biceps and bigger wingspan lines up everywhere and has to make his presence felt from every location.
3. Slam bam: Ben Tate and Dennis Johnson have to establish a ground game to keep the Patriots honest and ease the burden on young QB Case Keenum.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. No letdowns: Fresh off a historic, emotional comeback victory over one of the league’s best, the Patriots have to maintain their intensity against one of the league’s worst.
2. Case closed: Pocket crashers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have to make Case Keenum uncomfortable and prevent him from getting into his groove.
3. Security alert: Turnovers are the great equalizer. New England must hold on tight. If the Texans can recover a few loose balls, they might think they have a chance to win this game.