Saturday, January 14, 2017

Texans Must Play Nearly Perfect Ball To Upset Patriots' Juggernaut

The Houston Texans have been called "Patriots' South" by more than one observant writer, and a quick peek at the coaching staff quantifies the axiom - but that doesn't mean they play anything like the Juggernaut Patriots.

Since the Texans showed former head coach Gary Kubiak the door following the 2013 season, no less than five former Patriots have populated their coaching ranks, starting with the hire of former New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as their head coach - the caustic O'Brien bringing in former Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and quarterbacks coach George Godsey to man the same positions with Houston...
Patriots' power back Blount racked up 105 yards in week three

...and lining up former Patriots' players Mike Vrabel and Larry Izzo to be their linebacker's coach and Special teams coordinator, respectively, and also elevating Godsey to the office of offensive coordinator this past season.

So it goes to figure that there would be some similarities in the way the Texans are run, given the top shelf lineage from whence the powers-that-be spawned, but O'Brien has put his unique  stamp on his team to the point that only the manner in which he prepares his team - both in the classroom and the practice field - is similar to the philosophies that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick maintains, and has maintained for the better part of two decades.

The reasons are valid.  First and foremost, the offensive personnel that he inherited from Kubiac featured smallish, agile offensive linemen, a pedestrian brood of pass catchers and hard-running but injury prone power backs. Conspicuously missing from his bag of tricks, however, are two staples of the Patriots' offense: versatile passing backs and Tom Brady.

So it goes to figure that O'Brien would be forced into an offense - and, indeed, his entire team - that is suited for the personnel that he does have, which means running the ball with authority to set up a play action, employing a timing-based passing game, then trusting in a defense inspired more by a Seattle Seahawks philosophy of aggression than the Patriots' constantly evolving scheme.

There are certain nuances missing from the equation, particularly on offense, such as an elite quarterback and a power back that looks to punish defenders - and they will be hard-pressed to win anything more than a purple heart in tournament play until they solve their deficiencies.

Though they don't employ a passing back, per se, the Texans do get some production through the air with lead back Lamar Miller and, to a lesser extent, Alfred Blue.  Neither Miller or Blue are going to scare anyone, as they both tend to avoid contact at the second level, but their proficiency at pass catching gives the Texans an advantage in that the play action is always going to be effective if a running game has been established, and Houston has the eighth-ranked ground attack in the NFL despite being more of an in-space entity.

As far as the Brady reference, he is a once in a generation talent, so the Texans would have to settle for a steady gunslinger, which is what they thought they had in prize free agent Brock Osweiler, but the return on their massive investment hasn't been what they had envisioned in Osweiler's first season. He has the potential to be a very good starting quarterback, the evidence being what we all witnessed last season when he was under center for the Broncos for a good chunk of their season...

...and also in what we've seen from him in the past couple of games, coming off the bench in relief of Tom Savage in a season-ending loss to Tennessee and in a solid start against the Oakland Raiders in the wildcard round.

That said, Osweiler doesn't match up well against the Patriots. For starters, he rarely throws to his running backs, which New England has shown a propensity to struggle defending. Instead, he looks to his monstrous tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin on shallow crossers and to his deep threats, DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller, in the intermediate and deep zones.

Problem is, his arm to the deep sideline is shaky at best, meaning that New England's secondary can play their standard Big Nickle, the corners pinning the perimeter receivers to the sidelines while the safeties eliminate the tight ends - and all the while keep the Texans' running game in check with their athletic linebackers.

This is the very same game plan that the Patriots used against Houston earlier in the season, shutting them out in Foxborough - and should New England grab an early lead in the AFC Divisional round matchup on Saturday night, Savage is waiting on the sidelines.

At this point in their careers, Osweiler has made more headlines, but Savage may be the best option at quarterback against New England as he is steady in the pocket and won't take chances with the ball, and what the Texans really need from their offense is to protect the football, gain first downs and keep Brady on the sidelines, limiting his possessions, and therefore, his scoring opportunities.

Other than Savage getting a couple of late season starts, nothing has really changed for the Texans on offense since thier week three meeting, while New England has had tremendous turnover of personnel and have evolved into a top-10 unit, ranking 8th in total defense and a solid gold first in the NFL in points allowed, which, as everyone knows, is a compelling display of the effectiveness of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy employed by Belichick for years...

...all the while, the Houston Texans have been towards the top of the total defensive rankings, and actually ended the regular season as number one in yardage allowed, but have given up close to three touchdowns per game - a testament to their offense's propensity for turning the ball over and putting the defense in short-field situations.

If that trend continues against New England, the Texans don't stand a chance.

Turnover differential has been the bitch-kitty for Houston all season long, as they are in the bottom third of the NFL in opposition starting position, which would account for the disparity between total defense and scoring defense, but when the Texans are able to flip the script and force the opposition into more mistakes, it generally turns out well for them.

Defense is the Texans' calling card. Though they are ranked just twelfth against the run, they have overcome early-season troubles in that respect, and in the second half of the campaign have allowed just shy of 65 yards per game on the ground, far and away the best number in the league in that span, while their pass defense hasn't allowed a 300 yard passer all season.

But every defense in the league have had issues with the Patriots' offense - not so much because because their passing game is the reincarnation of the Greatest Show on Turf, nor because their newly-discovered power running game is dominating the opposition's front seven, but because of the Patriots' incredible balance.

That's right, the Patriots are winning ball games the old fashioned way, using their balance to keep the opposing defense back on their heels.

And why not?  Even with All World tight end Rob Gronkowski on the skids with a season-ending back injury, Brady still has one of the most dynamic offenses in the league - and perhaps the most versatile in franchise history. Funky free spirit Martellus Bennett is a fine fill-in for Gronkowski and is a top tight end in his own right...

...while perennial tough cover Julian Edelman is the most recognizable pass catcher on the team. But what makes the Patriots so difficult to defend in the pattern is actually a combination of he and slot man Danny Amendola taking care of the short reads, while newcomers Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd give the Patriots size and speed on the perimeter that they haven't had in nearly a decade.

Even that would be enough to task the Texans' secondary to the limit, but when you add in the three-headed Ghidorah of power back LeGarrette Blount and dynamic passing backs James White and Dion Lewis, it's just too much for defenses to handle - particularly since all of New England's receivers are capable of lining up anywhere in a spread formation.

So, how do the Texans combat such a juggernaut?

There is but one hope, and that is for their pass rush to get to Brady and force him off his mark, and to do it with just four pass rushers because Brady is at his best checking down against the blitz and finding his hot reads - and then when a team backs off to prevent the hot take, Brady will shred a secondary with his precision accuracy.

So it will take a complementary effort of the Texans' front three plus rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus getting past New England's eighth-rated offensive line to harass Brady, their fine set of run-plugging linebackers doing just that, and their equally fine secondary holding coverages on New England's pass catchers to have a shot at an upset - but it is a tall task indeed... to accomplish this, they will have to get around left tackle Nate Solder and up the middle where Brady's pass protection is it's most vulnerable, they will have to fend off perhaps some of the best second level run blockers in the league in tackle Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason off the strong side and they will have to physically contain Brady's receivers.

But the key, as mentioned, is the pass rush.  If we hear the names of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Quinten Demps in abundance during the game, then we'll know that the Texans' defensive game plan has given them a chance, but if we hear Brock Osweiler's name in conjunction with interceptions or fumbles, their offense will have killed their chances.

It's a tight line to have to walk for Houston, but if they are to advance to next weekend's AFC Championship Game, they will need to be as disciplined on both sides of the ball as they have been all season - and then some.

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