New England Patriots vs. Houston Texans
Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013
4:30 p.m. (EST)
Texans' offense vs. Patriots' defense
Texans receiver Andre Johnson, running back Arian Foster and quarterback Matt Schaub are possibly the league's most dangerous offensive trio, but the key to stopping the Texans' Big Three will be the Patriots' big 325-pounder: nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork's role in the Patriots' defense is simply to occupy as many blockers as possible in order to help other Patriots defenders remain unblocked. It's a role he fills well, and if he fills it well enough in the run game, the rest of the Texans' offense will hit a major speed bump.
Behind the line of scrimmage, Foster's not the most elusive or hard to bring down, so if the Patriots' front seven can shoot through the gaps and shut down the outside run, the scales tip in New England's favor. If the Patriots' front seven can only push Houston's offensive linemen back, but can't fully penetrate the Texans' zone-blocking scheme, Foster has the patience and vision to find an avenue from which to terrorize the Patriots' defense.
Wilfork will be the determining difference-maker deciding whether the Patriots disrupt or merely react to the Texans' running game. If he can anticipate where Foster's headed and take the right angle to force two or more offensive linemen to engage him, it will wreak havoc on the Texans' zone-blocking scheme and allow the rest of the front seven to shoot into gaps to get behind the line of scrimmage.
If the Texans can't get the run game going and have to rely primarily on their passing attack, they're going to have a much harder time winning. Andre Johnson is one of the league's top receivers and Matt Schaub puts up big numbers, but Houston's passing game struggles mightily when Schaub is under consistent pressure and doesn't have the benefit of play-action passing on his side. Schaub doesn't step up in the middle of the pocket when it's vacant, and he frequently underthrows balls when rushed up the middle. When he gets pressured and tries to move in the pocket, focuses his eyes on the pass rush, which leads to dangerous mistakes throwing under duress.
When the Texans are passing, Wilfork will be the primary factor responsible for ensuring Schaub is pressured into the mistakes he's prone to making when he can't lean on the run game. Against the Patriots in Week 14, the Texans usually assigned two offensive linemen to block Wilfork, with a running back or fullback often staying in the backfield to chip whichever rusher got close to the quarterback first.
If Wilfork can shed a blocker and force the back to engage him, it will occupy the back and give other pass rushers a cleaner lane to get to Schaub. If Wilfork can't, the back can focus on another pass rusher and give Schaub more time to accurately get the ball to Johnson, which is an extremely undesirable outcome for the Patriots.
Patriots' offense vs. Texans' defense
New England offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are going to be crucial in the Patriots' efforts to stop defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt's probably the best 3-4 end in the league, and the number of blockers required to slow him can disrupt the rest of the offense's protection schemes.
If Solder and Vollmer can anchor the tackle positions and handle any outside rushers without help, it frees up all three interior linemen and whoever the Patriots have blocking in the backfield to work to neutralize the inside rush. If Solder or Vollmer start needing another blocker's help taking care of the outside rush, that takes away a blocker who can help with the inside rush and makes the pocket more likely to collapse from the middle. As long as the protection holds up, quarterback Tom Brady will be able to find open targets all day.
The Texans struggle to adjust their coverage before the snap when a tight end lines up flexed out wide, so tight ends as skilled as the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and Rob Grownkowski give an offense an edge against the Texans. With Gronkowski sidelined by a broken arm in Week 14, Hernandez lined up all over the field, catching eight passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-14 victory for the Patriots. Now that Gronkowski's back, the Patriots will now have two tight ends with whom they can exploit the Texans' biggest defensive weakness.
On the outside of the field, receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd aren't the fastest deep-threat receivers in the league by any means. However, both are well-regarded for being able to run clean, precise routes with convincing fakes and double moves. Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson can be undisciplined at times, so he's going to have to play with good fundamentals against the Patriots or the slightest stutter-step will fool him and lead to a big gain for New England.